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S C O T L A N D : D A Y   1 0

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AUGUST 28 (Monday) -- Inverness to Dundee

Monday, I tried not to fuss at anyone about anything. Today we would be driving out of our way southeast to Dundee for no other reason than to allow me to see the lands in which both sides of my family must have lived over three hundred years ago. So I resolved to keep any complaints I might have to myself; the people with whom I was traveling were doing me a significant favor. Our first stop along the way was the Highland Folk Museum (Am Fasgadh in Scots Gaelic) in Kingussie. Although I did not know it at the time, this was a museum originally created and operated by a woman named Isabel Frances Grant, who also wrote several books describing daily Scottish life of years past. One of them, Highland Folk Ways, described several of the most interesting items I saw on display.

One of them was an entire gentleman's suit cut from the old Robertson tartan. It elicited more giggles than awe, since to our eyes the bold colors of the ancient Robertson sett look garish and wild, but a man dressed in such a suit in his day would have commanded attention, if not respect. And he wouldn't have lived far away from the museum, either; the old Robertson lands of Struan lay but a few miles to the south.

Another of the museum's many artifacts lay outside, set in the fields of what was rapidly becoming a tamer version of the Highlands the further southeast we drove. This was a taigh dubh (pronounced "tie doo"), or "black house." On the outside it would not seem to merit such a name; it was a rather small, rectangular affair, with thick gray stone walls the height of a tall man's shoulders. Atop these walls rested a sloping roof of golden thatch held down by ropes secured with stones resting on the wide ledges of the walls. Upon entering the house, which had been built according to the usual plan by a man who had constructed many such homes on the far northwestern island of Lewis, we discovered that the interior roof and beams were pitch-black, and reeked of peat smoke--thus the name "black house."

The museum had provided human guides in several places, such as the barn filled with farm implements which still smelled of well-oiled leather and freshly-cut hay (taking me back in an instant to my days as a child when I visited the farms of my grandfather Robertson's older brothers). The taigh dubh was no exception. Inside, seated in the main room beside an incongruous electric heater, was a woman dressed in the typical garb of a Scottish wife of two hundred years past. Under normal circumstances, I would have been far too aware of my "touristy" status to have said a word, but the opportunity for family history research was too good to pass up. So I immediately began quizzing our guide on every detail about the small house I could think of. I asked about the timbers supporting the roof (literally more valuable than gold to natives of islands where trees would not grow); I asked about the chimney (there was none, the smoke rose through a small hole in the center of the roof or not at all); I asked about the byre at one end of the home (located at the lowest point of a slope so that the effluence of the cattle, which were housed along with the families during the frigid winter months, would avoid the hard-packed dirt of the floor in the children's area, the kitchen, and the main bedroom). When I realized that I was still asking questions even though Beth and Ann had long since moved on, I reluctantly thanked my guide and exited, getting a good picture of the outside of the cottage as I hastened back to our car.

Struan was next, and the Clan Donnachaidh Museum at Calvine where I hoped to learn more about my Robertson connections. It took a bit of inspired map-reading, but we finally found it, dwarfed by a modern visitor's center at Bruar Falls. (I didn't see anything falling, but Tricia went wandering off for a while; perhaps she found the Falls.) I went into the Museum and promptly lost myself in history again.

One of the things I'd been looking forward to doing at the museum was asking about the still- questionable linkage of the "five brothers" who patented a headright by the James River near Richmond, Virginia in the late 1600s. When I posed this question to the lady I found in charge of the museum, her response was to ask me to send her information! So the mystery remains, but the good news is that an electronic database of the members of Clan Donnachaidh (which actually includes the families of Robertson, Reid, Duncan and others) may soon be constructed and available to genealogical researchers.

After pausing to admire the red deer idling in a field across from the museum (and locating Tricia), our next stop was Blair Atholl. This has been for many years the home of the Dukes of Atholl, owners of the extensive lands of which Struan was a modest part. Before the Scottish Crown granted the lands to the Murray family, the Earls of Tullibardine, and before the Murrays were granted the hereditary title of Duke, these grounds were a stronghold of the Strathbogie family, the old Celtic Earls of Atholl.

After the Murrays came into possession of the lands of Atholl, they continued to expand and refit Blair Atholl. Some repair work was necessary after the estate was damaged by Oliver Cromwell's troops in 1652, as well as after Lord George Murray's conquest of his own home before Culloden (giving it the dubious distinction of being the last castle in Britain ever to be besieged). The estate was simplified during its repair, with various turrets and crenelations (and two stories!) removed, but these were replaced in the 19th century when architectural tastes changed once again to favor the romantic "baronial" style.

Today, Blair Atholl is a relatively large castle, different from others we had seen in that it affects an almost Tudor appearance: dark wooden beams protrude from brightly whitewashed walls, and large rooms connect to one another at odd angles. This gives it the appearance of something constructed piecemeal as a family manor home, rather than a purely defensive structure converted over the centuries into a residence as are many of the other occupied castles of Scotland.

We spent a long time in Blair Atholl, as there was so much to see. The grand and richly paneled entryway of the Picture Staircase, its walls bristling with carefully arranged pikes, axes, claymores, sabers and shields, was only a small taste of what was to come. We followed other tourists from room to room to room, each of which was guarded by large portraits of family members covering every wall. Some of the rooms, especially the dining rooms, had on display family treasures and heirlooms such as finely engraved silver tea services and traditional two- handled quaichs. Other rooms had more of a "daily living" quality, such as the bedrooms with their (to our modern eyes) tiny beds and well-crafted but simple furnishings. It didn't take long before we found ourselves hurrying to get through the castle--there was just so much to see in so little time that we began to feel impatient. Consequently, it's difficult to describe the specific things I saw at Blair Atholl; the large number of objects and the speed with which I moved past them made them a blur in my mind even as I was getting back in the car to continue the drive south.

On our way we passed the remains of Birnam Wood (as in Shakespeare's Macbeth), but I was unable to observe anything clearly identifiable as this forest. The great majority of Scotland appeared in most places to have been cleared of trees for years. By the time the Industrial Revolution was well under way, Birnam Wood and its nobler cousin, the great Caledonian Forest, had long since been denuded, their roots and branches made into charcoal or simply burned for heat. What remains is a kind of imposing emptiness--beautiful in the same empty way that the desolate plains of the Moon must have seemed to those who have stood there. After bypassing Perth, we spent some time trying to find our hotel in Dundee. I remember some of the streets of this city by the Tay as being rough and cobbled, which is picturesque even if it is a bit bumpy. Directions to an Italian restaurant turned into an extended hike alongside roadside parks framing the Tay; by the time we reached our destination we were ready to chew old leather for supper. Luckily the cuisine turned out to be considerably tastier.

Previous Day: August 27 Next Day: August 29

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U.S. to mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean


arriving in Glasgow


Glasgow to Edinburgh




Edinburgh to Oban




Oban to Kyle of Lochalsh


Kyle of Lochalsh


Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness




Inverness to Dundee


Dundee to Ballater


Ballater to Leslie Castle


Leslie Castle to Stirling

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Stirling to Glasgow




Glasgow to back home again

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