Saturday, July 18, 2009

Basking at Inverness Highland Games

There was a distinctly Basque feel to this year's Inverness Highland Games. Guests Nazioen Mundua supplied music, dance, strongmen, wood choppers and a yoaldunak band - who play their instruments with their bums (actually just one instrument and just one note but impressively loud). This unmissable display punctuated my personal highlight of the games, a quiet (well it was meant to be quiet) drink with best selling author Diana Gabaldon who was doing a book signing in the clan village.

Diana's novels must have brought thousands of extra tourists to Scotland, exploring the romance of 18th century Highland living, hoping perhaps to meet her dashing, scholarly, gentlemanly (and above all sexy) hero, Jamie Fraser.
I have been running guided tours for fans of the novels for several years now and it was an enormous pleasure to meet the softly spoken, highly engaging, creator of the series - so interested in this distant world where she is a celebrity guest. I'm looking forward to continuing our conversations, without the unforgettable accompaniement of the yoaldunak.

Incidentally if you would like to see the yoaldunak being performed in a Basque village, rather than the Clan Village, click here (and wait a minute or so for it to load).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

An Edinburgh citizen with a gift for words.

A leather-bound volume offers this overview of Edinburgh...

"For centuries it was a capital thatched with heather, and more than once, in the evil days of English invasion, it has gone up in flame to heaven, a beacon to ships at sea. It was the jousting-ground of jealous nobles, not only on Greenside, or by the King's Stables, where set tournaments were fought to the sound of trumpets and under the authority of royal presence, but in every alley where there was room to cross swords, and in the main street, where popular tumult under the Blue Blanket alternated with the brawls of outlandish clansmen and retainers."

And of its citizens...

"To see them thronging by, in their neat clothes and conscious moral rectitude, and with a little air of possession that verges on the absurd, is not the least striking feature of the place."

The author was Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 - 1894) whose book, simply titled 'Edinburgh' should, in my view, be compulsory reading for every Edinburgh tour guide - and for any would-be wordsmiths tempted to write a guidebook on our capital city.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

One Old Jacobite and formal terraced gardens

One of my heroes is George Keith, the last Earl Marischal of Scotland. Born into one of the great offices of state, with extensive lands round Dunnottar Castle, he had a good life in store. But in 1715, aged 23, he risked it all by declaring for the Jacobites. He commanded the right wing cavalry at Sherrifmuir - an extraordinary battle in which the right wings of both armies routed the other side; the Jacobites had the superior numbers but, under the bumbling leadership of the Earl of Mar, failed to hold the ground and the government forces took the day. Along with other dispirited Jacobite leaders, Keith retired that night to nearby Drummond Castle, home of the Duke of Perth.

I was there two weeks ago. Looking out on the fine formal terraced gardens it was hard to imagine the despair of brave men contemplating defeat, attainder, life-long exile, the loss of everything that they couldn't carry with them.

George Keith went on to have a long and varied life. He returned to Scotland from Spain as leader of the 1719 Jacobite rising and later was a roving ambassador for his exiled king. His travels took him to the court of Empress Catherine II of Russia and when that court was purged of foreigners he went to Prussia, eventually becoming Frederick the Great's ambassador to Paris. Here, in 1745, he tried hard (with the benefit of bitter experience) to dissuade Prince Charles Edward from making an attempt at the throne without foreign help.

He retired to a life of intellectual debate and the tending of plants at Frederick's Potsdam Palace, Sans Souci (above). In his eighties he was still writing energetically to friends in Scotland. Ultimately, it seems, he was far more at home amongst the sophistication (and yes, the formal terraced gardens) of Sans Souci than he was in the wave-lashed fortress of Dunnottar Castle which would otherwise have been his inheritance.