Thursday, 28 December 2017

A field of battle

Coming north from a family party, we left the motorway and happened on a small village called Clifton.
A sign informed us it was the site of the last battle on English soil.
The retreating Jacobite army of Bonnie Prince Charlie was being pursued by the Hanoverian forces of the Duke of Cumberland and General Wade.

The house where the Duke of Cumberland is said to have stayed

A rear-guard action was fought by the Macdonells of Glengarry, the Clan Macpherson and the Stewarts of Appin, stopping the Government forces and allowing the main Jacobite host to escape.
This only delayed the inevitable as they were subsequently routed at Culloden in 1746 with the subsequent destruction of the Highland clan system in the aftermath.

Sir Walter Scott describes the battle in the novel Waverley when the eponymous hero, Edward Waverley, an Englishman, is involved in the Jacobite cause.
Waverley is pardoned for his part in the uprising but when Euan MacIvor the father of his love, the passionate Flora, is executed, she rejects Waverley. Edward later marries the sensible  Rose Bradwardine. 
Perhaps Scott was showing the  choice between the romance of the doomed Stuart cause and the stability of the Hanoverian regime.
In the novel, Scott draws upon the words of clan chief, Macpherson of Cluny in  his notes of the battle with its evocative description and the ring of the clan names and battle cries.

'The Stewarts and Macphersons marched forward at the word of command, as did the Macdonalds and MacDonnells on the right. The men on the on the right kept firing as they advanced but the Macphersons, who were on the left, soon came into contact with the English dragoons, and received the whole of their fire. Murray then drawing his sword, he cried out, "Claymore!", and, Cluny Macpherson doing the same, the Macphersons rushed down to the bottom ditch of the enclosure, and, clearing the hedges as they went, fell sword in hand upon the enemy, of whom a  number were killed at the lower ditch. The rest retreated across the moor, but received in their flight the fire of the MacDonnell of Glengarry regiment'.
Ten Government dragoons were killed and four of their officers wounded. One British dragoon is recorded as dying in Clifton several weeks later, presumably of wounds received in the battle. The dragoons killed in the battle are buried in St Cuthbert's churchyard. Near the churchyard gate is a stone commemorating the skirmish.

The only prisoner taken on the occasion was a footman of the Duke of Cumberland. This man was later sent back to his master by Charles Edward Stuart.
Motorways are great for getting from one place to another but deny us these chances for an unplanned dip into the past.
The Battle of Clifton though it was little more than a skirmish, took place two hundred and seventy two years ago tomorrow, the 29th December by the Gregorian calendar. At the time of the battle the Julian calendar was still in use so the date was recorded as December 18th, eleven days earlier. 
There would still have been time to get home to Scotland for Hogmanay though with little reason to celebrate.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A journey in the wake of Patrick Brydone....and Ulysses

Patrick Brydone, the forgotten man of the Scottish Enlightenment, was born in 1741 in our village, a son of the manse. A soldier, a pioneer in the study of electricity and magnetism and a traveller, he wrote the first readable travel book - A Tour through Sicily and Malta : in a Series of Letters to William Beckford which ran to nine editions was immensely popular and is still easily accessible to this day.
We set sail from Southampton to cruise through the Mediterranean following, at least part of his route to Sicily and Mount Etna. 
Mount Etna

In his book he describes, amongst a fund of detailed observations, such titbits as the Italian love of ice-cream and the banditti who guarded him during his stay on the island :
Criminal as they are to society in general, yet to one another and to every person who puts himself under their protection, free from every imposition.

He climbed Mount Etna describing woods with great oaks and chestnut trees up to 204 feet in circumference. Here, he had discussion with a canon, Recupero, on the time taken for soil to accumulate from lava flows and that the calculations arising from this showed that Mt Etna had been erupting for at least 14000 years. This flew in the face of Bishop Ussher’s statement based on the Bible that the world began in 4004 B.C. 

Silvestri Crater
Etna's summit beckons

Brydone’s account of this was censured by Samuel Johnson and his biographer Boswell as being anti-mosaical and he was advised to” pay more attention to the Bible.”.
David Hume, atheist, philosopher and giant of the Scottish Enlightenment praised Brydone for his geological expertise in letters to Wm Strahen
James Hutton of Siccar Point fame, the father of geology, published his Theory of the Earth in 1788. He would almost certainly have read Brydone’s Travels and would have been influenced by it.
While Mt Etna, Brydone noted that the Bishop of Catania received revenues for the sale of ice and snow to all of Sicily, Malta and part of Italy.
: “even the peasants regale themselves with ices during the summer heats […] and there is no entertainment given by the nobility of which these do not always make a principal part. When he visited the underground caves filled with ice he remarked that the peasants made the finest ice-houses: It was the peasants of Sicily who supplied ice to the confectioners, street sellers, and cafés of the island. 
At a later port of call, Venice, we had the finest ice cream I have ever tasted!

We sailed through the Straits of Messina in the footsteps or rather, the oar-sweeps of that other wanderer in the Mediterranean – Ulysses on his journey back to Ithaca.

Approaching the Straits of Messina

The twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis guarding the straits meant little to the power of mighty diesel engines but the whirling eddies created by the meeting of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas in the narrow gap would indeed have seemed like the devouring monster Charybdis to the tiny galleys of the Achaeans. Circe's advice to Ulysses to "hug Scylla's rock" held true even today as we made our passage.

The swirling eddies of Charybdis

The Rock of Scylla

Ulysses had encountered Polyphemus the Cyclops on the island and escaped by cunning after blinding the giant by driving a blazing tree trunk into his one eye.

When anchored at Taormina, his men displeased the Sun god Apollo by killing the god's cattle for food. The god was so displeased that he threatened not to shine unless they were punished by the other Olympians. Only Ulyssses survived their vengeful shipwreck.

Taormina , with the bay where Ulysses men angered Apollo ?

Brydone recalled their fate when visiting the Craeco-Roman amphitheatre at Taormina. After more than two thousand years in is still in use as a concert venue.

Mount Etna seen from the amphitheatre

While Brydone sailed on to Malta in his journeys, we docked at Venice then crossed the Adriatic to Croatia.
We returned across Homer's "wine-dark sea", passing the "floating islands of Aeolus" the god of the winds, and so to the Pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar. 

The Aeolian Islands, home of the god of the winds
Gibraltar and one of the Pillars of Hercules
Sailing into the sunset

A journey in the wake of two adventurers three thousand years apart.

Friday, 22 September 2017


Today is the autumnal equinox. The night and day are equal but because we have British Summer Time for another month, it seems to be getting dark earlier. Astronomically, it is the start of Autumn but to anyone with eyes to see, the season is half over. 

The brambles are past, the haws are red, the autumn crocuses are still blooming but not for long, the plum crop has been eaten or turned into jam and only the apples that are too high on the tree to be reached remain. They will have to wait until the equinoctial gales shake them loose.

Out of reach

The log store is stacked. The apples have been traded to the cider maker for a few bottles of last year's vintage. The jams and chutneys have been labelled and stored.

The bird feeders have been cleaned and disinfected for the winter seeds and nuts and one or two of the blue tits have been making an early inspection. The cotoneaster is laden with berries awaiting the waxwings. Will they appear this year?
The late burst of sunshine has brought out the butterflies to feed on the rotting windfalls but no wasps. Where have all the wasps gone? We have hardly seen one all summer.

Butterflies feed on the windfalls

The hedgehog has deserted the garden but he or she - it's difficult to tell with hedgehogs - is still around. I think its low profile is not due so much to imminent hibernation as to being picked up by an inquisitive collie. The hedgehog may have been a little bit miffed but there was no doubt from the yelps as to who came off worst from the encounter.

The year is on the turn and autumn, however you calculate it, is definitely here.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Macbeth Trail - Postscript

Lulach's stone, traditional site of his death near Mossat

Whether Lulach, Macbeth's stepson, fought at Lumphanan is unknown. What is known is that like the fictitious Fleance of Shakespeare's play, he escaped death at the time. Such was the prestige of Macbeth that, even after his demise, the House of Moray was powerful enough for the crown to pass to Lulach.

His is the first recorded coronation of a Scottish monarch, seated on the Stone of Destiny at Scone within a month of the defeat at Lumphanan.
In effect, Lulach was King only in the north, essentially in the old Pictish territories and of the far north and Northern Isles where there were family connections to ensure loyalty.

Lulach was nicknamed "Tairbeath", Lulach the Simple. Whether he was or not, he certainly wasn't of the same mould as his predecessor.
He was lured from the security of his home base, some say by a false promise of negotiation, to Mossat in Strathbogie on the ancient border of the lands of Moray.
Here, he was killed on the 17th March 1058 and consigned to history as a footnote. The traditional site is marked by an Iron Age standing stone of much greater antiquity so the exact circumstances of his death are unknown

Kildrummy Castle, seat of the Earls of Mar, still guards the approach to Moray

So died the last King of the House of Alpin, a dynasty which had started when Kenneth I,(Cináed mac Ailpín, Kenneth MacAlpin) became King of the Picts and Scots to form the beginnings of Alba in 843.
Lulach was also, arguably, the last King of Alba. Every monarch since Kenneth had in effect been the King of Scotland, but those up to King Aedh would have been referred to in their own time as Kings of the Picts and Scots; and those from Donald I onward as Kings of Alba. It was only with the replacement of the House of Moray (Macbeth) with the House of Dunkeld (Malcolm) that the occupant of the throne would be referred to by contemporary sources as the King of Scotland.

The line of Lulach continued, his son Máel Snechtai was Mormaer of Moray, while his daughter had a son, Óengus, who inherited the title of Mormaer of Moray and made an unsuccessful attempt to claim the throne in the reign of David I, which ended in his defeat and death in 1130.
After the defeat of Óengus, Moray was probably granted to William fitz Duncan and, after his death in 1147, it was to some extent colonized by King David's French, Flemish and English followers.

Returning from my journey on the trail of Macbeth, I crossed the Forth on the new bridge  - the Queensferry Crossing, named after Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore, and Queen Gruoch's successor as consort to the king.  We live amidst our history.

The Queensferry bridge

Monday, 11 September 2017

Macbeth Trail Part IV

Macbeth's Stone, the traditional site of his death

Climbing up to the Cairn of Mounth summit from the sunny, fertile Howe of the Mearns, I was wreathed in cold grey mists. I wondered if this was the route taken by Ri Deircc, "the Red King, Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, King of Alba as he returned to his stronghold in Moray. After his defeat at Dunsinane, he must have been constantly on the march, fighting to secure his kingdom from the forces of Malcolm, Máel Coluim ceann mòr Malcom Canmore, and his allies.

He was a man in his fifties, old for his times and for the past three years he had been campaigning almost continuously. He must have been tired but he was still king.
He appears to have asserted his sovereignty over the southern half around Dunkeld and was probably returning with his weary war band when he was engaged in battle at Lumphanan.
It is likely that Malcolm had an alliance with the Earls of Orkney. Malcom later married Ingibiorg, widow of Thorfinn of Orkney. This would allow him to attack from an unexpected quarter

Macbeth's men, probably tired and footsore crossed to enter Deeside by the passes across the Mounth, the long fingers of the Grampians that reach out to the coastal plain. At the coast, seaborne attack from Malcolm's allies was always possible so this easier route was to be avoided.
The road is winding and steep even today and the weather, even in August, as it may well have been in 1057, was cold and wet.
They must have felt relieved to be down into Deeside, settling to rest for the night. There is an ancient well where Macbeth is reputed to have slaked his thirst. They were "in a wood" which would suggest being unprepared - medieval combatants would choose open ground - when they were surprised by an unexpected attack from the north.
The Peel of Lumphanan

The Peel of Lumphanan is a circular mound  or motte on which the de Lundin family built a fortified tower in the 1200's but it is possible that Macbeth had a stronghold there of which no trace remains. Malcolm may have already been in possession of any redoubt before Macbeth arrived.
Holinshed says that Macduff, his old nemesis, "pursued Macbeth with great hatred even until he came to Lumfanaine". Perhaps this was the basis for Shakespeare's dramatic showdown between them.
On the 15th of August, 1057 they joined in battle.
Macbeth's Stone, some quarter of a mile south of the Peel, is said to be the site of his death.

Despite his death and the defeat of his army, his name still carried enough power for his stepson Lulach to be seated on the Stone of Destiny and proclaimed king though his reign lasted only a few months.
Macbeth had reigned for seventeen years giving the nascent kingdom of Alba "productive seasons" and was regarded as "a generous King".
As was fitting for a ruler of his stature due recognition was given to his passing.
His body would have been carried by boat down the Great Glen to the western seaboard and thence to Iona, traditional burial place of Scottish kings.

Iona Abbey
St Martin's Cross has stood for 1200 years

With his death, the last of the great Celtic kings of Alba, came the end of the line that began with the semi-legendary Kenneth Mac Alpin.

Warriors'  grave slabs on Iona

Malcolm's second marriage to Margaret of Wessex and his acquaintance with the customs of the English court would change the style of kingship in what was to become Scotland.
The Anglo-Scot and Scot-Norman dynasties that followed would all denigrate Macbeth for their own purposes to justify their claims to the throne and finally, to please another king, Shakespeare would traduce his reputation completely.

Had Macbeth defeated Malcolm would Scotland as it was to become, have developed differently? Would the Vikings of the northern isles have moved the power base and royal patronage towards Scandinavia or would the rising might of the Norman kingdoms of England have subsumed its smaller neighbour?   Nations are but accidents of history.


Monday, 7 August 2017


The ragwort is flourishing along the shoreline. Thanks to the stabilising of the sands by the marram grass, the other hardy specimens are moving in and taking over. ( Blog 09/09/2016)

The bright yellow daisy heads of the ragwort, each a sun in miniature, are home and larder to a great number of insects, grubs, flies, bees and moths. Most spectacular of these is the cinnabar moth.

On a walk along the edge of the foreshore, we found dozens of the black and yellow striped caterpillars feasting on the leaves. They absorb alkaloids from the plant which make them unpleasant to eat and saves them from predation.... and don't they advertise the fact!
Like so many unpleasant youngsters, they hatch into beautiful adults. 

The leaves have an unpleasant smell which accounts for the adjective "stinking" in many of its local names including the label "Mare's fart". Anyone acquainted with horses will recognise the accuracy of that description.
John Clare, that poet of the neglected and overlooked, had a more positive opinion of the plant,
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold...
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.
Ragwort is poisonous to horses but it is unlikely that they would graze on it as it is very bitter, however if the dry leaves get into hay they can cause liver damage. Presumably it is because of this that it is included in the list of Noxious Weeds required to be controlled.
"Noxious Weeds" has connotations of morality and impropriety, as though the ragwort had set out to be wicked and yet it provides a home and food source to more than seventy insect species. Thirty of these species use ragwort exclusively as their food source. 

Jacobaea vulgaris, to give it its full title is a valuable addition to the foreshore as it joins the campions, the thistles and the willow-herbs in colonising the sands

The opposite is true of the gaudily attractive Himalayan Balsam with its orchid like flowers. The seed pods explode to the touch and spray their contents far and wide. It is dreadfully invasive and it is  truly an offence to allow it to grow. It has arrived on our beach via the small burn that trickles down to the sea. 

I only hope the local council, if and when they get round to eradicating it, do not kill off the native species colonising the dunes and providing such a valuable habitat but I am not optimistic.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Macbeth Trail Part III

My intermittent quest for places associated with Macbeth continues. On the return trip from the Western Isles, (Blog 13/07/17) a deviation along the A96 took me on the whisky trail past many famous distilleries but also to a couple of places where the true story of Shakespeare's "man of blood" was played out.

Pitgaveny, near Elgin, was the place where Duncan and Macbeth fought for the kingdom of Alba.
Originally on the shores of a sea-loch, Loch Spynie, a long arm of the North Sea which was accessible by ship, it became the site of Spynie Castle, the residence of the powerful Bishops of Moray.

Spynie Castle
The arms of the Bishop of Moray

Now, the only evidence of the loch side is the steep drop from the road to the palace into the woods below but in August 1040, Macbeth, the warrior " disdaining fortune with his brandished steel" would have watched Duncan's galleys beaching on the shoreline as they prepared to join in battle.

The steep drop from the roadway is the site of the old loch side
Map showing Loch Spynie as it was when Duncan sailed up to do battle

Duncan was wounded in the ensuing engagement and carried from the scene to the site of Elgin cathedral where he died.

Elgin Cathedral

Not the cowardly murder of a sleeping king but the defeat of an inept general by a superior one.
Duncan's death allowed Macbeth to be crowned king at Scone, deep in the heartland of his rival's power base (Blog 28/05/17) Duncan had paid the penalty for attacking Macbeth, the Mormaer of Moray, in his fiefdom.
Macbeth had regained the title of Mormaer held by his father in 1032 and seized by his cousin Gille Comgain after the killing of the older man. In revenging his father's death Macbeth made a widow
of Gille's wife Gruoch, herself a princess of the royal line.
In 1033, Macbeth married Gruoch and adopted her son Lulach. Lulach was destined to reign briefly after his stepfather's death in 1057 but lacking his leadership qualities and martial skill was defeated by Malcolm Canmore.

Birnie Kirk

It is believed that the marriage took place at Birnie Kirk. Parts of the building date to the 12th century though the building of stone churches to replace the wooden ones of the Celtic church was begun by Margaret the wife of Macbeth's nemesis, Malcolm Canmore - Malcolm III.

A Pictish incised stone, now much worn, showing an eagle. The church stands on any earlier sacred site

A Celtic bell, the Ronnel Bell, in the church is 1000 years old and could well have been rung at the wedding of Macbeth and Gruoch.

I left Moray and headed south with a brief stop at Dunnottar castle so impressive on the skyline above Stonehaven.

 A great fortress, its predecessor would have been one of the "duns" or fortified hills of Macbeth's time - Dun-add in Argyll, Dun-keld, Dun-edin or Edinburgh, Dun-fermline, the site of Malcolm Canmore's tower.
The much maligned monarch still lives in the country he ruled for seventeen years despite the efforts of his detractors.  Next visit must be to the site of his final battle.