On ‘A Wee Highland Daunder’

16th-18th June, 2019

By Cherry Allan

Day 1.  8.15am on this rather cool, dull summer morning found a group of DHS members, 26 in all, leave the Glen Car Park with driver Martin behind the wheel of our comfortable Bay Travel coach, and head for Pitlochry, where cream scones and jam were waiting for us at the Atholl Palace Hotel. Washed down with hot coffee and tea, those delicious scones set our group up for the ‘long and winding road’ to our main visit of the day – the famous, perhaps infamous, battlefield of Culloden.

An extremely tasty lunch of thick soup, served with a selection of sandwiches, welcomed us on arrival at Culloden, this hearty meal fortifying us all for what was to be a bracing walk around Culloden’s battlefield, more because of the snell wind than the amount of ground to be covered!  The wonderful new Information Centre took most of us by surprise.  On opposite sides of the central exhibition hall details of opposing Jacobite and Hanoverian standpoints were clearly set out.   Pertinent exhibits and quotes from the main players of the time guided us through the story of the lead up to the battle, through which the Jacobite forces led by Bonnie Prince Charlie intended to put the Stuart dynasty back on the throne.

An immersive experience awaited all who entered a room with no furnishings and only screens for walls.  It soon became apparent that the purpose of this space was to provide the visitor with a sense of being present on the battlefield.  Participants stood in the middle of this darkened space, and whichever way we looked, there were images of either Jacobites or Hanoverians facing us and other, weapons poised and in full use.  It felt chilling and uncomfortable to be standing in what felt like a windswept, noisy, bleak and cold place.  It provided an unsettling sense of what it must have been like to be present on Drummossie Moor on 16th April 1746.  Luckily for us we were only spectators.

In another area stood a large tabletop battle plan, which viewed from above, gave a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield, complete with both sets of troops, miniaturised.  As the figures moved into play it was possible to watch how the battle played out.  It made it possible to realise how the Jacobite cause was doomed from the start.  Indeed the Jacobites lost around 1500 men while the opposition lost relatively few men, and all this happened in little over 1 hour.

Photo of the clan grave markers at Culloden
Clan grave markers at Culloden

Outside, a charming young French guide took the group I joined around part of the field, and slowly the tragedy which was Culloden unfolded as we listened intently.  The Jacobite army, utterly exhausted after having walked for many miles before the battle, were also cold and hungry, having had only a biscuit for sustenance.  They stood little chance against the well-fed, well-rested and well-prepared Hanoverian forces led by the man who was later to be known as ‘Butcher Cumberland’.  Interestingly, this was his only military success, and the relentless pursuit of surviving Jacobites and their supporters was what was to give him this title.  

Stones act as grave markers for some of the clans, although it must have been impossible to clearly identify many of the dead at the time.  Regardless of this, these markers sitting silently in this wind-swept and bleak territory evoke an eerie atmosphere, as if the emotive atmospheric aftermath of the battle has never evaporated.  As well as marking places of burial, these stones tragically and symbolically mark the beginning of the end of the old Highland way of life.

Following what could be a rather harrowing visit, our group of somewhat silenced travellers headed off to our hotel, the Coylumbridge, near Aviemore, to spend a comfortable evening in its restaurant, bar and generous lounge area.  Later in the evening a local young musician and his guitar provided an eclectic mix of music, from country to pop to rock, and the evening was spent pleasantly by all, while the weather remained a little cool and changeable, but we were all safely indoors, so the weather didn’t matter did it!  An evening well spent with lots of conversation (and a little booze)!

Photo of the Coylumbridge Hotel
Coylumbridge Hotel

Best bits of Day 1: for me, the time spent at Culloden itself, especially the guide who outlined the fate of those unfortunate post-battle Jacobite prisoners.

Day 2 : Bright-eyed and bushy tailed after (for most of us!) a good night’s sleep, and a good breakfast, we set off for the Black Isle.

First stop was Fortrose, an attractive little village with the remnants of a once-magnificent cathedral, which we spent a short time exploring.  Interestingly, this cathedral had a connection with Dunfermline, since here we learned that Sir Andrew Murray or Moray, Guardian of Scotland and son of the man who fought alongside William Wallace at Stirling Bridge, had originally been buried here before being reburied in Dunfermline Abbey.  Well, you learn something new every day!

Time to move on!  Several minutes later we arrived in Rosemarkie, a very pretty village indeed, with a beautiful beach and nice views out on to the Moray Firth.  From the beach we could see groups of people standing on Chanonry Point, hopeful of sighting some dolphins, but we shall never know just how successful they were!  Across the firth lay Fort George, reminding many of us of a very cold day on a much earlier DHS trip, when our intrepid band spent a day there, feeling somewhat windswept and chilled, and very nearly with no lunch to boot, since the catering team there had noted the wrong date for our visit!  We survived, however, to view the Fort from across the water! Tempting though it was to spend time here scanning the waters for dolphins (or even going for a somewhat chilly paddle), the group fanned out in their chosen directions to spend their allotted 2 hours. 

  • Photo of Rosemarkie Beach
    Rosemarkie Beach

Now, what to do, what to do?!  A cafe in either direction, a museum, perhaps a shop or two (all of which seemed to be closed! Really – no need to shut up shop – we’re not that scary a bunch!)  Maybe just a stroll to start off with – I joined various people who wanted to investigate the Fairy Falls – well, if looking for fairies is what floats your boat – this was the perfect place to do it!  By now the sun was shining so a group of us set off at a trot to find this location and after some time found ourselves on a woodland walk along a stream wending its way past us down to the firth.  After a short while we came across the Fairy Dell – a delight for children (I won’t mention the names of any adults who were equally delighted – but I think it made their day!)  Time for some photos.

The Fairy Falls themselves were a bit further on, and recent rains had made some of the path difficult to negotiate if you had forgotten your wellies (and all of us had!) so since time was marching on we managed to return to the village in a fit state before heading on foot for the small but beautiful Groam House Museum.  Now, this museum may have been small (hardly big enough to swing a mouse in, and certainly not a cat!), but was packed with many interesting things. An audio-visual presentation introduced the core topic of the museum – the Picts and their carved stones.  Indeed, the main exhibit was impossible to miss – the Rosemarkie Stone – a beautiful and elaborately carved sandstone slab from the 8th century, bearing a cross on either side, a number of Pictish symbols, and many intricate interlace patterns.  Artist George Bain (1881-1968), who was an art teacher at Kirkcaldy High School for a time, had been fascinated by the intricacy of Pictish designs, and as a result spent much of his life studying such designs and attempting to decipher how the patterns were put together.  The outcome of his labours, his book ‘Celtic Art – The Methods of Construction’ would make a useful reference book and aid for those artists whose work is based on this type of intricate mathematical design. The tiny upstairs room in Groam House contained an exhibition by other artists whose work is based on that of George Bain, while outside the building, walls decorated with mosaics added another dimension to the place, along with its tiny giftshop.

  • Photo of Fortrose Cathedral
    Fortrose Cathedral

Time to move on again – this time to Cromarty.  Leaving the fairies (aw, shame!), beaches and Pictish stones behind, our coach made the short journey to the final visit of the day.  In Cromarty our group were once more free to ‘do their own thing’, but on arrival down on Cromarty’s links no-one was particularly keen to leave the coach, as the rain which had been threatening on and off, now decided this was the moment to strike!  And did it strike!  Our group hung off for a few minutes, after which the rain did abate somewhat, giving us time to leave in search of sustenance!  A quick dash around by the vanguard group, of which I was part, soon established which eaterie seemed the best place to lunch, and we descended en masse on the unsuspecting Royal Hotel, where an extremely scrumptious lunch was enjoyed by all!  With sides heaving (how are we now going to face a 3-course dinner tonight then?) everyone set off in search of whatever took their interest, street maps of Cromarty clutched in their hands.

  • Photo of Hugh Miller's Cottage
    Hugh Miller's Cottage

Probably the main point of interest was the birthplace and museum on Hugh Miller, a man of many interests and talents.  As a boy he spent many hours observing nature and he discovered numerous fossils in the area, later becoming a renowned geologist and naturalist.  He was a stonemason, and an accountant locally before becoming editor of ‘The Witness’, an evangelical newspaper, and he was instrumental in ‘The Disruption’ which led to the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland.  His birthplace and museum were packed with information and exhibits, many illustrating points along the way in his life, including a letter from Charles Darwin, and very many of his fossil finds.  There were also beautiful gardens to wander through.  Here could be found various artists’ sculptures based on Miller’s work and interests, along with one exercise for visitors to find a peregrine falcon, which turned out to be subtly hidden in a plaque quoting Miller’s astute words ‘Learn to make a right use of your eyes’. Sure enough, the outline of the bird lay behind the words.

The Cromarty Courthouse was another possible venue to visit, and close by stood the Hugh Miller Institute. And here we found a second link with Dunfermline, as below the building’s title appeared the words ‘The gift of Andrew Carnegie’.

Cromarty is a delightful little town, and the four hours we spent there passed all too quickly. There were curious little alleyways (and giftshops!) to pass, and as the sun put in an appearance during the afternoon, it was a pleasure to do so.  Theaward-winning Cheese Shop provided another interesting stop, with hard-to-resist products on offer, its model windmill and pretty flowered alleyway!

  • Photo of the Cromarty Cheese Shop

Finally it was back to the bus and a picturesque return tour through the Black Isle by a different route, eventually leading us back to the Coylumbridge, a rest, and another three course evening meal, rounded off by an obligatory sampling of the bar’s (rather expensive!) wares!  And lots more conversation!

Best bits of Day 2: for me.  Well that’s a hard one – all 3 places we visited were lovely.  Rosemarkie’s pretty beach and Groam House; Cromarty’s Hugh Miller’s cottage and garden, and those lovely little streets leading round by the sea.

Day 3. After a more restrained breakfast I joined everyone on the coach with a slightly heavy heart.  Not heavy for long though. The sight of Cawdor Castle’s grounds held great promise, and indeed it proved to be another great visit.

This is a castle which DHS committee have long hoped to visit, however, since our overnight trips always took place in April when the castle is not open to the public, until now it has never been possible.

Cawdor is simply magnificent.  As it stands today, it dates from the late 14th century, a medieval tower built round a legendary thorn tree which can still be seen growing within the castle. The original part of this building was constructed here because the Thane of Cawdor of the time had a dream in which an oracle guided him to this spot to build his new castle, and from here it has continued to develop over the centuries.

There was the usual round of beautiful rooms to work our way through, exhibiting many items of interest and curiosity, making it difficult to find one part which appeals more than another, however,  some of us found one point of interest in the kitchen.  On entering the kitchen there hung a satirical picture entitled ‘Popular Misconceptions After Dinner in the Kitchen’ showing the kitchen maid throwing all the dirty dishes down rather than washing them!  How satisfying would that be?  Especially to the kitchen maid!

  • Photo of Cawdor Castle
    Cawdor Castle

One curious point I came across (you may know by now that I am rather drawn to the curious!) concerned the goat’s head mounted on a downstairs wall, in Pets’ Corner. This goat had been shot by Colonel Ian Campbell near Cawdor, but it seems that the 5th Earl Cawdor owned a favourite goat called Albert, which had a habit of consuming ivy.  On Sundays, apparently, Albert was given a special treat – a packet of Player’s Medium Navy Cut cigarettes!  He started by eating the cigarettes, then the packet, before finally chewing up the silver paper!  Sounds like a recipe for disaster – which it eventually was!  His indiscriminate tastes eventually led him to down a gallon of red-lead paint primer which not surprisingly led to his demise!

  • Photo of a Cawdor Castle bedroom
    Cawdor Castle Bedroom

Passing through the ubiquitous giftshop led us all back to the great outdoors. And what an outdoors it turned out to be!  A series of photographs could describe the garden better than I ever could, so here we are: there were 3 gardens in all, but most of us only found time to take in 2.  There were woodland walks too, but time was too short to explore all there was to see, and it was with great reluctance that we all boarded the bus to make the lengthy journey to Perth, where we had our final meal, a high tea at the Salutation Hotel.

But before we left the area completely, we made a short stop at Clava Cairns, an enigmatic ancient site which brought to mind the DHS visit to Kilmartin Glen some years ago.  Here was a well-preserved Bronze Age cemetery complex of passage graves, cairns and standing stones, in such a beautiful place, making a fitting final visit for a Historical Society.

Photo of Clava Cairns
Clava Cairns

On the return journey, our driver Martin turned on a tape which took many of us way back, with long-gone sangsters such as Andy Stewart belting out long-unheard numbers such as ‘Scottish Soldier’.  Most of us travellers were looking for a peaceful drive home, mulling over the sights we’d seen and conversations we’d held, but before long we found ourselves unable to resist joining in with the once-so-familiar words to these songs of yesteryear!  It was a nice touch.

Best bits of Day 3 – for me, the gardens at Cawdor Castle, especially that wonderful sculpture which doubled as a bird-feeder!

Best bits of the trip: again, I can only speak for myself – it’s hard to say – but although Culloden was very atmospheric and memorable, Rosemarkie and Cromarty really spoke to me, and Cawdor’s gardens were simply spectacular.  And once again, the company was great!