Be it the historical battles for supremacy, the allure of its people, the exhilaration of its mountain scenery or the romance of its castles, Scotland will embrace you in its magic of curiosity, intrigue and wonder.
To accurately appreciate the breadth of Scotland’s history, let’s start back when its oldest habitation, a place known as Skara Brae, was discovered around 1850, on the shores of the Bay of Skaill, Orkney Islands. When these fort-like structures, built from rounded stones, mysteriously ‘opened up’ after a storm at sea, it proved that Scotland’s northern coast has been inhabited since Neolithic times, almost 5000 years ago.
During the first century, the Romans came to Scotland building an infrastructure of roads, bridges and currency. After many bloody battles with local peoples, the famous Hadrian’s Wall was erected, spanning across the North of England to protect the south from the fierce northern tribes. Portions of this Roman wall survive today, as do many of the well-built bridges. Next came the Anglo-Saxons from the continent (Europe) in the 6th c., followed by the Norse and Vikings from Scandinavia, who sailed onto and raided what are now Scottish shores in the 9th c. After many barbaric battles in retaliation with the Romans, the lineage of the local Anglos, Gaels and Picts becomes sketchy to trace. Archaeological historians are intrigued to study the few precious remains, chiselled on standing stones that have remarkably survived until today, as granite is virtually indestructible. Once Kenneth McAlpin became the first King of Scotland in 834 AD, local language was soon forgotten, and the church erased all beliefs of their culture.
Although little remains of Scotland’s early history, after the Education Act of 1496, written evidence established more accurate records. Prior to, political history was selectively remembered through stories and biased truths that were kept within closed circles of titled nobility who dominated an unschooled populace. It’s remarkable how these peoples survived the realities of living in this climate of relentless damp with many long months between summer’s brief intervals of warmth and sunshine. The saving grace is that when sun shines on Scotland, its greens and colourful flowers, like hedgerows of pink rhododendrons, are visions so worthwhile and plentiful that the harshness between is soon forgotten.
The Clan system was an ancient kinship between a clan chief and his people who shared the same surname. The people, known as tenants, lived on lands owned by their chief, although they did not live the same lifestyle as the chief and his family did; they often lived in grand castles! This arrangement allowed common tenants reasonable land rents, in return for taking up arms and going into battle for the good of the clan whenever necessary. As needs arose, especially when it came to arable land, healthy livestock and young women, inevitable squabbles erupted into battles. At the time, managing local land affairs in combination with volatile political powers of ruling Kings, the clan system was a co-operative way for people to protect themselves. Even today, stories of mistrust about another clan remain, as some Patriotic Scots hold on with relentless emotion to beliefs of those who have done them wrong in the past.
After the battle at Culloden in 1746 the clan system of farm management changed radically. Clan chiefs who had been Jacobite sympathizers had their lands forfeited, while others ushered in crofting and sheep herding. During the Highland Clearances, 1750-1850, tenant families were evicted from their homes by force and while some became fishermen or harvested sea kelp, most left for the Americas or Australia.
The pleated kilts seen today were redesigned in Victorian times from the earlier style of ‘wrap and drape’ during the clans. Kilted men in bagpipe bands today are the most successful relics of the clan system, which dates back hundreds of years. There is still a great pride of connection to a clan that lingers today. Many celebrate their heritage by wearing the specific patterned kilt of their ancestors with a respectful spiritual regard for those who endured for so long on belief in themselves and with a resourcefulness to survive.
In this glimpse of Scotland, travel focuses on the Grampian Mountains of the mid, north east. This central core of the nation is predominantly ancient granite rock, with highlands of undulating grassy hills and occasional, much higher, rounded massifs. As avid walkers, observing the gracefully rolling hills in comparison to the dramatic peaks, we are encouraged to seek higher viewpoints. Near Aberdeen, our hike up the Bennachie, takes us along the Gordon Way trail up to the pinnacle where an ancient fort was once used by the Picts centuries ago. It is remarkable to see how the flora changes; from lush ferns and mosses of a moist forest in the glen, through colourful meadows of wild perennials and pine trees mid mountain, then finally small patches of stinted flora, sprinkled within barren rocky scree at the top. During another hike we stroll through the peaceful Scolty Woodlands, followed by a picnic in a shady treed setting beside the river Dee’s babbling waters. As we amble along the coastline sections of the Moray Firth, we discover the charming small fishing harbour of Portsoy, the secret cliffside village of Pennan near MacDuff and jagged headlands at Peterhead; where pounding waters of the North Sea’s waves first crash violently, then move intently into the calmer bay of a sheltered beach beyond.
We are extremely fond of driving through the pleasant countryside of Scotland as we can experience the winding roadways that meander past farm fields, through quaint villages and skirt grassy hedgerow walls. It’s inspiring to see thriving community farmsteads, their sheep and cattle roaming free. After that we have our dinner in the community pub; eating hardy food, raising a pint and discussing local news with nearby residents.
I reminisce being in the highland village of Aviemore again. It’s a year-round national sporting mecca which is a part of the Cairngorm National Park and where I downhill skied years ago. Visiting here during the longest days of June is ideal, giving enough time to trek through the charming forest surrounding Loch Morlich in the morning, then driving through a highland pass and tree filled glens to visit several whisky distilleries in the afternoon. Scotland’s legendary whisky is the pride of each individual distiller whose exclusive recipe of ‘Single Malt’ made from barley, fermented yeast and waters permeated by peat goes back centuries. At my husband’s insistence, we purchase a variety of small bottles for later consumption.
One of my favourite delights in Scotland is visiting their many distinctive and irreplaceable castles. These places of accrued history, with impressive turrets and towers of architectural marvel, keep you wondering and imagining so many possibilities. The souvenir booklets include photos about the clan’s or family’s story and comment on special estate attributes, like forest and garden achievements over time.
The enormous Atholl family’s Blair castle estate, since 1605, displays opulent furnishings, has extensive floral gardens, a magnificent forest of centuries old trees and a herd of deer. In thanks for their guard in 1844, Queen Victoria granted the Atholl Highlanders the right to carry weapons, a bequest that stands to this day. It is a delight to visit Queen Elizabeth’s Highland Balmoral Castle near Braemar. We are impressed with the walled perennial gardens and gigantic Topiary trees at Crathes Castle. Dating back to the early 1200s, the medieval towered and turreted Fyvie Castle estate has accumulated amazing artwork and furniture. It also has its own bevy of swans and a sizable lake, within its huge woodland estate.
Our most memorable castle day is on our 30th Anniversary, when we hike along the dramatic coastline from Stonehaven to the spectacular seaside Dunnottar Castle. It’s exciting to survey the castle ruins at this breath-taking location, on its pinnacle rock, and imagine times gone by and what life was like long ago. I wear my Colquhoun tartan shawl, as I did on our wedding day, and thank my husband Jim for his kindness and the wonderful years of happy memories together.
I look forward to bringing you more ‘meanderings and wanderings’ in Scotland next time when I continue this journey to the western Isles of the Inner Hebrides.
Story by: Cynthia Percival, wilderness writer & photographer