I immerse myself into the clans of Scotland
Saturday 14 April 2012 - Diana Gabaldon Tour and Culloden memorial service
I was very happy, but ever so tired when I went to bed last night. I contemplated whether I was up to another bus trip, however nice, and considered not going on the Diana Gabaldon trip.
However, after a nice breakfast, full breaky consisting of bacon, baked beans, egg, tomato and some sort of sausage. Only small portions, but it was very nice, washed down with lovely coffee.
I expected a bus to pick me up but instead, it was a man dressed in full kilt attire in a people mover. There were four other people on the tour, two american couples. They were nice enough, but Americans don't have the same sense of humour we have and they are a bit dour. Having said that, we had a lovely day.
Hugh Allison, our tour guide, was both informative and entertaining. We drove initially down to the Clava Cairns, pulling up in the car park just as it started to snow.
A note on the weather here. I'm at a loss to explain how so many people rug up like snow bunnies, even the locals, and have been complaining about the cold. Yes, it's very chilly at 8-10 degrees each day, but no colder than a winter's day in Bendigo. I'm loving it. I keep taking my coat off because of the exercise making me warm. I haven't really been shivery cold at anytime.
Back to the Clava Cairns. For those of you that have read Diana's Outlander books, this is where Clare supposedly went through the stones.
There are three cairns, two chambered and one with just a hole in the middle and no entry point. No-one knows what purpose the pit cairn serves. The cairns are 4000 years old and the theory about their use is interesting.
Apparently when one of the villagers died their relatives would leave their body to be stripped of the flesh and then place the bones in a beaker. This is in contrast to the stories I had heard regarding the beaker people of Stonehenge, where the beakers were used to store food and drink for the dead. Not sure what to believe as there are a number of different stories from different tour operators. You just believe the one that sounds more plausible.
The bones are left until the next clear night on the winter solstice. if the night is clear, the burial beakers are placed into the centre chamber.
When the moon reaches the right point, the light from the moon lights up the chamber and the spirits of the dead travel along the light to their next destination. If the night is overcast, the ceremony is put off until the next year, with possibly multiple beakers waiting for the light. It's a lovely story, but we will never know for sure.
There are standing stones around earch cairn with large stones around the base of the each cairn. The pit cairn has raised, rubble covered mounds leading from a couple of the standing stones to the cairn. No-one has been able to prove why, but there are a number of theories about, eg they are in line with moon phases, they represent pointers to another site.
The cairns were in a lovely part of the country, surrounded by farm land, with a couple of hares running through the fields. The snow was only light and had stopped by the time we got back to the car.
Whilst driving Hugh advised us that he was an historian of note, having worked for some years at Culloden. This was proven correct when we later arrived at Culloden Battlefield and Hugh knew most of the clan chief's in attendance. He had, in fact, written a book called Tales from Culloden, which I purchased and had him sign.
Before we got to Culloden, Hugh took us to a well near the village of Cortin. In Diana's book, Dougal makes Clare drink from the well of truth. This well was different, but very interesting. It was a Clootie well. Clootie has a couple of meanings in gaelic, one of them means cloth.
Villagers would visit the Clootie well, believed to have powers to heal. They would tie a piece of silver to a tree branch with a piece of cloth and then drink from the well, asking for their ailments to be cured. They usually did this not expecting to be cured immediately. It was considered to be very bad luck to take the cloth that others had placed on the trees.
I thought it an interesting ritual and expected to see a small well of water in the forest. Imagine my utter suprise when we came across tree after tree covered with cloth of all sorts tied all over the branches. There were flags, socks, scraps of material, tinsel, shoes, t shirts and all sorts of unidentified stuff tied all over the place.
The well itself was bubbling up from the ground and tinkling down the hill. It was eerier and sort of spooky seeing all the material and I wouldn't have liked to be there at night. However, the majority of the material was synthetic, voiding the 'magic' of the ritual. To make the ritual work, the material needs to disintergraee with the weather and wind, just like buddhist prayer flags. This stuff will last forever, never making their requests come true.
The Clootie well was definitely one of the weirdest things I've seen, almost along the lines of a 'Blair Witch' moment for me. Very spooky.
We got back in the car and headed the short distance to the Culloden Battlefield. I had organised to go to a memorial service at midnight, but as it was snowing on and off, thought I would not be going. As it turned out, I didn't need to go at midnight.
When we arrived at Culloden, the car park was full and the information and display centre was fill to brimming with highlanders in full kilts and plaids. These included ladies, men, clan chiefs from a number of clans and even children and dogs.
The moor is very big, relatively flat and still boggy in places. It is marked by flags, red for English and blue for the Jacobites. There are numerous mass graves around, marked by clan headstones, and one for the English.
There is a long stone wall on the side of the information centre. This wall has raised bricks on it, representing the dead on the battlefield. The English dead are represented by a couple of dozen bricks, then a space of no raised bricks before the rest of the wall, which is very long, has bricks for the Jacobite dead. In the first few minutes of the battle, about 30 English were killed and over 700 Jacobites.
The memorial service for the anniversary of the battle is held on the closest Saturday to the date. We were introduced to a number of clan chiefs by Hugh, who seemed to know everyone.
After a quick walk through the centre, which has a fabulous immersion and information display, we watched the pipers lead the way to the memorial cairn, followed by the chiefs and their clansmen. We joined the line and listened to the memorial service, which was in Gaelic and English. It was moving and included mention of the Black Watch unit that had just returned to Fort George from a stint in Afghanistan.
The clans then broke off and headed off to their own burial stones on the battlefield to hold their clan memorials.
The tartans, battle and formal dress was amazing and the day was icy cold, but the weather held for the service. It was a wonderful day for me, having such an interest in the Jacobite risings, and Culloden battle in particular.
Coming back in from the battlefield I had a whisky coffee to warm me up before we all departed for the rest of our tour.
I was very happy to have shared in the memorial service, an experience of a lifetime.
We travelled towards Dingwall. Dingwall has the oldest wound wooden clock tower in the world. The clock is wound three times a week. This little village was pretty, and was close to our next quick stop at the heart of the McKenzie land. Castle Leod, by Strathpeffer, (the inspiration for Castle Leoch in the books). This castle is indeed a Mackenzie stronghold, and the home of the Earl of Cromartie, chief of the clan MacKenzie.
We stopped on the long drive down to look at the castle as there was a Shinty match in progress on the field next door. Shinty is basically an early form of ice hockey, played with sticks that have a triangle head. Unlike hockey, the sticks can be raised high and therefore the game has lead to some broken teeth and black eyes in the past.
Hugh, our guide, explained that shinty was a very old game and was popular throughout the highlands. We took some photos of the castle and departed up the cromaity firth towards our lunch destination.
The two women on our tour were quite enthusiastic about the areas that seemed so close to Diana Gabaldon's books but I can't say the same for their husbands. They were interested in the historic significance, but obviously hadn't read the books.
We passed seals basking on the low tide rocks and arrived at the MacDonald storehouse for lunch. The storehouse was three storeys, one underground and was built in 1740 to house the stores that were received in payment for land rents. The MacDonald chief would trade the goods up river to Fort George and to other areas, turning the goods into money. The building survived the uprising of 1745 and has been converted into a restaurant.
Hugh advised that the restaurant was very popular with the locals, and he wasn't wrong,. We lined up for lunch and the huge building was full of people. However, the waiters and waitresses were very organised, coming done the line and finding out how many people were sitting together. They then reserved a table and you just got the food and had a table ready.
As we waited for lunch a small hail storm came over, dropping lots o f small hailstones against the window. To my delight, right after this came over, it started to snow reasonably heavily, the snow flying about in the air. I was pretty excited, and probably the only one in the building of about two hundred people, most of whom had seen lots of falling snow before.
It snowed most of lunch time, however it melted just as quickly, leaving the ground wet, not white.
We had a lovely lunch and I tasted the local soft drink, Irn bru (pronounced iron brew). It was very nice, soft of like creamy soda.
I struggled to eat my lunch with the Americans as they really annoyed me. They use their knife and fork in the most ridiculous way, stabbing the food and holding the fork like a spear. They then pull and cut the food up into bits and then spear it and eat it. Doesn't sound too bad? You should watch it, it's not pretty.
After lunch we headed out again, into bright sunshine after the snow. Travelling towards the heart of the Fraser land in the village of Beauly.
Travelling through farmland and light forest we came across the most beautiful horse, standing in a wooded paddock. It was lit up by the sun and looked almost magical. It also looked like it had just been groomed with a magnificent long mane and tail. Hugh obligingly stopped and explained that the horse was a Garron, a highland horse.
They are heavy set and big, similar to a clydesdale, but not as heavy. They are used in hunting to carry the carcasses of bagged deer as they don't mind the smell of the dead animals.
We drove through Dunbarton (dun meaning fort) and visited a lovely manor house which closely fit the description of Lallybroch in Diana's books. The house was found at the end of a very long driveway, behind the Ord distillery. We couldn't go inside as the owners had just returned from overseas, but we had a nice look around at the grounds. The house is called the Ord House hotel and would be a lovely quiet place to stay for a holiday.
And so on to our final destination in Beauly (meaning beautiful place). Fraser country. Hugh took us to a wonderful shop in Beauly, Campbell and Company. It was a tweed shop, supply bolts and bolts of lovely tweed material. They also measured and made tweed jackets and clothes and the shop hasn't changed one bit in the past fifty years. It was wonderful, the smell reminded my of my great grandfather. They had eftpos, but the receipts and everything else was done by hand.
I bought a scarf, which was very reasonably priced. The owner, Mr Campbell was a lovely man and we spent quite a bit of time browsing through the material and clothes.
We stopped for afternoon tea at a hotel and Hugh gave us a demonstration of highland weaponry. He had a replica targe, a war shield, which was made of two pieces of oak, placed so the grain ran in different directions. This was then covered on the back with deer hide with two wide leather straps to hold the arm in place. The front was covered with cow hide from the chest of the cow, as that is the thickest part. The front is then adorned with brass tacks. In the centre of the targe is a place to put a long spike, used to impaled at close range. The targe is tough enough to stop a musket ball.
The dirk, a very long and partially serrated blade, is held in the hand that goes through the targe. In the other hand, the highlander holds his broadsword.
This is not what I expected a broadsword to look like. The sword is not as wide or as heavy as I had imagined, It is sharp on both sides of the blade and the basket hilt is ornate and very practical. There are a number of areas on the basket hilt designed to stop the enemies sword from sliding off and cutting the highlander.
The highlanders traditionally place red material, cut from the English red coats, into the basket hilt to intimidate there enemies. The sword had both balance and grace when held, but I don't think I could wield it for more than a few minutes without it becoming too heavy to use.
Hugh's pistol, which was a one shot powder gun, and his broadsword, were both authentic and I'd hate to hazard a guess at their price. He was obviously proud of his heritage and proud of the highland spirit that is still apparent today.
Our final destination was the Beauly priory, erected in 1213. Now a ruin, this is a graveyard full of Fraser's. Although the highlanders spread across the globe after Culloden, those that stayed didn't stray too far and you can still find the majority of similar surnames living in their ancestral clan territory.
It was of particular interest to us that we found two graves in the priory grounds. One for Jamie Fraser and one for John Grey. Weird.
All in all, the tour was informative and interesting with a lot of information about the clans. Hugh was friendly and quite obliging if you wanted to stop and photograph or look at something of interest. It's a great trip for those who have read the Outlander books.