The Scottish Highlands: Tell Me a Story

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Last Updated on February 17, 2018 by Audrey Scott

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.

Scotland Highlands Farmhouse
Scottish Highlands, where raindrops provide clarity.

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.

Scottish Highlands, Glen Coe
Glen Coe in the fog and rain.

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.

Scottish Highlands, Glen Coe
A flower for the MacDonalds at Glen Coe.

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.

Scotland, Traditional Highland Dress
Ken at the Clan House in Traditional Highland Dress

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.

Scottish Highlands, William Wallace Monument
William Wallace Monument

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.

Scottish Highlands, Culloden Battlefield
Clan tombstones at Culloden Battlefield, Scotland.

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.

Disclosure: This campaign is brought to you by Edinburgh's Hogmanay and is sponsored by VisitScotland, ETAG, Edinburgh Festivals, Haggis Adventures and Skyscanner. The campaign bloggers were sourced and managed by iambassador. As always, all opinions expressed here are entirely our own.
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

21 thoughts on “The Scottish Highlands: Tell Me a Story”

  1. I’m glad for your note at the end about how you felt while at Culloden. I felt the same and yet like you, am unsure why. Still, I’m grateful for it. To be in such a place and feel nothing seems far worse a fate.

    Look forward to traveling with you two again! What a ride it was. And my best memories involve both of you.

  2. Have you considered that you might be desendents of the fallen at Culloden……….the spirts of the highlands and blood of the clans run deep and wide………….
    This feeling has been felt by many at Culloden…….
    Culloden is very close to the Standing Stones of Clava..a spiritual place to the this day Druids and Witches gather here on mayday/halloween/yule ……..have you considered you might be a witch……a good one of course…

    Please you enjoyed Scotland.
    You are welcome to return at any time….
    in this life or the next….

  3. @Kirsten: It’s those stories! So sweet. Glad we got a chance to spend time together. Scotland was a fitting context. Fun journey, indeed. BOOM!

    @Stocky: Your comment made my day.

    There’s a little Welsh in the blood, I know. However, I wouldn’t put it past the folks on my father’s side to have fibbed a little bit. Maybe there’s a wee bit of Scottish in there after all.

    I’m certain I’m a witch, or worse. I hope they don’t find me out and burn me at the stake, throw me in the Nor Loch, or both!

    Looking forward to our return, in this life. And the next.

    @pam: I’m grateful for your comment and feedback.

    @Caroline: Kay was (and is) super. We had so much fun. And she’s traveled about quite a bit on the continent. Not surprised to hear your story. Love the connection. It’s a wee world, you might say.

  4. Glad I read this before I arrive in scotland in February. Glen Coe is definitely on the list of places I am going to visit while im there.

  5. Fast forward through history. The names and places will be many and varied, all awash in suffering and bloodshed. The stones of both victors and vanquished weathered and moss covered, signifying a commonality; death. The stories continue to be shared with a sense that if they were not, the voices of the dead would reach beyond their confines to do it. There are also stories being told by the silence of these places if only we would listen, but we are not ready yet and perhaps never will be. Culloden is still with us in different forms and places and with different visitors silently wondering if they will ever end. Today is somewhat grey with a hint of sunshine. Maybe tomorrow it will shine brighter and offer some hope that our stories will again make us laugh and shed tears of joy.

  6. @John: Glad we could be of service.

    @Don: Perspective through story. Perhaps we can appreciate all this history and remember the past a little bit better through story so that we may not be condemned forever to repeat it.

  7. @Mike: Glad we could help paint a bit more of a picture of the Scottish Highlands outside of the photos we’ve shared.

    @kole: Wee…love that word. In homage to the Scottish use of it, I should have peppered the piece with it more, but none of the stories above seemed to fit that description.

  8. @Amanda: Thank you. Hopefully, I didn’t take Scottish storytelling license in telling it!

    @Peter: Thanks. That was the idea. A bit of a frame story, you might say.

    @Yeity: Laughing. Tell me how that works out.

  9. Awesome article guys, and a wonderful retelling of the wealth of stories we were able to relive in the Highlands. And well done for spotting that noose at Ken’s Clansman Centre – what a creepy piece of paraphernalia!

  10. @Flora: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it and felt that it was a wonderful (and fair retelling of the stories and experiences we shared. Was fun to share it with you!

    On the noose at the Clansmen center, hat tip to Audrey for that fine piece of observation.

  11. I enjoyed your Scottish tales. Years ago, I had the opportunity to travel with my Dad to visit “the homeland”. We re-traced our roots and even visited the ancestral home in Blairgowrie. For years, my Dad told me we came from the McAllister clan, only to discover during the trip we belonged to the McDonnell clan….the same clan as my (then) new wife. I was quite pleased to know we were strengthening the blood line rather than diluting it!

  12. @Tim: Love your story. How cool on two accounts. The clan confusion, now that strikes me as ironic and somewhat poetically Scottish. Strengthening the blood line — love it! Thanks for the comment…and staying in touch.


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