YULE­TIDE IN THE HIGH­LANDS

There’s magic in the air and ad­ven­ture at hand in Loch Ness and Caw­dor, ob­serves Ella Wind­sor

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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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