Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Braemar Gathering

'Always the first Saturday in September'. The Braemar Gathering is one of the constants of Highland Life. It was reputedly started by King Malcolm III (who replaced MacBeth as King of Scots in the 11th century), but the first modern day games was held in 1832.

'Gatherings' or Highland Games were arranged by clan chiefs to display the prowess of their fast runners, strong men, pipers and dancers. It was also a good way of distracting their attention from moonlit raids on neighbouring clans' cattle. Clan Gatherings were banned by the government in 1746 following Bonnie Prince Charlie's 1745 Rising. But less than 100 years later Queen Victoria graced the Braemar Gathering with her presence - and Royalty have been attending ever since.

I was asked today why our Small Group Clan Tour was taking place in September. The answer is simple: we would like our clients to enjoy the Braemar Gathering - unique, royal and ancient.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Redcastle or Killearnan

Went to an excellent lecture (one of the HOSTGA series of winter lectures) about Recastle on the Black Isle. This tiny community boasts one of the largest saltwater crannogs, a quarry that provided the stone both for Cromwell's Citadel in Inverness and the Caledonian Canal, and the most wonderful eponymous castle. Redcastle was built as a 9th century wooden fort to hold the line against the Vikings, owned by the monarch, rebuilt as a 16th century Mackenzie L-Plan tower house, burnt by Cromwell, rebuilt as a grand lodging in the early 19th century, enhanced with the proceeds of slavery, became a fine Edwardian country house with extensive gardens (below), was used as a bomb store in the second war and is now a dangerous ruin.

But the most memorable story told by Graham Clark, author of a fine book on Redcastle was about Kenneth Mackenzie, 8th of Redcastle. He was married at nineteen, an officer at twenty, fought in the American War of Independence, was captured, repatriated, court martialled for outrageous behaviour, formed his own company of 100 men, was sent to the Gold Coast where he tied one of his officers to a post and executed him with a nine pound cannon; he also commandeered a couple of merchant ships (which together would have paid off ALL his debts), but was instead thrown into Newgate prison on charges of murder and piracy. He was granted a Royal Pardon but killed a fellow officer in Edinburgh and disappeared to join the Russian Army; he became Vice Consul at Constantinople, got involved in yet another brawl, duelled at dawn and was shot dead. He was 41.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How Narrow is the Irish Sea!

Travelling round Ireland, I expected the stud farms but was amazed by all the golf courses. I'm glad we introduced the Irish to golf, since it seems that a worrying amount of Scottish culture first crossed the Irish Sea!

We went first to the Hill of Tara, home of Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland and eponymous ancestor of the O'Neill dynasty (and St Columba). Why he had nine hostages is a long story but I now understand better why the MacNeills, MacLachlans and others so proudly claim descent from him.

We then saw the High Cross at Kells (small town made famous by the eponymous Book). High crosses at Iona are more impressive.

But I couldn't fail to be impressed by the neolithic ceremonial site at Brú na Bóinne. It's similar in many ways to the later Clava Cairns near Inverness but the ambition in Ireland was greater and more lasting: the extraordinary 20 foot high chamber, built without mortar, has lasted for 5,000 years. The smaller chamber at Clava was unfortunately broken into in the 19th century.

Last stop was the Fort at Navan, sacred place of the Kings of Ulster and the Red Branch Knights, of whom Cu Chulainn is the best known. Cu Chulainn learned the arts of war from Queen Sgathach and became the lover of her sister Aoife; he then went on to save Ulster from Eire and Skye from 'The Small Dark Men'. Sgathach's name lives on at Dunscaith Castle on the west coast of Skye, a favourite walk of mine.