Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 3

4. The Black Dinner.

One of the most infamous incidents from Scottish history, the 'black dinner' of James II was gruesome enough to inspire George RR Martin's 'red wedding' in the Game of Thrones novels. When James I died (see previous post), his son and heir, James II, was only six years old. The keepers of the two most powerful castles in Scotland, Stirling and Edinburgh, connived to increase their own influence and power by holding the young king effective prisoner. Only William, the vigorous young Earl of Douglas had the power to shake them. The castellans conferred with the earl's uncle, who would inherit the earldom should anything happen to young William. With a nod and a wink, he confirmed that he would not interfere. The groundwork laid, William Douglas and his younger brother were invited to dine with James II by the keeper of Edinburgh Castle. In front of the horrified king, who pleaded for their lives, they were seized and summarily beheaded. Acording to legend, as the dinner drew to an end, a platter was brought in bearing the head of a black boar - the traditional symbol of death, and signal to act to the assasins.

3. Kenneth II. 

Of all the deaths on this list, none can be as colourful or as unlikely as that as that of Kenneth II, who died in 995. Legend has it that after Kenneth had executed the son of the Mormaer of Angus as a traitor, the boy's mother, Fenella, vowed revenge. When the king was hunting in her area she approached him, vowed loyalty, and said she had information of a conspiracy against him if he would just follow her to a house on the estate. Intrigued, Kenneth entered the house where he saw an incredible sight: a statue of himself, holding a golden apple. The king lifted the apple out the statue's hand. But the statue was a booby-trap, and moving it triggered hidden crossbows, which skewered the king with arrows.  

2. Sigurd the Mighty. 

Sigurd the Mighty, Jarl of Orkney, had already conquered Scotland north of the River Oykell for the Norwegian king, when he issued a challenge to Máel Brigte, the Mormaer of Moray. Meet me on the shores of the Moray Firth with 40 men, said Sigurd, and we will see who is the better warrior. Máel  turned up with 40. But Sigurd brought 80 men to the fight, and killed and beheaded Máel Brigte. Máel was famous for having a crooked tooth: and as Sigurd rode home with his enemy's head tied to his saddle as a trophy, the tooth grazed his leg. The wound went septic, and Sigurd died, buried in 892 at Cyderhall (Sigurd's Howe) at the edge of the land he had conquered.

1. Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty.

A polymath who translated Rabelais and created a new mathematical system, Urquhart was also a committed royalist during the War of Three Kingdoms. He paid for his support for Charles II with capture at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and busied himself in the production of works such as Logopandecteision, a universal 'perfected language', with eleven cases, eleven genders, and eleven tenses. Such an eccentric genius deserves a notable end, and you'll be pleased to know that is exactly what he gave himself. On hearing of the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Urqhuart laughed so hard he died.

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 2

Happy New Year! Last time, we looked at three notable deaths. Today let's continue the countdown of top ten Scottish deaths with these memorable moments from history:

7. James I.

James died for a game of tennis! Having annoyed and alarmed his nobles with persecutions and land grabs, aggrandising his own position at their expense, James probably should have preferred the stout walls of castles to poorly defended houses. For while relaxing in the undefended Blackfriars in Perth in 1437, a minor noble with a grudge burst in with a small band of assasins looking for the monarch. James fled for the sewer, but his way to safety was blocked - just days earlier he had the exit covered over as he kept losing tennis balls down the hole from the court next door. His assasin cornered the unfortunate monarch and stabbed him to death.

6. Percy Pilcher. 

Pilcher was an English naval engineer based at Glasgow University as the 19th century drew to a close. On the gently sloping land near Cardross on the Clyde, he perfected his designs for a hang glider. But Pilcher had grander ambitions: heavier-than-air powered flight. Having built a plane, he intended to demonstrate it on 30 September 1899 in front of sponsors at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. The weather was too bad to fly: Pilcher went up in his glider instead, and crashed. Pilcher's death is a case of lost opportunity: had he lived a few more months who knows, he may have added heavier-than-air flight to the list of Scottish inventions.

5. William Wallace.

No list of historic Scottish deaths could be complete without the end of Sir William Wallace. Like Joan of Arc he died resisting English invasion, in a cause that would ultimately triumph: in part, thanks to the inspiration of his own example. Wallace was betrayed by a Scottish noble who had made peace with Edward I of England - as, to be fair, had the rest of the nobility. Wallace was taken to London and tried as a traitor, which he denied:

"I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I owe him no allegiance."

Wallace was hanged, taken down while still alive, had his genitals cut off, disembowelled and his organs thrown in a fire, and finally beheaded. His body was quartered and his limbs sent to be placed on spikes above the town gates of Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth as an example to the population.

Edward had found he could beat Wallace when he had been a fugitive and alive. It was another story once he became a dead legend. 

Read on for the last in the installment of top ten Scottish historical deaths!

Saturday, 31 December 2022

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 1

 It's Hogmanay - the biggest Scottish festival of them all - so how better to mark it than with a countdown of the most notable deaths in Scottish history?

10. The Bonnie Earl o' Moray. 

The 2nd Earl of Moray, if the ballad written in his honour is any guide, was considered one of the most handsome men in Scotland. This did not protect him from being pursued in a vendetta by the Earl of Huntly, who attacked him at his castle of Donibristle in 1592. As Moray received his fatal blows, one slashed him across the face, leading to his famous (and likely apocryphal) last words:

"You hae spoilt a better face than yer ain!"

9. Mary, Queen of Scots.

The brief and tumultuous reign of Mary ended in 1567 amid accusations she had plotted to kill her husband and marry his murderer. Had she not be a woman and a Catholic, she may have gotten away with it, but on fleeing to England she transferred her problems to Queen Elizabeth. English Catholics believed Mary, not Elizabeth, was legitimate heir to Henry VIII, leading to Mary's end on the chopping block in 1587 when she became implicated in a Catholic plot against Elizabeth's life. Her execution was trigger for the launch of the Spanish Armada. That invasion of England ultimately failed, but Mary had the last laugh: her son James VI inherited the English throne, and moved his mother's coffin to its magnificent final resting place in Westminster Abbey. En ma fin gît ma commencement indeed.  

8. The Black Douglas.

Sir James Douglas was one of the great heroes of the Scottish wars of independence, right-hand man to Robert the Bruce. Loved by the Scots - to whom he was 'the good Sir James', his reputation was quite different across the border, where nursemaids crooned to their charges "hush pet, the Black Douglas shall not get thee." After the death of the Bruce, Douglas was tasked with taking the Scottish king's embalmed heart to the Holy Land to battle Muslims. En route, he found himself fighting on the Christian side at the Battle of Teba in Andalucia. Legend has it that on becoming outnumbered and surrounded, he flung the Bruce's heart before him shouting:

"Lead on, brave heart, as thou were ever wont to do!"

The Black Douglas has one of the most iconic deaths in Scottish history. Just a shame the story of his final moments cannot be verified by any contemporary source.

Image courtesy of Andrew Spratt

Will Douglas' be the last legendary end, or did the mythmakers get their hands on other historical figures?

 Find out after the bells when the countdown is continued...

Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Big Walk Dreaming

Winter may seem a fallow season for outdoor adventures, but it is the season when seeds are planted, when dreams of future expeditions take shape. Reading Alex Roddie's The Farthest Shore recently rekindled my own plans and awoke a hunger I forgot I possessed.

Ardnamurchan Point:

Alex's book is the story of the Cape Wrath Trail (CWT), except he starts at Ardnamurchan Point instead of Fort William. Wait a minute, that's where I started when I did a similar route! Mine was in 1996, before the CWT existed as a concept, and I wanted a grand walk linking the westernmost point of the mainland, Ardnamurchan, with the north-westernmost: Cape Wrath. I wouldn't stick strictly to the coast but would take the most sensible line between the two points. 

Some parts were a revelation. Ardnamurchan itself, which I had never visited, is beautiful. Cape Wrath was a suitably awe-inspiring climax to the walk. And in between, the spacious backcountry around Maol Buidhe bothy proved a highlight.

Leaving Ardnamurchan, 1996:

It would be good to return and do a couple of bits I missed out back in 1996. I missed out the whole section from Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie, having given up and gone home in terrible weather, to return only for the last couple of days of the walk to Cape Wrath. It would be good too to walk through Knoydart, which I skirted by going from Corryhully to Kinbreck bothy then out to the Cluanie Inn, then cheating a bit by taking a lift down the A87 to Invershiel before continuing. 

But that's not all! There's so many walks I'd like to do. The MacPhies of Colonsay, planned for 2022 but postponed through illness. My idea of the Grampian coast to coast, following a fault line from Knapdale to the Findhorn via the Buachaille. Large sections of the British coast. Once you start dreaming there is no end! 

But perhaps it is enough to achieve something more modest. Such as a weekend away, which I've just realised I haven't managed all year! My own hillwalking book, after all, is called The Weekend Fix. Hopefully in 2023 I will get a few more of them.

Tuesday, 13 December 2022

December Snow

After the floods, the freeze.

The first inkling of the coming cold snap came on my morning commute. Snowflakes driven onto Edinburgh pavements, tourists stopping to photograph the scene.

We went next day to the local woods, crystals gleaming on moss.

Driving home I stopped to help an African fellow who had crashed. His car was bent, but fortunately he was OK. The magic of seeing snow for the first time had been replaced by a harsh lesson in the inconveneince of the white stuff.

But for us - oh, for us! This is when the fun starts.

The roads are bad, but if we can make it, the rewards are priceless.

May there be wonder in your December days: whether it's sunset from a mountain, or the sparkle of light on a patch of snow in your garden.

Friday, 18 November 2022

November Rain

The ground can't take any more.

Splashing through a field with the dog, glad of wellies. Earthworms drowning, writhing out the ground. Thousands of them. 

It's been raining for weeks.

The water flowing on any slope, the local burn with its banks burst, water swirling around the base of lampposts on the path, now underwater.

My jacket hasn't dried out properly for days and it's started to smell.

The dog looks like she's had enough of this walk. Happy to go back now? she seems to be saying.

I throw her a ball and the splashes it makes remind me of playing rugby as a teenager. Rolling round in the mud and freezing water in just a thin jersey. Character building.

But it's not the rain that gets to you. It's the darkness. When the streetlights go off and it suddenly gets noticeably darker, because sunrise doesn't mean much on days when the cloud is so dark and dense. And then at half past three the curtains are drawn again.

I'm reminded of comments on an emigrants forum years ago. An American woman who had moved to the West of Scotland was warning her compatriots off.

'I'm fine with rain,' one replied, 'Scotland will be OK.'

I could picture the original poster's haunted look as she replied back.

'You don't understand. It's not the rain. It's the DARKNESS.'

The poor woman was not coping too well.

Och well, don't worry. Just another three months of this to go.

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

The Four Seasons: Summer

The fact is all seasons are wonderful, for different reasons.

So before we talk about summer, let’s look at them.

There’s autumn, the time of year for waterfalls and forests, leaves sun caught in beautiful death, of roaring stags dark with peat...

Winter, the time of year of drunken oblivion in the dark, the flashing of a woman’s eyes in a whirling dance...

Spring, the time of year for colour to return, splashes of wildflower like herbs for the eyes...

But at last,

Summer comes in endless daylight.

Newgale beach:

Here in the north it is the time of year of barrelling down empty roads in bright sunshine at 4am, listening to your favourite driving tunes,

Listen to summer driving tune: Lab 4 — Reformation:

the time of ploys and adventures by sea and by hill,

Light winds on the Island Peaks Race:

the time of sweat and smiles,

of insect bites,

of blood and flesh,

the time of marriages, of brides stunning in white,

the groom her necessary accessory

children playing in the street, endless twilight echoing to their games,

the time we take family holidays to the coast,

the time we go

Skipping Barefoot Through the Heather.