Whisky, Chessmen and Bonnie Prince Charlie

In May this year we booked a holiday. To explore the scenery, landscape and, of course, the history of the Outer Hebrides. It was not intended as a Jacobite tour, but from the very start we kept bumping into Charlie! I knew some of his story, of course, because I researched much of it while writing my Highland Trilogy. Two of the books actually mention Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Almost)

We drove south to the beautiful port of Oban to catch the ferry to the islands, but on the way we made a long-overdue visit to the Glenfinnan Monument.

Glenfinnan monumentIt was built in 1815 as a tribute to ‘the generous zeal and undaunted bravery’ of the Highlanders who ‘fought and bled in that arduous and unfortunate enterprise’ (the Jacobite Rising of 1745).

Charles Edward Stewart arrived in Glenfinnan to find it almost deserted. Then, the story goes, he heard the sound of pipes and over the hill arrived more than 1000 clansmen, come to pledge their allegiance to Bonnie Prince Charlie. A local landowner, Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale commissioned the monument but he died at the age of 28 in the year it was completed. Renowned for his life of excess, he was also heavily in debt. Sounds like many a Georgian rake, I think.

Loch ShielThe spiral staircase was closed for surveying but it was a lovely sunny day and we enjoyed a stroll around the monument, reading the Gaelic and English declarations.

What made it very, very special was that on the very edge of Loch Shiel a man was singing an old ballad. I have no idea what it was, it sounded like a lament to BPC but I felt too awkward to actually interrupt him to ask!

Ah well.

From Oban we took the ferry across to Castlebay on Barra, where we sailed in past the ancient Kisimul Castle, a MacNeil stronghold since the 11th century. Kisimul CastleNo BPC links there but the following day we took the ferry to Eriskay, where BPC landed first in Scotland in July 1745. You see? We can’t get away from the guy.

A quick (literary) detour

It waSS Politician s on the coast of Eriskay that the SS Politician ran aground in 1941. So what, I hear you ask?

Or maybe you know the story. Compton Mackenzie made it famous in his book, Whisky Galore. The SS Politician left Liverpool bound for Jamaica and New Orleans with whisky for the American market. She was caught in gale force winds which drove her onto the sandbanks off Eriskay.

260,000 bottles of whisky on the stricken ship

First edition cover of Whisky GaloreSupplies of whisky had run out on the island, due to war time rationing, so the locals embarked upon an (illegal) salvage operation of the duty-free whisky before the Customs and Excise officials arrived. News travels remarkably quickly in the islands and boats came from as far away as Lewis to help with the “salvage”.

However, the local customs officer made an official complaint to the police. Villages were raided, crofts searched but the islanders hid or drank their whisky to hide the evidence. Eventually the ship was dynamited to stop any further pilfering.

Sadly, the real story did not end quite so merrily as the book. Many of the islanders were fined. Some of them were sentenced to up to six weeks in prison in Inverness and Peterhead.

To end on a happier note

Memorabilia of SS Politician in Am Politician pub, EriskayKnowing the story, when we saw there is a pub on Eriskay called Am Politician we just had to stop there. The friendly bar staff were only too happy to show us some of the relics from the ship.

And on, northwards

short-eared owls squabblingA causeway links Eriskay to South Uist.

Here short-eared owls hunt in daylight and we saw plenty of them. I was even fortunate enough to have my camera in hand when two of them decided to squabble right in front of the car!

And then…

 

Another link to Bonnie Prince Charlie

We were driving north through the rather bleak landscape when we came across the birthplace of Flora MacDonald. A small signpost points to a grassy track where we parked and walked upCairn at Flora MacDonald's birthplace the gentle slope to the monument. A drystone wall encloses a cairn bearing a metal plaque to Flora.

One can see no sign of her actual house now. The village has disappeared.

landscape at Flora MacDonald's birthplace

 

I wonder if any of her family thought, when little Flora came into the world in this bleak, beautiful place, that she would one day be so famous?

 

We drove on to Lochboisdale, where Calvay Island lies in the entrance of the loch. Bonnie Prince Charlie hid in the ruins of Calvay Castle before setting sale for Skye with Flora.

blackhousesOur tour continued over the causeways that link South Uist to North Uist, via the islands of Benbecula and Grimsay. The drive included stunning viewing points, stone circles, blackhouses and deserted villages.

Then it was a tortuous ferry-ride to Harris and on to our hotel.

 

Harris Hotel library

The Harris Hotel, in the main ferry port of Tarbert, has several things in its favour. Not only is it a short walk from the Harris distillery, but the hotel also has a secret library!

Actually, it is not really a secret, although I did have to ask one of the staff how to find it. Some years ago, the hotel staff had the brilliant idea of putting shelves in this tiny space and the local library donated books they no longer had room for on their own shelves. I spent a fascinating half-hour browsing the shelves before taking several books back to my room to read. Bliss.

And one last sighting of BPC

Monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie, LewisFrom Harris it was a very scenic route north into Lewis. No causeways or water to cross as they are two parts of the same island!

In the village of Arivruach there is a monument to BPC. He landed there on 4th May 1746 after the battle of Culloden.

It really is difficult to go anywhere on the eastern side of the islands that he has not been, from Stornaway in the north to Lochboisdale in the south. In all he travelled around 500 miles around the remote North-West Highlands of Scotland and the Western Isles before escaping back to France.

Interested in the Jacobites?

There is a lot of detail on the Jacobites.org website here

Also, I discovered a great little book that describes the prince’s wanderings on sale in one of the museums, but I know it is also available online.Cover of The Escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie

But it’s not just about Bonnie Prince Charlie

Callanish Stones, LewisUig Beach and Sarah MalloryLike the rest of the islands, Lewis is full of history.

There are the beautiful Callanish Stones for a start. And Uig beach (where the Lewis Chessmen were found).

Lewis Chessmen

By National Museums Scotland – National Museums Scotland, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Then it was on to the beautiful Bostadh beach (below).Bostadh beach

An iron age longhouse has been restored there, following the discovery of several round houses beneath the sands. They have been reburied now, to protect them

iron age houseiron age house interior

The iron age house is particularly fascinating. The guide we met has been almost living there for the past couple of years, learning about how people could live in such a building. We experienced for ourselves the way the cold air settles in the dark back room, making it perfect for storing food. Even the curving path down to the entrance keeps out the cold winds.

Finally, a wee dram

We visited the Abhainn Dearg, (Red River in English) a distillery on the remote western coast of Lewis at Uig. It is at the end of a spectacular drive and oversized Lewis chessmen keep guard at the gates.Abhainn Dearg distillery chessmen, Lewis It’s a small distillery but the passion for the product shines through when you talk to the staff. And the whisky’s not bad, either.

Slàinte

whisky bottle and glasses

Sarah

18 thoughts on “Whisky, Chessmen and Bonnie Prince Charlie

  1. Liz

    What a great journey, Sarah. I really enjoyed following you around the islands, reading about the history and the sights. I recently watched a remake of the film Whisky Galore which was great fun, but I knew the ending wasn’t so great for the people involved.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Liz. I wanted to share it because there are so many interesting places but quite off the beaten track for most people.

      Reply
  2. Jan+Jones

    Lovely post. I almost felt as if I was on holiday with you. The original Whisky Galore is one of my favourite films. I love the line about George being born “two drams below par”. I know a few people like that!

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      Thanks, Jan. Whisky Galore is a great story. I am not sure many of us could have resisted the call to “save” at least some of the cargo from the stricken ship!

      Reply
  3. Sophie

    Good heavens, what a great journey. Fascinating places. Thank you for the tour.

    I have to admit that I’ve never had much time for either the Old or the Young Pretender – got everyone riled up, then pushed off back to France while the Hanoverians exacted revenge.

    Whisky Galore is a joyous film. Sad that the real outcome was nastier. Pointless and petty as affronted bureaucracy so often is.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Sophie. There is so much history in the islands and not just about the Jacobites. The signs of prehistoric habitation are everywhere, and you can almost feel the history in the landscape (or maybe that’s just me!)

      Reply
  4. Joanna

    Thank you for a wonderful trip, Sarah. Scot though I am, I haven’t visited as many of the Hebridean Islands as you have. Shame on me, eh? Shall have to do better as it’s clearly worth it.

    Reply
  5. lesley2cats

    Lovely blog, Sarah, thank you. I’ve always wanted to visit the islands, but this’ll do me for now.

    Reply
  6. Sarah Post author

    Thank you, Rosemary, it was such a fascinating road trip, I would love to do it all over again – only there are so many other places in Scotland I have to see first 🙂

    Reply
  7. Michelle Styles

    Thank goodness your ferries were working. I love the Outer Hebrides — did the Oban/Barra/Eriskay/So Uist in May. The Am Politician is a great pub. Such friendly staff.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      We were there in May, too, so we might have passed on the road, Michelle. Yes our ferries all worked out perfectly, we were very lucky with that.

      Reply
  8. Elizabeth Bailey

    Fascinating trip. Bonnie Prince Charlie is such a romantic story in hindsight, though I suspect it was pretty bloody and distressing for everyone involved at the time. My only connection with Scottish islands is having known a girl from Stornaway many moons ago back in Africa. She came to work with us in the typing pool and I couldn’t understand a word she said!

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      I hope you enjoyed my ramble around the islands, Liz. I agree that Charlie’s adventures are probably better to read about than actually being there. I think that’s why I write fiction, much safer! As for the accent, it can still be a bit challenging, but you become accustomed to it after a while 🙂

      Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      Thanks, Liizzie, and thanks for adding the link. If I remember correctly, they discovered pieces for more than one set, so the hoard may well have been buried by a merchant, or stolen from him and buried. My mind is already writing stories about it!

      Reply

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