Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that: The Scotlanders take on the Jacobite Trail challenge
We all know they had a Bonnie Prince, but who really were the Jacobites? The latest Scotlanders expedition brought us to almost every corner of Scotland in search of their stories. Outlander has brought the Risings to the international stage in spectacular fashion, with visitor numbers already reaching all-time highs at certain filming sites. In that spirit we took to the Jacobite Trail, a new network of 26 sites with connections to all eras and sides of the Jacobite Risings. From war-torn castles and somber battlefields to marvels of nature like Glencoe, it’s a marvellous journey.
As if the #JacobiteTrailblazer challenge wasn’t tough enough already, I decided to take my usual castle hunting approach and cycle to each site. Two days and over 90 miles later I was having to convince myself that getting saddle sore was just part of the authentic experience. I covered the northeast from Inverurie to Inverness, stopping off at Fyvie Castle, Leith Hall, Brodie Castle, Fort George, Culloden and a couple cheeky bonus sites.
Meanwhile Neil was close by on the Aberdeenshire castle trail taking in fairytale sights like Craigievar Castle; Patricia took to the Great Glen and its mighty castle at Urquhart before setting foot Bonnie Prince Charlie-style at Glenfinnan; Laura was at Outlander hot spots like Doune Castle, the stand-in for Castle Leoch, and marveled at a redcoat soldier’s 18ft leap over a rocky gorge; and Kay had a capital time around Edinburgh. We all convened for the unveiling of the new and immaculately curated exhibiton at the National Museum of Scotland, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites.
Until this trip, Fyvie Castle taunted me as the one fairytale Aberdeenshire castle I hadn’t been to yet. It was worth the wait. The scale and grandeur of the castle is amplified by the stunning grounds it inhabits, and you get tantalising glimpses of the castle as you approach along a path flanked by trees and a loch. Perhaps I put Fyvie off because I lean towards the older, starker castles rather than the more palatial ones – so I was delighted to learn that Fyvie started life as a stout keep with timber walls around 1200 CE. William the Lion, Edward I of England and Robert Bruce all count amongst Fyvie’s guests – some more welcome than others, to be sure.
One of the aspects of the Jacobite Trailblazer trip that will stay with me for a long time were the many stories and anecdotes that seem straight out of a historical drama. In 1746 the Hanoverian troops passed Fyvie en route to Culloden, and Lady Ann Gordon – sister of an ardent Jacobite – took her son, William, to watch the procession. The Duke of Cumberland himself stopped for a word, gave young William an orange – a symbol of Hanoverian rule – and said, “I can only hope that your son will one day prove as loyal an adherent to the House of Hanover as your brother has been to the House of Stuart.” What veiled menace!
Twenty-nine miles and two sore legs later I arrived at Leith Hall, where the National Trust for Scotland staff welcomed me despite looking like I was fresh from a battle myself. It was worth it. Leith Hall is a gem of a place tucked into the hills south of Huntly, it’s near-symmetry standing out amongst idyllic grounds.
The castle itself isn’t the only towering feature at Leith Hall. It was host to Andrew Hay, a 7’2” Jacobite who joined the long march to Derby and was first through the gates at Manchester. Way to make an entrance! Hay hid at Leith Hall following Culloden, and proved himself worthy of pantomime stardom – he narrowly escaped capture by dressing as a maid and feigning illness in bed. The Hanoverian troops so feared contagion that they took only the briefest peek through the door into the bedchamber; anything more than a fleeting glance and they would have spotted burly legs sticking far out of the sheets.
It felt apt that I visited Brodie Castle on my way to Culloden, for Brodie family history has the Hanoverian troops camping in the local woods en route to their bloody business. I was therefore sure to be extra vigilant for redcoat ambushes as I walked my bike through what’s now called the ’45 Wood. Thankfully on arrival at the castle I was greeted by smiles and incredibly knowledgeable staff instead of a hail of musket fire. Some guides were feisty, such as the one who epically photobombed my #bonnieselfie, but in a good way that made clear how passionate they are about what they do!
Alexander, 19th Brodie, was a staunch government loyalist during the Jacobite campaign, and although he didn’t fight at Culloden a visit to his home certainly ramped up the anticipation which had steadily built on my road to the battlefield. The castle boasts an incredible library and some striking features such as the Brodie symbol – a fist clutching three arrows – projecting down from a ceiling. It’s also a great example of how towers changed and were added to over the centuries, so from a castle hunter’s point of view it was a great stop on the Trail.
A great, bristling behemoth, Fort George is the largest artillery fort in northern Europe. Its walls extend for over a kilometer and they can harbor a garrison 2,200 strong equipped with 2,500 barrels of gunpowder. The bill came to over one billion pounds in today’s terms. Such was the Hanoverian government’s fear of another rising in the Highlands even after the Battle of Culloden. Yet for all that, Fort George never fired a shot in anger. Sometimes history has a sense of irony.
The sheer scale of the place means you can easily spend a day here, with fans of Regimental history and Napoleonic-era militaria in for a real treat. You can spot dolphins playing in the Firth from the walls if you’re lucky, and the fact that it is still very visibly an active military site puts an interesting twist on the visitor experience. It’s now, thankfully, a far cry from ‘Fort Misery’, the name 18th century trainees gave to the fort given its then-extreme isolation.
Here they fought. Here we remember. The battlefield of Culloden is a sacred site of somber reflection to many Scots, for it was here that in a shockingly violent and brief battle thousands died in the desperate final gasp of the House of Stuart. There is little I could say here to convey the emotive gravity of the place, and the experience at the visitor centre is visceral, tragic and enlightening in equal measure. Having frequented many battlefields before, including Bannockburn where I was a ‘Battlemaster’ for two years, I was still left speechless. I did a live video on Periscope you can watch here here, but found myself nearly lost for words when the time came. Scotland is a place where the echoes of the past are still heard by those who choose to listen, and its music is often bittersweet.
National Museum of Scotland Exhibition
‘Wow’ really does sum it up. The Scotlanders were treated to a private tour on the night of the exhbition’s grand opening by David Forsyth, lead curator, and in between being impressed by the beauty and rigour of it all we were scrambling to take sufficient notes to do it justice.
One of the real virtues of the exhibition is that it emphasizes the international dimension of the Jacobites. While Scotland does indeed take centre stage in their story, you can’t talk about the Jacobites without talking about France, Ireland, Spain, Italy and many others. It also shines the spotlight on the ‘other’ Jacobite Risings besides the ’45, of which many are unaware: 1689-92, 1708, 1715-16, and 1719. As a history geek I was delighted by this – after all, it was during the 1715 Rising at the Battle of Sheriffmuir that the Jacobites likely had their best-ever chance of success, and it was during the 1708 Rising that now-iconic Eilean Donan Castle was blown to smithereens.
We were also pleasantly surprised there by Andrew Gower, who plays the Bonnie Prince himself in Outlander. That’s as close to meeting royalty as I’m ever like to get!
Take your first step on the trail
You can follow in our footsteps by retracing the #JacobiteTrailblazer hashtag across social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Periscope. The exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland is unmissable, but if you can’t make it along there are tons of ways to discover the Jacobite Trail including its dedicated website. The Trail and exhibition were made possible with cooperation from Historic Environment Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland, the National Museum of Scotland, VisitScotland and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and each has loads of online info to get you started. It’s all a part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, a year-long celebration of Scotland’s…well, you can probably guess. Tune in with #HHA2017 for all the latest, and of course get out and see the 26 sites yourself!
I also appeared on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out for the Weekend programme alongside fellow Scotlander Neil, and you can listen to our chat about all things Jacobite here: