"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Culloden and the Clava Cairns

Right, lets get the whole Battle of Culloden thing out the way (deep breath) before we pass over the Highland Line (northern division) into Speyside (western outposts, section B1).  Public warning announcement – there may be more mention of stones in this post.


Culloden Battlefield
According to my vague recollection of High School history, and Wikipedia, The Battle of Culloden in April 1746 was the last pitched battle on British soil, although those present when the Scots tore up Wembley in 1977 may beg to differ.  And like that later football match the outcome was slightly irrelevant in overall British terms but meant a whole lot more to Scotland, albeit in very different ways.  After Culloden the Clan structure and the Highland way of life was decimated and many of their symbols, including the wearing of tartan, were outlawed.  After Wembley, if not before, the tartan shirts and flares of the Bay City Rollers’ 70s style should have been.

Let’s first dispel two common myths here – the battle of Culloden was not fought between the Scots and the English, and Scottish independence was not a primary objective.  The opposing forces were in fact Jacobite (the Reintroduction of the Stuart Monarchy Party) and British Government (the Oh No You Don’t Party), with some Scots fighting for the Government if that was where their clan support lay.  This was a battle of ideas rather than nations – Prince Charles Edward Stuart had wanted his father (and thereafter himself) to be King of Britain, King George II wasn’t for handing over the jewels.

Culloden Memorial Cairn
Independence was a secondary objective, with many of the Jacobites who were campaigning to have the Stuarts as the ruling monarchy of Great Britain also refusing to recognise the Act of Union of 1707 that formed a single British Parliament.  The campaign for independence has now once more been brought to the fore with the recent election of Scotland’s first majority Government, a Nationalist one who have a proposed referendum on Scottish independence as a key element in their manifesto.  The history of Scotland as a separate self-governing nation may yet change again, but as your souvenir dishcloth says “Wha’s like us – damn few and they’re a’ deid!” so don’t hold yer breath.

Had the Jacobites won against the British Select team (a bit like the proposed British XI to play football at the Olympic Games in London next year) we might not currently have to worry about the outcome of the Scottish National Party’s wee divorce project.  Some see the border between Scotland and England as like a perforation to be ripped, or a zipper, teasingly asking to be undone.  Let’s just hope it isn’t a back door into Pandora’s Box.  Support for devolution at two previous referendums has been mixed and it may be that if independence is rejected then that may be the end of it for a very long time.  The outcome is far from clear, for now at least, and many political and philosophical battles will be fought in the months ahead.

The second and lesser known Battle of Culloden was fought in 1983 between various heavily armed lumberjacks and a none too piffling and particularly hostile forest.  It was fought in honour of our fallen comrades to clear the moor of anything higher than wind flattened grass and heather as part of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) regeneration of the battlefield into something close to what it was believed to be like in 1746.
Clan Donald grave marker
The moor was then flat open marshy land used for grazing, the Jacobite charge across the bog partly contributing to their downfall.  Grave stones and a memorial cairn were only placed there as late as 1881 and a conifer plantation then followed after years of neglect.  Later still there were memorial woodland walks created with trees being cleared between the graves; followed by more neglect.  It’s as if Scotland was unsure whether it wanted to remember.  The NTS have now built a sleek new visitor centre, opened in 2007 with interactive displays, movies, cafĂ©, etc. and a rooftop terrace to gain a perspective on the layout of the now exposed battlefield.  Access to wander the field is still free and flags mark the lines of the opposing forces before the battle.

Culloden NTS Visitor Centre beyond the actual battlefield
There is, of course, a serious and reflective aspect to the location, and one gently and honourably noted on the signs here - a reminder that the site is a war grave and requesting silence as you pass among the grave markers.  The mass graves of clansmen are marked where they are known, and not all are, with the last resting place of the few government forces who died not located but still remembered here.  This was a very short bloody battle and around 1500 men were estimated to have given their lives either for their cause or perhaps just through blind devotion to a Clan Chief, such was the bond of fealty within the clan structure of the time.

Bonnie Prince Charlie had come to Scotland, gathered ‘his people’, marched as far south as Derby, returned to Scotland, watched over a massacre and then fled to Skye.  That’s all fine though, as we apparently got the secret recipe for Drambuie in exchange before he became exiled again in France, never to return.  Symbolic then that Drambuie partners Scotch whisky as one half of the classic cocktail the Rusty Nail, upon which metaphorical shoogly peg the hopes of The Young Pretender were hanging that fateful night in history before it was ripped from its post and left to sink into the boggy ground beside his dying followers.

We must hope that whatever the outcome of the next referendum, if there is a next time, we can find a way to let the ghosts of Culloden be at rest, rather than being invoked for a murky cause that was long ago lost.  However, the reintroduction of a home international to be played at the new Wembley Stadium, well that’s a different matter.  They’ve reinforced the grass there, but have they reinforced their crossbars?


Nairn Viaduct
The River Nairn flows from its source 15 miles south of Inverness, through the broad valley of Strathnairn below Loch Duntelchaig, under the A9 near Daviot, through Drummossie Muir east of Culloden and onward to Nairn and its outflow into the Moray Firth.  While not one of the biggest or best known rivers in Scotland, it flows past some of the most important landmarks in our history including Culloden, Clava Cairns and Cawdor Castle.

The main railway from central Scotland to the north here takes a long sweeping detour east and back again before reaching Inverness.  The course of the River Nairn and the wide, flat plain through which it meanders presented a significant barrier to the railway engineers and the Nairn Viaduct became the solution to avoiding the flood plain and the steep gradient on both sides of the valley.  In Barnard’s time the Highland Railway headed northeast from Aviemore (then just a railway station and a few houses) before turning north to Forres, crossing the Dava Moor from where peat was once cut to supply many distilleries.

Nairn Viaduct

The Nairn Viaduct is the longest in Scotland at 549 metres and it was opened in 1898.  I didn’t know it existed until it swung into view as I drove the short distance from Culloden to Clava and it was therefore all the more striking as a result of not being expected.  The sweeping line of this elevated track creates a new horizon above the valley floor as it carries a main artery of our transport network to the capital of the Highlands.  I couldn’t linger too long though as the light was fading and my visit here was not to find new horizons but to step far back in time.


Clava Cairns
Southeast of Culloden is where our journey round the prehistoric stones of Northern Scotland nears its end.  There will be a couple more to consider but the Clava Cairns and their surrounding stone circles are both intriguing and inspiring and I have wanted to visit this place since first studying archaeology.

Northeast passage grave cairn with stone circle
The three main cairns at Clava have been dated to the Bronze Age in Scotland around 2000 B.C.  They don’t have the same high profile as the much larger rings of standing stones and burial chambers on Orkney, in the Kilmartin valley and at Callanish, yet these cairns are impressive and complex structures and have provided vital clues to the lives, beliefs and rituals of our ancestors.  The site is maintained by Historic Scotland who provide an interpretation on notice boards there.

Southwest passage grave cairn
Two of the cairns were passage graves and their entranceways were aligned to the Midwinter Solstice when the setting sun would shine directly on the back wall of the inner chamber.  The cairns have since been robbed of their domed tops and layers of the surrounding rubble; the likely single occupants of the graves and their belongings long since gone.

Central cairn looking southwest
The central structure is a ring cairn which seems to have had a more ceremonial purpose.  One of the most striking features of all three cairns is the graduated heights of the large main slabs inside the central chambers, of the kerb stones around the outside and the stone circles that extend beyond.  An esoteric colour pattern to these stones adds another dimension to the site.

There is a stark contrast between these large cairns, each built to commemorate the life of one individual, and the solemn single grave stones marking the resting place of many clansmen at nearby Culloden.  It took 135 years for the Culloden graves to be marked after the battle; at Clava the cairns have remained for four millennia.  I wonder which will remain and be commemorated four millennia from now, and will they still lie in the dawn shadow of a bridge across the sky?