Sunday, December 23, 2007

The New Culloden Visitor Centre

Camera pans the battlefield as curlews cry, and the lilting tones of Finlay MacDonald intone, "We are here. On Drumossie Moor. Now restored to look more or less as it did in 1746. Except for the gravestones of course. They came later."

Yes, I liked the old presentation of Culloden Battlefield - simple, effective, familiar. But today I visited the new, multi million pound, hi-tech version. And I liked it even more. The new centre works on a number of levels - attention-grabbing presentation, plenty detail for those who want it, and good Scottish wood and stone to house it all. But most of all, this new exhibition is effective in setting the battle in a global, rather than a highland context. This will surprise, and I hope intrigue, many people. It also presents the whole Jacobite campaign of 1745/46 in shades of grey, rather than the black and white view with which many visitors arrive. This was a complex campaign of difficult decisions, bad decisions, divided loyalties, a campaign in which public relations and half truths drove the actions of both sides.

So, I recommend the new centre heartily. But allow a good two hours to get full benefit from your £10 entry fee.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Meall Fuar-mhonaidh

A perfect day on the hill today, not a cloud above us, but it was blanketing the glens below. To the west we could see the familiar line of Ben Nevis above Fort William on the west coast (below), to the east the Moray Firth; beyond Loch nam Breac Dearga to the north was Ben Wyvis and to our south the Cairngorms. We were on Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, 'the rounded hill on the cold moor'. This is a perfect five mile walk for anyone staying in the Inverness area: you are at the start point in half an hour, the walk takes less than four hours, you have the satisfaction of reaching the summit of a significant hill, and down below you throughout is Loch Ness. Choose a day like today and you won't forget the experience quickly!

Above photo of Ben Nevis in the far distance taken by my walking companion Tim Honnor of Piccolo Press!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Burgie Castle Saved for Posterity

One night in January 2006, a crashing sound reverberated round the small Moray town of Rafford. Next morning the last remaining five storeys high tower of Blervie Castle, built by the Dunbars in the 16th century, had been replaced with a pile of rubble and the stump of one wall.

In the same century, the family had built another fine castle just two miles away. This is Burgie, and like its sister Burgie was once a 'Z' Plan castle with towers on diagonally opposite corners of a central keep. Now the keep is destroyed and just one tower remains. I visited Burgie on a clear frosty day last February and could not fail to be struck by its height and authority, but also by a long ominous crack in the west wall.

Happily now, it looks as if Burgie is saved. A private trust to consolidate the building has been set up and the Highland Buildings Preservation Trust, are arranging funding and will project manage the work. Emergency works to stabilise the tower start late next month. This will buy time for a full feasibility study into options for a permanent solution.

More castles will doubtless crumble this winter but Burgie will stand for a few centuries more.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Skye and Pennsylvania 1706: Norway and France 2007

Earlier today Margaret, an American in Norway (below) emailed Harriet, an American in Paris as follows:

This morning I googled "James Anderson Isle of Skye 1706" and found your September 2003 letter of appreciation to Alastair Cunningham on his Clans and Castles website, in which you mention a James Anderson in your ancestry. I wrote to Alastair, asking him to help me locate you, and he immediately wrote back that he had sent my e-mail on to you at your 2003 address. We are related, Harriet! I googled your names myself, and found your incredibly rich and fascinating website and all the proof I need to say that we are related via Andersons and Schencks. My father was Jerome Schenck Anderson III, born in Stonington, CT, in 1906.
I am Margaret Marion Anderson, born 1958, eight generations after James.

They realised that both descendants had lived for a lengthy period in Iowa.

James Anderson probably took three months to reach Chester County, Pensylvania from Skye. Now, three hundred years and eight generations later, his descendants have been able to find each other in different parts of Europe within a matter of hours!

Who knows? There may be a whole lot more of you out there waiting to be linked up.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I hate self congratulatory blogs!

You know the ones I mean? A cross between a Press Release and the worst Christmas letter. I try to avoid this.

But just now and again it is good to congratulate oneself. Briefly.

The first snow appeared on Ben Wyvis on Friday, and the Scottish Clans and Castles team of five went off for a long lunch by the log fire in The Cawdor Tavern, a brilliant pub/restaurant which really should have its own website. We were celebrating results that surpassed the plan, more clients, happy clients, and a busy year in the office, resulting in this expanded team.

In the picture above you see from left, Brian Stewart, Alison Fraser, Johanna Campbell from Extra Mile Scotland and Helen Jenkins. Missing is Ulrike Davies who looks after our German visitors.

Many thanks to all those who entrusted us with their valuable holiday time.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Where do tour guides go in winter?

Well, the free spirits head for sunnier climes, but those of us with roots enjoy expanding our local horizons and knowledge.

So yesterday, along with others in the Highlands of Scotland Tour Guide Association, I was at Isle Maree, Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe, named after the 7th century Saint Maelrubha, who established his cell or chapel here.

A rainy November day may not sound the best way to enjoy Loch Maree and its many islands, but a flat calm and the autumn colours made for a memorable trip. Most islands are rocky and covered with pine and juniper, but Isle Maree,
above, has gravel shores, (incidentally the wooded far bank is accessible only on foot or by boat). Its trees are oak, alder, larch and impressive old hollies, quite strange on the windy west coast. In the centre we found an evocative druidic circle studded with the graves of a few whose families have burial rights there.

Like other disciples of the young Celtic Church, St Maelrubha may have deliberately sought continuity by adopting this druidic site for Christian purposes. Apparently he also allowed existing customs to continue: the sacrifice of bulls here would last for a further thousand years.

Within the circle are two prominent grave slabs, one of which seems to have a Viking battle axe motif engraved on it and may be that of a Viking prince. The other is said to be his Celtic princess; and thereby hangs a touching, but lengthy, story.

But Isle Maree is probably best known for its 'money tree'. Standing by a well (always a spiritual place for Celtic people) is an oak tree. Well, it was once a tree, but so much money has been forced into its trunk and branches that it is now dead. Only if a coin remains in the tree, so it is believed, will a wish be granted.

One last thing: nothing may be taken from the island. Stories of misadventure should this convention be flouted, stretch back into the mists of time. Just recently our guide had a stone sent by post from England with an impassioned request to return it to the island, in the hopes of stemming a catalogue of disasters.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Scots Irish

I am just back from a great couple of days in Northern Ireland, visiting two friends who run Lynchpin Tours. They offer guided and self guided tours over the whole of Ireland, a similar operation to Scottish Clans and Castles. The base is up on the North Antrim coast at Portstewart, seen below on Monday morning, the glorious November sunshine picking out Donegal, Dhún na nGall, in the distance. And looking east from the same spot I could just see Scotland - the Mull of Kintyre, Maol Ceanntìre, so beloved of Paul McCartney.

Our two companies already provide an informal service for those wishing to visit both Scotland and Ireland; this will soon become more formalised, so that those with Scots Irish roots will be able to rely on a carefully-planned, joined-up two centre holiday.

But this phrase 'Scots Irish' is a slightly uncomfortable one for us over here. In our view you're either one or the other! But then I suppose the Scots originally came from Ireland in the 6th century and a squad of them returned during the 'Plantation of Ulster' in the 17th.

And the similarities were powerfully brought home to me when we visited Dunluce Castle by Portrush, seen below - a castle of the (Scottish) MacDonnells. The castle leaflet includes the following snatch of history.

"Sorley Boy MacDonnell was the first to live his whole life in Ulster, a wild and violent existence. He was captured by brother-in-law Shane O' Neill at the Battle of Glentaisie in May 1565, after Dunluce Castle had been taken, and was held prisoner for two years. Later at a banquet near Cushendun, when peace seemed possible, the MacDonnells turned on their hosts, set Sorley Boy free and killed Shane".

Which sounds exactly like Scotland in the 16th century! Except that we didn't have folk called 'Sorley Boy'.

The reception given to the Scots in those days was wholly unlike that which I enjoyed on my short visit. Many thanks, Lowell and David for all your hospitality.

And here's to the Scots Irish!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Rait Castle

Last weekend I took a walk up to Rait Castle, just a mile or so from my house, to gather some sloes for the winter's sloe gin. The sloes were excellent but it was depressing to see the continuing state of the castle.

Rait is the best surviving example of a 13th century 'Hall Castle'. It boasts elegant window tracery carved from single pieces of sandstone (right), its tower still has a perfect domed ceiling (below).

And yet this castle stands neglected. The old courtyard is swamped by blackthorn and trees grow out of the wall-heads, their roots boring into the 800 year old mortar.

For several years now, I have been trying to arrange for Rait Castle to be restored, not for habitation nor for a visitor centre, but just to stop it deteriorating further. At one stage in April 2005 we managed to make a start on clearing the scrub but then there was a confusion about ownership and work stopped. Now we appear to be back to Square One and, along with some others, I am therefore relaunching the campaign to have the castle restored and the courtyard cleared. Watch this space!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Madainn Mhath. Moran taing for an iongantach latha-saor!

I always try to immerse guests in local culture when I can. My last tour was in the Gaelic speaking Highlands, but I hadn't expected this to be reflected in an appreciative email (above) that followed. Ann from Texas went on, "I told my husband that we were moving to Skye when we retire so I can go to the college for a year".

'The College' she mentions is the flourishing Gaelic College at Sabhal Mor Ostaig (above). And that's my small contribution to Latha Mòr na Gaidhlig, the Big Gaelic Day, which was held at Aviemore, or An Aghaidh Mòr, yesterday. It was also yesterday that I gave a talk on Clans to a group of American artists at Brodie Castle. Their paintings, featuring some wonderful Scottish castles, may be seen shortly at Loch Vale Fine Art, Estes Park, Colorado. But the conversation dwelled on Gaelic - in particular words that have been absorbed into English. (I was much helped by Elizabeth who speaks Gaelic fluently thanks to an Irish father)...

Gleann means valley, clann children, plaide blanket and uisge-beatha whisky. Also, 'Galore' comes from gu le
òr meaning enough or plenty, 'dosh' from duais meaning wages, and 'slogan' from sluagh-ghairm meaning battle cry. And if you should need to let off steam without being understood - amadan means idiot!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Black Cattle

Although traditional Highland cattle are generally thought to be a nice golden brown colour, actually the earliest ones were black. Only in the 19th century did the larger brown variety become popular. Until the 18th century and in many cases beyond, cattle were the Highlanders' wealth, even though beef was a luxury. The cattle were driven south in the autumn to provide much needed silver for these subsistence farmers. So important were the black cattle that they appear in everyday language. The Blackwatch Regiment was founded in 1725 to watch over the black cattle and reduce the amount of cattle lifting. 'Blackmail' comes from the same root: mal is the Gaelic for rent and blackmail was what had to be paid to the likes of Rob Roy to ensure that your cattle were safe.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dun Bonnet cave from the inside

Looking south from the cave
Today I finally got back to the Dun Bonnet cave - armed with a camera, tape measure, torch and a fellow guide to ensure I didn't disappear for ever amongst the jumble of rocks. Hauling myself up to the entry I squeezed over the muddy threshold and found myself in a narrow Y-shaped cave, in which I could walk about, though not without difficulty as the 'floor' is comprised of jagged boulders. There are two openings (the other requiring an even more precipitate approach) and what looks like a perfect chimney from which smoke would be difficult to detect. The cave is about 45 foot across and varies from three foot to about seven foot wide. I also discovered that caves are not easy to photograph without proper lighting and a few objects to provide perspective! However some photos looking out worked out OK. Above is the 'other' entrance from the inside and below is the chimney.

For anyone who has not read the previous postings on the Dun Bonnet, this is a cave near Foyers on Loch Ness where James Fraser of Foyers reportedly spent seven years after the Battle of Culloden, evading capture by the redcoats.

If you would like to visit the Dun Bonnet cave or join one of our Outlander Tours, do please get in touch.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An 18th century farmhouse

Fans of Diana Gabaldon in particular often ask me if they can see an 18th century highland farmhouse. They want to get a picture in their minds of the fictional 'Lally Broch'. There are a few nice old farmhouses near Inverness but they often have very un-eighteenth century additions like dormer windows and conservatories.

But earlier this month I was persuaded by wife and daughter to do a little white water rafting in Perthshire. It was a good day, and both my daughter and I took a dip in the River Tay - a shock for the salmon. Later we went for a hot chocolate right by one of the most perfect early 18th century farmhouses you could wish for. Notice the ridges on the chimney pots to throw the rain out on to the original thatch. The owner told me that initially there were no windows at the back, only at the front.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sgurr nan Gillean

On Friday night I was at the Sligachan Hotel on the Isle of Skye, enjoying a pint or two of Skye Ale, a fine brew, made on the premises. The brewery is new, but there has been drinking on this site since the first Sligachan Market was opened by Col MacLeod of MacLeod on 22 October 1794. This was a traditional 'drovers stance', where about 6,000 cattle were assembled each year, to be sold on to the drovers who would swim them across to the mainland and drive them on to markets in the south. The new Sligachan market attracted a multitude of folk - tacksmen, drovers, cottars, tinkers, factors, ghillies, all enjoying a chance to meet and trade and brag and drink against the backdrop of the noise and stench of cattle, sheep and Skye ponies (sold to work in the Lanarkshire coalfields) all of them unsettled at leaving their home turf.

But now the inn is distinctly civilised. On Saturday it was full of nervous Englishmen, curtailing their climbing to see if England could survive in the Rugby World Cup (they did). I was there with an ex submarine commander friend, for a day's walking in the Cuillins (seen above on a perfect evening last month). All week the weather forecast showed an unusual full sun icon for Saturday, but we set out for Sgurr nan Gillean on a misty wet morning (see October's picture). The day improved and there were some great views over to Raasay and up to Portree and the 'Old Man of Storr'. But the clouds drifted over the tops and we did not feel competent to press on to the famous Cuillin Ridge. It was a thoroughly enjoyable, if exhausting, day. This was about as high as we got (the more rounded 'Red Cuillins' are in the background)...

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!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Scotland's European landowners

Yesterday I wrote that 19th century European aristocracts would visit the Highlands and wear the kilt. Today I read in the paper that Vladimir Lisin, Russia's second richest man, has bought Aberuchill castle in Perthshire and the associated 3,300-acre estate. Until his recent sad death, Paul Van Vlissingen a Dutchman an ardent environmentalist, was Scotland's richest landowner. Then there is the Swedish millionairess Sigrid van Rausing, also an environmentalist who owns Coignafern estate. It seems that the new European (industrial) aristocrats are even more committed to the Highlands, and perhaps to the environment here, than were the tsars and princes who visited Queen Victoria at Balmoral and got appropriately togged up for the occasion.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Kilt

We've had a cousin from Canada staying for a few days. Good fun, and on the second to last day he revealed that he had a kilt with him. But not a tartan kilt. One with 'cargo pockets'. My mind went back to the embarrassing spectacle of Jack McConnell, then First Minister of Scotland, wearing a pin stripe kilt for Tartan Week in New York, and I wasn't desperately keen to see this 'Freedom Kilt' from Victoria, BC.

I have no commercial relationship with Freedom Kilts, but I have to say that it is much more like the garment that Highlanders used to wear than most kilts about the place. Firstly, the colour is authentic: it is broadly sheep-coloured, as would be the original plaid (Gaelic for blanket) that the Highlanders used to wind about themselves. Second it is tough - in this case actually cotton twill, but the heavy woollen kilts in the Middle Ages were designed for hard labour, not just 24/7 but 24/365 and beyond. This kilt has a small pocket for a cell phone - not very medieval certainly, but in those days a similar hidden pocket was sewn in for a sgian dubh - a small knife, traditionally of black bog oak, which was never surrendered to a host, or a victor.

In Victorian times the sgian dubh shifted to the stocking. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had embraced Highland Dress and traditions with great enthusiasm, leading the fashion from their rebuilt castle at Balmoral. The drab working dress of the Highlander, or a variation thereof, had suddenly became essential wear for not only British, but European aristocracy whilst in Scotland. There is even a picture of four year old Prince William of Prussia, later 'Kaiser Bill' of the Great War, in a kilt!

Thank you, Queen Victoria, for saving the kilt from probable extinction! The eccentric conventions that grew up around it - who should wear what and how - are a small price to pay.

More on kilts and tartans in my small book, 'Scottish Clans and Tartans'

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Hard questions

It's good way to earn a living, I often think: showing people Scotland. This weekend has been a welcome break from the office, and early plans for 2008 holidays. The weather has been kind, the people receptive and I've had a lovely couple of days guiding. On Saturday my clients were two charming couples from Maryland just embarking on one of our holidays; the girls attracted principally by the Diana Gabaldon books, the boys by the golf courses. Lauren had done her homework and was thirsty for more knowledge. Questions came thick and fast from them all. 'Why has Inverness Castle got crosses on it?' 'Should Bonnie Prince Charlie have continued on to London?' 'Did the beaker people build the Clava Cairns?' 'Will we ever get those girls out of the gift shop?'

On Sunday it was a small group from a cruise ship and the questions were somehow different. 'What is the range of a Brown Bess musket?' 'What are Scotland's principal imports?'

It's good fun being forced to think, and I believe I made a reasonable stab at all of the above, but two years ago, (I remember it well), I was completely floored by a twelve year old boy called Giovanni Fusco. He asked, amongst things: 'How far south did they worship the Norse Gods?' and 'Were the Picts the most warlike of the Celtic peoples?'

Answers to either question in the Comments column please.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Dun Bonnet of Foyers

In Neil Gunn’s novel, Highland River, a Canadian of Scots Highland descent meets two Highlanders, Angus and Ken, in the trenches of France. The Canadian speaks Gaelic and talks knowledgeably about Highland culture. In one exchange he refers to the ‘Province of Cat’ (broadly Caithness).

‘Do you know’, he said turning to Ken, ‘that Angus here didn’t know what the Province of Cat meant!’

For an instant the eyes held Ken, and then the Canadian-born clansman laughed. Say, you’re not too sure yourself! And you call yourselves Highlanders!

This came to mind when a lady from Arkansas remarked to me that she would quite like to visit the cave of the Dun Bonnet near Foyers on Loch Ness.

‘The Dun Bonnet’, I said slowly, desperately searching the mental archives. I couldn’t stall her and she told me the story which involved a Fraser who had hidden out from the redcoats for several years after Culloden. His faithful kinsfolk had kept him supplied with food and water.

The fact that Scots abroad are often substantially more knowledgeable about our heritage than Scots at home was vividly brought home to me at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games last week, an event which outdoes any Highland Games back home. But back to the Dun Bonnet...

His real name was James Fraser, the IX of Foyers and having fought at Culloden, he reportedly spent about seven years in this cave. His hideout was well known to the locals and they called him Bonaid Odhair, Dun Bonnet, so that they could talk freely about him.

However if the locals in the 18th century knew the cave well, those of the 21st (at least those we asked), were unaware of its existence. Nothing daunted we scaled Carn Dearg and made our way through a thick spruce platation to the mossy summit where we found The Cave. Well, we found A Cave - which was satisfaction enough.

Now at least, I know all about the the 'Bonaid Odhair'.

(Bonaid, incidentally, is another Gaelic word which has been adopted by English.)

If you would like to explore your Scottish knowledge on the ground, then just drop me an email.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The 52nd Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has often led,

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victorie.

Just after sunset on the eve of the Games the commentator intoned Robert Burns' evocative words as a fiery cross descended Grandfather Mountain to light torches held by eighty clan representatives, each of which then declared the clan present with a short speech. Most of us there knew that clans rarely, if ever, stood shoulder to shoulder in battle, normally being preoccupied with the theft of each other's cattle, but this detail did not detract from the successful drama of the occasion.

Next day it was a real pleasure to go round the clan tents, discussing clan lands and talking of homecoming journeys, past and future. Here in Scotland we tend to wear our name lightly, often unaware of its origin, or details of our clan's 'named ancestor'. We may have a kilt but we are oblivious to the major characters in our family's history. Not so in North Carolina! Here they all know the history, or were there to discover it. Particularly whilst there, it seemed a wonderful accident of birth to be born a Scot in Scotland!

One recurrent theme was the International Clan Gathering, to be held in Edinburgh in July 2009. This will be the largest gathering of clansmen in Scotland since George IV visited in 1822. And in 2009, as then, there will be a march by the clans up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. The Games will be held in Holyrood Park and the highlight of the event will be a clan pageant on the castle esplanade.

Now there's something that even Scots in Scotland can get excited about!

If you would like to visit your Scottish homeland, then drop me an email.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Back in New York

People on holiday tend to make unfavourable comparisons with their homeland. Quite naturally perhaps, I have over several years as a tour guide learned more about what is wrong with the USA than what is praiseworthy. My trip here is thus a wonderful, eye-opening, surprise.

I was last in New York nearly thirty years ago and remember it as busy, violent, dirty and a bit seedy. I had read, of course, that it had changed, but had no idea by how much. In the stifling heat, it still seems a vibrant place, but also clean, safe, quite at ease with itself. I am also struck by the number of flowers.

I am here to meet Travel Agents, to speed the growth of Scottish Clans and Castles Ltd. One occupies the the entire 34th floor of a building made almost chilly by the airconditioning; another is tucked away at the back of a hardware store with an office full of catalogues featuring holidays all over the world (but the walls are covered with pipers and Scottish castles!). Everyone is polite and helpful. No one (except ironically the Bank of Scotland) is too busy to see me.

I understand New York better now, and look forward to coming back.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Balnagown Castle, Seat of Clan Ross

"Hells Bells", wrote Sir Charles Ross from New York to his factor at Balnagown , "At the moment I am trying to put the United States of America on its feet. This is a big enough task, and I cannot afford to be distracted by a loafer like you who either cannot read, or is suffering from an alcoholic overdose."

The Earldom of Ross had played an important role in Scottish history. Sir Charles was the last of the Rosses of Balnagown. He had fallen out with many people in the 1930s, particularly with the British Government. His invention the 'Ross Rifle' had been an enormous success in the Boer War, but a disaster in the mud of the Great War and the small issue of tax had still not been dealt with. As a result he was in self imposed exile in the USA (and on his third marriage).

He could not return to his Scotland but his ashes made it following his death in 1942. His widow remarried, but she and her new husband could not sustain Balnagown which fell into a state of decay.

The property was bought by Mohamed Al-Fayed in 1972. He has spent some 20 million pounds on the castle which is now beautifully maintained both outside and in. Some members of the clan are upset that he has incorrectly displayed the crest of the clan chief on the gates. Technically of course they are right, but I would suggest that the renaissance of the castle is a fair quid pro quo.

So it was Mohammed Al-Fayed whom I asked for permission to take Judy Neville, nee Ross, from North Carolina to see her clan castle today. We saw William Wallace's Chair which looked as if it had indeed seen 717 winters, we saw the famous Trophy Room and the fabulous dining room, dominated by a full length portrait of Sir Charles Ross, the malign genius who, extraordinarily, sued his mother for the mismanagement of the Balnagown Estate during his minority!

I am often asked why we let so many of our castles crumble away unprotected. The answer is that there are, or were, about 3000 castles in Scotland - more per head of the population than anywhere else in the world - and the money to stabilise, far less restore them all, just isn't there. Happily there are a few people like Mohammed Al-Fayed, who are prepared to invest heavily for no financial gain.

I started with a quote from Sir Charles. I end with another, this to a farm manager: "I employ Miss Chadwick as my financial secretary. You are going into her office and fuddling her brain up with manure for Garty Farm. I telephone her from New York to talk about finance. What happens? Her head is cluttered up with dung and I get no sense out of her. Keep your dung to yourself or I will come over and rub your damn nose in it."

If you would like to be shown round your clan castle then just drop me an email.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Clan MacNaughton and Dunderave Castle

It was a gesture of gratitude in 1222 when King Alexander II gifted lands round Loch Awe and Loch Fyne to Malcolm MacNachten. Little could the king know then that he was seeding this small clan right by the lion's den.

After breakfast at Thistle House this morning we looked across to that den. Shimmering in the morning mist across Loch Fyne was Inveraray Castle, home to the Duke of Argyll and seat of Clan Campbell, still small in 1222 but destined, by conquest and political astuteness, to become a dominant clan in Scotland and to control the MacNachten lands.

But it was reportedly neither battle nor politics that lost the MacNachtens their ancient seat of Dunderave Castle at the head of Loch Fyne. It was the demon drink. John, the last MacNaughtan laird intended to wed the younger daughter of Sir James Campbell of nearby Ardkinglas, but next day he woke up in bed with, and married to, the wrong daughter. They say Campbell pressed MacNaughtan to an overenjoyment of his Loch Fyne whisky. Anyway, John fled to Ireland with his love, the younger daughter. Dunderave passed bloodlessly to the Campbells and the MacNaughton clan chief still lives in Northern Ireland.

Dunderave is now owned by an American eye surgeon generous enough to allow my clients and me to see round his beautifully furnished castle, despite being there on holiday himself. We saw the famous 'Red Banner Room' and pictures of the castle before and after its restoration by Robert Lorimer in 1911. Afterwards there were stunning views down Loch Fyne.

It was a memorable experience for Grant and Barbara MacNaughton from New Zealand. And more was to come as we headed north to Loch Awe. Under blue Argyll skies, we took a boat out to Fraoch Eilean to investigate the oldest standing castle of the MacNaughtons, then we chugged across to Eilean Innishail, ancient burial place of the clan. Innishail is also the current burial place of the Campbell chiefs; I was interested to see the gravestone of the 12th Duke of Argyll who died in 2001... but didn't trouble to point it out.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Last Wolf

There are monuments all over the Highlands commemorating the 'last wolf', but it is generally agreed that the last wolf was actually killed by a man called MacQueen on the upper reaches of the River Findhorn in the year 1743. A lone wolf had attacked a woman and her children so the young laird and clan chief, Angus Maclntosh of Moy, arranged a "tainchel" or gathering to hunt it down. MacQueen, a well-known hunter, was ordered to attend; having asked a few questions about the alleged attack and sightings of the wolf, he promised to be there.

On the day Maclntosh and the local men gathered promptly at Moy Hall, but MacQueen made a casual and belated entrance, dogs at his heel. He was upbraided for his lateness by a scowling Maclntosh.
“Ciod e a chabhag?” “What was the hurry?” came the nonchalant response. MacQueen then lifted his plaid and drew forth the bloody head of the wolf, which he tossed at the laird's feet.

I passed the place a couple of weeks ago. But sadly the Moy Hall of that day burnt to the ground in 1800. It had, unlike so many others, survived the Battle of Culloden and its aftermath. The clan, recruited by his glamorous wife Anne, was 'out' at Culloden, but Angus MacIntosh himself (most strangely to our 21st century eyes) was on the opposing side having become a Captain in the British Army. Not a bad call as it meant that his home was safe.

The wolf would not have believed his eyes today - the green
flood plain of the Upper Findhorn was covered in several hundred deer, almost delicate in their part grown velvet covered antlers!

Further up near Coignafern the river was alive with noisy waders but we failed to see the small herd of wild goats that is normally there or even the golden eagles so beloved of landlord Sigrid Rausing, millionairess and enthusiasatic environmentalist.

Further north at Alladale estate, another landowner with plenty spare cash, Paul Lister has big plans for his 23,000 acre estate. He is going to reintroduce elk, lynx, bear, bison and... wolves.

Goodness knows what MacQueen would have made of it all!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Proud to be North British

A group of our clients returned to the excellent Castle Stuart by Inverness this weekend. Today I took them on a trip eastwards with stories of Brodie Castle, Picts, the burning of Elgin Cathedral, weaving, and early distilling. But they wanted to know my view of the Scottish Nationalists' victory in our recent election; I said that, whilst not in favour of independence, I thought a change of administration was probably healthy.

We were approaching Forres, and I broke off to talk about the tower above the town. 'Nelson's Tower' was erected in 1806 by prominent members of the community of Forres as a memorial to the naval hero.

But why?

After all, Forres has no naval tradition, Admiral Nelson lived in Norfolk and never visited Scotland.

The answer is that Nelson was a British (not a Scottish) hero and in 1806, prominent members of this Highland town wanted to be associated with Britain. They were impatient to move on, leaving behind all the embarrassing, historical Highland baggage of clan feuds, cattle stealing, and Jacobite Risings. Just five years previously the Earl of Moray had knocked down nearby Darnaway Castle, replacing it with a mansion house - a building better suited to the time.

In 1807 some subscribers to the cost of the monument went on to form a Trafalgar dining club. It met annually on 21st October. James Brodie of Brodie took the chair at the inaugural meeting. And as they passed around the snuff (in a box modelled on Nelson's death mask) and used the spittoon (a chamber pot decorated with the bust of Napoleon), when they stood and raised their glasses to drink the the good health of King George, they no doubt felt extremely proud to be British.

After all, this was the exciting, new, industrial, 19th century!
In Edinburgh the 'Scottish Enlightenment' was in full swing - an intellectual movement led by those who, ironically, considered themselves 'North British' and went to some lengths to speak English and not Scots! The North British Fusiliers were already defending these islands against Bonaparte; the North British Railway was born in 1844, as was the North British Advertiser, the North British Distillery followed in 1885, and I can remember when the Edinburgh hotel now known as The Balmoral was still known as the 'North British'.

In the 19th century, 'North Britain' was the spirit of the age.

Something's changed then!


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Task completed - Bannockburn to Culloden Moor

Well, I made it! About 190 miles from Bannockburn to Culloden Moor on a bicycle. I can recommend the cycle routes through Scotland to anyone. They are on old railway lines, forestry tracks, minor roads and some dedicated cycle tracks. Away from the traffic there is masses of wildlife, and at this time of year primroses and wild hyacinths everywhere. I felt like a bit of a fraud on my first full day, cycling through such lovely countryside and being sponsored for doing so. However on Day Two I probably earned my money as the wind and rain were in my face as I toiled over remote the Pass of Drumochter in the middle of what ended up as an 80 mile day. The total raised now stands at over GBP 800 which will pay for board, lodging, education and clothing for a child in Dr Graham's Homes in Kalimpong, India for a year and a bit.

This spring the choir from the Homes were in the UK and sang quite beautifully. But it was seeing smart, enthusiastic, children who clearly loved singing and loved life that was most impressive - especially in the knowledge that many would probably be on the bread line, or below it, were it not for this school. The sore bum and stiffness seem like a small price to pay.

I took a little time off as I went to visit Doune Castle and the McNab burial ground at Killin. Of these more later, (even after a couple of days, I still feel like heading to bed a bit earlier than usual!)

Many thanks to all those who sponsored me and also to those who provided food and accommodation en route.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet

'Freedom and Whisky gang thegither', wrote Robert Burns in 1786. The fiery local spirit that he enjoyed so much now boasts worldwide brands, each with a sophisticated baggage of wood finishes and production techniques.
Burns would have been amazed!

So was I, by the schedule for a day guiding an Australian couple: Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenlivet. But all became clear, since Jarrod, bartender at the Castle Hill Tavern, Sydney, knew whisky and this was the highlight of his European trip!

They enjoyed each distillery, but The Glenlivet seemed to take the honours. Glenlivet is also a favourite of mine for different reasons.

In Scotland we don't use the expression 'single malt'. It's either malt (from one distillery) or it's blended (many whiskies including grain whiskies). But it was not always so. To produce a consistent, and palatable brand in 1853 was a challenge and led to the first mixture of malts, known as a vatted malt (as opposed to a single malt). It was called Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet or 'OVG' and is arguably the only vatted malt ever to have become an established brand.

Andrew Usher established himself as the pioneer of whisky blending: he already held the exclusive right to distribute Glenlivet south of the Highlands and in 1885 he founded a grain distillery in Edinburgh, so building the twin pillars of his success. In 1890 the firm of Andrew Usher & Co. of Leith had the largest bonded warehouse in the world.

I have only seen one Old Vatted Glenlivet bottle, and that was in my sister's farmhouse kitchen in East Lothian where it was filled with paraffin. It may still be there, but its presence was no coincidence, as Andrew Usher was our great grandfather.

My connection with the great man promoted me, I think, from an average tour guide to an exceptional one in the view of these particular clients. And it may contribute to a good story one Burns Night, back in Sydney.

It seems 'Whisky' is still a little used word in the USA. I normally hear 'Scotch' or 'Single Malt'. So "Freedom and Whisky gang thegither" probably never resonated over there, even in 1786 when Freedom was quite an issue. But later, in the 1860s, whilst Andrew Usher was working his alchemy in Scotland, Abraham Lincoln was carrying a leather bound volume of Burns works with him wherever he went. When asked to propose a toast to the bard, he replied, "I can not frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius."

Some might say the same of Andrew Usher whose generous heart stretched to bequeathing the City of Edinburgh with its fine concert venue, The Usher Hall. All on the back of The Glenlivet!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Bannockburn to Culloden Moor

Why, I am asked with reference to my last post, is an apparently sane man bicycling 48 miles round the Highlands? Some may say that I am not actually sane, since in May I am bicycling even further - from Bannockburn to Culloden Moor (about 180 miles) in aid of Dr Graham's Homes in Kalimpong. I hope to raise £650 which will keep an orphaned Indian child at a boarding school for a year. Here is the link!

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Summer Road to Ruthven

'Atholl'. The signpost caught my eye. Ask someone in Inverness or Perth how to get to Atholl and they will look at you strangely - even though it lies about half way between the two on a main road through the Highlands. 'Atholl' is a bit like 'Mar', or 'Breadalbane': mostly used by historians - and by the tourism industry which thrives on the romantic resonance. Atholl was a powerful celtic earldom around the eleventh century when MacBeth was on the throne; today the name survives in the small town of Blair Atholl, the title 'Duke of Atholl', and a hill on the south of the Drumochter Pass called the 'Sow of Atholl' - which butts up against the 'Boar of Badenoch' to its north (a medieval joke still included on 21st century maps!).

Having parked the car near Kingussie at Ruthven (famous now mostly for the impressive ruined barracks) I checked the signpost and set off on my cycle ride to 'Atholl via the Gaick and Minigaig'. This route used to be known as 'Comyn's Road, since until the time of Robert the Bruce, this was Comyn country; later it was the MacPhersons who held sway. It is the shortest route south from Kingussie and all points north, and was the only one marked on maps until 1725, when General Wade chose the longer route by Drumochter Pass for his groundbreaking 'military road'. Now both the arterial A9 road and the railway follow Wade's route. He probably rejected Minigaig due to the incidence of avalanches there and I noticed (good excuse for a break from the saddle) that at Gaick there is still a monument to a Captain John MacPherson of Ballachroan who was killed in an avalanche along with four 'companions in the chase' in 1800. So Wade probably made a good decision, despite the old 'Comyn's Road' being fifteen miles shorter. And after the building of his smart new road through Drumochter, the Minigaig pass became, logically perhaps, 'The Summer Road to Ruthven'.

The route up Glentromie to Loch an t' Seilich is wild, beautiful, and easy cycling, but after about 12 miles, by Loch na Dun, the track becomes a footpath and a concealed boulder threw me off the bike and very nearly into that very remote loch. The next five miles was on a gentle downward track and soon I was through the mountains and transferred my loyalty to General Wade's road, (much of which is in use once again as a cycle track) for the homeward journey. Returning that way is of course much longer than 'The Summer Road to Ruthven' but easier going. Pedalling up and through the Drumochter Pass, scene of so much history, was satisfying, but it was a weary blogger who took this shot of Ruthven Barracks late that afternoon.

General Wade built 240 miles of military roads in the Highlands. He is also the only commoner to appear in the National Anthem:

"Lord, grant that General Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King."

...which is an interesting reflection on English attitudes to the Scots forty years after the birth of the 'United Kingdom' - once again under threat (we are told) if the Scottish National Party win the election in two weeks time on 3 May.

Anyway, General Wade certainly has his place in history even if poor old Atholl still needs historians, tourist guides, weary cyclists and the Scottish Rights of Way Society for its survival.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Rock Stars and the Scottish Highlands

It was Paul McCartney who started it with his hideaway in Argyll, prompting 'Mull of Kintyre', the first No.1 hit to feature the Highland bagpipes. John Lennon, a little surprisingly, had an attachment to Durness in the very far north - a magical mystery tour of Highlands like Lennon. Most celebrated of course was Madonna's wedding at Skibo Castle in December 2000 and the christening of her son Rocco at the medieval cathedral at Dornoch. Skibo is a private club but you can stay there for one night as a non-member to try it out (I did so in December and it is a memorable experience). But back to music (and fish): Ian Anderson, lead singer of Jethro Tull founded the Inverness-based salmon company, Strathaird in 1978; and it is still going strong.

And the latest rock star highlander is... Bob Dylan. He recently bought Aultmore, a fine mansion in Strathspey - Dylan 'buys £2m house in Highlands'. We sometimes used Aultmore House as an unusual B&B stop for our Clans and Castle guests, and I see there is still an old website up there. 'The Scotsman' newspaper has found some relevant lyrics - I'm not sure from which song but they go like this: "Well my heart's in the Highlands wherever I roam/that's where I'll be when I get called home". Well, Bob came 'home' to Scotland on Wednesday with a concert in Glasgow and it seemed churlish not to support him. Teenagers and grandparents alike enjoyed a fantastic evening!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Inverewe and Gille Dubh

I AM ACCUSED of starting too many topics and not following them through! Well here is a follow up to Osgood Mackenzie, creator of Inverewe Gardens and author of 'A Hundred Years in the Highlands', a charming account of the life of a Highland Laird in Victorian times. It is in part about the life of landed gentry, but more interesting are the accounts that are rooted in the land. I particularly like this one about the hunt for Gille Dubh, a black fairy who had apparently been causing some mischief.

"Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch invited Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, Mackenzie of Dundonnell, Mackennzie of Letterewe and Mackenzie of Kernsary to join him in an expedition to repress the Gille Dubh. These five lairds repaired to Loch a Druing armed with guns with which they hoped to shoot the fairy. Most of them wore the Highland Dress with dirks at their side... They spent the night at Loch a Druing, and slept in John Mackenzie's barn where couches of heather were prepared for them. They went all through the woods, but they saw nothing of the Gille Dubh!"

In 1862, aged twenty, Osgood Mackenzie acquired Inverewe, a barren peninsular of rock and peat, jutting into the Atlantic; the only tree was a stunted dwarf willow. By the time he died in 1922, it was an internationally acclaimed garden, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Yesterday I stood in some awe looking at a wonderful Magnolia tree (below and top right) planted there by Osgood Mackenzie in 1914. It seems to me, this Easter Saturday, that it would look more at home in Jerusalem than in Wester Ross.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sir Robert Grierson of Lag

THERE IS GREAT CONCERN here at the treatment of our fifteen naval personnel illegally detained by the Iranians, and anxiety about their ultimate fate. However I was reminded today, when researching the Griersons of Lag, that we have not always been models of decency ourselves. Lag Castle is in Dumfriesshire where people have traditionally subscribed to low church Christianity. This was a dangerous aberration in the reign of James VII, our only Catholic monarch since Mary Queen of Scots (also our last since a Catholic is prohibited by law from ascending the British throne).

Sir Robert Grierson of Lag was the king's man in Dumfriesshire and he took his duties seriously. When in 1685 he came upon an 'illegal' church service at Kirkconnell, he killed all those worshippers he could catch, some of them, reportedly, by rolling them down a hill in a spiked barrel. None was given a Christian burial. Small wonder that Dumfriesshire folk related that Sir Robert's spit scorched the earth where it fell, that he could turn wine into blood and that on the night he died a chariot surrounded by thunder clouds swept him away to hell! Makes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem quite cuddly.

Thankfully not all Griersons were of this mould. In 1898 Sir George Grierson produced the eight thousand page Linguistic Survey of India, and Dr John Grierson who died in 1972 was a film producer and Director of UNESCO.

Apart from Lag Castle, now a noble ruin, there are three Grierson castles in Dumfriesshire - Barjarg Tower, Capenoch House and Rockhall, all now private houses. Sir Robert Grierson used Rockhall as a base for persecuting his fellow Christians (of the 'wrong' sect). On his death his servants killed his pet monkey which still apparently haunts the castle, blowing a whistle. So far as I am aware this is the only castle in Scotland to be haunted by a monkey. Maybe someone out there knows different?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Treasure Fever Grips the Highlands!

Well, in a quiet, West Highland sort of a way it does.

The Duke of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell, whose family acquired most of Mull from the MacLeans of Duart in the 17th century, is hoping that the mud of Tobermory Bay will reveal the treasure chests of a Spanish Galleon, mysteriously scuttled there in 1588. More at: News - Scotland - Duke launches treasure hunt for Spanish Armada gold.

Meantime up in Arisaig they are hoping that improvements underway to the A830 Arisaig to Lochailort road (which is still single lane with passing places) will turn up some of the Jacobite Gold, donated (a little belatedly) by France and Spain to support 'Bonnie Prince Charlie's 1745 Jacobite Rising. The road goes past Loch nan Uamh, a beautiful but easily overlooked bay where the gold was landed and which saw both the Prince's arrival on the Scottish mainland in August 1745, and his departure for France in 1746. More about the treasure will be revealed on the BBC

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Leaving Strathconon

We've had five wonderful spring days - blue skies and a touch of early morning frost. But today the clouds rolled in, along with an email about Strathconon from a German friend. She gives the lyrics of a 2001 song by the Highland band, Runrig...

Leaving Strathconon

We're the emigrant ones, not the last in the line
You're your father's son, and I am mine.
And all of our northwords turn distant and small
In the end they mean nothing. No, nothing at all.

Right here's the river's source, and it flows out to the world
And the heart of Caledonia is drowning in its flood.
Was there hunger in our striving, did the light shine in our dark
Was everything we ever needed always right here from the start?

After the raging flame, the embers burn slow
We're leaving. leaving. leaving, till there's nowhere left to go.
The seas, the slums, the battlefields. The shipyards and the tides
The straths, the glens, the drove roads. All the prairies and the mines.

It's a still autumn morning, and it covers Loch Meig
And all the trees across the valley in a blaze of dying green.
I've seen too many tail-lights, didn't need to say goodbye
We're just souls across a shrinking world in a distant starlit night.

Please believe me
Something in me died
Leaving Strathconon
And your father's home behind.

Which brings me, with no great enthusiasm, to the 'Highland Clearances'...

Over 150,000 Highlanders were forced off their land between 1783 and 1881. The orders came largely from their clan chiefs and were implemented by estate managers known as factors. For hundreds of years Highlanders had looked to their chiefs for leadership, justice, security, protection. But in the eighteenth century, and particularly after the defeat at Culloden, many chiefs subtly became landlords and their principal motivation shifted from duty to the clan to maximising profit. Highlanders, albeit ready to die for their chief, produced no financial return with their few cattle and subsistence farming. But the price of wool and mutton was soaring, and shepherds from the south were ready to manage profitable sheep for landlords.

For the Highlanders it was clan land to which they had an inalienable and ancient right. For the factor it was the laird's land with too many tenants who could not pay their rents. If they didn't leave when told to do so, their thatched houses were simply burnt and the sheep arrived. There was no one to whom they could appeal.

Some would say that, especially following the potato famine of 1846, life in the glens was unsustainable and those who left were better off than those who stayed. Descendants of the 'emigrant ones' may be reading this from affluent homes in North America. But those were the ones that found a passage - and survived it.

Strathconon was Mackenzie country; their chief was the Earl of Seaforth, whose factor James Gillanders cleared 400 people from Strathconon in 1840. It was not one of the most infamous clearances; just a harsh fact - and a good song.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Well dear. How d'you like your castle?"

I've heard this by Eilean Donan on Loch Duich near Skye; at Knockdolian in Galloway, down in the south west; by Castle Sinclair, a precarious cliff-top ruin on the north east coast; and looking across to history-rich Dunnottar Castle, near Aberdeen. Strange, though. Where else in the world do people spontaneously think of a previously unseen medieval building as "theirs"? Only in Scotland, I think.

This week in the UK we are reflecting on the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago, and a very few determined people from America have managed to trace their roots back to Africa. But those with Scottish roots only need a name. With a name there is a castle, or a monument or a burial ground or clan gathering stone. And people can touch the stones, feel the wind on their cheeks, smell the heather and see, albeit faintly, what went before. With a little help from one of us natives, they are drawn into a visceral, and often emotional, relationship with a piece of land on the other side of the world.

In the year 2009, Scotland will celebrate 'Homecoming Scotland', a year long celebration for all those with links to Scotland. And there will be even more people trekking across peaty hillsides to see long-deserted piles of stones. And returning home much the richer for it.

A highlight of 2009 will be the International Clan Gathering, a celebration the likes of which has not been seen since 1822 (You heard it here first!). Scottish Clans and Castles will be playing a full part in this party which is scheduled for the last week of July in Edinburgh. Watch this space for more.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What language do they speak on the Kyle of Tongue?

A potential client emailed yesterday. She plans to visit the Kyle of Tongue, but has concerns: 'I understand there would be a possible language barrier since they still speak Scots Gaelic as their every day language.' Many people here wish she was right! Bord na Gaidhlig, responsible for promoting the language, in particular. Sadly only 60,000 folk in Scotland speak Gaelic now and it is not the first language for any of them. Everyone understands English. Indeed there is a danger that the language could die out, and with it understanding of a substantial body of literature and song. Gaelic also brings our countryside alive - Rathad nam Meirleach, The Thieves' Road, Sgurr nan Conbhairean, Peak of the Keeper of the Hounds, Knocknagael, Hill of the Hostages. Today the Scottish Minister of Culture has called for lessons in Gaelic to be available throughout Scotland - great in theory but it has problems. More important my be support for Sabhal Mor Ostaig, an impressive college on Skye offering Gaelic courses up to degree level.

But back to Tongue... I am prepared to be taken to task on this, but they are more likely to be speaking Old Norse ('Norn') than Gaelic. This area was occupied by the Norse until about 1200 and Norn continued to be spoken along the north coast until the 17th century, although there was always more Gaelic in the west. The word Kyle comes from the Gaelic, caol meaning narrows, but Tongue is from the Norse tunga, meaning a spit of land; nearby Durness is completely Norse in origin - dyr, meaning deer and nes, headland. Either way, I thoroughly recommend a visit to (English speaking) Tongue - don't miss Dun Dornaigil Broch in Strathmore or Smoo Cave!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dressed up and showing off, but not a female in sight!

WE GET A FEW OFFERS: a night here, a weekend there (the best was a weekend at the wonderful Airds Hotel). Today's invitation was to be up at dawn and see the mating display of the black grouse.

We met by the Corrimony Cairn, an evocative bronze age tomb and stone circle, one of very few with the entrance passage roof still intact - not bad for a four thousand year old building. Below us a gaggle of greylag geese rose noisily through the mist lying over the River Enrick. The 4x4 headed for the hills and Dan, the site manager, explained the scheme to plant thousands of Scots Pines, so recreating a fraction of the old Caledonian Pine Forest. "It's a 250 year project", he remarked. A noble undertaking, which makes starting on Jedburgh Abbey or Chartres Cathedral seem a little short term. I gather Paris Hilton is getting herself frozen, so I hope she is reading this.

The display ground is known as a 'lek'. The first one we looked at was snowed up but at the second, a gentle hillock carefully grazed down by cattle in the summer, there were nine males strutting their stuff, only slightly hindered by the slippery snow. Their black and white, lyre-shaped tails were fanned out, the red wattles above their eyes flashed as they feinted attacks. It made me think of a gentlemen's dining club - everyone dressed up and showing off but not a female in sight! Dan said the hens turned up later in the spring to watch. However proceedings were interrupted by some predator, unseen by us. Rivalry was forgotten as they headed for the safety of the trees.

We drove on to see a further sixteen cocks, feeding intermittently on the growing buds of a larch plantation. "That's 0.25% of the entire UK population that we've seen today", remarked Dan. True enough. We only have 10,000 of these wonderful birds left. Full marks to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for managing a growing population in this wonderful landscape and making these displays available to the public (they can't help the antisocial hour!).