Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Birnam and Arbroath

There were two choices of route for our next stop, along the busy A9, skirting the Cairngorms National Park or taking the back roads through it. We chose the latter and really enjoyed the scenery of snow covered mountains and deep glacially formed glens.
The Cairngorms rise to a height of 1300m and, on the back road, seem to completely envelope you. The weather alternated between bright sunshine and torrential downpours so we managed to see the mountains in ‘all seasons’.
We stopped for a coffee break in Braemar (worst cappos in Scotland, maybe the world!) after bypassing Balmoral Castle. Liz and Phil weren’t in residence so we missed out on an invitation for morning tea. At 1100 feet above sea level, Braemar enjoys a scenic location at the meeting point of three passes in Upper Deeside where the Clunie Water flowing north from the Cairnwell joins the upper River Dee. The village gained favour with Queen Victoria and still enjoys royal patronage today.
Braemar is probably best known for its Highland Games, the annual Braemar Gathering which takes place on the first Saturday in September. The games date back over 900 years, to the time when an annual contest between local clans was watched by King Malcolm III. The tradition of royal involvement was resumed by Queen Victoria after her purchase of the nearby Balmoral Estate and successive generations of royals have maintained that tradition ever since.

Then it was on to Glen Shee, the most dramatic and best known of the Angus glens which is dominated by its ski fields. At this time of year they are eerily deserted with the tall towers supporting cables and chairs that are just blowing in the wind. Then it was down the steep Cairnwell Pass, past the delightfully named Spittal of Glenshee and onto greener rural flatlands and a late lunch in Blairgowrie.
We stayed two nights in Birnam just across the River Tay from Dunkeld.
The name Dunkeld comes from the Gaelic for "the fort in the wood". Its recorded history dates back to the foundation here of a settlement by Culdee Monks in about 730AD. This was rebuilt by Kenneth MacAlpin in 848 and two years later Dunkeld became the religious centre of Scotland when St Columba's relics were moved here from Iona for safe keeping from increasing Viking raids. Dunkeld's fortunes up to 1560 were closely linked with those of the cathedral it served: so the destruction wrought by the Reformation that year was a huge setback for the village.

The village was all but destroyed in 1689 in a Jacobite defeat. The houses lining Cathedral Street have been rebuilt and have the reputation for imaginative restoration. The sad ruins of the 14th century cathedral sit in heavily wooded gardens beside the Tay against a backdrop of steep and wooded hills
A bridge linking it with Birnam was built in 1809, when the ubiquitous Thomas Telford produced the solid seven arched structure that is still used today.
Today's Dunkeld is a lovely village of largely whitewashed shops, cottages and hotels.
It was in this area while on holiday that Beatrix Potter found inspiration for her ‘Peter Rabbit’ books.

Birnam tends to be overshadowed by its larger neighbour across the river. Its major claim to fame came from the pen of Shakespeare. According to his telling of the story of Macbeth, it was through the realisation of the witches' prophecy about the movement of Birnam Wood that Macbeth came to his end. Signs in Birnam point you to the Birnam Oak close to the River Tay and behind the Birnam House Hotel. This ancient tree, now supported on crutches, is said to be part of the wood from which Malcolm's soldiers cut branches to disguise their attack on Macbeth at Dunsinane Hill, 15 miles to the southeast. If this seems odd, it is worth remembering that Shakespeare was a dramatist rather than a historian or a geographer.

Next day we visited Glamis Castle on the way to Arbroath. This estate is the birthplace of the current Queen’s late mother. It began as a royal hunting lodge in the 11th century but underwent major reconstruction in the 17th century. It has managed to avoid the ravages of battle, invasion and revolution that have destroyed or damaged many of Scotland’s fine buildings over the centuries and descendants of the original family still live there. Despite this, many of the rooms of the castle, including the Queen Mum’s apartments, are open to visitors.
One of these is the oldest, Duncan’s Hall, which was Shakespeare’s setting for the king’s murder in Macbeth. These rooms present an array of china, paintings, tapestries and furniture spanning 500 years which is stunning. The extensive grounds maintain a commercial herd of the wonderful looking highland cattle.

Arbroath was my father’s hometown and this was my third visit here. His birthplace no longer exists (a victim of ‘progress’) and, to my knowledge, neither does any of the family on either my grandfather or grandmother’s side.
It is an ancient port with origins dating back to Pictish times. It entered recorded history with the founding of Arbroath Abbey in 1174. There was a wooden pier at Arbroath by 1194, and the first harbour, know as the Abbot’s Harbour, dated from 1394. Arbroath's name comes from its position at the mouth of the Brothock Burn: it is a shortened form of Aberbrothock. The town's name has since reached a worldwide stage for two very different reasons.
In April 1320 the Abbot of Arbroath, Bernard de Linton, drafted the Letter of Arbroath, thought by many to be the most important document in Scottish history. This was a letter written to Pope John XXII on behalf of Robert the Bruce, and signed by most of the great and good of 14th Century Scotland. It asked the Pope to put pressure on Edward II of England to recognize Robert as the legitimate King of Scotland; and it also asked him to remove the excommunication that had been placed on Robert after he had murdered the Red Comyn in 1306.
The Letter is famous for one phrase in particular: "as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we shall not on any condition be subjected to English rule”. It continues “It is not for glory nor riches, nor honours that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life".
The Letter was basically Scotland’s “Declaration of Independence” some 456 years before the more famous one. The process of independence continues with Scotland regaining its parliament, albeit with limited powers and responsibilities, in 1999. A bit of a long wait!
Arbroath is also renowned as the home of the Arbroath Smokie. These are pairs of haddock tied at the tails and smoked over burning hardwood chips in 1.5m square barrels. This process still takes place in any number of back street smokeries close to Arbroath's harbour: and the product can be sampled from the many traditional fishmongers still operating in the town. We tried some at lunch and although they look a bit daunting, lightly grilled with lemon butter, they tasted fine.

Arbroath's harbour and its abbey are connected by a largely pedestrianised High Street which with the surrounding town centre offers the full range of shops and civic buildings you’d expect from somewhere with a history quite so long and prestigious. I won’t bother you with a long description of the historic abbey but if you are interested visit.
Previous visits had given the impression the town was a little dull and worn. But with proceeds from the national lottery, work is being carried out to restore many of the buildings and harbour area to their previous glory. The terrible 50’s and 60’s grey and beige stucco is being removed to reveal the lovely red stone that many of the buildings are constructed of. What were they thinking to cover it up in the first place? My partner visited the Abbey, I wandered the streets and harbour a little, trying to imagine the environment my father had lived in nearly a century ago and wondered at the courage of my grandfather uprooting his family in the early 1920’s and sailing to an unknown country 10,000 miles away.
We headed up the coast to Montrose and then inland to Brechin.
Then it was back to Birnam to ready ourselves for the “big smoke”, Edinburgh.

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