Military History and Travel
Traveling is absolutely one of my favorite things to do. Whether it’s a road trip across our country or a vacation somewhere in Europe, I love taking in new scenery and experiencing new and different cultures and ways of life. I am a big advocate of “when in Rome” when I travel as well, which means that I try my very best to see and experience life as the locals do wherever I go and to keep my eyes open for anything unexpected that might pop up along the journey. With that in mind, there are two types of military history travel that I am going to be discussing in this next series of blogs- the history that was the destination and the history that surprised me along the way. What I mean by that is this; sometimes history can be the destination, as in, “today we are going to take our rental car and drive to Omaha Beach to spend the day exploring”. But other times history can be a surprise, as in, “today we are driving through the Highlands of Scotland on our way to Glencoe but pulled over to see a Great War memorial that I spotted on the side of the road”.
Obviously a trip to Omaha Beach will provide an incredible range of emotions and experiences for which you will try to prepare yourself for on the way there. You’ll perhaps go over in your mind the massive amphibious landing that took place on D-Day or even be flipping through a brochure or a site on your phone to better prepare yourself for what you are about to experience. Yet when history surprises you or catches you off guard as you were going about your business, when it pops up along life’s journey, it sometimes has a power to arrest your foreword progress and force you to stop and listen, read, experience, respect. Sometimes this can almost be the best way to experience history because it catches you unprepared and forces you to stop and to be in the moment with your surroundings. In either case, experiencing history though travel can be humbling, fulfilling, and awe inspiring because it puts you in the moment. It puts you on a battlefield, in a fort, in a ruin, in a cemetery, in front of a memorial. It fleshes out the past and puts a human face on it because it puts you, a human, at the scene of the action- whatever that action might be.
In the upcoming blogs I will be sharing some of my experiences in this regard in both Europe and the United States, and will be starting with a trip to Scotland. Enjoy!
War Memorial, Oban Scotland
This first post is kind of a two-for, since technically I was on my way to see something historical when I encountered this unexpected memorial. But that type of thing happens a lot in Europe given the age of settlement of just about everywhere you go and the repeated layers of civilization and conflict that go with it. But anyway. My wife and I were visiting the lovely little town of Oban Scotland, which is on the extreme west coast of the country in the beginning of what’s considered the Highlands. This is a small town of around eight thousand people, the town itself being hardly two square miles. We had traveled
there for the hiking on the nearby islands, the seafood, the scotch (Oban scotch is fantastic), and to visit Dunollie Castle which is the historical seat of the MacDougall Clan (my best friend is a McDougal). As I mentioned this is a small town, the most of which is bordered right up to the sea, and so if you spend any time there you won’t be too far from the ocean anywhere you go.
To get to Dunollie Castle from the center of town there is a paved sidewalk that follows along the ocean front before a dirt path diverges off and winds its way up to the Castle grounds. We set off on foot excited for a fun walk that would let us take in breathtaking views of the ocean, wind us through an ancient and dripping forest, and send us up an ancient hill to come face to face with the crumbling ruins of a castle that sat frowning out over the surrounding valley and sea. Well, we weren’t five minutes into our walk when we came upon the kind of history that can surprise you along the way in the form of Oban’s War Memorial. As it loomed up out of the rainy mist before us I felt myself putting the giddy thoughts of castle exploration behind me as I made out the two figures carrying their wounded comrade that stood upon the top of the memorial. Admittedly, coming upon this memorial stopped me dead in my tracks, and brought tears streaming down my face as I gazed at the weathered features of the stonework contrasting with the bright wreaths of poppies that were carefully laid at its base. Sea birds wheeled overhead, while the constant pounding of the surf starkly reminded me of the journey these warriors took and of which they never returned from. Any memorial to the Great War strikes with the power of thunder, but this memorial does all the more so given how small the population of Oban is and certainly was at the time of the conflict. The scroll of the fallen here grabs you by the collar and shakes you as you realize the profound loss this community suffered as its sons lay down in Flanders Fields for King and Country all those years ago. This was the case for all of Scotland; her population has always been historically low, and so a cataclysm such as the Great War took an incredible toll that was felt in every corner of the land.
As a final thought, I was taken by the juxtaposition of conflict that I experienced at this memorial. I was on my way to visit a castle that was originally built in the 600’s and which had served as a fortified outpost through the 17th Century, yet 1914 came screaming down to me like unforeseen ordinance to land at my feet. I will never forget that feeling, and never forget the proud, defiant, sad, and unconquerable War Memorial of Oban Scotland.
R. E. Weston