A Light in the Shadows

“The light was a comfort; pitiful as was the sight it revealed, at least it banished the lurking shadows that threatened at any moment to turn into new danger.”

– Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber

When I sit down to write my (albeit infrequent) blog posts, I always start by going through my book of Beautiful Words, in which I have written out quotations from the books I read. Wrenched from their original context, the phrases that make up this notebook are in no way coherent as a whole, but I am usually able to find inspiration in the jumble of wonderful wordsmithing I have collected over the years.

This post’s inspiration comes from the incredibly talented Diana Gabaldon. Though these words as seen in the second book of the Outlander series described the omnipresent danger encountered by her heroine in a much younger and rougher Scotland than the one Kristen and I visited, they struck me as oddly appropriate for how I felt on our first and only night in the bustling city of 21st century Glasgow.

As I believe I have mentioned before, my sister and I booked this trip on a very tight budget. Due to this desire to save money wherever and whenever possible, our travel plans were often, shall we say, less than ideal. At the end of our rather relaxing two-day sojourn in Fort Augustus, we climbed onto a bus bound for Glasgow, a good 3 hours away driving on one’s own schedule.

I do not have any pictures from the bus ride this time around – blurry or otherwise. Though we spent much of it in darkness, I can attest to the fact that the scenery I did manage to see before the descent of night was spectacular, if a bit haunting. I knew just enough Scottish history during our visit (which was before my foray into the Gabaldon series) to know that the Glencoe area we drove through during the daylight hours of the trip had seen its fair share of sorrow. Although we did not have the chance to get off the bus and walk the desolate peaks, the area’s infamous history seemed to seep from the very land the bordered our route.

Random Historical Fact # 14

After William III of England replaced King James II on the throne of Scotland in 1689, many clans remained loyal to the man they believed to be their ‘true king’. In reaction to the constant resistance, the government chose the semi-peaceful route in August 1691 of offering even rebellious chiefs indemnity so long as they took the oath of allegiance before January 1, 1692. I say semi-peaceful as simultaneously, they also issued what were referred to as Letters of Fire and Sword, which authorized brutal attacks on those who refused to take the oath.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly due to the fact that the very existence of their clans was at stake, the chiefs chose to take the oath. One chief, however, named Alexander MacDonald of Glencoe was delayed in taking his oath until January 6th, 1692 due to a mixture of procrastination and clerical error, which would lead to dire consequences.

As the MacDonald chief had missed the deadline by 5 whole days (clearly no grace period of any sort was in effect at the time), the government decided to issue an order signed by the king commanding a military punishment of the MacDonalds. This order was carried out with fervor on February 13th, 1692 by Archibald Campbell, 10th earl of Argyll and more than 100 of his soldiers, though these very same soldiers had already been peaceably quartered with the MacDonalds for more than a week. (It should be noted here that many soldiers from the attacking units found ways around taking part in the carnage whether by arriving late to the scene or by warning their hosts ahead of time, giving some time to escape). 

Though much of the clan did escape the slaughter, between 25 and 50 people were murdered in cold blood, including at least a few women and children. The clans have never forgotten and some Campbells and MacDonalds refuse to talk to one another to this day.* 

If this story sounds slightly familiar to you despite a lack of knowledge of Scotland’s past, this may be because it is rumoured to be one of the historic episodes George R.R. Martin looked to when writing the infamous Red Wedding scene of his Game of Thrones series. I am not sure if this is true – nor if Mr. Martin ever actually visited Glencoe in person – but I believe if he had, his inhospitable murder scene may have ended up being set in a mountainous rather than flat terrain. The Glencoe area of Scotland, with its undulating hills, heavy fog and shadowed valleys seems to breathe sorrow in a way only truly emotive landscapes can. Though perhaps Mr. Martin may have considered this type of setting far too foreshadowing of the gruesome future for so many cherished characters.

The light that allowed me to ruminate on the reflections above, however, did not last long beyond Glencoe and we were soon plunged into what seemed like unending darkness. Unfortunately for us, we did not dictate the bus’ schedule and so the ride ended up taking upwards of six hours, leading to a late arrival in the heart of the densely-packed southern city.

Again, hoping to save money, we decided that the most reasonable course of action upon arriving in the city was to walk the 20 minutes or so to our one-star budget hotel where we would only be staying one night. We (rightly) deduced this would save us a hefty cab fair but we had not planned for such a late arrival. It is one thing to blindly find one’s way through an unfamiliar European city during the day, but an entirely different thing to attempt to do so late at night, exhausted and burdened by baggage as we were.

I will confess that, though we never encountered any situation nearly as frightening as Claire does on a nearly daily basis in Gabaldon’s novels, my heart was in my throat for the whole walk. I don’t recall us speaking much, we were so focused on arriving safely at our destination that socializing seemed superfluous, not that either of us had much energy for conversation at this point.

Though this trip was over four years ago now, I remember distinctly searching every dark alleyway with wide-open eyes, praying we didn’t run into any trouble. Luckily, most of the streets we walked down were well-lit and filled with late-night revelers so we were rarely truly alone.

This state of perpetual high-alert did not subside until we had stepped into the warm golden light of our abode for the night. I have no memory of the conversation with the person manning the front desk, though I do remember the space being very cramped and dingy upon closer (though brief) inspection. After traipsing through the city on a rush of adrenaline and perhaps misplaced fear, I think the subsequent crash came quickly for both of us.

I don’t even remember clearly what our room looked like, only that it included at least two beds, into which we fell gratefully, happy to finally be resting our heads, our legs, our arms, and our self-defensive instincts. I do, however, remember lying awake for a while, staring out at the bright moon, wondering what I might think of this city under less trying circumstances.

Our last night in Scotland was thus less than spectacular. Pitiful as our discount hotel room may have appeared in broad daylight, after our fraught foray through this foreign city, its lights were a comfort indeed. To this day, I am grateful that though we miscalculated how long it would take us to arrive at the metropolis, none of the shadows that night threatened us with any real danger – not like that the MacDonald clan faced on that freezing day in February 1692.

The next post will be cheerier, I promise, and filled with photos!

And, despite the tone of this post, I maintain that Life is Beautiful


*NB. This is a very succinct version of very complex events that does not even begin to give enough attention to all the many different sides and stories involved. For more information, see here, here and here for starters.

2 thoughts on “A Light in the Shadows

  1. Apparently, I missed this blog and will happily play catchup by reading this one and the next two. I loved reading the Outlander series. Gabaldon’s writing reinforced the picture of Scotland that was placed in my head by my maternal grandmother’s musings about stories she’d heard from her father’s people. They had made the voyage from Scotland to Canada around the 1880s. In fact my granddaddy’s mother was pregnant with him on the journey over. Grandaddy saw it for himself during WWII when he was sent back from France to stay with relatives in Scotland, in order to recuperate. Erin your writing paints a picture. Having travelled to Scotland myself, I was not disappointed and your writing reinforces that beauty, allowing me to journey back again, in my mind. Thank you

    1. What an incredible story! I would love to hear more about your grandmother’s musings next time I see you. Scotland was absolutely stunning and I would love to go back someday soon. Thank you as well for your kind words! I love writing and am hoping to devote more and more time to it over the next little while. I should also be finished writing my first novel soon! Stay tuned 🙂

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