A colorful recounting of Days 3-6 of my Scottish holiday to weave my travel adventures into the fabric of history.
After two nights in Edinburgh, I received a message at my inn from a lad about 14, who was covered in flour and looking like he’d just come from the bakers shop. I took the message from his dusty hands while admiring his multi-colored tweed hat. I handed him 30 pounds in exchange for the hat and sent him on his way. He scampered off looking wide-eyed left and right as if every shadowy corner posed some new threat to rob him of his unexpected gain. I raised one suspicious eyebrow, snorted, and carefully opened the folded note. As I read the text, I suddenly wished I had the 30 quid back so my daughter and I could flee the country. In very legible script, the note simply read, “Come at once to Inverness!” and there below it could have been the very signature on my death certificate, “Charles P.R.” I felt my stomach start to implode.
With no time to explain to my daughter, we took our carriage up the A9 towards Pitlochry. I double checked my iPhone several times along the way. April 1746… how could this be? We did not go directly into Pitlochry because I was not sure if the town was Jacobite or Loyalist. So we decided to spend the night at a B&B a few miles outside of town, which would bring us a measure of unforeseen good fortune. Later that evening, I prepared a trip into town.
“Dad, why are we going into town?”
“Reconnaissance, hunnie. I heard about two distilleries there that could give us some tips on the whereabouts of the Duke of Cumberland’s army.”
“Who is the Duke of Cumberland?”
“He’s the guy trying to catch Bonnie Prince Charlie and why our lives are in grave danger.”
Regrettably, neither the Bell or Edradour distilleries could deliver any critical intel. But the Blair Atholl single malt had a nice caramel aroma and smooth finish. Edradour was not serving so I bought a small bottle for warmth as I knew we had many miles to travel and there was a bitter chill in the air.
The following morning, our B&B hostess heard of our plans to go thru the Cairngorms on our way to Inverness. Although she didn’t say, she must have been a Jacobite. She pointed to our map and advised us to bypass the Queen’s residence at Balmoral Castle and the Loyalist town of Balleter and take the mountain pass at Crathie towards Tomintoul.
As we drove thru the majestic Cairngorms, we had our first impression of the Highlands. Tall mountains, smoothed with heather in various shades of green giving some of the hills a quilt-like appearance. Vast valleys separated the mountains while small streams meandered thru them like the highway we were traveling. Sheep were scattered everywhere, often precariously in the most impossible but beautiful locations. A single ruined stone farmhouse engulfed by lush green, an isolated tree standing on a hill without a single partner for miles, everywhere I looked it was all so magnificent. I could hardly comprehend the beauty at a time of such turmoil in Scotland. The fate of those supporting the Prince’s father, King James VII, perhaps Scotland’s freedom itself, would be decided within a couple days. I felt a rush of adrenaline as I recalled how the King was deposed in 1688 and replaced by the Dutchman William III of Orange. It was all a Protestant scheme to rid the country of its religious tolerance and to a greater degree, it’s Catholicism. I tried to put my mind on the task at hand, but a tall chimney and “Glen Livet” sign caused me to detour. If this could be the last single malt I ever tasted, you couldn’t do much better than a Glen Livet.
During several hours of driving, we somehow managed to avoid all signs of the English army. About 6pm that evening, we arrived safely at our Inverness B&B. Not so far from there, we had a fateful meeting with the Prince Regent at the Waterfront pub. He advised us to go on a recruiting mission to the south – down the A82 to Fort Augustus.
The next morning we set off and arrived first at Glen Urquhart. I followed the road to where I had heard the castle stood, but what I found rattled my bones like a smith’s hammer. There on an outcrop lay the ruins of a once great castle. Only the tower and part of the entry gate were recognizable. I felt hope fade as I walked the grounds in search of an explanation when I came upon an old farmer putting some of the fallen stones on a cart. I think he sensed my heartbreak and puzzlement. Without prompting, he looked up from his labor and explained to me that in 1690, the Jacobites laid siege to this castle but were defeated. The victorious soldiers, rather than stick around and see if their luck would continue to hold up, razed the castle to the ground and fled. I tipped my multi-colored tweed baker boy hat and went on my way to Fort Augustus.
Fort Augustus was named after the Duke of Cumberland, William Augustus, so we proceeded cautiously into the village. No one gave us a second glance and we found ourselves at a small sandwich shop. To my relief, Fort Augustus had been captured by the Jacobites exactly one year ago in April 1745. I issued the Prince’s message of recruitment, and we spent a few minutes admiring the Caledonian canal, which wouldn’t be commissioned for another 60 years.
Rather than take the main highway back to Inverness, we looped around to the east side of Loch Ness and took the less traveled route. The reward was some breathtaking scenery. So beautiful in fact that we pulled down a small road towards Lake Killin to take a short hike. Our justification for this diversion was that we might spot an English camp or troop movement. From the road, the heather covered hills look smooth and easy of foot. We soon found that we couldn’t have been more wrong. Heather covers the ground in loose knit mounds (which look tightly knit from a distance) and in between those mounds are hidden pools of mud. We did manage to climb to the top of a hill but not a single English soldier was in sight. So with soggy feet, we went back to our carriage and within our souls, we felt the battle drums begin.
By the time we arrived at Culloden Moor, the battlefield was already cleared of its dead. Fortunately we were given free audioguides so that we might recap the events that occurred earlier that day. Between 1500-2000 Jacobite soldiers were killed in about one hour. Only 50 of the Government Army were confirmed dead. Bonnie Prince Charlie was able to escape and would go into hiding. If we wanted to survive, I knew we also had to get out of Inverness. So the very next morning, we escaped in our carriage, direction Isle of Skye.
Rather than take the popular routes A82 and A87, we decided to take the A835 and A832 hoping to avoid the Duke of Cumberland’s army which would surely be looking to crush the remaining supporters of James VII. Again, in a time of crisis we found ourselves in a wonderland of green velvety mountains and valleys covered in mist and reflected in its clear, pristine lochs. It was difficult to believe we were running for our lives.
Within a few hours we crossed the Skye Bridge and hopefully into a safe haven. The island itself was like a condensed version of the Highlands – monumental mountains, winding roads, and glorious vistas. By the time we arrived in the main town of Portree, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The wind was fierce, the clouds hung so low that even the Old Man of Storr formation was barely a silhouette, and the rain forced thru even the most water repellent material in seconds. About two-thirds of the way around the Isle of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula, we discovered that a local resident named Flora McDonald gave refuge to Bonnie Prince Charlie in June 1746 and helped him escape Scotland. Within a few minutes of this discovery, we pulled our carriage up to our next B&B.
Holidays are so much more fun when I take a step out of time and connect with the history of a place. And if there are few pilgrimages on the way, it’s even better. Cheers!