Seeking the Past & the Future During the Scottish Lockdown

by Liam Flynn

For 3 years, I have spent lots of time and money in the Scottish Family courts. Because of this I am finally able to see my young son again. To give you a little background, my late wife had died in Scotland in January 2018 while on one of her ”business trips”. Supposedly, she was cooperating on a joint B&B venture in Port Appin, Argyll. During that time we had owned a traditional pub in Baltimore where we started our Gaelic Study Group. When she died she left our son, Lachlan with a man that claimed to be his father. This man took my son into hiding after her death. It took months to flush this him out. It took even longer to have all my son’s paperwork corrected. Unfortunately, my case for full custody is currently in the Court of Sessions, the supreme civil court in Scotland. The Court mandated a reintroduction of my son and I with the help of a child psychologist to help determine his return to my custody. This seems strange to an American parent but this is Scottish Law. I was happy to at least travel to see my Lachlan again. This journey, during a pandemic, would take me through the land of my ancestors and to the future of my family.

Getting to Scotland during the pandemic lockdown was no easy feat of logistics. Since my late wife died, I have  been remarried to an old friend, Rebecca. We have been working on this case together everyday since it started. We gained a lot of support from friends and relatives in America since we have none living in Scotland. The planned ”reintroduction” included leave-from-work, international flights, accommodations, car rental, quarantine, and virus tests, just to start with. We originally were set to fly over in December 2019 but delays pushed it to March 2020. Then the Pandemic ”lockdowned” everything. Our resources were quickly being sucked dry by legal fees. After a new round of attorneys and being granted Legal Aid, we finally found proper legal representation and a renewed hope. Even the Baltimore Gaelic School helped raise money to help make this trip possible.

The day finally apporoached for our departure. With negative COVID test results tucked under our wings we were ready to fly across the Auld Isles. Traveling on a good day during normal circumstances has its own problems. Flying during a pandemic to a Travel Restricted country has even more headaches. We were required to wear masks at all times. The handful of passangers were crammed together on a British Airways jumbo jet. Upon arrival, the customs officer were gatekeepers of the hell that is Heathrow Airport. After 5 hours we were packed on to a flight to Edinburgh as winter ice accumulated on our wings.

We were able to make it to Edinburgh, but not all the way to the airport terminal. The plane stopped in the heavy snow just feet before the passanger bridge. The clock was ticking away as we only had minutes before the car rental place closed. The airport was fianally able to bring out the boarding stairs. Fortunately, we caught the last shuttle and secured the car rental. Next thing we know, we’re driving a right-side driver car, on the left-side of the road, on an unfamiliar route, in a different country, during a blinding snow storm, A blizzard. Chuir e sneachda, an cathadh-sneachda. 

The only other vehicles braving the Northbound A90 were the Gritters. As the name implies, a ”Gritter” is a large plough truck that spreads grit and sand on the roads. Not only were they our lifeline, they also have adorable names and a tracking website for Traffic Scotland. On the Trunk Road Gritter Tracker website they have such great names as William Wall-Ice, Mary Queen of Salt, Tam O’ Salter, Sprinklebell, and Sir Andy Flurry. Be warned though. They only cover the major roads which is not a lot of Aberdeenshire or even much Scotland for that matter.

We finally made it over to the A98 and pulled into our accommodations at the Byth House Farm and Cottage south of Banff. Exhausted we barely made it into the warm cottage with our supplies from the Perth Tesco. After a relaxing beverage to complete our excursion, we fell fast asleep. So started our manditory 10 day Self-Isolation. The next few days we were snowed in but we ventured out for walks on the farm in the snow. We tried to leave by car a few times but the snow tunnels created by the ploughs were barricaded by massive snow drifts. We soon had a full day of rain that made the roads accessible. 

About half way through our quarantine, the weather finally broke and we made it out to Fraserburgh for much needed food and supplies. The view of the North Sea was beautiful as we walk the dunes of the beach.  The great thing about the Lockdown is there was no one around to obscure the view or hurry you along. Mind you we took all the precausions. It would have been terrible to fall ill after so much effort & preperation and not able to see Lachlan.

Soon everyday we hiked through Pictish country of Aberdeenshir[e]. We found the Picardy Stone carved with the mysterious symbols typical of Pictish stones from around 600 CE. It’s one of only a few Pictish carved stones standing in it’s original spot. It’s a rare instance of a stone potentially associated with a burial. The nearby Dunideer Castle rests a top an ancient Pictish hill-fort over looking the farm glen.

Another hike for us was to the 13th century Findlater Castle, a stunning view on the coast of Banff  between Cullen – of Cullen Skink fame – and Portsoy.  The castle occupied a naturally strong position upon a tall rock, towering some 15 metres above the Moray Firth which was only connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. The name derives from the Gaelic term fionn leitir– “white cliff” – a reference to the quartz found in the rock. 

Further west down the A98 we hiked the ‘Winding Walks’, a maze of trails through the 19th century gardens of the Duke and Duchess of Gordon through the Whiteash Wood, Fochabers. Along the trails are points of interest. Such as Ranald’s Grave, a cairn (stone grave mound) marking the spot where a Traveller clan chieftain was executed and buried at the foot of an oak gallow tree. He was hung ”rightly or wrongly” accused of thieving on the road to Inverness. Further up is a 19th Century cairn pyramid dedicated to the Duchess of Gordon. Hidden amongst the trees is the small Longhowe Lochan which is home to local curling players during the winter. We were impressed by how well marked and maintained these National Forestry & Land Trails are. It is one of many that you can find all over Scotland. Other than supermarkets, it was one of the few places we found accessible to families during the Lockdown.

Just up the road we tried to visit the Moral (Gaelic) Language Centre in Buckie/Bucaidh. The town is known for it’s fish vessels and shipyard for the RNLI Lifeboats. Unfortunately the GPS could not lead us to the correct address for the Language Centre. Since time and Lockdown closures were a factor, we had to move on to the 17th Century Harbour, Portsoy. 

Further inland by Turriff, we found another National Forest Walk at Delgaty Woods. This mossy-floored woodland trail was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. A castle has stood on the site of Delgatie Castle since the year 1030 CE. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a guest at the castle in 1562 after the Battle of Corrichie. I have to add in that Delgatie is a Troutmaster Competition Water for fly fishing, just FYI.

On the east coast of Aberdeenshire is the industrial town of Peterhead Ceann Phàdraig, largest fishing port in the United Kingdom. Peterhead sits at the easternmost point in mainland Scotland. It is often referred to as The Bloo Toun. They are also referred to as blue mogginers or “bloomogganners”, supposedly from the blue worsted (high quality wool yarn) moggins or stockings that the fishermen originally wore.  

Just south of Peterhead we hiked to the Bullers of Buchen, a collapsed sea cave forming a bowl in the cliff over the Moray Firth. The cliffs at the Bullers provide a nesting site in spring for colonies of seabirds, including kittiwakes, puffins, fulmars, shags, razorbills and guillemots along with herring gulls and great black-backed gulls.  

On the last days of our quarantine the Scottish Government imposed a restriction that everyone entering the country after February 15 would now have to Self-Isoclate in a special hotel and would not be able to leave there room. Thanks to our Court of Sessions mandate, we were still a exempt for legal reasons. Had we come at a later date, we would have been in complete misery cooped up like that. As you can tell by this story we made the most of what was available to us.

Finally the 10 Day arrived. We drove out the A98 to Culloden Cùl Lodain, “back of the small pond” to visit the site of the historic16 April 1746 Battle Blàr Chùil Lodair, that ended the Jacobite Rebellion.

Continuing on through Inverness, we did little more than overlook the Kessock Bridge leading to the Black Isle t-Eilean Dubh. As we wound our way down Loch Ness Loch Nis, we tried in vain to visit the Urquhart Castle Caisteal na Sròine along along the banks of the Village of Drumnadrochit Druim na Drochaid. The Lockdown allowed us only a brief stay in the carpark. Seeing cost of a Museum ticket for a visit during regular times, it was best we moved on.  Even though Scotland is Europe’s 2nd largest Oil producer, tourism is still the a major part of the rural economy.

A must for anyone driving on the A82 must stop at the Commando War Memorial in Lochaber. It is dedicated to the men of the original British Commando Forces raised during World War II. Situated around a mile from Spean Bridge on a  stone plinth looking south towards Ben Nevis and Aonach Mòr. It isa an awe inspiring vista overlooking the training areas of the Commando Training Depot established in 1942 at Achnacarry Castle.

As the sunset, we continued driving to our destination Oban An t-Òban ”The Little Bay” to finally meet with Lachlan after 1160 days of being seperated. We had found the perfect AirB&B cottage to meet my son and to restart our family history together. The cottage is in an area about a 15 minutes drive west of Oban called Glen Lonan. Little did we know that this was an area steeped in the history of Dàl Riada and the history of our Irish ancestors. 

Glen Lonan I found it intersting that Lonan, is a Manx name is the name of several Irish saints. St Lonan, nephew of St Patrick, The name derives from the Gaelic lon “blackbird”. This fact is just part of the history the history of the Kingdom of Dàl Riada that stretched the gaelic Language and Culture from Ireland to the Herbrides of Scotland. The next week however would be commited to my son Lachlan and we wanted to make the most of it. but more on that next issue…

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