Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Diana Gabaldon Tour, Day Five

Monday was Crathes Castle with its sensational gardens (right) and 'Royal Deeside' which nearly lived up to its name: we missed Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall by 20 minutes at McEwans of Perth in Ballater.

Yesterday was the trip over here, to Skye. We had planned to come by the six car Glenelg Ferry but it wasn't running, so we swung by Eilean Donan Castle, allowing some to renew old acquaintances, and Irina to take this beautiful shot of Lochalsh with Skye in the distance.

Today we saw Dunvegan Castle, seat of the Macleods, looking proudly over Loch Dunvegan. But beyond the far shore of that loch, beyond the world famous Three Chimneys Restaurant, lie the villages that were 'cleared' by the MacLeods in the 1780s. We visited one of them. It used to be a remote, hard working, close-knit community; now just overgrown stone cottages with a tumbledown church, first consecrated about 1300 years ago, all set by a spectacular waterfall, the shore not far below. As with all clearance villages, it was a thought provoking visit: the residents had committed no crime, there was no Court of Appeal, just the promise of better land in Carolina... if they ever got there.

If we needed to know more of those times, of that society, and indeed of the one before it, there was no better oracle than Seoras, the storyteller, clad in traditional belted plaid, sitting by the fire in his 'Black House'. As he talked of the myths and legends of Skye, as he stroked his beard and the peat smoke wafted round the simple room, we were all a little mesmerised and left pondering on druids and magical wells.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Day Two of the 2007 Diana Gabaldon Tour

It was a pleasure to see happy, if tired, faces at Aviemore Railway Station yesterday, amongst them two old friends from last year's tour. A refreshing walk down to the River Spey, the evening light on the Cairngorm Mountains, and an excellent dinner at Corrour House set everyone up for an interesting first day.

The Clava Cairns with the split stone might have been today's highlight. Or maybe Culloden Battlefield. But the deepest impression was probably left by the Lovat Mausoleum at the old Wardlaw Cemetery. The memorial plaques on the wall date back to 1634, and in the centre, secured by a padlocked cover, is the entrance to a crypt. The 11th Lord Lovat, most notorious of his line and known as the 'Old Fox' lies down there. Hauling on the two cast iron rings to lift the heavy oak trapdoor and reveal the stairs was a touch dramatic. Not everyone decided to go down; but those who did found several lead-lined coffins, one of which, poignantly, is that of a child. In another, so they say, lies the corpse of the 11th lord, beheaded in 1747 for his part in the 1745 Rising; his body was smuggled north whilst his head was still on display in London.

Tonight we returned to Corrour, and to a fascinating presentation on Culloden by Hugh Allison who also signed copies of his new book, 'Culloden Tales'.

Here is the group on the battlefield.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Who owns Scotland?

When guiding last month I caused some interest by quoting the statistic that 1/4 of rural land in Scotland is owned by just 66 landowners. Today I finally got around to checking that I had got this right. Happily so. Further details from Who Owns Scotland

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Dun Bonnet's Cave

Northern Entrance
Back in July I found myself on an unscheduled search for the cave of the 'Dun Bonnet of Foyers', aka. James Fraser, the IXth of Foyers who reportedly hid out there for seven years following Culloden. Although I published a picture of a cave then, both of us who were there knew that it was not the right one. Today my elder son and I went off on a serious search - and returned successful.

As previously reported the cave is not a tourist attraction. Indeed the moss on the boulders surrounding it looked as if it had been growing undisturbed for a decade or more. It is also not particularly roomy.

James Fraser was apparently kept supplied to some extent by the good people of Foyers and no doubt he did some hunting, fishing and trapping. It seems to me that seven weeks concealed in this cave, with a little bread and other essentials appearing every second day, would be a good selection exercise for a potential SAS recruit. But seven years with no known end date would have taken an enormous physical and mental toll, even on a tough Highlander! I can't understand why he didn't head off to exile in France like the rest of them.

An anonymous comment on my July 'Dun Bonnet' post noted, Fans of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series will know well the story of the Dun Bonnet from the 3rd novel of the series, Voyager. The one difference being that in Voyager, it is the Dun Bonnet of Lallybroch!

Floor of the cave (not great for sleeping!)
If you would like to be guided 'off the beaten track' to investigate some Scottish heritage or history, just email me .

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Clans of Lochaber

Following the Battle of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland suggested that men from the Clans of Lochaber - the most troublesome Jacobite clans - should be branded on the forehead with a 'Z' when deported to Carolina, so that if a man should return to Scotland, he could easily be identified as a villain. Thankfully the idea was never put into practice.

Lochaber is broadly the area round Fort William (it is no coincidence that Fort William was the first government fort in the Highlands). I was down there yesterday at the invitation of Lochaber College; we were discussing with Andy Mckenna who runs the definitive website on the area how we might provide an enhanced service to worldwide members of the local clans - Camerons, Macleans and MacDonalds - visiting their clan lands. More on this later.

On the way back I was more than delighted to see that the principal seat of one of these clans, the MacDonnells of Glengarry, is finally being consolidated. Perhaps the collapse of both stair towers has prompted some overdue support from the authorities. Credit for getting this underway must go to David and Janetta MacCallum of Glengarry Castle Hotel.

Prince Charles Edward reportedly arrived at Invergarry Castle late in the night following the Battle of Culloden. There were warm embers in the grate but no people, food or drink. Old Glengarry, having lost a son in the campaign and unsure who might be a-knocking on his door that tragic night, was presumably taking no risks. The castle was nevertheless later burned by government troops.

Although the collapse of the stairs means there is no access to the upper floors, this is still a noble ruin and a 'viewing platform' is planned. What a rich heritage of 17th century castles we would have in the Highlands were it not for that misconceived rising!