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.