A Travellerspoint blog

happiest place on earth

for book-lovers, that is

I found it during a stop-over in Inverness to change buses. I had enough time to just take a quick walk through the town, and there it was. My favourite place on earth.

It's a book shop. Not a chain store, but a real book shop. And a second-hand book shop, at that. It's in an old gaelic church. It has great big bookcases hewn from real wood and wooden floorboards that creak just a little. The counter was in the middle with a cast-iron wood-burning stove spewing a merry warmth while the clerk reclined with his feet up on a stack of cord wood and a cat slept nearby. It was, I think, my idea of heaven. I nearly turned around and walked straight back out, terrified that if I lingered at all, I would never, ever leave.

Thankfully - or not - I had a bus to catch, so I couldn't browse for too long. But the memory of that book shop stayed with me for nearly fifteen years, and when I arrived in Inverness on my trip this past December it was the first place I wanted to go.

It's still there. I was so thrilled when I found it. There was a ceilidh dance going on at a pub down the street and I would have dearly loved to join, but it being late afternoon on a Saturday in December, the ceilidh ended at the same time the store closed, so I gave up the dancing to spend a blissful 20 minutes browsing the wooden shelves.

They've made it even more cosy with the addition of a little cafe on the upper gallery, accessed by wooden stairs with a wrought iron railing. And I feel like they may have moved the counter. In addition to books, they also sell old maps and prints of artwork. I didn't get a photo myself, but I managed to find one online here. (It's from a delightful website that has its own description of the shop. I can't seem to find a website for the shop itself.)

Isn't the shop just beautiful? I stayed until closing.

Posted by kithica 16:13 Archived in Scotland Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

ScotlandsPeople Centre

a must for anyone researching their Scottish family history

I'm still not sure how I got sucked so deeply into tracking my family tree. All I can say is, it's addictive. Curiosity led me to poke around Ancestry.co.uk a little and it just took off from there.

Ancestry is a wonderful site, but does not hold the birth, marriage and death records for Scotland. Those are held at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. The records are accessible online, but instead of a monthly subscription that allows you to search as much as you want, on scotlandspeople you have to buy credits. 30 credits cost £6, and to view a search results list of up to 25 entries is 1 credit, and to view an actual record is 5 credits. Personally, I find this a frustrating system.

There is, however, the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh. They have a large number of computer terminals where, for £10 a day, you can sit and access as many records as you want. There are dedicated printers and there is also the option of saving your records to a memory stick. (Note, however, that there is a fairly minimal charge both for printing and for saving.)

So, when I knew I was going to travel to the UK, I made sure to allot time while I was in Edinburgh to spend the day there.

The Centre offers a free two-hour taster session within specific time windows (10am-12am and 2pm-4pm). I arrived in Edinburgh in the afternoon, dumped my gear at the B&B and practically ran up the very big hill to get to the Centre before it closed. I ended up with just over an hour of my taster session, but that was fine. It let me figure out how to search, how to print, how to save - all things that would help me get the most out of my full day of research.

On the way out, I reserved a seat for the next day. It wasn't really necessary in December, but if you're going during the high season - particularly during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - I highly recommend reserving a seat so you don't end up being disappointed if it's full.

The next day, I arrived at the centre when it opened at 9am and stayed until it closed at 4:30pm (opening hours: 9am-4:30pm Monday to Friday). There is a cafe there, but I didn't stop to eat, or even go to the bathroom, I was so deeply into what I was doing.

The best part about that unlimited access was the chance to just dig through record after record. For example, I know my grandfather had three brothers who died as infants, but I didn't know their names or dates of birth. At the Centre, I was able to do a search of every child born in a specific region within, say, a 25-year span and just keep clicking through the records until I found them. Dozens of records that would have cost hundreds of credits otherwise. And I used that method to find a number of different relatives.

Now, obviously, it's more cost-effective to just buy the hundreds of credits versus buying a flight and accommodation in Edinburgh just to go to the Centre. However. If you're going to be in the UK anyway, it's a wonderful resource for family history research.

Posted by kithica 20:14 Archived in Scotland Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

a few days in London


I recently answered a post in the Forum and ended up waxing on and on about my favourite bits of London, so I thought I'd go out of order for a bit and put up my London entry while all those thoughts were still whirling around my head.


I arrived in London in late October on an overnight flight from Toronto. A friend picked me up and we ditched my bags at his place and then headed out into the city. I knew I had to keep moving in order to stay awake, but didn't have any specific idea of what I wanted to do beyond 'touristing sounds fun.' I lived in London, on and off, for five years, so there are some areas, like Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, that I know inside and out. And the last time I had been back to visit I dragged a friend around the Tower, the Museum of London, the National Gallery and to see a show at The Globe Theatre. So this time we decided to start with Big Ben and the parliament buildings because I hadn't seen those in a long time.

We ended up spending two days wandering the South Bank. Mostly East of the parliament buildings. That first day, we took a cruise down the Thames. I've never done that and it's been on my list of things to try. It was mostly sunny and not that cold, and we had a fantastic vantage point at the railing of the boat. There was an unofficial tour guide - one of the crew - but I could only hear him part of the time. We passed the National Theatre, the Globe, the HMS Belfast, the Tower, Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf (which I had never seen), and ended up going all the way out to Greenwich.


We got off the boat and wandered through the grounds of Greenwich University and the Royal Military College. It was beautiful there, with the big white building standing out in the twilight, and strains of music drifting from one of the windows.


We kept wandering, stumbled across a map and realised we weren't far from the observatory that established Greenwich Mean Time. We hiked up to where it sat at the top of a hill and discovered a spectacular nighttime view of the East End.


The next day was a Friday, so I dragged my friend down to Borough Market. This is one of my favourite places in London. Or, it used to be. It was in the process of being renovated, and while many of the stalls were still open, nothing was where I remembered it. It's a whole market, tucked under the arches of a rail bridge and overpasses, so there's lots of old brick and wrought iron and it has a delightfully Victorian feel. They sell some of the most unusual treats, and lots of organic and home-made foods.


There used to be a stall where you could buy pheasant and other wild game all trussed up by its feet, but we couldn't find it this time. We ate lunch at the market, and bought snacks. Then we headed out along the river again, aiming for the HMS Belfast.

The HMS Belfast was a battle cruiser, commissioned in the '30s. She fought in WWII and was part of the bombardment at the D-Day landings. She was overhauled in 1950 and last saw active service in the Korean War. She is now permanently docked on the Thames and part of the Imperial War Museum.


We spent an hour poking through the various levels with one of those portable audio guides. I was most fascinated by the crew living areas. I spent ages peering into the kitchens and laundry and crew bunks, trying to get an idea of what it was like to live on one of these ships. We eventually retreated up to the deck levels because it was feeling very stuffy and oppressive inside, and I think I might have been a little seasick.

From the Belfast, we walked along the Thames, all the way back to the London Eye.

The ticket comes with a 4-minute 4-D Experience, where the fourth D, it turns out, involved being sprayed with mist and bubbles. And the ride on the Eye itself was beautiful. It was after dark by this point (by the end of October, it's getting dark pretty early) so we could see the city lights stretching on forever. There were only a few other people in our car, too, so I was able to move around easily, taking dozens and dozens of photos. Particularly of Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Thames.


So beautiful. And very peaceful, actually.

The next day, I headed up to Camden Market on my own. Camden Market is another of my favourite places in London, and another place that has been recently renovated. It used to be its own separate village, but was annexed into a growing London. Many of the old stone buildings are still there, and practically all of them have been converted into a giant market. It's amazing. Parts of it are still grungy and boho. This is the place where you can still find punks with foot-high bright green mohawks. And goths. Lots of goths. I love it there, grunge and all. And I'm actually quite upset about the areas that have been renovated and cleaned up and turned into cute upscale boutiques. It always happens, though. The bohos make it cool, then the yuppies move in.


That said, some of the renovated areas are absolutely stunning. And they've opened up whole new areas that I had never been into before. It was amazing seeing the bones of the old stalls, the old horse hospital, all still mostly intact. And some of the bronze artwork they've put in, some of the lampposts and stautary, is just lovely.


On Monday, instead of finding a pub somewhere, a friend and I decided to meet up at the British Museum and do our catching up while we wandered there. Such a good choice. We started with the rooms off the atrium devoted to the Enlightenment. They seemed to hold a little bit of everything from just about everywhere. It also contained the library of King George III, and the whole area felt like a select library of the British Empire. My favourite thing in the room was a replica of the Rosetta Stone that the public was invited to touch. I loved being able to run my fingers over the stone, to feel the engravings. I'm not sure why that connection was so important to me, but it really made an impact.

From the Enlightenment, we headed upstairs. My friend wanted to see the Mesopotamian things and I didn't much care what we saw, so long as I could just wander through the museum. It turned out Mesopotamia was at the opposite end of the second floor, so we wandered through Ancient Britain to get there. All those old Celtic torques were giving me flashbacks to endless university lectures (I have a degree in Archaeology and Celtic Studies that is completely pristine and unused), but I couldn't really remember any of the specifics of what I'd been taught.

I loved the Mesopotamian stuff when we got there. Everything, whether it had pictorial engravings or not, was also covered in cuneiform writing. It was beautiful. Having been spoiled earlier, I wanted to run my fingers over everything, as though that physical connection would help me understand what it meant.

We then headed down to the gallery where they keep the big stuff. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, whatever. There were huge sculptures of human-faced animals, and animal-faced humans, taken from palaces and temples in many different countries. Slabs of stone friezes. A reconstruction of giant copper-bound wooden gates. The head and arm of a giant statue, described as colossal, the rest of which is still in the sands where it was found.
"Round the ruins of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone, level sands stretch far away." One of the only poems I know by heart. I've always loved the desert.

Also in this room was the Rosetta Stone. The real Rosetta Stone. Encased in glass, this time. No touching.


It's beautiful, with the rows of writing so tight and so neat, and perfectly straight. It contains the same text in Ancient Greek, the everyday language of the Egyptians, and hieroglyphics. Within 25 years of its discovery, historians had cracked the hieroglyphic code. And now a copy of the damn thing is printed on every single item they sell in the gift shop, from paperweights to dish towels.

And that was the end of my few days in London; the next day I flew to Marrakech to spend three weeks travelling around Morocco. It was a very good start to my trip, though, and I was pleased with my decision to find new things to see, rather than only revisiting the familiar. The markets, being particular favourites, were the exception, but with the renovations, there were new things to explore there, too. Next time I'll have to branch out and try new markets, maybe Spitalfields or Notting Hill, and find new rooms in the British Museum to explore. And maybe add a graveyard or two... There's always more to do in London.

Posted by kithica 12:52 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

pilgrimmage to Culloden field



My grandad, Charlie, was born and raised on the Isle of Skye. We went to visit when I was three years old, and one of my earliest memories is of him playing the bagpipes for me and my grandmother kicking him out of the house to play on the porch because they were far too loud for indoors. His favourite song, which has become one of my favourite songs, was the Skye Boat Song, a Scottish folk tune about Bonnie Prince Charlie escaping after his defeat at the battle of Culloden.

Many's the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden's field.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Our family were staunch Jacobites, and family legend has it that we are descended from Captain John MacKinnon who led the MacKinnon clan in the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and who sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie during his escape to Skye.


This photo was taken at the Elgol coast on the Isle of Skye. You can see the remains of stone walls in a squarish outline in the foreground which are, I'm told, the ruins of the house in which my family lived. They took Bonnie Prince Charlie from here to hide him in a cave further down the coast.

The idea, if not the details, of the Battle of Culloden has loomed large in the impressions I have of my family. So, when I was in Scotland this past December, a trip to the site of the battle was high on my list of things to do.

It was a damp, blustery December day when I visited the battlefield at Culloden. I rented a car in Inverness and drove out to Culloden, a brief detour before heading out to the Isle of Skye. Getting there at all was something of a personal triumph, it being my very first experience with right-hand drive.

Admission to the Visitors' Centre cost £10, and included a guided tour of the battlefield. (The National Trust for Scotland has an excellent website [www.nts.org.uk/culloden/], with all the information you need to plan your visit.) I spent some time wandering through the centre, looking at the exhibits on the walls. One side of the gallery tracks the Government's troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, and the other side tracks the Jacobite troops under Bonnie Prince Charlie. Walking through the gallery, you can see both sides moving through the battles of the uprising, through to the final battle at Culloden.

It was the tour of the field itself with a guide telling the story that made the deepest impression, however.

It being December, there were only a handful of us on the tour, all huddling deep into our jackets against the driving wind. A row of blue flags showed the Jacobite line, a row of red the Government line. And, not far from them, stone cairns marking the mass graves of each Jacobite clan.


When it was all over, the local villagers came out and dug graves for the dead of both sides, doing their best to keep them together by clan.

Because Culloden was less a battle than it was a slaughter, in the end.

The Government troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland were well-fed and well-rested. They had spent the day before the battle celebrating the Duke's 25th birthday.

The Jacobite troops, however, were half-starved. Supply lines had broken down and they likely hadn't had much to eat in three or four days. They had spent the previous day standing ready to fight, and the night in a forced march; their commanders hoped to mount a surprise attack on the Government troops during their celebrations at their camp, eleven miles away. A dense fog scuppered those plans, and they were forced to turn back, hungry and tired.

When the battle began, the Jacobite troops charged the Government line through a hail of artillery and musket balls. They smashed into the line and the fierce hand-to-hand fighting began. Under the onslaught, the Government lines buckled, then broke. The Jacobites were through their lines.

The Duke of Cumberland had a plan for this eventuality, however. He had a second line in place, and he sent one part of it forward to meet the clansmen, and the other part around to flank them. The Jacobites were caught in a vicious cross-fire. 700 clansmen fell within a matter of minutes. The battle was lost, and the rest of the Jacobite troops broke and ran.

After the battle, the government troops rode through the field, under orders to kill any wounded Jacobites where they lay. They then rode down and killed any fleeing survivors they could find and anyone along the way they suspected of having Jacobite sympathies.

In the construction of the Visitors' Centre, they have turned one wall into a memorial for all those who died on the field that day.


The inscription on the plaque reads:

16 April 1746
Many more Jacobite than Government men died at the Battle of Culloden. The numbers of fallen on both sides are represented by the two groups of projecting stones in this wall.

The group for the Jacobite dead contains approximately 1500 stones. The group for the Government troups about 50.

My family, the MacKinnon clan, were not among those 1500, however. While they certainly rose with the Jacobite cause, they did not fight at Culloden; they were stationed north of Inverness on another mission. After the battle, they were among the 1200 troops that retreated to Ruthven under the command of Lord George Murray.

After this resounding defeat, Bonnie Prince Charlie accepted that the uprising was over and fled through the highlands with a £30,000 price on his head and the Government troops hot on his heels. It was five months before he could escape to France.

And while Bonnie Prince Charlie was able, finally, to escape, some of those who helped him were not so lucky. The lovely lady behind the counter at the Visitors' Centre was kind enough to look up Captain John MacKinnon in her book, Prisoners of the '45, and photocopy the information for me:

No. 2217
Name MacKinnon, John of Ellagol (Elgol)
Regiment M'Kinnon's
Prison Career 11.7.46 Elgol; H.M.S. 'Furnace,' Oct. 1746, Tilbury, Southwark
Ultimate Disposition Released 3.7.47
Home or Origin Skye
Notes and Authorities Nephew of John Mackinnon of Mackinnon, the Chief, with whom he served through the campaign. In company with his Chief, he helped the Prince to escape from Skye to the mainland in July 1746. He was caught on 11th July and put on board ship, where he was examined by General Campbell as to his reasons for not giving up the Prince and claiming the reward. When he replied that he would not have done it for the whole world the officers rose and drank his health. He was ordered to be transported, but must have been reprieved. He was in hospital in Edinburgh in 1761 paralysed in both legs, and he died 11th May 1762 in Bath.

I did, in the end, find my family connection at Culloden, although not the one I was expecting. I was vastly impressed with the kindness and helpfulness of the staff at the Visitors' Centre. And I also found that the fact of standing on the battlefield, with a very knowledgable guide telling me the story of the battle, made history come alive for me in a way that no amount of books or wall-mounted displays ever could.

Posted by kithica 01:56 Archived in Scotland Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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