A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, northern Scotland including the Highlands and islands.
In terms of dramatic locations for old castles, Eilean Donan surely tops the bill. Defiantly standing at the base of a mountain valley, at the end of a promontory reaching out to a crystal-clear loch, and silhouetted against the Atlantic sky. It’s no wonder it has become a favourite with movie makers, featuring in, among others, Highlander (1986) James Bond: The World Is Not Enough (1999), and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).
Eilean Donan was built in the 1200s as a stronghold for the MacKenzie clan of Kintail. For the next 500 years or so it was contested in a number of inter-clan feuds. In 1331, its walls were decorated with the corpses of slain MacKenzies after a territory dispute with the Murray clan. In 1362, the McCrae clan took over the castle. They had acted as bodyguards for the MacKenzies. The MacDonald clan besieged it in 1439. In 1715, it was taken by the Jacobites before the Battle of Sherriffmuir.
This last time the castle saw military action was in 1719. After the failure of ‘The 15’, James Edward, the Old Jacobite Pretender now based in Madrid, urged Spain to invade Britain once again. 5,000 Spanish troops were prepped to land in the south west of England, but the British destroyed their fleet in the Bay of Biscay. Unaware of the fate of their compatriots, a diversionary Spanish force of 300 troops landed at Eilean Donan. The bulk of this force then marched off up the valley, leaving a defence of 50 to man the castle. Three British war-ships arrived and dropped anchor. Armed with 100 cannons, they opened fire on the castle. The Spanish surrendered and Eilean Donan was slighted (put out of action). It was restored in the 19th century and became a McCrae family home once again in the 1930s.
As you travel inland from the Kyle of Lochalsh, opposite Skye, you encounter the mountainous region of Kintail, once a hotbed of Highlander conflict. Between ‘The ’15’ and ‘The ’45’ Jacobite Rebellions, we also have ‘The Forgotten ’19’, and here was where the decisive battle of that little-known campaign took place. In June 1719, a force of 1,000 marched along the banks of Loch Duich (now the A87) rallying support for the Jacobite cause on their progress towards Inverness. They were made up of men from clan MacKenzie, clan Murray and clan MacGregor under Rob Roy, and boosted by 250 Spanish troops that had landed at Eilean Donan. They camped overnight at the top of the lake at Clachan Duich, burial ground of the MacKenzie clan after the 1715 Battle of Sheriffmuir. The next morning, they entered the valley of Glen Shiel. In the narrowest part at the base of the Kintail mountains, they were met by a force of 1,100 government troops that had ridden out from the Inverness garrison to meet them. After a call to arms, the Jacobites took up defensive positions with the MacKenzies on the left flank, the Murrays on the right, and the MacGregors and the Spanish barricading the road. The British attacked using mortars and 120 Dragoons who charged the Spanish on foot. The clans retreated into the mountains with 50 dead. The Spanish were taken prisoner. So ended the Battle of Glen Shiel. Following ‘The ’19’, the Old Pretender James Edward retired to Italy, where his son Bonnie Prince Charlie was born.
Loch Ness is the lake that is formed by the Great Glen Fault, the deepest geological crack in the UK. There is more fresh water here than in all the lakes of England and Wales. And apparently, legend has it something else lurks down below: some kind of prehistoric beast. The lore dates back to at least 563, when the Scottish monk St Columba reported that he had seen a sea monster when crossing Loch Ness. Today, Jacobite Cruises will take believers ‘fishing’.
The ruins of Urquhart Castle can be seen on the western edge of Loch Ness. There is evidence of a Pictish fortification here dating back to the 7th century. Its later history is heavily linked to the medieval Scottish wars of Independence. In the 1240s, Alexander II built the current castle to cow a Murray clan revolt. In 1296, Edward I took control and the following year it was attacked by William Wallace’ s fellow outlaw Andrew Murray who captured the garrison. In 1308, control was passed to Robert the Bruce. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, it was frequently attacked and plundered by the MacDonald clan. In 1689, it was garrisoned for the last time and unsuccessfully besieged by Jacobites. It was eventually slighted by government troops.
In 1746, the last of the Jacobites made a final stand near Inverness. A loyal force of highlanders left their camp on Culloden Moor at night determined to catch the encamped Government army, which had advanced from Aberdeen, by surprise. However, the Jacobites got lost during a storm en route and returned to camp exhausted and demoralised. The next day, a fresh 8,000-strong Government army approached. Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was staying at Culloden House, gave the order to stand and give battle. The British army, the majority of which were Scottish, were commanded by King George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland. He gave the order ‘No quarter’. Three lines of muskets brought down the charging Jacobites who were finished off by the cavalry. 1,200 lay dead after the slaughter. None were spared, none were wounded, none were taken prisoner. A priest on the battlefield administered whisky and oatcakes as part of the last rites. The Duke was subsequently nicknamed the ‘Butcher’.
The visitor centre at Culloden is superb, and tells the story very well, often with expert guides explaining aspects of the battle. Outside, you can get a bird’s eye view of the battlefield on a terrace above the visitor centre. A map will point out the Graves of the Clans, the Well of the Dead (where the Chieftan MacGillivray who led the Highlander charge fell), the Keppoch stone (where the Chief of MacDonalds fell), and the English stone, commemorating the government dead.
After the battle, Bonnie Prince Charlie left a message of every man for himself. He then went on the run sparking the biggest man-hunt ever in the UK, hiding out at Cluny’s Cage on Ben Alder, then near Loch Arkaig, and eventually on Skye disguised as a servant girl. He then sailed to France. He ended his life as a bitter, bloated, bankrupt, alcoholic wife-beater, and died in Florence in 1788. He is buried in St Peter’s, Rome. His younger brother Henry (King Henry IX to the Jacobites) was a cardinal who died in 1807, the last of the direct Stuart line. “Will Ye No Come Back Again?”
Beaufort Castle near Inverness was originally an early 12thcentury fortification that was owned by Jacobite rebel Lord Lovat (1667-1747). Aka, Simon Fraser, or ‘The Fox’, he was captured after ‘The ’15’ but renounced the Jacobite cause in return for his estates. However, he fought again for ‘the cause’ in ‘The ’45’, after which he was shown no mercy. His estates were forfeited and his cattle burnt. He was taken down to London where he became the last man beheaded on Tower Hill. However, family fortunes were restored. In 1774, the Lovat estate was returned to his son who raised the British Army’s 78th Highlanders. During the 1850s, the 13th Lord Lovat rebuilt the present castle, and the 15th Lord served with distinction during WWII, and was depicted in the epic war movie The Longest Day.
Inverness-shire: a monster of a landscape
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)