Great Britain Trip: Part 6 – Investigating Inverness
Two weeks ago I embarked on my first trip to Europe, specifically to Great Britain. This journey had two aspects. First, it is the closest I’ve had to a vacation in at least four years. But honestly, I don’t really do vacation. The primary reason for the trip was to assist several projects I’m working on, including a volume I’m currently writing on why archaeology has the “spooky” image it has in the public imagination.
The following images are not in precise chronological order, though the general narrative does roughly follow the order of places I visited. I spent four days in London at the beginning and another two at the end, and these materials are something of a chronological jumble for thematic purposes. These images are a fraction (specifically, about 7%) of the images I took. Many of these were for research I am not discussing in depth here, or for teaching purposes. The images and text here are instead a rough tour not so much of where I went as why I went, what I learned, and why that might be of interest.
This travelogue is broken into seven sections
Archaeology of Empire
Mysteries of London
Time in Bath
A Green and Magical Land
The Legend of Loch Ness
So far my travels had been based in a single location for several days. Four days in London based out of King’s Cross. Three traveling around from a home base in the Royal Hotel in Bath. But to get in my final goal of visiting Loch Ness and then subsequently preparing for my return flight to the United States, I needed to be a bit more mobile. From here on out, I’d be traveling somewhere different each day. The final day and a half were in London again, one more night in the Bloomsbury area followed by visits to the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, before going to a hotel near Heathrow for an early morning flight. You’ve seen some of the images from these places, melded with earlier imagery, in my first three posts.
To get to Scotland, I took the bus from Bath to the Bristol airport and flew up to Inverness, which lies between the sea and the Great Glen, the system of lakes and canals of which Loch Ness is the largest.
The heart of the city lies along the River Ness, and already we are into Loch Ness Monster lore. The Irish Saint Columba is said to have invoked the Lord to protect a man being attacked by a fierce beast in the River Ness. After the Loch Ness Monster becomes a sensation in the 1930s, this story becomes relocated into Loch Ness (Nessie promoter Roland Watson has posted images of the text). I’d prefer to think it happened near the spot of today’s Columba Hotel.
The scenery is lovely, and a walking trail encourages visitors to travel along the river and to cross onto the Isle in the River Ness, something I ultimately did not have time to try. It would be a bit farther to the left of this image.
Some of you have commented on the weather in my images. It has been unusually cold in Great Britain this year. I wore my jacket every day with one exception, the last full day I was there the temperatures reached into the lower 70s. If you look at the mountains in the background of the photo below, you’ll notice their peaks are still snow-capped.
But I had a number of sunny parts of days as my Glastonbury images show. And while the drizzle was a little annoying when visiting the towns of Lacock and Castle Combe, it was perfectly atmospheric when visiting Loch Ness.
I post this image of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders monument, located outside the Royal Highland Hotel, less for its quite Scottish imagery, than for the small object next to the soldier, a symbol of service in Egypt.
The Royal Highland Hotel is another one of the grand old railroad hotels. The main lobby was extremely busy when I visited, and was decked out with the classic lodge-style accoutrements of historical documents and artifacts, taxidermy, wood-paneling, and so on.
The main stairway dominates the space.
I wandered around Inverness a bit, taking in its celebrated Victorian covered market, strolling along the river, and being desperately tempted by a store full of incredibly beautiful and very expensive Harris Tweed (it may be a bit of a professorial cliché, but I could have dropped half the trip’s cost right then and there). But the business pictured above, sadly closed, seemed worth pointing out. The writing does not say kakaw but is the title “Holy Lady of Kaan”, one of the most powerful states of the Classic Maya Lowlands, so I imagine it was chosen more for aesthetic reasons.
I spent part of an afternoon in the Inverness museum, which had a surprisingly strong exhibit section on archaeology. In fact, there was quite a lot of archaeology being promoted in Scotland, with flyers advertising public archaeology of all sorts throughout the summer. Unlike the exhibits in London, these are extremely local, focused entirely on Scottish or even more local finds. They were also presented as part of a linear national history, and the oft-mentioned connection between nationalist movements and archaeology suddenly clicked into my mind in light of recent political developments.
Notably the signage in the museum was bilingual. I saw books and courses elsewhere in Inverness urging people to learn Scottish.
All sorts of archaeological exhibits were presented, but a set of Pictish inscribed stone slabs was the heart of the archaeological section. Some depict more naturalistic scenes such as the wolf above. Others are more abstract and complex compositions that have led some commentators to compare them to writing, though not all agree with this assessment. Ogham writing was also used at times in pre-medieval Scotland.
Many of the artifacts on display were iconically Scottish and associated in more than a few cases with nationalism and military struggle.
A display on early pipes, including their design, was a must
However, most relevant for my work was an unexpected section on myths and legends
The woodcut at the top depicts a case I talk about in class, the witch-fixation of James I. The Scottish King who would come to sit on the English throne, was obsessed with witches, and personally took part in witch-hunting. In addition to any other religious or scholarly interests (this is the same King James of Bible fame), witches were feared to have conspired against the king, including trying to disrupt the arrival of his wife from Scandinavia (as depicted in the woodcut). A recent National Trust conservation of a house that James I stayed in turned up possible apotropaic marks on timbers in the floorboards, possibly to protect the king from witchcraft and conspiracy in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot. This Scottish king and his concern with witches was much of the inspiration for Macbeth.
The folklore exhibit somewhat sidewise addresses the Loch Ness Monster by briefly mentioning both the supernatural kelpie entity later conflated (poorly) with the monster, and the Columba legend I previously mentioned.
As in the British Museum, an ancient artifact later believed to be a supernatural “elf hede” arrow was on display.
Other magical objects included a spindle whorl worn against the Evil Eye.
While the only mention of the Loch Ness Monster in the museum proper was the Kelpie and the Columba story, not far away the Inverness tourism information center had a huge paper mache Nessie and many Nessie icons.
Likewise the gift stores in town were full of stuffed Nessies, as well as bits of tartan-inspired objects and Braveheart-esque William Wallace statues. Even in Inverness, the icon of the Loch Ness Monster was very much on offer. I wasn’t certain what to expect the following day in Drumnadrochit, the heart of the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon.
I spent the evening drinking with tourists and locals alike in Hootnanny, considered the best Scottish Music place in town, and certainly the busiest place I saw in downtown Inverness that evening. It was easy to see, that far north in June, the sun didn’t go down until nearly 11, and light began to creep into my hotel room around 4 in the morning. So it was easy enough to get up early, put on my monster hunting trousers, and move on to Loch Ness.