A Journey into Scotland … Part 30
Glenfinnan is as splendid as it was unexpected. On any list of the most magnificently located monuments, this must feature. And I mean world wide, not just in Britain. The memorial itself may not have the absolute wow factor of the Statue of Liberty or Christ the Redeemer at Rio de Janeiro but the combination of the statuary and the setting is remarkable.
I’m keen to ride on and get to the fabled Isle of Skye but this route resists any impulse to rush. I don’t intend spending an hour sitting under a sixty foot column, with a kilted Highlander atop, simply staring down the length of a Scottish loch. But that’s exactly what I end up doing. I had hardly been denied the sight of lochs for the last few days. I’d been thrilled by them but, like Romeo at the Capulet’s party, I had ne’er seen true beauty til this day. I sit for an hour and do little other than look and marvel and soak in the sheer pleasure of being there.
Loch Shiel takes peacefulness to a whole new level. It’s isolated. No major road or railway line goes up and down the shore of this loch. In fact, nothing much bigger than a track. Mountains rise on either side yet fold in spurs of natural symmetry. Eagles are seen here and I’m prepared to wait. They don’t arrive but I don’t begrudge the time. The whole journey has been to find a way of taking my mind to places where it can see things differently; can see things more clearly. It is a place of great solitude. For shape and elegance I have seen no better mountains in Scotland yet these are rarely climbed. They don’t quite meet the 3000 feet that would make them Munros and therefore don’t attract the Munro Baggers. I think this is a good thing. Part of the beauty of Scotland is it’s remoteness. It isn’t a big country but it can certainly feel big. Trees grow more naturally here than in other parts of the country. They soften the landscape and add depth and simplicity. I’m the only person here and I feel at one.
This is a place where Scottish history and geography meet; and as with much Scottish history there are two versions; the real and the romanticised. The latter has become much better known.
Charles Edward Stuart is an interesting character. There are two recorded version of him. One the drunken, morbid, womanising egotist who fought for the restoration of a Catholic Monarchy but failed and was quite prepared to convert to the protestant faith if this would help his cause. As Groucho Marx famously said. “If you don’t like my principles, don’t worry, I have others.” The reverse side is of the most romantic of all the Scottish heroes; the Young Pretender, the lad who was born to be king and, of course, Bonnie Prince Charlie.
He was nothing if not ambitious. He’d hoped the French would provide him with an invasion army to reclaim the crowns of England and Scotland (by this time united into Great Britain) and Ireland, for the house of Stuart. He eventually landed from a French frigate on the Island of Eriskay. Far from an invading army. He landed with seven companions. Undaunted they rowed the length of Loch Shiel and were met at Glenfinnan by a small number of MacDonalds. News of his arrival spread through the Highlands and over the next few days clansmen made their way to Glenfinnan. Camerons, McPhees and MacDonnells arrived and on Monday the 19th of August, Charles raised his royal standard and claimed the thrones of Scotland and England in the name of his father James Stuart (The Old Pretender). It was the start of thirteen months of success, failure and tragedy that has inspired poets and novelists, musicians and painters. The legacy has been a rich one from a cultural point of view but the consequences of the young man’s actions reverberated throughout the next century. He became a dashing and popular hero before returning to France and on to Italy where he lived out his days without glory. Those who followed him paid a much heavier price.
When I rode through Glencoe I felt the tragedy of the place. When I stood on the battlefield at Culloden I shed tears. Here at Glenfinnan I feel little. I marvel at how the Jacobite cause rallied. What happened was remarkable but knowing the end result I wonder if it was all worth it and wonder what the clansmen were really fighting for. I’ve always admired the Scottish spirit of independence and support the Scots right to determine their own future. But in 1745 the choice wasn’t simply of ridding themselves of a hated king but of replacing him with one who almost certainly would have proved a hundred times worse. We had seven Stuart monarchs (if you count William III as a Stuart as a result of his marriage). We amended the constitution to severely limit the power of three of them, we kicked one out and executed another. I wouldn’t want to spend too long around the other two. There is little to suggest that Charles Edward Stuart would have made a good king and much to suggest we were well rid of him.
That doesn’t prevent what happened between August 1745 and September 1746 going down as history the way storytellers would have written it. They should make films about it. In the days when films felt a duty to romanticise things, they did. Both Ivor Novello and David Niven have played the prince and the casting seems about right to me.
The short version is that the prince led this army to Edinburgh and took it without much of a fight and protected it by winning the battle of Prestonpans. Charles took over Holyrood Palace and lived as a king for some months before leading his army south to take over England. They took Carlisle and got half way to London when they turned back. They hadn’t experienced failure until they reached Derby. There seemed no good reason to turn back. London was not heavily defended The British army was committed on the continent of Europe as well as in North America and India. Trouble in Scotland had been ongoing but few had foreseen a full scale rising and march upon the capital. Once the decision had been made to retreat from Derby the Jacobite cause never really had another victory. A movement that had continually sparked into life for fifty years was finally and brutally extinguished.
The seriousness with which the government took the Jacobite cause was reflected in the monument behind me. Permission to commemorate the site was only granted in 1815. It had taken a full seventy years for the Jacobite cause to no longer pose a serious political threat. It also took them until then to build a road from Fort William. It’s a popular gathering place for clansmen to this day. Jacobite enthusiasts congregate every 19th of August. A Highland Games are organised where, like most of these events in the twenty first century, two dozen competitors in traditional costume recreate the atmosphere of 1745 while a couple of hundred others film them on their mobile phones. It’s a great success and I wish them well with it while at the same time being grateful that I arrived here at an altogether more tranquil moment.
My arrival had been heralded by a powerful steam engine pulling coaches across the twenty one arch viaduct that gained fame at the beginning of the twentieth century by being the first major structure in the world to use mass concrete. It gained additional fame at the beginning of the twenty first century when Ron Weasley flew a blue Ford Anglia in and out of it’s elegant arches.
My departure is heralded by two huge Chinook helicopters each with something large slung beneath making their way towards the sea and the western isles. I seem to have entered a timeless world where centuries collide and people have a choice of travelling by bicycle, steam train or helicopter. I hadn’t seen a car in over an hour.