Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all
How far can you jump? Not from a standing start, nor with a Greg Rutherford style sprint – but with just a short run-up. Five or six feet? Seven or eight? I suppose it depends on your general fitness and on your age…and your motivation. So how far could you jump if you were being chased and in fear for your life? While you’re thinking about it, I’ll just tell you about the second part of our roadtrip around the north of Scotland.
We’d left behind the single track roads and rejoined the normal highway just before reaching the north coast, so we made good progress to the small town of Dunnet, though we didn’t stop there. Instead we made for the northernmost point of mainland Britain at Dunnet Head, four and a half miles from the town. There’s a lighthouse of course, built in 1831 by Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson). The light is automated now and although no keeper lives there, there’s still plenty of activity because the place is used as a wedding venue. One heck of a spot to get married if there’s a storm blowing in! The weather had decided to be kind to us though, and we could see the dark shape of the Orkneys clearly rising out of the cobalt sea. I couldn’t help imagining ancient Scots standing watch up here, eyes peeled for any sign of marauding Vikings. Ancient Scottish look-out point for Viking invasion at Dunnet Head
There was a small crowd gathered at the fenced off area which allows people to stand as close as possible to the extreme edge of the country without plunging over. It’s just as well the fence is there because a determined group of souls were craning their necks to see the puffins that nest down on the cliffs (but with no success). Anyway we satisfied our pioneering spirit and decided to move on, past the Queenmother’s haunt at the Castle of Mey and on to John o’ Groats before finally turning south. The countryside started to become greener and flatter and strangely the sea changed too, because it was now steel grey.
By the way, do you have any idea what the collective noun for a group of cars is? Apparently there are three to choose from: fleet, mayhem and stack. Given that shortlist I’m going to go for the one in the middle when I tell you that as we approached Dunrobin Castle we were passed by a mayhem of nine or ten ostentatious sportscars. Perhaps I’ll go with a supermayhem of supercars, all driven by supermorons who thought nothing of overtaking on bends, crossing double white lines, or forcing other drivers to take defensive manouevres whilst they indulged themselves in this lunacy. Actions made even more dangerous when you consider that they were all left-hand drive cars, so that the idiots behind the wheels had an even more restricted view of the road ahead as they travelled at speeds far in excess of the limit.
There. I’ve got that off my chest. Though my distaste for the drivers increased as they turned into Dunrobin Castle – which may now be owned/inhabited by perfectly decent folk but was once the home of the revolting Marquis of Stafford and Countess of Sutherland, from where they no doubt planned the policy of clearing their estates that devastated the lives of their tenants. As we got closer to Golspie we (rather I, because Michael was driving) could see the enormous statue of Stafford up on a hill, which is a hundred feet high and visible for miles around. I’m probably over-reacting but I wasn’t surprised to read that the statue had been vandalised several times.
Our next stop was Dornoch, which has what is surely one of the smallest cathedrals in the UK. We went inside of course, and although we found it to be quite bare and not terribly interesting, it did have some lovely stained glass windows. My favourite thing was this effigy, or at least the story that went with it:
According to the information board this is the effigy of Sir Richard de Moravia, brother of Saint Gilbert, who founded the church. Richard died in the 1260s after being wounded in a battle against the Danes at nearby Embo and was allowed to be interred here because of his bravery. So far so good. The more interesting bit was that the overlord of Richard, the Earl of Sutherland (who else?) killed the leader of the Danes with the leg of a horse. Now if that doesn’t tell us all we need to know or imagine about the sheer bloodiness of medieval battles, what does?
The following day, after a stay in an unexciting b&b we drove through the Cairngorms National Park, easily one of my favourite parts of the country. At the southern border of the park we left the A9 to visit the National Trust Visitor Centre at Killiecrankie. This is a great spot for wildlife – we saw our first red squirrel – and is set above a gorge, through which runs the River Garry. The road snakes through the Pass of Killecrankie and right through what was once a battlefield.
The Battle of Killiecrankie was fought on 27th July, 1689, and was one of the early confrontations between Stuart supporters and the troops of William of Orange, during the first Jacobite uprising. The two sides came together at the Pass, the Jacobite rebels up on the hillside and William’s army down in the gorge. After a couple of uneasy hours watching each other, the Jacobites charged down the hillside and in a matter of a few bloody minutes 3,000 men were dead or wounded. Victory went to the rebels and the surviving redcoats ran for their lives. One of them, Donald McBane, fled on a horse along the gorge, pursued by enemies eager for his blood. Before long he reached the end of the path, high above the river tumbling over the rocks below. Throwing himself from the horse, he knew he’d run out of time and of luck…unless he could get across the gap.
So – how far could you jump? In fear for your life?
Donald McBane jumped eighteen feet, clearing the gorge in one huge leap. That was his story and it’s been remembered ever since; the spot that he allegedly jumped from is called The Soldier’s Leap and here it is. The flattish rock in the foreground is where our Donald realised he had only one way out.
Our Donald survived, however he managed it. Not only did he survive but he went on to live a very colourful life. Originally from Inverness, he’d left home and enlisted as a soldier in 1687. After his miraculous escape at Killicrankie he signed up for another company, the next step in a long military career, fighting his way through Holland, Flanders and Bavaria. He obviously thrived on adventure, writing of his time in Bavaria: ‘The people fled and left their houses well furnished, we plundered and lived a jolly life‘.
Donald became a skilful swordsman and a successful duellist, married, fathered children, fought in gladiatorial contests, ran a brothel and escaped death several more times. In 1728, four years before he finally met his end, he wrote a book on swordfighting which glories in the following title:
“The Expert Sword-man’s Companion: or the True Art of Self-defence. With an Account of the Author’s Life, and his Transactions during the Wars with France.”
The book is still available, if you’re interested.
Lunch in Pitlochry and then an overnight stay in Moffat brought our Scottish trip to an end. Sad to say because of variations we made to the route (frankly, we butchered Visit Scotland’s version) we travelled only 309 miles of the North Coast 500. We had a fabulous time and it’s fuelled our plan to drive around the entire coast of Britain – which is about 5,000 miles if you don’t include the islands, so on current form we’ll manage just over 3,000. And don’t expect it to happen any time soon…
Over hill-ways up and down
Myrtle green and bracken brown
Mhaíri’s Wedding, English lyrics by Sir Hugh Roberton