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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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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.