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 years 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.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Long Island

We've just returned from a trip across the sea to a land where the natives speak an ancient tongue, a place where there are temples to the sun and the moon and tombs of the ancestors, a place of turquoise waters lapping on white sandy beaches, a place where orchids grow wild and dolphins splash in the surf.

 No, not the Spice Islands nor the Grecian archipelago – the Outer Hebrides!

We sailed from Oban up the sound of Mull to Barra. The entrance to Castlebay is dominated by Kisimul Castle. Our hotel room provided us with splendid views of the seat of the MacNeils of Barra. 

No visit to Barra is complete without witnessing the sight of an aeroplane landing and taking off from the beach Traigh Mhor

Sustained with superb local food, we crossed by a small ferry to Eriskay - the island of the Love Lilt and the Eriskay ponies and the original site of the story of "Whisky Galore" and proceeded up "The Long Island". South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist are all joined by causeways with only the ferry to Harris still need to complete the journey to Lewis.

Staying at Langass Lodge, we visited the 5000-year old, Neolithic tomb at Barpa Langas-Barpa Langais- a great mound of stones over a central tomb. The entrance passage is easily found but is partially collapsed. Apparently, cremated remains were found within. Not far away is the fine stone circle of Pobull Fhinn.

On the way to the ferry from Uist to Harris, we stopped at the island fort of Dun An Sitcir - the "fort of the skulker" - a 16th century redoubt built on the remains of an Iron Age broch.  

The dun was inhabited by Hugh MacDonald, one of the MacDonalds of Sleat and son of Hugh the Clerk, until 1602. He sheltered here after plotting to slaughter his kin, but was eventually captured to be starved to death in Duntulm Castle on Trotternish, in Skye. They were tough times in those days !

The ferry to Harris brought us to Tarbert and our stay at the Harris Hotel where again the cuisine was mouth-watering. A visit to the Harris distillery introduced us to Harris Gin with its unique infusion of local sugar kelp. The addition of a few drops of Sugar Kelp Aromatic Water as a bitters to the neat spirit was an experience!

The drive through the rocky landscape of Harris took us across An Clisham, the highest point of Western Isles to the flat moors of Lewis and our last stop at Aignish of the edge of Broad Bay where our old friends, the basking seals waved a flipper of welcome.

The next day a trip to the nearby moorland had us watching the arctic skuas harassing the terns to disgorge their catch, a bit foolish as the terns were heading out to sea. The skuas would have been better waiting until they returned after their fishing trip.

Another Neolithic chambered cairn, An Dursainean, occupied the high ground. It would seem that a stone circle or a tomb is around every corner in this trip up the Hebrides.
It passed only too quickly.