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!).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Urquhart Castle by Loch Ness and Glen Affric

Snow falling again today and I wonder what I will do with two travel agents from New Jersey in such poor visibility. However by the time we got to Urquhart Castle by Loch Ness there were only a few crystals in the wind. It seemed the castle had so much more of a story to tell on this chilly March day than it ever could in summer with a cruise ship at Invergordon and the coach park overflowing. St Columba was here in AD 580, baptising a Pictish nobleman and his household. (He went on to be the first recorded witness of the Loch Ness monster but that is another story). Urquhart was held by Durwards, Comyns, MacDonalds, Gordons, Chisolms, Grants right through until about 1650 when the Grant family, loyal to King Charles I, was forced to leave by the Covenanters who opposed him. And they all faced chilly March winds and much worse. I suppose there are other places in the Highlands that were continuously occupied for 1070 years but I couldn't name them.

As we headed away towards Glenurquhart, I found myself saying that beyond the next glen was Glen Affric, supposedly 'the most beautiful in Scotland'. Well, the sun was out, the sky was clear and we dumped the planned programme to head up there. The River Affric, the mountains, the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest, all were spectacular in the snow and sun. Lots of nice pictures...

The cows were crossing in front of Rait Castle when we arrived later in the afternoon and we viewed from a distance. Here is another place that was going strong at the same time as William Wallace and his nemesis Edward I of England, in fact Gervaise de Rait, who built the castle, was Edward's man in Nairnshire.

We could see the Gothic windows in the evening sun, beautifully carved from single slabs of sandstone. But happily not the trees still growing out of the wallheads.

The saga of preserving Rait Castle is one for another day. This day was a good one.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Snow, and a date which very precisely marks the end of the clan system in the Highlands.

The snow came today; the first since December - large, wet flakes in the wind, bowing the daffodils, silencing the rooks that were noisily repairing nests in the tall Scots pines, drenching the plum blossom. The grey geese are still there in the upland meadows - heard, not seen, through the thick, heavy sky; it's good that they haven't left on their journey to the breeding grounds, as the recent harsh winds would have driven them well off course.

I feel sorry for our clients from Seattle, just embarking on their first trip to Scotland. However they wanted to explore sites linked to the novels of Diana Gabaldon. Her hero, Jamie Fraser, took his place in Bonnie Prince Charlie's army on Culloden Moor, fighting for a cause that few who were there fully understood. But if our clients visit Culloden Battlefield today they will get some idea of the plight of those tired, hungry Highlanders who, already exhausted from an abortive night march, faced driving sleet and the overwhelmingly firepower of the government army. It happened on 16 April 1746, a date which very precisely marks the end of the clan system in the Highlands.

Friday, March 09, 2007

'A Hundred Years in the Highlands' by Osgood Mackenzie

My wife's great grandfather was Moderator of the Church of Scotland and his name lives on in Dr Graham's homes in Northern India founded to care for orphaned Anglo Indian children. Through the energies of a small number of dedicated people the homes still care for eight hundred neglected children today. I was looking for things to sell at a fundraising event and came upon one of my father's old books: 'A Hundred Years in the Highlands' by Osgood Mackenzie, who founded the remarkable Inverewe Gardens near Ullapool - created from a barren peninsular which he inherited in 1862. I opened up the book and, glancing at the early pages, I see that the Mackenzie family used to make an annual trek up Strathconon each spring. A convoy of horses, cattle and dog carts made their way from Conon Bridge north of Inverness, through to Gairloch on the west coast. I found that they had followed the same track past Loch Beannacharain that I was walking on just a couple of weeks ago. I look forward to reading further.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Clan Ewan of Otter

Sometimes we have to disappoint people. In the last few weeks we have had requests for information on the Mitchell, Hunter and Wilson clan lands. Now whilst these are all good Scottish names, none of these families operated as clans, with all the ingrained Celtic traditions that come with clanship. But today we were asked about the MacEwans. Now there is a fine Scottish name, still associated with a fine Scottish beer! And yet the unfortunate MacEwans of Otter lost their lands to the expansionist Clan Campbell right back in the 15th century. Worse, they lost their chief and so became a 'broken clan', without protection. The MacEwans dispersed along the west coast, becoming dependents of other clans or surviving on their wits and by thievery. In 1602 they were listed in an Act of Parliament as 'broken Highland men, heavily armed and living by robbery'. The Earl of Argyll (Chief of Clan Campbell), was made responsible for their good behaviour.
I very much doubt he was successful!

Castle Ewan, Caisteal mhic Eoghainn, by Kilfinnan, and Ballimore Castle by Otter Ferry, both on Loch Fyne in Argyll, are sadly now just heaps of stone. And any MacEwans visiting Ballimore should be warned that the burial enclosure is to commemorate - I hate to report it - the 'Campbells of Otter'.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Mountains all around us - that's one of the great things about living in the Highlands! This morning was mild, calm, hardly a cloud in the sky. I roused a gap-yearing son and we decided to climb Sgurr a' Mhuilinn, Peak of the Mill - at the top of Strathconon and visible from both Scottish coasts.

As we crossed the Kessock Bridge, just north of Inverness, the miller's cap was glistening in the sun and it looked like a good day. But the weather worsened as we drove up the River Conon, and when we arrived the rain was unrelenting. No fun. So we headed on up the glen, stopping again by Loch Beannacharain, inhabited by a mass of mallard, and two whooper swans. The weather was better and as we walked by the shore, a large bird of prey settled on a pole and sat there drying its wings. Neither of us recognised it, and it was only later we learned that this was a Gyr Falcon - a vagrant from Iceland, clearly enjoying our icelandic weather.

The walk was good too - mostly sun but with rain showers and a burst of hail. We took one of the old routes across the Highlands, from Strathconon through to Ach na Shellach, then veered off to climb Creag na h-Iolaire, rock of the Eagles. No eagles there now, but we saw about 250 stags during the day - wonderful beasts. How often I wish that some of our Clans and Castles clients who visit in the summer would come a little earlier - before all the deer have disappeared up to the high corries!