Culloden Battlefield, Clava Cairns and Clootie Wells

Formal tours are a great thing. First and foremost, someone else is driving. If they are good, they will not only drive, but back-up, turn around and generally maneuver in places that you were certain they could not all for the sake of the perfect photo. We had all of that and more in Hugh Allison.

Hugh was doing an Outlander tour. For those of you who have read The Outlander series, you will know what this means. For those of you who have not, it simply means that we were able to see places relevant to the book, some real, some that just fit the author’s fictitious places. Hugh was a wealth of information, and a published author. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and I would be amiss if I did not say that if you ever needed a tour in the Highlands of Scotland, Hugh Allison would be your man.

I also should mention the others who were on the tour, if only because we crashed at the last minute. Michelle was a huge fan of the Outlander books, her husband and son, not so much. Mark and Josh hung in there with admirable patience, considering the subject matter. Mark was quick-witted and generally happy, and Josh was a model of politeness, gallantly taking the back seat without complaint.

We started at Clava Cairns,  There are three separate cairns here, two for holding the souls of the dead until they continue on their way in the afterlife, and one for cremating the bodies. They also served as a giant sundial and calendar for the people who lived 3500 years ago. If you visit during the December Solstice, you can see the sun stream through the opening at sunset.

There are also various standing stones, one of which is split.   For those of you who have read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, I did not hear the stones scream at me, which was something of a disappointment. Maybe I should come back on All Hallows Eve and try again.

There is a fourth rudimentary stone ring which gives the appearance of an attempt to create something like the other rings, though it doesn’t meet the mark. Scientists discovered  it was an attempt to create a ring like the others, 1000 years later by  studying peat samples below the surface of the earth. These peat samples indicate that there was a period of seven years where this part of the earth was covered in darkness, and nothing grew and many things died. The event that caused this was the eruption of a volcano that permanently cooled this region, as it had been a warm and temperate climate prior to the eruption. When the sun finally was able to show through the ash cloud, we had entered into the bronze age, where the inhabitants didn’t quite have the knack for creating the stone monoliths from a thousand years prior.  After tromping round Clava Cairns and discussing time travel theory, and then whether or not we could actually cope with being transported 200 years back (Hello!?, it’s fiction!) we headed to Culloden Moor.

Outside the visitors center, the wall has a brick that stands proud for each Highlander that fell.
Inside the visitors center, the visitor gets the perspective of the British on the left side of the exibit, and the Highlanders on the right, and follows the developments leading up to the fateful battle that occurred on April 16, 1746. At the end of the walk through there is a 360 degree theater where film plays with a reenactment of the battle with the Scottish Highlanders stretched out roughly halfway around and the British opposing, with the visitors standing in between to understand the perspective.  The battle itself lasted less than an hour, but within the first three minutes, 700 Highlanders lay dead on the cold, wet moore, while the English army lost only 50, with 250 wounded. The Duke of Cumberland, wanting to make sure such a rebellion never happened again, sent troops all through Scotland to burn the cottages and dwellings, frequently shooting Highlanders regardless of (and sometimes not even asking) their sympathies, and turning women and children out of their homes to starve. He was nicknamed The Butcher. All in all, a very sobering experience.  Once you exit the theater, there is an exhibit with weapons to handle that were commonly found during that historical time.
After we finished the exhibit, we headed outside to walk the battlefield.  The technical gadget used to walk to the battle field looked like a smart phone, but was a satellite receiver.  All over the field were places that triggered the device to play audio that explained the particular place you were standing in and what happened in the battle at that place.  Diagrams showed on the screen in explanation as well as picture of the key people in the battle and a brief description of their significance.
Hugh Allison knew quite a bit of the history and many stories from the tradition of Highland Storytelling through his work as a private tour guide and from his time working in the visitors center at Culloden.  One of these stories is about Leanach Cottage which was occupied by a family of five in 1841.  Through the years it was alternately abandoned and occupied until Bella MacDonald moved in and stayed until 1912  when she died at the age of 80.  The building is made of stone, but has dirt floors and a roof of heather.
The Well of the Dead is one of the most famous markers on the field among the clan grave stones.  It marks the place where Alexander MacGillivray fell in battle, and also one of the sites of heaviest casualties.
Here is where I also found good displays of the famous Scottish Heather, which had just started blooming in early August.

The Thistle has been the national emblem of Scotland since the reign of Alexander III in the 13th century, and it also grows wild on Culloden.
After the battlefield, we headed to Cromarty Firth but stopped at a Clootie well.  What is a Clootie well? A Clootie well is a place where ailing souls go to rid themselves of their infirmities.  Different theories abound. It must be done on the 1st of May; you must circle the well three times chanting a Celtic prayer, or possibly dip the article of clothing associated with the illness, ie; stocking from an ulcerative foot,  in the well before hanging it on the tree. No matter how many theories there are regarding the placement of the clothing, the one certain thing that everyone seems to agree on is one must never remove something that you didn’t hang, because if you do, you will take on the ailment of the individual who did put it up.
Tomorrow I will continue with Part II of the Outlander Tour, to include Cromarty and Beauly.
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Spynie Palace and Elgin Cathedral


The morning after arriving in Inverness, John asked us what we planned on seeing.  He then asked if we were fans of the Outlander series books, to which I said yes, Robyn not so much a fan was more tentative.  He asked if the next day we might be interested in joining an organized “Outlander” tour with another family staying at Ardconnel House.  We told him with some trepidation that we might be interested, but we didn’t want to trespass on the other family’s outing.  He pointed out that the more people that go the cheaper it would be, and thought we’d be a good match.  We agreed to let him negotiate the deal, and he could let us know that evening.


We did a self guided tour of Culloden and Clava Cairns, but since we would end up going back the next day, I plan on covering those in the next post.  Spynie Palace was built in the 12th century on  Spynie Loch and is 36 miles East of Inverness. It served as the Bishops seat for the Bishops of Moray for 500 years.  It was a fortified dwelling, and was referred to as Spynie Castle.  There was unrest about it’s location, as it was far from market and difficult to defend, hence the added gun holes in 1500.  Eventually it was moved to Elgin Cathedral 2.5 miles west to the city of Elgin.  Here is a link to read more about Spynie Castle.

There were two things that amazed me about this place.  The first was that it had been on Spynie Loch–a lake–where now there is none.  Over time the silt and earth filled in the Loch naturally creating dry land.

The second was the kitchen space, which was amazingly large, and sufficiently impressive to allow them to entertain any number of important people over the years.  James I, James II, James the IV and Mary Queen of Scotts all have stayed at this place that must have been quite impressive at one time.

I found photography difficult here with the camera I had brought with me.  I used a Sony PAS, with a really good zoom and panoramic capability.  I had thought at the planning stages that it would be easier than my Cannon EOS 50, because it’s lighter and easier to travel with, and the panorama function is so easy.  While the photo’s are not bad, I didn’t have a lot of flexibility in my shots.  Wide angle was out of the question, and while panorama is a nice feature, wide angle for some of these might have been a better choice.  Just another reason to go back with the right camera.

I found the same pangs of regret at the next stop, which was Elgin Cathedral in Elgin.  A very wide, flat open space, it was difficult to photograph to my liking.

As I mentioned earlier, Elgin is 2.5 miles from Spynie, and we were pleased that when we arrived it was still open.  I had been continually surprised by the short summer hours of most things in the UK, closing promptly at 5:30 when there is still so much daylight left in the day.

Upon arrival and parking, which turned out to be really easy as we were able to park at the curb right across the street, we were amazed at the entrance.

The first church on this site was built in the 13th century, but burned with much of the town in 1390 on the orders of Alexander Stewart, Wolf of Badenoch.  For the next 200 years it was slowly repaired until it fell in 1560 during the reformation when the congregation moved to Saint Giles in Elgin and the lead roof was stripped and the bells were taken.  It is known even now as The Lantern of the North.  Without a roof, it’s degradation became more rapid, until 1807 when a cobbler took measures to halt further decay.

They have a wonderful gift shop on the premises where the employees were willing to help us with anything.  This included pulling out a map and showing us wonderful places to drive and see.

“If you take this road here, it is the most beautiful drive.  You won’t be disappointed,” the young girl behind the counter said.

Robyn and I squinted at the tiny road on the map that most certainly did not look like an A road or even a B road.

I cleared my throat.  “Um, those aren’t single track carraigeways, are they?”

The young girl looked up, nonplussed as if this shouldn’t matter.  “Well, yes they are.”

We smiled.  “I think we are done with anything that doesn’t have two lanes.  But thank you for the suggestion.”

She truly looked disappointed.  Maybe I’ll give a try the next time I’m there.