Ghosts of the Past
A visit to Inverness wouldn’t be complete without a trip north east to Drumossie Moor, the site of the Battle of Culloden. In fact, visiting Culloden was one of the main reasons for coming to Inverness, given I wasn’t planning to search sincerely for a glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster.
I enjoyed a morning without a plan, popped over to Nairn to buy a phone from Sainsbury’s for Uncle Jimmy, then made my way there, stopping, as always, for photos that don’t look nearly as special as the places that inspired me to tear suddenly into a rocky farm-gate entrance to take them. Please try to appreciate the bridge in the second one…it was simply gorgeous.
The Visitor’s Centre at Culloden is excellent, as I have come to expect from the places of interest managed by the National Trust for Scotland. It has the standard cafe and gift shop, but also an immersive museum, and a series of tours and re-enactments that occur throughout the day. Re-enactments aren’t really my thing (or so I figured) so I elected to just make my own way around. I do wish I’d had a go at the headset though, because there was an awful lot of reading to be done.
The museum is outstanding. It is possible to follow the progression of events in the time leading up to the battle from both the English and the Jacobite perspectives. At various intervals, the sides are then represented together. For example, you can walk down a Jacobite section of wall, reading quotes and letters and seeing artefacts of the time, interspersed with a history lesson, then go back and walk down an English section of wall which does the same, before both come together in, for example, a sound exhibit…and repeat.
Photography wasn’t permitted in many sections, but it isn’t the sort of thing that photographs well anyway. I loved this sketch of a tired highlander though, drawn by an unknown Penicuik artist in 1745.
When it comes to the battle, and its wheres, whys and hows, it really is a complicated web of politics and religion, as wars often are. The things that really hit you in the gut though, are the bloodiness of the battle, with around 1500 Jacobites losing their lives in the space of an hour (700 were thought to have died in three minutes), and that the Battle of Culloden marked the end of the Highland Clans, with laws being passed soon after that banned the wearing of clan colours and the carrying of weapons, and marginalised the Gaelic language. It was the literal end of an era for Scotland.
After I had read, and seen, and heard everything on offer, including artefacts from the battleground, a film of musket balls tearing into blocks of gelatine, and a projected re-enactment of the battle on four walls, that had me spinning around in horror, and ultimately fighting to hold back tears, I was turfed out of the museum and onto the site of the battle.
And it made for thoughtful afternoon.
I walked down the length of the red English line (which is deceptive, because there were plenty of Scots in there too), marked by flags, then across and down the length of the blue Jacobite line, before doubling back and walking through the graves and by the cairn.
The first thing that hit me when I had positioned myself within the area, was the sheer size of it. I don’t think I had actually considered how much space is required for thousands of men to fight in a battle. And reading about it, or seeing references on television, is completely different to standing where a soldier likely stood, looking over to where his opposition likely stood, marked by a flag on the opposite side of the moor.
And it seems inconceivable, after the volume of information in the museum, but I think it was this muddy section of the path that gave me the strongest sense of what it must have been like, particularly when I read a nearby plaque that described the ground today as being much drier than it would have been back then. Imagine being awake all night, having little to eat, then having to run across this enormous moor, through bog, carrying a heavy highland broadsword.
As always, I am moved by personal touches, with many appearing around the grave markers and stones, which were laid in 1881, over 130 years after the battle. With an anniversary not long past, the wreaths around the cairn still retained their colour, although I suspect the flowers around the Fraser stone might have more to do with Outlander’s fictional Jamie Fraser, than the actual clan. I wonder how they feel about that.
And whilst I baulk at damage being done to a National Trust plaque, something in me loves that the phrase, ‘or perhaps he was fleeing the battlefield’, has been vigorously scratched from this one.
It’s quiet and sombre here, and there really is a feeling of…something, in the air. I’m not sure what. Perhaps it is just the personal weight of knowing you are walking beside the long-gone remains of hundreds of men who died amidst such horror. After visiting this battlefield, though, I’m definitely closer to believing I walked amongst Jacobite spirits than sailed over a giant loch monster.
After picking up some thistled socks in the gift shop (foot socks with hiking boots does not a hiker make), I headed to Clava Cairns, the 4000-year-old stone burial chambers that are close by. These are thought to be the stones that modelled those that transported Claire into a highland past in Outlander, and are therefore pretty popular with tourists these days, all touching the stones and hoping to nab themselves a kilted warrior.
They are INCREDIBLE. And completely unattended, which disturbed me somewhat. I felt like taking up a spot beside them and telling visitors, in a grave tone, to mind their step and be light of touch. And if you think I’m being too harsh, keep in mind that I have just seen a man throwing balls for his dog across Drumossie Moor, so I wouldn’t put it past anyone to tuck a stone into a backpack as a memento.
They are so much bigger than I expected. This cairn, one of three, has a pathway that leads you into its centre and, when standing inside, it is a couple of feet taller than me.
The second is lower, but has a stone path leading from a standing stone to its edge, and another, much smaller, cairn nearby, which is said to have been laid a thousand years later.
A thousand years. So, recently then.
Clava Cairns is incredibly evocative. It made me want to run around in a white sheath (without a bra) at dawn, and worship the beams of sunlight that no doubt break through and light up the stones on occasion.
I touched one. Gently.
After resisting the urge to have a could-turn-into-bedtime nap, I walked into town to have dinner at MacGregor’s, at their renowned ‘Sunday Session’, where owner and fiddler extraordinaire from the Blazin’ Fiddles, Bruce MacGregor, is often there (if you’re lucky) to lead the assembly of musicians. When I arrived, they were in full swing.
Here, I met this fabulous couple, Cameron and Diego, from Manchester, over a spilt beer and an eventual (coveted) shared table. After hearing that I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between beer and lager, one-time microbrewer Cameron (his beer was called Juggernaut…best name) decided I could do with a crash course. Here is my line; Porter, India Pale Ale and Scottish Lager. I can hardly believe how different they are were. I have work to do in the beer and whiskey games, and don’t anticipate a bout of temperance anytime soon.
By the time this gent started serenading us, I was well sozzled, and failed to order my mussels for dinner before the kitchen closed, leading to us changing locations so we could order (yet another) fry-up dinner. I was sad to leave his voice…
…but glad to hear, ‘a bottle of your cheapest white wine!‘, from Cameron to the barman at location number two. It paired beautifully with the oil. As did the revelations we all made about ourselves that strangers really have no business knowing. I cried a few drunken tears of gratitude for their openness on my walk home.
And that was that.
Farewell to Inverness. To generous hosts, impressively Scottish steps (look closely), clear rivers, new friends…and old ghosts.