Stonehaven to Scarfskerry: Land of the Picts

We’ve had a real variety of Scottish weather over the last four days, ranging from bright sunshine to torrential downpours. We’ve made good progress on our route North, and we’ve seen some interesting things along the way, including proper Scottish castles, the site of the last battle on British soil, some Pictish stones… oh, and some dolphins.

Overview: 4 days, 320 miles

The National Trust for Scotland has quite a few castles in Aberdeenshire. We didn’t have time to visit them all, so we chose two from the book: Drum Castle and Fyvie Castle.

Drum Castle was built on land granted to the Irvine family by Robert the Bruce in 1323. You can still visit the original medieval square tower, only one level of which has been incorporated into the “posh house” part of the castle.

Our guided tour of Drum Castle was a bit of a history test; the commentary jumped around all over the place without any dates or even general time periods to hang the facts onto. So we had tales of Jacobites (late 17th to mid 18th centuries?), followed in quick succession by a box in which the “wrong bible” could be hidden (erm, was this a Catholic family in the period following the Civil War?), and so on. You’ll understand that I was far too busy trying to keep track of which century we were in to take photos of the interior! (it wasn’t as impressive as that at Fyvie Castle, below).

I did feel very sorry for the Americans on our tour, particularly when we encountered bowls of water on the dining table and were given the slightly cryptic explanation that this was “to toast the King over the Water”. The answers to one lady’s questions as to what that meant (she made more than one attempt…) muddied the waters rather than clarifying matters, and in the end, the rest of the group had to explain.

Our tour at Fyvie Castle was a complete contrast. We started with an overview out on the lawn, both of the various bits of the castle and of the five families who lived in it (the dirt was also dished – how each family came to lose the castle). We got a lot of information, but the guide told it well (for example “he was a Jacobite so had to run off to France and his estates were seized by the Crown; he died penniless in Paris a couple of years later”, and “he was a fond of the gambling, but sadly he wasn’t very good at it”…).

Fyvie has all the stuff you hope to see in a castle: suits of armour (collected by the late 19th century buyer who’d made his fortune in America in the steel industry, having cunningly gone over there whilst in the army and bagged himself an heiress), a huge stone spiral staircase, expensive paintings, a ghost story etc

As well as one of the World’s largest private collections of paintings by Raeburn, Fyvie Castle has this chap: Colonel William Gordon (1736-1816) painted in Italy by Pompeo Batoni whilst on his grand tour. Apparently we were very lucky to see him as he’s in great demand and “gets about a bit”; he’s recently returned from an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We were told that he’s been valued at £26 million. HOW much?

As on previous trips, we’re spending every third night somewhere with loo-emptying facilities. In Scotland that means Caravan and Motorhome Club CLs (Certified Locations) or their Camping and Caravanning Club equivalents. This one is Sunnybrae at Findochty on the North coast of Aberdeenshire:

Monday saw us at Culloden near Inverness, the site of the 1746 battle. This is our second Jacobite uprising of the summer, having visited the Battle of the Boyne last month (old post here). At the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, the former James II / VII of England / Scotland was trying to regain the throne he’d quite recently been pushed off, largely on account of being far too Catholic.

Fast forward to Culloden in 1746 and our hapless contender this time around is James’ grandson Charles Edward Stuart, more commonly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. In a battle lasting less than an hour, around 1500 Jacobite troops were killed. The official death tally on the Government side was just 50 which, even allowing for a bit of undercounting, makes quite a contrast.

The exhibition in the visitor centre was good and we got a fantastic guided tour of the battlefield (the red flag in the photo above is one of a row of flags denoting the position of the Government front line at the start of the battle; a similar row of blue flags marks the position of the Jacobites). As well as being the last pitched battle on British soil, Culloden is also famed for the Government side’s position of taking no mercy. The battlefield was guarded for three days after the battle to allow the Jacobite wounded time to die, and fleeing Jacobites were hunted down and slaughtered. Yikes.

You can still see mounds on the surface showing the locations of mass graves:

The aftermath of the battle of Culloden saw terrible reprisals for the people of the Highlands, designed to break the clan system and ensure that there could be no further uprisings. As for the Bonnie Prince himself, he decided that battles really weren’t his thing and scampered off to his next adventure (which involved a spot of dressing-up). For what happened next to our right Charlie, head on over to OuterHebridesByMotorhome for an entertaining account complete with illustrations.

We discovered the Tarbat Peninsula pretty much by accident, having found a beach car park at Balintore on SearchforSites for our Monday night stopover.

We’re in the land of the Picts here. The Picts were descended from the original inhabitants of this North-Eastern part of Scotland. In the 6th and 7th centuries AD they had great fun carving geometric and animal symbols onto boulders (perhaps pubs hadn’t been invented at that point?) but by the 8th century they’d been converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries and had taken to carving huge stone slabs in a combination of Pictish and Christian designs.

We’d passed the Shandwick stone just up the road from our camping spot on Monday night, so we stopped off on Tuesday morning for a look:

A bit further up the road, we came across another stone at Hilton of Cadboll. This one is a reproduction; the original broke near the base shortly after being erected and the main part is now in the National Museum in Edinburgh. One good thing about a reproduction stone is that it doesn’t need to be enclosed to protect it from the elements. Also, the designs are very clear. Mark reckons that this stone is a memorial to a Pict tragically killed whilst trying to get a worming tablet down a lion:

Having seen the two stones, we decided to go visit the Tarbat Discovery Centre at Portmahomack. According to their website: Described as the ‘Iona of the East’, it may be better to describe Iona as the ‘Tarbat of the West’. That sounded worthy of investigation! The Discovery Centre opens at 10am on a Tuesday morning at this time of year. At 10.30am, we weren’t the only willing customers outside but the doors remained resolutely closed….. Darn!

As plan B, we decided to continue up to the Tarbat Ness lighthouse and try again on our way back (they open at 2pm in October; maybe they’d snuck onto October opening hours a bit early?).

Tarbat Ness lighthouse, at 41m high, is Scotland’s third tallest lighthouse.

We were treated to some passing dolphins:

Then it was back to Portmahomack and the Tarbat Discovery Centre, which was now thankfully open.

The modern sculpture is called “the Pictish Queen”. In 1984, an aerial survey revealed the first traces of an 8th century Pictish monastery around the location of the church. This was then excavated by a team from the University of York. The church, which had been disused since the 1940s, now houses the Discovery Centre.

Excavations of the site revealed an encircling ditch as well as the remains of workshops including metalworking and stone carving workshops and the only known vellum-making workshop (these would of course have existed at other monasteries, but this is the only place where definite remains have been found). Smashed carved stones as well as human remains with blade wounds suggest that this monastery was probably one of those subjected to Viking raids.

The site was refounded in the 12th century as a parish church. There’s an interesting tale from the 15th century, supported by traces of charring on some of the stonework down in the crypt. The story goes that a raiding party of the Mackay clan (whose lands are up to the North-West) was chased into the church by members of the Ross clan, the church was set alight, and all those inside perished including clan leader Angus Mackay. I have a family history interest in Clan Mackay but don’t know anything more about them as yet other than the general location of their lands. We’ll have to visit their museum to find out more when we get to that part of the country.

We drove past lots of interesting-looking things on Tuesday afternoon as time was now getting on. We were too late to visit the very impressive-looking Dunrobin Castle, the seat of the Earls of Sutherland (last admission time was at 4pm) but we saw the statue of the infamous first Duke of Sutherland who is best known for his unfortunate role in the Highland Clearances.

Tuesday night was spent at the harbour at Latheronwheel, a gorgeous spot that we had all to ourselves:

The old bridge dates back to 1726 and was part of the post pony route. We saw a similar one one the way into Lybster this morning (Wednesday).

Our first task today was to head into Wick and do some laundry! The carpark outside the laundrette isn’t a bad place to sit and wait for your smalls…

Then is was time for some food shopping. The car park at Tesco in Wick was full of motorhomes:

We had a quick stop at John o’Groats and nearby Duncansby Head, having topped up with LPG on the way at Watten (the last LPG station before Orkney where, as far as we’re aware, there is no LPG available).

We’re now parked up on a little CL at Scarfskerry, about halfway between Mey and Dunnet on the North coast – an absolute bargain at £6 a night. We were advised to park in front of the shed for a little bit of shelter in case the wind gets up!

Tomorrow’s the big day – across the Pentland Firth to Orkney……

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