John de Graham’s Castle

The view might be very different from John de Graham’s time, but the setting is still as commanding. De Graham, friend and ally of William Wallace, is believed to have had his home on this spot, overlooking the Carron Valley in Stirlingshire. There’s a picture on the information board showing what the ‘castle’ would have looked like: a medieval earthwork with a substantial timber-framed hall, defended by an impressive square moat. The line of the moat is still very much in evidence, though nothing remains of the hall, and today the mighty Carron Reservoir fills much of the valley below.

John de Graham of Dundaff (another name for this fortified site), was a 13th century Scottish noble who fought alongside Wallace in the First Scottish War of Independence, and who fell at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298. On that terrible day the Scots, unable to withstand the force of the heavy English armoured cavalry and the deadly Welsh longbows, were defeated by Edward I of England. De Graham died but Wallace survived and is said to have sought out de Graham’s body and carried it from the battlefield himself. De Graham was the most notable casualty of that terrrible day and is buried at Falkirk Old Parish Church. Wallace then retreated to de Graham’s home by the Carron Water.

Many years later a famous narrative poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (also known as The Wallace), was written by the poet Blind Harry. It portrays Sir John de Graham as one of William Wallace’s principal supporters and describes Wallace’s feelings of loss and sadness at the demise of his friend. There’s no doubt that de Graham’s death was a sore blow to Wallace, who lost not only his right-hand-man, but also a close friend.

How certain can we be that this was John de Graham’s family home and that he was the man so close to Wallace? Matthew Ritchie, an archaeologist with the Forestry Commission Scotland who manage this site, writes, “A 13th century charter records ‘the whole waste lands of Dundaff and Strathcarron, which was the King’s forest’ being granted by Alexander II to John’s father, Sir David de Graham. That a John de Graham was the third son of Sir David de Graham is not in doubt – but was this the same John immortalised in The Wallace as having fallen at the Battle of Falkirk, or perhaps a son or relative?”

Ritchie continues, “Although Blind Harry’s poem was written long after the event, it does clearly link his Sir John de Graham to the area; and although the earthwork was likely built some years beforehand, it does mark the feudal estate of Dundaff, property of the de Graham family. Fact and fiction do seem to meet at Sir John de Graham’s castle to tell a story of place that is firmly rooted in the past.”

In the past spelling was not fixed or final and you’ll find that John de Graham’s name appears in different forms. In Blind Harry’s The Wallace his name is given as ‘Schir Jhone the Grayme’, while his tomb has him as Sir John the Grame. Then there’s the Society of John de Graeme, a group set up in 2016 to highlight the role of de Graham and Scottish history in general. But that’s not all. His name also survives in the Grahamston area of Falkirk – even in Falkirk Grahamston Station!

The Carron Valley

This site in the Carron Valley is an important part of Scotland’s story and heritage and as as such is a protected Scheduled Monument. We may never have known the man, but we can stand where both he and Wallace stood, and that’s a fine thing.

The Society of John de Graeme

Glorious Glen Finglas

For those living in the Central Belt of Scotland the countryside is never far away. Despite being the area with the highest population density in Scotland (3.5 million out of 5.4 million), it doesn’t take long to reach the clean air and open spaces of the countryside.

For many of us, heading north or west leads to the Trossachs, an area of woods, glens and lochs that lies within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. And right in the middle of this expanse is glorious Glen Finglas.

Made famous by Walter Scott (as with so much of this part of Scotland), Glen Finglas has never lost its popularity, and today is managed by the Woodland Trust for Scotland. But it’s also part of ‘a forest in the making’, the Great Trossachs Forest, a long-term project (200 years!) that aims to create 160 square km of native woodland across this area. This innovative and far-sighted venture is the brainchild of the Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Woodland Trust.  Described as a ‘forest for the future’, the Great Trossachs Forest is also the largest National Nature Reserve in the country. Quite an achievement.

A cottage in the village of Brig O’Turk, Glen Finglas

While this work is being carried out in the present and will provide great benefits for the future, Glen Finglas has a long and varied past. And it’s this past that has shaped the landscape we see here today.

In the current issue of iScot magazine I’ve written about the past, present and future of Glen Finglas under the headings found on the unusual stone compass that’s set into a rocky hillock up the glen. Carved into the stone are three mottoes: Enjoy the Present, Sense the Past, Ensure the Future. It’s a wonderful encouragement to get out and walk (or cycle), to learn about the people and events that have gone before and to discover what is planned for future generations.

To find out more about what this all entails, get hold of a copy of September’s iScot and then be inspired to pay a visit yourself!

iScot magazine digital editions

“I to the hills will lift mine eyes…” The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre, Aberfoyle

Womens Timber Corps 1942-1946There are days when things seem to wrong from the word go. The weather is lousy, the car won’t start, the bus is late, you’re caught off guard and hurt by an unpleasant remark from a bullying colleague or an unjustified mocking jibe on social media.  Then there’s the infuritaing call-centre that never answers the phone no matter how important they claim your call to be. Or the angry customer who vents his frustration on you. Or the delivery you waited in all day for that never came. Irritation after irritation.

Some days the list can seem endless! None of it your fault, but rather circumstances and people around you that seem to conspire to make you feel bad. To feel worthless. To feel invisible. Some days it can be an uphill struggle to retain you equilibrium.p1250113

We all have different ways of dealing with life’s ups and downs. For me, the very best way of dealing with the effects of upsets and hurts, and for putting life back into perspective, is to take to the hills.

Here in Scotland we are blessed to be surrounded by hills, lochs and forests. Yesterday we headed to Aberfoyle and on up to the Lodge Forest Visitor Centre run by the Forestry Commission Scotland.  If you should go there, stand on the terrace, breathe deeply and savour the marvellous panorama that unfolds before you: Loch Ard Forest, Loch Achray Forest, Ben Lomond, the Lowlands in front of you, the Highlands behind – it’s undoubtedly one of the very best spots in the Trossachs.the-lodge-aberfoyle-500p

And as you look across the wide expanse of countryside that surrounds you, the world takes on a whole new perspective. The view is magnificent. The air is fresher and cleaner: the encircling trees ‘breathing’ in our dirty air and ‘breathing’ out the clean oxygen that fills our hearts and lungs and makes us stand up straighter, bringing a new sense of calmness in its wake.

You’ll soon notice that all around the Lodge are tracks and trails that lead off and away into the forest, inviting you to follow them. Who could fail to be drawn onto a path as it disappears into the woods? Who wouldn’t want to go sit “Under the Greenwood Tree” as did Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Orlando, or Thomas Hardy’s characters? There is something primeval about forests and we respond to that. Our curiosity and desire to explore are awakened and off we go!

p1250063The trail to the waterfall is a delight. Running steeply downhill, it twists and turns, with strange sights awaiting! Turn one corner and there are the two young deer startled into motionlessness. Turn another and you come across the Magic Tree. Turn a third and you’re faced by the strange ghostly figures that stand so very still and silent among the trees – ethereal and alien looking, yet at the same time reflecting back strange visions of ourselves.

Then, turn one further corner, and come face to face with a force of nature: the waterfall crashing and roaring through the gorge, thundering over rock and down the cliff face as the swollen burn races in torrents past your feet. After heavy rain the might of the water is unmistakable. Magnificent – and a little bit terrifying too!

It would be hard not to be drawn into the beauty of this natural landscape. Nature heals and soothes. And as that happens you’ll find nothing seems as bad as it did before. You’re not worthless, nor are you invisible. A sense of proportion returns. Your physical and mental wellbeing improve.  Body, mind and soul.  Not a bad outcome from a walk in the hills!the-lodge-aberfoyle-burn-500p

Forestry Commission Scotland

Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park

Scotland’s Wild Tours of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH): Scotland’s People and Nature Survey

Søren Kierkegaard and John Muir on the benefits of Nature