Invergordon, Braveheart, Urquhart Castle and my Birthday

Today, we’re in Invergordon, Scotland and we began the day by being greeted by oil rigs.  They “put” them here in this frith (fjord) for repair and refurbishing when they aren’t needed in the North Sea.  So they, the oil rigs, move around this frith all the time.  Quite interesting. You know, if you tended to drink a bit too much and you woke up to find that the oil rig had “moved,” well, let’s just say the results could be quite funny!

oil rigs

It’s raining, again, or more accurately, still, but hopefully, I broke the rain chain because I just gave up and bought a rain hat today.  Actually, it’s pretty cool and very Scottish with the Campbell tartan inside for a lining, so I’m really good with it – but I was also desperate so it could have been Mickey Mouse and I would have been OK.  So, I bought myself a birthday present!

Do not underestimate the importance of a rain hat here!  The umbrella is OK and sometimes necessary when it’s pouring, but it has its own set of challenges, especially with a bunch of other people with umbrellas in a small space.

I wasn’t going to share this photo, because, it’s, well, ummm, not terribly flattering, but then I had a change of heart. I think retaining the ability to laugh at one’s self is quite important – and truly – I love this hat!


Besides that, somewhat outrageous hats are a distinctly British thing.  When in Rome…

Kate’s got nothing on me now:)

kate hat

Our first stop was Cawdor Castle, another Campbell Castle, where I found the rain hat in the gift shop.


The Campbells were extremely influential in the Highlands for hundreds of years.  Some say they were the most influential family, others say it was their archrivals, the McDonalds.  In any case, we’re about at the waist of Scotland, looking at a map, not terribly far as the crow flies from Inverary, the Campbell seat, but it’s across the mountain Highlands.  Not a problem for a Campbell, but a big problem for a bus, which is why we sailed around the upper part of Scotland of course.  These trees outside of Cawdor Castle were old and beautiful.  I loved them.  Just think of the history they have witnessed.  It’s certainly possible that some of my ancestors may have stood here while visiting this castle, among these trees, when they were much smaller.  If they could only speak.


Cawdor Castle was a self-guided tour and it was interesting in that it was a Campbell castle, but it was one of the newer lines and not mine.  It was raining so the gardens weren’t really easily viewable, but I did venture into the side garden and found a very interesting ‘gazing ball’ for lack of anything else to call it. It’s not small – at least a foot taller than I am.


This is very cool and I’m sure, very expensive as well.


The story of the Cawdor thorn tree is also quite interesting.  It’s said that the man who build Cawdor Castle in the 1300s, who was not a Campbell (the Campbell line acquired this castle by marriage sometime later), tied a package of some sort to an ox and let it wander around.  Wherever is lay down is where he was going to build his castle and the ox lay down under a thorn tree.  The castle was built around the tree and it was venerated for decades until it died. Now it’s enclosed and you can walk around it inside.  However, the myth grew with time and became that this was the tree that St. Columba planted.  That’s believed not to be true.  In any case, the “tree” is still there. This photo is from the official Cawdor Castle Tour site as it’s quite dark in that part of the castle and my photos didn’t come out well.

cawdor thorn tree

After leaving Cawdor Castle, we traveled across the Highlands and Moors. I can’t say they were stunningly beautiful, but they were rich with vegetation and somewhat “purple,” a very distinctive color.

scottish moors

We arrived at Loch Ness, famous of course for Nessie, and visited Urquhart Castle, a very old castle, now in ruins, on the shores of Loch Ness.  And no, we didn’t see Nessie, but of course, we looked!

Loch ness

Urquhart castle’s beautiful ruins stand guard over Loch Ness.


You can easily see parts of the rest of the distant highlands from Urquhart castle across Loch Ness.

urquhart loch ness

The name Urquhart derives from the 7th-century form Airdchartdan, itself a mix of Gaelic air (by) and Old Welsh cardden (thicket or wood). Speculation that Urquhart may have been the fortress of Bridei son of Maelchon, king of the northern Picts, led Professor Leslie Alcock to undertake excavations in 1983. Adomnán’s Life of Columba records that St. Columba visited Bridei some time between 562 and 586, though little geographical detail is given. Adomnán also relates that during the visit, Columba converted a Pictish nobleman named Emchath, who was on his deathbed, his son Virolec, and their household, at a place called Airdchartdan. The excavations, supported by radiocarbon dating, indicate that the rocky knoll at the south-west corner of the castle had been the site of an extensive fort between the 5th and 11th centuries

It wasn’t until another several hundred years had passed until we hear of Urquhart again, now a castle or fort defending Loch Ness.  It’s believed that the current castle was built about 1200. It’s first documented in 1296 when it was captured.

urquhart map

Urquhart Castle stands just about dead center in the upper portion of Scotland, which would have been the center of the Picts kingdom based on this map from Wiki.

pict kingdom map

For the next 500+ years, Urquhart was a very important castle, and saw action many times, in particular, with the McDonald clan who attacked from the west of Scotland as well as a defense against the Vikings.  Finally, in 1690, the castle could not be held and was abandoned, but not wanting it to fall into enemy hands, they loaded the gatehouse with kegs of gunpowder, lit it, and left Urquhart castle to her fiery fate.

Today, the majestic and picturesque ruins stand guard at Loch Ness, silent sentry, never replaced or rebuilt.

urquhart ruins

Here are Jim and I at the top of the existing turret.

urquhart jim and me

While I felt only a minor connection to Cawdor Castle, I felt very close to Inverary and also to the ruins of Urquhart Castle.  I know that my ancestors were here, fought here, maybe died here, either attacking or defending it, or maybe just visiting at other times.  Of course, this stands to reason, logically, as I had many Scottish ancestors, so that they were here would come as no surprise.  It felt good to stand where they stood and look at what they saw.  It connects me to them, whoever they were.  They may be nameless, but they are not forgotten.

Our ancestors are our own personal version of Braveheart. Randall Wallace, the writer of the screenplay, has acknowledged Blind Harry‘s 15th century epic poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie as a primary inspiration for the film. So, whether it’s entirely historically accurate or not, it is based on the history of this timeframe. Here’s the trailer. One thing is for sure, this region was constantly embroiled in a fight of some sort – between tribes – between rulers – between countries. And every able-bodied man fought. So warfare is the legacy of every family from Scotland.

Who were my Scottish ancestral families and what do we know about their roots, genetically? All of these families who have tested are members of haplogroup R.

  • The Campbells descend from ancient Scots, perhaps Picts, and carry the SNP, L1335, which may be Pictist.
  • The McDowell’s are subgroup L21 which provides general but not specific information about lineage and location.
  • My Andrew McKee/Mackie line out of Gloucester and Washington County, Virginia has Not been tested, but I will provide a scholarship to any direct male (who carries the surname, and therefore the Y chromosome) from this line.
  • My Hugh McMahon line found in York Co., PA by 1745 also has not been tested. He is alleged to have been christened on March 2, 1699 in Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland, but I don’t know that this is the same Hugh McMahon. In any case, I will provide a scholarship to any direct male descendant of Hugh McMahon. In the McMahon project, there is a County Monaghan cluster which is DF21, a subset of L21. If this is the correct McMahon line, then they are of the Three Collas lineage. The McMahon DNA project administrators have written a wonderful article about how the McMahon line ties into the Colla lineage and what it all means to genetic genealogists….now if I only knew if this was my line!
  • The McNiel line is descended from Niall of the 9 Hostages and carries SNP L222 which identifies that line.
  • My Thomas McSpadden line has not been tested, but I will provide a scholarship for any direct male McSpadden descendant of the Thomas McSpadden line found in Washington County, Virginia.
  • My Younger line of Halifax, Essex and King and Queen County of Virginia is L21, with no subset indicated.

The Highland men were extremely hardy.  It’s no wonder that they welcomed the remoteness of the American frontier and often found a connection with the Native people who were their neighbors.  I bet the warrior gene is found is higher proportion in both populations than in the rest of the people. It would be an interesting study.

For days now, we’ve been seeing sheep.  I didn’t know until today that sheep weren’t native to the Scottish Highlands, but a special kind of highlands cattle were.  However, in the 1700s, sheep were introduced, but were very controversial because sheep require about 4 times the space as cattle.  The landowners forced the tenants to have sheep and forced may tenants out entirely.  There was no more land to be had – so many immigrated to America, especially those not the first son, meaning the inheriting son.  So perhaps it was sheep who drove my ancestors to America, although several of my Scottish ancestors clearly came through the Irish plantations on their way.

Interestingly enough, today I found a field of sheep who I’m sure represent my entire family.  Most sheep here are white.  Very occasionally, you see one black one in the field.  I found the black sheep jackpot today.

All black sheep. Yep, my family, I’m sure of it.

black sheep

From there, our bus wound its way back to the ship across the mountains and across the moors.  It seems impossible that we had been gone for more than 8 hours.  Scotland is simply enchanting.

Our towel animal tonight had my rain hat, of course, and two birthday cards, one from Jim and one from Carnival.

urquhart towel animal

This was a great birthday, feeling the presence of Braveheart and my ancestral families at Urquhart Castle – and of course, my Campbell rainhat.



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17 thoughts on “Invergordon, Braveheart, Urquhart Castle and my Birthday

  1. Oh Roberta, how I envy you your trip to Scotland. I have done several SNP tests and the Big Y and I am L1335>L1065>S744, definitely Scots and maybe Pict. But i have no idea where or when my ancestor left Scotland. I’m contacting distant Y-STR matches and if I ever find where they came from, maybe i can do a Scottish trip, too.

  2. Enjoyed the account of your travels as usual.
    Minor correction – it should be “firth”, not “frith”

  3. Happy Birthday Roberta. I celebrate mine tomorrow, the 31 of May. I bought myself a computer! Now I can do some serious DNA research myself! Love you stories about our family! Keep them coming.


  4. Thanks so much for the trip of a lifetime through your travels and pix! Happy Birthday!!

  5. Roberta, your stories of your travels are simply delightful and full of good information – and Oh! the pictures! How I envy you being able to travel through our shared “Campbell” country! Also, a great big HAPPY Birthday (which I wonder what date your birthday is on – mine is on June 2nd). Have a safe trip and keep the stories coming – and keep the pictures coming also – it is probably the closest I will ever come to taking a trip through my distant homeland. Patti Ann

    • Well, I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you that the trip was last fall, and my birthday was during that trip – so I’ll gladly accept the Happy Birthday but my next one isn’t for a few months. Happy birthday to you. As for the trip – in many ways the whole thing still seems like a dream – truly. I’m somewhat of a photography buff so I do love the photos as well.

  6. Roberta, I like the hat and Happy Birthday ! I think the hat is what one would call a “Practical Fascinator” Have Fun! Chris

  7. “The name Urquhart derives from the 7th-century form Airdchartdan, itself a mix of Gaelic air (by) and Old Welsh cardden (thicket or wood).”

    “Aird” is probably the Gaelic word Ard:

    Gaelic is basically the Irish language. Scottish surname and placename translations from Gaelic are often very inaccurate from my experience. Further dissection of the name gives us the possibility of Chartdan being the Gaelic words Carraig Donn. In Gaelic Carraig is rock and Donn is brown. I know it is a bit of a stretch to say that Chart could be Carraig but one also needs to allow for the Scottish accent and possible dialect variations that just pronounces car element of carraig.

    So Airdchartdan could translate as Ard Carr(aig) Donn or Brown Rock Height!

    The words brown and height are almost certainly in the Airdchartdan placename, the meaning of car is a little bit more questionable.

    How does that translation fit in with the geography of Urquart Castle?

    • I should also have mentioned that Airdchartan could also mean Cartdan’s Height if Cartdan was a persons name. The h in Chartdan is added when placed in context with Ard/Aird and would not be part of the normal spelling of whatever the word the Cartdan is.

  8. Roberta, thank you so much for sharing your adventures. They are wonderful. Hope you have a Very Happy Birthday! Anxious to correspond with you about the Farrows. Shirley M Holder

  9. Great story, enjoying reading your blog. Just mailed off a DNA sample today, both autosomal and mtDNA. Excited to get results! No relation to you that I know of, but since you mentioned that you have ancestors from Halifax Co in Va, would be curious to know last names. Mine are Glenn and Chalmers, also Wilson and Williams and Lanier….

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