YULETIDE IN THE HIGHLANDS
There’s magic in the air and adventure at hand in Loch Ness and Cawdor, observes Ella Windsor
INVERNESS, Scotland, in winter. Sugarcoated riverbanks, glittering with leaves. Inverness: home to the Loch Ness monster and Cawdor, land of Macbeth.
I was staying with friends for a Christmas with a difference. It was a time for legends, sloe vodka and a toddler in a kilt, who I suspect is hardier than I am. Born on St George’s Day, I grew up horrified at the thought of the dragon and could sleep only if I knew its fate. The Loch Ness monster, on the other hand, is still alive and zooms through the depths of the famous waterway. Yet children in Scotland don’t seem to lose sleep over it.
Columba, the holy man who took Christianity to the Picts in the 6th century, never so much as prodded the water beast but simply told it to flee so that his slave could swim across the loch and fetch a vessel. Both Columba and George were sanctified for their bravery although, of course, unlike St George’s dragon, the Loch Ness monster is as revered in the Highlands as a troll is in Iceland. Every dweller on the banks of Loch Ness has seen it swimming in the water and some have been inspired to go in, too. December seemed too chilly to me.
On Christmas Eve my friend Raoul took me to Urquhart Castle. Jutting out on to the promontory in the middle of Loch Ness, the once vast 13th-century fortress and stronghold of the Grants was caught up in the Wars of Independence, invaded thrice by English kings and finally, in the 17th century, blown up by deserting soldiers. Now a ruin, shrouded in the pink dust of the night below a fingernail moon, it is a silent witness to the silver fur spread around it.
After Urquhart, my brother Freddie and I went to Cawdor Castle. Macbeth was always one of my favourite Shakespeare plays for its supernatural aspects, like the three weird sisters. I believe it was the second witch who told Macbeth he would be thane of Cawdor, and I can understand his excitement.
Several times restored, the castle has been inhabited by the thane of Cawdor since it was built in 1370. The widow of Hugh, the 24th thane, greeted us in a cashmere Cawdor tartan skirt, made for her by Hubert Givenchy. She showed me the holly tree inside that marks the castle’s foundations.
My favourite two legends of the holly tree are of the holy man and the donkey. The first concerns a holy man living nearby who was visited by a kingly figure who later built his home over the holy man’s grave. The holly
Crumbling Urquhart Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness, was a vast fortress in the 13th-century tree stood on the holy man’s land, the kingly man was the thane of Cawdor. The second legend is that the thane put his possessions in a golden chest on the back of a donkey. Where it settled he would build his home. The donkey lay under the holly tree.
I first went to Cawdor at the age of seven but hardly saw the castle. I spent much more time in the garden, trying to leave the labyrinth. Originally, said our hostess, the middle of each maze featured a minotaur. I was tempted to venture out this time but there was no avoiding midnight mass.
At the service, a lively chaplain led us through several carols before letting on, in a hearty Scottish dialect, ‘‘ That was just a warm-up!’’ Our little cousin Flora, who lives in St Andrews, speaks in refreshing Scottish tones but for Freddie and me the accent is a source of intrigue and sometimes confusion.
When at last our female priest arrived and thanked us all for coming, one drunken youth responded, ‘‘ Thunk you.’’ Afterwards Freddie described his shock at the drunkard who swore at the priest.
I left Inverness and Macbeth and the monster just before Hogmanay.
As the plane lifted off the icy northern runway, I thought of the toddler in the kilt, on the edge of so many adventures. The Spectator
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