Bloody Jacobite battles to Bronze Age cemetaries: exploring Scotland's past

A trip to the Scottish Highlands offers a fascinating glimpse into the country’s history, with helicopter rides and fairytale accomodation all part of the experience.Monday, 18 November 2019

Considering my knowledge of Scottish kings and clansmen doesn’t stretch much beyond Braveheart and Macbeth, my first stop on a historical tour of the Highlands is very fitting indeed. A stone slab around the back of a petrol station reads: ‘Behind this lies the supposed burial place of King Duncan 1040’. Immortalised by Shakespeare, commemorated next to a Shell garage.

I’ve been brought here by Aeneas O’Hara, founder of bespoke Scottish travel company, Away From The Ordinary. He specialises in designing trips based on your interests, whether you want to try fly fishing in Loch Lomond, go on a whisky-making course at Ballindalloch Distillery or — in my case — learn more about Scottish history than Shakespeare and Mel Gibson can provide.

“Learning a new skill or acquiring new knowledge makes a trip so much more memorable,” says Aeneas. “One couple recently went with a guide to learn all about the genealogy of their clan,” he explains, “or sometimes people have a particular interest in  castles — we open them up after hours or give people a private tour.”

Continuing my tour of Scotland’s bloody past, we head to Culloden Moor. This is where a Jacobite force led by Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated in 1746, marking the last land battle on British soil. The memorial cairn and 360-degree immersive experience brings ghosts viscerally to life — in less than an hour, around 1,600 men were slain here.

So too does our dinner at Culloden House, where we meet Iain from Inverness Custom Tours, who’s dressed in the full regalia of a Jacobite clansman. Over a dinner of seared scallops and Scottish beef fillet, we get hands-on demonstrations of his weaponry, and a lesson in how to tie your belted plaid (essentially, lie on the floor and allow yourself to be mummified in tartan).

We might be dressing like a clansman, but our lodgings are fit for a king (or queen). In fact, Queen Victoria herself once stayed at Glenfeshie Lodge, which dates back to 1880 and was recently the stand-in for Balmoral in the TV drama The Crown. Its six double rooms are sumptuously decorated, the walls adorned with antlers and oil paintings. Staff, meanwhile, are on hand to bring you a hot chocolate in bed and clean your wellies after a walk in the glen — it’s the little things.

The next morning, after a deliciously rib-sticking breakfast of porridge with poached rhubarb from the gardens, we continue to ride in style, taking a helicopter to the nearby town of Braemar for lunch at The Fife Arms. This newly renovated coaching inn has been transformed into a boutique hotel and art gallery by Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the Swiss power couple behind the Hauser & Wirth galleries — there’s a painting by Picasso in the lobby and a Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture in the garden. The hotel’s pub, The Flying Stag, comes complete with a taxidermied stag leaping over the bar, and in the shadow of a pair of enormous antlers, I try Cullen skink for the first time, a deliciously creamy haddock, leek and potato broth.

After lunch, we jump back in the chopper and fly over snow-covered mountains, tracing the markings of ancient burial grounds and the remains of castles through the clouds, before landing within touching distance of the lodge. Resident rangers immediately offer to take me hiking in the bens or for a bracing dip in the river, but it’s all too tempting to sit by the fire with a tartan blanket and homemade shortbread.

I do agree to a post-nap stroll though, and just a few minutes from the lodge, I’m thrown straight into the Bronze Age. Clava Cairns is a 4,000-year-old cemetery, and with the evening sun casting a golden glow on the moss-covered boulders, it’s a great spot for a wee dram from Aeneas’ hip flask. He explains that this strange collection of standing stones — a mini Scottish Stonehenge — was rarely visited until Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books became a hit TV show. I might not be able to travel back in time like the characters in her novels, but this historical jaunt through the Highlands is surely the next best thing. 

How to do it

Kate’s three-day, two-night trip with Away From The Ordinary costs £3,500 per person based on six sharing, including return flights from London to Inverness, all food and accommodation as well as activities.

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