Archive for the ‘Scotland’s Treasures’ 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.

Exploring Scotland’s Treasures

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Charles MacQuarrie holds an M.Litt in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh, and a PhD in Medieval English and Celtic Language and Literature from the University of Washington.

This summer, Charles led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on a tour of Scotland’s Treasures.


During our boat trip on Loch Lomand, amid the beautiful views and smooth sailing, we approached an inlet with a famous cave. The cave of Rob Roy MacGregor, where after having been made an outlaw and forbidden from wearing his clan tartan or speaking Gaelic or even using the name MacGregor, Rob Roy held up for some 10 years. As the guide on the boat noted, next to the cave mouth someone had painted in white paint “cave.” The guide quipped that it was a wonder that the English didn’t find Rob Roy with the label right next to his hiding place. Dorinda, who had studied Latin, turned to me and the four or five of us who were outside on the top deck of the boat and said, “Maybe it is from Latin “cave” beware. That would make more sense.” She had a point; I told the guide about Dorinda’s joke, and he told me he was going to add it to his repetoire.

Loch Lomand

Loch Lomand in Scotland. (Photo courtesy of flickr user k4dordy.)

A few days later we were at the battlefield of Culloden, and it began to rain as we approached the gravestones that marked the place where so many MacGregors had died in the battle. Killed by vollies from English rifles as they charged over the marshy plain under orders from Bonnie Prince Charlie, who stayed safely behind the lines. The guide took us to the point where the English line had been, and told us about the artillary that the Highlanders would have been facing that day, and the rain started to pour down as if on cue. We hustled back into the exhibit building for tea, and explored the museum, listening to first person accounts of the Highland rising of 1745 read by actors from letters that have survived from the time.


The memorial cairn at the center of the battlefield of Culloden. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

When we arrived in Edinburgh, the weather was fine, and we were all delighted to move into our rooms at the George Hotel. Down the street was the tent for the Edinburgh Book Festival, and Michael Palin was reading from his new book the day after we arrived. The Fringe festival had taken over most of the rest of the city, and plays, musicians, and comics abounded. The biggest treat for most of the Smithsonian group, however, was the central event of the official Edinburgh Festival — the Edinburgh Tattoo, where drum groups from all over the world delighted us all. I heard the song:

O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low (road)
And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye
Fir me an’ my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’

as I walked down the Playfair steps on my way back to George Street, and I couldn’t help but think of the beauty of Loch Lomond, Dorinda’s witty comment about “cave,” and the somber dreich day on the battlefield of Culloden.

The streets of Edinburgh. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Moyan_Brenn.)

Our trip had taken us, rather like the itinerary of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped,” into the sublime natural beauty and Gaelic culture of the Highlands, up from Oban to Skye and Inverness, and then back to the lowlands and to the national capital. We had seen so much, and we had covered so much ground, but being back in Edinburgh, at the close of our journey, there was a sense that the strands were coming together, and we had made a kind of sense out of some of the most prevalent dualities that characterize this very civilized and wild country that is English and Gaelic, Lowland and Highland, Modern and Medieval, and at least until the referendum vote in 2014, British and Scottish.


Read more about Smithsonian Journey’s “Scotlands Treasures” tour.