Monsters and Murders in the Highlands of Scotland

Duncan's burial marker

On the Old Perth Road, not long after you exit Inverness city centre, there’s a Shell Garage petrol station on the right hand side of the street. Beside the outer wall of this petrol station sits a crumbling stone marker, which reads,

“This is the supposed burial place of King Duncan, 1140.”

The marker stands on a barren corner of pavement, seen only by speeding cars and the occasional pecking pigeon.

Shakespeare’s retelling of this murder, of King Duncan’s fatal stabbing from the power hungry Scottish lord Macbeth, is one of the most famous deaths in theatrical history. Within the bard’s ‘Scottish Play’ lies a plot so thick with greed and deceit that it has fascinated audiences, readers and academics for centuries.

But the play has also replaced fact with fiction. Macbeth and Duncan, real life historical figures, have been recast into a literary monster and saint. Shakespeare twisted their relationship into an event that almost every schoolchild knows about – but nobody is interested in the history of it.

And despite bearing witness to the burial site of a thousand year old Scottish king, we didn’t even stop our bus to look.

Loch Ness

“How many bodies do you reckon would fit into Loch Ness?”

Chris, our driver and unofficial owner of the foulest mouth in Scotland, held his microphone away from his face as he swerved our tour bus neatly around a corner and swore under his breath.

Beside us, the murky waters of the world’s most famous loch stretched out, swollen and mysterious under a bright January sky.

We were on a three day trip through the Scottish Highlands, courtesy of Haggis Adventures, and a large number of our party were eager to see Loch Ness; the famed body of water that houses a mysterious monster, known simply as Nessie. The modest amount of sightings over the last century (the first coming from a tipsy honeymooning couple in 1934) have spawned a worldwide interest in the monster.

The area boasts a local policeman tasked with filing all reports of Nessie sightings, as well as a glut of gift shops, tour boats and Nessie-themed children’s playgrounds.

There’s even a dedicated team of marine biologists who spend their days scouring the loch using various pieces of high tech sonar equipment, accompanied by Ricky MacDonald, a local self-professed Nessie expert who’s reportedly seen the creature ten times on the surface and says there could be as many as eighteen monsters living down in the watery depths.

Searching for the Loch Ness monster

But strangely enough, Nessie wasn’t that difficult to find.

I spotted her first by the water’s edge, chunky and resplendent in a lovely shade of purple, looking thoughtfully out across her territory. Soon after, I found her in another, slightly scarier form; long neck angled out over the road, teeth bared in a grimace. This time she was green, and she didn’t look happy about it.

And finally, once inside the welcome warmth of the Loch Ness Gift Shop, my eyes were barraged by a clamour of green and tartan – the seven dwarves of Nessie, in all their drunken, flirty, grumpy glory.

Toy Nessies at Loch Ness

It’s clear that the Loch Ness monster is a cash cow for Scotland. Utilising a popular legend for tourism’s sake is a move that’s more than understandable.

But I don’t see why Nessie has become the female, fluttering eyelashed equivalent of America’s Barney the Dinosaur. He’s friendly and optimistic and wouldn’t hurt a fly; characteristics which, as far as I can tell, certainly do not describe Nessie.

Because Nessie is a beast.

She’s a pleiosaur, a prehistoric monstrosity that’s outlived extinction of almost every other species of her time (except the crocodile, a fellow dinosaur, as Chris wisely pointed out). She is not even ‘Nessie’, a cute nickname designed for marketing and brand media. She, or rather it, is the Loch Ness monster – and I don’t doubt the ability of those prehistoric teeth to make quick work of any naïvely paddling legs and feet.

But for all the hype surrounding Loch Ness and its famous inhabitant, when I stood at the water’s edge, breath bated, I felt completely uninspired. The loch is beautiful, sure – but that’s it. No Nessie, no nothing.

Just an empty lake by the side of the road for model dinosaurs to guard.

Loch Ness monster at Loch Ness

Emotions on the battlefield

You can imagine my surprise, then, as our bus pulled up to a dark field under a vague strip of cloud, and the energy around me shifted so obviously that I thought the temperature had dropped.

When he spoke, Chris’s tone changed drastically, too. Where quips and swearing had accompanied our introduction to Loch Ness, here was a blunt finality. When it came to the massacre of his countrymen and ancestors, there was no attempt at joking.

“On the 16th of April, 1746, the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie fought here, against the loyalist Government troops. It was the final attempt by the Scots to challenge the English throne, but both sides had a large amount of Scottish soldiers.”

He paused, and looked at his audience in his rear view mirror.

“The battle lasted little more than an hour. That bastard Charlie made a run for it, and our clansmen were slaughtered. Around two thousand Jacobites were killed, compared to fifty or so men from the loyalist side. It was a massacre.”

The open field we trudged across, dark mud sticking to our boots, was Culloden battlefield, the site of an hour’s worth of fighting that effectively ended the clan culture in Scotland. After this quick and bloody battle, the British declared the speaking of Gaelic, the mother tongue of Scotland, to be illegal. The wearing of tartan kilts, the highlander’s sole form of dress? Illegal. Even playing the bagpipes was suddenly illegal.

The battle of Culloden was the final nail in the coffin of Scottish independence.

And the Scots amongst us could feel it. People broke away from the group to walk around in silence, by themselves, as they absorbed the meaning of what had happened on this stretch of land three centuries ago.

Stone marker at Culloden battlefield

The graves of gallant highlanders

Culloden battlefield is not just where Scottish blood was spilled, though: it’s also a mass grave. The stones that litter the moor mark out where the men of each clan are buried.

Fight together, fall together, die together.

I watched Kay, our normally exuberant and ever chatty guide, grow sombre as she stood beside a stone which marked the place where the chief of the MacGillivrays clan finally fell, after thirteen musket balls hurled themselves into his chest.

“He rose up after every hit, and kept going on towards the loyalists,” she said, quietly but with conviction.

Culloden holds great anonymity; both for the individuals who died here, and for the battle as a whole. For the average Scottish tourist, the site means little to all except those who take the time to find out about it.

But the atmosphere is something else entirely. It echoes how I felt at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and my experiences with death; a heavy sense of brooding, loss, and never ending pain. And I felt it most strongly when I stopped to count the stones of Culloden’s memorial cairn, representing the two thousand and more men who fell and died on this stretch of barren moorland.

Whose bones still lie beneath the grass.

The memorial cairn at Culloden battlefield

Scotland: where realities are anonymous and the fictions are famous

Journeying through the Highlands of Scotland, and seeing three elements of the country’s heritage in a single day, something became overwhelmingly apparent to me. One fictional beastie, a single theatrically famous knife in the back, and the slaughter of a passionate band of men who died fighting to keep their heritage alive.

Which one should really be the most renowned?

Macbeth and Duncan’s reality has been fictionalised to such an extent that nobody remembers their story is derived from truth. Nessie’s media hype belies the real nature of the legend; if anything lives at the bottom of Loch Ness, it’s not a cute cartoon character but a snarling monster – and even proving that existence is a long shot. And then we have Culloden, a veritable minefield of history, where Scotland fell and was changed irrevocably as a result.

But people can show such indifference to events of national importance, and to reality. They’re more interested in a Disney legend about a monster that we’d all like to exist – and respond in a shallow way to the important things instead.

I may have come to the Highlands for humour, for Nessie, for legend and myth; but I left with a monster, a heavy heart, and an awareness of death. The people of Scotland, those who were born here, died here, murdered here; that’s the Scottish history we should be concerned with.

Not with monsters, but with truth.

Marker and tribute at Culloden battlefield

This campaign (part of the wonderfully named Blogmanay) is brought to you by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and is supported by VisitScotlandETAGEdinburgh FestivalsHaggis Adventures and SkyscannerThe campaign bloggers were sourced and managed by iambassador.

However, all opinions, musings, and general postulations on monsters and murders are clearly all my own. 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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13 Responses to Monsters and Murders in the Highlands of Scotland

  1. A Montrealer Abroad (@amontrealer) January 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Lovely report. This whole Blogmanay campaign has made me want to head to Scotland this summer – I love your writing!

    • Flora January 22, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

      Thanks, I’m so glad you’ve caught the Scottish bug!

  2. Amanda January 20, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    I felt a lot like you did at Loch Ness – fairly uninspired. It’s been so over commercialized and I just wasn’t very into it.

    Your words about Culloden, though (along with the words of a lot of the other Blogmanay bloggers wrote about it) definitely capture how I felt there, too. Scotland has a much more violent history than most people realize.

    Great post, Flora. Your writing is always so great.

    • Flora January 23, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      I’m really glad to hear you say that – I think it’s probably likely that others feel more inspired by Culloden over Loch Ness, but so many tourists might not ever get a chance to find out because blooming Nessie is so much more renowned!

      Sadly, violence is a huge part of Scottish history, but it’s worth knowing and learning about regardless. Hopefully Blogmanay will put that message across to people planning on visiting bonnie Scotland :)

  3. Emma @ Emma's Travel Tales January 21, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    I love this post, Flora.

    You definitely captured the mood of Culloden very well. I still get that feeling when I think of it. So powerful.

    • Flora January 23, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      It’s such a powerful place – all the more because I don’t think any of us were expecting to feel so moved. Thanks darling :)

  4. Aggy January 23, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    I very much enjoyed reading this post Flora. I always feel like there’s more to it than just beautiful castles and lochs – it’s the deep, rich history that I love most about Scotland.

    • Flora January 23, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

      Thanks Aggy, I completely agree – I’d like to think that people go for the monsters, and come away with all that fascinating history resonating through the retellings of their visit.

  5. Kay Gillespie January 30, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    Thanks for the mention Flora and for such a wonderful testiment to the Battle of Culloden.

    Of course I’m biased being a guide and all, but this is why I strongly encourage visitors to join an organised tour; so that a Scot can tell them the stories of the brutality suffered by our clansmen.

    We’re a passionate bunch so we are!

    • Flora February 1, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

      Passionate is probably one of the best ways to describe you lot! You’re right, and I think it’s a really key part of visiting Scotland – to hear about the history of the country from someone who really gets it.

  6. Ski Chalets in France February 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    The Loch Ness monster surely has to be the best PR stunt a town could have thought of!

  7. Ceri February 19, 2013 at 1:03 am #

    I absolutely loved the Highlands when I went there a few years ago by myself. Especially the Loch Ness. Words don’t do it justice. It’s just absolutely incredible.

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