Archive for the ‘Cassandra Hannahs’ Category

A Dive into Scotland’s Past

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

127_thumbnailWith a Ph.D. in medieval history, Cassandra Hannahs spent most of her academic career at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a tenured professor of history. At Middlebury, Cassandra regularly taught courses on Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Norman Studies, as well as more general courses on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the history of Christianity. In her research and lectures, Cassandra explores the cultural and political exchanges that have historically linked Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe. As Study Leader for the Smithsonian since 2000, she enjoys sharing her love and knowledge of the British Isles and Ireland with travelers on land and sea.


Archaeologists see the past in layers, vertical timelines in square holes.  The oldest stuff is buried deepest, and each successive strata gets closer to the present.  History is not so neatly stacked for us on this tour of “Scotland’s Treasures.”  As we travel north from Glasgow making a loop through the Highlands and then south again to Edinburgh, we ricochet around the centuries.  A discussion about monuments over breakfast veers from Pictish stones (6th-9th centuries AD) to chambered cairns (4000-2000 BC) to memorials that mark the graves of clansmen who died at Culloden (1746 AD).  “Don’t forget Hadrian’s Wall (2nd century AD),” someone adds helpfully from another table, reminding us to define our terms.

Still discussing distinctions between monuments and a military fortifications, we’re soon driving past Inverness to Carrbridge to see the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands (1717).  A delicate arch over the River Dulnain, it was designed for pedestrians and pack horses, clearly too steep and narrow for wagons.  We’re told that local teenagers still use it as a diving platform into the river, a daring and chilly prospect even on this August day.

 Carr Bridge, 1717 Doug Madsen, 2013

Figure 1: Packhorse Bridge at Carrbridge.

 Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.


We continue driving to Kincraig to watch the collies at Leault Farm working their sheep.  We’re impressed by the intelligence and intense work ethic of the dogs, each one responding to a specific set of whistled instructions.  An excited seven-month old puppy can’t resist joining his elders, and although his happy, clumsy enthusiasm confuses the flock, it warms our hearts.  After the sheep have been collected by the dogs, some of us take turns shearing them and feeding the lambs.  One member of our group who spins her own wool at home is invited to collect all she wants from the piles of fleece left in the field.


 Figure 2: Shearing a sheep at Leault Farm, Kincraig.

Photo by Janet Lohl, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Afterwards, we pass the ruins of an 18th-century military barracks which had been built on the ruins of a 13th-century castle near Ruthven.  Layers upon layers:  it was here that several hundred Jacobites reassembled after the Battle of Culloden (1746 AD) and vowed to keep fighting.  Their resolve collapsed, however, after receiving Bonnie Prince Charlie’s message acknowledging that their cause was lost and urging each man simply to save himself as best he could.  Burning the barracks was probably the last collective action of the Jacobite army.

 Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 3: Chapter House, Dunkeld Cathedral.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Following lunch in a Victorian resort town, we tour a local whiskey distillery.  Dunkeld Cathedral next deserves a visit, and we stroll around its romantic ruins on the banks of the River Tay where a church had existed since the 6th century.  It was here that Kenneth MacAlpin had Saint Columba’s relics brought from Iona when he combined the lands of Dál Riata and the Picts under one crown, founding the kingdom of Alba (the Gaelic name for Scotland) in the 800’s AD.

Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 4: Ruins of Dunkeld Cathedral.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

While the great Cathedral of the 13th and 14th centuries was destroyed during the Reformation (1500’s), the chapter house survives and serves today as a museum of local history, providing a timeline of local history from prehistoric to modern times.  It is almost reassuring to see the centuries behaving themselves in this display, lined up properly in chronological order.  But inside the remaining bell tower of the Cathedral they resume their haphazard dance, and we’re exhilarated to find a Viking gravestone (10th-12th centuries), beside a Pictish stone (7th-8th century), under wall paintings from the early 1500’s.

 Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 5:  Viking Gravemarker, in the bell tower of Dunkeld Cathedral.  Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Back on the bus, we flip through the centuries as we sort out what we’ve just seen.  And I suggest to my fellow travelers that what we’re doing is a kind of archaeology in reverse:  instead of extracting artifacts from specific strata and excavating them from a physical site, we are encountering a wide and disordered array of historical data and figuring out where they fit in the framework of centuries.  And as these artifacts of our journey click into place and fill out our own timelines of Scotland’s past, our understanding of this nation and its people deepens and becomes personal in the way that can only happen when we gather the evidence for ourselves.  It is a privilege and a pleasure to discover Scotland this way, with a group that understands implicitly that the real treasures we find here are the insights and memories that we share on the journey.

Tarbat museum, Doug Madsen, 2013Figure 6: Pictish Stone, Tarbat Discovery Center.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.


To learn more about our Scottish Treasures trip, click here.

An Irish Journey From Galway to Killarney

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011


Smithsonian Study Leader Cassandra Hannahs is a medieval historian specializing in British cultural and architectural history. Here, she describes an action-packed journey from Galway to Killarney. To learn more about Cassandra and traveling with her, click here.


The beautiful landscape of Connemara.

The beautiful landscape of Connemara.

As our Smithsonian group left Galway, I was struck again by the stunning contrasts of the Irish landscape. There are many types of beauty here, from the wild hills of Connemara which we saw yesterday to the elegant lake and parkland awaiting us in Killarney. We stopped briefly this morning at Dunguaire castle, which stands like a chess piece on the edge of Galway Bay. It was originally the fortress of a seventh-century king of Connacht, one who was among “the warriors of Erin” buried at Clonmacnoise.

Rebuilt in the sixteenth century, Dunguaire later served as a meeting place for the leading lights of the Irish literary renaissance. In the early morning mist, it was easy to imagine William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Synge passing underneath the grey stone archway, a romantic setting for the Celtic Revival.

The landscape emptied as we headed south into County Clare, lovely still but growing desolate. A famine wall snaked up a mountain and disappeared down the other side.  Through famine and eviction, the population of Country Clare plunged from 286,000 in 1841 to 104,000 in 1911. The hills through which we drove looked abandoned against the sullen sky. On their slopes, we could see the vertical scars that mark abandoned potato fields.

The ground grew stony as we approached the Burren, a name that literally means “a rocky place.” A different kind of beauty met us there, an eerie moonscape of eroded limestone. Cromwell’s surveyors famously reported that the Burren lacked enough water to drown a man, tree to hang him, or soil to bury him. But a microclimate mix of plants flourishes in this karst environment. They are strange neighbors — alpine, arctic and Mediterranean types combined with native species. But even stranger are the megalithic monuments that guard this landscape, “millenia deep in their own unmoving” as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney put it.

“Why here?” someone asked quietly as we walked across the craggy pavements to the Poulnabrone dolmen, one of the most striking of these structures. Its twelve foot capstone balanced carefully on the portal stones, Poulnabrone preserved the bones of some twenty people spanning five centuries, five thousand years ago. Today, it looks like a giant’s table, having lost the mound that once covered it, one of ninety megalithic tombs in the area. The question was repeated in expanded form, a little impatiently: “Why would people build monuments like this in such a barren place?”

The answer: it was not always like this. When the farmers arrived 6,000 years ago, pine and hazel woodland covered this land, and the growing season was long. Fire, axe and hoof cleared the trees and turf; without its cover, the soil slipped away with wind and rain, exposing the limestone skeleton. Ancient pollen attests these changes occurred gradually, and only recently — since the first millenium A.D. — was the bedrock laid bare. Like the once fertile land of Inismor which we also visited, where Aran farmers in recent times made soil out of sand and seaweed, the Burren is in large part a man-made landscape and a cautionary one as well.

Continuing south, we stopped next at the Cliffs of Moher, which drop vertically seven hundred feet into the Atlantic Ocean and inspire a different kind of awe. The new interpretive center offered a wealth of information about the geology, history and wildlife of the Cliffs, but nothing can compare with the sensation of being physically there, overlooking the Atlantic Edge. As we continued to Killarney later that day, the countryside grew softer and more gentle. A ferry ride across the Shannon River invited thoughts of Vikings traveling up those waters a thousand years ago, but the scene was peaceful and bucolic, all blues and greens and greys. We passed Saint Mary’s Cathedral on our way into Killarney, a lovely Gothic cathedral built in the nineteenth century. Even in this cheerful town, the hard times are remembered: a giant redwood tree in front of the church marks a mass grave of famine victims. After such a day of stark drama, the warmth and friendliness of the pub are welcome, but my thoughts this evening keep returning to the melancholy beauty of County Clare and the mystery of the Burren.

Packed yet? Click here to see our tours to Ireland or here for Cassandra’s next tour.