And so I come to the last volet of my Caledonian triptych. Perhaps I haven’t emphasised the weather enough in my previous ramblings, in good British tradition. According to the Salic laws of meteorology, hurricane Gertrude couldn’t inherit, so the blustery endowment passed to storm Henry, the family’s youngest. As we made our way from Ackergill, now covered with a silky layer of snow, back to Inverness, a new storm was brewing in the north. By the time we reached Culloden House, our last night stop, the clouds had gathered and were threatening their worst. Culloden, as anyone would guess, lies not far from the site of the famous battle of Culloden (1746), which saw the defeat of the last Jacobite rising, the submission of the Highlands by the English and the transformation of Scotland.
Culloden House is a Georgian mansion, now a family hotel, famous for having hosted Charles Edward Stuart, known a posteriori as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, the leader of the Jacobite party. The prince fled the battlefield, which lasted a little less than an hour. The townhouse is now known for Charlie’s check-in, not check-out, and is one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed at.
The next day was our last in Scotland and we had until eight in the evening to make the most of our stay in the area. After a Gargantuan breakfast, we made for Ullapool, a west coastal town of around 1,500 whose phonetic resonance matched that of the waves crashing on its shores. Driving the fifty or so miles from Inverness to Ulapool felt like an epitome of Lord of the Rings scenery, where forests gave way to barren lands and snowy mountains. Ullapool fell silent under the gales. We had lunch at The Seaforth, a pub with a grim and cold feel to it, despite the fire blazing in the hearth. We found out that the town had had a golden age, where herring shoals would make regular pilgrimages to its shore, bringing wealth and pride to many. That golden age was over, we were told, and we couldn’t agree more.
From Ullapool, we thought there was enough daylight to make it a bit further north, in search of rugged cliffs and Turner-like seascapes, but we soon had to face the hibernal reality of illiberal day hours. Turning the car around, we chanced upon a herd of wild deer making it for the hills. The view was enchanting, and I remembered the Nenets of Siberia and their reindeer.
We made it back to Inverness just after sunset. By that time, our spirits were touching the ground. Clunking and rattling like an old steam engine, the sleeper made its way into the night, carrying us back to London.
Driving from Inverness to Wick up in the northern Highlands, I was struck by something that I remember Walter Scott also picked up in his travels around Britain, and that is the contrast between English and Scottish houses. The latter are built in stone, which give them an air of solidity and majesty that the brick houses of England (especially southern England) do not possess as a rule. Everything we saw driving down the eastern coastal road was made of stone, and stone seems to be a cheap commodity, as there are many ruined stone houses, which I expect would be plundered for their stone in more southern parts.
We reached Ackergill Tower near Wick at about two in the afternoon. The tower, rising high by the sea, stands out from the surrounding lowland like a solitary cliff. It is five stories high and has a number of annexes and outbuildings. Now used as a hotel and a wedding venue, it was once the birthplace of a local legend. Back in the late Middle Ages, I was told, there were two rival clans, the Keiths and the Gunns. The Keiths owned the Tower, which they used to lock up a Gunns young lady named Helen, apparently as a human pledge in a fragile arrangement with her family. However comfortable the rooms are now, it seems rather clear that they were not so back then, as Helen threw herself into the sea. The postscript is predictable: she’s haunted the tower ever since.
Helen’s ghost does not seem to have frightened Oliver Cromwell, who stationed some of his troops there in the 1650s. I like to think she was of some help to Cromwell’s men, as he used them to besiege a neighbouring castle belonging to a member of the Keith clan.
There is another nugget of Ackergill local history that I’d like to mention here. In the early seventeenth century, the estate passed to the Dunbar family. In 1965, a certain lady Maureen Helen Dunbar, nicknamed Daisy, succeeded her more distant, yet male relatives to the Dunbar baronetcy and inherited the Tower as Dame Maureen Dunbar of Hempriggs. Daisy was the daughter of Janie King Moore, C.S. Lewis’ peculiar partner from 1930 to her death in 1951. Maureen lived with Lewis and her mother at the Kilns in Oxford until the late 1940s, when Mrs Moore was hospitalised. I recounted this whole history to the Tower receptionist. She knew that, and added that Lewis may have taken inspiration from Ackergill Tower for one of his stories. I looked for a reference of Ackergill in Lewis’ work, but couldn’t find anything. Again, I like to think that he not only dreamt about the romantic tower, but even spent some time there, perhaps in the summer, during Daisy’s regular yet short visits.
Despite its rude outward appearance, the tower offers splendid lodgings. And I could say, like King Duncan, that
Unto our gentle senses.
Though advertised as a five-star hotel, the property feels more like an old friend’s welcoming home. The fires were blazing, the drawing room, morning room and, yes, snooker room were open to everyone without any restrictions or etiquette. The books in the library, leather-bound and dating, for the most part I reckon, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were also fully available for consultation. A brass telescope looked through the window towards the coastal village of Ackergill, which looked more like a hamlet of scattered bungalow houses than a proper village. Outside our bedroom window, the waves were crashing down on a palisade of rocks. This proved to be a most efficient lullaby.
Look at that, yesterday I was waking up to ambulances piercingly rushing down the High Street in Stratford, London; now I am typing these words on a background of symphonic North Sea waves right off the northernmost point in Great Britain. As my thirty odd years come full circle this weekend, it has been decreed that the anniversary should find me away from the deafening London pack, in the realm of salmon and haggis, where the clouds come crashing down on an insouciant country, beyond light and time. These are the Scottish Highlands, at least after I have made their acquaintance this very morning. This post – and the follow-ups – are the celebration of a love affair with a country I barely knew until today. A world of cairns and firths, Bruces and Macbeths, neeps and tatties.
It all began last night, as me and my fiancée Dana boarded the Caledonian sleeper for a 14-hour ride to Inverness, with a scheduled arrival at half past ten in the morning. The departure was delayed owing to Gertrude, the Hamletian turbulent mother turned hurricane force twelve. I was not in a mood for giving in to tragedy, so we pushed forward, although friends and family issued amber and red warnings over what they thought was pure recklessness. Let the weather be precipitate, I said; our journey may be untimely, but it is not without a degree of calculation. And so we left London in a first-class berth, actually each with his own square meter of railway room (and a shower token for use in Inverness), headed towards the eye of the storm.
The journey itself was rather pleasant, with the occasional bumps, kicks and stops that remind you of the implacability of metal. We woke up as we arrived into Aberdeen. Now the regular service does not take the Aberdeen line, but Gertrude had the last word. From Aberdeen we seem to have crossed to Inverness following the path taken by the Duke of Cumberland just before the Battle of Culloden of 1746.
Once in Inverness, we rushed to pick up the car, so we didn’t get to see the city. This is a task for Monday. Having collected the car, we drove through rain, sleet and snow down the coastal road to Wick, hoping to reach Ackergill Tower, our lodgings for tonight, in two hours.
It looks like the Old Pulteney I had – the distillery lies within a few miles from the Tower – forces me to rashly conclude this first report. Tomorrow will hopefully see more words and fewer drams.
A pair of sails upsets the azure line
The clouds run down into the waves
Nothing is young about the deep white sea
Where thoughts of Moors, and Franks, and Normans bear on me.
A grain of sand speaks more than any book
About the breath of conquerors and dreams
Who came, then stayed, then left again,
And left their footprint in the shifting sand.
But who are we, if not the other grain
Which joins the pebbles on the empty beach
And think through tanning and sunbathing to
Relieve the pain of drinking of the Lethe.
Putem spune astăzi că libertatea își sărbatorește una din importantele sale zile de naștere. Și cât de subversivă trebuie să fie afirmația că libertatea își are obârșia în acele veacuri pe care noi, demni urmași ai Renașterii, le-am numit întunecate. Și totuși, semințele libertății individuale, din care decurg toate celelalte libertăți și drepturi, au fost depuse la începutul veacului al treisprezecelea. Magna Carta se bucura astăzi de 800 de ani de existență. O existența care totuși nu se mărginește la cărțile de istorie. Nu numai ca ea există în mod real în codul de legi al Marii Britanii, dar influența pe care a avut-o în zămislirea altor documente, idei si mișcari de eliberare, emancipare și constituționalizare a statelor moderne este de netăgăduit.
Documentul pe care îl numim Magna Carta nu s-a născut peste noapte, ci a reprezentat împlinirea unui proces prin care lumea anglo-angevină a începutului de secol XIII a reușit să sintetizeze idei insulare și continentale care i-au permis, pe de-o parte, să supuna monarhul unor principii generale, iar pe de altă parte, să afirme drepturile celor liberi și privilegiați.
În ziua de 15 iunie 1215, regele plantagenet și francofon al Angliei, Ioan zis Fără-de-Țară, acceptă să se supună în fața unor baroni în mare parte veniți din nordul Angliei, nemultumiți de eșecurile militare ale regelui, de politica sa fiscala abuzivă și, mai presus de toate, de îndrazneala sa de a sfida, în toate chipurile posibile, legea. Ioan, toată lumea își dădu seama, nu era nici la înălțimea tatălui său – Henric al II-lea, care supusese jumatate din Franța și reformase sistemul juridic al Angliei -, nici la cea a fratelui său – Richard Inimă-de-Leu, cruciat și trubadur, despre care se vorbea și la Damasc. Ioan reușise să piardă mai toate teritoriile din Franța actualș pe care tatăl și fratele său le adunaseră și păstraseră decenii la rând. Mai mult decât atât, ajunsese să și-l pună în cap pe cel mai puternic dintre papii medievali, Inocențiu al III-lea. Cu reputația la zero, Ioan se intâlni cu nobilii răzvrătiti în lunca de la Runnymede, lângă Windsor, și încuviință tot ceea ce i se ceru.
Pe masa revendicărilor politice alte timpului, Magna Carta introducea două principii fără precedent în istoria Europei medievale. Unul dintre acestea era ca fiecărui nobil (și fiecărui englez liber, mai târziu) să îi fie garantat “dreptul de a fi judecat de egalii săi sau după legea locului”, o formula care a facut carieră in istoria dreptului cutumiar anglo-saxon. Celălalt principiu era mai degraba politic și reteza orice încercare a regelui de a se ridica deasupra legii. În baza Cartei, se crea un conciliu de douăzeci și cinci de baroni a căror sarcină era aceea de a veghea ca regele să respecte clauzele documentului. Textul era pe atât de clar pe cât era de sfidător. Conciliul celor douăzeci și cinci avea puterea de a confisca pământurile și castelele regelui până când acesta se conforma clauzelor Cartei.
Când Ioan s-a întâlnit cu baronii, situația sa militară era precară. Aceștia ocupaseră Londra și amenințau să atragă de partea lor chiar și pe acele familii care rămăseseră credincioase regelui. Ioan îl avea de partea sa pe papa Inocențiu, căruia ii oferise cu un an în urmă regatul și un tribut scandalos în schimbul ridicării sentinței de excomunicare și a interdictului asupra intregii țări. Papa se dovedi a fi un aliat de nădejde, căci de îndată ce Ioan acceptă să respecte, de ochii lumii, clauze Cartei, papa îi oferi ocazia de a invalida întregul aranjament, spre satisfacția regelui și indignarea baronilor.
Magna Carta, așadar, s-a născut pentru a fi anulată două luni mai tarziu. Totuși, chiar și două luni de existență oficială au fost suficiente pentru ca documentul să devină un simbol de rezistență națională împotriva pericolului unei monarhii fără limite. După moartea regelui Ioan in 1216, documentul a cunoscut mai multe reeditări până ce a devenit, la șfârșitul veacului al treisprezecelea, una dintre pietrele de temelie ale statului constitutional englez. Clauzele Cartei au continuat să formeze și să modeleze ideile gânditorilor englezi, scoțieni, francezi și americani. Se poate spune că fără umila luncă de la Runnymede, nu ar fi fost posibilă nici ‘Boston Tea Party’, nici Bastilia, și nici Declarația Universală a Drepturilor Omului.
The Magna Carta season is upon us and everyone who’s known King John of England ‘personally’ (via narrative chronicles and government records, that is) find themselves revisiting the years 1214-17 and ‘reliving’ the ups and down of king and barons in one of the most pivotal moments of British history. This year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the drafting, sealing and granting of Magna Carta, that pomme de discorde of 13th-century cider-drinking monarch and aristocracy.
More and more people are likely to learn this year about the ‘Baronial War’, the ‘Road to Runnymede’, the ‘Security Clause’, disseisins, pipe rolls and reliefs, and many other exotic concepts that have traditionally acted as conversational stoppers every time a medievalist was asked by a non-medievalist, ‘What are you working on?’.
I was looking today at one of the most valuable narratives written in the reign of king John. It is a chronicle written by a Cistercian abbot named Ralph at the monastery of Coggeshall in Essex. Ralph’s chronicle is fascinating and would make a good read for anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Ralph is very well-informed when it comes to reporting on the events on either side of 1215. His prose is detailed and well-constructed. He gets my attention on different details and aspects of the conflict every time I go back to him, and this time was no different.
Ralph has something exciting to say about the war between king John and his rebelled barons, and it has to do with sabotage and deception. Very few have noticed the information war that was being carried out by both sides and which complemented the traditional I’ll-take-your-castle-you-take-mine warfare. Ralph has two examples of this.
As the English barons were promising the English crown to prince Louis, the French king’s son, John began a ruse de guerre which proved almost successful. Ralph wrote that John addressed letters to king Philip of France but faked the seals (aka messed up the handwriting and signatures) so that the letters would seem to be sent by the English barons to the French king. In them, he assured Philip that the had made peace with the barons and that an invasion was no longer sustainable. This ‘stropha fraudulosa’ (fraudulent artifice) almost paid dividends, since when Philip read the letters, he suspected treason and, one may guess, almost broke negotiations with the barons. The ploy failed when Saer de Quincy, the earl of Winchester, convinced Philip that ‘litterae illae mendosae erant’ (those letters were false). Persuaded as he was, Philip demanded hostages from the barons, and the way Ralph put it suggests that his confidence in the barons was shaken, just as John had intended. Other occasions presented themselves. With London in the hands of the barons, John played his trick on some of them too, hoping that it would prevent others from joining the rebellion.
That was not all. If it had been, then at least on the basis of Ralph’s story, John alone would have graduated from the college of medieval deception. But the barons returned the favour. Towards autumn 1216, John was travelling up and down the country like bad news, which in the middle ages always led to a deficit of information about where the king was and was doing. No doubt the barons exploited this crack in John’s reputation (as they had done on many previous occasions, cough seducer/slayer of barons’ wives, cough). They spread the ‘fallax fama’ (fallacious rumour) of his death and secret burial at Reading. John was not dead, but was going to die in less than a year. We learn from another source that when he died, the rumour of his death did not circulate immediately, not even to Dover, where the besieged garrison obtained a 6-month truce, clearly hoping that John would come and relieve them.
This may not be much to show that the civil war was revolutionary in any significant way, but it shows that both parties were ready to make use of methods that were not conventional in the High Middle Ages. Kings and nobles had used many kinds of tactical tricks, but to falsify documents in order to sabotage your enemy’s standing with their allies, and to fake your enemy’s death in order to undermine support, that was the way of the future. 13th century England was set on it.