‘Who does not know its noble rock, rising, the monarch of the landscape…’ – James Johnson, 1834, on Stirling Castle
A few weeks ago my partner and I escaped Edinburgh for the first time in a long time, and we decided to take a jaunt to the nearby city of Stirling. Stirling was the medieval capital of Scotland and historically it was like a gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands. There’s an old saying that ‘He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland’. So it was a strategic site…the perfect place to build a castle! And Stirling Castle was our first stop on our visit there. A mighty fortress perched on a craggy hilltop which, I have to say, exceeded my expectations!
Long-time readers of the blog might remember a post from last summer when I visited The Highland Folk Museum, a wonderful little open air museum nestled in the Cairngorms National Park. Me and my traveling companions were so enthralled with the museum after that first visit that we determined we needed to return, as soon as travel was permitted again in Scotland. So, this June, that’s actually what we did!
If you’ve not had a chance to read that first post about The Highland Folk Museum, I’d recommend it. The property is massive (80 acres) and covered in buildings recreating different eras of Scottish history, from the 1700s through the 1960’s. There is so much to take in. I decided to cover different aspects in each of my posts. That first post covers the recreated 18th century village in the museum, where bits of Outlander was filmed, and where we spent most of our time during our last visit. Whereas this post will be more focused on the rest of the park, which we explored this time around.
This place is so unique and honestly doesn’t feel touristy at all. It truly does give you a slice of Highland life, and how ordinary people used to live. We marveled at not only how detailed all the recreated buildings were (so many little items from frying pans to kettles to quilts!) but also how well kept they were. We didn’t see any dust. Some of the surfaces were even cleaner than my own desk at home! It’s clearly a museum created and maintained with attention, affection and care.
Here are a few of the highlights from our trip this time around…
My favorite thing we saw this time was not actually a building. We were lucky enough to arrive at exactly the moment that they were shearing the sheep! I’ve never seen sheep sheared before and wow – what a process!
Those sheep were thrashing about and it really looked like hard work.
I was surprised that the wool came off in big swathes, almost like blankets, not little tufts.
We got to see the sheep hosed down afterwards with a pink spray, which it turns out was to ward off the flies (who could lay eggs in any cuts the sheep might have gotten, which could then get infected).
In addition to the sheep, we also met some Highland cows.
We saw so many great buildings too – a recreated post office, railway waiting room, sweet shop, and several homes (most of these were depicting periods from the late 1800s through to the 1950s).
There was also a shinty field and we learned about the history of shinty (an ancient and historically very brutal Scottish sport which is still played now – in a more tame manner! Apparently Scottish emigrants also brought it to Canada, leading to modern ice hockey).
My favorite building that we saw on this trip was a 1930s school house. This was probably my favorite because the guide that we encountered there was so knowledgable about schooling during this period. We heard all about the (usually orphaned) ‘overspill’ children from Glasgow who were shipped away to the Highlands for a ‘better life’ and education in school houses like this. And we heard about the brutal corporal punishments used on students for all manner of offenses, and also about how students were beaten for speaking Gaelic (you had to speak English in schools).
(I appreciated how the guide didn’t sugarcoat any of this, and the Highlands does have a rather sad history: from the Highland Clearances, to forced emigration to the U.S or Canada due to lack of work and opportunities.)
All in all I’m so happy that we travelled back to the Highland Folk Museum and were able to explore it in its entirety. The fact that it’s an open-air museum which allows you to be in the breathtaking landscape as you explore all the buildings is a major bonus. And, in a place where the landscape is so linked to the people, the buildings and the culture, being outdoors is another way to learn about Scotland’s past and present. (And maybe you’d get lucky enough to catch a sheep shearing like we did!)
My recommendation if you visit is to buy a guide book: they’re only a fiver at the door and, without it, you wouldn’t get as rich an experience. There aren’t plaques or explanations outside every building, and, when we visited, not many staff about (possibly due in part to Covid), so it’s basically essential to get the guide, which is packed with great information about how each building was recreated. And I wanted to buy one too: it’s extremely cheap to visit the museum (we only paid a five pound donation total for entry for all three of us!!). We also stopped into the delightful little cafe on site and the gift shop too – wanting to support the work of the museum. (Also, the baked goods were tasty!)
If, like me, you enjoy learning about social history and people’s daily lives in the past, you’ll love this museum. I hope that you enjoyed this virtual ‘visit’, and let me know what you think of it. I’ve linked some info below if you are planning a visit, as well as some more resources if you want to learn more. 🙂
Stay tuned for another Highland-themed post in the next ‘Madeira Mondays’!
Another Highland site that I’d recommend visiting is Culloden Battlefield. My post about visiting that is here.
PS Not Highland Folk Museum related, but last week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the Loud Poets on their wonderful podcast The Loudcast. As most of you know, part of my job is writing and performing poetry, and this interview was an in-depth conversation about my experiences writing for different audiences, bringing empathy and humor to ‘political poetry’ and lots more. They released the podcast episode just yesterday so wanted to pop it here if you’re interested in checking it out!
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!
There’s a misty moor in the Scottish Highlands where, over 250 years ago, a battle took place that shaped the course of world history forever. I’m talking about Culloden, the site where Jacobite forces clashed with British government troops in a harrowing fight and one that would ultimately mark the end of the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the dissolution of the Scottish clan system. It was also, interestingly, the last battle fought on British soil.
When you go to visit Culloden yourself, there are ultimately two key elements to see: the battlefield itself and a shiny new visitor center, which explains the lead up to the battle, how the fighting went down, and also the legacy of Culloden. I have to admit, when we went to see this site two weeks ago, I knew very little about the battle, or anything leading up to it. Even though the 18th century is the time period I study, and even though I have to know about Scottish history to engage knowledgeably with guests in my volunteer job as tour guide at The Georgian House in Edinburgh, I didn’t know very much about Culloden in particular. I know more about 18th century social history and the American Revolution (which took place about 30 years after Culloden).
So when I arrived to Culloden (which is overseen by the National Trust for Scotland, the same organization that runs The Georgian House – yay!), I was ready to learn. What I did not expect was quite how atmospheric it would be. On the morning we arrived, the fog was thick and the grass still slick from a storm that had passed the night before. The air was gray but the green field littered with bursts of purple heather. It was quiet, solemn and verging on spooky.
Culloden Battlefield, shrouded in mist
Our group split up and while my partner and my friend explored the battlefield itself, I went into the Visitor Centre (which is basically like a small museum, although there’s also a gift shop and cafe). We all wanted to go inside the museum portion, but we’d waited until the night before to book slots and could only get one, which my group graciously let me have (as the resident 18th century enthusiast). I also got in for free as a National Trust volunteer, which was a nice perk.
The museum is set up more or less chronologically, so that you can go through it and see what happened before and during the Jacobite uprising, from both a Jacobite and ‘government’ perspective. Who were the Jacobites? They were a group of mostly Scottish people who believed that the Catholic Stuart family had a right to the British throne. The Jacobite army comprised a lot of Highland clansmen and it was led by Charles Edward Stuart, or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. They had achieved some successes fighting British government troops before Culloden, but at Culloden they were roundly defeated by the Duke of Cumberland. Their rebellion was over.
The museum does a really fantastic job of explaining this complex time period and the battle itself. The building is quite somber and looks almost like a military fortress, which adds to this atmosphere of seriousness – after all, 1,600 men were killed in this battle (1,500 of them Jacobites). And, from what I learned, there was a lot of brutality in the aftermath of the battle too, when the government troops were searching for the fleeing, defeated Jacobites – killing, pillaging, etc. along the way. So it is a somber site.
The Culloden Vistor Centre
It’s a very engaging museum though and one of the elements that I liked most was the room where you could ‘immerse’ yourself in the battle itself. There were four screens, one on each wall, that featured re-enactors depicting the battle and it is quite immersive. To be in the middle of four screens, all full of heavily-armed dudes shouting, is overwhelming and does give a sense of the intensity of the fighting.
I also loved seeing the artifacts of the time. One disturbing item that stuck with me is a sampler from a young girl in a London. A ‘sampler’ was a piece of fabric where girls practiced their embroidery – maybe their ABCs, or they might sew images of a house or a bible quote or something. This girl had sewn a picture of a British redcoat stabbing a Jacobite soldier (I think the little girl had someone in her family who fought in the British army) and her caption was something like, ‘Killing the Highlanders!’ Apparently propaganda was rampant in London about how the ‘unruly’ highlanders in Scotland were rampaging and needed to be crushed etc., but there was something very sad about seeing this image on a little girl’s sampler, which is usually something full of benign images like birds, houses, trees.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time for me to do a full exploration of the battlefield itself, but I was assured by the rest of my group that it was a fascinating sight. There are markers throughout about troop movements, flags marking where different army front lines were and where exactly the fighting took place. So it would be a particularly interesting sight for anyone who is keen on military history. There are also memorials too, for different clans that took part in the fighting.
All in all I was very impressed with Culloden as a historical site and have pretty much nothing critical to say about it! The only bummer of our visit (the fact that we couldn’t all get into the museum) was very much our fault for not being more organized about booking the tickets – so anyone looking to visit, especially during Covid, do book your museum visit in advance online. It’s very easy to do.
I hope that was an interesting little jaunt into Scotland’s past. I would highly recommend a visit if/when you’re ever in the area. Like the Highland Folk Museum featured in my last post, I think Culloden has a special significance to fans of Outlander (which I’ve never read, but have seen a couple of episodes of!), but it would be an interesting place to visit even if you don’t know anything about Scottish history and if you have no connection to Diana Gabaldon’s sweeping time-travel romance series. It’s a carefully created and even-handed museum, and a striking Scottish geographical landmark. Let me know if you do visit, or have visited before, and what you thought about it – I’d be curious to know!
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!
Nestled in the Cairngorms National Park, about an hour east of Fort William, you’ll find the Highland Folk Museum, a site dedicated to exploring domestic life and culture in the Scottish highlands. It’s an 80 acre open-air museum full of replica buildings, recreating different eras of Scottish history from the 1700’s through to the 1960’s, including an entire 18th century village (where an episode of Outlander was shot).
I’m a sucker for these sorts of open-air, living history museums and I’ve visited several of them: Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, Skansen in Stockholm, Sweden, and the ATSTRA Museum in Transylvania, Romania (more on that another time perhaps). I’m so passionate about social history (the academic way of saying the study of how people lived), so on our recent trip to the Highlands, we decided to stop off at the Highland Folk Museum to learn more about the region and its history. And I’m so glad we made the stop because, honestly, this place provides quite a unique experience!
The Highland Folk Museum was the brainchild of Dr. Isabel F. Grant, who studied British folk life in the Highlands, and was inspired by the Scandinavian open air museum movement to start a museum of her own. This museum was first opened in 1944, the first open-air museum on mainland Britain.
It’s a truly unique place. First of all, the setting itself is unbeatable.
The 80 acres of the museum are verdant and lush, with sweeping views of the surrounding highland countryside. We visited on a sunny day, but even if you encountered typical Scottish fog or light rain, it would still be a pretty spectacular landscape to explore.
We unfortunately only had about an hour and 45 minutes for our visit and, ideally, we would have had more. We had to prioritize and since one of our party (*waves*) studies and writes about 18th century history, we knew we had to see the 1730’s village, which meant that we skipped tons of great looking stuff in other parts of the park: a recreated 1930’s sweets shop, a 19th century school house, and a post office from the 1910’s, to name just a few!
But the 18th century village was well worth seeing even if, during Covid times, it was a rather different experience, I’m guessing, than what you’d usually get.
My understanding is that there are typically several costumed historical interpreters about, showing you how to make crafts or telling you more about life from the period they are portraying, but, in this case, we were met with only one (very knowledgable and friendly!) interpreter in the recreated village.
Also, I think that more of the buildings are typically open, but several had to be shut due to (as I understood it) there not being proper ventilation inside them, to comply with safety standards. Buildings were made back then to keep in heat, and these ones had no windows, which would have been good for insulation, but not so good when you’re trying to prevent the spread of a pandemic!
Still, despite these necessary restrictions, it was very cool to see ‘Baile Gean’ and how the museum had depicted rural life in the highlands in the 18th century.
The buildings were made from natural materials, as they would have been then: timber frames, walls of turf, a thatched roof of locally collected vegetation like heather, bracken or reeds.
I’d definitely love to come back and see this village again, because I do think that it would be a very different experience. For this trip, I’d purchased a guidebook at the entrance of the museum, which proved more or less essential in learning more about these buildings. If I hadn’t had that, it would have been quite difficult to figure out what I was looking at – given the lack of signs around the buildings themselves. So I’d definitely recommend grabbing a guidebook, especially if you’re visiting during Covid, when fewer interpreters will be about. The book was only a fiver and considering that entrance to the park is FREE, it’s well worth it, to get that extra bit of information.
Overall, I was surprised that my favorite thing about my visit to The Highland Folk Museum actually wasn’t the 18th century portion of the museum, but some of the 1930’s and 1950’s buildings (which were recreated in much more detail, possibly because these artifacts are simply so much easier to come by than ones from the 18th century).
The tailor’s shop was a particular highlight for me (As a side note, I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek Deep Space Nine recently and the tailor’s shop also made me think of my favorite fictional ‘tailor’, Garak. And if you understand my Deep Space Nine reference, then you’re amazing and we definitely should be friends). The tailor’s shop was originally build by Andrew MacPhearson for his son Donald on his return, wounded, from WWI. It was recreated to look as it had in the 1930’s.
All in all, it was a fascinating visit and, as I mentioned earlier, I would love to go back and see it again. There was so much stuff I missed! If you go yourself, I’d really recommend allowing at least three hours to explore. It’s a massive property and there’s so much to discover. It would make a great day or half-day trip, if you’re staying in Fort William, like we were. Plus, it’s free to visit!
More information about the museum and how to book a time slot to visit can be found here.
Thanks so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed seeing the photos of the trip. Let me know which elements you liked best and stay tuned for more 18th century explorations coming up, as I’ll be chatting about a visit to Culloden Battlefield in a future post!
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!
One of the things that I love most about living in Edinburgh is that there are always more historical sites to visit. Even though I volunteer as a tour guide at The Georgian House and have visited most of the major historical sites in the city (Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace etc.), I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, until last week, I’d never been to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.
This is a particularly striking omission on my part given that 1 – I love learning about Edinburgh’s history and 2 – I love gardens. I used to spend lots of time in Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens, when I lived there, and I’ve even co-led a writing workshop there, a couple years back. Basically, it was high time that I checked out ‘the Botanics’ (as everyone here calls the garden) and as soon as they opened back up after lock-down, I booked a slot to go and visit. (Side note: It’s free to visit, but you do have to book a time slot at the moment).
The history of the garden dates back to 1670, when it began as a small patch of ground in Holyrood Park, overseen by two intellectually curious and well-travelled doctors, Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour (Sibbald was also the first professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh). As you might know, Edinburgh was a site of Enlightenment learning and particularly medical expertise in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 1683, James Sutherland wrote a catalogue of all the species of plants in the garden at that time: Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis : or, a catalogue of the plants in the Physical Garden at Edinburgh.
If there’s one thing that I know about the Enlightenment, it’s that those guys loved – for better or for worse – to find and catalogue stuff. So it’s really no surprise that, as the British Empire expanded, the gardens expanded too. It changed locations twice and ended up at its current location, at Inverleith, in 1820. Imagine having to transport all those plants!
I wish that I could tell you that I learned lots more about the Botanics’ history during my trip there, but, quite frankly, I was too busy enjoying being surrounded by all the diverse plant life and catching up with the friends I met, who I hadn’t properly seen for months (we had a long period of strict quarantine in Scotland). It is truly an immense garden – and you could easily spent a half-day (or full day!) wandering around.
A hedge maze in the gardens. Apparently the little building on the other side of it is full of all kinds of shells (my friends told me), but it’s closed at the moment.
I particularly enjoyed seeing the enormous tree fossil, outside a Victorian greenhouse (which was, wisely, still closed!).
Another highlight for me was the Chinese garden and I found the bridge and the tranquil waterfall so relaxing.
There were plenty of benches for sitting and socially-distanced chatting, as well as some lovely fountains.
And you could also find helpful historical tidbits scattered throughout too, for those, like me, who enjoy that kind of thing.
I’m certain that I only scratched the surface of the garden (the top layer of soil, if you will) and its 350-year-old history, so I’ll definitely be going back soon. I also have a historian friend who studies 18th century botany, so let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d be curious to learn about.
If you’re ever in Edinburgh in the future, it’s well-worth a visit and I know I’ll be taking the next group of friends or family who come to visit me here.
Hello from the Botanics!
I hope that you’re keeping well and that you’ve been finding things to take solace in and enjoy, during this strange time.
The Royal Botanical Garden’s website has lots of information about what they do now (they are big into conservation and education, it seems), as well as their unique history
‘Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways – they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of their place, out of their depth.’ – Emma Donoghue, ‘Afterword’ in Astray
I’ve read several books by Emma Donoghue. She writes about lots of things I’m interested in: American history, sexuality, fairy tales, travel and migration. It’s this last theme that she takes up in her 2012 short story collection – Astray – about travelers of all sorts: those who, by choice or by necessity, have to leave their homes and arrive at a new place where, more often than not, new difficulties await them.
It’s not my favorite book of Donoghue’s that I’ve read (that would probably be her 2010 bestseller Room) and it’s not my least favorite (that would sadly be her 18th century historical novel Slammerkin). Astray sits somewhere in the middle. There are some excellent stories, and some disappointing ones. Overall it’s a very mixed bag.
I’ll start with the positives. I think Donoghue’s #1 strength, whether she’s writing stuff set in the past or the present, about children or adults, about men or women or people whose gender identity is beyond the binary, is voice. She’s brilliant with voice. Her writing is strongest, I think, when it’s in first person and she has this amazing ability to create a unique rhythm for the way each character speaks, and to use distinct and period/age appropriate expressions. It’s no surprise she lists in the Afterword that Charles Dickens in her ‘favorite novelist’. Say what you want about Dickens (who also had his strengths and his weaknesses) but the guy was amazing at writing dialogue and his characters’ voices really jump off the page. Donoghue is the same.
My two favorite stories in Astray, ’The Lost Seed’ and ‘Vanitas’, are told in two very distinctive voices by two totally vivid characters. In ‘The Lost Seed’ that’s a man in Puritan New England who starts accusing his neighbors of sex crimes and, in ‘Vanitas’ a bored and spoiled Creole teenager on a plantation, whose thoughtless actions have unintended, disastrous consequences for an enslaved maid. The main character in ‘Vanitas‘ comes across immediately: she’s a bored teenager with a flare for drama.
What both of these excellent stories share too, is that they put you into the minds of people who (not maliciously but certainly carelessly) did terrible things to others. Both characters are based on real people and I think these stories are stronger than many of the others because Donoghue has to work harder as a writer here to dig into these people’s motives, to guess why they behaved the way they did. The really tragic conclusion that she seems to have come to is that both of these people were deeply isolated and lonely. The reader feels for them, as well as condemning their actions, and this makes these stories have more tension and resonance than the sad but more straightforward stories like ‘Onwards’ about a London mother who has to resort to prostitution, or ‘Counting the Days’, about a marriage between two Irish migrants fleeing to Canada.
My main critique of the collection though, other than the hit-and-miss nature of the stories, is to do with the way it was put together (which may or may not have been Donoghue’s idea). After each story, there’s a brief historical note, where Donoghue explains what real books/newspaper articles/biographies inspired these fictional stories, and often she elaborates on how the ‘real’ people’s lives ended. For me, this information was interesting but should have been left to the end of the book. The stories are strong enough to stand on their own and often this research context was distracting.
In the case of the first story ‘Man and Boy’, about a circus elephant and his trainer, something that she mentioned in the historical note was a lot more interesting, in my opinion, than what she chose to write the story itself about, which got me thinking too much about that historical fact, rather than her story. Maybe it’s just because I’m conditioned to expect these sort of notes at the back of books, but they felt out of place in the midst of the collection and almost like she was justifying why she wrote what she wrote: I’d have liked for the collection to just let the stories breathe and include that at the back, for people who are curious about what inspired them.
All in all, if these are themes (travel, migration, American and Canadian history) that you’re curious about – this is a good book to pick up, especially considering how few historical fiction short stories are published these days (more on that in my post from earlier this year about my favorite author Karen Russell). Donoghue isn’t a didactic writer but of course these stories have a political resonance to reading them now (but, then, when does migration not have a political dimension to it? Has there ever been a time when societies didn’t try to shut their borders, demonizing the foreign ‘other’?). Donoghue clearly knows this and mentions in the ‘Afterword’ when discussing the story of the Johnsons, ‘economic migrants’ fleeing the Irish famine that: ‘Whenever I read headlines about human traffic gunned down crossing a border (…) I think of the Johnsons.’ So it’s an important time to think about and reflect on these topics of migration and immigrant experiences, which are always relevant, but perhaps especially so now.
PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The entrance to a harbor with a ship firing a salute’, by Joseph Vernet in 1761 and accessed via Wikimedia
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!