A ramble through northern Scotland and its history 

When Bonnie Prince Charlie fled into exile he was the first of thousands who would later leave the Highlands

Somewhere between Inverary and Glencoe, along one of the narrow back roads of Scotland, we came upon a lone piper in full Highland regalia, kilt, sporin, and plaid cape. He was standing on a rocky knoll, perhaps a hundred metres from the road, skirling to the distant hills. I have no idea why he was there. He paid no attention to us when we stopped to listen. Except for the three of us, and perhaps the ghosts of long departed clansmen who once lived here, the surrounding glens were empty. The wail of the bagpipe’s drones and the melody from its chanter faded into the distance unheard. It's one of my most vivid memories of our ramble through the Highlands of Scotland and in many ways a metaphor for the romantic myth and harsh reality of Highland history.

We were on our way from the Highlands north of Ben Nevis to the Isle of Skye. Below the stark rocky ridges the lower slopes were green with spring heather and highlighted with brilliant splashes of yellow gorse. In no hurry to leave, we paused along the way to explore back roads and hike to beckoning viewpoints. Here and there we stumbled on the remains of abandoned farms – a small field now covered with gorse – the rectangular outline of a house whose clay walls had long ago returned to the earth. Perhaps it was one of the crofters cottages where Bonnie Prince Charlie took refuge when he was fleeing through the Highlands with a bounty on his head. Travelling in Scotland invites such flights of fancy and, after all, the Bonnie Prince was also on his way to the Isle of Skye.

When our road became a sheep trail we back-tracked through Fort William and headed west along Loch Eil to Glenfinnan where a 20-metre high monument commemorates those who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 rebellion. The slender round tower, topped by the figure of a kilted Highlander, stands at the head of Loch Shiel in the very spot where the "Young Pretender" rallied the clans and first raised the Jacobite banner in a struggle that would forever change the Highland way of life.

The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles Edward Stuart, is told in the nearby Glenfinnan Visitor Centre. The Stuart dynasty ruled the country for more than 300 years. From James I, who became king in 1406, the Stuart succession passed from one James to another until, after much intrigue and the odd beheading, the succession was passed to Queen Anne of England, daughter of James VII of Scotland, and last of the Stuart rulers.

Poor Anne. She made a valiant effort to keep the Stuart ball rolling, gave birth to 14 kids, but outlived every one of them. When she died in 1714 with no direct heir she was succeeded by her cousin George. The fact that George, a Hanover, was unable to read or speak a word of English did not deter him from accepting the promotion and he was crowned George I of England. This didn't sit well with James Edward Stuart, "the Old Pretender", who fancied himself next in line for the job. With the support of Catholic Highlanders, who adopted his Latin name "Jacob" to their cause, he set about plotting a regime-change in England.

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