Icy Cold Was The Summer
Part II Travel Log Trilogy Chapter Two: At Tain: My Tour of Terror
August 1, 2020
Although the letter from London was often on our minds, Jim and I were able to enjoy our flight to Scotland, the wedding of his sister Lynn, and the delightful family of her new husband Frank.
It had been a memorable time in Glasgow, but now that the celebrations were over, we were ready to begin our three-part travels of Scotland, the Irelands, and Wales. (We called this journey our "trilogy.")
We telephoned London just before we left Glasgow. As there was not an answer at Crampton's, we decided to call them again as we wandered through the UK In anticipation of all that was ahead of us, I began a travel log just as we settled on the train on our way to Airdrie--a little Scottish town just east of Glascow.
Sheila MacGuinness told us of Tain just after we had bought our used ambulance from her son John in Airdrie. (Jim and I had decided that the 1984 ambulance would make the perfect travel van for our three weeks of wandering through the back roads of Scotland, the Irelands, and Wales.)
"Why do you want to go to Tain?" asked Sheila MacGuinness.
"It is one of my family's ancestral homes, " I answered.
"Mine too, but I wouldn't go there, Ma'am--I know of a terrible man who frightens the tourists in Tain."
"We just want to see the old town; it's called a royal burgh, I've read. We'll be alright, but thank you anyway."
"I've warned you, Ma'am," insisted Sheila MacGuinness. "Just stay away from the tourist places and don't go into the cemetery."
She turned away, shaking her white head, seemingly frustrated that she had not made her point with us.
Jim and I paid little attention to the elderly Scottish woman, finishing our transaction with her son John who told us that his mother was "a bit worrisome of late." We were too anxious to begin our camping adventure in the ambulance we had just bought. We happily christened our new purchase "Mac" and drove away.
We had left Arizona in the beginning blasts of its infernal summer and had traveled to cool, green Scotland for a family wedding. It was over, and we were ready to explore, to follow paths of our ancestors--as so many North Americans do.
For a camping caravan, the 1984 ambulance was perfect. It had cost much less than a comparable rental, had low mileage, and had been well maintained. Back in Glasgow we bought a portable shower and toilet, a kerosene cook stove and planned to have a small bed frame welded into the back of the van.
With new bedding, a good supply of food and drink, we were ready for our next three weeks of meandering through some of the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland.
Leaving Glasgow one rainy afternoon, Jim went slowly, trying to adjust to driving on the left side of the road and to shifting on the left side of the steering column. I, meanwhile, was having the passenger thrills of riding on the "wrong" side of the driver.
As if this weren't difficult enough, the rock-lined roads became so narrow in places that a couple of times Mac grazed the wall on my side. These side swipes, 'though minor, sent chills through me--as did road signs such as "Oncoming Traffic in Centre of Road" and "Road Narrows."
"How can the road get any narrower, Jim?"
"Beats me. I'm using all our lane as is--sometimes a bit more!" We laughed and began to relax.
How lovely was this part of Scotland! There were silver ribbons of clear water, green velvet hillsides, fluffy white sheep with black faces, trees arching over the winding roads, lush deciduous trees, mixed with some conifers, shafts of sunlight playing onto lacey green ferns.
The scenery seemed to reflect the Scottish people we had met: gentle, serene, peaceful, yet strongly independent. I felt a contrast to some of the wilder, less content scenes back home.
From Loch Lommond (the old Scottish song played in my ears as we passed) to the breathtaking ski area near Glencoe, Jim and I were thrilled by the sheer beauty of this area.
We had planned this day to end at the famous Loch Ness. However, after passing through Fort William, we turned onto a side road to stop for a minute to have a snack and a brief rest. And right there in the middle of Gay Lochy Bridge, Mac wheezed and stopped. Jim tried several times but could not get the van to start.
"Now what do we do? We're in the middle of a bridge!" Before I could helplessly comment, two small trucks appeared out of nowhere; four young men offered their help. I have little recollection of what they said (they spoke so quickly and with definite Scottish burrs), but they got Mac started and directed us to a service station near the town of Spean Bridge.
"Ask for Frank," one of them shouted, waving as we drove away.
Without any more trouble, Mac carried us to town where we pulled into a parking lot shared by a service station and a combination pub and hotel. The station was closed, so we went into the pub, asked if anyone knew a mechanic named Frank, and ordered a small meal.
"I'm Frank," said a heavily bearded and rugged man in the booth next to us. "Why do you ask?"
Jim explained our situation to Frank, a man who had appeared quite gruff to us, but who turned out to be one of the most helpful people we met during our UK trip. Frank asked us to come into the station in the morning, then asked if we had eaten. We said no, and Frank himself went into the kitchen, returning quickly with two baskets of deliciously crunchy chicken and chips.
"Will you stay in the hotel tonight ?" asked Frank just before he left. "The office is through those doors."
"No, we'll sleep in our ambulance," Jim answered.
"It's very cold and wet tonight--are you sure?"
"We'll be fine and thanks for all your help. See you in the morning."
Jim and I finished our meal, his mug of stout and my hot tea, then sloshed toward Mac. It certainly was a cold and rainy night, but our first sleep in the old ambulance was warm and cozy.
The next morning we had breakfast at the Aunoch Mor Hotel: baked beans, broiled tomatoes, back bacon, sausage, eggs, toast and coffee. Delicious and warming.
Jim and I spent the day walking, visiting a small woolen mill and shoppe, sitting in the pub, reading or chatting with Frank who was putting heart and soul into Mac's well being. Frank also affixed a bed frame to the side of the back of the van--just the right size for our twin mattresses.
Meanwhile, the rain came in sheets most of the day and on into early evening. As Frank had not finished with Mac by closing time, we decided to stay the night at Aunoch Mor. Our room was quaint and comfortable; it had a flowered decor, a full bath with towel-warming racks, little baskets of instant coffee, tea bags and packets of hot chocolate, plus an electric kettle and a porcelain tea service. This, we decided, was "pure cozy."
Early the next morning, after another delicious Aunoch Mor breakfast, we went to the garage where Frank was already putting the finishing touches on Mac. Our bill of 279 pounds seemed high, yet worth it, as we had come to trust Frank's thoroughness and skill; after all, Mac was not only our transportation but also our home for the next three weeks.
We said goodbye to our new friend Frank who, reluctantly, let me take his photo.
"You're on to see good old Nessie, eh?"
"We'll stop at Loch Ness for awhile of course, but our main goal is to reach Tain by evening," said Jim.
"Oh my, Tain, you say; I wouldn't go there if I were you--at least not to the tourist areas. I hear there's a weird fellow in Tain who harasses visitors."
"We'll be careful, Frank. Goodbye and thank you for everything."
The rain was finally lessening as we drove away from Spean Bridge. However, I felt a grey cloud swell inside me.
"Jim, maybe we shouldn't go all the way to Tain. Both old Mrs. MacGuinness and now Frank have warned us that there's some threat to tourists there. I'm nervous."
"It's up to you, Carol. You said that part of your family by marriage had come from Tain and that you'd like to see it."
"I know. I wanted to see if any of the Aird family was still listed in Tain. And it's supposed to be such an interesting town--very old."
"Well then, let's go. We'll just be watchful in the tourist attractions."
So, on we drove, heading steadily northeast. We arrived at Loch Ness around noon, decided not to spend 69 ½ pounds each on a 1 ½ hour submarine ride which would have taken us down about 450 feet into Nessie's lake.
Instead, having not caught any glimpses of the Loch Ness Monster, we went on to Inverness. It was a pretty, but touristy, place. I do remember lovely swans swimming with regal bearing on nearby Beaully Firth. In Cromarty Firth, between Inverness and Tain, Jim and I were surprised to see so many oil rigs.
And then we were in Tain. Signs welcomed us to "the Royal Burgh of Tain...established in 1066...population, 4500..." We drove through the fascinating little burgh with its winding cobble streets and stone shops, so close that they seemed to grab us and pull us back in time.
We stopped at a fine old hotel, the Palace, for an ale and coffee. On the wall of the rather posh dining area I spied a plaque "The Captain's Board" which listed the captains over the years of a local golfing association. In 1978 a Dewar Aird had been captain, and I felt sure he must be part of the family I shared. I made a mental note to write later--from home--to see if I could trace some of our common history.
At the Palace Hotel there were brochures, so Jim and I relaxed in the cozy warmth of the hotel's pub and read about Tain. "Tain: the Oldest Royal Burgh in Scotland" stated that in June 1966 the Queen Mother had visited Tain on 'the 900th Anniversary of the granting to Tain of a Royal Charter deeming it to be a Royal Burgh in 1066...'"
Jim and I read more from the brochures. Apparently there is evidence of even prehistoric settlement in the Tain area. The great Standing Stones at Shandwick and Nigg are dated from perhaps the 8th century, and the shrine of St. Dufus (1000-1065 AD) became a favorite pilgrimage centre, visited frequently by King James IV in the 1500's. Both the Marquis of Montrose (executed in Edinburgh in 1650) and Bonnie Prince Charles, a century later, visited Tain. During World War Two, many Royal military forces were stationed near Tain and, in 1944, this area was a practice ground for D-Day landings in Normandy.
"Jim, this little burgh has quite a history, doesn't it?"
"Fascinating place. Since we're only here for a day, let's go tomorrow to see 'The Pilgrimage.' It's by the St. Duthus Church and the museum we saw on the way in. There's an audio-visual presentation, a light show, that tells the story of Tain and some of the significant people in its history: St. Duthac, King James IV, Robert the Bruce and others. I think we'd enjoy that."
"I agree. Seeing these brochures has made me more interested in learning some of Tain's history than in avoiding the tourist areas. I've almost forgotten Mrs. MacGuinness' and Frank's warnings. This is too beautiful and intriguing a place."
"Let's go on then, find a caravan park for tonight, have an early supper and come back in the morning."
Jim and I drove north on A9 a short distance and found a most accommodating stop for the night at Meikle Ferry Caravan Park. We cooked some vegetable soup on our camp stove and supplemented it with corned beef sandwiches, apples, shortbread, and tea.
It had been a long day. We were ready for sleep.
During the night I awakened with a start. "Avoid the tourist stops" was churning in my mind. Outside, the weather had turned foul, and rain was beating hard on our van. I tried to reassure myself, not to awaken Jim, and when I did fall back to sleep, it was with a chilly restlessness about what Tain's tomorrow might bring.
The morning was cloudy, dark and misted. The royal burgh was heavily shrouded in fog, and it was difficult to see to drive through the narrow, winding lanes. There was an eerie silence in the town; very few residents were on the streets, and those who were were wrapped heavily, heads down against the chill of this morning. I shivered and said very little to Jim who was also strangely quiet.
"Still want to go to The Pilgrimage?" he asked.
"I think so."
We found a crooked parking spot near St. Duthus Church and began our short walk to the audio-visual presentation. We had to cross through the ancient graveyard near the church. It was crammed with graves: shifted grey stones, mottled, cracked, sunken and covered with mold and moss--very, very old. Some of the grave covers were crooked and lifted as if their original
occupants had been buried alive but had found the strength to try to escape their tombs. The atmosphere was sullen and still and did little to re-charge my confidence.
We entered the visitors' centre and were cheered for a moment by a guide in a gaudy court jester's costume. He handed us packets of literature and showed us to the room where the light show was about to begin.
Surprisingly, the little narrow room was quite crowded. It seemed that a busload of senior tourists had arrived just before us and were already crammed into the presentation area. To make space for the elderly viewers, Jim and I separated; he went to the far side of the room, and I stayed by the doorway, jammed against its frame.
A brief introduction explained that each of the busts on pedestals around the room was of an important personage in Tain's history. They were to be highlighted one by one as their roles in the burgh's long saga was narrated.
The lights flickered, dimmed and went out. A deep voice began a narrative:
"For 1000 years, kings and earls, rebels and pilgrims, merchants and outlaws have walked through the streets of Tain. The threads of their stories are interwoven with our own..."
Suddenly a dark gloved hand came over my mouth, and a heavily swathed arm grabbed my waist, pulling me out the door, down a narrow stairway, and through a heavy wood and iron door to the church yard.
In terror, I made note of my surroundings: the same ancient cemetery, cracked and toppled headstones, slimy green crypts we had seen as we entered. Eerie trees and shrubbery grabbed at my clothing as I was roughly dragged toward something hidden in the tangled growth beyond the main yard. It was a mausoleum-type burial structure--ominous in its setting. Above its crudely hewn doorway was a name stained in the stone. Sheer panic gripped my heart. The name was MacGuinness!
I felt helpless in struggle against the strength of this hooded and roughly clothed brute who was hauling me toward the horrible crypt. I tried to cry out. I could not. His hand still smothered my mouth. And when I tried to wrest myself free of his grip, he only tensed the bruising hold he had on me. My flailing legs kicked nothing but his long, thick coat.
Slightly loosening his grasp, my captor wrenched open the rusted medieval latch on the heavy metal doors of the mausoleum. They creaked open slowly, revealing dim outlines of three sarcophagi. He shoved me inside and loosely closed the doors behind us. Darkness engulfed us, and my heart turned to the same solid stone as that which surrounded us.
His heavy hand now off my face, I gasped, then choked on the damp, musty air of this horrible place. I did not scream. I trembled, then froze in fear of the fate I did not know. I was aware of his heavy breathing and shuffling somewhere to my side, perhaps a foot or more away. A deep and ugly voice shattered the silence. It stuttered:
" I am MacGuinness--your tour guide. I bring very few here to my family's burial house. Only a handful of you intruding tourists have shared this inner sanctum with me and my ancestors. You probably think that I intend to bury you here with them.
The gravel voice loomed suddenly and shouted. "You are not worthy! The MacGuinness family were heroes--true warriors of the past. A stranger here would foul their holy resting place, just as history has fouled their memories."
Then the echoing, brutal tones softened to almost a whisper that I could barely hear over the pounding of my own heart.
"Here is Ian. He was tortured until death for refusing to do bloody battle with the Earl of Ross. His reasons were pure, but they didn't think so. They considered him a traitor. He wanted peace. He was a hero. What injustice he met!
And here is Craig. He died of starvation in the dungeon that held him for stealing. That was under King James IV whom everyone thought so righteous. Craig stole only for his family and his poor neighbors. They were hungry. That is all. And they flogged him and imprisoned him. He cared for the humble. He was a hero. What injustice he met!
This last grave is where Robert rests. How cruelly he died--stabbed so many times that his remains were not even recognizable. Robert advocated for the tenants of wicked Black Andrew. He wanted fair treatment for them. He was a hero. What injustice he met!
These are the honorable MacGuinnesses who have stayed in Tain with me. Only one--Angus, the traitor to his own brother Robert, --left home and fled as a coward to the lowlands. I spit on his memory."
My body was chilled to the bone; my heart was a heavy rock within me as I listened to my abductor's final words which shook with emotion.
"So you have heard of the honored ones of Tain. I am obligated to tell the stories of my ancestors, those who are never mentioned in the shameful, twisted histories or the cursed light show. Those are lies for the tourists--corrupt with omissions of my family's heroic part in the glorious past of northern Scotland." I used to try to tell of the MacGuinnesses. No one would listen. The histories were written without them."
Then, as if I had adjusted a dial, my captor's voice lowered, softened and almost pleaded.
"I have not hurt you. I have had no choice but sometimes to bring strangers, such as you, here. They will share the truth of these glorious ones--the MacGuinnesses of Tain. I know I have frightened you into silence. But you have listened and heard my story. Now I plead with you to tell the others. That is all."
I stood absolutely still--frozen into a wall that was hard, damp, and cold.
The voice had stopped. I thought I heard muffled sobs. Then, there was nothing except a soft shuffling which seemed to be nearing the crypt's door. It rasped open and, in the dull light which crept in, I saw the shadowy figure of my abductor exit the tomb and disappear through the green stone graves and the grey mist of the cemetery.
I was alone. There was silence. I waited, afraid even to breathe.
Slowly I gained confidence that he would not return--that the terror was over. I moved slowly and carefully toward the mausoleum door, fearful that it would swing closed before I could escape.
It did not, and I emerged into a breath of fresh, moist air.
I hesitated for just a moment, turned, and for reasons I still do not understand, I gently closed and latched the door of the MacGuinness tomb. A surge of dread went through me then, and I ran as fast as I could, again tangling and tearing myself in the overgrown shrubbery. I slipped on the slimy moss of cemetery stones and stumbled more than once on a crooked, looming crypt. But I made it, breathless, back to the tourist centre where I saw Jim emerging with the others who had been viewing the light show.
"Where have you been?" asked Jim. "I thought you had gone to the rest room, yet you were gone so long I was beginning to worry. But it was so dark in the show room I decided that you must have slipped in at the other door. What happened? You look as if you were outside and--"
"Oh, Jim, I have a story to tell you! I have been to hell and back. Please take me to the van. Let's get out of here--now!"
Apparently the urgency in my voice frightened Jim, for--with a warm and protective arm around me--he hurried me back to our van. He turned on the heater and waited quietly while I cleaned up and changed into dry clothes. Once I was comfortably settled in the passenger seat, and we were on our way out of Tain, I began to tell him my story.
Do you remember old Mrs. MacGuinness' and Frank's warnings?" I began.
My story finished as we reached the pretty little town of Tomich. The telling of my story and the pastoral scenes around us began to soften Scotland again for me. I did not want to report the incident to anyone, and although I knew Jim felt we should, he accepted my decision to simply let go of the terror I'd met in Tain.
Days later, we opened the tourist packet we had been given as we entered The Pilgrimage light show. Inside was a small, low key warning sheet advising tourists to stay with their guides and groups as there had been isolated incidents over the years of visitor harassment. The sheet downplayed any real danger, stressing that these few incidents had been little more than harmless annoyances. (Jim and I understood the townspeople's hesitancy to say more, for the little burgh depended on its tourist appeal. )
Even now I think of the MacGuinness man with a mysterious sadness. Is he still alone with his misty pride in the ancestors? Has he remained unable to emerge into the present, unable to communicate his perception of the truth of his heroes to others? Does he still live only in the company of Ian, Craig and Robert?
One day, perhaps, I shall return to Tain. If I do, I will go to that hidden mausoleum. Will there be a fourth tomb within? If so, I believe that only then will the tortured man have found his peace.