Archives for category: Travels

In virtually every place I visit, I seek out the museum to help orient me to the story of the place. A recent trip to Aberdeen led me to the Maritime Museum. Although the city’s recent history has been entwined with the petroleum industry and North Sea oil and gas, its roots run far deeper. I wasn’t as interested in the oil and gas, as I was in the roots when I visited the Museum — and it was here I found a connection to my family’s recent history. Well, a connection to an object from my family’s recent history.

For context, here’s the family story: Years ago, my paternal grandmother was shopping in a hardware store in Toronto. Standing in the middle of the floor near the till was a blue and grey jardiniere, sitting atop a pedestal. Vines snaked up the pedestal, in the middle of which was a shield held by two men. On the shield is a date which I cannot recall right now because the jardiniere is in Canada and I’m in Scotland, but it was sometime in the 1700s. She was intrigued by the piece, and asked the clerk — who was also the owner of the store — what he knew about it. He rolled his eyes and said only that it was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. Nan asked him whether he’d sell it. He told her she’d have to lug the thing home, so $0.50 was a fair price (yes, 50 cents). My Mum fell in love with it as soon as she laid eyes on it, so Nan gave it to my parents.

Like most objects one grows up with, it faded to the background, taken for granted, even though it occupied a prominent place in my parents’ living room. I remember playing around the base of the jardiniere as a small child, sometimes tracing the vines up the pedestal, or hooking my fingers through the gargoyles that serve as handles on the jardiniere’s bowl. The only plant it held in the years I grew up was a monster aspidistra that had started out as a small cutting from another monster plant my great-grandmother brought to Canada in the 19th century. Sadly, that plant died a few years ago, and was replaced with a spider plant.

As I grew older, I was curious about whether the year on the shield had anything to do with its year of manufacture, but didn’t have a clue where to begin searching for information (in the days before the internet). A few people suggested that my parents take it to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to see if anyone there could help us to learn its story. Mum never permitted it, as she was concerned that if it turned out the thing had any value, word might get out and someone would break into the house to steal it. Strangely, after my parents retired and were able to take extended trips away from home, they were always careful to hide valuables like silver and the Royal Doulton figurines, but the jardiniere would be left standing out where all could see it, in front of the living room window, hiding in plain sight.

A few years before Mum died in 2002, I visited the ROM and saw a smaller, more colourful version of a jardiniere that resembled ours only by the fact that there was a bowl set atop a pedestal. I learned that these objects became popular in Victorian England with the new fashion of bay windows. Homeowners set a plant in a jardiniere in the bay window for all the neighbours to see, presumably to show they were people of quality and taste. But I was still no closer to figuring out where ours had come from. There were no distinguishing marks on it.

On Mum’s death, the jardiniere passed to me. Cleaning it off and preparing to set it up in my own living room, I had another look for distinguishing marks. None had developed since my last examination. More tantalisingly, a friend who saw it one day, told me she’d been in a museum in Florida years ago where she’d seen several pieces of varying sizes, that looked like the same pottery. Unfortunately, she couldn’t recall the name of the museum, where it was or the name of the pottery manufacturer. It seemed I’d never learn anything about it. The only thing I knew for sure was that my eldest daughter thought the piece so ugly that she was happy to defer to her younger sister when I was determining provisions for my own will, as I was updating it before embarking on this adventure in Scotland last year.

I didn’t really think much about the jardiniere, even though I love history and could spend hours in museums (much more my idea of a vacation than sitting on a beach somewhere), and was making an extended visit to country flush with museums. I wasn’t thinking of it when I visited that museum in Aberdeen — until I saw a case containing pottery fragments dug up at various sites around the city over the years. One in particular caught my eye because it had the same pebbly surface and was of the same grey and blue hues as my jardiniere. And there was a name: ‘Westerwald’ — pottery made in Germany since the 1500s, using a salt glaze that gave it its distinctive appearance.

Westerwald jardinieres that sold at Christie’s in Amsterdam in 2003

As soon as I got back to our flat in Edinburgh, I searched the internet for Westerwald. Though I was excited to see many examples of the pottery, all pieces were either tankards or chamber pots — nothing larger. I searched for jardinieres, but found nothing. I gave up. When I got up the next morning, the first thing I thought was “You didn’t search for Westerwald jardiniere. You searched each name separately.” I went to my computer, called up the Google page and typed in ‘Westerwald jardiniere’. Up popped the Christie’s site which told me that, in 2003, two jardinieres (pictured here, dated 1870-1880) sold in Amsterdam for over $5000 each! It also told me that, contrary to earlier information that said jardinieres were a Victorian phenomenon, these items were produced much earlier than that — as far back as the 1600s and 1700s. That means the 1700s date that appears on the shield of my jardiniere might be closer to the truth than I thought. Though mine is in safe-keeping with my youngest while we’re away, at the top of the to-do list when we get home is to have it insured. Then I’ll give it a thorough cleaning before putting it back in our living room. With Mum’s old concerns in mind, however, I don’t think I’ll put it in the living room window, but rather in a prominent place in the room where it can be admired, but can’t so easily be seen from the street!

I’ve been so busy having little adventures over the last couple of months, that I’ve neglected this blog for some time. After a visit to Dryburgh Abbey on Friday, I’m inspired to write about the experience.

I have to say that one of the things I will most miss about living in Scotland is the excellent public transit network. I realise that Canada is bigger and less populated than the UK, but we could really learn something from their example. We have been able to take ‘city’ buses (as opposed to City Link buses) to destinations as far away as the Scottish Borders — a two hour trek! — and all for very reasonable prices.

The ruins of Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders

Friday morning we boarded a bus to Dryburgh Abbey. When I asked the driver for a return ticket (Ron travels free on his bus pass for 60+), he thought for a moment and printed off one for St. Boswell’s — £11.90. Ron settled in to read for the duration, while I was happy to sit back and just watch the scenery.

At Earlston (home of the 13th century laird and prophet, Thomas the Rhymer), two passengers got on — one a man in his 60s, the other in his teens. They sat behind us and chatted for a bit, then the older fellow gave Ron a bookmark for his book — a business card for his new online venture for an old passion: archery. He introduced himself as Mick, and the younger fellow as his student, Alex. When Mick learned we were Canadian, he invited us to visit sometime and have some free lessons. When they’d boarded the bus, I’d heard him ask for a ticket to St. Boswell’s, so knew he would know exactly which stop we needed to disembark.

On reaching St. Boswell’s, he told us that we had a bit of a hike ahead of us. Because I’d checked out the route on Google maps, I told him we were quite content to make the 20-minute trek. He recommended a couple of places for us to stop (the local church for a reasonably-priced and tasty lunch, the local pub for a good pint, and a local cafe/bookstore/antique shop), and we headed off. Uncertain when we saw no signs directing us towards Dryburgh, we stopped a little further along and asked a postman. He told us we were on the right track, but that it would take us longer than 20 minutes to walk. Turned out he was right. Dryburgh was almost 4 miles from St. Boswell.

Sir Walter Scott's tomb in the north transept of Dryburgh Abbey

Initially annoyed that Google had steered us wrong, I found my irritation diminishing as we walked along the same route that Sir Walter Scott’s funeral cortege travelled when taking him to his final resting place in Dryburgh Abbey ruins. The countryside is lovely and, other than having no sidewalks or even shoulders to take one out of the path of cars, serene. Thankfully, traffic was light and between cars, the birdsong was spectacular! We crossed over the Tweed, trudging uphill then down, with Scott’s beloved Eildon Hills (said to be home to Merlin — though a different Merlin than the one popularised in English tales of King Arthur) visible in the distance.

The Temple of the Muses overlooking the River Tweed

We finally reached the Abbey and asked one of the employees of Historic Scotland whether there was a shorter route back. At first, when we told him we’d walked about three miles from town, he said, “Oh, it’s not nearly that long!” We told him that the road signs told us it was at least three. “You mean you came by the ROAD?! That’s nearly four miles!” He suggested a different route back — one that took us along the river, past the Temple of the Muses, over a suspension footbridge and along the other side of the river to St. Cuthbert’s Way. Despite a brief hail shower, the walk was delightful! No traffic sounds — just the river, the birds and the smell of wild garlic that blanketed either side of the footpath.

When we got back to the bus stop at St. Boswell’s, we discovered that the next — and last for the day — bus to Edinburgh left at 17.35. That gave us more than an hour to kill. We decided to go the cafe that Mick had recommended. On passing the community hall though, Mick appeared and invited us in for the archery demonstration. And even better than that? When the archers took a break, waiting for the next demonstration to begin, he invited us to have a try. I missed the targets on my first two attempts, but with a bit of instruction and the suggestion that I quit trying to hit the target, I drew the bow, released the arrow and made my first “kill”. I’m hooked!

Oh yeah — and Google maps? When I checked what I’d printed out, Google maps had told me to disembark at Newton St. Boswell’s, which is down the A68 from St. Boswell’s. Had we done so, we would have travelled over busier roads, we wouldn’t have chatted with Mick, and I wouldn’t have had a chance to play with bows and arrows. All in all, a really great day! (And the Abbey was lovely, too!)

detail of The Muses

Footbridge over the Tweed (looking down from the Temple of the Muses), leading towards St. Cuthbert's Way

Wild garlic!!!!

After a friend asked me for a reminiscence of where I was when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal against Russia back in 1972, I recalled how proud we all were to be Canadians during that memorable hockey series. And that moved me to send a handwritten letter to Stephen Harper. Here’s what I said:

“Mr Harper —

I’ve frequently heard it said that, in order to get a perspective on home, one must leave it. For the last eight months I have been living in Scotland, and I must say that the perspective I’ve gained of home leaves me feeling deeply saddened, ashamed and embarrassed — and I’m sorry to say that you and your government are the cause.

Your contempt for Canada, its democracy and its people is palpable and blatant, as is your complete disregard for the environment. Though Canadians demonstrated the trust for which we are known in the world by electing you to a majority government, you show your true colours in betraying that trust with the shenanigans surrounding the purchase of F-35 jets. You place the burden of financing pensions on the shoulders of our youth, yet still argue for the purchase of jets we neither need nor want.

You have taken a once honourable party — the Progressive Conservatives; two of whose leaders (Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark) were the best PMs Canada never had — and turned it into a facsimile of the US Republican Party, complete with dirty tactics and shady dealings.

I have signed online petitions and sent you emails, copies to the leaders of the other parties. Although they have responded promptly, I’ve never heard from you. Perhaps you prefer to ignore Canadians like me, or perhaps the volume of messages is too great for your staff to keep up with.

This time, I am prompted to send a handwritten letter. I was moved to do so after a friend who is collecting reminiscences of where people were when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal in the 1972 Canada Russia series, asked me for mine. I recalled how proud we were to be Canadians during that series. We felt optimistic and hopeful. Canada was genuinely liked abroad in those days, too. I travelled overseas and proudly wore a Canadian flag on my backpack.

Alas, those times have changed. We have a government that believes we should inspire fear rather than trust and respect in the world. We’ve had governments that have made bad decisions (Trudeau invoking the War Measures Act is top of the list), but never have we had one that has been so consistently bad as yours. Since living in Scotland and feeling such profound embarrassment, I removed all Canadian flags from backpacks and bags — but realise that I did so because I AM proud to be Canadian, so will work even harder when I return to Nova Scotia in June to ensure your government is defeated.”

Cafeterria Ranieri

The week in Malta was such a great experience, it’s hard to know where to start the first posting. To keep it simple, let’s start with food. Our first night in Valetta, we found Cafeterria Ranieri on Republic Street (the central route in the walled city). The staff were warm and welcoming, the food was good, the prices very reasonable (especially considering the portions — it was like eating at my paternal grandmother’s!!) and the service excellent. On our daily wanderings, we checked out other places, but didn’t find anything to compare with Ranieri’s, so naturally we kept going back for supper each night. Had we really been paying attention, we would have realised that their full English breakfast was also a super deal at €3.80. as compared to €5.50 at our hotel for the breakfast buffet. When, on our third day, we discovered this was an option, we went to Ranieri’s for our breakfast, too!

Kris is the affable owner — a gentle man who, though he watches over things, remains pretty much in the background except to banter with customers and to lend a helping hand when necessary. Manoel was our principal “caretaker”, as he was there every night but one. And even when he wasn’t there, we were royally taken care of. David, who loves his pasta, was treated to a different dish each night — except the night he decided to try a pizza, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Because of the availability of fish, I tried to have it whenever possible, so the first night’s sea bream, served with a Maltese sauce (tomatoes, olives, capers — does it GET any better??!!) was so good, that I had it a second time — but not the same night, of course. Ron sampled the rabbit stew and we both had the swordfish on another night. Manoel also made sure that we sampled Maltese bruschetta and Maltese sausage — delicious! He also introduced us to Maltese wine — unbelievably good and so reasonably priced. We thought about taking some back with us, but in the end decided to let the wine remain as a strictly Malta experience — something to look forward to the next time we go.

The only dessert I tried (once when I had room, and once just because it had tasted so good the first time) was the Casatella Siciliana. It has found a place in my heart, second only to cannoli (or, as it’s spelled in Malti, kannoli). I’ve long said that we’d have world peace if there was a cannoli stand on every street corner. People would be too busy savouring them to argue — unless, of course, it was the grandmothers arguing over who made the best one. With the discovery of Casatella Siciliana, I’ll venture to say that, by offering this as a second option, those street stalls would come closer to achieving world peace. (And, though Ranieri’s didn’t offer kannoli, I enjoyed a thoroughly delightful kannoli rikotta at the Traffic Lights Cafe near the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola.)

Manoel also introduced us to a Maltese pastry, the name of which I unfortunately cannot recall. Take a crepe, still warm, cover it with a thin layer of pureed date or fig; fold it up, dust with fine sugar and serve warm with liqueur. YUM!! And, speaking of liqueurs, Manoel introduced us to two: one orange and much like Cointreau; the other carob, which tasted a bit like sweetened Campari.

Kris, Moira and Manoel (in the foreground) -- and I hate to admit it, but I never got the name of the fellow behind the counter, though he took such good care of us, too!

We can’t say enough about Ranieri’s, so if you find yourself in Valetta, Malta, do look them up. You will feel as though you are among old friends. David — who loves to tease — thoroughly enjoying as good as he dished out, particularly by Kris’ partner, Moira. We’re certainly hoping that these new old friends will come to visit us in Nova Scotia and David in Toronto.


We returned early this morning from Malta — a wonderful place that will be the subject of some other posts. Right now, though, my focus is our carrier, Ryan Air. This was my first experience of flying with this “low cost” airline. My first surprise was learning that there are no pre-assigned seats. I wonder how many pence are saved by having people herd like cattle to get a seat, rather than simply assigning each passenger a seat at time of booking? It comes as no surprise to learn that Messrs. Ryan and Lonergan’s anthropological experiment to see exactly how far people would go to save a few quid had its genesis in the pro-free-market heyday of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. My first experience of Ryan Air was entertaining. To submit to it a second time would verge on masochism.

Our flight was due to leave at 10:20 a.m. — a reasonable time for a flight. No having to get up in the middle of the night to catch a flight. (We’d save that part for the return trip. More of that later.) On reaching the check-in desk, we realised that we were over weight. We thought we were allowed 20 kg in the suitcase, but discovered it was limited to 15 kg. We did a little rearranging and managed to come in at 16.4 kg for our suitcase. David’s came in at 15.9 kg. Our bags were checked through without a problem, and I joked as we walked away from the desk that they would probably let us through, but nail us for the infraction on the way back. At least, I thought was joking…

Neophytes that we were, we grabbed a coffee while waiting for our departure gate to be announced, which I think should be heralded with a trumpeting of the “Call to the Post”. (They actually DID play this on the plane when we landed back in Edinburgh — SERIOUSLY!! It was part of an advert to book a car with their partner, Hertz. Still, they could put it to good use in the departures lounges.) Blissfully ignorant, we were still sipping our coffees when I noticed a small movement that grew rapidly as the herd began to gallop to the other end of the terminal. Glancing up at the board, I saw that we had to move to gate 12, and the urgency of the crowd movement signalled that we should not delay in doing so. Arriving there, we found some seats and sat down to wait, in the way that you do when you’re flying on a regular airline.

About an hour before our flight was due to depart, there was another sudden surge of movement as, like one body, people were on their feet. I’d no idea what was happening or where they were going, but instinct told me I didn’t want to be left behind. The last time I saw something like that was at the movie theatre in CFB Borden about thirty years ago. Cadets, in for a training weekend, were also in the cinema. The first strains of the national anthem were punctuated a split second later by the sound of a couple of hundred pairs of boots hitting the floor as they leapt as one to attention. Unlike those cadets who remained motionless, this group evidently knew that they had to begin to form a huge queue. People began darting between and over seats to join it, realising that if forced to go to the end of the line, they likely wouldn’t be able to travel with their partner or group. The Ryan Air rep, walking the length of the line and using large sweeping motions with her arms, herded us into line. There was a bit of confusion — almost panic — at first, and I wondered if a Border Collie would have been more useful, but things were under control in short order. The attendant then walked the line, which was six to eight people deep, to check our boarding passes and passports. Finishing that task, she walked to the gate… and we waited for forty five minutes. Initial expectancy that boarding the flight was imminent flagged after about twenty minutes, and some people sat down — but only if they’d left someone in the line-up to make sure they didn’t lose their place.

We managed to find three seats together (after I flung my backpack over a row to lay claim to them), and we settled down as quickly as possible, extracting the necessary items (book, newspaper, glasses, water) from carry-on luggage to settle into our seats — only to get there and find that there were no pockets in the seatback in front to stow any of these items. Apparently not having those pockets saves money…? We tucked items between us and in our laps, and the plane was soon ready to depart. I lost myself in a book, and the flight was uneventful. The food was no better than most airline fare and certainly no better priced.

For our 7 a.m. flight this morning, we had to be up to meet our shuttle from the hotel at 4:30. All went smoothly and we arrived at the airport just before 5. Thanks to the little scale that Ron carries, we were able to check the weight of each suitcase. More rearranging was required. David hadn’t taken a carry on for the outward journey, so we were able to shift 10 kg to a spare bag I had in my back pack. When we reached the check-in desk, I heard the agent at the next desk telling a passenger that she was 1 kg over and would be charged, unless she took something out of the case. They really WERE going to nail us on the return journey! Our suitcase was just under 15 kg. David’s came in at 15.1. Nothing was said and we headed to the departure lounge to grab a coffee and perhaps some breakfast. I checked the board every few minutes to see if the gate had been announced. After the third time, I decided I had enough time to visit the toilets. David decided to go for a smoke. As I moved across the terminal, I saw the woman sitting under the board suddenly gesturing frantically to her husband who was browsing in a shop. He broke into a trot as I saw her collecting their bags. Evidently our departure gate had been announced, and there would soon be a gallop to the other end of the terminal. I went back to where Ron was sitting, grabbed my jacket and bag, and told him that I would meet him and David at gate 14, then set off briskly down the terminal. I found two seats together in the lane where we would have to queue up. So far, so good. Ron and David joined me shortly after. Everything was going well.

Shortly after 6 a.m., the Ryan Air rep hove into view and people were on their feet, creating the queue. As before, our boarding passes and passport were checked. I read my book and waited. About 40 minutes later, we began to board. Finding seats was easy, and we settled in quickly. The flight was soon taxiing down the runway. Shortly after we were airborne, menu cards were distributed. Not having had breakfast, I decided to have a sandwich. About twenty minutes later, Ron nudged me and asked if I still wanted a sandwich. By the time I turned to respond, the cart was gone. I hadn’t heard the starter pistol that had sent the attendant sprinting down the plane with the refreshment cart. Evidently the chief steward hadn’t either, because she was long gone when he announced that the cart would be by “shortly”. If there’s an Olympics for flight attendants, she’s a shoe-in for gold in the 100 metre sprint.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, though the cabin temperature had to be close to 30C. I checked the nozzle overhead to see if any air was flowing. There was, but it was imperceptible unless my hand was directly over it. By the time we landed, I was on the verge of nausea, and grateful to have to stand on the tarmac waiting for our shuttle bus to the terminal in temperature that, though 9C, felt like about 4C with the windchill.

We must have been the first flight in, because the passport checkpoint was completely empty — until we began to snake our way along the switchback of metal-lined corridors designed to keep everyone orderly. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, perhaps the heat, but I was positively giddy as I became conscious I was part of a conga line. What made it even funnier was that I seemed to be the only one aware of it. One of the bands that participated in Carnival festivities in Valetta played tunes like “Brazil” and “Quando, Quando, Quando”, and these blasted through my head as I paraded along with the rest, doing my best not to break into a rhumba. Unlike the bright, gay costumes of Carnival, though, we all seemed rather dun. I got through quite quickly, as I managed to be close to the front of the line. Ron and David, however, were delayed because they had to fill in landing cards. I’m not sure why Ryan Air can’t distribute these on the flight as other airlines do. Surely that’s not another cost-cutting measure? After all, they have no problem selling lottery tickets during the flight. Seriously — lottery tickets? On an AIRPLANE?? Most of us don’t want to think of odds and statistics during a flight. Or perhaps, for those of us that do, they might want to sell rosaries, or at the very least benedictions, too…?

Our bags arrived quickly, and we were soon in a taxi heading home. The driver asked if we’d been on vacation, and we told him about our flight. He said that he flies Ryan Air fairly often. He was 6′ tall if he was an inch, so we had to ask whether he found the limited leg room hard on his knees. “Nah!” he said. “Ye didna know you’re supposed to wrap yer legs ’round yer heid?!” He said we shouldn’t be too harsh on the attendants. Apparently, though most people think the airline is Irish, its head office is in Spain so it can pay its employees the minimum wage required under Spanish law, which just happens to be less than the UK or Ireland. Further, it can lay them off to find other work or collect the dole during the quieter travel season — not an unusual measure. But if you’ve been following the news these last few days, you’ll have noticed there have been huge protests in Spain because austerity measures on the table include permitting Spanish companies facing declining revenues to pull out of collective bargaining agreements, to have greater flexibility to adjust employees’ work schedules and remuneration, and to make it easier to fire people. I’m waiting to hear what politicians are doing to curb their expense accounts, travel and other ‘perks’ like luxury hotels and five-star restaurants when travelling on ‘official government business’, as part of their austerity measures. And I’m sure corporate executives will gather their creative teams together to come up with their contribution to austerity. Maybe forego that extra Hugo Boss suit or that darling little must-have Luis Vuitton bag?

I wonder when the airlines will be allowed to charge £5 per oxygen mask and £1 to use the toilet? Suddenly that great little sketch about no-frills airlines that Carol Burnett, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman did back in the 70s seems prescient.

Walking the streets of Inverness last Saturday, I noticed that some of the paving stones in the sidewalks of the downtown historical area had words inscribed on them. I came across one (pictured here) and wonder if anyone reading this knows its meaning. I’m pretty sure it refers to the Highlanders who left on the Hector, landing in Pictou in 1773, since a group of them came from East Inverness-shire, but I’m wondering who the person is who took the “tollbooth key” with him. Is it a literal or a figurative reference? There were several other paving stones, but though I criss-crossed the pedestrian area, I couldn’t find anything that seemed linked to this fragment. Doubtless someone at the Highlands Archive Centre down the road could have explained it to me, but as I had a bus to catch, I couldn’t dash over. Other paving stones had marks similar to the ones you see across the top, with the words ‘seething’ and ‘sea’, but other words were highlighted on other stones. Might someone reading this be able to shed some light for me…or refer me to someone who might? I tried Google, but nothing came up.

Inverness night shot of the cathedral and River Ness

Although we managed a very short trip to the Highlands during a friend’s visit in early October, I was disappointed that, at the time, we were unable to stop in Inverness or even stop at Culloden Moor. Last Thursday, I managed a return trip with two of my sons. We’d just returned from our flying, overnight visit to York and had three hours to drop by our flat, pick up some clean clothes (and drop off laundry), make some sandwiches and throw them together with a few groceries before we boarded a train to Inverness. If I’d planned things better, and if my sons had been staying longer, I would have booked the trip in daylight so they could have seen some of the spectacular scenery. (Mind you, when we took our day trip to the area in early October, the skies were so overcast and heavy with rain that we couldn’t see much!) This time, although rain fell during our trip, it had ceased by the time we reached Inverness. In fact, the temperature was surprisingly mild — around 12C, which was a lot warmer than our trip in October!

We arrived at the Inverness station just after 8 p.m. Thursday, and walked to our digs — a modest little flat at Bazpackers on Culduthel Road. If anyone is contemplating a trip to Inverness and wants to do so on a budget, I highly recommend the place. It’s close to downtown, but on a quiet street. When we entered the main entrance of the hostel, we could see a fire burning in the hearth in the sitting room. The pleasant young fellow who checked us in was from South Africa — and was delighted when I could place his accent. “Most Americans and Canadians think I’m from Australia!” he grinned. He pulled on some shoes and walked us around the corner, past the Castle Tavern where patrons were sitting out on the deck, enjoying their drinks and the mild weather.

We turned on the heaters in the flat, which warmed up quite quickly while we made and ate a late supper. We turned in around midnight, knowing that we had an early start the next morning, when I hoped that I’d be able to rent a car for the day. Although we were ultimately disappointed to learn that none were available without prior booking, the silver lining was revealed when we learned that the museum at our destination — Fort George — had closed for renovations over the winter. So, we spared ourselves the expense of a rental and the disappointment of finding we’d spent money for nothing.

Instead, we took the public transit (£3.30 each, return) to the visitor centre at the site of the Battle of Culloden Moor. The centre was renovated in 2008, and the results are impressive (though, to be fair, I’ve only a vague idea of what was there before !) Mind you, at £10 for general admission (and no discount for those of us who are members of the “rival” Historic Scotland), I would expect it to be, at the very least, impressive if not thorough! The story of the Hanoverian government side is told along one wall, while the Jacobite’s side is told along the opposite wall. (Calling them “English” and “Scottish” is inaccurate, as there were Highlanders serving in Hanoverian regiments, and English, Irish and French serving with the Jacobites.) There are touchscreens where visitors can read and listen to the words of firsthand accounts, and a theatre in which visitors are put at the centre of the battle. Just before I entered the theatre, I stood looking out at the battlefield through the huge window. I wasn’t thinking anything in particular, so was surprised to feel the hairs at the back of my neck stand on end as I felt someone — or a couple of someones –standing so close to me I could feel the one on my right brush my arm. I didn’t think there had been anyone near me at that end of the exhibit and I spun around, thinking one of the boys had sneaked up on me — but there was no one there.

So, I was in a rather heightened state of alert as I walked into the theatre and found there was no one else in there, either. The lights dimmed and I jumped as I heard a sound behind me — and turned to see Jamie walk through the door to join me. Though the re-enactors who took part in the short film are far fewer than the fighters who stood on the field on 16 April 1746 (and lacked cavalry), the impact was surprisingly chilling and emotional for me, both watching people hack at one another and being “fired upon” by the government troops as I stood there. Perhaps the effect was greater both because of what had occurred just before I entered the theatre and because Jamie and I were the only people in the room… and because those who made the film added the presence of people in period costume watching helplessly from the sidelines as the carnage unfolded before them. When I finished the indoor tour and had strapped on the audioguide for the the tour of the field itself, that memory of those bystanders was made all the more poignant when I learned that no prisoners were taken among the Jacobites, and the wounded and injured strewn about the battlefield were bayoneted where they lay by government troops — who then rounded up locals (mostly women, girls and old men) and forced them to bury the bodies of the Jacobite men and boys in mass graves. Death tolls for the Jacobites were between 1500 and 2000 — in a battle that was over in about an hour. Government dead numbered around 50 (though, of the 200 or so who were wounded, quite a few later died of their wounds).

Conn walking along the Jacobite line, looking across the field towards the Hanoverian line

The battlefield itself isn’t as boggy as it was at the time of the battle, but since the entire package of land now belongs to the National Trust of Scotland, they are making efforts to return it gradually to as near to that state as possible. There were few visitors the day we were there, so the place seemed more mournful and eery than it might at the peak of summer, when there are likely more people wandering about. The audioguide is linked to GPS, so as visitors make their way along the path between the Hanoverian and Jacobite lines (marked by a line of red and blue flags respectively), a narrator’s voice cuts in at various points along the path to explain what happened that day. There’s also an option to learn more about some of the figures whom history recalls (as so many, unfortunately, have been forgotten). And, although before the National Trust acquired the land, there was a road running through it and, in the 1930s, a car park and tea room on top of it, the area has been cleared and marked off, and is now considered a war cemetery. The cairn erected by one of the land’s owners in the late 19th century survives, as do the smaller stones.

Stones marking the mass graves of those whose identity or clan affiliation couldn't be ascertained

The cairn didn’t affect me as greatly as did the sight of those stones. Our friend, Dan, who was there in September, told me that wandering the battlefield was the most poignant part of his visit. I’m not sure at which point that feeling began for him, but for me it occurred when I saw the first small, simple stone (not a headstone, but a stone from the field in which the clan name is carved) marking a mass grave of the Clan Fraser, then looked around to see all the other small stones perched at the top of hummocks of ground — all mass graves. Over 1000 bodies, and perhaps as many as 2000 occupy those hummocks. How long must it have taken to bury them all? What must that have been like? As I stood there, I could “hear” a piper playing “Flowers of the Field”. Bad enough for the Hanoverians to bury their dead, but how barbarous it seems to force families of the vanquished to bury their own in mass graves. I realise there are all sorts of “sensible” reasons to dispose of the bodies as quickly as possible after mass slaughter, but still…. And considering what was done afterwards to the those in the local community even suspected of harbouring Jacobite sympathies — pillage, murder, rape, torture, hanging, drawing and quartering — the thought that such an action was undertaken to increase the suffering and humiliate to the utmost the families of the dead isn’t too great a stretch. Even some of the Hanoverians were horrified by what they saw their own soldiers do, but were powerless to stop (or, at the very least, turned a blind eye on) such a murderous frenzy of revenge. Doubtless some of the atrocities were carried out by one Highland clan against another, rival clan. One surviving account was from a woman who was assured that, though her home was to be taken over, none of her possessions would be disturbed — though she was warned to remove herself to someone else’s home. Upon her return she found that everything that could have been carried off — including her clothes and that of her child — was taken, and what couldn’t was smashed beyond use and/or repair. The record doesn’t note whether she was grateful to have been spared rape or torture. Some mercy.

I was also interested to read about Lady Anne Mackintosh (nee Farquharson), a Jacobite sympathiser. Her father had apparently reluctantly joined the Jacobite uprising of 1715 — for which he’d been pardoned — and refused to take up the cause in 1745. For Anne, it was a different matter. Although her husband, clan chief Aeneas Mackintosh was an officer in the Black Watch, and therefore fighting with the Hanoverians, Anne raised a regiment (600 men) for Bonnie Prince Charlie, entertaining the Prince at her home at Moy Hall, just south of Inverness. Apparently she wasn’t the only Hanoverian officer’s wife clearly on the side of the Jacobites. After Culloden, Lady Anne was taken prisoner, but soon released. She died in 1784 and is buried in Leith.

Leanach Cottage, Culloden Moor

One curious feature that survives (though somewhat altered) from the time of the battle is Leanach Cottage. Historians believe that the cottage, situated as it was behind the Hanoverian line, was a field hospital for their forces. The cottage’s last inhabitant died in the early 20th century, repeating to her final days a story that had been handed down by her great, great grandmother, that after the battle, a Jacobite soldier had burst into her cottage. One of his hands was missing, and he cauterized the stump on the hot cottage stove. Whether the story is true, no one will ever know. Such oral tradition, however, was given sufficient credence to help those who set up mass grave markers in the 19th century know where specific clans were buried and where those of the unknown had been laid to rest.