A Romp in the Heather.

I promised a tale…full of mud and moor. With cold rain and wind beating a staccato cadence on the sides of my cheeks, and sore muscles, and blisters, and bow-saws galore. From Edina we journeyed to the North-East with glee that would soon be deflated by the Powers that Be. The job was to conserve an old, hallowed ground where birch trees and gravestones and earthworms were found.

The project, as I stated earlier, was a conservation drive of sorts, to be undertaken on the infamous battlefield of Culloden, the last formal stand of the Jacobite movement in Britain. By coincidence, it was also the last battle ever fought on British soil, and perhaps the most revered spot in all of Scotland. The beauty of this project is that the field is the central focus of my studies here, and the National Trust had no idea it was furnishing me with a perfect opportunity to do some immersion research and recharge my academic batteries, as well as help contribute to a juicy parcel of land and its very important upkeep.

Cutting out the mundane bits of this mini-adventure, I’ll proceed in good order by saying that I was able to spend another evening in Aberdeen with my lovely friends Kieran and Azra (and wee Pippa) who are easily the warmest people in the entire North-East. After a long night of curry and alcohol, as every trip should be preceded by, we took an early morning train to Inverness and taxied up to Culloden on the 17th. This was a day after the anniversary of the battle, and as with every year, they do a dedication ceremony complete with Gaidhlig ministers, pipes galore, costumed re-enactors, and many wet eyes on a very wet moor. The rest of the conservation volunteers were not to arrive until later that afternoon, but Kieran and I were intensely interested in making it early for the dedication.

In perfect marching order, we filed through the clan graves and gathered ‘round the memorial cairn.

The Living History crew looked very much the part and displayed a fine array of costuming from different aspects of the army. This replica of a uniform from Bagot’s Hussars was especially well-done. Oddly enough, all the re-enactors were Yanks and insisted on speaking with *really* bad fake accents throughout the demonstration afterward. Ach, weel.

The cairn erected on the site of the clan graves, very close to where Murray’s right flank crashed into Barrell’s and Munro’s regiments.

The entire crowd took a walk-through around the field as pipers played and wreaths and flowers were lain upon the Jacobite lines and clan graves.

Kieran and I introduced ourselves to the staff at the Visitor’s Centre and then trotted a mile down the road to our rented cottages at Clava to meet with the rest of the workers. The wonderful thing about Scotland is that every few yards or so is an object of some historical or geological significance. Even out here, away from any cities, a burial mound lies there, a monument here. Along the way, we came upon Cumberland’s Stone, where William Augustus, commander of the Government army that crushed the Jacobites, is said to have stood surveying the land.

So we took a piss on it, for Old Time’s sake. And for the boys, long departed. They would have wanted it that way.

After settling into our rather posh bungalows and meeting the other four volunteers, we talked a bit about the project and were introduced to the team leader, fittingly enough named Jim Stewart. For those oblivious to historical anecdote, James Stuart was the ousted monarch that Charles Edward, his son, was trying to restore on the British throne during the Forty-five. James was essentially the scapegoat of the Jacobite movement, and here we were, being led by him once again upon the field of Culloden. Kinda.

We spent a good couple of hours the next morning being led around the moor by the chief archaeologist for the field, getting the low-down on our duties for the next seven days. What we were to do would be the first stage of an incredibly expensive and far-reaching rehabilitation program, with the eventual goal of restoring the battlefield to its original state in 1746. One of the most problematic issues with the current field is that the Forestry Commission owned much of the land there until 1981, and the moor is well-seeded with tenacious birch and pine forests that keep growing back every year. Of course this obscures the view and completely alters the terrain, and the six of us were there to stop it. With our bare hands.

Armed with nothing but loppers and bow-saws, we were asked to clear away the violating overgrowth of trees, shrubs, and god-forsaken gorse from the most popular area of the field that lies around the Jacobite grave mounds. I had always wondered, since my first visit to Culloden, why there was so much vegetation and huge trees ruining the visage of the field. I think it’s important to really give the public a proper assessment of scale and position, and I’m very pleased that the NTS is putting some good money into doing just that. As well as being told our assignment, I was able to speak to the official there about misplacement of regimental signage and the possible inaccuracies of some reconstructed enclosure walls that were so instrumental during the battle. As a bonus, we learned about some archaeological projects just about to be launched that includes excavation on a probable road directly through the grave area, built by Hector Forbes before he bequeathed the land to the NTS. This could possibility disprove past authors’ reports of physical elements of the field and troop positioning, so it will be interesting to see what comes out of it.

So this gives an idea of what we were dealing with. There’s no line of sight to the other side of the field, and most people don’t even know how much of the battle area is totally inaccessible because of this growth.

The grave mound of the Appin Stewarts and the surrounding foliage that needs to be cleared.

I’m no hippie, but I do appreciate the fact that trees and lush growth are beautiful, and I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Birch trees, especially. Silvery bark, paper thin and curly…cracked with dark slashes and springy moss patches. But part of this project meant killing hundreds of them in succession, with no time for mourning or empathy. I was literally racked with guilt that I never saw coming; it took me two days to overcome it, but I became sap-thirsty very quickly after that. Listening to the lilting refrains of Loreena McKennitt’s ancient forests and faerie dances on my iPod didn’t help the issue much, and I quickly switched over to Death in June and Marilyn Manson to help lubricate these killing hands.

We each took our own path, trying to strategically chart out the best line of attack. And in keeping good form, I chose a right flank forced march to distract the Ent army while the others hit from the front. It was a successful action, and we met to regroup in the enemy’s rear lines. Only a little progress had been made, but it was good for morale.

Things started to thin out a bit, but we were working in three dimensions.

His royal majesty, and the leader of our expedition: The Old Pretender himself.

One of the most interesting and important aspects of the culling was to uncover an earthen berm that Hector Forbes had erected around the grave area. I had never seen it before due to the overgrowth, and the archaeologists really wanted to get in there and find out if there might be any other burials or similar mounds within. The berm skirts the entire gravesite, and we were the first ones to get a look at it unfettered by foliage.

You can see the berm here and how it’s partially grown over with trees and grass.

Ground-level shot of our handiwork on Forbes’s berm.

Casualties of war. With the creaking and slow falling of each lovely, stately micro-environment I had to forgive myself and keep remembering that this is a human-seeded forest, and the ghosts of the trees would be competing with the ghosts of the battlefield for supremacy. For the Greater Good, I kept telling myself. Regardless, fluttery moths would sometimes emerge, winging pell-mell for safer climes as their home dropped to the ground, and I couldn’t help but visualize them going off to tell the Wee Folk what that horrible, dreaded lumberjack was doing to their realm. Other branches would reach down and grab hold of their falling companions, refusing to let go even in death. It was all a bit much at times.

One of the cooler things we uncovered was a stretch of grassland that was much similar to the original state of the battlefield, before the forest and endless heather took it over. Kieran and I took a run across the soggy stuff to get a feel for what it must have been like. Without being fired upon, of course.

Why in the world are we so damn happy? Because we’re geeks, and on the field in the mud and rain, just as the Ol’ Guard were in 1746. This is golden, you see.

The closest thing we found to a burial is this wee shrew, who had clearly clambered into a bottle and was too drunk to emerge again. Our hats came off, but only for a second.

Clearing the gorse from around the memorial stones made it much easier to discern the actual size of the earthen mounds under which hundreds of Highland soldiers are buried.

Finally, a week’s work proves effective. This shows the area near the graves looking toward the northwest.

And here we are, the remnants of a tattered army, gathered upon one of the mixed clan graves…just in time for the sun to pop from behind the clouds, as if in thanks for a thorough job.

Before we left that Friday evening, Kieran had the wonderful idea of leaving some offerings to the Boys, so we made our way from mound to mound, and he was good enough to deposit some pieces of fruit from his pack by each stone, followed by a wee splash of whisky, back into the earth from where it came. They were hungry, thirsty, and tired as they fell, and this was just a small token of appreciation for their sacrifice.

More to come soon…

15 Responses to “A Romp in the Heather.”

  1. viscera Says:
    April 28th, 2004 at 1:48 am

    "we came upon Cumberland’s Stone, where William Agustus, commander of the Government army that crushed the Jacobites, is said to have stood surveying the land.
    So we took a piss on it, for Old Time’s sake."

    Now, if you really had came upon it…
    Lovely photos, though 🙂

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    April 28th, 2004 at 2:07 am

    Oh, you are a clever one…

  3. mxhaunted Says:
    April 28th, 2004 at 2:12 am

    Cool write-up and nice picture. You get a good idea of what you were up against. I can see why you would be in two minds why you’re feel guilty about cutting down lots of trees and the likes… I’d be the same. The world needs more trees… but I suppose it needs its history as well.
    See you on Friday.
    RIP. shrew

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    April 28th, 2004 at 2:31 am

    Thanks for eschewing your work efforts to read my long-winded stuff, M.
    That conflict that you identified was a serious theme of conversation throughout the week. Trees are fine, and certainly have their place, but some of the policy-makers in Scotland seem to think that just planting expanses of trees everywhere will help bring the country 'back to a state of the past', and that couldn't be farther from the truth. Culloden is a perfect example of that fallacy, and though we didn't have any bad attitudes from onlookers, the NTS has to be very careful with how quickly they change back the terrain due to sensitive patrons.
    We shall drink to the shrew this weekend, my friend. 🙂

  5. shawree Says:
    April 28th, 2004 at 3:58 am

    Oh, birches are my favourite, though I seem to be allergic to them. 🙁 Oddly enough they're considered a weed in Lower Saxony where they grow in abundance, so you can kill them as you please while in Berlin they are listed as protected and you need a special permission if you want rid of one. Funny how two places in the same country can have such a different outlook.

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    April 29th, 2004 at 12:16 am

    That is a bit odd, indeed.
    A weed, though? Geez. But we *are* talking about the Saxons, here.

  7. angledge Says:
    April 28th, 2004 at 8:38 am

    You & Kieran look so happy. I'm glad you had a good time!

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    April 29th, 2004 at 12:17 am

    Thanks, Ange!
    We made it back alive, and really sad that we can't dig a burrow on the moor and just live there.
    Well, you get the drift.

  9. pisica Says:
    April 28th, 2004 at 6:55 pm

    So what exactly is soaking in bleach in the empty cottage cheese containers again?? 🙂

  10. FunkyPlaid Says:
    April 29th, 2004 at 12:19 am

    The bones of our ancestors, of course.
    Whaddya think I was doing on the burial mounds?
    Okay, I lie. Looks like the remnants of a lamb, found in the ruins of a burial cairn in the Nairn valley. Still juicy, just a few days ago. Now strung together and drying in the window.
    Mmm-mm good!

  11. evils Says:
    April 29th, 2004 at 9:39 pm

    Fab update and pics as usual. God Bless Alco-Shrew! 😀

  12. FunkyPlaid Says:
    May 1st, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    *takes hat off yet again*

  13. psymbiotic Says:
    April 30th, 2004 at 8:30 am

    Happy Birthday my friend! 😀
    Egan >:>

  14. FunkyPlaid Says:
    May 1st, 2004 at 11:27 pm

    Thanks, dood.
    Good to hear from you; looking forward to seeing you in SF once again…not too far from now!

  15. psymbiotic Says:
    May 2nd, 2004 at 4:37 pm

    Looking forward to seeing you to. :>
    Egan >:>

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