The East Highland Way day five: exploring Scottish heritage

Newtonmore is the biggest village I’ve stayed in since starting the East Highland Way. With a population of 1,000, you could almost call it a town. It’s pleasant, with lots of interesting shops and pubs, yet feels too big and claustrophobic after hiking through the Scottish wilderness yesterday. I need to get back on the trail.

Before leaving town I can’t miss The Highland Folk Museum. This remarkable outdoor museum has recreated shops, homes, farms, and businesses from all eras of Scottish history. Well, they’re not all recreated. They’ve actually collected many genuine historic buildings from all across Scotland and display them on 80 acres of land. Costumed workers who really know their history hang around and tell you about them. Think Colonial Williamsburg with kilts. Sadly, this remarkable glimpse into Scotland’s heritage may close due to budget cuts. Welcome to the Age of Austerity, where the past is discarded and the future uncertain.

I spend all morning exploring thatched roof huts, a one-room schoolhouse, and a sawmill that would never pass modern health and safety regulations. It’s all so fascinating that it’s early afternoon before I set out for Kincraig, my next stop. One problem with the new trail is that some parts are still along paved road, and for a time I’m skirting the edge of a busy thoroughfare. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these stretches. It’s no fun walking along a country road with no shoulder. At least the drivers are understanding. Mostly.

Soon I come to Ruthven Barracks. This old stronghold of English power sits proudly on a hill, its walls still intact although the interior and roof are now gone. During the rebellion of 1745-6 it was nearly abandoned as all available troops went off to fight the Jacobite rebels. Only a dozen men remained to defend it as 200 Highlanders converged on the garrison. Hiding behind stone walls and firing out of the gun ports, the English fought the Scottish off. Then Scots came back with artillery and the English did the smart thing and surrendered.

Not long afterwards on a waterlogged moor called Culloden, the Scottish and English armies met in battle. The MacLachlans, my ancestors, stood on the left flank. About six thousand Highlanders, some Lowlanders, some French soldiers, some Irish, and even a few English stood with them. The Jacobites wanted to put the House of Stuart on the throne and were led by Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. The English army, supporting the reigning King George II of the House of Hanover, prepared to meet them with a larger and better-armed force.

%Gallery-100286%My ancestors stood proudly in line as the English artillery opened up on them. They waved their swords in the air and boasted how they were going to kill the English. They must have felt proud that one of their kinsmen, the repetitively named Lachlan MacLachlan, was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s top officers. Some sources say he was in charge of supplies, but if so he did a crap job because the Jacobites went hungry much of the time.

Cannonballs ripped through the Scottish lines. The right flank could stand no more and charged without getting orders. Bonnie Prince Charlie sent Lachlan MacLachlan off to the left flank to get them moving too, but a cannonball decapitated him before he could deliver the message. Eventually the MacLachlans and the rest of the left flank surged forward, eager to kill the English. They soon got mired in boggy ground, and the famous Highland Charge that had destroyed the English army at the Battle of Prestonpans ground to a halt. The Scottish ranks staggered under withering volleys of musket fire. The right flank had reached the English, but soon got cut off and wiped out. Within half an hour nearly a third of the Jacobite army lay dead or wounded on the field and the rest fled for their lives. The MacLachlans never even reached the English lines.

So my ancestors never got to kill any Englishmen. I can’t say I’m sorry. Why would I wish any harm to the English? They brew such good beer.

Ruthven Barracks had one more chapter to play in the Jacobite uprising. The day after the disaster at Culloden a few thousand Highlanders gathered here, defiantly declaring that they would continue the fight. Soon the sad news came from Bonnie Prince Charlie saying the cause was lost and they should save themselves. Perhaps there were a few MacLachlans among the disappointed men. Perhaps not. Most of them lay dead on the battlefield. They would lie unburied for many days until being heaped into a mass grave.

Beyond Ruthven Barracks the East Highland Way winds through fields and woodland before skirting the edge of Loch Insh. It has finally stopped raining. The clouds break and a surprisingly warm sun glints off the loch’s placid waters. This is typical Scottish weather, what one Scot described to me as “four seasons in one day.” You have to bring clothing for all seasons, and keep your raincoat strapped to the webbing on the outside of your pack for quick access.

I stand looking at the loch and thinking of the folly of my ancestors. To rally around one monarch to overthrow another seems ridiculous to a modern mind, and perhaps it did to them too. Whatever they thought, their feudal clan system did not allow for dissent.

To be perfectly honest I really don’t care that they lost. I’ve never been one for secondhand patriotism. I have Irish ancestors too but I don’t drink green Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. Guinness is an odd choice for wannabe Irish patriots anyway, considering that Arthur Guinness was a Unionist, the brewery is currently owned by a company based in London, and the brewery may have played a willing part suppressing the Easter Uprising. (Interesting photo here)

So no green Guinness for me, and I’m not going to moan about the disaster at Culloden just because a bunch of my relatives got killed there. If they hadn’t been, someone else’s family would have. It’s not like I’m the only person with a mass grave in my family’s past. At least mine has a marker.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on the East Highland Way.

Coming up next: Strange sculptures and cursed castles!