Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Encounter with time

How strange it is to come suddenly face to face with the ghosts of your childhood as I did last summer. We had driven up north, out of the Lowlands into Argyll, then gone on into Moidart towards Loch Shiel on the very day, August 19th, when the Scottish clans gathered at the start of the Stuart rebellion in 1945.

In Glenfinnan, climbing up the steep stone stairway of the monument to Prince Charles Edward STuart, a sudden dizziness came over me, and acted as a catalyst, sweeping me backwards in time, as Proust's madeleine dipped in tea -- the tinkling of the spoon against the plate in l'Hotel Guermantes -- recreated for him the past, temps perdum. Time remembered rose up around me so vividly that I could almost have touched the youthful selves of my brother and sister and myself, along with Donald, our Highland landlord. There we were, in this same place, climbing those same stairs and assailed by this same giddy sensation of heights.

About these ads

We were spending our summer holidays in Appin country and Donald had brought us for the day to Glenfinnan.

"You will haff to visit Bonnie Prince Chairlie," he said, knowing that for us , as for most Scottish children, the Stuart rising of the '45 was the most romantic episode in history.

Donald, known as Donald the Boat to distinguish him from his uncle, Donald the Kye, was immersed in that period. He appeared to our youthful eyes as a hero, cast in the same mould as Prince Charles Edward himself, tall and reddish-haired, always wearing a kilt of the Royal Stuart tartan and a Glengarry bonnet. He took us walking with him in the country around Duror of Appin, so that ever afterwards we associated him with that landscape, with peat and heather and the cry of seabirds, with a blue prospect of islands -- Mull, Lismore, Shuna and Balnagowan.

As he strode over the moors he talked endlessly of what he called the Cause. We drank in every word, filled more and more with love for the Young Pretender who came over from France to claim the crown of his ancestors.

We listened, entranced, to Donald's scornful dismissal of the Enemy, the English. "Och, the Sassenachs!" he would exclaim. "They haff no understanding whateffer of our history."

This August day he drove off with us in his ancient car, crossing Loch Linnhe by the Corran Ferry, into Ardgour and further to the wild lands of red deer and golden eagles that is Moidart Country. "We are on the fery road the clansmen took to raise the standard for their prince," said Donald, describing the gathering of the clans so vividly that we heard the tramping feet, the sound of the pibroch, felt in the very aid about us those high hopes.

As we stood beside the monument at Glenfinnan, Donald read aloud with a kind of triumphant solemnity the words commemorating the "daring and romantic attempt ," lingering over the phrases "undaunted bravery" and "inviolable fidelity," and eyeing us sternly as if demanding: "Would the three of you no' have stood for your prince!"

About these ads

That look gave us the sudden shivering sensation of an ordeal about to be laid on us. "Now we'll climb up beside Chairlie," Donald went on, setting off up the narrow stairway, as if skywards. "Come on!" he called as we hesitated.

How could we ever admit to him our fear of even the most insignificant heights? What good would we have been in the '45 if we had been daunted by a thing like that? We had to prove our devotion to the Prince and to Donald. He must never guess what it took us to go creeping up after him, clutching at one another and finally, at Charlie's stone feet, peeping apprehensively down at the loch infinitely far below.

"Here it all began," said Donald, pointing at Loch Shiel. The mist came curling up over the dark water, and the whaups wheeled overhead giving their unearthly wail. Through his words we relived the defeat at Culloden, the flight over the moors, imagined the prince sleeping in the heather, wrapped only in his plaidie. "A ransome of thirty thousand pounds on his heid!" Donald declared, adding proudly, "Not a clansman betrayed him. They would rather die than be bought."

He told us of the escape over the sea to Skye, when Flora Macdonald disguised Charlie as her serving maid. "Aye, and he tripped ower his skirts, near betraying himself when nae other body would! Then there was the sad return, back to France.The adventure was ower."

We stood up there, overwhelmed with the sorrow of it all, thinking of Charlie crying out in sleep as he dreamt of the carnage as the flower of the clans lay on Culloden Field: "Oh God, poor Scotland!" When we scrambled down at last we were shaken with love for Donald, the Prince, and the Cause, and forgot about heights.

With these vivid images I was swept back into the present, wondering what, in the age of the anti-hero and the cynic, was left of that hero worship and idealism of our green years. In the National Trust shop at Glenfinnan hung the portrait of the Young Pretender, the inspiration of so much literature and loyalty, the hero of all the Jacobite songs -- "Will ye no' come back again?" and "Wae's me for Prince Chairlie."

In the years between I had seen that other portrait, satyr to Hyperion, of the prince in exile, the ardent young face coarsened by age and lost dreams. It is sobering to survey the gulf between youthful idealism and adult disillusion. But stronger far than the disenchantment was the vision of the three of us, conquering heights by our devotion, while across the bridge of time came the Highland voice of Donald the Boat."Och, the Cause was lost, but the beliefs that went to make it nefer are." In cowardly and treacherous times what better device for a banner than undaunted bravery, inviolable fidelity?m

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.