Scotland 1998

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We arrived at Glasgow airport on Sept 28 and were met by Stanley Duffus.  Stanley is my father's second cousin, and he took us to his home in Linlithgow (between Glasgow and Edinburgh).  Stanley is 72, a retired schoolmaster, a bachelor, and VERY British!  He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of Scottish history and geography, and is an expert on Scottish castles.  Since he retired from teaching, he has worked as a guide and historian at several National Trust castles and palaces.  He planned our itinerary and conducted us on a fascinating tour of Northeast Scotland.  He knew which sites were the most interesting and seemed to have a reference book, a guide book and a map for each one.


After a day to recover from jet lag, we set out in Stanley's car for Aberdeenshire.  Along the way, we stopped at Glamis to see  the castle, Pictish carved stones and the first of many, many parish churches and graveyards.  Then to Aberlemno:   more Pictish stones, a beautiful old church and another graveyard.  The next stop was the little church at Kineff, where we got a Scottish history lesson, and then to Dunnottar castle.  This stop was disappointing as it was just closing as we arrived, and we didn't have time to tour it.  Dunnottar is a spectacular, large ruined castle, perched high on a rocky point above the north sea.  It was a Jacobite stronghold and was destroyed by the English in 1716.


We arrived in the city of Aberdeen and stayed in a bed and breakfast in a beautiful, elegant townhouse.  We were invited for supper by Stanley's nephew, Colin and his wife, Lynne who made us very welcome.  Colin is a sales representative for a feed company and he was able to arrange a tour of a pig farm a few days later.  Lynne works in the administrative end of a Scottish plaid and kilt-making business.


From Aberdeen the next morning we drove west for about ten miles and came to the Kirkton of Skene.  The parish of Skene is situated around the Loch of Skene, and is the area where the the direct line of the family of Skene of Skene lived.  Our relatives don't come from this area. Curiously, there are no Skenes buried in the graveyard of the church.  A few miles away is Skene House, a large stone house which is privately owned (not by a Skene any longer).  We sneaked down the driveway and, since nobody seemed to be around, took a few pictures and got away without anybody noticing us.


From Skene, we went to Turriff, where we stayed at another bed and breakfast for the next five nights.  Turriff is not only the place where several generations of our Skene ancestors, lived but is also centrally located in Aberdeenshire, so it made a convenient base for our explorations of the county.  Stanley grew up in Cumineston, which is five miles from Turriff and we went there to meet his Uncle Edward and Aunt Mabel, both about 88.  They are bright, entertaining folk with terrific senses of humour and we enjoyed them very much.  Edward treats Stanley more or less as if he were still his 10 year-old nephew, and we had many laughs at Stanley’s expense.


Uncle Edward was a key figure in our itinerary as he knows an elderly farmer, John Duncan, very well.  John Duncan happens to own the farm next to Chapelden farm, where my great-grandfather was born and raised.  Edward asked Mr. Duncan to take us to Chapelden in his Land Rover.  Otherwise, it would have meant a long hike along a very muddy track.   No one lives at Chapelden now, but the original house is still standing.  Even though the house has been lately used as a cattle shed, you could still see where the fireplaces were, and a cupboard built into the wall of the kitchen.  It was possible to picture what life might have been like in the 1870's.   Pictures of Chapelden that I had seen previously, led me to believe that it was a poor, infertile farm, where great-great grandpa George Skene must have struggled for a bare living.  I assumed that he was a not very successful man, who lived in this barren place because it was the best land he could get.  However, Mr. Duncan spent quite a lot of time showing us around the property , pointing out that the farm was considerably larger than I had first thought.  In fact, he believed it would have required THREE horses to work, and therefore was, if not a rich farm, at least a place for a family to live in reasonable comfort.   Gr-Great Grandpa George left Chapelden, probably at the end of the 14 year lease, and moved to the much larger, and more prosperous farm of Sauchenbush, which we also visited briefly.  I came to realize that my ancestor was a more successful person than I originally believed.


We also visited Kinbate farm where Gr-Gr-Great Grandpa William Skene lived, and where George and his brother, Alexander were born.  At the turn-off to Kinbate, there was a sign pointing to the next farm called Brackens.  Stanley, who seems to know every family in the county, said quite casually:  "There used to be a family called COWIE lived at Brackens!"  Well, on April 7, 1827, William Skene married Lillias Cowie.  What could be more likely than that she should live on the neighbouring farm?


Stanley took us all over:  to Banff and Macduff, on the north coast, just across the Deveron river from each other.  We searched out the house at 32 Skene street where (supposedly) George Skene was staying when he died.  The story goes that he fell out of his dog cart on the way home from the pub and died a few days later of injuries sustained in the incident!  Along the north coast are the picturesque little seaside towns of Gardenstown and Pennan, where the road into the village is so steep that you seem to look right down the chimneypots of the little stone houses huddled at the base of the cliffs.


One day we visited Fyvie castle where Stanley once worked as a tour guide.  Fyvie is a beautiful castle with towers and turrets and spiral stone stairs.  It is completely intact, fully furnished and was only sold to the National Trust in 1984.  Before that the Forbes-Leith family still lived in it, in all its baronial splendour.  In fact, family members still live in a private apartment in one portion of the castle.  The vast rooms, with their carpets and tapestries, ornate fireplaces, huge portraits and all the furnishings are just awesome.


A memorable stop was at an ancient stone circle near Daviot.  We walked up through a wood, to a clearing on top of a hill where a circle of Pictish standing stones looks out over a valley.  We were the only ones there and by staying real, real quiet, we could nearly hear faint voices from the 3rd and 4th century.


We managed a quick visit to Aberdeen on a drizzly Sunday.  The most memorable part of that trip was the University with its "wedding cake" architecture,   and the mediaeval king’s College chapel.


Back at Stanley's place, we visited the ruins of Linlithgow Palace, which was the summer residence of the Scottish court. Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed there on his way north after unsuccessfully invading England in 1745.  In 1746, the English army occupied the building, after being defeated at the battle of Falkirk.  Unfortunately, the soldiers accidentally set it on fire and now it is just a ruin.  We had a terrific afternoon, exploring the dungeons, climbing up and down spiral stairs, and peeking into kitchens, ballrooms and watchtowers.  We also visited Hopeton House where Stanley works now.  Hopeton is not a castle but is a large mansion on a vast estate.


We used the excellent train service to spend some time in Edinburgh and visit the big castle there.  We watched a little presentation carried out in period clothing describing the tools and life-style of an 18th century British soldier and a very fascinating display of how the early Scotsman prepared and wore his plaid (predating the sewing-in of the pleats etc.)  A little commentary also described the habit of the earlier Scotsman to drop his plaids (kilt) and charge into battle wearing naught but his shirt and broadsword.  Pretty effective, no?    At Edinburgh castle we took the opportunity to view the "Honours of Scotland" (Crown Jewels).  They were quite impressive.  We managed a quick trip into Glasgow the next day, where we caught a city tour bus at George Square and took in some of the sights.


On one of the few really rainy days we had we changed plans due to the weather and toured another historical site called Callender House.  It was very interesting because it was staffed with people in period costume.  In the Victorian kitchen, with its huge coal fire, we enjoyed a taste of Hotch Potch and some Lemon Pudding.  Upstairs, more folks were dressed in period costumes and working away in appropriate settings.   It was quite interesting to talk to them.   There was a clock/watch repair shop, a general store where I got to taste some barley sugar and a fascinating demonstration in the printer's shop.


Finally we left Scotland and took the train for London, where we spent three days visiting Edna Blackwell (another second cousin, once-removed) and her husband, Ron.  We went downtown and toured the obligatory tourist sites:  Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard, Westminster Cathedral, Big Ben, The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral etc.  Unfortunately we did not get a chance to visit Aunt Dora.  Dora is 92 and is one of only two people left in her entire generation.  (The other one is 95, and lives in Zimbabwe).  Dora lives with her daughter, Ellie and apparently they were having a row about something.  At any rate, Ellie said they were too upset to have visitors.  It was a disappointment, as it is unlikely I will get another chance to meet her.


On October 14, we flew home from Heathrow.  It was a terrific trip, and perhaps the best holiday we have ever had.  I would have liked to do some genealogical research, but you pretty much have to be alone for that sort of thing.  Susan already figures she saw enough graveyards to last a lifetime.  I don't think she would have been keen on my spending a lot of time in dusty archives.  I did manage to fill in some gaps on my family tree charts, and I even uncovered a couple of skeletons, so it was totally worthwhile.


Stay tuned for our next trip--we are hoping we might be able to ring in the new millenium in Zimbabwe!!!


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