A 19-year-old in net curtains played the Young Pretender
Marion Hume went over the sea to the Outer Hebrides in search of Bonnie Prince Charlie
Saturday 12 August 1995
On 23 July 1745, Charlie landed on the tiny Hebridean island of Eriskay and declared himself "come home". By August, he had reached the Scottish mainland and raised the Jacobite Standard, thus starting the last war to be fought on British soil. It ended in the slaughter of Culloden, which was followed by the not-so-bonnie prince hiding out as a fugitive with a pounds 30,000 bounty on his head. The last bit is the best known, when the frocked Charlie, disguised as Flora Macdonald's maid, sped "over the sea to Skye" and thence to safety on the Continent.
We would fly to Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides and then do things backwards, following first in the steps of the fugitive and hearing Jacobite laments at ceilidhs in the evenings, and ending our week on Eriskay where the bonnie prince first landed. The fine white beach is now known as the Prince's Strand.
There was little mention of our bonnie prince on day one, except the casual announcement from Ray, the tour operator, that we had missed the ferry to Berneray where the promised evening of Jacobite song was supposed to have been happening. Instead, we feasted on crab claws in garlic, delighted to find that Scottish island food no longer necessarily comes diced and in tins.
Tuesday and we jumped into the Jeep that, we were promised, would make "the inaccessible accessible". We drove out across miles of white sand to a deserted island where we tiptoed through a ruined mansion and spotted a buzzard's eggs in a wardrobe. It was thrilling, like a childhood holiday of discovery. But had Bonnie Prince Charlie been here? Well, no. Then we looked out 45 miles north across the sea to a rare, clear view of St Kilda, the now uninhabited island which ranks with Bhutan as a must-visit destination among the truly intrepid.
By Wednesday, His Royal Bonnieness was proving as elusive to us as he had been to the king's men 250 years ago. Our activity for the day took us to a ruined settlement, far off any tarred road, that was abandoned only a couple of years back when the last inhabitant, old Archie, dropped dead off his bar stool in the local pub, a couple of hours' hard walk away. No, the prince had never been here, Ray admitted. But we felt a kinship with Charlie all the same as we were lashed with Highland rain.
Thursday and Friday were fun, particularly as I danced the Dashing White Sergeant at two all-night ceilidhs. But of Charlie-related land, no sighting. At last, on Saturday, we stood on ground on which he had once walked. We took a local fishing boat to Glen Coradale, where the fugitive hid in a forester's hut. Up above is a small cave. "Midge-ridden," growled Alice, a fellow traveller on the Charlie trail, having been inveigled into spending about an hour up there posing as a latterday Flora Macdonald.
Sunday 23 July was the happier anniversary of a young man's dreams of kingship. We took a ferry (running only with special dispensation from Sabbatarian Stornoway) from the tip of South Uist across to Eriskay. The weather and the water were as they had been then, stormy and squally. Also aboard was a crowd hailing from as far away as Australia and proving there is still a broad interest in Scotland's Young Pretender. Here was Colin Glazebrook, a mining engineer from Melbourne. After Eriskay, he was heading to a hotel on the mainland boasting Flora Macdonald's bed; here was Ian Jamieson who, 30 years ago, had played a corpse in the film Culloden, accompanied by his adult son, Keith, named after a Jacobite hero.
In the crowd gathered on the beach was Alistair MacInnes, a 19-year- old trainee bricklayer, decked out in the local priest's net curtains. It had fallen on him to act the part of the Bonnie Prince, although plans for him to arrive on a tall ship had to be abandoned because of rough seas. Instead, he lingered at the back of the crowd as local ladies wrapped in tartan blankets sang Gaelic songs, wee lasses in Highland dress attempted a chilly Highland fling and the priest's brother played the pipes. There was supposed to have been a grand unveiling of a stone plaque, but owing to three deaths and the local stonemason getting behind schedule, we had a piece of paper stuck to cardboard instead.
There was talk of a special sailing from Lochboisdale in the Uists to Mallaig; a ceilidh of Jacobite song and dance aboard, and another week- long themed holiday in the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie. As the rest of Britain sizzled and wheezed, I breathed deeply of the fresh Highland air and was tempted to sign up.
Marion Hume travelled to the Uists with Celtic Quests, Torlum, Isle of Benbecula (01870 602334). The price of the trip was pounds 824 (inclusive of flights London-Glasgow, Glasgow-Benbecula, and hotels and B&Bs). For details of Bonnie Prince Charlie activities in the Uists contact: `45 Hebrides, Isle of Benbecula, Western Isles PA88 5PP (01870 603070).
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