Scotland #06 – Glen Affric, Tartans, Plockton
Scotland July 2022 - #06 - Glenn Affric, Golden Retrievers, Balmoral Castle, Tartans and Plockton
This travel-blog is for a trip we took to Scotland in July of 2022. Other than a few days on our own in Edinburgh at the beginning this was on a formal tour of the Scottish Highlands operated by RS (Road Scholar, www.roadscholar.org).
In this installment we talk about Glenn Affric, Golden Retrievers, Balmoral Castle, tartans and Plockton along with some more history.
Entire Trip map
Detail of our route these 2 days (portions described in previous installment)
Glen Affric and Dog Falls
Glen Affric is a forested valley known for its stands of pine and is the third largest area of ancient Caledonian pinewood in Scotland. The River Affric runs along its length, passing through a couple of Loch’s on the way. This glen is often described as the most beautiful in Scotland. The forests and open landscapes of the glen, and the mountains on either side, are a popular destination for hikers, climbers and mountain bikers. We’re not talking Yosemite here but rather a quiet, low key place for a wander through the forest or along a small river.
I think the reason we stopped here was mainly just to break up a long bus ride with a restroom and an opportunity to take a bit of a walk. The chosen location for the stop was a trail head for Dog Falls. Dog Falls is not a single waterfall but a series of small waterfalls and cascades. There are several marked paths to the falls which roughly follow the river and/or road. So, we took a walk down to see the falls.
Dan on trail at Dog Falls
One of several small falls collectively known as Dog Falls
Another one of the Dog Falls
Photographing Dog Falls
Neat little set of rapids
As it was nearby Glen Affric and we had some spare time, the guide asked our driver to swing by Tomich Village on the way out of Glen Affric. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the concept of a planned community with visions of Sun City complete with contemporary houses, golf courses, swimming pools and old folks tooling around in golf carts. Well, our next stop was at the planned community of Tomich, a Victorian model conservation village located near Glen Affric.
This little village consists of about a dozen homes along a narrow 2 lane country road, plus the 1600 acre Guisachan estate - now with an upscale resort and hotel. The village was built in the 1850’s by a fellow with the classic name of Lord Tweedmouth, but the estate is currently owned by the Fraser family.
Originally this part of the Highlands was controlled by the Chisholm and Frasier clans. But by the middle of the 19th century the economics of the times required that they sell their land. Similar to the history of Aigas (previous entry in this series), it was purchased by an industrialist who took a modest house and over a series of remodels and renovations expanded it into a Victorian mansion. As the main house expanded, so did the need for support staff such as game keepers, grounds keepers, masons, craftsmen and the like. What is now the village part of Tomich consists of the houses of these support staff. Good old Tweedmouth was considered a very good landlord of the era. He paid his workers well, looked after them and in general treated them quite well. This can be attested to by the size and quality of the houses he had built for them among other things.
But, ignoring the resort hotel and golf course (which we never saw), the Conservation Village of Tomich now consists of a dozen or so of these worker houses which are now privately owned. These buildings are just dripping with old world Scottish charm. Some are B&B’s, others are single family biomes and a few have been converted to businesses.
Two Tomirch Village houses joined and converted to a boutique hotel and restaurant/bar (taken through bus window)
Tomich Village house (taken through bus window)
Another Tomich Village house (taken through bus window)
But the most interesting thing about this little place is that it is where the Golden Retriever breed of dog was created. It was in 1868 that Sir Dudley Marjoribanks (later to become Baron Tweedmouth) first created this breed that has gone on to become one of the most popular pet breeds in the world. The breed was created from Flat Coated Retrievers judiciously crossed with Tweed Water Spaniels with a few other British breeds mixed in for good luck.
Monument to the creation of the Golden Retrieve r breed
Tartan’s and Kilts
The idea of a tartan goes way back in time, maybe as early as 200AD and way before the name “tartan” was created. In the early days, they were just very simple plaid patterns, many times just in black and white or whatever color dye the local flora could easily produce. As different plants proliferated in different areas, the colors tended to reflect the region where the cloth was made. Another factor influencing the color choices was the kind of local terrain. For example, if it was a forested area, you’d find more greens and browns in the weave to provide more camouflage for hunters.
The weaving process then, as now, produces a long piece of fabric that is only as wide the loom used to weave it (around 2 to 3 feet). The easiest thing to do with this cloth was to just use it as it came off the loom without cutting and sewing pieces together to make pants or shirts. One of the most common uses was for shawls worn by local women. But soon these long pieces of cloth became multifunctional. Men would lay out a long piece; lay down on it and then roll it around themselves a few times. They’d put a leather belt around it to hold it in place and would fling the extra bit over the shoulder and tuck it in around the back. And thus you have a (long) kilt. You could also carry things like food and bladders of water by tucking it in behind this over the shoulder bit. At night they’d unroll a bit more and use it as a blanket.
So, all in all this simple length of cloth was very practical general daily wear. However it was not very practical in a factory as it kept snagging and getting caught up in the machinery. To deal with this, in 1727 an Englishman named Thomas Rawlinson had a tailor create a new garment from the same material that was smaller and less prone to be a problem in the factory. So, using about half as much material this tailor created the “little kilt” which has evolved into the kilts we see today.
Kilted piper at Kilt Rock Viewpoint, Isle of Sky
Kilted docent at Urquhart Castle
In common use, most groups had two tartans patterns. One was used for making everyday wear. This tartan design typically had more muted colors and simpler patterns. The other would be made of brighter colors and was used to make dress clothes used for more formal occasions.
During one of the English occupations of Scotland, a law called the Dress Act was in force from 1746 through 1782.. This law only applied to men and boys in the Highlands other than gentry. It banned the wearing of Highland clothes including the kilt, as well as any sort of tartan, plaid, or checked cloth in great coats or upper coats. However, this did not apply to the army who then started wearing the Black Watch (or government) tartan.
But as the Dress Act only applied to males who were north of the highland line. Weavers south of that line were free to produce and sell whatever they wanted. So, in 1767, the Wilson family started a business weaving cloth and did very well supplying cloth to the British army. Since the army had standard patterns, Wilson wrote down the various patterns so his workers could produce the same thing over and over. Then, to make things easier he started giving names to these patterns. He started with naming them after army regiments who wore that pattern but then went on to towns, surnames, and geographic features like mountains or rivers.
Up until now, the idea that a particular pattern represented a particular group of people or family simply did not exist. However, as different army regiments adopted particular patterns for their troops, that pattern started to be associated with that particular regiment and the fact that Wilson had named the pattern after the regiment enforced this identity. So a particular tartan soon became a symbol for a particular regiment – almost like a regimental flag.
But Wilson was a good businessman and collected a large number of these patterns, gave them all names, and published them in a pattern book that acted like a sales catalog.
Following along this trend the Highland Society in London had an idea and sent a letter to all the Clan Chiefs in the Highlands asking them for a sample of “their Clan” tartan. The clan chiefs thought this was ridiculous and replied that they did not have a “clan tartan”, they just had whatever their local weavers decided to make. But the Highland society persisted and tried again in 1815 when the chiefs were asked once more for “their” tartan. This time though, rather than just replying that they didn’t have one, instead they just picked one from Wilson’s pattern book and sent that back as their tartan. When this information was published, it established the idea that a particular tartan pattern was linked to a particular clan or family.
Some “Clan” Tartan Patterns
In 1842 Albert and Victoria started visiting Scotland and fell in love with the highlands. Sir Walter Scott was so thrilled by their visit that he encouraged the local residents to come out and cheer for the monarchs as they toured the countryside. He also encouraged the locals to wear colorful tweed patterns representing their particular clan. This really cemented the idea of each clan having its own pattern, or tartan.
Now, as a matter of prestige, every family wanted to have a “family tartan”. By this time the industrial revolution with mass production was well underway and it didn’t take long in the 20th century for the tartan business to mushroom. Not only could you get “your family” tartan based on your surname (even if they had to invent one on the spot) they started producing regional tartans like Edinburgh, Scotland, Isle of Sky, Cornish, Welsh, and several Canadian tartans. Today tartans appear everywhere. Sports teams, the Polaris Submarine group, many school uniforms and companies like Burberry all have their own tartan. And on it goes. Just this year a company has started selling a “Ukrainian” tartan with a blue and yellow color scheme with all the proceeds going to Ukraine relief. And, in the USA apparently there is National Tartan day and in honor of that day, in 2002, over 7,800 pipers marched through Manhattan.
Victoria and Albert were so taken by the idea of tartan’s that when they built Balmoral Castle, they filled it with tartans. This included carpeting, drapes and wallpaper. They even had a tartan designed just for the castle (Balmoral Tartan).
Balmoral Castle and Victoria’s “affair” with John Brown
Speaking of Balmoral Castle, after their 1842 tour of the highlands, in 1848 they returned to the Highlands to look for a castle to buy but they weren’t able to find one they liked. So, they bought a chunk of land with a modest home on it instead. The house was obviously too small for the Royal Family, so of course had to be replaced.
Once they took possession and started using the house for family get-a-way’s, they started construction on a more “royal scale” castle that we now know as Balmoral Castle. Once the new Castle was complete enough for family use, they knocked down the original house and moved to the yet to be completed castle. Although Balmoral was built in the architectural style of 19th century Gothic Revival, Albert was quite involved in the design and kept adding flourishes to the design. An extra turret here, a clock tower there, and this over the top style came to be known as Balmorality.
Drawing of Balmoral Castle (from Wikimedia.org)
Balmoral Castle is privately owned by the family and is not part of the royal properties owned by the commonwealth like Hollyrood, Windsor, and Buckingham palaces.
After Albert died in 1861 of typhoid Victoria never recovered. Instead she retreated from public life and became a recluse. She basically moved to Balmoral full time and disappeared from view in London. This left folks in England wondering where their queen had gone and they started calling her the “Widow of Windsor”. This is when she met John Brown (see movie “Mrs. Brown”).
John was a “Gilly” (attendant, caretaker) at Balmoral. This was basically a staff position well below what is called a Titled Position such as Duke or Earl. Basically John was a senior level workman. But John Brown and Queen Victoria got on quite well. In fact, many say too well. He was her constant companion and confidant.
One of the reasons Victoria took to him in such a significant way was that he treated her like a normal everyday person and not like a Queen. He’d argue with her when he thought she was wrong, he didn’t bow and scrape when she entered the room, and, he spoke his mind to her when he felt like it. No one else in the Queen’s world would ever dare such behavior but from him, it made her feel normal.
Some say they were lovers and some say they were even married, but there is no proof either way. After Victoria died in 1901, based on directives she had left, the bottom of her casket was filled with items she loved in life. Among other things, there was a plaster cast of Albert’s hand which it is said she had slept with every night since he died, some of Albert’s dressing gowns, and both of their wedding rings. According to Victoria’s physician who dressed her and put her in the casket, she had him place a Primrose (Albert’s favorite flower) in her hands but underneath the Primrose was a lock of John Brown’s hair.
A bit more Scottish History
In 1706 The Articles of Union (now referred to as the Treaty of Union) was signed. This united the Kingdom of England (which already included Wales) with the Kingdom of Scotland under a new state called “Great Britain”. By that time Wales had been totally subsumed by England and had no claim of equality with England or of being a separate entity in its own right. But this treaty put Scotland in a different position. The Scots would control their own Legal system, but would use the same currency used in England. It also stipulated that all persons in both kingdoms would be equal in all regards. The treaty granted Scotland a specified number of seats in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons putting them on equal legislative footing as England.
With this treaty in place, in the mid 1800’s several factors converged which propelled Scotland ahead while other British Empire countries lagged. One of these was that in Scotland education became mandatory in 1872 and was really embraced by the Scotts. Even though many students had to balance farm duties with school, education of their kids became very important to the families. As evidence of this, England has 2 Universities whereas Scotland has 4. But let’s look a bit deeper. In order to attend one of the English universities (Cambridge or Oxford) you had to be Church of England which pretty much stifled diversity and greatly limited enrollment by foreign students. But the Scottish Universities had no such restrictions and as such their graduates were far more worldly than those coming out of England’s universities. So, Scotland quickly became an educated society.
The most popular majors in Scotland were in the medical and engineering fields. But what could one do with a medical or engineering degree in rural Scotland at that time. The traditional path was to join the military to gain experience. Now, in order to become an officer in the English military you had to have some serious family money to buy a commission. So this path was effectively unavailable to even educated Scottish commoners who were more often than not poor folk. But if you joined the civil service in India money was not required. So, many Scots went to India and became doctors in the civil service as well as engineers on navy ships. So even though it’s a stereotype (“Beam me up Scotty”) there is quite a bit of truth to the stereotype.
By the mid 1800’s, with a path for upward mobility and a way out of permanent poverty in the tenant farming economy, Scotland was quite content with their place in the English system. They even referred to Scotland as “North England”. This contentment persisted through WWII with no discussion or desire from Scotland to become independent.
But, between the wars a separatist movement started to form. In1932 a Nationalist Party was created and nationalism continued to grow and gain popularity. After WWII the labor party gained control in London which was OK with the Scots as they were mostly a working class society. But then in a 1960’s bi election (off cycle, single member election to fill a vacant seat), in a very safe Labor seat, a feisty separatist, Winnie Ewan, was elected. This horrified the establishment. But the movement was so strong by this time that Parliament decided to allow Scotland to have a referendum on giving Scotland more power. But due to an arcane voting rule for such things the required number of “yes” votes had to be over 50% - not of the votes cast but over 50% of the registered voters. Due to this it failed to pass even though it got more than 50% of votes cast (sound familiar?). After that things got quiet again. Even though there continued to be a strong national presence, it did not seem to be politically threatening to the status quo.
Then Oil came to the North Sea. The Scots said that it is Scotland’s oil and Scotland should get the profits, but London said not so fast. Ownership of mineral rights off the coast was not specified in any of the agreements so by default belonged to the larger UK controlled by London. This stand off eventually resulted in the election of several nationalist members of parliament – but not enough to make much headway.
Then everything changed in 1979 when the Conservative party surpassed the Labor party and Margaret Thatcher was elected PM. She was adamant that Scotland should not be given any more power than they already had (which caused several of her ministers to resign). Needless to say Margaret was pretty much loathed in Scotland.
Thatcher never quite got that she was hated in Scotland. She thought the Scots were just like her, hard working, conscientious and business minded and as such supported her. A few years later Thatcher gave a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. This meeting was held at “The Mound” and the speech has become known as the Sermon on the Mound. This particular group is a very conservative group but even so at the end of her speech the moderator said, “Thank you very much Mrs. Thatcher, you can be sure that never will you ever have been in a room where so many people have you in their prayers.”
Shortly thereafter, a non partisan organization consisting of members from all walks of life and across the political spectrum was formed and produced a document asking not for full independence but for “devolution” in order to self control more aspects of life in Scotland. This included the request to form a Scottish Parliament.
During campaigning, Tony Blair promised to allow the Scots to vote on a referendum in support this idea which he did. This was a very interesting political vote. The people who wanted Scotland to remain firmly part of GB, felt that this quasi self rule plan would make them happy and put an end to further talk of independence. But the folks who favored independence saw it as just another step on the road to independence. So, both sides voted in favor of the referendum and it was passed by a very large majority. This gave Scotland its own devolved Parliament in Edinburgh and control of Education, Healthcare, Roads, Tourism, and the Environment.
As it turned out, the folks thinking of the referendum as just step toward independence were more correct and shortly thereafter the Scottish National Party came to dominate Scottish politics and has for the past 40 years. Even though the parliamentary style of government is designed to prevent one party from having a straight out majority, the National Party gained and has held a majority on their own up till very recently where they had to form a coalition with the Green party to retain the majority.
In 2014 as the Scottish National Party had such a large majority, they went to the Conservative PM (David Cameron) in London to ask for a referendum of independence. Surprisingly enough, Cameron granted them the right to hold this referendum as he was sure it would fail. This became a big deal and engaged people at all levels so much so that voter registration surged to over 90% with over 70% of them actually voting which is unheard of. So, in 2014 the referendum was held but lost 45-55.
And this brings up to the present day where the nationalist First Minister of Scotland is asking London for the right to hold another referendum next year. But this time it is very unlikely to be granted as it would almost certainly pass. But in the mean time, Liz Truss (the 7 week Prime Minister from this year) went to the Supreme Court for a ruling about the legality of Scotland holding a referendum without the approval of the UK Government. When I first wrote this paragraph several weeks ago, this issue is still pending, but just yesterday, the Supreme Court of the UK ruled that Scotland could not hold such a referendum without the blessing of Parliament and they don’t have the votes for that. We’ll see if they go ahead anyway?
Scottish Independence Rally, George Square, Glasgow, 2019
Plockton is a quiet coastal village on the west side of Scotland not too far from the Isle of Sky. It sits on Loch Carron which is a salt water bay (not a lake) on the North Atlantic and sits on a little peninsula sticking out into the Loch. In Gaelic the word “Ploc” translates as a pimple or bump and “ton” means town and thus this village became Plockton, or “pimple town”.
In modern times, many families have found that they have the means to afford a 2nd or ‘vacation’ home with many scenic regions attracting such people - and Plockton is one of them. . And, it is one of the first villages in Scotland to have a major influx of people buying second or vacation homes.
So why, of all places, did Plockton become an early and popular destination for these upwardly mobile buyers? Well it all traces back to a TV series that aired from 1995 through 1997 called Hamish MacBeth which was filmed in Plockton. In the TV series the town was called Lochdubh but the screen credits revealed the real place where it was filmed was Plockton. This series was one of the first appearances of the actor Robert Carlyle who went on to be quite a famous actor.
It seems that people seeing the TV show thought the place was quite charming. It had a whole host of eccentric, but loveable characters (all fictitious of course) and is set on the edge of a bay with beautiful green hills all around. The town faces east, away from the prevailing wind giving it a quite mild climate considering its northern latitude. Then add in that it is only a 2 hour drive from Inverness or less than 4.5 hours from either Glasgow or Edinburgh and it makes the ideal spot to escape to from the big cities. So, people swarmed in and bought houses or plots of land for their get-a-way retreat. But in just driving around, one does not really see much of this. Yes, the town seems to be a bit larger in developed area than one might expect but it is really not “overrun” so to speak.
Of course, Plockton had some history before the new influx second home folks. Unlike most villages which can trace inhabitation back many centuries, Plockton is somewhat new. Remember our history lesson where we talked about the Clearances when in order to establish large sheep and cattle operations they booted out all the small farmers – mostly by burning down their houses and setting fire to their fields? Well even though many of these displaced subsistence farmers fled the country, many stayed and had to go someplace. Plockton was one of a couple of planned villages in this area created between 1814 and 1820 to take these farmers to try and convert them to fishermen. And, there you have it.
Plockton – Old Village harbor side
Plockton – Old Village harbor side
Plockton – Old Village harbor side
Plockton – Fishing gear and boats at low tide
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the Road Scholar Guides)
Keywords: blamoral castle, blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogscotland2022, dog falls, glen affric, golden retriever, john brown, plockton, queen vicotria affair, socttish independence, tartan history, tomich village
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