Thomas Harrison – Executed whilst cheerful!

Whilst walking around the City of London earlier this week, I came across a sign that I had seen several times before.  It had always made me smile, perhaps a little perversely given the circumstances but also as I admired the steadfastness of Major General Harrison… whoever he might have been.

Major General Harrison, Hung Drawn & Quartered

Major General Harrison, Hung Drawn & Quartered

I’d always vowed to look up about Major Harrison but had always forgotten by the time I got home.  Apart from displaying the legendary British stiff-upper lip to perhaps unparralled levels, I realised I knew nothing at all about the man.  Now I know all about him, he seemed to be quite a gap in my knowledge!

General Thomas Harrison had played an incriminating role in the execution of King Charles I. After fighting at several major encounters in the English Civil War, he was entrusted with the military escort that brought the king from Hurst Castle to stand trial in London. At the trial, Harrison was a regular participant and a signatory of the king’s death warrant.

When Charles II negotiated his return to the throne in the months around 1660, it was made clear that a general reprieve would be issued to all those who had opposed his father. To not offer such a pledge was a political impossibility: Charles’s return would have been vehemently resisted had he not clearly stated that the positions and lives of former rebels were secure. In the Declaration of Breda, outlining the conditions in which Charles II would return to the throne (written on 4 April, 1660), it was confirmed that:

…we do grant a free and general pardon… to all our subjects, of what degree or quality so ever, who, within forty days after the publishing hereof, shall lay hold upon this our grace and favour, and shall, by any public act, declare their doing so, and that they return to the loyalty and obedience of good subjects; excepting only such persons as shall hereafter be excepted by Parliament…

However, not quite everyone was guaranteed security from reprisals. As the Declaration made clear, anyone who shall hereafter be excepted by Parliament could be prosecuted for their previously treasonable crimes. On 29 August, 1660, the Indemnity and Oblivion Act was passed by the Convention Parliament, fulfilling Breda’s promise of clemency. A small number of exceptions were made, however, to the general pardon. These exceptions comprised the group of men called the ‘Regicides’ – those who had directly brought about the execution of Charles I. Thomas Harrison was one of these men.

Major General Thomas Harrison

Major General Thomas Harrison

Harrison made little attempt to escape arrest – perhaps in the expectation of a pardon – and was admired for his stoicism in the face of violent death. At his trial, his religious faith and belief in the ideals of the English Revolution remained a source of strength in the face of his inevitable execution. Remaining unrepentant and refusing to submit to the authority of England’s new monarch, Charles II, he was easily convicted.

His trial is recorded thus “…(Harrison) not only pleaded not guilty, but justified the sentence passed upon the King (Charles I), and the authority of those who had commissioned him to act as one of his judges. He plainly told them, when witnesses were produced against him, that he came not thither with an intention to deny anything he had done, but rather to bring it to light, owning his name subscribed to the warrant for executing the King, to be written by himself; charging divers of those who sat on the Bench, as his judges, to have been formerly as active for the cause, in which he had engaged, as himself or any other person; affirming that he had not acted by any other motive than the principles of conscience and justice; for proof of which he said it was well known, he had chosen to be separated from his family, and to suffer a long imprisonment rather than to comply with those who had abused the power they had assumed to the oppression of the people. He insisted that having done nothing, in relation to the matter in question, otherwise than by the authority of the Long Parliament, he was not justly accountable to this or any other inferior Court; which being a point of law, he desired to have council assigned upon that head; but the Court over-ruled; and by interrupting him frequently, and not permitting him to go on in this defense, they clearly manifested a resolution of gratifying the resentments of the Court upon any terms. So that a hasty verdict was brought in against him, and the question being asked, if he had anything to say, why judgement should not pass, he only said, that since the Court had refused to hear what was fit for him to speak in his defense, he had no more to say; upon which Bridgeman pronounced the sentence. And that the inhumanity of these men may the better appear, I (Edmond Ludlow) must not omit, that the executioner in an ugly dress, with a halter in his hand, was placed near the Major-General, and continued there during the whole time of his trial, which action I doubt whether it was ever equaled by the most barbarous nations. But having learned to condemn such baseness, after the sentence had been pronounced against him, he (Major-General Harrison) said aloud as he was withdrawn from the Court, that he had no reason to be ashamed of the cause in which he had been engaged.

Imagine having to stand trial witht he executioner standing right next to you as it all went on!

On Saturday 13 October, 1660, Thomas Harrison was dragged on a hurdle through the streets of London from Newgate Prison to Charing Cross and executed. In his legendary diary, Samuel Pepys wrote:

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy… Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.

Harrison’s ‘cheerful’ manner was admired by many attending his execution, including Pepys. A contemporary publication notes that ‘All the way as he went he endeavoured to discover to the world the undauntedness of his spirit’ although his true feelings may have been shown by ‘the more than ordinary trembling and shaking of his joynts’. Upset by the scoffing noises made by the audience at this apparent weakness, Harrison interrupted his speech from the scaffold to explain that it was his old war wounds caused him to shake, not fear.

In his final moments, as he was being led up the scaffold, the hangman asked for his forgiveness. Upon hearing his request Thomas Harrison replied, “I do forgive thee with all my heart… Alas poor man, thou doith it ignorantly, the Lord grant that this sin may be not laid to thy charge.” Thomas Harrison then gave all of the money that remained in his pockets to his executioner and was thereafter executed.

After the speech, Thomas Harrison was hung by the neck for a short time, but cut down before serious unconsciousness or death occurred. While some executions by hanging, drawing and quartering were made more merciful by allowing the prisoner to die at it its first stage, by all accounts, Harrison remained conscious and lucid throughout his horrific ordeal. After being briefly deprived of oxygen, he was cut down and allowed to breathe. Next, his abdomen was sliced open and entrails thrown onto a brazier – evidence suggests that Harrison remained in full consciousness at this point. Finally, his head was removed and body divided into quarters – all pieces were displayed at prominent sites around London.

The Hung Drawn And Quartered. I wonder what used to happen here? Their pies in the 15th century had lots of body in them.

The Hung Drawn And Quartered. I wonder what used to happen here? Their pies in the 15th century had lots of body in them.

If this sort of thing interests you then you may want to check out my book 101 Most Horrible Tortures in History which is available in paperback and also electronically on iBooks, Kindle and various other formats.

101 Most Horrible Tortures in History

101 Most Horrible Tortures in History

Posted in history, Life, London, Travel, writing, Ye Olde England Tours | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments


If you’re anything like me (and I sincerely hope you’re not), I spend half of my life saying sorry and much of the other half wondering if I should.  It’s a national trait in the U.K. and I think it is one that I like. Possibly the only way to make me dislike someone is if they are rude and not saying ‘sorry’ counts as one such violation in my book.

The hot weather tends to bring out the worst in people and makes the usually unbearable commute on public transport become ever so much worse.  And so it was a bit of delight when on Thursday morning, I had the opportunity to play a pivotal role in a   complex social interaction which involved the utterance of only a single word, albeit it several times by several people.

red bus on road near big ben in london

A London Bus

The lady sat next to me on the bus wanted to get up and so said “sorry” to me. I got up and said ‘sorry’ to the man standing next to me who looked over to the woman behind him. He said ‘sorry’ to her, she said ‘sorry’ to him as she moved back.

The alighting lady then said ‘sorry’ to me as she squeezed past me and to the man next to me as we still couldn’t probably give her plenty of room.

We both said ‘sorry’ back to her.

I sat back down on my seat and the standing lady then said ‘sorry’ as she took the vacant seat and the standing man said ‘sorry’ as he moved out of her way again.

She put her bag down near her feet and brushed against my legs and so said ‘sorry’. I replied I was ‘sorry’ for my stationary legs getting in the way of her bag.

All in all it was the epitome of apologeticness!


people sitting bus seats

I’m really sorry for sharing this.

If you can sympathise and I’m sorry if you can and indeed if you can’t then you might like to check out two older posts from years gone by.  First of all I’m Sorry I’m British

and the always popular Speaking Up For Introverts



Posted in Funny & Humour, Life | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Holding a nearly 2,000 year old Roman shoe at Vindolanda

I’ve been so busy with my tours that I haven’t had a day off since April 16th and so my blog posts are currently a bit shorter than usual.  Even last week when I would be walking for up to 11 hours a day, I still had to start and finish my day with what I call Admin Work.

One of the places I most enjoyed visiting last week was the old Roman site of Vindolanda.Vindolanda is one of Europe’s most important Roman archeological sites and every summer archeologists and volunteers from around the world descend on the place.



One photo can’t capture just how big a site Vindolanda is


The site itself comprises at least 8 successive forts of which several were occupied before Hadrian’s Wall was built.  Regiments from across the Empire were garrisoned here. The visible stone fort dates to the early third century and the impressive remains include the fort walls, the headquarters building and the commander’s house.  Extensive remains of the civil settlement lie just west of the fort with buildings lining a main street.

Vindolanda has an excellent on-site museum which provides a magnificent display of the many stunning objects found during the excavations.  These include a remarkable and unique collection of leather and wooden objects that bring life in the fort and in the adjacent civilian settlement to life – shoes, clothing, tools, cooking, crafts like wood and metal working, military equipment, horse harness.



History being uncovered before my eyes


To my delight, whilst I was nosing around, I got talking to one of the archeologists there and just then a pair of old Roman shoes were unearthed and I got to hold them before they were cleaned up.



A mud encased pair of small Roman shoes


I can tell you that they were very smelly indeed but it was a strange feeling to be holding the posessions of someone who lived and died almost 2,000 years ago.  Perhaps the next time I visit Vindolanda, they may be on display in one of the masses of display cabinets in the museum.



Roman shoes at Vindolanda




These Roman shoes look a bit like mine afer I walked Hadrian’s Wall



Don’t worry about hurrying up if you too want the chance to unearth some Roman  treasures; current estimates suggest it will take another 250 years before the site is full excavated.








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I met perhaps the most famous tree in the world at Sycamore Gap

If you think of how many trees are famous; there are quite a few of them but compared to the countless billions of trees on the planet they are really few and far between.  Some famous trees are no longer here such as the cherry tree that George Washington cut down or the famous Californian Redwood tree that you could pass through until a storm brought it down in 2017.

Robin Hood and the Major Oak

Robin Hood and the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest.

Some trees are famous for the longevity and many of these trees with longevity have historical tie-ins such as the Burning Bush which I once saw in Egypt, the Glastonbury Thorn tree or the Major Oak tree in Sherwood forest where Robin Hood is said to have hid and I’ve been fortunate to see them all.



The moors of England and Scotland are being plagued by wildfires.


Last week however I embarked on a trek along Hadrians Wall to raise money for Cancer Research in memory of my mother, Susan.  Most people do this walk in 6 to 8 or even 10 days but I decided to do mine in 4, allowing another day for a for a few diversions along the way.  The one thing I hadn’t planned for and neither did anyone else I encountered was that it has been unusually dry, warm and even hot.

Walking 20-25 miles a day over the rugged moors in the heat was actually totally fine, if only there had been more water around.  Most people do a bit of training for this walk but as I walk all day, most days I didn’t think that would be a problem and in fact I never got passed along the way so I did ok.

Sycamore Gap

Sycamore Gap

One of the highlights of the walk was the rugged central section and one place in particular, Sycamore Gap.     Sycamore Gap is one of several gaps such as Rapishaw Gap and Milking Gap – along Hadrian’s Wall  which sits on an imposing geological site known as the Whin Sill.  These gaps are essentially channels, naturally chipped away by vast amounts of meltwater flowing beneath the ice sheets that once covered the area.

This section of Hadrian’s Wall is quite telling as it informs us about the Romans and how intuitive they were when they constructed it many moons ago, staggering and layering the brickwork along the landscape. The Wall surrounding the gap shows it was repaired with lime mortar and the construction deposits sealed pottery datable to the late 2nd-century.

Me on Hadrian's Wall

Me on Hadrian’s Wall

Though impressive as Hadrian’s Wall was, the Romans weren’t the only people to leave a mark on this landscape, evidence of a Bronze Age boundary wall lie a few hundred feet South of Sycamore Gap suggesting the area has been important throughout history and used long before the Romans ruled.

Various research carried out over the years tells us that there would have been more trees within proximity to the gap and that there could be numerous reasons for having them removed; game shooting, landscape views, or perhaps a clear vista to see anyone approaching.

I pretty much knew where Sycamore Gap was, having driven past it several times but it was still something of a highlight to see this famous old tree.

I'm a hugger!

I’m a hugger!

Nowadays, the tree has become something of a star. Most notably as the scene-stealer in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner, TV series Vera starring Brenda Blethyn and Robson Green’s More Tales from Northumberland.

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 10.37.06

Of course, the Robin Hood scene was filmed there for its dramatic beauty as in real life it would make no sense at all for him to land near the Seven Sisters on the South Coast and somehow in one day travel hundreds of miles to Nottingham and somehow arriving at Hadrians Wall to camp the night only to do a U-Turn and come back south to Sherwood Forest.   It would be rather like someone from Mexico camping at Niagra Falls on the way to Kansas City.



Milecastle 39


Anyway, I thought this beautiful local might be packed with onlookers but happily like so much of the wall walk, I had it all to myself.


I’ve nearly made my donations target.  If you have a few pennies to spare then no matter where in the world you are, please consider donating through the link below.






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The Memorial To Heroic Self-Sacrifice At Postman’s Park

One of the places I really enjoy visiting on my Secret Churches, Gardens and Ruins walk in the City of London is Postman’s Park.

The small park was converted in the 19th century from being a cemetery for the adjoining church and is largely unvisited by the swathes of tourists to London.  Apart from the beautiful garden, trees and water feature, what really makes this small park stand out is the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice.



Postman’s Park


In September 1887 the Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) wrote a letter to The Times newspaper entitled ‘Another Jubilee Suggestion’. In this letter, he put forward a plan to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee by erecting a monument to commemorate ‘heroism in every-day life’. On the 30th July 1900, this idea was eventually realised with the unveiling of his Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, situated in Postman’s Park in the City of London.

The monument consists of a modest wooden cloister, sheltering a short stretch of wall upon which are fixed fifty-four memorial tablets commemorating sixty-two individuals, men, women and children, each of whom lost their life while attempting to save another. The earliest case featured is that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who died in 1863 and the latest is Leigh Pitt who drowned in 2007. The youngest individual commemorated is eight-year-old Henry Bristow; the oldest, sixty-one-year-old Daniel Pemberton.

There are many layers of meaning hidden beneath the timber and ceramic of the Watts memorial. On the surface it is fundamentally a narrative of remembrance, a record of those who might otherwise have been forgotten, and this was something that Watts had in mind when he created it. He also, though, intended the monument to be instructional and to offer examples of what he believed to be model behaviour undertaken by people of sound and decent moral character. When standing before the tablets, viewers were encouraged through the narratives provided to conceive the act of heroism as a product of an exemplary life rather than just a single brave moment. The message was not one of how to behave in the rare instance of being faced with disaster, but a blueprint for how to live as a respectable, honourable and purposeful citizen.

G. F. Watts was undoubtedly the driving force behind the monument and although his wife Mary was initially dedicated to fulfilling his legacy her involvement waned as other opportunities presented themselves. By 1929, when an attempt was made to reinvigorate the project, the social and cultural landscape of Britain had substantially altered and the moralistic tone that underpinned the memorial seemed out of date. There was little public engagement with the idea and consequently further installations were not pursued.

A meeting in 2010 involving representatives from all the significant interest groups reached a conclusion that it was no longer appropriate to add further tablets to the memorial. The reasons behind this decision were that the memorial was a personal project of G. F. Watts and his vision and influence were intrinsic to its character, that the memorial predated the modern honours system which now allows for posthumous recognition and that the historical integrity of the memorial would be further compromised by additional tablets

Whilst I can see their reasoning, I think it is rather sad and think it is a wonderful idea to memorialise heroes in this fashion.  Despite that, it takes nothing away from the wonderful and reflective experience one gets from visiting Postman’s Park.

Posted in Heritage, history, Life, London, Travel, Ye Olde England Tours | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

So long Harlan Ellison, writer of my favourite hour of TV ever… The City on the Edge of Forever

On Saturday I was sad to wake to the news of the death of the writer of my favourite hour of episodic television and indeed many peoples favourite hour.  Harlan Ellison the writer of the beloved original Star Trek episode City On The Edge of Forever has died at the age of 84.

Harlan is often acclaimed as the being the greatest sci-fi author of our time but to say such is not something he would approve of.  Not because he didn’t think he was a great… he was well known for his argumentative outlook on life and not giving up on grudges.  Rather Harlan didn’t like the term sci-fi or science fiction and he insisted his works were speculative fiction.  Additionally he didn’t think himself as an author.  Authors write books but writers write on anything and in any format and Harlan wrote anything from articles to TV shows, books to essays.

He made his break in magazines long before he became known for his work on the small screen.


Despite his work on Star Trek and other shows for which he may well have been best known to the general public, he is best regarded for his prolific speculative fiction work and by his own admission is believed to have written over 1800 short stories alone.


What I mostly remember him for though is for The City on the Edge of Forever, an episode I have watched well over 1,000 times since the late 1970’s.  It won lots of awards and yet Harlan was on record for hating the end product, due to the re-writes that the work underwent due to elements being rather against the ethos that creator Gene Roddenberry trying to create including drug abuse onboard the Enterprise.


So what is it all about, the famous screened version starts… After administering a small dose of a dangerous drug to Lt. Sulu (George Takei), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally administers a massive dose to his own abdomen after getting knocked about when the Enterprise hits some interference from a strange time distortion.

STCityOnthe Edge_6

Driven temporarily mad, McCoy beams down to the nearest planet, home to the Guardian of Forever, a talking portal that allows visitors to travel through time and space. When McCoy uses it to travel back to Depression-era New York, the Enterprise’s landing party learns their ship has disappeared. Whatever McCoy has done has distorted history in such a way that the universe as they know it has ceased to exist.

city on the edge 2

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) give chase, in time learning that McCoy has changed time by saving the life of Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), the near-saintly proprietor of a soup kitchen. If allowed to live, her idealistic message of pacifism and tolerance will delay the United States’ entry into World War II, allowing Hitler to develop the atomic bomb, win the war, and dominate the Earth — shutting the door on the hopeful future imagined throughout the series.


And so, as Spock says twice in the episode — first as a question then as a statement arrived at through cold, hard logic — Edith Keeler must die. The only problem is that Kirk has fallen in love with her and isn’t sure he can bring himself to let her die. But, after reuniting with McCoy, he does just that, stopping the doctor from saving Edith from a truck that strikes her down in the street.

STCityOnthe Edge_15

Many elements contribute to the episode’s greatness. The Guardian’s planet is an eerie, dreamlike place, one that inspires Kirk to comment, with understated poetic flair, “These ruins stretch to the horizon.” Director Joseph Pevney wisely lets the atmosphere, both of the alien world and 1930s New York, do a lot of the work.

Then there’s Shatner, who, often justifiably, gets a lot of flak for laying it on thick, but his performance here is measured. His love for Edith feels real, far removed from the flings seen in previous episodes. and so does his heartbreak.


Let’s get the hell out of here!  – The first utterance of the phrase on television.

Yet much of the brilliance can be traced back to the script. Star Trek had raised philosophical issues before, but few as thorny as whether taking one life can be justified in the name of a greater good. And not just any life: Kirk falls for Edith because she’s virtuous and beautiful and finds him charming, sure, but also because she’s the living embodiment of the utopian principles he’s sworn to uphold as a member of Starfleet.

She believes in humanity’s potential to overcome hatred and selfishness, in the possibility of the better future in which Kirk lives. But to make that future possible, he has to let her die. She has the right message at the wrong time. It’s a Kobayashi Maru scenario in the form of a tragic romance.

It’s a near-perfect episode of television, recognized as such from the moment it aired. The credits bore only one name: Harlan Ellison.

Whilst anyone else would keep their mouth shut and happily accept all the praise, Harlan was different.  He almost made a career about complaining about anything that was less than perfect or in anything else than a total victory for Harlan.  And of course in the world of television, hardly anyone gets to see their vision on screen exactly as he hoped.

Here is a great example of the plebs that Harlan had to deal with and an insight to just how firey he himself was known to be.  The below relates to when he was asked to work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

“Paramount had been trying to get a Star Trek film in work for some time. Roddenberry was determined that his name would be on the writing credits somehow. The trouble is, he can’t write for sour owl poop. His one idea, done six or seven times in the series and again in the feature film, is that the crew of the Enterprise goes into space, finds God, and God turns out to be insane, or a child, or both. I’d been called in twice, prior to 1975, to discuss the story. Other writers had also been milked. Paramount couldn’t make up their minds and had even kicked Gene (Roddenberry) off the project a few times, until he brought in lawyers. Then the palace guard changed again at Paramount and Diller and (Michael) Eisner came over from ABC and brought a cadre of their buddies. One of them was an ex-set designer named Mark Trabulus.

Roddenberry suggested me as the scenarist for the film with this Trabulus, the latest of the know-nothing duds Paramount had assigned to the troublesome project. I had a talk with Gene about a storyline. He told me they kept wanting bigger and bigger stories, but no matter what was suggested, it wasn’t big enough. I devised a storyline and Gene liked it, and set up a meeting with Trabulus for December 11, 1975. That meeting was canceled, but we finally got together on December 15th. It was just Gene and Trabulus and me in Gene’s office on the Paramount lot.

I told them the story. It involved going to the end of the known universe to slip back through time to the Pleistocene period when Man first emerged. I postulated a parallel development of reptile life that might have developed into the dominant species on Earth had mammals not prevailed. I postulated an alien intelligence from a far galaxy where the snakes had become the dominant life form, and a snake-creature who had come to Earth in the Star Trek future, had seen its ancestors wiped out, and who had gone back into the far past of Earth to set up distortions in the time-flow so the reptiles could beat the humans. The Enterprise goes back to set time right, finds the snake alien, and the human crew is confronted with the moral dilemma of whether it had the right to wipe out an entire life form just to insure its own territorial imperative in our present and future. The story, in short, spanned all of time and all of space, with a moral and ethical problem.

Trabulus listened to all this and sat silently for a few minutes. Then he said, ‘You know, I was reading this book by this guy named Von Daniken and he proved that the Mayan calendar was exactly like ours, so it must have come from aliens. Could you put in some Mayans?’

I looked at Gene; Gene looked at me; he said nothing. I looked at Trabulus and said, ‘There weren’t any Mayans at the dawn of time.’ And he said, ‘Well, who’s to know the difference?’ And I said, ‘I’m to know the difference. It’s a dumb suggestion.’ So Trabulus got very uptight and said he liked Mayans a lot and why didn’t I do it if I wanted to write this picture. So I said, ‘I’m a writer. I don’t know what the fuck you are!’ And I got up and walked out. And that was the end of my association with the Star Trek movie”.

I had the pleasure of chatting on the phone to Harlan Ellison in the late 1990’s.  It started off rather grumpily as he reputation had prepared me for but after 2 or 3 minutes we hit it off and chatted for about 40 minutes.  I suppose in a small way he is one of several inspirations for my becoming a writer.

The world will be a less interesting place without Harlan Ellison.


I’ll finish off with just a feq quotes from this very quotable episode.

Capt. Kirk: You were actually enjoying my predicament back there. At times, you seem quite human.
Spock: Captain, I hardly believe that insults are within your prerogative as my commanding officer.
Capt. Kirk: Sorry.

Edith Keeler: [privately with Kirk] Why does Spock call you “Captain”? Were you in the war together?
Capt. Kirk: [warmly but discreetly] We… served together.
Edith Keeler: And you, um, don’t want to talk about it? Why? Oh. Did you… did you do something wrong? Are you afraid of something? Whatever it is, let me help.
Capt. Kirk: “Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”

Capt. Kirk: Spock… I believe… I’m in love with Edith Keeler.
Spock: Jim, Edith Keeler must die.

Spock: [to Kirk] Save her, do as your heart tells you to do, and millions will die who did not die before.

Dr. McCoy: You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?
Spock: He knows, Doctor. He knows.

Lt. Uhura: Captain, the Enterprise is up there. They’re asking if we want to beam up.
Capt. Kirk: Let’s get the Hell out of here.

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A visit to Clava Cairns

Everyone knows I like my history and the older it is the better.  I spend much of my time visiting prehistoric and neolithic monuments. Everyone knows of Stonehenge but there are hundreds of other stonecircles across Britain as well as countless other monuments.  In fact as I write, I am preparing to go to Avebury tomorrow and West Kennett too!

So it was nice to visit somewhere a bit further afield whilst on my recent 9 day tour of Scotland, namely to Clava Cairns which are just outside the Highlands capital of Inverness and just a few minutes walk from the famous Battle of Culloden.


Set in a slightly wooded glade, the Clava Cairns comprise part of one, if not two, Bronze Age cemeteries. This landscape was an important place for ritual and burial activities in the Bronze Age. Later burials at the site suggest continued significance for over a millennia.


The three well-preserved cairns at Balnuaran each have a central chamber. But while the two outer cairns have entrance passages, the chamber of the central one is enclosed. Each cairn is surrounded by a ring of standing stones. Many of the stones used to construct the cairns have cup marks on them – these may have been reused from another place, perhaps an earlier sacred site.


The Clava Cairns are a type-site for a group of around 50 similar cairns found only in the region of the Moray Firth and Inverness. The form of these burial monuments uniquely combines aspects of ring cairns, passage graves, and stone circles.


Like many other neolithic sites, the cemetery at Clava suggests that midwinter was an important time of year for the society who built them.

The three prominent cairns form a line running north-east to south-west. The passages of the two cairns are also aligned towards the south-west, suggesting that the builders had their eyes on the midwinter sunset. The standing stones also suggest a focus on the midwinter sunset – they are graded in height with the tallest facing the setting sun in the south-west.


Considerable thought must have gone into the planning and construction of the graves. The midwinter solstice would have marked an important turning point in the year – many similar monuments across the British Isles have a similar alignment with movements of the midwinter sun. Such sites can tell us about beliefs of past societies and how they understood their world.


The cairns’ burial chambers were cleared out long ago, but it was the norm in similar monuments that only one or two people would have been buried in each cairn. It would have taken a large number of people to build the Clava Cairns, indicating that these were perhaps resting places for important individuals.


The row of three large cairns we see today was built about 4,000 years ago, around 2000 BC. There may once have been two more. A thousand years later, the cemetery was reused: new burials were placed in existing cairns, and three smaller monuments, including the kerb cairn, were built.


The remains of a chapel of an unknown date can also be traced on the ground nearby, at Milton of Clava though we only glimpsed it from our car.

Until a few years ago, this would have been just one of numerous little visited neolithic monuments but in recent years it has become the focus of attention for fans of Outlander due to it’s supposed inspiration as being the location for where Claire goes back in time.


Seconds before we arrive a large coach group arrived but like mindless automantons, they all flocked to the same feature near the front entrace leaving the rest of the large site empty and peaceful until their speedy departure.


For my favourite stone circle then why not read my post on Castlerigg in the Lake District.


Posted in history, television, Travel, Ye Olde England Tours | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments