Mid week, late September. The northeast of Scotland. A memorable three-week holiday continues apace.
South from Aberdeen, along the A90. Then, just after noon, my wife and I exit left, join the A957, appropriately known as Slug Road. Traffic is surprisingly heavy. We inch our way forward towards the town centre of Stonehaven.
Our route takes us past Mackie Academy. I cannot help but notice a group of older students training on an adjacent field, a touch rugby session in full swing. Given that old habits die hard, for as long as possible I watch the ball fizz about, amidst the players’ chatter and shrieks of laughter.
While Stonehaven, in the wake of the North Sea oil boom, has recently expanded inland from the seaside, we head for the Old Town. Originally a small but nonetheless important hub of the herring trade, thanks to various breakwaters and the shelter of an adjacent bay, this “Auld Toon” area now promotes tourism and various marine services.
We wander about. Note the brown stone buildings as well as the brightly coloured houses, the splotches of brilliant whites, yellows, and blues, framed in black trim. Stroll on the boardwalk, the neighbouring pebbled beach sandwiched by cliffs which shelter an assortment of rock pools and inlets. Visit the Tolbooth, now a museum but a prison in days of yore. Enjoy real ale at the Ship Inn, a sun-soaked terrace providing picture postcard views of the harbour and its surroundings.
The afternoon lengthens. Almost without notice, clouds roll in. The sea breeze freshens and, somewhat ominously, the sky darkens.
Nonetheless, from the pier, we climb several steep concrete stairways, emerge onto the roadway above the town. Join a narrow, uneven track on the headland. Look to navigate our way to the famous Dunnottar Castle, a medieval fortress which played a prominent role in Scottish history thanks to its strategic location and defensive strength.
The winding, two-mile trek is a hard slog. The force of the wind increases significantly, the heather and wild grasses bending double in protest. Heads down, ploughing forward against the elements, we soldier on. The cliffs immediately to our left drop more than 200 feet to the sea. The waves below crash noisily against the jagged rocks.
Finally, some forty minutes later, we reach a suitable viewing point. Dun comes from a pictish word meaning “place of strength”. With the stunning castle perched high on an isolated outcrop, with just a single sheer path leading to the gatehouse, one can see why.
Our cameraphone fills with photos but, the light fading, eventually we depart. Retrace our steps along the trail. Much to ponder, as Dunnottar, captivating and breathtaking in equal measure, is truly a history buff’s dream. I try to process its many legends and tales. Of Viking raiders, of William Wallace. Of Oliver Cromwell, the Crown Jewels, Mary Queen of Scots. Of the Covenanters and the Jacobite Rebellion. Of battle campaigns, of sieges, of forfeitures, of treachery, destruction and murder.
Still, we have one last stop to make, as our return takes us past the Stonehaven War Memorial. Unveiled in 1923, it sits prominently on Black Hill. Visible from multiple vantage points, from on high it overlooks the town and the bay.
A kaleidoscope of emotions whirls through my mind.
The octagonal structure resembles a ruined temple, intentionally designed as such to remind visitors about both the incompleteness of life and the horrific casualties suffered in World War 1. A granite stone contains the names of 162 Stonehaven men, almost all of those then living in the small town. They make the ultimate sacrifice in the brutal five-year conflict. An inscription, etched into the stone bloc, salutes their courage. I shiver on reading the words.
“One by one death challenged them, they smiled in his grim visage and refused to be dismayed.”
I stop to think. Reflect back on the group of young men at Mackie Academy enjoying rugby practice just a few hours ago. No doubt looking ahead to an upcoming season. More importantly, life, with all its options, stretching out gloriously in front of them.
Almost certainly, their counterparts over a century ago, names now chiseled into a cold, grey slab, would have entertained similar hopes, dreams and possibilities. Little did they expect their away games to be played in the hell holes of Ypres,
the Somme, Vimy Ridge. At huge cost.
Untold acts of heroism and bravery aside, it is all such a colossal waste. Sadly, as was the case then, and in the centuries before, little has changed in the interim. The Ukraine, the Middle East and other areas of conflict the current global examples of carnage, butchery and devastation.
War, in its absolute futility, folly and imbecility, a symptom of man’s ongoing failure to think.
With Stonehaven thus a stark reminder of a town left to mourn a lost generation.