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A ramble through northern Scotland and its history

When Bonnie Prince Charlie fled into exile he was the first of thousands who would later leave the Highlands

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Somewhere between Inverary and Glencoe, along one of the narrow back roads of Scotland, we came upon a lone piper in full Highland regalia, kilt, sporin, and plaid cape. He was standing on a rocky knoll, perhaps a hundred metres from the road, skirling to the distant hills. I have no idea why he was there. He paid no attention to us when we stopped to listen. Except for the three of us, and perhaps the ghosts of long departed clansmen who once lived here, the surrounding glens were empty. The wail of the bagpipe’s drones and the melody from its chanter faded into the distance unheard. It's one of my most vivid memories of our ramble through the Highlands of Scotland and in many ways a metaphor for the romantic myth and harsh reality of Highland history.

We were on our way from the Highlands north of Ben Nevis to the Isle of Skye. Below the stark rocky ridges the lower slopes were green with spring heather and highlighted with brilliant splashes of yellow gorse. In no hurry to leave, we paused along the way to explore back roads and hike to beckoning viewpoints. Here and there we stumbled on the remains of abandoned farms – a small field now covered with gorse – the rectangular outline of a house whose clay walls had long ago returned to the earth. Perhaps it was one of the crofters cottages where Bonnie Prince Charlie took refuge when he was fleeing through the Highlands with a bounty on his head. Travelling in Scotland invites such flights of fancy and, after all, the Bonnie Prince was also on his way to the Isle of Skye.

When our road became a sheep trail we back-tracked through Fort William and headed west along Loch Eil to Glenfinnan where a 20-metre high monument commemorates those who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 rebellion. The slender round tower, topped by the figure of a kilted Highlander, stands at the head of Loch Shiel in the very spot where the "Young Pretender" rallied the clans and first raised the Jacobite banner in a struggle that would forever change the Highland way of life.

The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles Edward Stuart, is told in the nearby Glenfinnan Visitor Centre. The Stuart dynasty ruled the country for more than 300 years. From James I, who became king in 1406, the Stuart succession passed from one James to another until, after much intrigue and the odd beheading, the succession was passed to Queen Anne of England, daughter of James VII of Scotland, and last of the Stuart rulers.

Poor Anne. She made a valiant effort to keep the Stuart ball rolling, gave birth to 14 kids, but outlived every one of them. When she died in 1714 with no direct heir she was succeeded by her cousin George. The fact that George, a Hanover, was unable to read or speak a word of English did not deter him from accepting the promotion and he was crowned George I of England. This didn't sit well with James Edward Stuart, "the Old Pretender", who fancied himself next in line for the job. With the support of Catholic Highlanders, who adopted his Latin name "Jacob" to their cause, he set about plotting a regime-change in England.

The Jacobites, as they became known, launched their first assault against the Hanovers in 1715. With French backing they clashed with English forces in the battle of Sheriffmuir but the attempt fizzled. A second attempt, using Spanish forces, met a similar fate in 1719. But in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Old Pretender’s son, almost pulled it off.

Charles Edward Stuart, "The Young Pretender", set out from France on a mission to recapture the English crown for dad. The 24-year-old Prince landed in the Outer Hebrides with a handful of men and a promise of French support which never came. But against all odds, using personal persuasion and Highland loyalty to the Stuart name, he mobilized the clansmen into an army that took Edinburgh and fought its way south to Derby in central England, where their luck ran out. Overwhelmed by a Hanover force lead by the Duke of Cumberland, Charlie and his Jacobites were pursued back into the Highlands and it all came to an end at the Battle of Culloden.

On April 16, 1746 the Jacobite Scots were cornered and defeated. After the battle a thousand of Charlie's Scottish supporters were condemned to death and, for this atrocity, Cumberland became known as "the butcher." Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped and became a fugitive. But the battle of Culloden still resonates in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland where the legacy of that fateful defeat remains.

From Glenfinnan Betty and I continued west along "The Road to the Isles," the old coastal road that winds through wild mountain landscapes and skirts lonely sea lochs facing the stormy North Atlantic. The road ends at the bustling fishing town of Mallaig where we checked into a B&B in time to poke around the docks and climb to a viewpoint for our first view across the Sound of Sleat to the Isle of Skye.

North of Mallaig, at Kyle, the Isle of Skye is permanently tethered to the mainland by a bridge built in 1995. But the ferry still operates from Mallaig and the next morning, the 30-minute crossing delivered us to Armadale where the partly ruined Clan Macdonald castle, now home to the "Museum of the Isles," is surrounded by magnificent gardens carpeted with tiny blue flowers. According to Betty, who is more botanically literate than me, the blue bells of Scotland are actually cillas. No matter, the Armadale gardens were well worth a stop.

The Isle of Skye, like much of the Highlands, is surprisingly empty. Between the few tiny towns the green rolling hills of the southern lowlands are scattered with isolated farmhouses. Farther north the Cullins, one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in Scotland, loom out of the pastoral landscape. Small by Whistler standards, the Cullins are incredibly rugged. Their stark black, gabbroic rock forms formidable serrated ridges, steep walls, and scree-filled couloirs. While fleeing through the islands Bonnie Prince Charlie said of the Cullins, "even the devil shall not follow me here."

With a reward of 30,000 £ on his head Charlie was hounded through the Highlands and Hebrides for five months following the Culloden defeat but was never betrayed by his countrymen. And it was here on Skye that he finally eluded his pursuers with the help of Flora MacDonald. This brave lady risked her own life by disguising the Prince as her Irish maidservant and smuggling him to Portree on Skye, where he embarked on the voyage that would ultimately take him back to safety and exile in France. And with his departure the heroic age of the Highlands ended.

After the Culloden defeat a string of oppressive measures, in what became known as the "Highland Clearances," forced thousands of Charlie’s kin to follow him into exile. Wearing the tartan and playing the bagpipes were banned. Highlanders were not allowed to carry arms, and the kinship between chiefs and their people was severed, effectively ending the clan culture. The clansmen, no longer needed as soldiers, were evicted by feudal landlords. Many were thrown off their farms by force and their homes burned, others chose to leave as an escape from poverty. By 1860 the mass emigration from Scotland to the New World had left the once thriving Highlands and Hebrides as empty as they are today. The Highland Clearances were complete and Scotland’s loss was Canada's gain. Today at least two million Canadians claim Scottish ancestry.

We spent a night at Dunvegan and took a tour of the castle, a formidable, well preserved fortress replete with an armory full of 17th and 18th century implements of war, dank lavishly furnished rooms hung with family portraits, and a 14th century dungeon where stone walls echo to the recorded moans of an all-too realistic human likeness of what might have been Bonnie Prince Charlie had it not been for Flora Macdonald. Romantics say they were lovers. He left her a lock of his hair, now on display among her mementos in Dunvegan Castle, but she never saw him again.

Before leaving Skye ourselves we took one more tour. The Talisker Distillery, located on the shore of Loch Harport within sight of the Cullins, makes one of the best single malt whiskeys in Scotland and the tour includes a sample. We drank a toast to Charlie and Flora and to what might have been but for the vagaries of history.

(Bob, this is the inscription on the stone battle-marker at Culloden. You may or may not want to use it. I thought if we are shy on pictures a simple graphic with this inscription might work)

"The Battle of Culloden was fought on this mound 16 April 1746 – the graves of the gallant Highlanders who fought for Scotland and Prince Charlie are marked by the names of their clans."