Skip to main content

The Scotsman’s Return From Abroad

ISSUE:  Spring 1996

I am the Scot I write about, but my title is second-hand and comes from the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. Living much abroad, at the end of his life in romantic Samoa, he grew up in Edinburgh, near Charlotte Square. Cooly classical buildings stand around the square, the work of Robert Adam. Stevenson’s poem breathes a different spirit, though, and its comic hero is a music hall Scot. Gargling his English, he swallows some letters, elongating others. “Noo,” he says, when they ask him for money, thrusting his pocket book behind him. Borrowers and lenders alike come to ruin, “an” they themsel’s ken it weel.”

But Jekyll needs Hyde, and the closefisted man has a wild streak. Returning to Scotland from “far outlandish pairts,” he greets the hills of home, birches in the Highlands, the bonny kirks—

But maistly thee, the bluid o’ Scots . . .
The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it,
Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!

Single malt liquor is this king he swears by, and like poetry it sends him stumbling through the dawn, chanting lays of love and old war cries. My elegant walking stick, bought in the Highlands but made in Taiwan, has a hollowed-out compartment under the crook where you can keep a dram, if so minded. I haven’t cared to do this, feeling about Scotch whiskey the way William Faulkner did. “As between Scotch and nothing, I’ll take Scotch,” he said.

But in the Fraser Country east of Inverness, I tip my hat to all things Caledonian. “Scots wham Bruce has aften led” lived in the glens and braes. A piece of luck if their descendants are standing beside you when you have to stand up and be counted. Sandy Arbuthnot is one of them. His mother called him Alasdair but John Buchan’s intrepid Sandy gave him his nickname. He backed up the hero in those long-ago novels that didn’t think twice about the world beyond the Channel. “Bit of a Dago, isn’t he?” Sandy inquires, in The Three Hostages. “Not at all,” Hannay tells him. “Family been here for centuries. Ancestor rode with Prince Rupert.”

Fair-haired my friend isn’t, though, and the black curls on his head match his Guardsman’s mustache and the curly tangle on his forearms. Not easily typecast, he has the abstracted air of a don but a football player’s low center of gravity. “Rusticated” from St. Andrews for disrupting a university lecture—profanely, he admits—he drifted down to London and scribbled lies for the Daily Mail. “But truth will always out,” and when it got him the sack, he crofted for two years in the Orkneys, renting a boggy acre from the laird. Company being nil, he talked to wind and water. One day they answered back, and he headed south to Glasgow, where he mastered a ship fitter’s trade on the Clyde. Now he runs Speyside Heather in the Grampians near Dalwhinnie. Not far from his plant nursery is Prince Charlie’s Cave, hiding place of the Young Pretender after the defeat at Culloden.

A yen for the bagpipes threw us together in the Outer Hebrides, four hours at sea off the west coast of Scotland. Hunting German subs in the Second World War, the Royal Navy once sailed out of Stornaway, but these days its harbor sleeps in the sun. I took the car ferry from Ullapool, the last stop on the mainland before the road, turning north, peters out in empty space. Close to town, men with dinky fedoras walk their dogs beside the road, and chicken peck in the produce gardens in back of the houses, many roofed with tin or slate. More sheep on the land than people, but a splash of paint on the rump distinguishes meum and tuum. Buttercups and daisies brighten the highway, and on the hills the heather gathers the light. When Highland clans went to war, they “took to the heather.” It gets along well with the soil it springs from, the two together suggesting the subtle cloth women weave on Lewis and Harris. Still-good-as-new, the jacket I bought in London when young is the work of their fingers, and like an old salmon has followed me upstream to its source.

Stowing my car, I climb up to the aft deck for a last look at the waterfront as we cast off. A scurf of garbage floats on the swell, and seagulls, swooping over it, shriek like klaxons on the boulevards in Paris. The wind rising, I duck into the lounge, wall to wall with tobacco smoke and drunk, exuberant young men. They are the only playboys of the Western world, and having bested Dingwall in the soccer finals at Inverness, are going back to the Hebrides and home.

Getting in the night before me, Sandy came by plane from Fort George on the Moray Firth. Inland from the firth and this side the River Spey is his plant nursery, stocked with Highland plants and flowers and packets of wild heather seed, more varieties than Heinz’s. Why so many and who needs them? If you let your eye rest on heather, the temperature drops, Sandy says heatedly. Seethe it in boiling water and its fumes are strong against “megrim.” A priest to my acolyte, he recites the Latin name, “Culluna vulgaris,” nothing like it.

In early days a Communist, Sandy fell out with the comrades when he joined the Scottish Nationalist Party. These enthusiastic patriots meant to liberate Scotland from the English “yoke,” but weren’t keen on exchanging Westminster for Moscow. Left-wing deviatipnists, the comrades said scornfully. Deviation didn’t charm them in the SNP either, and they expelled Mr. Facing-Both-Ways. Sandy today is a party of one. Any party that would have him isn’t a party he wants to belong to.

The only town on the isle of Lewis with a bespoke tailor, supermarket, and Established Church of Scotland, Stornaway is civilization’s thin red line. Its stucco houses are gray, though, not a color but its absence, and the lace curtains at the windows have given up the ghost. Ascending from the pier, the main drag through town hangs a left past three pubs and a dingy store front, local home of the Nats, short for the Nationalist Party, Beyond the roundabout is the Caberfeidh Hotel, Gaelic and proud of it. The unadorned facade, white cubes whose outlines show through paint, turns an unseeing eye on the road, but inside, the polished bar simulates a Viking longship. Fine china and old silver clutter the public rooms, and dead animal heads look down from the walls. Built by a MacKenzie, the hotel gets its name from the clan’s battle cry, “Stag antlers.” How this rallied the clansmen is a mystery, like Gaelic itself, Greek to me.

We sit in the T. V. room while the piper fingers his chanter, warming up with “Amazing Grace.” Not marching us to war, he plays the small Irish pipes, suitable for hymns and slow strathspeys. Our entertainment is the ceilidh, Gaelic for concert, Sandy informs me. Tourists from the mainland mingle with the locals, and a motto above the lintel, furnished by the Scottish Development Board, exhorts us to spread our wings in the Highlands and Islands.

Last in a series of musical evenings, this one takes place on Saturday, a prelude to silence like the road out of Ullapool. Mostly in the islands, people keep mum on Sunday, unless at church, once in the A.M., again before dusk. Church means the Free Church, an oxymoron. Men and women of this church, says a recent Scots poet, aim to get rid of Purgatory “by getting it over with while we’re still alive.” Refining the liturgy according to John Knox, i.e., boiling off the last bits of sweetness, it split away from the established church in the 1840’s. Knox, who feared God and hated innocent pleasures, lived in Edinburgh on the Royal Mile. You can still see his house, near the close where R.L.S. discovered Deacon Brodie, the original of his Jekyll and Hyde.

For a week in late summer, pipers in Stornaway “cut” one another, asking the vote of their peers. The most famous of them, known from John o’ Groats to Hadrian’s Wall, are almost as famous as rock stars. Different styles test their skill, patriotic, religious, and romantic-sentimental. Heard once too often, “Loch Lomond” is a yawner, but old in Scotland isn’t always old-hat. Set to music, “old unhappy far-off things” bring some in the crowd down to tears. Almost five hundred years ago, English at Flodden Field massacred the Scots chivalry, led by their King James IV. “The Flowers of the Forest” harks back to this battle. Not dour, faintly dissonant, though, its music dwells on the past. “Sae bon-ny was their blooming, their scent the air per-fum-ing, But now they are with-er’d and a’wede a-way.”

In the west and north of Scotland, many speak the old tongue, an enduring legacy of “the Forty-Five.” When Scots bid for independence in 1745, English went on a killing spree in the Highlands. Dr. Johnson, who came through a generation later, said the victors made a waste and called it peace. Rooting out Scottish customs, they targeted the language, and in the schools only English was spoken. But Gaelic survived, going underground in the hard weather. Here in Stornaway, the air is full of aspirants, slurry like chuckling.

The piper wears the breacan, parti-colored cloth, a red flag in the eyes of John Bull. After Culloden, you broke the law if you went kilted, and they put you on a ship to Australia. Identifying the sett—colored squares in the pattern—Sandy says the piper belongs to Clan MacKenzie. Clansmen in the Forty-Five wore kilts into battle, but no special sett distinguished one clan from another. King George IV introduced the distinction. Visiting Scotland in the century after the conquest, he dressed up in “his” kilt, complete with eagle’s feathers. Sir David Wilkie did the portrait, and Sir Walter Scott, creating the audience that read him, masterminded the royal visit.

“Pibroch” is their word for the art of playing the pipes, and what they play is variations on a theme, chiefly martial. For the soldier’s music—reveille or the call to arms—they use the Great Northern pipes, loud as all outdoors. The piper’s office passed from father to son, like the bard’s who sang the epic poems of the Highlands. Just behind the chief when “the front o’ battle loured,” he thrummed the three bass pipes called the drones. A “rant of thunder,” says the old poem, describing this wild music. It stiffened the sinews, and fighting men, hearing it, stepped over their dead and kept coming. After the Highland army fought its last battle, English, knowing what was good for them, banned the pipes as “an instrument of war.”

Off the bar the dining room thinks our day revolves around breakfast. We begin with fresh orange juice and a fruit compote (either/ or says the menu, but no one keeps count), then porridge with cream and kippers, eggs and bacon, Canadian style, fried herring rolled in flour, white pudding that sticks to your ribs. Sandy, an antiquarian, prefers the black pudding. Reduced to short rations by the army of occupation, hungry men in the Highlands bled their cattle at the throat, mixing the blood with oatmeal. Scots serve it in little fried cakes. For dinner we choose from sea scallops, fresh water fish (trout and salmon tonight), also lamb and beef, home grown and slaughtered. “He that shall complain of his fare in the Hebrides has improved his delicacy more than his manhood.” Dr. Johnson said so in the Journey to the Western Islands, and the menu leads off with his praise.

Warmed by the wine, Sandy journeys back in time, recalling the House of Stuart, Scottish kings who won the throne in England, then threw it away. Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of the last king, hoped to regain the throne. He was the Young Pretender and in the Forty-Five the Highland clans rose with him. They couldn’t resist a lost cause. Filling our wine glasses, the waiter fills the glasses beside them with water. “To Bonnie Prince Charlie,” says Sandy, and passes one glass above the other. “The king over the water.”


I am bound for the Lowlands and my plane out of Scotland, Sandy for the Highlands and his daily 9 to 5. Why not put off the day of reckoning, I ask him. Twice a year he takes the train from Dalwhinnie to Glasgow, where he and his supplier sit down with the inventory between them. We are halfway there already, and having placed a phone call, he makes up his mind to go with me. “The longest way round is the shortest way home.”

Around is how we go, first north to see the sights, then south to Tarbert, our jumping off point for Skye. The road from Lewis to Harris, one island with two place names, isn’t the same as the M-l out of London. Megaliths at Callanish tell of people on the land, but they have gone away ages since. A dozen gray elders stand in a circle, outside it more standing stones pointing northward. In the center of the circle, a chambered tomb forms the hub of this desolate wheel. Tiny, it suggests a king’s son, dead in his nonage.

Much of a muchness, as mile follows mile. In the silence we move noisily, and cattle grids, draining the narrow road, clank when our car passes above them. Between Lewis and Harris, locals insist on a difference, however. The nice middle-aged receptionist, bowing us out of the hotel, says that in her younger time, she and family went to Harris when they wanted a change of pace. “Quiet there.”

Crofts, bits of arable land, dot the fells, plums in their pudding. Faced with stucco or local stone, the crofters’ cottages look like pieces in a game of Monopoly. Hugging the soil, they merge with it, and from a distance are only bumps on the board. Some, agglutinating, turn into communities. At Barvas on the coast, cottars, peasant farmers, are bringing in the sheaves, discharging their Protestant function. I wave a hand in greeting, but they don’t wave back.

Near Arnol we pass a “Black House,” its long narrow rectangle topped with green sod. Ropes and large stones secure this carpet on the ceiling, and a hole lets out smoke from the fire. “Leodhasach,” early natives, thought peat smoke did wonders for the roofs of their houses, and dispensing with a chimney, let it filter through the thatch. Underneath the roof, men and cattle stall together, only a thin partition between them. Cluck-clucking like a social worker, I sympathize with the plight of these poor folk. Sandy, his pursed mouth making negatives, says, however, that they weren’t poor in Scotland, not that they knew, but listened to a different birdie at the window.

Peat smoke, wrinkling our noses, leaves a sweetish telltale on the spongy air. Where the peat used to be, the land gurgles and sucks like a sink full of dishes. But the bog is alive, friendly to bog myrtle, yellow bog asphodel, and cushions of grayish-white sphagnum moss. One variety, red and green like Christmas, makes a poultice, sovereign for tired limbs. I learn this from Sandy. Having said farewell to politics, he has turned to homeopathy, and his head is stuffed with lore from old herbals.

Telephone poles strung with wire divide up the emptiness, and wire fencing hopes to keep the sheep off the road. Ruminating, they move slowly, their chewing like thought. Border collies, black and white with a grin full of teeth, move them along. Some sheep are white and hornless, others blackfaced with curling horns. “Mutton heads,” all of them, they look up, hearing sound, but don’t see us. What they see is what they eat, defining good and bad, gain and loss.

Dun Carloway, off the A 858, isn’t a village but a northfacing tower, left over from the Iron Age. When raiders came by sea, men and animals piled into this stone “broch,” their home away from home until the storm blew over. Emerging, they got on with it, waiting for the next one. Parts of the double wall, rising thirty feet, still test the wind off the water. No trees break its fury, all but a few having disappeared with the Norse raider, Magnus Barelegs. Scorching the earth, he left Lewis as bare as his shanks.

But Harris, thick with Scotch pine, has a profile. The brawny hills go up and down, cupped by lochs that wander inland from the Sound of Shiant. Thistles, small pink flowers atop a tall spiky stem, poke up in the hummocky fields. “Monument o’ a’ they were” in Scotland, “the thistle rises and forever will,” says their dialect poet Hugh Macdiarmid. But maybe that was “poetry,” not the same as truth, and on a darker day he said how “thwarts o’ weather o’ grun or man or ‘ither foes” conspired to limit its freedom.

Two sea lochs meet at Tarbert, where the ferry for Skye brings us across the water to the village of Uig. Bonnie Prince Charlie traveled this way, fleeing the wreck of his hopes at Culloden. English spread their net by land and sea and would have snared him, but for a lass of Skye. She was Flora MacDonald, who dressed the Prince as her maid and brought him off by boat, stage one on his journey into legend. Diaster in Scotland, an ill wind, blew good to some. Scots with a love of learning, going out upon the roads, civilized “far outlandish pairts,” and a women’s college in the American South is named for the heroine of the Forty-Five.

The “King’s Port,” Portree is Skye’s principal town and recalls a royal visit when Scotland still had its king. Our windows in the hotel, looking over the masts of fishing boats in the harbor, frame the Cuillins at the upper edge of the sight line. Volcanic rock on basalt, “hard as the heart of a Sassenach,” they tower over all else in the islands. Sandy’s Sassenach, a.k.a. Englishman, looks like a devil with horns.

The modern hotel, not Scots for nothing, annexes the past in its present. In the old inn it hitches on to, Flora MacDonald said her goodbyes to Prince Charlie. After this, taken by the English, she went into captivity. He escaped to the Continent, first to France, then to Rome, where he rented a palace on the Square of the Holy Apostles. Frescobaldi played the organ in the church across the square. Time passed and the Young Pretender grew old and took to drink. Once a darling of the ladies, he lost the power to charm them. His German wife proved unfaithful. Sometimes a visitor or member of his retinue sang a Jacobite favorite like “Lochaber no more,” and he wept. He lived on for 40 years but never spoke his thanks to the woman who saved him and never came back to Scotland.

The road, a diagonal running north and west, threads high hills, purple against a sky that settles earthward like wet canvas. Squared off at the top, MacLeod’s Table is one of the hills. Chiefs of Clan MacLeod ruled from Dunvegan Castle, where the road ends at the sea loch. Sitting up in the air, the better to overawe us, the castle bristles with gun ports and crenelated towers. Below, the Sea of the Hebrides takes notice. In summer, “magic casements” open on the foam.

Inside, however, Victorian pomp, inundating the past, brings in a tide of bric-a-brac and leaves it high and dry. Portraits of the stately ancestors take up the available wall space. On antimacassars, heraldic beasts, worked in crewel, act out mottoes in English and French. The old men on the walls, their bulging eyes like poached eggs, imitate C. Aubrey Smith, crusty colonel of the Bengal Lancers. Clan chiefs in name only, they survive into modern times as landlords.

Gardens, exotic to the senses like Skye’s Talisker whiskey, surround the castle walls on the land side. Above the cotoneaster, orange berries that might be elfin lanterns hang from mountain ash. Celts thought this tree banned ill fortune, my Celtic friend informs me, reserving his opinion. Coming up to our belt buckles, potentilla exfoliates in showers of gold, and the rhododendrons are as big as the trees. Thanks go to the Gulf Stream, a girdle insulating the island. Though Skye is a northern outpost, the air “smells wooingly” and the jagged peaks are blurred with softness.

Is not this an emblem for Scotland the brave, Sandy wants to know. “A rock above the water,” it warms itself with the blood of its heroes. When magpies chattered “elsewhere”—he means to the south of us, where Sassenachs live—great poets sang in Scotland. One of them wrote how the fear of death confounded him, “Timor mortis conturbat me” but wasn’t afraid, only pious. Later, he died fighting at Flodden. True, old chiefs in the Highlands lifted their neighbors’ cattle and made a religion of blood feuds. But they poured French wine at table, loved women well, wore lace at their wrists, and spoke Latin.

From Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, George Washington, the hero of myth, could have shied a silver dollar across the narrow inlet. A distinction that makes no difference, it separates Skye from West Scotland. Sandstone and limestone flank the road going south, and the hills above it are shrouded in mist. White water, whipped by broken scree, makes a glamorous curtain standing out from the hills. Boswell in his Tour to the Hebrides called them mountains. Pointing to one, he remarked its great size, but Johnson saw “no more than a considerable protuberance.”

On our left hand, the high ground shelves away to Loch Ness. Four hundred million years ago, it thrust up its waters, deeper, Sandy tells me, than much of the North Sea. “For all we know,” monsters live in the depths. Free for the taking at the tourist stop outside Invergarry, the colored brochure estimates the probabilities, rating them better than even. Tourists are stocking up on presents in the gift shop, coin purses like sporrans, toy bagpipes, tins of shortbread. Laid out on shelves and counter tops, colored slides show ruined castles, and stenciled tea towels a likeness of the Fair Maid of Perth. Silver plated bar pins resemble the whinger, a short sword favored by Highland swordsmen, says the salesgirl. Inserting a windup key, she gives it a twist, and the plastic “Nessie” hums “Scotland Forever.”

“Charlie’s m’ darlin’,” Sandy says savagely, putting on his broadest burr. “Will ye noo come back again?” Smiling uneasily, the salesgirl looks away, and for a moment it seems he means to sweep the counter bare. Slowly, however, his hands fall to his side. “A’s no’ gold that glitters,” and do I know Macdiarmid’s lines for Bonnie Prince Charlie? Not a living flame, the fire he kindled in our “lyart” hills turned out a will-o-the-wisp in the end. Throwing a baleful glance at the salesgirl, the ex-member of the SNP addresses the assembled. “He keeps his meed o’ fame, though, more than can be said for Scotland.”

Dead men rise in Scotland, like the ones who pushed old Macbeth from his stool. As we travel south to Glasgow, William Wallace marches with us. Dead 700 years, he was their Washington, and though facts about him are few, myth embellishes the story, “Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland and Leader of Its Armies,” people in the older time called this father of their country. They said he wrested the hammer from King Edward of England, known as the Hammer of Scots. In the end, however, a fellow Scot betrayed him, and he died a monstrous death on the scaffold.

Tawny colored Highland cattle that might be ancient mastodons clump together against the sudden cloud burst. Under the curled horns, shaggy matted hair fringes their eyes like a valence. In Sandy’s opinion, they grow this hair deliberately, keeping the cold of winter at bay. Evergreen forests border the loch and pine dusts the hills, making room in the upper glens for oak and aspen. Streams, jumped by old stone bridges, crisscross the bottom land. In ground shaded by oak trees, you find the yellow pimpernel. Sandy, growing up, knew it as Seanhair Nhuire, the gentle grass of Mary. “Quaking aspen” supplied the wood for the Cross that stood on Calvary, and its quaking means to signal repentance.

Nature in West Scotland takes its cue from Romantic paintings, the kind that go heavy on the impasto. Scenes are spectacular but humanized too. When the rain stops, a ray of light shoots out of the clouds, and slanting across the hillside, gilds the rocky beach beside the loch. This light suggests inspiration, as when the poet, hand on heart, looks up with yearning eyes. Or dropping from heaven, it falls on guilty mortals like mercy’s gentle rain. In the somber cleft at Glen Coe, once a killing ground, they need it.

Three centuries ago, English had their Glorious Revolution, so called by the new men who took over from the old. Honoring the old, Highland Scots bore grudging witness to the deposing of their Stuart king. Dutch William, his successor, made them pay for that, singling out the MacDonalds of Glen Coe. “They must all be slaughtered,” all under 70, said his factotum, including the “cubs” of the clan chief. An unsuspecting host, he brought the King’s soldiers into his house, but in the wee hours of a winter’s night, they rose up and did as instructed.

South of Ben Nevis, the road crosses the Moor of Rannoch, bounded by dark hills. Lonely country, it searches a man, alone with himself and his God. Scots, tempered, sometimes twisted, are men for the final exigent. In the world east of Suez and south of the Sahara, they know this. North of the Tweed, however, strength drives out strength. A difficult people, said the Spanish ambassador, writing to his master at home. “They spend all their time in wars, and when there is no war they fight one another.” Campbells, serving the English, were the deathmen of MacDonalds at Glen Coe.

Rosebay willow-herb as tall as sheaves of wheat grows on the verges of the road and defines it. But the fields don’t invite cultivation. Like Flanders Fields where the poison gas still seems to swirl in pockets, they haven’t shaken off the torpor of history. Hangings, imprisonment, and transportation overseas followed the fall of Prince Charlie. Winter did its part, thinning out the glens, and many starved to death or died from exposure. Highland chiefs who rebelled died on the block or gallows. Hogarth, there when Simon Fraser died on Tower Hill, tells how a harridan shouted at him: “You’re going to get your head chopped off, you old Scottish cur!” Leaning from the carriage window, he shouted back: “I expect I shall, you ugly old English bitch!”

The Forty-Five was still a raw wound when England, wanting an Empire, recruited the Highland regiments that built it. Sending Scots soldiers to the ends of the earth had its uses, and Pitt, the Prime Minister, said that “not many of them would return.” In the 19th century, life put down fresh roots, but the Highland Clearances, torching homesteads and whole villages, destroyed them. Small farms became sheep pasture, and Highland life as it was the excuse for a boozy celebration. Traveling Scotland by car, the poet Edwin Muir, a hero of Sandy’s, saw a country emptied of history. Its people and spirit, art, intellect, character too, all were lost.

But I ask myself what this means, and whether losing is only the opposite of winning, considering that all of us lose in the end. Does aught else factor in when you tote up the balance? Sandy has an anecdote that tells of a young Highlander who came back alive from the rout at Culloden. Picking up the fallen flag, he wrapped it round his body and bore it safely from the field. Ever after he was known as Donuil na Braiteach, Donald of the Colors. His sons, born later, were Angus and Charles of the Colors.


Like most cities that got going in the Age of Victoria, Glasgow kept going, a mighty maze without a plan. But some elegance, even old elegance, redeems it. Before Robert the Bruce smote the English at Bannockburn, the twin towers of St. Mungo looked south to the Clyde. On either side of the nave, its three arcades still aim at Heaven, one rising on top of the next. Grass in the churchyard makes a coverlet for the just and the unjust, and old graves lap the church walls, intimating a fellowship of living and dead. Different from the necropolis rearward of the apse, this place is a promenade suitable for long thoughts. Company, though unobtrusive, the gravestones lie flat on the ground. Not so John Knox, aloft on his Doric column. The likes of him, meaning to destroy St. Mungo, pulled down its statues, but men of the city’s trade guilds interrupted the work of reform. Good Scots and thrifty, they elected to preserve the past in the present.

While Sandy tends to his heather seeds, I excavate the city Glasgow stands on. For this, wheels are an encumbrance, and dropping the car I trust to shoe leather. Robert Adam, master of proportions, not omitting grace notes, left his mark on the 18th-century city. Walking west along George Street, I look for his domed Trades House, built for business but not altogether. Where the flow of traffic, coming down from Cathedral Square, funnels into the High Street, I re-create the old quarter called Bell o’ the Brae. Once the bell tower atop the rise or brae rang in triumph for Wallace when he recovered Glasgow for Scotland. The past lies hidden under modern steel and concrete, but just here, I tell myself, he ran up his battle flag, emblazoned with the Cross of St. Andrew.

Though George Square takes its name from English George III, I color it green, not red. The Celtic city, a scattering of huts around the cathedral, was Glas Cau, the Green Place, and the modern city, where nature has made a comeback, recalls this. Cooling down on my park bench, I deplore the exhaust fumes and appreciate the leafy trees. Not taking umbrage, they give it. On the east side of the square, the Italian Renaissance palazzo houses the city fathers, lovers in secret of the warm South. Making the honors even, the technological university gives the work ethic its due. Worthies on pedestals look smaller than life, but Victoria and Albert condescend affably, and Sir Walter Scott takes his oath a la Napoleon, an arm across his chest, hand on heart.

The Cultural Capital of Europe—so say the papers—Glasgow would like to detain us. But 50 miles away in Edinburgh, the International Festival is going full tilt. Classic plays pack the theaters, and its concerts, like the Pops in Boston and the Proms in London’s Albert Hall, lump together Bruch, Bruckner, and Bach. For both of us, however, the Tattoo is the Festival’s reason for being. Sandy has an in with the city’s Tourist Center, and sure of a pair of tickets we board the train for “Auld Reekie.”

“Auld” gives no trouble, Edinburgh going back a ways, but “Reekie” makes me pause. Because it stank, Sandy says. This embarrassed Boswell. Walking the streets with Johnson, he couldn’t prevent his friend from “being assailed by the evening effluvia.” In today’s city, cleanliness precedes godliness, and as we come up the stairs from Waverley Station, attendants with mop and wash pail are sloshing the stair treads and putting a shine on the handrails. The more things change, the more they stay the same, though, and the first thing we see as we look left on Princes Street is a monument to Sir Walter Scott and his dog.

Edinburgh divides into New Town on the north, and south of it the original city. A splendid stage for the world’s work, Princes Street on the edge of the first separates it from the second. Hotels and art galleries, banks that could buy and sell them, gentlemen’s clubs, and swank clothiers like Burberry’s come down to the footlights. Below in the pit, public gardens, blooming madly, expel the last whiff of Auld Reekie. Making common cause, the white rose recalls the Jacobites, and the pansy “freaked with jet” the black cockade English wore at Culloden. When I walked the battlefield on a day trip from Inverness, black and white flags showed me which army to cheer for.

Visible through the gardens, the Royal Mile, going west, climbs up to Edinburgh’s Castle, descending the other way to the Old Burial Ground at the foot of Calton Hill. At the top of the map is New Town, “New” as in New College, Oxford, that is, old. The well-to-do have their houses, mainly Georgian, in this quarter, still infiltrated by country. Hills like yellow bolsters render to nature but don’t ask you to notice. New Town improves on the natural world, and even its street lamps are artful. In Charlotte Square the inverted glass globes balance on a slender standard, supported at right angles by a bishop’s hooked crozier. That is what it looks like, and the black cap on top of the globes is a French sailor’s cap with a pom-pom.

From the upper back windows of houses in the square, you can see all the way to the Firth of Forth. Stevenson, a boy in New Town, looking that way, thought he saw sailing ships casting off for the Levant. On Queen Street close by, the Royal Museum is rich in Scotland’s antiquities. Mary, Queen of Scots, is the Museum’s hottest ticket. Thronging the exhibition rooms, crowds of locals and tourists hope to touch the hem of her greatness. All know her from popular books and the movies, but disentangling her fact and fiction isn’t easy. Did she really sip wine from the silver-gilt drinking bowl, simple witness to a bygone age? Round the foot, the inscription runs: “Money lost little lost, honor lost much lost, heart lost all lost.”

Our room in the King James Thistle, on Leith Street above Princes Street, is almost at eye level with the top of Calton Hill. It being there, we have to climb it, but not on an empty stomach. Adjourning to the Duke’s Tavern over the way, we call for Scotch ale and the menu. The Duke is the Iron Duke, victor of Waterloo, but doesn’t have the room to himself. Forty years ago, when I first came to Scotland, not by car, on an old three-speed bike, no public house seemed complete without a likeness of Sir Walter Scott over the bar. Times have changed, and this one features Sean Connery.

Today’s specialty is Haggis, known to Robert Burns as “the great chieftain o’ the pudden race.” Chopped in bits, it makes a meal in itself, like Spaghetti Bolognese minus the spaghetti. Turnips called swedes and skinned tatties or potatoes garnish the sides of the platter. First you have to have a sheep, though. Once in Rome, wanting more of their canneloni, I bought a do-it-yourself kit from the waiter who sewed me. “Take a six-foot marble table,” my recipe began. Haggis is like that, more to it than meets the eye.

Abstracting the sheep’s stomach bag, you disengage heart, lungs, and liver, mince and mix with oats, onions, suet, and the juice of a lemon. Seasoned for taste, these ingredients go back in the bag. Boil for three hours, pricking with a needle when the bag starts to swell. Darning needle, the books specify. Wash down with single malt whiskey. “When in Rome,” Sandy tells me, and I do this.

Hard-drinking Scots have their opposite number, teetotalers who sing psalms and pinch pennies. But in a time when every layabout lays his burdens down, they shoulder their burdens, rally round the flag, and pay their bills on the first of each month. Near St. Giles’s church in the old town, a bench by the sidewalk, some citizen’s donation, remembers “Janet (Auntie Jessie). She always did her best.” His country, Sandy says, pulls in different directions, lavish versus miserly, the control freak and the hot-blooded man. Pub and kirk make a pair, while the Anglophile, a word of reproach, pairs with true-blue Scotsmen “who hae wi’ Wallace bled.” Or rather, he corrects himself, not blue but white, like the white rose of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Looking south from Calton Hill, the view is a businessman’s, always skipping to the bottom line. Purged of detail, the old city lies before us, Scotland’s capital when Scotland sat at the table of nations. Nearer-at-hand is less satisfactory, and the Modern Ruin atop the hill mimics the Parthenon, the one in Nashville, Tenn. But the Athens of the South finished what it started, and in Edinburgh they have run out of steam or the money ran out, leaving a handful of columns. Lord Nelson’s monument, compared by some to a butter churn, has dotted all the i’s, however. A product of the Into-the-Valley-of Death School, it mixes John Bull and devotional Christian. Statues like it crowd the city, and I reach for my wrecking ball, like Knox, when I see them.

Though the long view gains in clarity, there isn’t any substitute for beating the bushes. Even from our high point, the tower of St. Giles looks like the Crown of Scotland, but to take this church’s measure, you have to come down to street level. Inside, the Chapel of the Thistle, home to Scotland’s highest order of chivalry, prompts accolades from tour guides, who point out the battle flags and regimental standards, lining the sides of the nave. The triumphs they commemorate aren’t Scotland’s, however. Fabricated the other day, stained glass windows in the High Kirk are electric, like picture postcards. Turning thumbs down on the hieratic figures you see in older church windows, they show you saints and sinners who look like the people next door.

Under the hammerbeamed roof in the square, the Scottish Parliament sat. It closed up shop 300 years ago, when the Act of Union created Great Britain. Where Scotland’s representatives used to decide things, solicitors wearing gowns wait their turn to split fees in the law court. Tourists off tour buses make a beeline for the heart-shaped design in the cobblestones, marking the old Tolbooth, a prison. Scott wrote about it in one of his romances. Fewer old folks than young folks get down from the buses. One, a teenage girl, her spiky hair dyed green, holds a portable radio tuned to a voice that carries.

Ghosts populate the old town, but people still live and die in its “lands” or tenements. Every day, old pipesmoking men rendezvous for a game of bowls on the grassy enclosure beneath the turrets of Cannongate. “Gate” is for the canon’s gait, i.e., a walk or road, and leads to Holyrood House, once an abbey that owned a piece of the Cross. Stevenson imagined Prince Charlie holding levees in this royal palace. Only for a matter of weeks, though.

James IV who died at Flodden built the palace, home to Mary of Scots before she fled to England and her death at the axman’s hands. In the main tower, Rizzio her secretary, some say her lover, died before her eyes. Dragged through the bedroom, he fell in his blood, stabbed 56 times with a dagger. Anecdote says that the stains are indelible, but carpet covers the floor, leaving this claim unresolved. Only ruins recall the old abbey, demolished by the Reformation. The little peak-roofed lodge survives, though. Over it, Rizzio’s murderers made their escape, and in its Bath House Mary bathed in white wine.


Holyrood House is crammed with old furniture, and Edinburgh Castle, at the other end of the Royal Mile, with old guns and armor. Both buildings look backward, remembering things past, but come alive in the summer when the Queen of England gives a garden party on the grounds of the palace, and the castle mounts its famous Tattoo. It does this at night, employing for stage the sloping Esplanade where Scots and later English burned witches. A savage spectacle, it thrilled them, and crowds as big as the Festival’s flocked to the auto-da-fe.

Floodlights pick out the emblem of Scotland, a white cross on a blue ground, but the flags that deck the castle’s front hang limply in the fine drizzle, “Scotch mist.” From the topmost turret flies the Union Jack, its folds shaken out and snapping. In the absence of wind, vents of artificial wind, shot from a nozzle, play against it. This alfresco theater exploits its resources, and before we see the massed bands we hear muffled music in the dark beyond the portcullis. Then they are on us, clansmen in full fig, dragoons, crowned by black fur shakos, gigantic.

“The onset of the Highlanders was very formidable,” said Dr. Johnson, thinking back to battles on which the blood hadn’t dried yet. “Men accustomed only to exchange bullets at a distance, and rather to hear their enemies than see them, are discouraged and amazed when they find themselves encountered hand to hand, and catch the gleam of steel flashing in their faces.” War, played by the rules, was a game, like Barry Lyndon’s in the movie. You fired oif a volley, then retired, and your enemies did likewise, Soldiers on the Esplanade make us feel that the game was in earnest.

Edinburgh’s Festival keeps different balls in air, and if you have earnest, you have to have jest. Offstage, commands are spoken, and we wait in darkness. When the lights go up again, the soldiers are gone. The two comics who replace them, both falling down drunk, wear the little kilt called the philebeg, and their broad Scots is good for a laugh. We learn that the excise man has doubled the tax on their whiskey. Cunningly stupid, they talk about this, thinking up ways to outwit him.

Teasing us, the martial music returns for an encore. Scotch lassies do old dances, and a cavalcade of motorcyclists, engines popping viciously, forms up on wooden inclines. Gathering speed, the cyclists fly through the air, defying death and gravity. We wonder less how they can do this than why they should want to. The rolypoly man in the aisle seat beside me—he bought his ticket in the States and it cost him £50, worth every nickel—keeps up a running commentary, appraising the performance. “This joint is jumping.”

Coming into the home stretch, kilted warriors, introduced by the pipers, salute us. I remember that ancient Highlanders were Picts, “painted” men, handled with care by the Romans. Like redbirds, the male of the species, they dazzled when they went into battle. Leather boots shake the Esplanade, almost a stage in the round, and the boots are like the buskin worn by tragic heroes. As the soldiers march toward us, the leather and silver sporran they wear at the waist swings from one side to the other, mesmeric.

Men of the Highlands, said an 18th-century reporter who saw them in battle dress, “looked as though they had never heard of original sin.” I ask myself how this can be. All know that war is hell, its hold on us marking our fallen condition. But another truth says that war is a kind of life, perhaps of our essence. When Bonnie Prince Charlie lay dying in Rome, his favorite piper stood outside the door, playing “The Flowers of the Forest.” Much to regret in “the lilt of dule and wae,” but the heart lifts when you hear it.

The Festival’s costume man has done his homework, and the plaid, gathered in folds, falls along the body from the left shoulder to the knee. Sir Walter Scott, though promoting the old days, wore his across the right shoulder, and if he could do that, what else might he do? A silver brooch, studded with cairngorm stone, yellow quartz, secures the plaid, and the hose is tartan fret. Hugging the calf, the top of one stocking makes room for a tiny black knife. Two dags, claw-handled pistols, dangle from the belt. Bull’s hide, worked with silver bosses, covers the target or shield. Steel spikes protect its surface, some twelve inches long.

Not everyone came in like that, “dressed to kill.” Bringing up the rear of each Highland company, the wild and bearded “humblies” fought naked to the waist. The rest, when they charged, threw off the plaid, putting their trust in the basket-hilted broadsword. Double-edged like a razor, two inches wide and a yard in length, it hung from one hip. Hanging from the other was the dirk, half a foot of wrought silver. In the charge at Culloden, David Fraser of Glen Urquhart killed seven with his broadsword and dirk. Some of his blood, at least a scintilla’s worth, mingles with my blood, and no doubt I ought to deplore him.

An engraving I have seen of the Jacobite army shows some without stockings, possibly for want of a needle. Tommy Dent, our soccer coach in college and a foot soldier in the First World War, went through the war without them. Mud from the trenches caked his kilt, however, and the stiff edges, slapping bare skin, left his legs scarred for life. Kilted men in the trenches provoked laughter at first. Later, Germans called them Ladies from Hell.


“They came running upon our front line like troops of hungry wolves.” An English soldier said this, describing the charge at Culloden. But for every Scot there were nearly two English, and God fought with the bigger battalions. Scots artillery was almost none, cavalry none, food and drink they did without, or were glad of a biscuit. They had marched all night from Nairn on the Moray Firth, hoping to find the English bleary-eyed from too much drinking. Failing, they retreated westward, dead on their feet. “None but a mad fool would have fought that day,” said old Lovat, before his execution.

When Bonnie Prince Charlie, crossing over from France, landed in the Hebrides in the summer of ‘45, they told him to go home again. “I am come home, sir,” he said. Though only seven landed with him, he raised his standard and the clans began to come in. Entering Edinburgh in September, he routed an English army at Prestopans, outside the city. In November he marched on London, getting as far as Derby. Panic gripped the capital, and the Hanoverian king, his bags packed, thought about leaving. Then, a mistake, Prince Charlie turned back. One more victory remained, Falkirk, east of Glasgow, but his army didn’t follow it up. Going to ground at Inverness, he waited two months. On April 16, 1746, it was time.

Culloden House, home to Scotland’s Lord President, stands on Drumossie Moor, and near it Scots and English fought the last major battle in Britain. Young men led the armies, both 25. (English reveling at Nairn celebrated their general’s birthday.) Things might have been different had Prince Charlie left the conduct of war to his lieutenant general, Lord George Murray. This experienced second wanted to fight on the soft and broken ground across Nairn Water. Commanding the English, William, Duke of Cumberland, was glad not to do this. A king’s son, already plump, he turned grossly fat, and his cruelty earned him a nickname, the Butcher. The flower “Sweet William” is called for Butcher Cumberland, and Handel acknowledged his soon-to-be acquired fame by writing “The Conquering Hero.”

Common soldiers in his army lived in a world that stunted survivors, and its typical product was five feet five inches tall. Known as Thomas Lobster, he wore the redcoat. For failure to salute, he got 100 lashes. Likely, he had the pox. The King’s shilling he fought for worked out to sixpence a day, and when his service ended he was often “For the Lord’s sake,” a beggar. He lived by the bayonet but Highlanders made it useless, catching it in their bullhide shields and pushing it aside. He had to stand his ground, however. Three months earlier, at Falkirk, where the English line broke before the Highland charge, 60 redcoats, running from the battle, were hanged.

Beyond the Moray Firth, thin snow spotted the mountains, and on the slopes of Ben Bhuiddhe the heather showed as black-brown. A sharp wind rose early, bringing rain, then sleet, blowing in the Highlanders’ faces. To the south, Cawdor Castle, whose murderous thane craved sleep but couldn’t find it, dominated the countryside. Through this land of bogs and lochans, little lakes, English infantry, bayonets fixed, marched up to their knees in water. But as they neared the sticking point the ground changed to wide bare moor, giving the Horse maneuvering room, and the guns a clear field of fire. Bannockburn, fought in early summer, 1314, was the mirror image of Culloden. Outnumbered four to one, Bruce chose the higher ground, forcing the English in their heavy armor to ford a deep wet marsh beside the burn. Scots won that day, and General Murray meant to copy their tactics. However, the Prince, believing in his star or the wild fury of the Highland charge, overruled him.

Some have the scores of whole operas by heart, and Sandy can tell you how it was on the morning of battle. Roused at dawn by the chanters, Scots marched up the braeside south of their camp, forming in line across Drumossie Moor. Thomas Lobster, looking through mist, saw the last feudal army in Europe. In the year of Culloden, every Highland man and boy old enough to bear arms enrolled as a soldier in the regiment of his clan. Thirty two thousand war men lived in the Highlands. Had they come together, no force on earth could have withstood them. But of old, Sandy says, “Scot” rhymed with “plot,” and these troublesome Scots plotted each other’s destruction. Campbells took the King’s shilling at Culloden.

“Clan” means children, and the clan chief led his children in war. Cadets of his family or chiefs of smaller septs served the regiment as company commanders. The head of each family, an officer or non-com, brought in his brothers, sons, and tenants. Father and son, brother and brother, stood together. Boys fought, or tried to. One, Murdoch MacLeod, aged 15, ran from his grammar school at Inverness that morning. Equipped with broadsword, dirk, and pistol, he sought out the men of his name. In the heather along the northern slope of the moor, other young truants, chiefs’ sons, lay watching. James MacKintosh watched while his father Angus, at the head of a company, passed without a look to the side. James was 14 and lived to 90, but never saw his father again.

Pride of race, a humble man’s consolation, made a bond between the humblest and highest. All descended, they thought, from a single clan father, and in their veins ran the blood of Norse and Irish kings, Clan Donald traced its line to Conn of the Hundred Battles. Men not the same in rank knew the same obligation, each obliged to give his life for the other. Some fought from compulsion, the dictate of the chief. Or they fought from hatred, remembering their hero Wallace, tried by the English—”As a traitor!” Sandy says, his voice shaking— then hanged and his body hewn in fours. MacLean of Drimnin, his son Lachlan dead on the field, fought from hatred. “Come away!” they implored him. But the old man, turning back, cut a trooper from the saddle, wounded another, and died.

The best of them fought from a sense of themselves, like the Bruce, Sandy says, and has the famous words by heart. “It is not for glory we fight, for riches, or for honors, but for freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life.” Darker days followed the victory at Bannockburn and the work seemed always to be done again. But he meant to keep at it “for as long as one hundred of us shall remain alive.”

By order of Prince Charlie, all who mustered on Drumossie Moor wore the kilt. In their bonnets, they wore the white cockade. The emblem of kingship, it promised good luck, but they ran out of luck at Culloden. Learning from Falkirk, Thomas Lobster used new tactics. Thrusting the bayonet beneath the right arm of the man on his attacker’s left, he trusted to the soldier on his own left to take care of the rebel who faced him. Meanwhile, English cavalry galloped unopposed, their three-pounders in the front line fired by pairs, and coehorn mortars lobbed shells from the rear. Most who died at Culloden died where they stood, awaiting the order to charge. The cry of “Claymore!” sent them forward. Shrilling war cries in Gaelic, they drew the huge two-handed sword, some flourishing scythe blades and axes. Put your ear to the ground, Sandy says, and you can still hear them.

As the line of Scots drew closer, English artillery changed from ball to grape shot: canisters of nails, lead balls, and iron scraps. English firelocks volleyed and reloaded, rank by rank to the beat of the drum. Firing, the first line ducked and the second stood, followed by the third. No advance was thinkable, unless you were willing to climb over your dead. Men of Clan Chattan did this. Breaking the first English line, all died on the bayonets of the second. In less than an hour, it was over.

Of the 5,000 men who fought at Culloden for Bonnie Prince Charlie, at least 1200, perhaps 2000, are buried on the field. Granite boulders stained with lichen mark the grave sites, and each boulder is cut with a name: MacDonald, MacGillivray, MacKenzie, Grant, Chisholm, Fraser. Graveled walkways, crossing the moor, lead the tourist to other monuments, one for Irish soldiers. Serving France’s king but volunteering to fight England’s, they were the “Wild Geese.” Dense with pine and birch, the hills beyond the battlefield are purplish in season. Heather grows on the field but not on the grave mounds. Visitors drop greenish-gray twigs along the mounds, and some drop white sprays, remembering the white rose picked by Prince Charlie on the shores of Loch Eil.

In the 19th century a highway ran through Drumossie Moor, and conifers, planted for harvesting, spoiled the view. The trees are gone, however, and the highway has been rerouted. A viewing platform, provided by the National Trust, looks across the moor toward the Black Isle and Ben Wyvis. Near it, the rough stone cairn in honor of the dead puts you in mind of those ancient brochs you see in the west country, survivors of Scotland’s pre-history. Cattle graze on the other side of the Inverness road, beyond it the firth. Even on cloudy days, maybe then most of all, the light, breaking through clouds, plays tricks on the water.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading