Juneau couple sees castles in Scotland

Posted: Sunday, April 26, 2009

We spent a day with the makers of swords and jewelry and with Bonnie Prince Charlie.

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Courtesy Of Don Harris
Courtesy Of Don Harris

On our fourth day in Scotland, our English friends Alison and Laurence and my husband, Don, and I took a day trip from Kyle of Lochalsh to the to the Isle of Skye. Don had a mission: He wanted to visit Duncan House and Castle Keep. Don tells his story.

"I have always been interested in antique edged weapons. Because of my Scottish heritage, I was intrigued when I saw an article in the magazine Scottish Life describing the work of Rob Miller. He lives and works at Duncan House and Castle Keep, an isolated stone steading containing his shop and forge near the small village of Kilmarie on the Isle of Sky off the west coast of Scotland."

Miller is considered Scotland's premiere blade-smith, hand forging and pattern-welding swords and other edged weapons in the traditional way. He has received commissions from museums and is acknowledged as a master craftsman.

When I realized that a short detour off our route to Dunvegan Castle would allow us to visit Miller's shop, I talked my traveling companions into going to Castle Keep. The narrow road was barely wide enough for two cars passing, and there were pull-outs to allow others to pass.

The collection of conjoined, old stone buildings is rather unassuming from the exterior, but when a visitor enters the showroom, he is surrounded by displays of swords, dirks, sgian dhus, claymores and shields. The experience is like going into a high quality arms museum.

Also on display was fine Celtic jewelry by Miller's partner, goldsmith Garth Duncan, who occasionally makes highly decorated gold and jewel-inlaid dirks but is primarily a jewelry maker.

Miller interrupted his work to come out and talk to me. He was wearing his heavy leather, work apron. He is soft-spoken, almost shy. He is justifiably proud of his work. He told me that his swords are "the real thing, as close as you'll get to medieval sword anywhere." He hand forges, then tempers them in a quenching bath of olive oil. He also makes his own leather and wooden scabbards. ...

Before we left Castle Keep, I placed an order for a traditional basket hilt, pattern-welded Scottish broadsword.

Miller told me he is about two years behind in his orders and that he would bill me when the sword is finished. His estimated price was "about 700 Pounds Sterling," which at the time was about $1,300. Considering the quality of his work, I felt it was a bargain.

From Castle Keep, Alison, Laurence, Don and I enjoyed the scenery on a two-lane road that continued up and down the mountains to Dunvegan Castle, which we toured.

Travel writer and television host Rick Steves has commented on the old castle:

"The interior feels a bit shoddy and run-down, but the MacLeods proudly display their family heritage."

We entered through the Front Hall and walked up the stairs to the second floor. We viewed the round Fairy Tower through a windowed door.

After we visited several rooms in the castle, we finally entered the Drawing Room where the Fairy Flag hangs on the wall covered with a curtain. One of the guides uncovered the curtain for a few minutes.

The Fairy Flag has been dated between the Fourth and Seventh centuries A.D. Many legends surround the Fairy Flag.

According to the Eyewitness: Great Britain travel guide, "The Fairy Flag (is) a fabled piece of magical silk treasured by the clan for its protection."

We admired more treasures in the North Room, including the Dunvegan Cup, the Dunvegan Charter, the Dunvegan Armorial, Rory Mor's Horn and a number of Flora MacDonald's items including a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie's hair. (Flora MacDonald was the woman who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie return safely to France.)

Rick Steves writes that Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart, 1720-88) "was raised to restore his family to the British throne."

In 1745, Bonne Prince Charlie crossed the Channel from France to claim his father's throne. When the Jacobites, supporters of Charlie and his father, failed to get support, Charlie retreated to the Scottish Highlands.

On April 16, 1746, at Culloden Moor, the English forces routed the Jacobite army. The English forces spent weeks hunting down the ringleaders and sympathizers, killing, and banishing thousands. Flora MacDonald dressed Bonnie Prince Charlie in woman's clothes and safely helped him to return to France.

In all, our day was quite rewarding. Don ordered a traditional Scottish broad sword, and we had a glimpse of the Fairy Flag.

• Alma Harris is a retired Juneau-Douglas High School English teacher who loves to travel and write.

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