Monday, 15 June 2009

Road from the Isles: Charlie never left

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Silvester Severino Maria Stuart has a lot to answer for. Throughout history, that pestilent albatross they call the Auld Alliance has always been a one way ticket to certain disaster for the Scots. He came as Teàrlach Eideard Stiùbhairt; he lost as The Young Pretender; and he left as Betty Burke.
What makes a nation take up the sword and follow a stranger blindly to the death?
The answer is three-fold: desperation, repression and nationalism. The 18th century Jacobites were in dire need of a cause. Harried and butchered by the Hanoverians who were desperate to hold onto their fragile throne through the violent quelling of all dissidence, Charlie saw a way of claiming his regal birthright through the strength of the White Rose Highland clans. He almost made it. After the success of Prestonpans he led his victorious armies as far south as Derbyshire and, when the news reached London, the Of Oranges were already packing their bags (or at least getting their servants to do it for them).
Whatever happened after that time to the mighty Jacobite armies can be put down to a chain of misfortune: the long trudge northwards, the faint hearts of the French allies and the multiple skewering on the fields of Culloden should have taught the Bravehearts of the Highlands that Charlie was an indefensible cause. The prince’s hasty retreat attired from head to toe in Flora MacDonald’s skirts should really have been the last straw for a hot-blooded Highlander charged with dangerous levels of testosterone.
But the pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth, are higher rank than a' that — and there’s the rub. Standing in front of the Glenfinnan monument, the stone effigy of an unnamed Highlander keeps an eternal watch over Glen Sheil and the place where a young royal general once raised his standard and called the Jacobites to arms. His sword, almost cool in the sheath, could easily be a staff. He comes in peace, but readied for action in case he is once again summoned to defend his lands.
The fact that Charles Edward Stuart is not standing there is a poignant reminder that the ’45 was possibly not actually about him. The exiled Young Pretender was simply a mascot. It didn’t matter whether he fought beside his followers or preferred to flee the battle for fear of laddering his tights, Bonnie Prince Charlie was the physical embodiment of the pride and passion of a nation and the Glenfinnan monument is an eternal reminder that the Scots never really did lose Scotland. These lands will always remain in the hearts and minds of its people, the true flower of Scotland, and Charlie’s ghost will never leave the glens so long as there remains the stomach for a fight.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Road to the Isles: Part III - Back on track

There is no doubt in my mind that the best way to travel the Highlands is with a tent. Only under the cover of canvas can you hear the whisper of the wind; know the sound of heavy rain; and become familiar with the call of the stag or the cry of patrolling eagles across the glens. Forced outdoors, a sunset becomes an emotion and the sight of those far Cuillins standing in the mist across a sparkling sea is a life-defining experience.
Of course, living on a campsite does have its downfalls but most of these can be overcome with a bit of careful planning: lots of waterproof clothing, a good quality blow-up bed, a bottle or two of midge repellent and a few buckets of good quality Cava.
Leaving Loch Sunart, the A861 heads northwards from Salen, bends east at the mouth of Loch Shiel, continues west again along the shores of Loch Moidart (of the Seven Men fame); northwards through Glen Uig; then straight on beside Loch Ailort where it reaches the A803 Mallaig to Fort William road “by Aillort and by Morar to the sea” and straight on 'til morning.
This is ancient country where the MacDonalds of ClanRanald once ruled its rugged shores until the outcomes of their allegiance to a certain Bonnie Prince forced many of them to pack their claymores and flee. Moidart is the place where Charlie took his first steps on Scottish mainland soil. Later on he would rally the clans in a place not far from here; and later again he would leave them dying in a field at Culloden and sneak off back to France via Skye, vanquished, demoralised and experimenting with transvestism.
This route takes in a bleak landscape with few tourist-friendly tracks and does not attract many hillwalkers as there are no munroes in the area to wear out the enormous tread of the extreme yomping fraternities.
Once on the A803, you can put your foot down and head up to the end of the journey: the tiny port of Mallaig with uninteruppted views across the sea to Skye.

There is obvious evidence of regeneration cash being thrown into this more affluent area of the Highlands. Many new and half-built houses dot the landscape, especially around the shoreline of Morar Sands, which has a sea-side resort feel to it. The angry grey skies and the choppy waters of the Sound of Sleat, however, are a cold reminder that these lands do not domesticate easily.
Mallaig is a bit like Oban in miniature inasmuch as it exploits its Scottish fishing port status to the extreme. Here every restaurant and cafe will boast fresh fish and chips - even the Indian restaurant - and some will go as far as elevating themselves above their rivals by claiming that they are the best. A word of advice without giving free advertising: the best fish and chips in Mallaig can be found at the back of a restaurant in a tiny close through a side door just off the high street. Trust me.
I suppose that a Road to the Isles traveller normally intends to cross the sea to seek out the blue islands from the Skerries to the Lews, Wi' heather honey taste upon each name. For me, however, this was the end of the line on a journey that opened the eyes as well as the heart. It re-affirmed the powerful adoration that the Scots hold for their land and the significance of belonging.
For a nation which has lost its lands to more powerful neighbours throughout history, the importance of reclaiming it, wee bit by wee bit, can never be properly appreciated until you are actually standing beneath the protective shade of a frowning mountain and know that you are home.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Road to the Isles: Part II — Side-tracked

Getting to grips with Gaelic place names is part of the fun of travelling in the Highlands. Guessing the pronunciation of the jumble of letters on the road signs from the car when it’s raining certainly beats a game of I Spy. There are solid sets of paradigms to the Scottish Gaelic language but the inflection, morphemes and affixes to each word comprise lengthy sets of vowels and consonants in no particular order making articulation by a non-Gaelic speaker a lexicon nightmare, but a real bonus for Gaelic contestants on Countdown.
Beginning in Fort William and stretching across some of the UK’s most dramatic scenery, the A803, or Road to the Isles as it is affectionately known, is 42 miles of rich living narrative dating back to pre-history and the very beginnings of the Earth. It is an ancient place where dark, craggy peaks reach up to bite the skyline from wide, sweeping glens flooded with water deeper than the mountains that enfold them. It is a most beautiful, undisciplined wilderness and man’s attempts to tame it has resulted in dots and lines of tarmac, stone dykes and scattered villages scratching its surface. The crumbling crofts and mosaic scars of disused roads are evidence that, if left alone, the landscape eventually heals itself.
Travelling along the northern shore of Loch Eil, however, somehow 30 miles or so does not feel long enough. A quick glance at the map will tell you that there are actually two heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles: one that will take you to Mallaig within two shakes of the cromak and the other that requires more than a bit of braggart in your step.
Take a left some 10 miles out of Fort William and you are on the A861 in the parish of Moidart, the road that runs south along the western shores of Loch Eil, into Strontiam, through the picturesque Sunart glen and bends northwards before the Ardnamurchan peninsula, Corrachadh Mòr being the most westerly point of mainland Britain.
Having learned a bit of Gaelic through a day or so playing with road signs, I called this road Àite de móran aite seachnaidh (my humble apologies to any Gaelic speakers who are outraged by my terrible grasp of the language) but I hope it translates to “place of many passing places” — don’t ask me how to pronounce it. The A861 is a single track road that winds up and bends down then winds up and down again before it bends along the sides of the lochs. If you meet any traffic coming the other way, need to stop to take in the beauty of the sparkling water and silent mountains, or need a pee, there are loads of passing places (although it is advised that you should not stop at a passing place for the latter two reasons).
Although Loch Sunart is a pretty place, with lots to see, there are few places to eat and little to do there, unless you are into watersports and sheep.
The Ardnamurchan Peninsula is much more dramatic and faithful to the romanticism of a Highland wilderness, the road narrower and the passing places more scattered. It is here that a traveller can drive across ancient volcanic craters and reach one of the most staggeringly beautiful beaches in the world: Sanna Sands.
Dotted with a few tiny crofts and enfolded by dark mountains, a long walk across the protective dunes opens out into a breathtaking sandy beach, so stunning that it could be in the Caribbean if the rain were not shampooing your hair with sand and the wind not blowdrying it into a mass of matted dune grass.
But, then, this is Scotland: it is an experience rather than a holiday and being here is a privilege and never a claim.
Slainte mhath

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Road to the Isles: Part I - Sense of Place

McIain’s restless soul
In such a wide and diverse world, what makes an individual feel truly at home? I believe that a sense of place is inherited and is carried down through generations by nurture and genetics.
I grew up in London with a live-in grandmother. She survived to the age of 92 and was a fiercely patriotic Macdonald whose ancestors she told me were ousted from their battlements in Argyll and forced to settle for a more humble lifestyle in and around Lochaber. Janet Eton Macdonald would have rather entertained an infestation of rats in her home than patronise a dreaded Campbell. Her nemesis clan she believed slaughtered the entire Macdonald population in their beds during a fateful winter’s night in Glencoe. It’s funny how she failed to appreciate that the Macdonalds actually ousted the MacDougalls from their ancestral home in the first place and at least one Macdonald must have survived the slaughter in order to procreate and eventually produce her.
The truth is that McIain’s clan was not murdered to every man, woman and child but possibly up to 40 were killed by their treacherous assailants and another 30 or so died of exposure when fleeing into the snow. It is not until you reach the glen that the full extent of the tragedy that took place on the 12th February 1691 really hits home. Irrespective of body counts, Glencoe is a place that retains its sorrow in its dour rock faces and tumbling falls. Like my grandmother, its outrage is inherent, it does not forgive and looms as the physical incarnation of McIain’s restless soul.
Following the road north-west through the desolate boggy moorlands of Rannoch Moor, the grim mountains glower down at strangers like giant sentinels, their granite arms firmly crossed. Never did a mountain say “sod off” more than Buachaille Etive Mor and it is with great awe and trepidation that a brave traveller slips quietly through these gargantuan walls of rock to take a long exhale at the open mouth of Loch Leven.
Glencoe is not a place for the faint of heart. Although its scenery is spectacular in every way a landscape can be, it can be hostile and ferocious to the unwary. The rain is often horizontal; the midges have soft wings but a hard bite. It is true to say that kill one of them and thousands will turn up for the funeral. Many come to the glen to pursue radical outdoor activities, braving the crumbling scree, the ice and the sharp teeth of the mountains in order to find white-knuckle adventure.
Me though, I like to visit Glencoe at least once every couple of years to experience that wonderful sense of belonging. When it rains, I wear waterproofs; if the midges are particularly angry, I stay in the car. If god intended me to climb mountains, He would have given me a set of cloven hooves, a spectacular goatee and a penchant for wild scrub. Looking out over the dark water to McIain’s Isle, surrounded by angry mountains iced with black thunder clouds I feel an all-consuming pride to just be part of it.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Most daunted

OUT of a haze of moonlight, a frowning mansion towered in the gloom at the end of a dark drive.
Banshees shrieked from shadowy rafters and ghostly silhouettes flitted across the ancient stonework as a heavy door creaked open.
Two tiny journalists held their breaths and resisted the temptation to run for their lives.
Like the opening scene of a vintage horror movie, they half expected a hairy gnarled hand to curl around the door and shake out their souls.
“Are you here for the Raehills Fright Night?”, asked a cheery voice. “I’m Allan from the Anthony Nolan Trust. Welcome. Hope the peacocks didn’t spook you too much!”
Stepping into Raehills, stately home of the Earls of Annandale and family seat of the Johnstone clan, it was not difficult to imagine why the trust had organised its latest fundraising fright night for courageous ghost hunters there.
Johnstone ancestors glowered from the walls, their disapproving eyes following the large group of strangers to the stately drawing room where the Lord and Lady; TV medium Derek Acorah; the Borders Paranormal Group; and Dumfries’ own Mostly Ghostly were waiting to host a spirited evening of spooky activity to entertain the living visitors — all hoping to catch a glimpse of Raehill’s infamous Green Lady who stalks the upstairs corridors.
But the audience was in for a shock when Mr Acorah announced that there was more than just the spirit of a lady to contend with.
“I am picking up five individual spirit people,” he said, “as well as some residual energy in this house. Bless them.”
Derek told his audience that there were two women and three men, before he also picked up on the presence of a mischievous child. A light tapping on the door at that moment confirmed that, living or dead, at least something was listening.
“Elisia and Anne,” Derek called the women’s names. He later described two men, William and John, who were in "visitation" together. He gave a date of 1867. He also said that there was another male presence, at least 100 years older, who was a lot meaner than the others: “he had an attitude to show anger in his day,” was the chilling description.
A few members of the audience were given messages from their deceased relatives — most reporting to be uncannily accurate — before everyone re-grouped in a room in the labyrinthine cellars, aptly named Ghost Central, to be given their itinerary for the evening — a ghost hunt and night vigil to find the lurking phantoms.
Armed with night vision cameras, electro magnetic flux (EMF) metres, a few dousing rods, some crystals and a large portion of courage, the visitors were split up into smaller groups and each accompanied to certain parts of the house by members of the Borders Paranormal Group and Mostly Ghostly to begin their investigations.
Blithe spirits or Scotch mist? To the sceptics, the evening was inconclusive. To the believers, the night revealed some real evidence of paranormal activity.
Fortunately for the most daunted, the spirits were reasonably quiet on the night but no one went home disappointed.
A light trail was recorded on one of the cameras close to where the Green Lady had been seen; an EMF metre was drained of battery power before it was put to use; a glass moved four or five inches during a divining session in the library; there were some inexplicable knocks and bumps around the house; cold spots; and sudden, strong smells of pipe smoke and lavender in some of the rooms.
This was all just as well, since no one really wants to be scared out of their wits on a Friday night and the event ended peacefully in the early hours of the morning as a hazy rain fell.