Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
— Mark Twain said it. Scottish storytellers live it.
This is a story…about story. Or rather, the importance of stories to the Scottish Highlands.
“There was an unwritten rule in the Scottish Highlands,” Chris, our driver and guide, explained. “If someone came to your house seeking shelter and food, you must welcome them.”
By the time we began our descent into Glen Coe, the valley was fogged, as were the windows in our van. With a wipe of the hand, you could see sprays of rain in updraft. The wind was the kind that works to permanently bend the trees in its path. Were the day not so mild, you could imagine snow and sleet like tiny daggers.
“Just look at it out there. This is a harsh climate and landscape. Hospitality was necessary for survival,” Chris continued, laying the foundation for another tale of woe, a tale grounded in Scotland’s complicated history — one of clans and monarchs, of Scottish independence and English rule, of pride and revenge.
The story turned to the late 1600s, to two notoriously feuding clans, the Campbells and the MacDonalds. England's King William had asked all the highland clans to sign an oath of allegiance to him. By way of unfortunate timing, the oath from the head of the MacDonald clan arrived late and was therefore rejected.
Then one night, a regiment of British forces, including a number of members of the Campbell clan appeared in Glencoe, seeking shelter on the doorsteps of the MacDonalds. Like good Scots, the MacDonalds, abiding the tradition of Highlands hospitality, took in the Campbell-led regiment. For two weeks, they fed, housed and entertained the soldiers, slowly embracing the idea that the relationship between them and the Campbells might be on the mend.
However, more troops eventually arrived, including one with the orders to clear the village. Early the following morning, February 13, 1692, the soldiers returned the favor by massacring their hosts, killing 38 of them in their homes and driving 40 more women and children into the hills to die of exposure.
As weather moved and changed around us, clouds and fog would lift, then fall again. Mist, waterfalls, stones, rolling green, stark blue, grey, black. And back again. Beautiful and sad, in turns, the landscape echoed all its stories.
Our van pulled up to the edge of the valley. “This is where Friday the 13th comes from,” Chris flourished in the final throes of the story of Glen Coe.
It’s no matter that Feburary 13, 1692 was a Wednesday.
Stories, Their Messages and Letting Your Imagination Finish the Job
Embellishments aside, the themes of this story are clear: struggle, character, principle, and betrayal. The massacre of Glen Coe, when you boil it down, is quite literally an object lesson in backstabbing. Such deeds will never be forgotten. Or forgiven.
Later that evening, we dropped in at the Clansman Center at Fort Augustus near the shores of Loch Ness. Ken, our host, regaled us with stories of the Scottish Highlands, including how people traditionally lived, dressed, partied — and fought. He was a perfect fit for the part, his nose bandaged and injured from a recent mountain-climbing accident. This was a man undeterred.
Ken’s description was matter-of-fact, less of fantasy. The traditional life of the Scottish Highlander was not an easy life, nor was it particularly hygienic or long-lasting. Much of it was about discomfort. Families were packed in small spaces. Just about everything was dirty including clothing and kilts. To make the point, Ken suggested the most effective and practical way to disinfect a kilt: soak it in urine. Highland life exuded survival of the fittest, survival to live only a short while.
Then came his demonstration of traditional Highlands weaponry – the sword, claymore, shield, and halbard. Like a good storyteller, with a turn of each weapon, Ken related just enough graphic detail to leave us ducking and flinching. He’d motion roundabout with an enormous sword, blade on one side, hook on the other. He’d thrust forward, then upward. Then, he’d stop. He would leave a bit on the table, so to speak — so that our imaginations could finish the story. By that point, the enemy was no more, his entrails dragging.
On our way out of the Clansman Center, we noticed something that looked like a noose hanging by the door. As we inched closer, the sign underneath and message snapped into view: “Reserved for Campbells.”
Though it may be difficult to say exactly why storytelling has survived and evolved the way it has in Scotland — perhaps a distraction from the realities of harsh life, perhaps just a matter of DNA – it’s clear that tales and oral tradition run in the blood.
Stories, particularly those in the way of the Scottish Highlands, weave a connection between the present and events long past. They are shared, passed from generation to generation. They help to form and inform identity and traditions, values and beliefs. They provide context to emotion, they are the bearing of a people.
William Wallace: No Two Stories are the Same
Atop Abbey Craig, the home of the Wallace Monument, Chris gathered us around, his tone solemn compared to his usual pun-filled and bawdy self. At this moment, we were to listen closely, to understand. This was the story of William Wallace, a Scottish hero, the man of Braveheart fame.
Neither of us is certain whether we’ve seen the film Braveheart, either in whole or in part. So when it came to the history William Wallace, we were a relatively blank slate.
In telling the story of William Wallace, a story over 700 years old, Chris bridged time's divide. He wove together today’s chatter of Scottish independence and yesterday’s tales of revenge. This particular story begins with the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 and tells of the victory of the Scots, led by William Wallace, over the English Army, a victory of brains over brawn.
But payback’s a bitch. In retribution, Wallace was later dragged away to London and subject to a repeated hanging to near death, drawing and quartering, then a disemboweling so slow that he could witness his torturers cooking his own organs and innards.
Blood and guts, and even bits of stewed tomato.
Apparently, Mel Gibson and company took great license in the telling of this story in the film Braveheart. Regardless, something terrible happened to William Wallace. To what extent and detail, no one but Wallace himself will ever know.
Another guide from Haggis Adventures placed storytelling in its most demonstrative context: “No two people will ever tell the story of William Wallace exactly the same.”
Even when there are no doubts as to the facts, there will always be variation.
Storytelling is theater. The facts they are told, perhaps with a flourish. Beyond that, storytellers weave the rest together based on legend, speculation and intuition.
This beyond — this is the gray area of storytelling. And in this gray area, that’s where storytellers thrive.
Culloden Battlefield: Fallen Armies, Fallen Families
In the telling of his stories at the Clansman Center, between the swings of an axe or two, Ken drew a virtual line, indicating that he was sharing with us “…what Highland life was like before Culloden.”
He didn’t elaborate, except to say that life had changed drastically since. The following day, we would just begin to understand what he meant.
Chris picked up the thread before we’d arrived at Culloden Battlefield. It was 1745, the era of the last of the Jacobite uprisings (attempts by the Scots to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne). Chris told of the self-serving Bonnie Prince Charlie and his ragtag, exhausted, underprepared army of Highlanders retreating north. Their enemy, the English Army, was professional and heavily armed; they vastly outnumbered the Jacobites.
The goal of the English army was simple: crush the Highlanders and be sure there would never be another Jacobite rebellion. That they did. Detailed diagrams of the battle exist and no matter how each is drawn, it tells of a slaughter.
We walked through the battlefield, a vast clearing dotted with a couple of flags to represent where forces had convened. Clouds moved slowly, but perceptibly. There were no mountains to get the in way, no valleys to catch them. They hung like steel wool. To imagine a swift massacre by one overpowering force over another was not difficult. Simple, moss-covered headstones marked symbolic burial plots for each of the clans that fell that day. The Mackintosh clan lay here, the Mackenzies there.
“They tried to gather the dead of the same clan so that they could rest in peace forever…together,” Kay, our other guide, noted sadly.
After the Battle of Culloden the English king, to secure his power and eliminate the possibility of another rebellion, worked to uproot the Highland culture, to tame the wildness of the area and its people. Anything “Highland” was considered an act and weapon of war — no more playing bagpipes, no more wearing kilts, no more speaking Scottish Gaelic.
“Today, this would be considered cultural genocide. But in those days we didn’t have such words to describe what happened,” Chris left us to walk.
The empty field stood not only for the death of several thousand men, but also for the death of a culture.
Populations emigrated in droves, looking for economic opportunities and freedoms elsewhere. And still to this day, the region has never recovered its population. The way everyone tells the story, Scottish Highland culture changed forever on that day in 1745. Though it's impossible to uproot a culture entirely. It lives in the people and the stories they tell.
In all the travel I’ve done, I have found it exceedingly rare to be overcome so emotionally by something so simple: an empty field dotted by stones and flags. I have no Scottish roots that I'm aware of, no family attachment to the place, so it’s difficult to say what prompted my feelings as I walked the fields at Culloden.
Maybe, just maybe, it was the stories.
A big thanks to Chris and Kay of Haggis Adventures who shared with us their Scotland through the stories they told during our trip to the Highlands. We’re still recovering from some of the bad puns and jokes that punctuated the air between the serious stories above.