A Gem of a Place

Paul McCartney knew a thing or two when he sang about the Mull of Kintyre, but a gem of a place awaits if you trust your instincts and head north. At journey’s end, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Over the years, I have been fortunate indeed to visit the Scottish castle of Saddell, and its nearby abbey, on the Kilbrannan Sound on the shores of eastern Kintyre.

Have you ever heard of Somerled, Lord of the Isles?  He figures strongly in the history of the area, and his remains rest at the abbey. Set beside a stream within a verdant glen, the monastery now lies in ruins. Irish Cistercian monks farmed their sheep here, trading with Flemish weavers. Surely, old monks, and perhaps even Somerled himself, must walk these paths. Why would anyone ever want to leave?






I’m not sure what came first – the castle or the abbey but, much like the threads of an ancient tapestry, their tales are entwined. In the early 14th century, when the Knights Templar were hounded from France, rumours abounded that they, and their allegedly fabulous treasure, found sanctuary at Saddell. When the dusk heaves with shadows, silent and dense, it is easy to imagine such a connection for nearby, within a weather-proof shelter, effigies of faceless men set into old grave stones, stand at attention, proud in the distinctive suits of the time, swords at the ready. But these are much, much older – men of the isles, highland lords in full armour, perhaps even the men of Somerled, or his son, Ragnald, patrons of this abbey.

I imagine Somerled’s birlinn sweeping into the bay, his men leaping ashore. The Norse warrior skills of this “summer sailor” gained him the Hebridean islands all the way from the Butt of Lewis in the far north, to the Isle of Man in the south, forging a kingdom, independent of its closest neighbour, medieval Scotland. Somerled must have looked around him, counted his blessings, and set about earning heavenly favour by building an abbey – now sadly long gone.

But there is still plenty to see and experience in the area. Nearby, down a long treed driveway, you will come across an evocative castle, a more recent addition to this ancient landscape





I particularly liked the walled enclosure and tangled mossy garden, hidden spaces aplenty. The gardeners amongst us might ponder upon this peaceful sanctuary, protected from the elements, and the plants grown here so long ago.



Silhouetted against the fading sunlight, the crenelations of this Scottish tower house will take your breath away.


Originally built in the 16th century as lodgings for a warrior bishop, David Hamilton – with wood-paneled chambers, vaulted ceilings, curved stairwells, a trapdoor or two, and a dungeon, this abode has known many owners. And with the ebb and flow of Scotland’s contentious politics, they must have heard the clash of sword and smelt the sickening stench of fire when the castle was sacked by opposing forces.






In more peaceful times, seals and otters play in the shallow waters of the rocky shore and visitors can stay at the castle and estate cottages, courtesy of the Landmark Trust.It’s a gem of a place and, like me, you’ll be singing its praises.


Who was the Father of Europe?

Take a walk back in time to 745AD. Who knew the child born to Pepin the Short and his wife, Bertrada, would unite the western world?

When his father died, and elder brother followed soon after, Charles, or Charlemagne as he became known, inherited a split kingdom. Tactically brilliant, he out-maneuvered his opponents and, empowered by his pious beliefs, went on to subdue many of the pagan tribes across Europe. Christianity was enforced; options were limited – submit or die. Many thousands perished in the process.


A favourite of the Pope, Charles was seen as a protector of the Catholic faith and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800AD. A powerful, handsome, athletic man – tall, bull-necked, round-bellied …these are some of the descriptions applied to him. He must have towered over his subjects, dominating them by his physical prowess and ruthless reputation.

But here we also see a different side to his character.

Being somewhat of a renaissance man, he favoured education, written reforms and diplomacy in his later years. With his grasp of languages and fluency in Latin and Greek, he developed schools to educate the clergy to become administrators, ensuring stability across his kingdom, covering much of what we know today as France, Germany and Belgium.


With multiple wives and mistresses, he fathered sixteen or more children and was by all accounts a devoted father. From his family tree, many branches spread across Europe into England and up into Scotland through dynastic royal marriages.

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, had a passionate love of swimming, and enjoyed the warm springs of Aix-la-Chappelle, a town of Belgian origin: now in Germany, and renamed Aachen. If you’re exploring the glories of the nearby Rhine and Moselle Rivers, take a short drive to this western German border town, your efforts will be well-rewarded.


Look down, and you will see the king’s emblem – K for Karolus – embedded in the cobbled streets.

dsc09077Grab a coffee; munch on some of the spiced biscuits, a regional delicacy, from the local bakery, and head to the museum.


On display in a massive vault, lies a breath-taking wealth of golden treasure.



Around the corner, you’ll find the cathedral – a miracle of design, filled with intricate mosaic patterns over the walls and ceilings, and curved trails of marble flooring. My neck ached from staring up at the spectacle of zillions of tiny glass mosaic pieces fashioned into swirling patterns glittering in the lamplight.








This is Charlemagne’s enduring legacy, and his resting place. A grander tomb would be hard to find for the man, some might call, the Father of Europe.




Unsung Heroes

How might you feel if you had given your life in the service of your country but been passed over by other souls with grander stories: whose lives were now remembered with statues and legends embossed by tales of courage and daring?

Scotland has many such heroes. I pondered upon this as I climbed the mound of Ormond Castle on the Black Isle, home to the family of Sir Andrew Murray (de Moray), twice-honoured as a Guardian of Scotland.



On this gentleman’s behalf, I felt a strange mix of compassion and sadness for he (and his father) had played pivotal roles in the country’s fight for independence.

With only seabirds for company, I admired the view down to the village and sea below. Now the castle is long gone, but echoes of the past continue to hover over this northern eerie.DSC07994


Buffeted by a brisk wind, a flag marks the place where Sir Andrew Murray senior, put out a call to arms. I imagined the cheers of his men and fear on the face of his pregnant wife. He had been captured after the disastrous battle at Dunbar, when Longshanks’ army poured over the border. Along with many others, his own father had been taken to the Tower while he was transported to Chester. Somehow he escaped and made his way back to his home. He had a lot to live for and a lot to lose. With his men, he raided Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle before joining up with William Wallace, overcoming an English host at the Battle of Stirling in 1297. Wallace went onto greatness but Murray is believed to have perished from his wounds.DSC07988

With such a pedigree, his son also achieved much in his short lifetime. Born posthumously into a war-torn country, young Andrew Murray was taken prisoner when only five years old and spent his youth in England. What happened to him there is a matter of conjecture, but he was not released until the prisoner exchanges after the battle of Bannockburn in 1315.

How do you come back from such a start in life? A childhood spent in England was meant to mould the children of rebels into English citizens, the aim of the king no doubt. But for some, like Andrew, their spirits remained unbroken and true to their homeland; a huge effort of will, which must have had its share of danger.

Upon his return, he regained the hereditary lordships of Avoch and Petty and became a trusted supporter of Robert the Bruce. Such loyalty was rewarded with other lands in the north and south of Scotland, and the prestigious hand of the king’s sister, Christina. Some of you will know her as Kirsty (the informal version of Christina) in my novel, Sisters of The Bruce. That Kirsty was twenty years his senior is intriguing. Perhaps his time as a key figure in the north, where she also had lands, and his position as the commander of Kildrummy Castle led to a deepening of their relationship. There were shared experiences as well in that they had both been imprisoned in England for many years.

Just before his death in 1329, King Robert achieved what he had striven for – an independent Scotland, free from oppression. Peace was short lived.

Edward Balliol, son of the former king whom Longshanks had stripped of his power, returned from exile in France and with the support of Edward III was making military forays into Scotland. Robert had left behind an heir, five year old David, and the country was placed in the hands of political and military guardians.

The following year in 1330, one of Robert’s key lieutenants, Sir James Douglas, was killed in Spain taking his king’s heart on crusade. Sir Thomas Randolph rose to the challenge as Scotland’s supreme leader but died suddenly in 1332. By this time, Kirsty’s son, Donald of Mar, had returned from England, and became Guardian. He was killed at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in the August of 1332.

Balliol assumed kingship. In return for Edward III’s financial and military aid, England would gain control of the border lands. Scotland’s fortunes were at low ebb as the country once again plunged into civil war.

The supporters of Robert’s son – the child king, David – rallied their forces against Balliol. As the newly-elected Guardian, Sir Andrew Murray, led an assault on Roxburgh Castle but was captured in the process. Cognizant of his status, he refused to be the prisoner of anyone other than England’s king. He had the mettle to stand up to his captors and was handed over to Edward III at Durham.


Another period of imprisonment followed. No doubt it saved the Lord of Avoch’s life. Towards the end of 1333, a battle took place just outside the town of Berwick. That day, Halidon Hill ran red with the blood of pro-Bruce supporters as English long bowmen plied their deadly trade. Many earls and leaders of the rebellion against Balliol died including Hugh Ross and Archibald Douglas, the then Guardian.

It was not until 1334, that Andrew was released. Once again he returned to Scotland. Once again he was elected Guardian, raising opposition to Balliol, attacking and besieging his supporters in their castles.

In 1335, pro-Bruce supporters held a parliament. It must have been a fiery affair for opinions were divided. Believing all was lost, some of the magnates decided to surrender to Balliol but not Murray: he and others, went into hiding.

When David de Strathbogie, a longtime enemy of the Bruce family, laid siege to Kildrummy Castle, Murray mobilized a force of a thousand men and rode to deliver his wife and children.


It was during this siege that we see Kirsty, once again, come into her own as she held the castle until her husband arrived. It must have been a frightening prospect – the outlook grim indeed for all within if it was taken, or the alternative, enduring months of starvation until resources petered out. She did not falter. Her courage was rewarded. Andrew’s force arrived and led the besiegers away to Culblean. The confrontation was bloody and decisive. Strathbogie and many of his men died that bleak November day in 1335.

This was a turning point. Balliol’s attempts to consolidate his kingship continued to waver though peace was still a very, very long way off. The infant king, David, and his wife, Joan – sister to Edward III, were evacuated to France where they remained for seven years. As a young teen , King David II returned to take up the cause but was captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. He spent years in imprisonment before a costly ransom was finally paid for his release by the people of Scotland.

I would like to be able to say that Andrew and Kirsty lived happily ever after but…

My eyes strayed over the grassy mound of Avoch. So much had happened here. I imagined Sir Andrew Murray brought home on a litter, just a few short years after the battle at Culblean, weakened by injury or illness, the toll of  a warrior’s life. I hoped Kirsty might have been with him when he died, and that she was there when he was buried in nearby Fortrose – a young man by our standards; he was not yet 40.

Many years later, his body was re-interred at Dunfermline Abbey to lie beside many of the kings and queens of Scotland; a quiet accolade for a little known hero.


The ruins of Fortrose Cathedral









Of Seers and legends

Come with me to northern Scotland – Chanonry Point on the Black Isle to be exact. Look across the water and you’ll see an old fort. Beside you, dolphins leap and catch salmon, entertaining the many visitors who wait for hours for the spectacle. It’s a beautiful place to watch the dusk settle, especially if you have a delicious fish supper to keep you company.




Nearby, you’ll come across a monument to a Gaelic seer.On this spot, back in the 17th century, Coinneach Odhar met his fate in a barrel of burning tar – a tragic end for a man with a strange, but wonderful affliction.

Legend has it that this enchanter was born on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. In this land of dark, deep winters, fireside myths abound. Here is just one of many. Make of it what you will.20141004-141352.jpg


On a  grassy knoll above the white sandy beaches of Uig, a peaceful resting place holds many secrets…

Beside an old cemetery, Coinneach’s mother watched over her flock as the wind sighed over the machair. Perhaps the ‘merry dancers’ wove their coloured banners above her that night. From the graves, spirits rose for their annual visit above ground. Fascination made her stay to watch, to make sure all returned.

Faint light graced the horizon, and still one grave stood empty. In time, its owner – a Viking princess – drifted back. Her trip to see relatives had taken longer than planned, she claimed, for wasn’t Norway a long way off. Coinneach’s  mother was deaf to her pleas – to enter her rightful home, until the lass offered a gift, a magical stone. ‘Look through the hole in its centre and the future will become clear…’

And that is how, some claim, Coinneach –  the sallow complexioned crofter’s child – received the ‘gift’ of double sight, by looking through the hole in his mother’s stone.

Now the lad worked hard cutting and creeling peat but in time news of the rhymes, which he spoke as if in a daze, spread far and wide. Some claimed he predicted events of fire, flood and calamity, affecting individuals and communities, and the terrible tragedy of Culloden.

To many, his visions were also well in advance of his possible knowledge – roads across the highlands, the coming of the railway, bridges and canals; even to present  times – the tunnel linking Britain and France, and Scotland’s parliament.  Was he Scotland’s own Nostradamus?

Surely a man as gifted as this might have been feted especially with Scotland’s ancient Celtic traditions bedded in superstitious belief. In time, his notoriety brought him to the attention of his employers, the Seaforth family on the Black Isle.

Lord Seaforth had gone off to Paris – indefinitely it seemed. His lady wife grew worried about his return and asked Coinneach to enlighten her.

“Your husband enjoys the charms of another woman, and will not return.” He said, or words to that effect, at a banquet at Brahan Castle in front of her friends and family. If ever a little white lie might have helped the situation, this was the time, but being an honest, straightforward Scot, he could only tell the truth of his vision.

Lady Seaforth’s embarrassment and subsequent rage knew no bounds. His words sealed his death warrant –  to be burnt as a warlock.

There was a curse, of course, spoken before his gruesome demise.

The Seaforth line would falter. Many years later, these events would come to pass just as he’d described.- the last surviving lord, a deaf-mute (perhaps from the Scarlet Fever he suffered as a child) would die; his four sons before him. Soon after, a daughter would return from the east. Another sister would die soon after.

Seaforth’s daughter, Mary, did in fact return from the East Indies to claim her inheritance. Whilst driving through the forest in a pony trap, the horse bolted. Mary was injured, her sister killed…

Seers often cannot see their own futures. If Coinneach had known what lay ahead of him, perhaps he might have tossed that stone into the sea.





A Disputed Castle – Part Two

Who would want to live in the wild border country nestled between Scotland and England?  Not this little black duck, that’s for sure – especially in the 16th century. But if your surname happens to be: Armstrong, Murray, Carr, Nixon, Henderson, Young, Taylor or Reed; then you might have ‘reiver’ ancestors – those lawless Scots who pillaged English villages in quick-fire raids for cattle and booty. Some were imprisoned in the great castle. Others must have stayed to set up home for their surnames are still in evidence today in the Carlisle area.




The 17th century was no less dangerous for the English Civil War was in full tilt and the walled town of Carlisle endured the longest siege in English history. Royalist supporters were forced to eat horses, dogs and rats – and hopefully, not each other – when they were besieged by Parliamentarian and Covenanter forces.

A century later, we meet Bonnie Prince Charlie (AKA Charles Edward Stuart) as he led 6000 of his Scottish supporters into England. It’s a complicated history, to be sure!DSC00526

After a week, the poorly resourced garrison of Carlisle Castle surrendered. When I learned the prince entered through the castle gates with one hundred pipers, it was thrilling to think that the stirring old pipers’ song had found its inspiration here.


The Jacobite army moved further into England but support for the Scottish royal family, formerly exiled to France, was missing. The Scottish force returned north. By December 1745, the army was in Carlisle. Before heading back to Scotland (and dark times ahead on the fields of Culloden), a small garrison was left at the castle. Leading the English forces, the Duke of Cumberland soon arrived. After ten days of bombardment, the city’s dungeons were filled with Jacobite prisoners and the ‘Butcher of Cumberland’ earned his nickname.DSC00549

Some of you might know the poignant song believed to have been composed  about a prisoner – soon to be executed at Carlisle castle – to his lady love, telling her that he will reach their beloved Loch Lomond, before her.  It goes something like this….

“Oh…. ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland before ye.”

A popular national song, it is often sung at football matches and a moving experience, especially for me, when played as the last song at functions in Scotland. The next best thing to Auld Lang Syne!

Once a Scottish stronghold, Carlisle Castle is filled with ghosts from its dark past. There’s no doubt in my mind, you’ll love it! And the pipes are a’calling…


Carlisle Castle


Embossed face at Carlisle Cathedral



A Green Man


References: historical resources at Carlisle – castle and cathedral

A Disputed Castle – Part One

Set your sights for Carlisle Castle. Once upon a time, you would have been walking on Scottish soil. Some nine hundred years ago, England claimed it, and it was no fairy tale. History here is deep and layered. With so much blood spilled, even the walls seemed stained red by it.




Around the end of the eleventh century, William Rufus, red-haired son of the Conqueror, wrenched control of Carlisle and Cumberland from the Scots. It was a perfect post for forays into the north. The castle grew into an imposing fortress; the town, fortified with walls. But it was not enough to stop the Scots who fought to have the area back under their control. In 1136, King David I regained it, only to die there some fifty years later. You can still see the oratory, a small prayer room where he died.



Onto the 13th century – a complex time of fluid boundaries when the Bruce family sided with the English to survive against their Scottish enemies; Robert the Bruce’s father was constable and his famous son defended a siege against their nemesis, the Comyn family, supporters of King John Balliol whose reign fell into ignominy and defeat before King Edward’s manipulation.DSC00617

It was here that Robert’s brothers, Thomas and Alexander, were brought to suffer the most torturous of deaths after their capture in Galloway. Thomas’s head hung above the castle gate while the heads of many other Scots adorned the walls of the town. King Edward’s wrath knew no bounds, and even being Dean of Glasgow could not save the life of Alexander Bruce.DSC00514


Walk down to the dungeons and you will see where prisoners licked moisture from the walls. Your finger traces the indentations and time slips a little.


Even after his success at Bannockburn, Robert needed formal recognition of his country’s independence to gain true peace. A supreme strategist, he took the war over the border – this time as Scotland’s king. Success was so close he could almost smell it…but the weather took an upper hand. Soon all of Europe was in the grip of a disastrous event – rain that never let up. In the dull light, crops shriveled and died. Fields flooded. Desperation swept the land with animal and human pandemics. There was even talk of cannibalism…

1315 was the beginning of such a time, and when Robert and his army of Scots set up camp beneath the stout walls of Carlisle, they could not imagine what would follow. Soon men and machines, the great stone-flinging trebuchets, foundered in the mud and swollen waters. The castle could not be taken.

It is hard to imagine that this very English town with its grand cathedral and castle were once part of Scotland, and that the Bruce family had such a strong bond with it.DSC00560


But the Scottish connections do not end there.

In 1567, Mary Queen of Scots threw herself on the mercy of her protestant cousin, Elizabeth I, whilst attempting to escape the Scottish nobility who no longer supported her claim to the throne. Her Catholic beliefs – along with other complex factors, caused her to be hounded from Scotland and undermined her relationship with the English queen. For several months in 1567, Mary and her female retainers were kept at Carlisle in a tower which bore her name. Years of incarceration followed, before she was beheaded at Fotheringay Castle in the south.


And there were the reivers, wild men from the borders who raided English towns and farms for cattle and booty. Many ended their lives at Carlisle.

The walls also tell another story. During long vigils, guards carved their memories into the stone.



But this tale does not end here. The castle lays claim to a poignant Scottish tune penned by a prisoner before his execution. Find out in my next post…