Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mary Queen of Scots in Liddesdale

Potential visitors sometimes ask what the weather will be like in Scotland and I invariably resort to the comment that Scottish weather is 'notoriously unpredictable'. But even I didn't expect Easter weekend to be sub-zero and punctuated with snow showers. I was in the Borders, visiting Liddesdale, hard by the English border, and Hermitage Castle - "guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain".

Like Glencoe, Hermitage is best seen in foul weather to reflect all that has occurred in that remote place. The castle was once owned by a Baron de Soules, a noted warlock, who had been told that only a rope of sand could destroy him. However local people created a belt of lead into which sand was poured and, thus restrained, he was boiled in oil in a vast cauldron up on Ninestane Rig, a local stone circle.

The sun came out just long enough to allow this photograph and provide respite to reflect on the arrival here in October 1566 of the 24 year old Mary Queen of Scots. She had given birth to the future James VI of Scotland (James I of England) only four months earlier and so the 46 mile round trip from Jedburgh was perhaps ill advised. James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, was her host during the two hour visit. Bothwell, Lieutenant of the Marches in Scotland, had recently been wounded by a notorious reiver known as 'Wee Jock Elliot of the Park'. Next year Mary and Bothwell would be married. So whether it was the lieutenant or the wounded man that she was so keen to visit is an ongoing debate, but the weather was unpredictable as ever, and Mary's horse became stuck in a mire. On arrival back at Jedburgh Mary fell ill, suffering convulsions and losing both speech and sight.

Were it not for her French physician who bandaged her limbs, massaged her, and poured wine down her throat, the funeral, already being planned by the Earl of Moray would have proceeded. She is said to have remarked later in her troubled life, "Would that I had died in Jedburgh".

The house where she lodged in Jedburgh is open to the public.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Where are the Highlands?

A passenger alighting from a cruise ship once asked me what altitude we were at and I replied that we were at sea level.
'But I thought we were coming to the Highlands!' she replied indignantly.
Perhaps she thought that the Highlands, along with the laws of physics, should be suspended a little for the benefit of tourists!

But the question as to what constitutes the Highlands is not a straightforward one.

Many historians have drawn lines on a map of Scotland (often called Lalland lines), showing the Highlands on one side, the Lowlands on the other. The problem is that any such line must include as part of the English speaking Lowlands all of the coastal strip north of Aberdeen. This coastal strip ultimately arrives at Inverness, capital of the Highlands and so begs the question of where the dividing line should be drawn.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England he remarked playfully to his English courtiers that he had a town in Scotland so large that people at one end could not understand those at the other since they had a different tongue. That town was Nairn, 16 miles east of Inverness. A Gaelic-speaking market town, Nairn had seen an influx of English-speaking fisherfolk who had spread round the coast from Aberdeen. So Nairn has traditionally been considered the dividing line. But of course it is not as simple as that.

Last week I gave a lecture on the Campbells of Cawdor, an influential Nairnshire family whose castle is between Nairn and Inverness. Whilst researching, I was amused to come on the following quotation from 1691 in a letter by Sir Hugh Campbell, 15th Thane of Cawdor - and, you would certainly think, a Highlander... "Just upon the back of this there came two or three parties of Hielanders, one of them carried away above an hundred head of cattle out of Aitnoch. The people were secure and without fear; in short they were surprised and the cattle were carried into Lochaber."

Lochaber. Now THAT's definitely the Highlands. Despite much of it being at sea level!
See also my post on the Clans of Lochaber.