Wednesday, 22 August 2012

My Heart Is in the Highlands

Isn’t it odd how the stray dream of another person can so influence our lives?

My niece had a yearning to get married in a Scottish castle; she mentioned if often but since the man of her dreams took his time about showing up, we didn’t have to confront the consequences.

Then one frigid December the family found itself strolling down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and soon thereafter heading out to the countryside to fulfill a little girl’s dream.
I had never been to Scotland before. God only knows why, for I love the music, the people, the very thought of the place. In the rush and joy of a weekend wedding, however, it’s hard to take a sounding of a whole country. But I resolved to return and last month I did.

It was like coming home. It’s not just that Scotland is like Ireland – for there are many differences; it’s just that there’s a sense of – dare I say it – a spiritual familiarity.

Once more I was back on the Royal Mile. What a remarkable setting, it stretches up steep cobblestone streets to a perfectly preserved medieval castle as notable for its fairytale setting as for a lingering grimness.

Perhaps that dichotomy is a metaphor for Scotland and its history. The story of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, played out within Edinburgh castle. She gave birth there to her baby, James who would later unite the crowns of England and Scotland. You can even visit the carefully preserved room where she delivered the wee spindly prince who would go on to commission the King James Bible and, and unlike his mother, keep his own head.

Down “the mile” stands the house of John Knox, a founder of Presbyterianism, who made life a hell for Catholic Mary. But you’d be wise to step carefully around the many adjoining alleyway for the ghosts of writers like Robert Louis Stephenson and Robbie Burns careen and carouse past still searching for that perfect word or rhyme.

Still, the Highlands were calling. Weeks later I’m still transfixed by mountains and glens, rivers and mist, heather and cloudy peaks, all shrouded with a deep sense of mystery and even foreboding.

If you’ve never been to the Isle of Skye, go! The beauty is staggering, and it boasts two of the best bands in the world, the Celtic trance dance Peatbog Faeries, and Runrig, now in its 40th year (think of U2 with less Bono and more content.)

But the wellspring of Scotland can be found on the barren, boggy, bloodstained fields of Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated and the Jacobite cause finally squashed by the Hanoverian kings of England.

This battlefield evokes the same tragic loneliness as Gettysburg; but the defeat at Culloden had even more consequences. England and a reluctant Scotland were united, the clearances of the highlands began, and the brutally evicted crofters went on to seed Canada and the American states.

Ireland was no less affected. Without the repeal of the penal laws by the longed for Catholic Jacobite king, the vast majority of people had to endure another hundred years of tyranny that culminated in the Potato Famine of 1845-47.

Would there have even been an independent United States of America had a Stewart ruled rather than mad King George III?

Mere grist for the mill now but the Jacobite flame never went out in Scotland. It often flickered but remained alive in the music, the poetry, and the desire of a people to speak for themselves. The Scottish Nationalist Party – once a joke – is now the majority political party in a self-governing national parliament.

In 2014 there will be a referendum on independence from London. Who knows the outcome, but one thing for sure – the slaughter at Culloden has not been forgotten. The wheel turns and the “what if” of the Jacobite defeat of 266 years ago has come full cycle.

There’s a rough magic astir in the glens again. Go over and experience it. I guarantee you’ll feel very much at home.

1 comment:

  1. I have been reading your blog for a while and this story just touched me to some reason. I love your blogs, thank you.


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