Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween in Scotland and Ireland

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! In Scottish Gaelic, the autumn festival is called Samhuinn. In Ireland where the tradition began, it is called Samhain. 

To the ancient Celts, this pagan celebration was about the turning of the seasons. The Sam in the Scottish Samhuinn and Irish Samhain means summer. Summer was over and the harvest was done. It was now the time of the year when the nights grew long. To the Celts, the 1st of November, Samhain, was the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset of the day before its Eve.

For Celts, Samhain was a spiritual time. There was evil afoot on Sanhaim because that was one of the few times the veil between this world and the other-world lifted, allowing spirits to walk the earth. That included puka, banshees, fairies, and other spirits - some of them evil. That is where fire comes in - fire was used to ward off these spirits and was an important element in the celebration. Huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they had disliked during their own lifetime. All inside fires had to be extinguished in order to be relit at Sanhaim with kindling from the bonfire.

The origin of the pumpkin jack-o-lantern is found in Celtic Ireland and has always been wrapped up in Halloween. The Celts used turnips for the first jack-o-lanterns, carving menacing faces on them and then lighting them and placing them at their door to ward off evil spirits and the like. Here's the story of how it came to be called a "Jack" o lantern:

"According to legend, the origin of the Halloween lantern can be found in the tale of a young blacksmith called Jack O'Lantern who made a pact with the Devil during a gambling session. He managed to thwart the Devil and extracted a promise from him that he would never take his soul.
When he eventually died, Jack was refused entry to heaven on account of his drunken, lewd and miserly ways. The Devil, remembering his earlier promise, also refused to allow him into hell. So Jack was condemned to roam the dark hills and lanes of Ireland for eternity.
His only possessions were a turnip with a gouged out centre and a burning coal, thrown to him by the Devil. He put the coal inside the turnip to light his way through the dark countryside where he still wanders......"

The tradition of trick-or-treat comes from a Druid tradition of collecting nuts, eggs, and apples from the people on Sanhaim. The Druids were the religious leaders of the people and if they felt the people were being stingy with their offerings, they may have played a "mild trick" on them.

If you'd like to learn more about the origins of Halloween, University College Dublin, has published a free booklet for Halloween. It explains the origins of Halloween and explores old Irish tales, legends and customs.You can download it free at

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Scotland Blog IV

Part II The Birthplace of Harry Potter, Edinburgh, Scotland

You only have to walk the streets of old Edinburgh to see and feel where J. K. Rowling got inspiration for the Harry Potter series. From the back windows of The Elephant House, Rowling could see in the distance, Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriars Kirkyard while she wrote the stories that would be loved my children and adults around the world.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle
Just down the road from The Elephant House cafe is Greyfriars Kirkyard, a cemetery where you can find the grave of William McGonagall, a Scottish poet and weaver, believed to be Rowling's inspiration for the name of Professor McGonagall. There is also the grave of Elizabeth Moodie, perhaps where Rowling got the name for Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (even though Rowling has never confirmed this rumor). And what about the name - Tom Riddle, found on this tombstone?
Thomas Riddell headstone

Greyfriars Kirk
Rowling has said she often took walks through the cemetery that was close to The Elephant House and Spoon, the two places I talked about in Part I of this blog. Greyfriars is more famous for the statue of Bobby, the Skye terrier who is said to have held vigil by his owners grave until his death - 14 years later.
Rowling also found inspiration for Hogwarts school in Edinburgh. There's no doubt Edinburgh Castle was inspirational, but there is also a school nearby called George Heriot's School. Built in 1623, it is still a functioning and prestigious school that has four wings and four "houses" Castle, Lauriston, Raeburn, and Greyfriars like Hogwart's: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.
George Heriot School
In my mind's eye, I see J. K. Rowling standing at Edinburgh Castle looking down at the city of Edinburgh spread before her.

View of Edinburgh from Edinburgh Castle
It was also in the city itself that Rowling found more inspiration for Harry Potter. As I walked the part of the city called Old Edinburgh, I traversed the streets that make up the Royal Mile, the medieval part of the city that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Many places along the Royal Mile reminded me of scenes from a Harry Potter movie, but it wasn't until I hit Victoria Street that I knew I had found Diagon Alley! The street curves and you can walk up to the top and look down on the shops that line both sides of the street.
Victoria Street/Diagon Alley

In the midst of Victoria Street is Diagon House - a Harry Potter store that is presented as “purveyors of all things Potter”. It was night by the time I got to go in the store, which only added to the magic! Stepping through that door was like stepping into the movie and if ever I get back to Scotland, I hope it's still there!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Birthplace of Harry Potter

Scotland Blog III

The Birthplace of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series! PART I.

Edinburgh is the capital and largest city in Scotland, so there's endless historic places to visit. I loved everything I visited in Edinburgh, but my absolute favorite was two coffee/tea shops where the creator of Harry Potter actually sat and wrote the first two books! But first a little background.

British born Joanne Rowling is the perfect rags to riches story. She thought of the Harry Potter story while waiting on a stalled train, and in the seven years between that day and publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, she lost her mother, married, had a daughter, divorced and slipped into poverty. She moved to Edinburgh because her sister was there, and it was at the cafe owned by her brother-in-law that she wrote parts of Harry Potter.
The cafe was at that time called Spoon, but it is now called Black Medicine Coffee Co. This plaque is on the wall on the outside of the building.
I explored the inside of the cafe and was enchanted by the different rooms and furnishings. It was easy to imagine Rowling hard at work here, her baby daughter asleep in her pram, next to her.

Not far from this cafe is The Elephant House. Rowling also wrote Harry Potter here. She was still writing here when the first book was published, but with her growing fame, it was soon impossible to write without being interrupted.

Inside the Elephant House are pictures of Rowling actually writing in the cafe,
but the biggest surprise was the bathroom! The walls, and every available inch of space, are covered in messages thanking Rowling for writing Harry Potter! They are written in different colored magic markers and say things like, "Thank you for making my childhood wonderful."

 I can honestly say, I've never taken pictures of bathroom graffiti

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Loch Ness and the Glencoe Mountains

Do you believe? 

Part II of my Scotland blog.


In America we have among other unexplained legends, Big Foot, Moth Man, and Sasquatch. The Irish have Leprechauns and Faeries, and Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster. These creatures appear and disappear throughout time, with reports of sightings popping up in news reports. I recently got to travel to Scotland and took a boat ride down Loch Ness. It was a cold and windy day, but the sky was clear and a brilliant blue. The sun had little warmth, but it bathed the water with light, turning it from steely gray to raven black. (The color of the water is so dark because of the high peat content.) A perfect day for a sighting! Alas, Nessie did not make an appearance! (Except in the gift shop.)

A 'loch' in Scotland means lake and Loch Ness is the second largest loch, second to Loch Lomond, but it is the largest by volume with its deepest point of 126 fathoms or 755 ft. It runs for 23 miles, stretching from Fort William in the west of the Scottish Highlands, to Inverness in the north. It is 2 1/2 miles wide.Loch Ness is freshwater and filled with fish, but none are visible because the water is so dark. And by the way, don't think of swimming in Loch Ness. The water temperature stays around 40 degrees, year round.
Our tour group was cautioned NOT to joke with the Scots about Nessie because many DO believe the Loch Ness Monster is real and most have stories about "a friend of a friend of a friend" who once spotted the beast. Descriptions vary, but most are of a dark dinosaur-like creature with a long neck. Feeling brave, I asked our bus driver if he believed in Nessie. He sat silent for a moment before saying, "No, I don't believe there is a monster." Only to follow that with, "But there is something in there that eats all of the fish."

Along the coast of Loch Ness is Urquhart Castle, one of the largest in area in Scotland. The present ruins date from the 13th to the 16th centuries, but they are built on the site of an early medieval fortification. In the 14th century, the castle was in the midst of many wars for Scottish independence. It even had a draw-bridge!

After giving up our search for Nessie, we drove down the glen to the mountains. Like Loch Ness, this ares is near Inverness and in the Lochaber area of the Scottish Highlands, lying at the north-west end of the glen, part of County Argyll. (Ever buy any argyll socks?)

My words can't describe their raw-bone beauty.

Nor can I describe their  majestic height. They appeared to reach into the sky, disappearing into heaven.

I left these mountains thinking, "No wonder the Scots emigrated to our mountains in central Appalachia. If they could live in these mountains, our mountains must have felt like home."

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Visit to Scotland - Culloden Moor

I've had so much interest in my recent trip to Scotland and Ireland that I thought it was a good time to revive my blogging skills. I'll begin with Scotland and Culloden Moor.

Monument to The Battle of Culloden

It was a thrill to visit Culloden Moor for several reasons. First, it has historical significance to my ancestors and southwestern Virginia. I swear there are as many, if not more, redheads here than in Scotland and Ireland! I also am a big fan of the Outlander series. If you're not a fan, just know that Outlander is a series of books by Diana Gabladon, currently totaling 8, with number 9 coming soon. Outlander is also a TV series on Starz, but this is not a blog about Outlander! I mention it because preparations for the Battle of Culloden Moor begin at the end of season 2 (Dragonfly in Amber) with the battle taking place at the beginning of season 3 (Voyager). A battle they recreated on Culloden Moor that is near Inverness, Scotland.

Historical Significance of Culloden Moor
As is inscribed on the stone monument pictured above, the Battle of Culloden took place 16 April 1746. It was the last battle fought on British soil. It was also the last in a series of battles between the Jacobites and the British that ended the hope of putting James Stuart, a Catholic, on the throne in England, and thus overthrowing the Hanover kings. James Stuart was exiled in Italy, and his supporters were called Jacobites. The Jacobite rising began in 1745 led by James Stuart's son, Charles Edward Stuart, who first tried raising support in France before turning to the Catholic clans of Scotland.
Charles,whose looks had earned him the description bonnie, the Scottish word for pretty, was known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie" and the "The Young Pretender". Charles first went to France, but the ships he obtained were damaged by storms, so he was forced to abandon France and travel to Scotland. He had many clans who supported him, Catholic and Protestant, so he was able to raise an army of approximately 6,000. Charles was only 26 and lacked military skills, and the victory of early battles such as Prestonpans spurred him on, but the Duke of Cumberland, who was King George II's son, was in hot pursuit. He caught up with him on Culloden Moor, 16 April 1746.

Culloden Moor

In the distance are Scotland's flags, marking where the Jacobites stood for battle.

Prince Charles chose to fight on this flat, boggy land against the advice of his generals, one of which was Lord George Murray. The British had cannons, and the red flags in the pictures show where the British army amassed. The British had 8,000 soldiers. The Jacobites had about 5,000 which consisted of some Irish and French. The Jacobites did have muskets and some artillery, but due to the boggy ground, they had trouble transporting it. The Scots had 200 mounted men to Britian's 800. Many historians believe it was the benefit of Dragoons on horseback with swords and blades that was the biggest advantage in the fight.

The battle ground has large stones with the names of Scottish clans that mark the places where the clansmen are buried in mass graves. It is estimated that between 1,500 to 2,000 Jacobites were killed, and 154 were captured. Most of those captured were executed.

This stone has several clan names with one familiar to me in southwestern Virginia: McClanahan.

Clan Stewart of Appin

Clan MacGillivray

Clan MacKintosh

A second marker for Clan MacKintosh

Mixed Clans: There were many other clans represented that day and they too were buried in mass graves.

Mixed Clans - Another mass grave of mixed clans.

Clan Fraser of Lovat

 The stone marks where the British soldiers were buried. Approximately 240 to 400 British soldiers were killed.

What happened to the Bonnie Prince?

Charles ran away from the battle, and although many highlanders saw him and even helped him escape, he was not given over to the British even though a reward of 30,000 pounds was offered. Charles Edward Stuart hid among the moors of Scotland until, disguised as a woman, yes a woman - an Irish maid named Betty Burke, he was put into a boat and taken to the Isle of Sky where a ship awaited to take him to France. He lived in exile the rest of his life, becoming an alcoholic and dying at age 67 of a stroke.