Have you ever found yourself in the middle of Scotland? Not just vaguely messing about in it, as it were, or immersed in its cultural hub (wherever that is), but bang in the geographical centre of the country? There really is a centre of Scotland – of course there is – and its location is marked by a splendid chunk of rock, just to make sure you don’t walk on by without realising where you are. The centre of Scotland stone sits on a patch of grass on an unclassified lane, the Glentruim Road, between the A889 and the A9 in the Scottish Highlands. It is just a few miles south-west of Newtonmore in the Cairngorm National Park. The lane was in fact part of General Wade’s network of military roads, built in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion to help move troops around more easily should a further rebellion break out. This particular road was constructed in 1719 to connect nearby Ruthven Barracks with Fort Augustus, and includes the high Corrieyairack Pass ten miles away to the west.
The stone at the centre of Scotland was unveiled as recently as 2015. Before that, lost souls seeking the nucleus of the nation – and, clearly, people are desperate to know exactly where this is – had to scrabble about searching for a crude cross carved into one of the boulders on the dry stone wall that runs along the northern edge of the road. What they did before the cross was put there is anyone’s guess. And it’s a good job dear old General Wade built the convenient road, too. Anyway, the hard to spot cross was simply not good enough for centrist-loving folk; a nice, handsome, boulder makes much more of a statement and cannot be missed.
To be honest, we wouldn’t have known about it, but for our good friends Pat and Amanda. Pat, bless him, even found the original cross in the wall and took the photo of it that I have included here. Thanks, Pat.
As you can see, the charms of Scotland’s centre are unlikely to keep you engaged for more than a modest moment or two; but there is a wonderful view over the Spey Valley – and an interesting monument to the Macpherson clan nearby, of which more in a minute.
The stone at the centre of Scotland is one of those quirky attractions that appeals to the hard-core fan of A Bit About Britain. But how – and why – did it start? Who thought of it? I picture a boffin-like chap sitting over his porridge one fine day, having an epiphany moment: “Ah – if only we knew where the centre of Scotland was! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?! Imagine all the wonderful things we could do: the benefits to mankind; the articles that could be written; it might even become a visitor attraction!” Fair enough, you say, but how would you go about calculating it? Is it the spot farthest from all borders and boundaries, the point where all the lines on a map intersect? Do you include islands? – Scotland has more than 790 of those, numbers depending on whether a lonely wave-lashed, guano-stained, rock poking up out of the ocean is classified as an island. Is your reckoning purely two-dimensional, or do you take height/depth into account as well? In which case, how deep do a country’s borders run? It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that there are several contenders for the illustrious accolade of being Scotland’s middle. I liked the suggestion on Newtonmore’s website – Newtonmore is the closest village to the centre of Scotland – that the centre of Scotland is “the point at which a cardboard cut-out of Scotland could be perfectly balanced on the tip of a pencil.” But then I discovered that’s pretty much the method that the Ordnance Survey, the UK’s national mapping agency, uses; it is called the gravitational method. The experts at OS also point out that the centre will shift over time, because the shape of a land mass constantly evolves due to erosion and other geomorphological processes. We all knew that, didn’t we?
So, inevitably, you’re going to ask about the centres of England, Wales, Britain and the United Kingdom. All in good time. Similar difficulties apply, of course, a further factor being the political dimension: should, for example (and with tongue firmly in cheek), England ever become independent, then the centre of the UK will change. Right now, I’m going to be lazy and refer you to what the Ordnance Survey has to say about the geographic centre of Britain.
The Macpherson monument (you hadn’t forgotten that, had you?) is a cairn erected in 1996 to the eternal memory of Ewan Macpherson of Cluny (1706-64), who was colonel of the local Badenoch men in the ’45 rising. He was at Derby with Bonnie Prince Charlie, the skirmish at Clifton (reckoned by some to be the last battle on English soil) and the Battle of Falkirk. In the awful aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, he spent nine years on the run from the government, sometimes hiding in a cave, eventually escaping to France. He was chief of the clan from 1746 until his death in Dunkirk. The monument stands in sight of Creag Dhubh (black rock), a 2350 foot (716 metre) high mountain to the north, which was also Clan Macpherson’s war cry. At the bottom of the commemorative plaque is the Macpherson clan motto, “Na Bean Don Chat Gun Làmhainn”, “Touch Not The Cat But A Glove”, sometimes rendered as “Touch Not The Cat Bot A Glove”. ‘Bot’ means without. The reference is to a wildcat and the wildcat’s ‘glove’ is its pad. The ungloved cat has its vicious claws out. So, the motto is (apparently) a warning not to tangle with the violent Macphersons. Macpherson, by the way, means ‘son of the parson’; they breed tough parsons in the Highlands.