Tag Archives: Scotland

The secret portrait of Prince Charlie

IMG_3866 crop smallBen Nevis

In chapter eight of “In Search of Scotland” HV Morton takes his leave of Inverness to travel south-west, following the path of the Caledonian Canal, that majestic marriage of geology and human endeavour. He is en route to visit two towns whose names ring out like a clash of steel down the centuries from a most turbulent and bloody period of Scottish history – Fort Augustus and Fort William.

After spending a night of Jacobite revelry in Fort Augustus, his journey continues through what he describes as the “real” Highlands. “The heather” he writes, “was like spilt claret on the high, smooth slopes of the hills; the thick woods were stained with autumnal colour; there was a flash of lake water between the trees and the splash of mountain streams falling from the heights.

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The Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge

Finally, passing Spean Bridge (where now stands the Commando Memorial), Morton arrives at his destination, a settlement referred to, in their native tongue by the Highland Clans it was built to impress, simply as An Gearasdan – The Garrison.

Fort William crouches, with an air of pretending to be the end of the world at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest and most famous mountain in the British Isles…

Sadly, the original garrison has been completely obliterated by a now disused aluminium smelting plant.

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Glen Nevis

Morton makes the traditional pilgramage from the town, up Glen Nevis and finally up all 4,406 feet of the Ben itself, wearing town shoes which gradually disintegrate as his climb continues. Finally he returns to share the tale of his trek with fellow veterans of the hike, ensuring instant popularity by comparing Ben Nevis favourably to the Swiss Alps, the Libyan Hills of Egypt and the Aures Mountains in Africa.

The following day Morton sensibly decides to spend a quiet day in town – presumably after having bought some more shoes! His account of his visit to the West Highland Museum fascinated me so, when I was in Fort William with the family a few years ago, I made a point of visiting it.

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“The little West Highland Museum” as HVM describes it

Morton describes in some detail one of the highlights of the visit for me, the secret portrait of Prince Charlie. The “portrait”, from a period when allegiance to the Stuart cause was punishable by a quick death (if you were lucky), is painted on a wooden board which, according to the notes by the display cabinet, was further disguised by being used as a casual tray for drinks. Morton describes it as being “… daubed with paint in a half circle. It looks like the palette of a rather careless painter”.

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The painting is housed in a glass cabinet up some very creaky stairs on the first floor of the museum, and is unrecognisable as a picture, just as Morton reports, until it is viewed with a special cylindrical mirror made especially for the purpose and placed at the correct point on the board. It is not at all easy to get the correct angle and focus, but with patience finally the tiny picture can be seen by viewing the ‘blob’ as it is reflected in the mirror. With even more patience the Young Chevalier, in all his glory, can be photographed.

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Bonnie Charlie revealed!

One can just imagine the tray being brough forth during clandestine gatherings and, as HVM writes, “… you call to mind oak-panelled dining rooms and candles lit, a warm glow over family portraits, a guard over the door, and the company rising to lift their glasses to the cause that was fated to be lost”.

With warm wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This post was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.183 on 9 May 2015

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Thoughts of Glasgow

Bargain finds at Paddy's Market 1970 - (Photo copyright Jim Leggett - International Press Service)

Bargain finds at Paddy’s Market 1970 – (Photo copyright Jim Leggett – International Press Service)

“Glasgow on a November evening…

“The fog which has tickled the throat all evening relents a little and hangs thinly over the city, so that each lamp casts an inverted V of light downward on the pavement. The streets are full of light and life. Pavements are packed to the edge with men and women released from a day’s work, anxious to squeeze a little laughter from the dark as they move against a hazy blur of lit windows…

“There is nothing half-hearted about Glasgow… She is the greatest, closely-knit community in Great Britain… a mighty and inspiring human story. She is Scotland’s anchor to reality.”

From “In Search of Scotland“, chpt 11, section 2, 1929

Thinking of the people of Glasgow and those affected by the tragic events of Friday night.

Niall Taylor 1 December 2013

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December 1, 2013 · 11:18 am

HV Morton on the Kindle: Something which won’t be on my Christmas List!

This piece was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.128 on 3rd Ocstober 2011

It is 85 years since H.V. Morton made his journeys around England which became immortalised as “In Search of England”.  One of the most evocative passages for me is the point where he visits St Anthony in Roseland in Cornwall.  While staying with some hospitable locals Morton is invited to trudge up a muddy lane in order to experience the contemporary pinnacle of what we would refer to today as “information technology”: a valve radio.  He meditates on the marvels of this modern miracle and shares the amazement of the locals as he listens to the tinkle of coffee cups and the rhythmic thrumming of a dance band in the Savoy Hotel, hundreds of miles away in London.  Morton was clearly at ease with modern technology.

Kindle

So, it was probably not in the spirit of the great man when I felt a small shudder travel up my spine as I read on the Amazon web-site recently that this first of his series of travelogues is now available in a “Kindle” edition.  The Kindle is an electronic reader, a device claiming to be everything a book is and more.  The adverts show us pictures of actors laughing while whipping Kindles out of over-sized bags (“see how small and convenient it is”) and desperately trying to appear as if they are enjoying themselves while their Kindle is exposed to sand on the beach or being enthusiastically licked by the pet dog (“see how rugged and portable it is”).  With thousands of different volumes stored on a single device you need never worry about having to find a real book on a real shelf ever again – everything is downloadable on a whim.

Well, I’m afraid I am unable to share the enthusiasm of its promoters, hard as this will be for Amazon to bear, I’m sure.  It’s just that I love actual books too much; even the most battered volume in my collection means more to me than the blank, empty eye of an electronic reader ever could. The feel, look, sound and even smell of pages as they are turned beneath one’s fingers is a million miles away from the cold caress of a plastic screen while little computer sounds attempt to mimic the noise of real pages. My books are friends to me, good and convivial companions through life’s journey.  I know each one of them intimately, they represent a living connection with things past and present – people and places I have known and visited down the years (I just have to look at my copy of “In Scotland Again” to be taken back in my mind’s eye to a cottage on the Mull of Kintyre on the shores of Loch Caolisport).

To me reading a book isn’t just about reading words, it is a personal and sensual experience.  Each book, with its individual creases and imperfections, its fonts and layout has a patina, a character of its own that no electronic device could ever capture, no matter how ‘convenient’ it claims to be (although who ever complained that a book’s batteries have run down!).  Some may see me being a “stick in the mud” (as my mother would say) by not moving with the times and keeping up with the latest technology, but that’s not entirely true.  I love the computer age, I am fascinated with word processors, the internet, email and MP3 players.  But books are different, they are my technological line in the sand, “thus far and no further!” I say, and the electronic reader is, for me, a step too far!

Anyone wishing to know more about the Kindle edition of In Search of England should follow this link.

With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

p.s. Peter Devenish of the HV Morton Society comments: “Morton certainly was interested in new technology, even in his later years. In his letters he described how delighted he was when TV came to South Africa; and he was as excited as a 15-year-old with the first landing on the Moon. Whether the Kindle would have been the “technological line in the sand” for HVM I don’t know but, with his great love for his library and books generally, I suspect he would have shared Niall’s view.”

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HV Morton on Whisky

Originally distributed to the HV Morton Society as: HVM Society Snippets – No.151

IMG_5061 copy small“The whisky had uplifted them… It had given them wings.”
(from “In Scotland Again” chapter 6, section 9)

Product placement is nothing new. John Mills was sipping his “Ice Cold” Carlsberg in Alexandria a lifetime before James Bond inexplicably started flashing his omega ® watch and nokia ® phone – logos placed strategically for all to see – across the big screen and mysteriously eschewing his traditional vodka Martini (shaken, stirred or otherwise), in favour of the same well known (if somewhat out of character) Scandinavian lager, favoured by Sir John.

Surely, such mundane contrivances would have been beneath Morton. Never the less, it has occured to me, if he wasn’t being sponsored by Talisker then he was missing a trick!

Morton wrote his books in the days when a malt whisky was something very special, to be savoured and enjoyed, as one might a rare work of art. The drinking of a single malt was a mark of distinction; hoi polloi were condemned to make-do, as best they could, with mere blends.

These days, with any number of malts so easily accessible from the shelves of the nearest supermarket, something of the mystique is being lost. Thus it is a wonderful reminder of times gone by to read of Morton’s reverence for what is clearly his favourite whisky – with its hints of peat fires and sea salt and a strangely endearing, almost medicinal, tang.

It is Burns’ night, and many a lover of Scotland – adopted, native or otherwise; at home or abroad – looks forward to raising a glass to celebrate the brief but colourful life of their country’s great national poet, Robert Burns. I thought, on this occasion, a passage from Morton’s “In Search of Scotland” might be appreciated. It is from chapter 10, section 5, after the narrator has offered a lift to a wandering highlander, soaked during a mountain storm, on the road to Crianlarich. As the weather lifts, the sun comes out, a little gold cloud dances over the head of Ben Dorian, and Morton writes:

“I remembered that I had in my bag a bottle of Talisker whisky, that remarkable drink which is made in the Isle of Skye and can be obtained even in its birthplace only with difficulty. This seemed to me an occasion. When my companion saw the bottle of Talisker he ceased to leap about and, becoming solemn, he said:

“’Talisker? Ye don’t mean to open the bottle? It’s a shame to waste it; but, man it’s a grand whisky!’

“We settled down.

“He had a tin mug in his rucksack; I had one of those idiotic so-called drinking cups which you place firmly on a stone with the result that the whole thing telescopes and spills the liquor. We poured the amber-coloured Talisker into our mugs, and descending to an amber coloured burn in the heather we let a little ice cold water into the whisky.

“There is, so it is said, a time for everything, and the time for whisky is after physical fatigue in the open air among great mountains. This Talisker drunk below the great, windy clouds in the shadow of Ben Dorain was different from the whisky which a man drinks in his club as Lachryma Christi drunk in the shadow of Vesuvius differs from the same wine in Soho. This drink filled us with good nature and enthusiasm.

“My friend, perched picturesquely on a stone told me a lot about himself. He was something in a city. He always spent his holidays in his native highlands. He loved to wear the kilt for two to three weeks and to run wild in the heather. As the Talisker burned in him it lit fires of patriotism, and I listened with delight as he spoke of his love for the hills and the glens and the peat-hags and the great winds and the grey mists.”

Talisker

I like to think, just occasionally, the odd bottle of that “amber-coloured Talisker” might have found its way to Morton, sent from a grateful distillery owner across the water, in return for services rendered. Call it part of the angels’ share.

“Freedom, friendship and whisky gang thegither” (Robert Burns).

With grateful thanks to Jim Leggett, of the The Bahamas

With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
23 January 2013

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