Photo by Penny Carnathan
Photo of Urquhart Castle by Penny Carnathan

Scotland Romances Time Travelers

Published: November 14, 2008 - The Tampa Tribune

Most of us gently bouncing across boggy Rannoch Moor in a 20-seat, heated motor coach had already been to the Scottish Highlands, and so much less comfortably.

The first time, in 1945, we were with 28-year-old Claire Beauchamp as she fell through a cleft in an ancient rock near Inverness and crash-landed in the same spot - in 1743.

We experienced her nausea (time travel can be a real digestive upset) and confusion. And when a bunch of 18th century Highland warriors snatched her, we bit our lips in suspense.

But Claire, an English army nurse fresh from the carnage of World War II, was feisty - and skilled.

She expertly repaired a dislocated shoulder for one of the warriors, a ruddy tower of a 24-year-old named Jamie Fraser, and before long, she fell in love with him (her husband back in 1945 notwithstanding).

We met Claire and Jamie in Diana Gabaldon's six-volume "Outlander" book series. The novels are contagious, addictive and seriously dangerous. I wrecked my car after popping in audio disc 24.

So it was with great courage that I embarked on the fifth annual Outlander Tour of Scotland in September. My only comfort was in knowing that my two older sisters and their husbands were hurtling back in time with me. And Mom. Depression-baby planner that she is, only Mom had the foresight to bring the gemstones every time traveler should carry for protection (as we learned in book four, "Drums of Autumn").

Standing Stone
Tracey Shadday, Peggy Tyre, Carolyn Vallone and Penny Carnathan pose in front of an ancient standing stone.
Carolyn's listening for the hum that indicates the stone can transport people back in time. She didn't hear it.

Why didn't Judy Lowstuter think of that? Major safety issue, Judy!

The Brit-obsessed owner of Celtic Journeys, a Virginia-based tour company, is more concerned with sharing her love of Scotland and ensuring her charges go home fulfilled. Her tour is partially based on the "Outlander" books, so thoroughly woven with historical fact, they're as educational as they are entertaining. (Really!)

Judy, an energetic sprite, and droll Scot driver Ian Fraser (relation to Jamie uncertain) took us to out-of-the-way corners of the country that breeds as much romantic fiction as redheaded babies - and we saw a lot of those. Pages of our beloved novels came to life while we got to know the real Scotland, a place whose flag flies in so many American family trees.

"I had visited Scotland and fell in love," Judy said, explaining how she came to create the weeklong tour. "Later, a friend suggested I read 'Outlander.'"

The next time she visited, she had Claire and Jamie's story in mind as she stood on Culloden Battlefield, the haunting site of a tragic watershed in Scot history.

There, in a vicious, hour-long battle in 1746, the Scot Highlanders lost their effort to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne. The Jacobites, as they were called, fighting under the banner of "Bonnie" Prince Charles Stuart, were crushed by the English and Scots who supported the Hanoverian claim to the throne. A sort of Scot Gettysburg.

In the first two "Outlander" novels, the coming slaughter is a primary plotline, thanks to Claire's exquisite hindsight. She and Jamie work doggedly to thwart alliances and influence decision-makers in a desperate attempt to prevent the hour destined to so change Scotland.

"I thought, 'Why is there no "Outlander" tour?'" Judy said. "I went home and did a lot of research to make it pertinent. I kept refining and tweaking. I wanted two to three days of the book, fantasy, but not leaving out Scot history."

We Tumble Back In Time
And so 18 of us - eight family and friends from Tampa, six family and friends from Utah, and a young couple from California, plus Judy and Ian - crossed the expansive Rannoch Moor into the Highlands.

Kirk in the Highlands
Graves, including those of some who died at Culloden, surround a 14th-century kirk, Cille Choirille.

For seven days, we slogged through lichen-shrouded cemeteries and ancient castles, mostly in a cold drizzle. We stood at Glenfinnan, where Prince Charlie rallied the reluctant clan chiefs to fight for his father's - and ultimately, he hoped, his - crown. We had a 10 a.m. sherry with Lord John, chief of clan Mackenzie, in the drawing room of Castle Leod, his family home for more than 500 years. (Jamie and Claire spent a lot of time at the MacKenzie clan seat, "Castle Leoch"; his uncle was clan chief.)

Lord John's castle has a tree fort in the front yard and a trampoline by the driveway. The dungeon dates to 1450, and the drawing-room plaster to 1532.

In the dining room, a large, gilded Victorian clock chimed the 5 o'clock hour.

"Don't worry, it's wrong," Lord John said, noting our perplexed glances. "It sounds nice though. Occasionally, the second hand falls off. I have a hell of a time looking for it."

He showed us a large wall map of the estate, hand-drawn in 1758 with detailed descriptions of each portion: "A worn out mofs moss where no peat can be got" and "Good pasture but stony."

The map hangs, unprotected, on a wall. It's all pen-and-ink but for an area outlined, curiously, in red.

"It's such a useful map, even after all those years. My father used it. He had no hesitation drawing all over a priceless map," Lord John told us, explaining the red.

"History is not static," he said. "If it's useful, use it. And then that becomes part of its history."

For Judy's outlandish scavenger hunt, we begged a copper curl from a remarkably compliant waitress ("Take it all. I hate it," she said, bowing to the scissors when I cornered her, hidden from the others, in a kitchen hallway) and a scrap of Fraser tartan from a kilt shop owner. ("See? This is two sets of the pattern," the woman explained, snipping carefully.)

Everyone in Scotland is so nice.

And we found the real-life Jamie. Even Diana Gabaldon (who has written prolifically about her inspirations for the series and never mentions this guy) cannot convince me otherwise.

Born in 1792, Charles Mackenzie Fraser was exceptionally handsome, with thick, wavy red hair, strong cheekbones and a flirtatious glimmer in his blue eyes. We saw his portraits, and one of his legs, at Castle Fraser in Inverurie.

At age 20, as he wrote in a matter-of-fact journal entry, he got shot in the head in battle. He returned to the fight as soon as his vision cleared and was shot in the leg. He lost the leg six weeks later.

He went on to marry a local beauty, and the two had 14 children. The missing appendage proved no impediment for stalwart Charles. He had more than a dozen prostheses, each specially crafted for his needs. A cork leg kept him light on the dance floor. His long, graceful wooden riding leg is on display at the castle.

We may have found "Jamie," but though we visited a few ancient stone circles like the one Claire encountered, none took us back 200 years. Darn it.

Group Dynamics
My Tampa companions had all been overseas several times; they'd gone it alone and booked tours. But none had done anything like the Outlander Tour, which is sort of a weeklong summer camp with a bunch of kids you don't know.

Culloden House
Counting Claires: The women on the 5th annual Outlander Tour were challenged to dress as the novel's heroine for costume night at Culloden House.
Some were up to the challenge and others ...

They all had concerns going in. We would have to stick to someone else's itinerary. Spend a lot of time with our new bunkmates. Maybe even sing "Kumbaya" together around a campfire. It might just be terrible.

We did bust out in song, but it wasn't "Kumbaya."

On Day One, our driver popped in a CD, an instrumental of "Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond" as we drove alongside the storied waterway. Judy told us it was written by a captured Jacobite soldier who'd been sentenced to death after the disastrous uprising that ended at Culloden.

He would take the low road home to Scotland, through the spirit world, and his comrade who was spared execution would take the longer, slower, high road.

"I've never heard that song," my sister Tracey said.

We spontaneously erupted in a rousing and, I daresay, harmonious, chorus: "Oh, you take the high road and I'll take the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye!"

Maybe we were lucky. Maybe all small tours are this convivial. Maybe it's the bond of the book. Who knows? We were happy campers.

Even Lee Sanchez, a 62-year-old military retiree from Utah. He hadn't read "Outlander" and wasn't gung-ho about making the trip. He got dragged along by his wife, Dorothy, and their daughter, Lisa - the MacSanchezes, as we dubbed these unusually Scot-free Americans.

"I'd rather watch Fox News than read those books," he said a few days into the tour. "But ... hell, when you guys leave, I might start crying."

He bought my mom a rosary at St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh. To remember him by.

On the road, we handed bags of candy and cold medicine up and down the rows of the coach, and traded stories about families and jobs.

No one, it seemed, was disappointed.

My sister Peggy, who'd organized a couple of the family travelers' excursions, enjoyed her freedom from responsibility. Not once did anyone look to her, on a deserted road in the middle of a country whose language was, truly, foreign, and ask, "What do we do now?"

The youngest pair in our group, Heather Winters, a commercial photographer, and Marine Capt. Ray Forbes, both 31, said they probably couldn't have done it at all if they'd had to organize the trip themselves. For most of their two years together, Ray has been overseas.

The "Outlander" books are Heather's favorites. She sent the first to her boyfriend when he was en route to Iraq.

Ray and Heather
Ray Forbes tugs girlfriend Heather Winter free from the clutches of an ancient stone
that may well suck her back to another time -- and another guy.

"I always wanted to come to Scotland anyway," he said. (His family is Scot through and through.) "I liked the books, so when I found this tour on-line, it worked. It would've taken us three months to put it all together ourselves. And then I would have had Heather mad at me all the time when we got lost."

He called Judy from Afghanistan to set things up, and she arranged for the couple's post-tour visit to Castle Forbes, including a private dinner with Malcolm, Master of Forbes, and his wife, Jinny.

The Past Meets The Future
In Scotland, especially the Highlands, it seemed we may well have slipped into some earlier time, though not so far back as the 18th century.

Everywhere, sheep dot the hillsides, perfect creamy French knots in a sampler of rain-bright greens. Sweet-smelling peat smoke drifts from chimney pots atop slate-roofed, whitewashed cottages. Fair-skinned children in formal school blazers amble home through the rain munching sweets.

There are no billboards, graffiti or litter. And the big tractor-trailer trucks look like old-fashioned toys, artfully styled with contours of decades past.

But the country is changing. Talk about the weather with a Scot - because there's certainly a lot of it - and he or she will quickly note how different it has been in recent years. In some regions, last summer was uncharacteristically hot and dry. Other parts have seen no snow in two years. They're genuinely concerned about global warming.

They're also paying top dollar - or, rather, pound - for gasoline. It's the equivalent of about $10 per gallon, though they pump oil aplenty from the North Sea. And they're experiencing the same financial market meltdown that we are.

But they're looking for solutions. Giant wind farms dot the mountainsides - controversial because they interfere with the scenic views. Last spring, a tidal-powered turbine was installed in the waves off the Orkney Isles. It's providing energy to 100 homes.

We drove through a community, Findhorn, that has drawn international attention for its efforts to be ecologically and economically self-sustaining. Since 1962! It has homes with sod roofs and buildings made from recycled whisky barrels.


After Culloden, the English banned the wearing of clan tartans, even playing the bagpipes. Infractions were punishable by imprisonment or worse. They burned villages, confiscated estates and destroyed the system of clan governance that had made the rugged Scottish Highlands habitable. Starving families fled in a decades-long swarm.

"That's why there are only 5 million people in Scotland and 200 million Scots abroad," our Jacobite re-enactor, Ray Owens, told us, referring to the many Americans and other outlanders who claim Scot ancestry.

Ray Owens
Dueling Kilts: Re-enactor Ray Owens, left, represents the old-fashioned kilt, and Mike Tyre models the new-fangled style,
while Ray Forbes stays away from the whole kilt thing entirely.

An author and historian - his History Channel episode on the 1745 uprising premiered in October - Owen has a decidedly sympathetic perspective of the Jacobites. There are other views, and lots of contradictory details.

But for those of us who first visited Scotland in 1743 with Claire Beauchamp, and then in 2008 with Judy Lowstuter and Ian Fraser, there is one history. No matter the players' political leanings or motivations, the truth of Scot history follows the themes of our favorite fiction: the power of unwavering love, loyalty and courage; man's capacity for evil - and forgiveness; the sacrifice of the few for the freedom of many.

"We fight not for glory nor for waelth nor honours, but only and alone we fight for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life," wrote renowned Scot king (the real "Braveheart") Robert the Bruce in 1320.

Clan Fraser Stone
In Memory: Large stones mark the graves of the clansmen who died at Culloden Battlefield.

Fiction - Claire and Jamie - got our little group to Scotland. The reality has made many of us eager to return.

And next time, we won't need Mom's gemstones.

IF YOU GO

Celtic Journeys' Outlander Tour includes tickets when necessary, as well as most meals and all accommodations. It also includes private tours not available to the general public.

Owner Judy Lowstuter keeps groups small (usually a maximum of 14), so she can personalize the experience. She truly aims to please. After my sister Peggy wondered aloud about whether the trees she was seeing were birch or aspen, Judy picked up a tree identification book for her at a gift shop.

Ray Owens
Snappy Lady: Tour owner Judy Lowstuter cheerfully snapped the same group photos on 14 different cameras.

She arranges other UK tours as well - she's working on one based on Arthurian legend. Our tour, which included day and evening activities and ample free time, cost $2,795 for double occupancy plus airfare. Go to www.celticjourneys.us; e-mail judy@celticjourneys.us; or call (703) 941-6455.

$$$

The exchange rate fluctuates - when we visited, it was about 1 pound to $1.77. Whether you pay in cash or with a credit card, figure in additional exchange fees, so it's roughly 1 pound equals $2. That said, prices for food and goods aren't exorbitant.

Food

So many friends warned me to eat up before the trip because I would surely starve in that food god-forsaken place. I should've asked if they'd ever been. The food is delicious and often fresh.

A "Scottish breakfast," included with all of our hotel stays, puts our "continental" to shame. Among the many menu items: free-ranging eggs (always) "fried" in a water-oil mixture, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, a heavy-duty bacon-ham hybrid called bacon; blood pudding (yuck); baked beans; and oatmeal (tastier than ours).

Fresh salmon and smoked haddock are staples. And you can't go wrong in a pub.

Tennents beer was my favorite. My sisters and friend Deb Brewer sampled "wee drams" of whisky everywhere (no "e" in whisky - it's what we call Scotch). Their favorite was Edradour.

Haggis, by the way, isn't bad. Tastes like Stove-Top Stuffing.

Hotels

A couple of highlights:

Letterfinlay Lodge: This is a charming 200-year-old country inn on Loch Lochy in the western Highlands. Each room is a different size and configuration, and each has been lovingly remodeled in its own, individual style. Many have beautiful views. (My brother-in-law loved his big, claw-foot tub - "I can lay here in the bath and look out the window at sheep grazing on the hillside!") Jocular manager Kevin Neville aims to serve; restaurant downstairs. Rates range from 40 pounds to 130 pounds per night, depending on room, occupancy and season. E-mail info@letterfinlaylodgehotel.co.uk.
Culloden House: Bonnie Prince Charlie requisitioned this Jacobean castle as his headquarters on the eve of the Battle of Culloden. Today it's a luxurious 28-room hotel on the outskirts of Inverness. The building is surrounded by 40 acres of parkland and gardens. Service is exemplary. Rates start at 62.50 pounds per person for bed and breakfast. Go to www.cullodenhouse.co.uk for information.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at (813) 259-7612.

© Penny L. Carnathan, November 14, 2008
Reprinted with the author's permission

 

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