Archive for the ‘ Scottish Highlands ’ Category

Scottish Highlands, Castles and Clans; Legends and Reality

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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asbtract: Forget the illusory Loch Ness Monster! Scotland’s Highlands has enticing legends based on real facts. Think Braveheart! Its William Wallace was just the beginning. The tales of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Rob Roy, the Red Robin Hood are as colorful. They are the stuff which gave life to the modern genre of historical novel. I went to look for them in their castles, glens and lochs, sifting through the entangling barnacles attached by the history of kings and Clan chiefs in their tartans and kilts, often in skirmish.


Doune Castle

The sign that welcomed us to Doune Castle recalled the sudden evolution of its fame “from a royal castle to a ridiculously silly film.” Its reference was to the movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a parody of the legends of King Arthur which was mostly shot here by the British film-maker Monty Python in 1974. That widely popular film has been the reason for the influx of tourists to Doune Castle. Tour guides oblige them by providing the visitors with face armor and a sword from the bygone days as they pose before the Castle.  My interest included reality as well as the legends about Scottish castles.

Doune Castle was an imposing medieval stronghold, in the village of Doune some 8 miles south of the fringes of the Scottish Highlands.  Originally built in the 13th century, the Castle was rebuilt in the present form toward the end of the late 14th century by Robert Stewart, then the Regent of Scotland, after suffering damages in the intervening Scottish Wars of Independence. Surviving relatively unchanged, Doune Castle represents the planning of a medieval royal castle with a courtyard in the middle of a range of buildings, two of which were completed. These were a large tower house comprising the rooms for the royal family and another tower with the guest rooms as well as the kitchen. The Castle is now owned and managed by The National Trust for Scotland for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, “the conservation charity that protects and promotes Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage.” The Trust owns 130 properties which include other historic sites as well as castles. Another organization, Historic Scotland which is an agency of the Scottish Government, is responsible for maintaining and running over 360 other historic monuments in Scotland.

Stirling Castle

Among the castles managed by Historic Scotland none is more important historically and architecturally than StirlingCastle.  Although located some 13 kilometers south of Doune, the town of Stirling is still close enough to the Highlands to be called considered as one of its “commercial” centers. The strategic value of this site has always been crucial to all of Scotland. The Castle sits on top of Castle Hill, dominating the plain around it. Steep cliffs on three sides protect it. Castle Hill controls the farthest downstream crossing of the important and long River Forth. This site is in the middle of the small central belt of Scotland where nearly 80% of the population of Scotland lives. The major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are each about 40 kilometers away. No wonder then that Castle Hill has had fortifications from the earliest times.  For a long time whoever occupied it controlled Scotland.

Most of the surviving buildings of the large Stirling Castle date from the 15th and 16th centuries. The Castle, however, hosts legends and history from centuries earlier. The Statue of Scottish King Robert the Bruce dominates the esplanade at the Castle, reminding you that after taking possession of it in 1315, he ordered its fortification destroyed to make it useless in case of reoccupation by his enemy, the English. The English had held Stirling for two years, and would come back to take it again in 1336. This seesawing, in fact, would be repeated several times afterward, as it had been before: in 1303 the Scots took Stirling from the English who had occupied it since 1298, having lost it in 1297 to the Scots led by William Wallace, after holding it since 1296 when Edward, the King of England invaded Scotland and thus began the Wars of Scottish Independence. That War would last for the next 60 years. The English occupation in 1336 was just the beginning of the second phase of the War. Stirling Castle would change hands again. Indeed, several later Scottish Kings and Queens would be crowned at Stirling, including Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

Stirling Castle has been put to siege at least eight times, the last time in 1746 by Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Bonnie (Scottish  for attractive) Prince Charlie was born Prince Charles in Rome to the Old Pretender,  Prince  James, himself the son of exiled Stuart King James II of England. In 1745 Charles landed in Scotland in order to capture the throne for his father from King George of England (and Scotland and Ireland). Bonnie Prince Charlie gained support from the Scottish Highlanders in his Jacobite (after Stuart King James) Catholic uprising against the Protestant English.  His army was successful at first and even took Edinburgh, but within a year he was defeated by the English and spent the next five months as a hunted man, barely keeping ahead of English forces with the help of the Highlanders. Charles’s adventure was short-lived but it spun a legend for him as a romantic hero. Notably, Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott featured him and his 1745 Jacobite Rising in his popular 1814 novel Waverley. Indeed, Bonnie Prince Charlie and others from the Scottish Highlands became main characters in a series of books Scott wrote which were pioneers in the genre of historical novels.

William Wallace

A prominent figure in Scott’s novels is William Wallace from the period of the Wars of Scottish Independence. By defeating the English in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 William Wallace was able to take StirlingCastle. He was made Guardian of Scotland, and served until he was vanquished a year later by the English who in 1305 hanged him.  Little more is known about William Wallace, not even his birthplace and his father’s name. Yet he has achieved an iconic status in Scotland and beyond. As early as the 15th century he was memorialized in an epic poem by Blind Harry, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Noble of Elderslie. In the 19th century Walter Scott re-invigorated Wallace’s reputation in his Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the “Hero of Scotland.”  In our times Wallace’s fame was spread world-wide with the 1995 motion picture Braveheart, a fictionalized account of his life, full of historical inaccuracies, which was a commercial success and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. “Mel Gibson was too short,” grumbled our guide at StirlingCastle. He conceded, however, that the movie in which Gibson played the role of Wallace “doubled the number of tourists to this Castle.”

Rob Roy

Another folk hero of the Highlands, the “Scottish Robin Hood,” did not have to wait centuries to become famous.  Rob Roy, a.k.a. Red MacGregor, became a legend in his own time (1671-1734).  A fictionalized account of his life, The Highland Rogue, was published in 1723. Once again, however, it was Walter Scott who made him known to the wider world. In his 1817 historical novel, Rob Roy, Scott depicts Red (haired) MacGregor as the leader of a band of Highlanders, an upright gentleman who was forced into a life of blackmailing and stealing cattle. He is bold and crafty. He is loved by many and feared by some. He stole from the rich to give to the poor.  In real life, Rob Roy had borrowed money to increase his cattle herd, but his chief herder disappeared with the money, causing Rob to default on the payment of the loan. The lender, the Duke of (Clan) Montrose, foreclosed on Rob’s land and this led to a blood feud and Rob Roy’s fabled adventures. The Duke of Argyll, John Campbell from another Scottish clan, eventually negotiated an amnesty and protection for Rob in return for his surrender to the authorities.


Argyll was the territory of Clan Campbell. Scottish Highland Clans were kinship groups – the Gaelic word clann means progeny – but included other locals who accepted the authority of the dominant family in the vicinity. Notwithstanding their claims to mythological Celtic founders, clans emerged in the 13th century when the Scottish monarchs’ termination of the Norsemen’s rule over lands in western Highlands, such as Argyll, created a space for the resident warlords to dominate local families who sought their protection.  King Robert the Bruce enhanced the clans’ position by granting them land in return for their support against the English during the early 14th century Wars of Scottish Independence. The Civil War of the 17th century pitted Scottish clans against each other. Some like Clan Campbell backed the anti-British Covenanters (bonding against religious impositions from England), more based on their own political interests than out of (Jacobite) love for the Scottish house of Stuart, while other Clans such as Clan Gordon supported the Royalists followers of the British Charles I, mainly because they were opposed to the Campbells and other Jacobite Clans. Yet in the folklore of Scottish Jacobites the Highlanders came to symbolize patriotic purity as against the corruption of the Union with England.

The suppression of the Jacobite Rising in 1745 undermined the system of clanship in Scotland. Troops from Great Britain undertook what amounted to ethnic cleansing, killing many and displacing others from clans who had supported the Jacobite cause. The mass forced emigration to other parts of Scotland and the North American colonies has come to be known as the Highland Clearances.  On the other hand, in support of the government, chiefs of some other clans formed what became known as the British Highland Regiments, primarily to safeguard their own interests as landowners. Only these clans were allowed to continue wearing Highland dress, especially tartan, which had come to be used for a sense of clan identity; others were barred so as to quash any further threat of a Jacobite type insurrection. This ban was not lifted until 1782 through the efforts of the Highland Society of London led by the Duke of Montrose. The rehabilitation of highland culture soon followed.

The Ossian cycle of epic poems published in 1736–1796 is credited with creating an international romantic vision of Highlands.  The author, James Macpherson, offered translations of what he claimed was poetry by the ancient Gaelic bard Ossian.  Works of Walter Scott further popularize the idealized image of the Highlands. His literary contribution aside, Scott’s singular success was the choreography of the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. The monarch wore tartan and kilt. His trip resulted in a huge increase in demand for tartans and kilts. Individual clans now came to identify themselves with their own unique tartans. Tartans, indeed, became a primary symbol of Scottish identity. Soon all of Scotland identified with the culture of the Highlands, a phenomenon called Highlandism which was augmented by Queen Victoria’s interest in Scotland and “tartenry”, and her many trips to the Highlands.


Queen Victoria often stayed in or close to Callander, a small town which had become a popular “health resort” since the Scottish Railway reached it in 1859. After a visit in 1869, the Queen expressed her delight with the people and the surroundings of Callander, although she described it as having “a few good houses and many poor ones.” Today Callander is considered a “typical Victorian town” with a single street. On that street one finds such stores as Blythswood Care which offers “Christian Care for Body and Soul.” In the main square of town, there is a monument to the soldiers who died in WW I . Across the monument, on the day of my visit, volunteers were collecting donations for “our heroes” in the current Afghanistan war. One pound bought you three tickets to a lottery with the winning prize being one of the donated bottles of beer.

Callander also hosts a “Rob Roy & Trossachs Visitor Centre.” It is the largest town in the Trossachs National Park which is among the most beautiful natural attractions in Scotland.  This area was the stomping ground of Rob Roy, but also where the Argyll and Montrose Clans had fought battles as early as 1645. Callander is located in a thickly wooded valley of lochs (lakes). The Callander Crags visible from the town are a part of the Highland Boundary Fault. Callander’s location has given it the name the “Gateway to the Highlands.”


The Boundary Fault crosses mainland Scotland in a near straight line from the town of Stonehaven in the east to the town of Helensburgh in the west. It has left two distinctly separate geological terrains, the Highlands to its north and the Lowlands to its south. Scotland is a part of the North American plate, an extension of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern United States. The Highlands section which we were now touring was largely composed of ancient rocks from the Cambrian periods uplifted during the Caledonian Orogeny (mountain building era) about 400-500 million years ago, our guide said.  Periods of glacial activities have “scalped the landscape” by creating boulders and lakes. This was followed by a period of forestation.  The Romans called Scotland Caledonia which in the pre-Celtic language meant hard or rock. Our guide said:. “To the Romans, who never conquered more than half of Scotland, Caledonia also meant a wild country because of Scotland’s forests, consisting of mostly Norwegian pines, which at one time covered 90% of the land.” Much of that forest has been cut for farming, the guide continued.

Driving north of Callander for miles we saw only a few mountain peaks. There were more green gentle slopes .  Occasionally, there were small forests of pines and lakes , but only rare settlements with very few structures. In the 1880s this area became sheep country, our local guide said. We were able, however, to see a Highland  Cow, the “oldest registered breed of cattle.” For centuries the Highlands breed had lived in the rugged remote Scottish land. Not any longer; this Highland Cow, Hamish, was kept as a novelty for tourists.  As a sign explained its looks:  “The extremely harsh conditions created a process of natural selection,… with long horns and long wavy coats.”  The American cattlemen appreciated “the qualities of the Highland animal and imported them to improve the blood lines of their herds. As a result, the Highland contributed in a great way to the success of the American cattle industry.”

The Campbells

A competing theory in the etymology of Caledonia as the name for the Highlands attributes it to the Celtic Caledonii, one of the several tribes living here in ancient times. Since then different Celtic peoples and Norwegian Vikings, among others, have moved to the Highlands, creating a “melting pot,” in the words of our local guide.  Now, however, the Highlands, with its 230,100 people, is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world, having lost many persons in the 19th century due to a combination of the killing and displacing of many and the outlawing of the traditional way of life, following the Jacobite Rising, and mass migration to the urban centers during the Industrial Revolution.

For a glance at the past and future of the leadership of this changing population of the Highlands we went to the ancestral and current homes of a principal Clan which we had already encountered, the Campbells.  From the road we walked the path of  few hundred yards, lined in places with wild pink foxtail flowers toward the ruins of Kilchurn Castle.  An osprey dove for fish into the lake to our right. This was Loch Awe, one of the Highland’s largest freshwater lakes. It was around this lake that Clan Campbell established itself as one of the Highlands’ most powerful families. There were other Argyll clans that populated the lands surrounding the lake -the Macarthurs, MacGregors and Stewarts- but only the remains of the CampbellCastle now stand here. The ruins of these 15th and 17th century structures are so picturesque that they are among the most photographed sites in Scotland.

Kilchurn Castle

Kilchurn was built on a small island in Loch Awe which was not much larger than the Castle itself. Sir Colin Campbell, the first Lord of Glen Orchy, built the first structures here around 1450. It was a five story tall tower house which had a courtyard. Here and in other spots among the ruins signs told the story of the evolution of Kilchurn from which “the Campbells of Glen Orchy began their rise to become one of the most powerful dynasties in Scotland.” We climbed what was left of the tower and noted that it looked onto Loch Awe. A map showed how it dominated the valley  (Glen) of Orchy, ensuring the Campbells’ rule over the area..

An outer wall defended this castle. Lake Awe was all  around  the island on which it stood. Within fifty years an additional hall was added, and other structures followed in the next two centuries. This was a “Cultured Castle” as a sign in a room said . “Visitors to Kilchurn were entertained with music and Gaelic poetry in the hall where you are now standing. The richly decorated room reflected the high status of their noble hosts.” The master masons’ marks on the portal of the Castle spoke of the large sums used to construct it. “Those days, masons were very much in demand and well-paid,” the local guide reminded us.

Toward the end of the 16th century, the Campbells changed their main residence to Fincharn Castle on the southwest shore of Loch Awe. In 1681 when their chief was made the First Earl of Breadalbane, the Campbells turned the Kilchurn Castle into a barracks, housing 200 troops during the Jacobite Rising. From 1715 to 1745, it was used as a British Government garrison. Toward the end, the Campbells chiefs tried unsuccessfully, to sell Kilchurn to the government. They had by now moved to Taymouth Castle in the northeast of the Highlands. In 1760, a major storm and lightning badly damaged Kilchurn Castle. The turret of a tower toppled upside-down in the courtyard which we saw was the evidence of the violence of that storm. Consequently, Kilchurn was completely abandoned.

Inveraray Castle

In the 1740s, the 3rd Duke of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, built a country house near the village of Inveraray on Loch Fyne, Scotland’s longest sea loch, which has since been the seat of his descendants.  The incumbent chief, the 13th Duke of Argyll and his family live in this Inveraray Castle. They occupy two floors and allow the public to visit several other rooms, for a fee. “That fee is to help pay for the maintenance of the Castle,” an attendant explained to me. “The public viewing is only in the summer, until October when the family comes back from vacation.”

The Castle is of the neo-Gothic design. The interior rooms I could see had collections of tapestries and paintings, notably a portrait of Queen Charlotte which that wife of King George III had given to the then Duke of Argyll. There were also items of special interest to the members of the Campbell clan, including a few mementoes from Rob Roy McGregor, such as his sporran (pouch) and dirk (knife) handle.

The Castle’s soaring central Armory Hall boasts of being the “highest room” in Scotland. The current Duke is the Captain of the “Elephant Polo” team that “twice” won the “world championship,” we were informed. He cuts a dashing figure in framed pictures that crowd the top of a grand piano in another, larger, room. This is where the family entertains when in residence. The photos also show the other members of the family. Amidst them, I was surprised to find a picture of the actress Audrey Hepburn. “Why her picture?” I asked an attendant.  “It is put there so that you would ask,” he said. “Actually, it was Frederick Loewe who was a guest here and he composed some of the original music of My Fair Lady right on that grand piano.” Hepburn only played Lisa Doolittle in that musical, but she was a far more attractive and familiar face for the tourists.  At the Castle’s souvenir shop a big poster of Downton Abbey TV series, the “Christmas” episode of which was shot in this Castle, greeted the tourists with another famous face: Maggie Smith stood in the middle of the other actors of the popular show.

The 3rd Duke of Argyll also re built much of Inveraray which is surrounded by his Castle and its 16-acre garden in an estate of 60,000 acres. The town is now mainly a street full of shops and restaurants catering to tourists. The street ends in a splendid beach at the salty Loch Fyne . I stood on that beach, on this last day of my short stay in Highlands, and let my imagination take me to the late 8th century when other visitors, the Vikings from Norway, came to this lake in their formidable longship – the legendary “monster”? They stayed in the Highlands for centuries.