A Canadian Visit to the Highlands by Charles A. MacDonald, Grand River, Canada.

Charles A. MacDonald is Senior Vice-President of the Grand River Branch of the Clan Donald Society of Canada.

“A far crooning is pullin’ me away…”

For some of us it was a homecoming to the land of our birth, and for some it was the very first visit to the country our ancestors had left many generations ago. It was a visit we had all been promising ourselves for years – a response to the “far crooning” pulling us away, from our homes in Canada to the Scottish mountains and islands, to Ayr and to Edinburgh, to the Uists and to Skye, to Glen Coe and Culloden Moor, to places which had been, until now, only names in books and on maps.

We were nine members of the Grand River Valley branch of the Clan Donald, and we came from Canada to tour Scotland for three weeks in June and July of 1974. We were: Jim Alexander, who was born in Ayrshire but left with his parents for Canada when he was seven years old, his wife Elsie and son Jamie; Bill Fraser, born in Aberdeen which he left while still a child, with Olive (MacDonald) his wife; Roy Walser and wife Verna (MacDonald) whose ancestors were from Glen Coe; and Charles and Margaret MacDonald. Charles’ people left the Lochaber country generations ago to emigrate to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island.

We landed at Prestwick in the early (and misty!) hours of Thursday, June 20th   ready to start our grand tour. That first day we took a bus down to Ayr and visited Burns’ cottage and monument to Alloway. That gave us an opportunity to quote all the Burns we could remember!

After the weekend centred on Ayr, on Monday, June 24th we loaded ourselves and our luggage in two cars and drove from Ayr, along the coast to Greenock and up and across the Clyde to Loch Lomond. No wonder they wrote a song about it; it really surpassed our expectations. The setting was perfect, the clear blue of the Loch, the little islands, the hills, with Ben Lomond dominating the scene, it was a sight we would not soon forget.

On, up into the Glen Orchy country. Now, with hills and mountains appearing on all sides, we felt we were really getting into the Highlands. We stopped at the White Corries and took a ride up the mountains in the chairlift there. A tremendous view, but not for those with an aversion to heights! We noticed very few trees in this country, and wondered why. We travelled on, into Glen Coe (but didn’t stay, we were to stop here on our return from the Islands) and down the coast to Oban, where we were to catch the ferry to the Uist Isles. We found Oban an attractive town, and wondered about the round, coliseum-like building standing high up above the town. We were told it was McCaig’s Folly, but who McCaig was and what was foolish about it we never learned.

“…the far Coolins are puttin’ love on me…”

We boarded the ferry – very streamlined and modern – and set off through the Sound of Mull and into the open sea. Far to the north through the sunny haze we could seethe outline of the Coolin Hills on the Isle of Skye. The crossing was relatively smooth; we could imagine that at times the sea could be very rough! We stopped at Castlebay on the Isle of Barra – although we didn’t disembark – for an hour, then sailed up to Loch Boisdale on the south end of South Uist. Here, as at everywhere on our tour, we were treated with warm hospitality and great friendliness. We spent one most pleasant evening with Mr. and Mrs. John Peter MacInnes. John, who is the local historian and genealogist, told us many fascinating stories of the history and people of the Islands. We could have listened to him for hours. Through our contact with Miss Shard of the local handicraft shop we were invited to the home of Mrs. Effie McPhee, who lives in one of the four remaining thatched cottages on South Uist and to her sister’s Mrs. Agnes Currie for wine cakes and coffee.

Our journey continued – naturally, we stopped to see the memorial to Flora MacDonald – and we drove over the causeway to Benbecula, then on the North Uist where on Saturday. June 29th we booked the ferry for the crossing to Skye. We landed at Uig – and here we had our first rainy day. We had had eleven fine days without a break so we couldn’t complain of the weather. We drove down and west to Dunvegan castle, seat of the MacLeod Chiefs. Then south to Armadale where we met Bill and Olive Fraser, who had crossed from the mainland after returning from a visit to Aberdeen. Naturally, we spent sometime telling each other about our respective travels!

We all drove to our accommodation at Kinloch Lodge – the renovated hunting lodge of the MacDonald Chief. Here we were met by the High Chief, Lord Godfrey MacDonald. He and Lady Claire very graciously entertained us to lunch on the Sunday, and showed us around their residence, Ostaig House, which was in the process of being re-decorated. A tour of Armadale Castle and its beautiful grounds rounded out our stay on the Isle of Skye.

“…it’s by Shiel water the track is to the west, by Aillort and by Morar to the sea…”

On Monday, July 1st, we boarded the ferry at Armadale and returned to the mainland at Mallaig. We were now travelling south and east, not west, but we did pass through Morar and across the north tip of Loch Shiel on our journey.

At Arisaig we found St. Mary’s, one of the very few Catholic churches with a clock tower. We met Father Ian Gillis who told us that the clock had been placed there by the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh in memory of Alistair McAlister MacDonald, (Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair) a local bard. Continuing our drive, we came to Glenfinnan where we had to stop, of course, to see the monument to Prince Charles Edward at the site of the raising of the clans in ’45.

On again, to Fort William and south-west into Glen Coe, a very beautiful, vaguely haunted spot. We visited Glen Coe museum and met Miss Barbara Fairweather, the curator, who later very kindly showed us her charming and interesting home, Invercoe House. Later, we drove to the cairn at the head of the Glen and saw the monument commemorating the 1692 massacre. Our stay concluded very enjoyably with a ceilidh hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Duncan MacDonald of Glen Coe.

Our travels now took us north-east again, to Fort William, and up the Great Glen to Spean Bridge, Fort Augustus and Inverness. We were all intoxicated with the grandeur of the Scottish scenery along our route and were particularly impressed with the Loch Ness country. So much scenic majesty in one country seems unfair! We spent most of a day at the site of the battle of Culloden, remembering all we had read and letting our imaginations run riot!

“Sure, by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go…”

We had seen the western end of Rannoch Moor on the way north, we had seen the Lochaber country, and now on our way south we were to see Loch Tummel. Leaving Inverness we headed south, by Carrbridge, Kingussie, Killiecrankie to Pitlochry, where we stayed overnight. In the morning we continued down to Perth where we visited Scone Palace, the seat of the Earls of Mansfield.

We were now nearing the end of our tour. Edinburgh was our next stop and here we had one of the most memorable evenings of our stay. The Edinburgh branch of the Clan Donald entertained us at a dinner at the Carlton Hotel, a most festive occasion complete with speeches, singing and, of course violins, piano and bagpipes! As always, we were welcomed with a warmth and kindness that had been so universal throughout our tour that it became our favourite topic of conversation.

We spent some days in Edinburgh, shopping and sightseeing and being entertained at the homes of many Clansmen and Clanswomen. We also took a trip to Dunfermline Abbey and witnessed the dedication of a window commemorating the 700th anniversary of the birth of Robert “the Bruce”. On Monday, July 8th we visited the Records Office, hoping to find some traces of our ancestry to fill in some of the blank spaces between our Scottish ancestors and their Canadian descendants, but unfortunately we just couldn’t supply enough detailed information to provide a starting point. Well, we’ll keep trying!

On Wednesday, having turned in our cars in Edinburgh, we packed up, boarded the bus and travelled to Prestwick where we spent the night, preparatory to flying home on the Thursday. Our visit was over, a visit we nil would remember for a long time to come. So many good things, so many wonderful people, so many places and such grand scenery – we are stocked with memories for years to come. Above all, we had gained a new insight into the meaning of the word “heritage” and we had “smelt the tangle o’ the Isles”.