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Mr Levett's Scottish Tour: Part Three

Photograph: Anne Burgess

In which the Bee's Jeremy Levett and family continue their travels in Scotland.

There seem to be only two things of real interest in this part of Scotland: distilleries and military things. Fortunately, it has an ample supply of both. The Speyside distilleries are legendary and legion; every town seems to have one or two, a whiff of spirits or malting barley will be caught on every car journey, and the distinctive pagodas poke up from glens in the unlikeliest of places.
And the military history of the place is as drawn-out and messy as being torn apart by wild tortoises. Bronze and Iron Age forts, old as the hills they resemble, litter the place; the Antonine Wall is merely the most impressive of the ubiquitous earthworks. Castles and bastle-houses in varying states of tweeness and collapse are everywhere, military roads made by the Romans and General Wade criss-cross the countryside. There are old battlefields here from tangles with the Covenanters and Jacobites, Culloden greatest among them. Radar installations and early warning systems from WW2 onwards dot the hills, pillboxes and tank traps on the beaches here were used in dry runs for D-Day, and, of course, every town has its bronze and marble cenotaphs, some – as is so common – with names from the second big scrap joining those of their fathers who fell in the first. Nowadays there are RAF bases flying Nimrods up over the North Sea, patrolling for Soviet submarines that have been rusting off Murmansk for decades, and flights of Tornados thundering across the sky training for a war they’ll never fight.
Most obviously, most impressively, and quite probably most permanently, is Fort George.
After Culloden, we now know, the Jacobite cause was thoroughly broken and no further battles would be fought on British soil; but it wasn’t that obvious at the time. Fort George was built on a spit of land out in the Moray firth downstream from Inverness with the stated intent of being a fort and supply depot impregnable to uncivilised Highland types. Given apparently unlimited budget, the designer seems to have expected the Highlanders to have the fighting capability of large and seriously tooled up Continental armies. It’s a trace italienne style castle, a star fort (I can make a Trace Italienne Fortifications For Normal People in the style of the Antonine, if anyone is interested. Should I be worried about this becoming an archaic defences blog?) with that curiously pointy design that really only makes sense from above, immensely thick, low walls in geometric shapes to maximise overlapping support and fields of fire: demibastions covering bastions covering ravelins covering artillery-proofed glacis killing-fields.

For whatever reason, the place was insanely popular with seagulls, and there was no single square metre of the fort which didn’t have some... evidence of them.
Nick was coaxed out of the car for a change and frog-marched onto the bastions to Enjoy. There was an excellent audio-guide, which attempted (and succeeded) to give an impression of life as a Fort George squaddie, ie cold, hungry and unpleasant. While I never have time to listen to everything in an audio guide, and always guiltily give up on them halfway through, this was a pretty good one; accounts of the designs and architects (the famed Adams, who used the military contracts to jump-start their civil business) and changing use of the fort (by the time it was finished, the Jacobite threat was long gone, and heavy guns were installed on the seaward walls to cover the Firth from French ships) were mixed happily with an account of a soldier getting a hundred lashes for stealing a handful of potatoes (pay and rations were awful, which has always struck me as an example of total, criminal incompetence in a military establishment.) Much was made of both the historically dilapidated, unmaintained state of the barracks buildings and the endless boredom of the garrison, which seemed strange; surely one is a pretty good solution for the other? 
One of those barracks housed the regimental museum of the Camerons and Seaforth Highlanders, whose faithful service to the Crown dates from only a few years after the forces of that Crown massacred their kinsmen at Culloden (no hard feelings) which had the usual mass of militaria and a staggering amount of battle honours. Pick a British campaign after the 18th century, any campaign, and there is a case in that museum about the Scots that killed and died on it. Perhaps there was something wrong with the climate control, or the gear needed to be reminded of Khartoum and El Alamein to avoid falling apart; either way the place was ridiculously hot.
The powder magazine housed a collection of old equipment bought by a local noble, who kept raising regiments nobody wanted and having to disband them again. The masses of India Pattern muskets and pikes, which are ten-a-penny in collections, were joined lots of shoe buckles, cartridge pouches and knapsacks, which are conversely very rare in the field of military leftovers. The bastioned nomshop was great, selling solid, unpretentious food at solid, unpretentious prices, as well as the NAAFI being open to civilians. The chapel, at the most seaward point, was the last thing added to the fort (the budget apparently allowing for holiness as well as impregnability) and included in its stained glass the only known bagpipe-playing angel in Christendom. We spent a good couple of hours exploring and trotting round its endless ramparts, and saw porpoises plorping about in the firth.
On the way back, we stopped at an eco-thing at Findhorn, like a rather less interesting version of the Centre for Alternative Technology, whose green hippie eco-establishment credentials were eroded somewhat by being right next to a massive air force base. Then, near a viewpoint on top of icehouses, overlooking one of the many had-it fishing ports of the coast, Dad went into a Nepalese bazaar (no kukris :C) and bought an astoundingly unflattering fair trade shapeless green-grey top thing.

On the Monday, we took the coast roads to explore Fishing Villages, eating honeybee sweets and mint colonials along the way. There's lots of geology going on around here, and from down on the beaches you can see the many-coloured bones of the hills in cliffs above.
Principal planned attraction for the day was the lighthouse museum at Fraserburgh. Sadly, to get there you needed to get through Fraserburgh, which is the poster boy for fishing towns that have seen better days: utterly dreary, miserable and dying, all its life and charm replaced by commercial machinery that's now unused and idle. The museum itself was fascinating, full of those huge multi-piece refracting lenses and a million interesting things I didn't know about lighthouses, and finished with a tour of the Kinnaird Head lighthouse. They had kept the old tower as spick and span as when it had still been in use (a smaller, more modern, steel and plastic house now shines), and the light itself, all polished brass, thick glass and intricate iron, was so smooth on its bearings I could turn it with a single finger.


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Steve said...

I recently did a 'relatively' small tour of the Western Highlands and Outer Hebrides and I must say Scotland, I think, has the most beautiful landscapes in the British Isles.

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

Elliot Thomson said...

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