The Highlands are full of beautiful places and Glenfinnan is one of them. It lies on low ground at the head of Loch Shiel, surrounded by the mountains of Ardgour, Moidart and Lochaber. If you look east an imposing Victorian railway viaduct somehow seems to fit in the wild and remote landscape. If you stand with your back to the viaduct and look west, even under a leaden sky Loch Shiel is a silvery-white ribbon of light threading between the dramatic tumbling slopes of Meall a' Bhainne and Beinn Odhar Mhor to Loch Moidart and the sea. But there are a couple of other things to note at Glenfinnan, things you wouldn’t normally expect to find at your average beauty spot. One is a small visitor centre and the other, standing on the shore at the head of the loch, is an eye-catching stone column, nearly sixty feet tall, supporting a life-size figure of a Highlander in the dress of an early nineteenth century clan chieftain. Both the visitor centre and the monument are here because one day in August 1745 a charismatic young man, an Italian speaker and who had never previously set foot on British soil, was rowed up Loch Shiel to Glenfinnan by a handful of followers. Here he raised his standard of red and white silk and proclaimed his father as King James VIII of Scotland and King James III of England. The series of events which started here would lead to the United Kingdom’s last civil war, the panicked evacuation of London, the shaking of the British monarchy to its very foundations, the last pitched battle ever fought on British soil, and so very nearly change the course of British, European and World history.
I had stood for over an hour in the drizzle by the side of the road in Fort William trying to hitch a lift to Glenfinnan, but it passes pleasantly enough when you’re day-dreaming of being picked up by a blonde sexaholic heiress. I wonder what the chances are? I’d probably still be there now if a nice man out walking his dog hadn’t told me to walk a few hundred yards down the road to where a 30mph speed limit and a lay-by made it much more likely that people would stop for me. At my age it’s well over thirty years since I last tried to hitch a lift. Given that a hitch-hiker is a rare sight these days I had no idea whether I’d get any lifts at all, and if I did get a lift it would almost certainly be with a bunch of hairy-arsed Jocks in a builders van. I was just starting to think that I was an idiot, my project was stupid, and that maybe I should just go to the pub when a car indicated to stop. As the car flashed past I was confused when I thought I saw the driver was a young woman. But when I did climb in I confirmed that not only the driver was indeed an attractive young woman but she had her tiny baby strapped in the back! Now this is my sort of independent, fearless and open-minded young lady! In the nanosecond she’d had in which to decide whether to stop she clearly had the perception to realise I was a harmless non-entity and not an axe rapist. I bet she’s never seen ‘The Hitcher’.
Annie was from Glasgow and visiting her parents in Glenfinnan. Una was four months old and Annie’s first baby. We briefly discussed the Jacobites but soon moved onto independence. She said that she was undecided, she wasn’t sure that it really was the big deal that everyone was making it out to be and that it might do the Scots some good to stand on their own feet and stop blaming everything on the English. Hmm, not sure if that “undecided” isn’t really a polite version of “piss off you English bastard” but I’ll take it at face value. So,
Union 0: Independence 0: Nae That Bothered 1
When prompted she agreed the whole independence movement could disappear were it not for the political skills of Alex Salmond who she described as “probably the best politician in the UK”. On sectarianism, she said it was rife in Glasgow where like Belfast there were parts of town that were Catholic-only and parts that were Protestant-only but that things were definitely improving. I asked if it were really necessary to have all the Highland road signs in Gaelic as well as English or was it just a politically correct sop to the colonies to help keep them enslaved. She said that in the Highlands and particularly the Western Isles there were plenty of people who spoke Gaelic not only as a first language but sometimes as an only language. She said there’d recently been a strong revival of awareness of local culture and that she herself had learned Gaelic out of interest. I felt honoured to have travelled with Annie even for just a few minutes. A composed, intelligent and self-assured lady.
Despite being run by the National Trust for Scotland, the visitor centre at Glenfinnan gives a very superficial account of the Jacobite Rising and for £3.50 I thought it was a bit of a swizz. The monument however is something else.
There is a stone perimeter wall around the monument and set into this wall are three black cast-iron panels, each taller than me and bearing the same inscription in English, Latin and Gaelic:
On the spot where Prince Charles Edward Stuart first raised his standard on the 19th day of August 1745 when he made the daring and romantic attempt to recover a throne lost by the imprudence of his ancestors. This column was erected by Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale, to commemorate the generous zeal, the undaunted bravery and the inviolable fidelity of his forefathers and to the rest of those who fought and bled in that arduous and unfortunate enterprise.
Moving stuff. I climbed the narrow, steep and treacherous internal circular steps of the column and stood breathless in the tiny space at the foot of the Highlander. The view down Loch Shiel from sixty feet high was achingly evocative and it took little imagination to picture a small boat picking its way up the loch with its precious royal cargo. The view of one foot away however was downright offensive. This statue is meant to commemorate the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and those who fought in it, right? This bloke’s dressed about a century out of date and in his sharp threads he looks like he’s off for a night on the pull at a Hogmanay Ball rather than a treasonous rebellion which could well end in his grisly execution. Ferchrissakes, I know the whole business has been romanticised but this is taking the piss. Tear the fucking thing down. They may have been barely human savages but they deserve better than this!
Behind the visitor centre there’s a viewing point for both the monument and the railway viaduct, which itself is famous for appearing in several Harry Potter films. As I climbed up the steep slope I was therefore concerned I might find the top covered with yank families gawping an the viaduct and saying “Gee Pop!”, but instead there were few people around and all were looking west at the stunning view of the loch. Having said that, Mike and Dawn, all barbour’d and wellie’d and up from Somerset knew little about the Jacobites but had “seen all the ‘Arry Potter films!” They also claimed to love Scotland and were going to come more often now that their teenage daughters were able to be left by themselves. Mike on independence:
“Well you’d think Great Britain would be better orf as a whole, coz Scotland is a relatively small country, I mean Great Britain is a small country, you’d think we’d be better orf together.”
Lovely people. It was time for a pint and a sandwich so I trudged up the road to the Glenfinnan House Hotel where according to its website there was “an atmospheric collection of paintings, most with a Jacobite theme”. When I got there I completely forgot the paintings, but as I was his only patron I did have a good chat with Stefan, the Polish barman. Now I know that I’m a bad person who will burn in pits of fire for all eternity but I never fail to be amused when I hear a non-English speaker speak English with a British regional accent, and Stefan’s Polish/Scottish “Aye, nae bother” was a classic of the genre. He said that a third of his customers were Jacobite hunters, a third were outdoor enthusiasts, and a third were Americans looking for where great-great-great uncle Hamish used to brew his hooch before he was shipped out to the New World during the clearances. To my shame and embarrassment he also reminded me of the Polish connection to The Prince. Indeed, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mother was Maria Klementyna Sobieska, granddaughter of Polish King John III, still a national hero in his homeland for defeating the Turks in the 1683 Battle of Vienna after which he was hailed as the saviour of European Christendom by the Pope. And weren’t the House of Stuart also descended from Robert The Bruce? With those genes then it’s hardly surprising that The Prince could get a bit uppity.
The very first car leaving the visitor centre car park gave me a lift back to Fort William. Duncan and his teenage son were down from the Orkneys having a week touring around. Now I can’t say I’ve ever given it a great deal of thought, but I never really envisaged meeting anybody from the Orkneys. Duncan was the archetypal dour Scot with caber-tossing arms and legs and a barrel chest. I suspect that he didn’t generally tell a lot of jokes and all in all he was a little intimidating such that I had to screw up my courage to tell him what I was doing and start asking questions. He said he was quite interested in the history of the Highlands but we soon moved on to independence. He was another “nae that bothered”. Maybe twenty or thirty years ago when Scotland had all the oil he might have been more enthusiastic but now he wasn’t so sure, though he did love the way Alex Salmond could “make mincemeat out of those English politicians”.
Union 0: Independence 0: Nae That Bothered 2
He also raised the intriguing prospect that if Scotland got independence then why couldn’t the oil-rich Orkneys go for independence and become an off-shore tax haven like Jersey and Guernsey? He was a big Rangers fan (therefore protestant) but a lot of his friends were Celtic and they could happily sit down to watch an Auld Firm match without stabbing each other. They dropped me at the chippy in the centre of town. I recommended the cod I’d had the night before. “Cod? You want haddock not cod! Cod dinnae taste of anything!” If you say so Duncan. I’d always wondered why it’s cod in England and haddock in Scotland. Now I know. I thanked him for the lift and ran away. I still had things to do before the evening.