Our ferry this afternoon was scheduled for 2 pm, which left us with a goodly bit of time to wander round the downtown area in Stornoway. Had a chance to purchase some Harris Tweed accessories, including a little bag and a new wallet; a little pricey, but nothing like as dear as a coat would have been – and really, what but the single most famous local handicraft should one collect as a souvenir?
We also had a chance to do a little geocaching, and had a couple of interesting encounters. One of them was a man who happened to live across the street from our B&B and let us in on a little detail of the changed ownership I wouldn’t have guessed: the prior owner was arrested and ejected from the island for…well, um…possession of inappropriate material involving young folk, shall we say. As this rather extraordinary bit of news sunk in we also happened to encounter a fellow with a chainsaw, who advised us to check out the little church we were standing next to – the only Anglican Church in the Outer Hebrides, believe it or not. It was rather cute, really: plain white inside for the most part, with some handsome gilded embroidery and a little memorial to the 1919 sinking of a ship just off the harbour.
Eventually it was time to be heading to our ferry for the longest crossing of our trip to date, from Stornoway to Ullapool. Here things briefly got much TOO exciting; arriving what we thought was just five minutes late for our ferry check-in we found the check in gate shut tight. Sprinting out to find a warden we were told to park near the check-in gate and wait.
So we waited. And waited. And waited.
We waited while all the big heavy goods trucks drove in.
We waited while all the foot passengers entered.
We waited while all the cars loaded themselves on.
I am ashamed to admit I panicked somewhat, having been assailed at once by visions of being shunted to a later ferry or worse, having to stay in Lewis a third night, throwing off our entire vacation plan and possibly ruining the trip. That I’d contributed to this in some way by shopping didn’t help in the slightest, either.
At long last we were waved forward by a warden, who gave us a bit of a dressing down for how late we were. (We were sort of baffled, as we were quite sure the ferry had been for two o’clock.). However, this bit of public shaming out of the way, we were soon able to settle in for our ride, have a bite of lunch, and as I type Mark is catching a much-needed nap next to me as the sea rolls past.
Overall, though Lewis was interesting, I’m glad I don’t live there – and I’m also a bit glad we’re not staying for a third night.
— Much later —
Back on the mainland of Scotland at last. It’s startling how dramatic the shift in scenery is once you get off the islands – or perhaps it is just the extreme difference between windswept Lewis and the thickly forested mainland; whatever it is that does it, it really drove home how much we’d come to miss trees.
We had a long, long, LONG drive to do, and much of it wasn’t of particular interest, aside from the very green and very steep hillsides of the Scottish glens. (I will say, though: after Lewis, the rest of Scotland’s sheep population seems suddenly really, really sparse.)
We were making our way to Dufftown, in the heart of the Speyside region. This part of Scotland is known for its whiskey distilleries: fully half of all the distilleries in Scotland are housed here. (Think about that for a moment. Seriously. Half the distilleries. In Scotland.)
On our way, of course, we couldn’t miss at least taking a quick look at the most famous of all Scotland’s lochs – Loch Ness. This very long and narrow but frighteningly deep lake sits deep in Scotland’s “Great Glen” (there are a lot of glens, but this one gets a capital G) and is of course the purported home of some sort of massive but very elusive cryptid, and a pretty scary-huge cottage industry has sprung up around her. Would be monster-hunters have a choice of hunting experiences and Nessie-themed adventures to go on.
We visited the ruins of nearby Urquhart Castle to get a better look at the loch. The castle itself was closed…but the car park permitted some pretty surprisingly decent views. (Urquhart is another one of those castles, like Eilean Donan, that was blown up by a set of defenders in order to prevent a different set of defenders from taking/holding it; it’s pretty crazy how common this story is in Scottish history. Unlike Eilean Donan, it doesn’t have a family looking after it, and so it sits by the lakeside in a state of picturesque decay.)
Even if we hadn’t made this small detour I think we would have been quite late at our B&B for check-in; usual check in time was meant to be 5-7, and we were pushing 8:00. Fortunately, our rooms hadn’t been re-sold, and our hostess, a kind and gregarious English lady, was remarkably welcoming. (Our hosts have almost without exception not been native Scots, and I have to admit I am really starting to wonder why.)
The B&B is really very nice here, with a four star rating instead of the threes we’ve been staying in up to now; we’ve got a king size bed and private bath, though it’s not en suite. There wasn’t much time to enjoy the room just yet, though; we were also getting perilously close to the time when restaurants here tend to stop serving food, so after dropping our bags we hastily adjourned to the Stuart Arms, a local pub in Dufftown (pronounced “Duffton.”). This is a tiny town with just two major streets, each lined with the brown stone houses that are typical of Speyside.
Despite our arriving just five minutes before the end of serving time, the waitress was able to score us a seat, and soon we were re-fortified to follow up on our new landlady’s intriguing suggestion that we pop round to the local Royal British Legion hall, as there was likely to be music happening there.
And so there was. In a room full of mismatched tables that probably hadn’t been much updated since 1970 or so – perhaps even earlier – a motley crew of Scots, most over the age of fifty, sat listening to a sizeable crew of musicians up at the front of the room. There was an accordion, a bevy of fiddlers, and an ancient drummer rattling away with intense, zenlike concentration, while a piano lent backup from the very farthest end of the room. Nearest the door, a pocket-size bar was staffed by a slightly-disreputable-but-
cheery-looking bartender, who was happy to recommend a whiskey for Les and Mark (the Balvenie 12-year double wood. To a whiskey newbie like me that means very little, but when in Rome.)
We were also accosted – er, welcomed – immediately by a small, bright-eyed Scotsman with snow-white hair and a neat, pointed beard. He was at once keen to bid us pull up a chair and to learn where we were from, where we’d been in Scotland, what we thought of everything, and so on. He also happened to be a wealth of knowledge on the subject of the Trans-Canada Railway, which has strong Scottish connections – hence all the little towns with Scottish names at every railroading camp from sea to sea. Dufftown is twinned with a city in Quebec, actually, and residents from one town often make visits to the other in alternating years; the fellow we talked to had visited Canada often enough that he’d been more than once to see the Calgary Stampede.
Our jolly host invited us to take a seat at a table just in time for us to hear the encore of Patrick, a fellow who didn’t seem a day younger than eighty but who led the assembled in a couple of rousing traditional songs about a young lad from Skye with a wandering eye and such. Nearly all the locals knew the words and many sang/clapped along; informal ceilidhs like this one have apparently been going on in Dufftown every Monday night for fifteen years.
At the moment this is possibly the single most legit cultural experience we’ve had in Scotland.
We were only able to see some of the show, given that it was so late, but I’m still happy we managed to catch it before heading back to our B&B to collapse into bed. A busy day ahead of us in Whisky Country.