Well, I _was_ going to kick off my trip to the UK with a sprightly essay entitled “A Brief Disquisition on the Existence of Butt-Cooties.” Had it mostly done; meant to post it just before we left, then follow on with a general blog about our doings in England, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Unfortunately, I left it in my other computer. (No, really; I brought my new MacBook on the trip, and forgot to transfer the essay out of my PC, where it’s still sitting.) So I guess I’ll use that as a closing flourish, instead.
We arrived in Scotland today! (Spent two days in New York first, to break the journey–poor Doug is 6’3 or 4, and Suffers Terribly on long flights, as he can’t sleep on airplanes.) Then landed in England, which was quick, but fun. We had dinner with friends, had another dinner with the new UK publishing people–Orion is now my UK publisher, and a lovely lot they all are, too–went to the Museum of London (amazing place! It’s address is One London Wall; it’s built on what’s left of the city wall), the National Portrait Gallery (just as amazing, in a different way. So cool to see the faces of history, especially all the Tudors and Stuarts and their cohorts), and…well, ate. As my husband remarked in tones of amazement last night, “We’ve been in England for 48 hours, and we haven’t eaten anything awful yet!” The wonders of globalization. [g] (Had a wonderful time sitting in pubs drinking red wine and listening to the conversations, too. More globalization, I suppose–or the influence of television; while the people _all_ had accents–and not all English accents, either–we could understand them easily, whereas on previous visits it often took several repetitions of an exchange for both parties to understand what was being said. This time, they understood _us_, too.)
Anyway, got up Way Early and dragged our bags to the Tube station at Pimlico (lovely cool day; cold enough to see your breath, but a sweatshirt was enough to keep warm), and went to Victoria, where we caught the Gatwick Express, arriving in enough time to hunt food–had wonderful sandwiches for breakfast at the airport (the UK in general has _great_ sandwiches; they’ll put _anything_ between two slices of bread (usually very fresh and good), and it’s usually extremely tasty, though I drew the line at sweet-corn with bacon and Branston pickle): I had tuna, salad, and red onion, and Doug had egg, cress, and mayo, both on “malted granary bread” (aka multi-grain; delicious)).
Flew to Edinburgh, and got our rental car–a brand-new Audi A3 (whose right windshield wiper stopped working about three miles out of the lot; luckily, it didn’t rain much), then drove north. After the hair-raisingness of negotiating the Edinburgh round-abouts on the left-side, Doug got comfortable again, and we could enjoy the ride, heading up through the rising lands of the Highlands, into big, rolling mountains still covered with snow on the heights, the un-treed slopes covered with a thick coat of dusty heather with the purple ghost of its summer glory lingering, and thick growths of gorse sprouting out of the rocks, so dark a green as to look black, covered with yellow flowers even brighter than the scads of daffodils growing on the roadside verges. Big, puffy clouds and small intermittent showers, but overall, a brilliant, beautiful day.
We stopped in Pitlochry, ostensibly to look for lunch. I had a secret agenda, though, which I hadn’t mentioned, because I knew Doug was worried about reaching Inverness in good time to find our hotel and change for the evening reception at Culloden. I’d discovered, in the process of recent research, that Pitlochry has a hydroelectric dam, built in the 50′s, and along with it, has a visitor’s centre that recounts the development and history of hydroelectric power in the Highlands–that, and a fish chamber [g], where one can watch migrating salmon and trout making their way up a fish-ladder past the dam.
By good fortune [cough], we happened to see the sign for “Dam and Fish-ladder,” and I (in my position as navigator) pointed and said, “Oh, let’s stop there!” “Why do you want to see a fish-ladder?” Doug asked, pulling into the lot. “I don’t,” I replied, leaping out and heading for the dam. “I want to see a hydroelectric plant!” (No, I told him why, but I’m not telling you, sorry. It’s to do with the next book, that’s all.)
No fish were migrating, alas, but the visitors centre was fascinating, the stream (full of middle-aged and elderly men in waders with fly-rods) was rushing and glorious, spring plants were greening up all over, the trees were full of birds about their courting, and there was a delightful small stone inn/restaurant called Port-na-Craig below the car-park, where we stopped into the Fisherman’s Bar (so-called for the dozens of ancient fishing-rods hung from the ceiling) and had absolutely decadent burgers–tender, juicy Scottish beef, overlaid with bacon (of the British kind–soft and streaky, not the crispy American sort) and thick with melted cheese–a tangy sort of local white cheddar. You couldn’t pick them up to eat; they were so juicy, the bun fell apart, so we had to eat them with a fork (“We havena got tomahto _sauce_,” the nice waitress explained (‘tomato sauce” being Scottish for “ketchup”), ‘But we’ve got a bit of tomahto salsa, if ye’d like that?” (We did. [g]) Homemade chips with white vinegar, a little salad on the side….and we went back to the car and nearly fell asleep on the next part of the journey, from sheer satiation.
Didn’t go off the road, though, and made it to the Culloden House Hotel without incident. This place is a marvel; a very old, very large, stone-built country house, renovated and restored into a four-star hotel. Victorian wallpapering and furniture, luscious thick carpeting, windows with ancient wooden shutters to keep the morning light out, and a first-class dining room, equipped with Royal Worcester china, etched crystal goblets, heavy silver–and a menu to die for. I had the tournedos of Scottish fillet of beef, with wild-mushroom risotto, and Doug had a pork cutlet topped with pickled red onion, and a creamed sweetcorn soup with crawfish tails and chili oil (don’t laugh; it was great [g]).
You might be more interested in the fact that during the final days before the Battle of Culloden, Jacobite troops rested on the grounds here–and Jacobite officers stayed in the house (the original house; the present house was built on the same site in 1780). Also because it was in one of the attic rooms of Culloden House that Jamie had his final, fatal confrontation with his uncle Dougal (of which we may possibly hear more, anon).
You’ll be thinking that we don’t do anything while traveling but eat, by this time. But no–our actual reason for being here today was a reception this evening at the new Culloden Battlefield Memorial Visitors Centre, to which we’d been invited by the National Trust for Scotland, they generously regarding us as donors to the project.
The new Visitors Centre is wonderful from the outside–very modern, with long, low, clean lines, so that it seems to fit into the landscape, rather than stick up out of it. The outside landscaping is still in progress, but they’ve begun to lay the stones for the Culloden Walk Project. I’ll include a link here, in case any of you might be interested in contributing to the project yourselves.
I’d contributed a “chieftain stone” saying “Urram do na mairbh” (To the honor of the dead.”)–and my thanks to Catherine-Ann McPhee (noted Gaelic singer and teacher) for the proper Gaelic! The Ladies of Lallybroch had very generously donated a stone to the project as well, in my honor. [modestly pleased cough] Anyway, the walk is a long way from finished, but even the beginnings of it are very impressive indeed–flat, dark stones, covered with names, leading up to the entrance.
I won’t go into exhaustive detail about the evening or the exhibition, save to say that the evening was delightful (met all kinds of lovely people), and the design and execution of the exhibition is amazing–both striking and thoughtful. I _do_ want to tell you about what they call the “battle immersion” zone, though. This is a section where you walk through a dimly lit hallway, accompanying the Jacobite troops on the failed night march to attack the Government troops (you may not know about that, because Jamie didn’t take part–he was busy getting Claire safely to the stones); you hear the noises of the Government encampment to your left, and to your right, the shuffling and muttering and jangling of the exhausted, starving Jacobites as they go.
As you come to the end of this hallway, you turn into a small theatre–but it’s not the usual kind, with seats. It’s a completely empty room, with screens lining the walls on all four sides. You stand in the middle of this, turning constantly round as the battle begins, is fought, and ends….around you. It was fascinating to see the Jacobite troops lining up, sidling uneasily to and fro, getting into their formation–both very real, and very eerie, knowing what was coming. Empty horizon on the other side of the room, the wind stirring the moor grasses–and then the Government troops are there, coming up out of the distance. And coming. And coming. Rank upon rank, Brown Bess muskets on their shoulders. And the cannon rolling into position.
I was looking back at the Jacobite line when the firing began. Two Jacobite artillery pieces fired; a moment’s pause–and then English cannonballs struck two men in the front line, a few yards away from me. It was one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had. It went on from there in the same fashion; the terrible hesitation of the Jacobite line, before the order to charge finally came–the yelling mass of men, seeming to sweep right over us and carry us along–into the opposite screens, where the Government line stood firm….just waiting. You could smell the smoke of their volleys.
And then the wind again, over the quiet moor. And the dead.