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10 May 2018

On the Jacobite trail at Glenfinnan

Written by Robin McKelvie
Glenfinnan with the monument in the background
Glenfinnan with the monument in the background
Travel writer Robin McKelvie and family set off to Glenfinnan in search of adventure, trains and, erm, biscuits …

I didn’t want us to be yet another family descending on glorious Glenfinnan on the Harry Potter trail looking for that viaduct and that steam train. As we pulled into the National Trust for Scotland car park my ambitions took a bash. ‘Is that the bridge in Harry Potter, daddy?’ asked my eldest Tara. ‘No, er, I mean well, yes, sort of’, I blurted. She looked puzzled. Ok, I conceded, it definitely is, but I was determined we were going to discover that there is far more to this deeply historical site than just a jumped-up teenage wizard. Sorry, Harry.

Glenfinnan Viaduct
The viaduct at Glenfinnan

Glenfinnan has always been for me one of the most dramatic glens in Scotland, even as far back as the days, as a kid, when I thought the Jacobites were a type of biscuit. As soon as I started to delve into the history it was a sea change. This dramatic glen, hemmed in by hulking Highland massifs all around and the shimmering waters of Loch Shiel, became a fulcrum of Scottish history integral to the national narrative whatever your background or politics.

The statue thought to be Bonnie Prince Charlie on top of the monument
The kilted warrior on top of Glenfinnan Monument

Visiting this time I was intent on teaching my two girls more about the story behind this dramatic landscape. I hadn’t bargained on learning some crucial history about our own family too. So many Trust sites are like that for me – you revisit them and discover something you hadn’t noticed before, something that before perhaps wasn’t as relevant to your life or your own experiences. Suddenly it zooms into sharp focus.

Speaking of focus, my daughters were disappearing out of focus when I unleashed them from the car. They made the opposite journey to Bonnie Prince Charlie when he clambered ashore on 19 August 1745 dressed as a reverend, just in case government troops instead of Jacobite clansmen had descended en masse to welcome him. The girls ran straight to the loch, right past the hulking statue that serves as a striking memorial to the clansmen who threw their lot in with the young Stuart prince come what may.

This monumental tower is topped by a kilt-clad warrior. Some have speculated that it is the Bonnie Prince himself, but I prefer to believe it’s more a symbol of the Jacobite Highland clansmen who were hurled into the maelstrom of the ’45 after the call to mobilise every able-bodied man aged from 6 to 60 in an effort to win back the British throne for his father. Many of these brave clansmen, who under the clan system had to fight for their chiefs, were destined never to make it back home from the rebellion.

Mummy and Tara
Mummy and Tara

My girls had already visited the site of the Battle of Culloden and learned how important that battle is in Scotland’s story. The idea that the march down to Derby started right on this spot spun their little heads. ‘Isn’t that an awful long way, daddy?’ asked seven-year-old Emma. Fair point. It is. It was a march, though, that nearly never happened as we found when we headed up to the visitor centre after, of course, climbing the monument to breathe in epic views of this most remarkable of glens.

Daddy and Tara
Daddy and Tara

I’ve a hazy memory of checking out the visitor centre a decade ago, but this time I was instantly struck when I realised how heavily my family clan, the Camerons, were involved at Glenfinnan, as indeed they were throughout the ’45 rebellion. Bonnie Prince Charlie was gutted to land at Glenfinnan to find his petitions to the Highland clans seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, as only 100 or so Macdonald men were there to greet his arrival.

As I toured the displays with my daughters I challenged them to find out what happened next and how our clan fitted in. They looked at the model map and the text panels around it. Then, after a quick battle council, they both exclaimed ‘It was the Camerons!’ It was indeed as a dejected Charles Edward Stuart was brought back to high spirits when the skirl of pipes to the north heralded the arrival of 600 Camerons. Many more clansmen from other regions then began to arrive and it was game on for his quest to retake the British throne for the Stuarts.

My girls loved the main model display in the centre of the room as it gave them an idea of what the scene would have looked like that day. Emma, my youngest, reckons she spotted the Camerons coming over the hills too. They also loved listening to the narrative at the audio station. This was an evocative experience for us all as it sets the scene of the Prince’s arrival in a way that really stirs up the imagination.

Emma checks out the model display
Emma checks out the model display

Our visit to Glenfinnan was not over yet and, no, I don’t mean we were about to head up to the ‘Potter Viaduct’, though I confess Emma was keen on a Potter wand from the gift shop. Fortified with some excellent homebaking from the visitor centre café, we hiked up the hillside bound for the viewpoint above.

The McKelvies at Glenfinnan
The McKelvies at Glenfinnan

From this vantage point the true drama of Glenfinnan unfolds before you. It really is a breathtaking scene of hill, loch and glen even before you swirl the history into the beguiling mix. There was time for one more jaw-dropping moment for the girls when I explained that some of the ancient Scots pines we were gazing over were there when Bonnie Prince Charlie sailed in on that epochal day back in 1745. Now when I mention Glenfinnan they don’t think about a certain wizard, but an uncertain Prince. Well, at least for now!