Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Dive into Scotland’s Past

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 800s 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 (1500s), 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 1500s.

 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, 2013

Figure 6: Pictish Stone, Tarbat Discovery Center.

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


Learn more about our Scottish Treasures trip.