While doing research, I read about a keep near Killin, (pronouced Kill-UN) Scotland where the original beheading pit and its stone still existed. That’s as grim as it’s going to get but will serve as a jumping off point.
When we’re lucky, writers get the opportunity to visit the faraway places where we set our stories. It’s been thirty years, so I can’t remember why I picked Killin on Loch Tay. Mom was up for a trip to visit family friends in Southampton, England. We would stay with them and take a night train north to Roman Camp Hotel in Callander, a 17th century shooting lodge close to Killin. We made a stop in Stirling to visit the library. (Back then, the best way to do research was locally.) While there, I rummaged up what I could on Killin, but got sidetracked by this story.
Three hundred years ago, local clans, the McNab’s and the Campbells, did not get along. To avenge a slight, the McNab’s plotted a raid on a secure holding of the Campbell’s located on a small island in the center of Loch Earn. The McNab crew got a boat, shouldered it, and trotted it miles over rough terrain to Loch Earn. The safest approach was a hillside over the loch. They hauled the boat up the hill and stealthily down the other side, silently crossed the lake, made mayhem and returned. They changed their minds at the top of the hill and decided to leave the boat. That they succeeded with their endeavor is not the “rest of the story” as old time radio announcer, Paul Harvey, used to say. But I’ll explain more later.
I think Mom was a bit overwhelmed by the Roman Camp Hotel, built near the remains of—you guessed it—a Roman campsite. The date of sixteen-something is imbedded in the door lintel, only a few inches over my head. People were shorter back then. The library then boasted a bar and a restful view of the salmon stream that drew visitors. I sat there the first night, watching as the piper marched and played the evening song along its bank. All very lovely, but there was a problem.
There were no rental cars available, not that I yearned to drive up to Killin. It wasn’t a matter of staying on the “wrong” side of the road, but that the so-called road wasn’t much more than a trail. I asked the proprietor for help. She said that a mail truck went there every day and wouldn’t mind taking me along. I didn’t like the idea of leaving Mom alone in a strange land. The next suggestion was a driver, what they call a courier. That way, when we were done in Killin, he could drive us to Glasgow for the night train back to Southampton.
Mom and I waited in the foyer early the next morning, where she almost expired when the courier arrived, a strapping monster of a man with ruddy cheeks in a porcelain complexion and a nimbus of red-gold hair on his head. (To clarify, Mom was not afraid, but in slack-jawed awe and my dad was no slouch in the looks or bearing department.)
Mr. Over-the-Top-Highlander brought along his son to learn the biz and makes the kid drive at pants-on-fire speed to Killin, which can barely be called a village. Mr. OTTH goes into a shop, asks about the ancient keep. We drive to the end of the road, where OTTH points at the dark green forest blanketed in bracken. I’m out of the car and plowing through the ferns.
The keep wasn’t hard to find. A tree had grown through one of its walls. There was some evidence that attempts had been made to shore up the structure. I entered, curious if the beheading pit would have been dug indoors, as a form of entertainment. Unfortunately, a back wall had collapsed. I climbed the dirt and debris, looked down through the opening, and there it was. Someone else might have thought it was just a hole in the ground, but it was perfectly square after centuries and I spied the edge of a mottled-grey stone. I had to jump in. Spooky.
By this time, everyone else had come around to the back of the keep. Mom told me to get out of there and OTTH designated the entire place grisly. I got what I wanted, the “feel” for a scene setting, and was ready to head to Glasgow.
Here is the part that amazed me most. On the way to Glasgow, I asked to be driven by Loch Earn, explained about the McNab raid, and that locals had found bits of the castoff boat. OTTH had never of it, other than knowing some discord between the Black Campbells and the McNab clan. He stopped the car under a hill and said this was the elevated side of the loch. I got out and stared.
Elevated? It was practically straight up. The raiders had carried the boat for miles, hoisted it up a nearly vertical hill, down the other side, rowed the lake, fought hand-to-hand, and rowed back. No wonder they left it behind. Do ya think they might’ve been a little bushed? Known for its do-or-die warriors, that hill was proof as to why the English threw the Scot regiments at the enemy in the first wave of every war.
The best part for me was that Scotland was exactly as I imagined it, with jolly, accommodating people. The landscape, so mystical and mysterious, can’t be captured in a photograph. It has the same feel of ancient history as England, where centuries of the blood and bones of its peoples lie buried. I love being an American but could live in Scotland’s countryside.
Next time, as the Python’s say: Something Completely Different