The Scotland Diaries -- May 15-17 -- Castles, Kirks, Cairns and Culloden

Written by: Anne Gavin

You could almost hear the thump, thump, thump of my heart at we set off from Edinburgh pointed north and west towards the Highlands. I had just met my fellow travelers and we all nervously looked at each other and hoped we would remember faces and names and where everyone journeyed from. It quickly became clear, however, that I was amongst fellow Obsessenachs when talk turned to Jamie and Claire and I saw that familiar light in their eyes. It’s that look of relief when we realize we all have in common a slightly odd but joyful love for an epic story and the equally epic characters that inhabit it. You know the look. It’s the knowledge that we share a wonderful secret and are relieved to have found kindred spirits. So, as we crossed the Forth River Bridge and left the city behind, we all knew that we were about to make our dreams come true as we traveled Jamie and Claire’s path through A' Ghàidhealtachd -- "the place of the Gaels" – the historic Scottish Highlands. Click past the jump to read more…

As I mentioned in a previous diary entry, much of my tour would involve hiking and spending time out of the car. I was really looking forward to experiencing some of the most pristine landscapes in the world up close and personal. Therefore I was excited to learn that our first day in the Highlands would include an ambitious hike. But, before that, we made a brief stop in the little township of Falkland. Everyone geeked out as we walked into the town square and saw the famous fountain from Outlander Episode 1 “Sassenach” – where Jamie’s ghost stood looking longingly up at Claire in “Mrs. Baird’s B&B”. I don’t know why but the tiny town square seemed so much larger on television. The street on either side is barely 25 feet across and the distance from the fountain to the small shop where Claire admired the blue vase is but a stone’s throw. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to be there and to know we were standing where our beloved actors and the characters they play had stood. Now with Outlander adrenaline coursing through our veins, we headed off for our first hike at the Birks of Aberfeldy.

The braes ascend like lofty wa's,
The foaming stream, deep-roaring, fa's
O'erhung wi' fragrant-spreading shaws
The birks of Aberfeldy.

The Birks of Aberfeldy is a circular hiking trail that lines the slopes of the Moness gorge and overlooks the Falls of Moness. “Birks” is from the Scots for beech trees. However, many mature trees including birch, oak, ash and elm overhang the trail. The Birks of Aberfeldy was named after a poem of the same name by Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, who penned The Birks o’Aberfeldie in 1787. The first half of the hike was up a steep, steep incline and ran alongside a stream. You could hear the rushing of the falls above. I was happy to reach the top of the trail as I knew an easier descent awaited.   As we walked down we stopped often to read some of Burn’s lovely verses from “The Birks of Aberfeldy”  that had been carved into benches and markers along the trail. The natural beauty of this place was overwhelming. We were truly in Scotland now.

From Aberfeldy we climbed higher still into the Highlands. Our guides took us off the beaten path to a location I cannot describe in great detail so as to keep its location somewhat private for those that are care-takers there. But, imagine the small Kirk where Jamie and Claire wed so soon after Dougal had struck the bargain with Black Jack Randall. As we walked up a very steep path we stopped and read a passage from Book 1 “Outlander” describing Claire’s trepidation over what she was about to do. As we neared the top of the hill, we saw the Kirk – almost exactly like described in the book. It sat above a gorge with Ben Nevis in the distance and some small crofts below. Hebridean sheep grazed on either side and a very old cemetery sat above it. Once inside, I was asked to read the passage from the book where the marriage ceremony was performed and our couple was joined together. A truly magical experience. It brought back many warm feeling from my first read of Book 1.

Next we continued on in the direction of Inverness, stopping at the Highland Folk Museum.  The Folk Museum is Britain’s first open air museum and features a six structure 1700s township. As we walked the half mile to the township it became clear we had all seen this before. The township served as the filming location for scenes in Episode 105 “Rent.” We saw the building where Claire and the ladies sat and drank after waulking wool. We also saw the main area in the middle of the township where Dougal stood collecting the goats and pigs (much to Ned’s chagrin) from his tenants. It’s a very fine and authentic example of what 18th century life was like. However, it reaffirmed for me that if I were to travel back to that time period, I would have lasted but a few days. Life was difficult then – and most likely, very, very cold!

The evening found us in Inverness fairly giddy about the day we just had. The travelers were becoming more at ease with each other and names and faces were becoming clearer. Meanwhile, I was thrilled to have the chance to walk along the River Ness and think about one of my favorite passages from Book 4 “Drums of Autumn” – the fight between Brianna and Roger.

The following day we all knew what awaited us. A grim reminder that Jamie and Claire’s efforts were for naught and that the Battle of Culloden turned out to be a colossal disaster for the Highland culture and the clans that fought there. But, before that we made a brief stop at Clava Cairns – the ancient stone circles that many say was Diana Gabaldon’s inspiration for the fictional stones in Outlander’s Craigh na Dun. It was a beautiful day and so very quiet there. The cairns there stand as a reminder that this is sacred ground upon which ancient people chose to bury their dead. The winds whistled amongst the trees and the stones themselves seemed to hum ever so slightly as rays of morning sunlight licked softly between the moss growing within the stones’ crags. I understood then the pull of the stones, although had no desire to test whether they would transport. I was content to look around and feel the serenity of the circle and wonder how these ancient people created such a powerful place so many thousands of years ago.

We traveled on from the ancient Cairns and forward (or back?) to the 18th century once again. Cawdor Castle is a living reminder of days gone past. This fine example of an actual Scottish style castle is unique because it also is the real home for the Cawdor descendents who live in it still during the winter months. At once grand with large tapestries, postered beds with guilded, often original headboards and soaring oil portraits of the Cawdor family, it also includes a modern kitchen and framed photographs of family members who reside there today. Despite the grandeur, the home still seems intimate and personal. The gardens are also spectacular and include a walled garden, a flower garden and a wild garden. A secret door in the Flower Garden also leads out to a series of nature trails around the backside of the Castle and to the babbling stream below. Highland coos and Hebridean sheep native to Scotland also surround the property. We were also fortunate to be treated to the full bloom of Cherry Trees lining the drive to the car park. If Castles are your thing, I highly recommend a trip to Cawdor. It’s not just your great, great, great, great, great grandfather’s castle. It’s got the fresh touch of a modern Scottish family that makes it an exceptional stop while in the Inverness area. 

And so, on to Culloden we went. While a beautiful morning and the fifth day in a row there was no raining on my Scottish parade, the skies had begun to cloud over. We had heard rumors of rain but when we entered the Visitors Center at Culloden, the drizzle was holding off. The Museum itself is very well done. Both sides – the Government and the Jacobites – story is told in great detail using artifacts as well as sight and sound. My favorite part of the Museum was a kilted gentlemen standing in front of a table filled with weapons. He spoke in great detail about each of the weapons and how they were used by the Jacobites. I had never held a broadsword before. They are surprisingly light and balanced. And, the targe – the leather bound shields used by the clansmen -- was handsome in appearance but also you could see the strength of it and how it must have been very effective at preventing fatal blows. I learned much about Prince Charles Edward Stuart – probably more than I would have liked. Seeing the battlefield and the aftermath of that fateful day, you can’t help but despise this man for the foolishness that led thousands of clansmen to needlessly die a horrible death.

As I got ready to step outside and tour the battlefield, I noticed it started to rain. It was steady, damp and very, very cold rain. Unfortunately, the GPS guided listening device handed to me as I stepped outside stopped working about a quarter of the way across the battlefield. I was actually quite far away from the Visitor’s Center so decided not to go back. At first I was annoyed, but then I realized that I learned almost everything I needed to know in the Visitor’s Center and rather than listening, I could play back in my head what I had learned and concentrate instead on what the clansmen might have experienced during the battle. A horribly conceived battle plan led exactly where you would think it would – to total and utter destruction. It was grim to think about. I was cheered only by the many dogs and Scottish owners scampering about the battlefield taking their daily walk. Apparently, dogs are allowed there!! For a dog lover like me, it was pure joy. I was happy for that distraction given the devastation of the scene. I would venture to say that the entire Culloden site is one of the best war/battlefield sites I have ever seen. Well worth the trip northwest if only just for that. 

We remain in the Highlands for the next few days before returning to Edinburgh. Next diary entry I’ll tell you about our trip to Loch Ness and search for Nessie. However, a couple of things I have learned along the way. There are sheep literally everywhere. And, because lambing season took place mid-to late April there are BABY lambs everywhere, too. I am absolutely re-thinking my love of lamp chops.  Second, HARRIS TWEED. I am obsessed. A hat, a jacket, a small bag and a couple of cell phone holders and I’m not done yet. Such beautiful wool and prints. Might have to buy a Harris Tweed Duffle bag to transport all my Harris Tweed products home. 

Read ALL my Scotland Diary entries here:
A Sassenach Abroad
Ready, Set, Scotland
May 13-14 Edinburgh
May 15-17 Castles, Kirks, Cairns and Culloden
May 19-21 The Highlands Part 2
May 24-27 Over the Sea to Skye
May 27-30 The West Coast and Scottish Hospitality

Until next time, Sassenachs. Slainte!

If you have been following along, what is your favorite part of my Scotland adventure so far?  What is one Outlander location you would like to visit in Scotland?


  1. Totally living vicariously through you with your blog and pictures! I can't pick a favorite part just yet! Safe travels!

  2. Wow, terrific trip, Anne. Just know you are as happy as a Martha's Vineyard Clam!! Enjoy on...

  3. Anne, I'm reliving these events from last year's J & C tour with you! Glad you're enjoying it!

  4. This is so great having us in the loop,lovely adventure,keep on having fun!

  5. I went to Scotland in 2000 with @ 20 of 'The Ladies of Lallybroch', this was WAY before the current OUTLANDER fan following ( and the -internet- as we know it. O would go back in a heartbeat given the chance. There was a cleft stone at Clava Cairns, alas none of us went back. Thank you for your lovely travelogue.

  6. Have enjoyed the narrative as it seems to have taken on an old Scottish flavor which has transported Anne back in time ~ and, thus, this reader. It's been enchanting!


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