Day 2: The Old Town, the New Town

After wandering around in it for not-quite-two days, Prague seems a little…schizophrenic? I’m not sure what word I really want, there, but let me try and explain.

The city is all layers, in all directions: Art Nouveau swirls nestle in next to Baroque curlicues, Gothic arches tower over it all…and then, right across the cobbled streets, McDonald’s. Poetic gardens and somber, brooding synagogues…right alongside clusters of loud, tacky shops aimed at tourists and establishments offering Thai massages. Spotlessly clean facades, well-maintained for the upcoming centennial celebrations, and also ubiquitous graffiti.

We opened our first full day here with breakfast at our hotel, then made our way to the Museum of Communism, a smallish but interesting exploration of the Czech Republic’s experiences with the philosophy and its proponents. In practice, it is a little bit more of a “Museum of Ways Communism Sucked” – if the descriptions of the exhibits and the little videos of personal stories are anything to go by, the Czechs suffered quite a lot under communism and were pretty damned happy to see the back of it. Take this thing, for example:

It took something like 7 years to build, acquired the nickname “the line for meat,” and when communism fell it was demolished so completely that nothing at all remains to be seen of it today.

Or take the example of the young students like Jan Palach, who were so infuriated at the return of communist control after what seemed like a veering toward a different way of life that they literally set themselves on fire.

This cross is something we found later, commemorating their deaths in Wenceslas Square.

There is quite a “fuck this shit” societal attitude that seems to underpin much of the thought about religion and politics here, and it’s things like this that give you a sense why.

The museum also displays some interesting propaganda, and gives a handful of Czech folks the chance to tell their stories of repression, smuggling, becoming stateless to study in Austria, etc.

There’s also a lot of unsurprisingly-rather-cross descriptions of how much Russia was held up as the ideal to follow, some of which seemed full of more barely-concealed rage than I normally expect from museum text. The souvenir shop, by contrast, is all black humor: a “we can do it!” proletarian lady is shown on the side of a coffee mug, with the slogan “Solidarity from your communist sisters! Who would have burned their bras if there had been any in the shops.”

Stop number two for today was the Old Town Hall, where for some centuries the city has conducted its urban business.

Our guide was a pleasant, white-haired fellow who spoke a dizzying array of languages, and who explained to us that although a number of features of the building are off display for renovations (like the famous astrological clock, which has been covered by a screen that shows a video of the little show on the hour. Probably just as well; there would be a LOT of angry tourists otherwise) there’s still plenty to see.

By law, once upon a time city halls like this one had to include a chapel, a dungeon, and a kind of courtroom: this is true of the one in Prague as well. Sadly most of what was in the chapel was out for restoration work, though the glass was lovely:

The mayor’s ceremonial rooms contain a variety of original and reconstructed architectural detail, though right at the very end of the war of course some jerks lobbed grenades into it and destroyed lots of cool interior details, like the original bell from the tower. You can still see the original “suffering Jesus” from the 1300s, though:

The mayoral chamber is also lined with crests. If one looks closely enough, they’re not heraldic representations of noble families though – they’re guild crests from the various occupations that kept the city running. A ship represents traders, crossed knives the butchers; hat-makers have a swirling starfish of ostrichlike feathers.

In a hallway just past this, a massive Sevres vase commemorates friendly relations between Prague and Paris:

Grander halls for formal pronouncements and the like eventually give way to one of the many winding staircases we ended up seeing today. This one took us into the lower levels of the Old Town Hall, where that third essential was: the dungeon.

It looks a bit more like a cellar these days, to be honest, but once upon a time this was a place of some terror, I suppose – particularly the “Purgatory” cell where they would throw people without food, water or light, sometimes for days at a time.

On our way out Mark casually happened to mention that he’d considered asking our guide about what it had been like under communism for him; I would have decked him for this, honestly, and told him so.

Here there followed an interlude wherein we attempted to locate a 3DS power supply, as we learned rather too late that North American power supplies won’t work with an adaptor. …Oops. We were unsuccessful, sadly, but had an interesting side trek out of the tourist areas and into a grittier area of the city. Looked a bit like the sketchier areas of Toronto, honestly, except the graffiti was unreadable and the streets were paved with approximately one gazillion stones about three inches square. (We had the opportunity to observe what I suppose are the Prague public works folk at work: a gang of fellows who were pretty obviously a road crew, hammering a number of these square stones into place to repair a broken pattern.)

We also stopped for a banh mi; it seems that Vietnamese folk are surprisingly common in Prague and the food is correspondingly so.

Next stop, the Municipal Hall. This is about the most boring name I can imagine for what Rick Steves calls “one of the best-preserved Art Nouveau interiors in Europe”; after having been there myself I can say that while I don’t know about the rest of Europe, it’s still a goddamn spectacular interior. Photography was, sadly, not allowed inside most of the building, so I’ll have to attach links or something to this later. (Later: Hey, here’s a virtual tour! Enjoy.)

I can still show you the outside, though:

So what the heck is this place anyway? It’s…well, a series of rooms, mostly: an array of salons, dance halls, and smaller rooms laid out in a rough triangle around a huge and beautiful concert hall. The “municipal” part is taken quite seriously, too – all of the rooms may be rented by the public for meetings, social functions, etc. Mainly it sees use as a concert hall these days; every time we passed this place on the way around town there seemed to be something going on.

On one side of the triangle are the “ladies’ rooms“: chambers with dainty decor, full of rounded shapes. Each of the rooms in the Municipal Hall has a dominant motif – once you have identified this, you can see it everywhere. Medallions on the ceilings, metal grate covers, light fixtures, upholstery. One room dedicated to folk art themes even uses its dominant shape for a fish tank: little bronze snails serve as the tiny fountain heads that once kept it filled with water.

On the other side are the “gentlemen’s rooms”: more vertical lines and structured shapes, and artwork more in keeping with…well, a cross between Art Nouveau allegory and van art: one room had huge and dynamic allegorical paintings of love, war and the death along one wall.

By far the most dramatic room, though, is at the point of the triangle: a round-ish room decorated entirely by one Alfons Mucha. It’s not all that large a space but even so it is spectacular: a reflection of his faith in the power of the Slavic folk if they but worked together, with the slogan “Through strength, freedom; through love, concord” in bright silver over one of the doors. From panels below the ceiling characters from Slavic folklore glower, smile enigmatically, or gaze into some point in the far distance; behind each a chosen saint or allegorical figure brandishes a symbol of theirs, also picked out in silver. In the dome overhead a falcon soars, surrounded by the figures of various folk in Slavic costume.

Mucha was apparently quite into Freemasonry, and the room is also apparently packed with hidden symbolism. I wasn’t equipped to identify all of those myself, but the room certainly does have an intensely mystical feel. Elaborate Art Nouveau drapes are stitched with aluminum thread, making them sparkly and doubtless more mysterious as well. (All that silver in the decor? Also aluminum.)

It’s a beautiful room, and I feel very sorry not to be able to take photographs to show you, but at least the tour hopefully has the hook-up for you (I cannot preview it on this device, sadly.)

The other important thing about the Mucha room is that it opens onto a balcony. There, some historic speeches have taken place; peering out through the glass doors it really feels like stepping onto a brightly lit stage. I can imagine how it must have looked with hundreds of people packed into the square below.

In the basement level of the Municipal House is a “Pilsner restaurant” and also the “American Bar”: we didn’t have time to stop at either, but I did get a snapshot or two, since they were allowed in the basement.

Our afternoon plan was to tour the Jewish Quarter. This is where Prague’s many, many Jews once had to live and work and is also home to the “Jewish museum in Prague,” a selection of synagogues that have been turned into exhibits on Jewish life, culture, and customs.

Some of the synagogues might be worth seeing just out of architectural interest – the Spanish synagogue, for instance, likely the most opulent of them:

Here we learned about the period of Jewish life between the World Wars, a time when it seemed for a while there like Jews might gain real social acceptance in this part of the world. …Unfortunately we all know that didn’t exactly go as hoped.

(Unrelated but fun: This cool Kafka statue is outside it.)

Indeed, at the next stop, the Maisel synagogue, we learned that apparently Hitler once planned to preserve the place as a museum of the extinct Jewish people. Ouch.

It has indeed become a museum, but instead it’s of the Jews of early Prague. Here I learned, for instance, that it seems Jews had been directed to mark themselves in some distinctive manner with a yellow somethingorother long before the yellow Star of David we’ve all seen in film and history books. (Once it was a distinctive yellow hat.)

We also were reminded that Prague is where the legend of the Golem that inspired the movie, etc, took place…and has been providing fodder for souvenirs of Prague for a good long time:

(One of the little shops outside a later synagogue even sold cinnamon-caramel Golem cookies.)

Perhaps the most dramatic point in our visit there, however, was the Pinkas synagogue. This is a relatively simple synagogue outside, but inside the entire interior has been first painted white and then inscribed with thousands on thousands of names birth dates, and dates of death if known: Czech Jews, most of whom were transported to Terezin and then killed.

Upstairs, a small but deeply heartbreaking little exhibition of children’s drawings from the Terezin camp: some 8000 kids were sent out there, but of that number only something like 250 survived. Some drawings are of the sort one sees at kitchen tables everywhere: horses and street scenes and the like. Some are incongruous: a rainbow arcing over a green field…in which armed soldiers herd deportees toward a train with their tiny suitcases in hand. Some are, frankly, rather hard to look at: shadowy half-formed creatures with names like “Fear” and “Darkness,” a vast table lined with empty chairs and a single child-sized figure looking on.

I…didn’t have the heart to take photographs in there, honestly; sorry, guys.

Outside is the Jewish cemetery, which was for centuries the only place in town where Jews could bury their dead. There are about 12,000 gravestones here, densely packed and at all angles like jagged teeth; take that number and just about quadruple it, though, and you’ve got something closer to the number of bodies actually buried here. Pebbles and small prayers are placed on the headstones of some notable folk, though as weathered as some of the stones are I’m not sure how one would know who was who.

The adjacent Klausen synagogue and its Ceremonial Hall house exhibits on Jewish customs (circumcision, marriage, etc) and death rites. I hadn’t heard before about the existence of “funeral societies” – groups of folk who ensure that the dead are buried with all appropriate rites and that nobody who is without relations is left without someone to care for them – but apparently they were a big deal. (They also held dinners, like social/service organizations I’ve seen back home. Sort of like a funeral-focused Rotary Club, I suppose?)

Our next stop was one of the local “ghost tours” – a bit cheesy perhaps, but this one actually turned out to be fairly charming. Our guide was a young French girl named Maelane who’s apparently been living in the city for about four years for school and was reluctant to go back; her obvious enthusiasm for the city was rather charming.

Things we heard about include:

  • The story of a young girl who was killed by a fiery chariot drawn by goats. This supposedly appears from time to time on the street outside what was found in 2002 to have been an alchemist’s laboratory. Poisonous gas and accompanying hallucinations for the onlookers, perhaps?
  • The tale of “The House of Death” – home to a young woman who may possibly hold the record for worst luck ever. Her infant son was kidnapped, her husband died of heartbreak, and she then found happiness again with a traveling artist many years her junior (no points for guessing that this guy does indeed turn out to be the long lost son.) As incest was a capital crime, her son was then executed while she watched, and she went on to hang about mournfully gazing out of her window until one day she wasn’t there any longer. Concerned locals going to look for her found that she had died of the Black Plague, just for good measure.
  • A haunted hospital, because you’ve gotta have one of those.
  • The story of a young girl whose father refused to let her marry the love of her life, a penniless knight. Dad chucked her into the convent of St. Agnes, but soon found that her lover had an irritating habit of turning up to climb over the wall for visits. Sword fighting ensued, and when the girl tried to intercede, her father killed them both in rage. Today the ghost of the young girl appears to couples in trouble. (Happy to report that we didn’t see her.)
  • The story of twelve nobles who were beheaded and had their heads put on pikes after the Prague Defenestration (that is, the time when some angry folk chucked some of the local leadership out a castle window by way of making their point. Unfortunately for them, the individuals survived, reportedly by landing in a giant pile of horseshit, and…well, executions ensued. The heads hung on pikes, in little cages, for many years, and supposedly their previous owners still have protective feelings toward their homeland. Every year on the summer solstice, they rise from their graves and make for the old town square, where they await the striking of the astrological clock. If it fails in any way, this will be a sign that dark times are coming for the country, and the ghosts will linger until they are confident that all is well. This does certainly raise some questions given that the clock will still be getting restored round about that time this year.
  • The story of the original clockmaker, who supposedly had his eyes put out after building it so that he would not be able to make anything so impressive for another city. Feeling understandably vengeful, he first cursed the clock so that anyone who made alterations to it would go mad or die before having an apprentice remove a key piece so that the clock failed to work afterward. Later, a local painter who wasn’t afraid of no ghost was hired to restore the astrological dial and made modifications to it. This didn’t seem to go well, as apparently he began losing his mind shortly thereafter, and his ghost supposedly wanders the district he most loved in the city.
  • The story of a wealthy local woman with a tendency to mistreat her servants who killed one in a fury when she stopped to pray at the sound of the church bells outside. The serving girl then haunted the woman until she eventually donated all her money to the church and moved into a convent herself.
  • We also heard at least one sad story from the more mundane world. A friend of our guide’s apparently lost her brother to the secret police when her dad tried to go west, planning to bring them with him. They never heard from their father, but both the mother and brother were taken in for questioning, and the brother died. Much later, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and records began to be unsealed, they learned that Dad had in fact written letters, dozens of them, at least one almost every week for years and years until at last he reasoned they must be dead. The family was quite surprised to learn he was still alive.

Here ‘s our guide, by the way:

After this it was after 8 pm local time, we set out to look for a dinner spot in our “taste of Prague” book; half out of curiosity and half out of convenience we ended up at what is apparently the only Mexican restaurant worth one’s while in the city.

I was impressed to see horchata on the menu; I almost never see that even in Canada – but all became clear when we fell to chatting with the waiter. Apparently the place is owned and run by Mexicans, and they feel that Prague is treating them well.

Our final stop for the evening (as it was after 10 PM at this point) was also from the Taste of Prague book: “Anonymous Shrink’s Office,” a local speakeasy bar.

You might think that’s the door, but it isn’t.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves, and chatted with the bartender, who presented us a series of Rorschach-like picture cards, each of which corresponded to a signature drink.

I selected something rather like a butterfly in rather lurid shades of red and purple, and ended up with a Manhattan-like beverage garnished with a slice of dried apple and something like a dried cherry; Mark selected something that suggested both plaid and Rorschach from Watchmen, and was served something that came in a flask filled to the brim with something white and smoky layered over the drink itself; the whole was poured over a massive block of ice in a rocks glass. It turned out to be a little more like an Old Fashioned.

We followed this up with a hit of slivovitz for me (so I could say I’d tried it) and an absinthe for Mark. They serve the real stuff in Prague, though it is now prepared in such a way that one would have to consume a truly terrifying amount to get anywhere NEAR high. Still, it looks lovely with the accoutrements.

By now well and truly exhausted, we headed back to the hotel to crash. Mark figures we walked something like 25 to 30 kilometres today, what with all the back and forth…and my feet were certainly feeling it.

Oh well. Good night, Prague – that was one packed day.

Outward bound

Well, that didn’t take long.

Usually it takes a little time to encounter some of the quirkier folks out there once I’ve left the house, but in this case things got interesting the moment we summoned a vehicle to take us to the airport.

Our driver was a smallish Sri Lankan fellow with some very eager conversational habits: almost immediately he wanted to know all sorts of things about the neighbourhood and comparing property values here in Toronto to those in Sri Lanka. (There was something here about how the Chinese are buying everything and investing just isn’t safe.)

Eventually he got round to asking us where we were heading. Telling him our flight was headed to Prague launched an extraordinary flurry of banter on everything from the deep corruption of the Balkans to the general scariness of Russia.

“I’m an expert on Russian history!” he told us. “They have the finest collection of art in all the world there.”

“You mean at the Hermitage?”

I can only describe the sound he made as a cackle. “Ha! That’s the place!” And he set about explaining how all the art is fake there, and how the REAL art is underground. (“You even get near it, they kill you! Hehehe!”)

Somewhere around this point he asked if we spoke Russian, and apparently he assumed I did. (I don’t THINK I look especially Russian, really…) I said no, but that I had a little German, and he went on to talk about training in Germany to cut diamonds before attempting to teach us a few words of Russian while simultaneously warning us not to use them, as it would make everyone hate us where we were going.

Er…noted, I suppose.

Some time later…

Layover time, in Poland. This is the Frederic Chopin international airport, so I guess it’s appropriate that there was someone playing the piano live as we made our way through the maze of glass and corrugated steel that will probably make up most of my memories of Warsaw for the foreseeable future.

The flight over was rather bumpier than I would have liked, but fortunately otherwise rather uneventful; Mark and I took in our first Hungarian film before attempting (more or less unsuccessfully) to get a tiny bit of sleep to help stave off the worst of the jet lag.

The movie in question was “The Fox-Fairy,” an unexpectedly charming and very weird little film about a lonely nurse who longs for nothing more than true love. Her problem: the ghost of a Japanese pop star (no, really) who haunts her apartment and appears to be mighty jealous if anyone else seems to be spending too much time with her. It was a really interesting mix of sweetness and humour that ranged from the absurd to the pitch-black, and apparently did well in Hungary not long ago.

While I am thinking of it, allow me to introduce our small travel companion:

The little fellow to the left of the sandwich is affectionately known as “Catbun” due to his resemblance to an Asian-style steamed bun. On our last international voyage he came along and appeared in a number of photographs, so we thought he’d come along this time too. Here he is pictured next to…well, the meal we ate most recently before getting off the plane. Breakfast, sort of, though as we landed it was lunchtime here in Poland, and this looked like a bit more of a lunch to me.

Still more time later

Whew! Okay, we have made it to Prague at last. Our hotel sent a driver to collect us; he spoke more Czech and German than English, but was a very pleasant gentleman who told us he’d been driving for the hotel for 25 years (!).

And it is a rather lovely hotel. Here’s our room, up at the top:

Undaunted, we set out to do an orientation walk during the Golden Hour…which means I have about a million photos to share, but for now we will need to be content with this one:

…ok, I lied, have a few more:

Dinner was at a place recommended in our Foodie Guide to Prague – “Next Door,” attached to a swank local hotel. I had wild boar tenderloin ragout with dark chocolate, cranberries and gnocchi (which might not sound like a combo that works but guys. GUYS. Holy shit) and Mark had braised beef in a creamy sauce with “bread dumplings,” something I shall have to try to reverse engineer sometime. (I will also have to try and reverse engineer the “Ham and cheese pate” because again. Holy shit. The waiter was kind enough to pass on that somehow egg and pickles (?) are involved…wonder if we could serve it at something.)

Today, the mission is straightforward: Get out there and see as much shit as possible. Currently fortifying myself at the hotel’s breakfast room. Here goes!

Mark says “you should post that picture from the restaurant at the end!” So here I am looking a bit skeptical about having my photo taken:

In which I revisit an old practice, and we see where it goes from there

Wow.

Here we are and the old blog’s still running and everything.

It feels a bit strange, being back: like revisiting an old home. Somewhere you once lived, when you were someone else, someone you only sort of recognize.

But then, someone said, there will be trips and things, right? And you have this web space. And there are these clever little beasts called mobile phones now, and everything.

Ah. Wait. That was me.

This place could certainly use a tune-up…but that will have to wait. There are things that want doing, and so a simple minimalist theme, a brief tidy to try and set it in some sort of order before too many more of the things that want doing become too urgent to ignore.

Well then. Here we go. Let’s see what happens.

…For now, hello again.

A test of the system

This is a test post to see how well uploading images and the like works from a mobile device. Please enjoy these extremely unhealthy but delicious pierogies:

An old travel diary, day 13: Cottage/Industry

This morning we bade farewell to Fairbank House over a breakfast of pancakes and set out for our final lodgings in Callendar.  Before that, however, we decided to do something a bit different and follow up on some signs we’d been seeing as we drove around Speyside yesterday for the “Knocando Woollen Mill.”  We’ve already tried to see woollens being handmade during our hunt for Harris Tweed on the Isles and failed due to poor timing – so why not investigate a different type of woolcraft here?
The mill’s undergone a recent renovation thanks to some money from the EU (I wonder what happens to that sort of thing now?), and to reach it you descend via one of those now-familiar tiny one-lane roads with passing places into a little sheltered valley with a river running alongside, bright and merry in the morning sunshine.  The greenery eventually parted, directing us to a spot where we could leave our car; hopping out, we ambled down a little gravelled path until, eventually, we reached a scene straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting by way of a fantasy novel.
A cluster of little buildings in the usual white stucco, cheery red doors bright and welcoming in the sunshine, surrounded a gorgeous little garden of flowers in a rainbow of colors.  The gravelled path led in a neat loop past a cafe (it seems to be in the rules that all Scottish attractions include a cafe), something labeled “The Old Cottage” and “The Old Shop,” and a bigger building that was obviously the mill itself.  A black-painted waterwheel turned sedately, fed by a lede from the river nearby.
Pastoral as hell, in other words.
Thoroughly charmed, we made our way over to the mill to investigate; a sign out front explained that today they were spinning and carding natural brown Shetland wool and encouraged us to come inside for a look – so this we did.
I don’t know how much experience you have with industrial settings (I am tempted to add “dear reader” here, like a Victorian writer), but when I go into one I generally expect…I don’t know, noise and grit and a general atmosphere of misery.  Not so much, here.  There was a quiet rumble of machinery, and a young bearded fellow piling armfuls of rough nubs of brown wool into a hopper for the first of two carding machines, great hulking things with rotating barrels lined all round with metal wires like very fine-bristled hairbrushes, combing the fibers straight and smooth and (importantly) largely parallel.  On the other end a wide, felted band of rough wool was carried along a cloth belt to a second machine, where it was gently laid and layered at 90 degrees to the fibers’ current orientation as though someone were piping out icing the color of milky coffee.
The second machine, tended by a young lady in Doc Martens and a T-shirt for a band I couldn’t readily identify but was probably (at a guess) punk, passed the wool through a second series of wiry rollers and out again as a much narrower band of unspun wool, wound onto a series of bobbins that would then be loaded, about thirty at a time, into the pretty fast spinning machines that lined one side of the workroom.  These weren’t in operation at the moment, but a later video would demonstrate how they worked, pulling the yarn out…and twisting…and winding the lot into spools of thread that could then go to the looms.
The looms also weren’t running this morning, but they look…pretty much exactly the way looms you’ve seen in movies look, and function about the same as well: the warp threads are tied in by hand, carefully threaded through a headache-inducing tangle of combs with little “eyes” in the wires in accordance with the pattern selected for weaving.  Given that much of what the mill produces is tweed of various sorts, which often has a fairly delicate pattern with just a few threads of a contrast color here and there, I’d be pretty worried about mis-threading…but then I guess I haven’t had hours on hours of practice, either.  Once that’s all done, the magic happens: the looms fire shuttles of wool back and forth to actually weave the  pattern, slowly producing a bolt of pretty cloth.
If the cloth in question is to be used for a purpose like, say, upholstery, then the process is finished.  If it’s to be used for something soft, however, like a scarf or pillows, then the final machine in the mill comes into play.  This raises a “nap” on the fabric for a softer hand by passing the fabric gently through two more great big rollers.  Instead of metal wires, however, these are lined with the natural equivalent: the heads of burdock plants, which are heavily encrusted with little “hooks” that catch at the fibers and raise a warm, fluffy halo.
The entire process takes place in pretty much the one old building, though a more contemporary facility tucked in behind the mill appears to house some sort of experimental turf: it wasn’t open to the public, but peeking in through the glass windows showed a workshop where several folk were busily doing mysterious things with colored threads.
The accompanying exhibition told us a bit more about the mill and environs.  Once, a long time ago, the entire valley would have been covered in little mills like this one, which was built in the 1700s, but only the mill at Knockando remains in operation today.  (The mill-wheel is largely cosmetic, sadly, though it does generate a little power.) Other mills were lost to combinations of various factors: land takeover as part of “the clearances,” economic depression, or in many cases a huge and devastating flood.
This one was perilously close to going under as well after its long neglect, but was rescued from loss and decay by one of our tribe: a young social sciences student who felt strongly that the mill was part of local heritage and deserved to be maintained.  He did not, sadly, know anything about the actual process, but luckily this mill had run for a long time and there was still at least one old-timer around to teach him the ins and outs.  So it is that – again thanks to that EU money – the Knockando wool mill is still up and running, producing mainly small “boutique” runs of specialty tartans and tweeds, often in collaboration with other organizations.  (In the shop there were a variety of these patterns on display and for sale, including the “Knockando” tartan that reflects the design of one of the mill’s windows – a large central pane surrounded by smaller ones – and a design produced in collaboration with a Swedish organization in bright, vivid colors.
I confess to a moment of weakness; I picked up a scarf in a bright, colorful plaid of the “mini moorland” pattern.  It’ll go with just about any color of coat I can think of, and in any event it feels kind of cool to support a business like this one.  I wasn’t alone, either; as we roamed the grounds a fellow visitor was carefully arranging her own purchase (a larger shawl) for an Instagram-ready photograph among the garden’s flowers, the pinks and yellows and blues of the blossoms matching exactly the threads shooting through the earthy grayish-green of the background.
There’s something about visiting a place that is just so thoroughly…pleasant that has a buoying effect; this was perhaps lucky, for as the road brought us up and out of the green, rolling hills of Speyside the sky began to cloud over, and we soon found ourselves driving through the kind of light but steady rain that’s been with us at least once a day since our arrival.
And so, we drove for a time.  The number of sheep gradually became less (though of course they did not disappear entirely); the rockiness of the countryside further abated as we approached the border with the lowlands.  Not completely, though: our next destination, Callander, sits right at the jumping-off point for quite a bit of outdoor activity, much of it in the mountains of the Grampians or the Trossachs.
A search for a visitor-information centre brought us to a stop none of us had anticipated and that few of us were entirely certain what to make of: The House of Bruar.
That sounds grand, and in a sense it is, but it’s not, as you might think, a stately home. It’s a store, a huge and rather elaborate one, advertising itself as the paragon of Scottish country stores.  From this I glean that the Scots and I define that phrase a bit differently.  When I hear “country store,” I think of the tiny Meador Grocery down the road from my grandfather’s farm, with the plywood-walled addition that housed its banks of flattened videos and the Friday night fish fry.  This?  This was something of an entirely different species.
To give you some idea of what we were dealing with, we entered via the “Menswear Hall,” which had a “Cashmere and Knitwear Hall” below that.  From there it was an easy walk to the “Country Living” hall – a sprawling two floors of linens, kitchenware, and decor with antlers – and thence to the wing containing the restaurant, food hall, ladies’ wear hall (with annex for leather and furs) and children’s wear hall…all of it forming a great U around a central glass-roofed courtyard.
Inside, the various “halls” were crammed to the gills with frighteningly posh goods: gourmet food, cashmere sweaters on sale at £149 (down from £200!), decor liberally embellished with antlers, hip flasks that cost upwards of £130, crystal bowls etched with patterns of red squirrels that I was afraid to breathe in the general direction of, let alone pick up to look at the price…
In other words, it was Bass Pro by way of the Hamptons.
Somewhere in Scotland there are people who think nothing of visiting this place and dropping the equivalent of thousands of Canadian dollars on a tweed suit, or hundreds of dollars on a picnic hamper of gourmet bits and bobs.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people for whom “the country” means genteel pursuits like riding and cricket and boating and golf; for whom this is the equivalent of stopping to gear up before going to the cottage for the weekend.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people who are as far removed from the idea I have of “the country” as I am from the surface of Mars.
The masses.  The classes.
The one percent.  Or, from certain points of view, the problem.
Hardly anyone there was OF “the classes,” mind you.  I suppose the rest of the folk visit to shop aspirationally, treat themselves, or perhaps just daydream about what it might be like to be part of the problem in their own right.
We did find the visitor information centre, in the end; the young man there pointed out a couple of the locations on our historic Scotland passes that he’d been to.  The first of these, Stanley Mills, was en route to our destination for the evening, so we headed there.
At first, despite the signage, we thought we’d made a mistake.  Oh, the buildings looked about right – tall stony edifices that made a rough square, a street lopping off one side of it into a chunk of freestanding…offices, from the look of what we could see through the windows.  Certainly not open to the public – though there was a nearby power station with an obvious “here’s how this power station operated a hundred years ago” placard out front, so we had to be close.
Eventually, we made our way to one end of the “u” portion of the square, where another sign finally directed us to the right point of entry.  The staffer on duty explained a lot by saying that only part of the mills were retained as a historic site; one side of the “u” was condos, while the freestanding chunk was indeed office space, rented out by the Trust.
All righty then: onward, in any event.
The Stanley Mills were named, as one might already be thinking, for a Lord Stanley; when industrialization became a Thing in the 1800s, he felt that getting on that particular bandwagon might be a good plan, and there was a burgeoning market for cotton in its various forms, so he bought up some used equipment from down in England and then gave all the crofters on his land an offer: Come work at the mill!  Better housing and jobs for everyone!
Wee problem with this statement: if you didn’t want to take him up on the offer, you couldn’t just carry on working the land if you wanted to.  He had other plans for that land, thanks, and if you weren’t going to join the mill and contribute…well, then, kindly bugger off, you useless gits.
Second wee problem with this statement: while the housing almost certainly was better, whether the jobs were better was…debatable, and that’s even if there was one for you.  The mills only rarely hired men, you see.  Why do that when you could pay women so much less, and children even less than that?
They were the sort of working conditions that brought us Upton Sinclair and Karl Marx, too: absurdly long hours, low wages, and horrifically dangerous conditions.  The machines were noisy, and most workers had hearing damage; small children had to scurry under machines to clean out fibers and could easily lose fingers or hands in the process.  A fine dust of cotton detritus filled the air constantly, giving many workers a terrible cough that lingered, perhaps for the rest of their lives – and worse, it was highly flammable; a single spark could set a huge area alight in an instant (needless to say, the fire escape protocols weren’t well-developed, either.)
Still, production was steady (with the exception of a closure from about, oh, 1860-1865…some sort of trouble or other in the States) and eventually the mill secured its future – for a time – by developing a technique for producing strips of linen that were used in cigarette factories to help form the cigarettes before rolling; this was a closely guarded secret, and the women (always women) in that part of the factory got to work in an area with blacked-out windows.   Later came work crafting heavier goods – for example belts of heavy cotton, soaked in tar, that would run heavy machinery and power things like tanks during the war.
In the end it was synthetic fibers that caused the mill to shut down – though not at the time or for the reasons you might think.  Hoping to capitalize on the vogue for acrylics, the mill switched its machinery to accommodate this new wonder fiber…but then, when cotton once again became popular in the 80s, the mill could no longer afford to switch back to supporting its earlier product.
That’s right.  The place ran right up into the 80s before finally shutting down.
The presentation was excellent, I’ve got to say.  Lots of interactive presentations for kids (and playful/curious adults) to play with, including a simulation of the “let’s get the cotton fibers out of the machines without losing a finger!” game that those long-ago kids had to play and some really nicely-done demonstrations of the physics of the machinery – and the waterwheels and turbines that gave the mill its power before gas and electricity came along.
But it does make for an unintentionally compelling (and slightly disturbing) contrast to the morning’s exploration at Knockando.  One of these mills is (now) essentially a small artisanal operation; the other is a pretty bleak, if interesting, reminder of how little most of us appreciate where the things we wear and eat and decorate our homes come from.  Certainly I doubt that those someones who shop at the House of Bruar on their way to a weekend’s blithe enjoyment of rural pursuits spend much time thinking about it.
Do the people in the lofts ever think much of the suffering that went on in the buildings where they lived once?  Should they?  Perhaps sites, like people, can be redeemed over time?  Can happy lives lived in a place make easier its fit in the world around it, even if they cannot erase its history?
As we headed out to Callander for the evening I spent some time looking at my hands.  Fair, soft skin, neatly-trimmed nails, if a bit uneven in length.  By the standards of those mill workers in 1850, a high-born lady’s hands.  But it wouldn’t be one’s hands that mark one out as of “the classes” today, would it?  Our mill workers now are waitresses working for below minimum wage, call-centre employees paid by the call and desperate to rack up as many as they can. I may not lose a finger in a machine, but do some of us not bear other scars, less visible?
Perhaps grimmer thoughts than are really appropriate for a holiday.
Our lodging for the evening was the Abbotsford Lodge in Callander.  While I don’t think any of us really knew quite what to expect, I feel pretty confident that nobody was expecting what we got: a large house with multiple levels, an unusual fusion of European and Asian/Indian-style decor…and sort of creepily-good service throughout.  Our landlord spotted us hanging around in the lounge to plan our next move and offered everyone a complimentary dram of whiskey; the ensuing conversation informed us that he was an ex-oil man who’d met his wife in Kazakhstan and eventually settled in to run a guest house because it involved less trekking around to very very dangerous places.  (This explained his wife’s very unusual accent: someone whose first language wasn’t English that learns it from a Scot results in some very curious pronunciations.)
He also, by extension, revealed himself to be a pretty canny sort of fellow; I believe the drink was at least partly an excuse to investigate how put off we’d be on the idea of coming to Scotland thanks to Brexit (not that much) and partly a means of securing that all-important positive TripAdvisor review.  (I never use TripAdvisor at home, but here it seems to be by far the preferred Yelp-equivalent.)
On his recommendation we headed to a local pub called the Crown Inn for some venison casserole (in my case, anyway) and a chance to watch some of the football match between Wales and Portugal.  The pub proved to be more of a family restaurant than a proper pub, and the Welsh lost, to everyone’s sorrow.  Everyone loves an underdog, no?  And Portugal wins so much at football already!
Ah well.  They fought well in any case (though Mark still very much prefers baseball.)
More tomorrow.

An old travel diary, day 12: On the whiskey trail

Rolled out of bed this morning to find a really lovely breakfast going on downstairs; this particular B&B (a Fairbank House, in Dufftown) has it going on in terms of amenities. If only my allergies, or cold, or whatever it is, would settle!  I don’t seem to have gotten over my cold, or whatever it is that hit me so hard in Skye.
However, be that as it may.  There’s much to relate today – another busy day.
We opened at Balvenie Castle, quite near our lodgings.  This is another ruined castle, one originally known as Mortlach, and it took just a few minutes to roam the grounds and snap a few photographs of the walls.
From there we set out for Elgin, a medieval-era town featuring a dramatic cathedral as one of its centrepieces.  Doubtless it was even more impressive when it was whole; in the 1700s the central tower (a relatively recent renovation) collapsed (one Easter Sunday…hmm…) and people simply…stopped using the place for worship.  Perhaps somewhat understandable, given that prior to the collapse it was primarily used by the clergy – bishops and canons and so on.  A parish church this definitely was not.
What’s most interesting about visiting the cathedral today is the new (only just opened at Easter!) exhibition that lets you get up close and personal with the masons who built it, after a fashion.  These guys were responsible for carving…well, everything; every fragment of column and window frame, every ceiling boss and arch.  They were paid by the stone, and a careless slip of the chisel could mean the cost of the stone came out of their salaries – so if you look closely, you can see not only the marks designed to help align the stones, but also tiny marks indicating which mason was responsible, usually tiny patterns of lines (I’m not sure how literate the average mason would have been, but I’m guessing not very.)
Of course, when the cathedral collapsed, much of their art was lost – or cannibalized for other purposes – but the exhibition is nevertheless full of headless satyrs and other grotesqueries, Green Men, symbolic beasts like hares and lions, and faces whose wild expressiveness is at odds with the vogue for Grecian-styled serenity.  There’s even a ceiling boss that, if viewed from the right angle, reveals itself as being held by a crouching figure…who is completely anatomically correct.  Some sort of token of sin?  An in-joke by a mason who knew it’d never be seen?  Hard to say.
Incidentally, on the way to the cathedral our quest for directions led us by accident not to a general visitor centre but to the centre for Jameson cashmere.  This is a cashmere company so famous even I’ve heard of them; they hold a royal warrant, and their shop is full of beautiful, if conservative, things.  Sweaters in jewel-bright colors, ridiculously soft – and of course you can pay as much as you like for them.  Drool-worthy, but not incredibly feasible.
Unfortunately, by the time we’d gotten a bit mislaid and then seen the cathedral, we pretty much had to turn right round and hurry back to Dufftown, as we had an afternoon planned that had a bit more to do with another product for which the region is famous: whiskey.
This may have been just as well, as it was starting to rain as we made our way to the Speyside Cooperage, the only working cooperage in Britain that allows visitors.  A cooper is someone who makes barrels and casks, as you may be aware; a very old art, and a super important one considering that barrels and casks and buckets have been important parts of daily life for basically ever.  They’ve really committed to the cask theming, too: gigantic casks (donated from a brewery in Germany) outside contain picnic tables for visitors with a packed lunch in hand, while the attached tea room is filled with cask-based furnishings, from the tables and chairs to the “paneling” along the front of the bar.
Inside, a tour details the history and practice of the coopering craft; interestingly most of the work done there is repair work, rather than creating new casks.  Casks are crafted of North American white oak – yes, the wood is indeed shipped in – which is pared down to specially-sized planks.  Some of these are destined to become lids: these are fastened together with wooden dowels to form a larger flat surface, but otherwise untouched.  Others are to become staves – the walls of the barrel.
Exactly as was done hundreds of years ago, these staves are arranged in a round shape within a band of riveted iron, with another hammered into place to produce, essentially, a giant bucket.  This bucket is steamed to soften the wood, then carefully bent, with more bands of iron placed to create the classic barrel shape.  If the barrel is to be used for whiskey, then the interior of the barrel is charred slightly, which opens up the wood to allow for better interaction with the alcohol to be stored inside.  Lids are cut and beveled from the doweled planks and hammered into place, a long reed packed around each lid to form a watertight seal.  Et voila: a hogshead.  Modern machinery helps tighten the iron bands into place, and the cask is sent off for testing.
That’s for new casks, of course; when repairing casks it may be a simpler matter of replacing a damaged stave or lid, or scraping off an old, unusable layer of char and re-charring the oak.
The coopers at Speyside are paid by the cask, and apparently can repair on the average 20-25 casks every day; their fastest cooper can do up to thirty (!).  We had a chance to watch this guy at work and it was really something; it doesn’t seem really plausible for someone to wield a hammer that fast, let alone when working with hard oak and iron.  Still, it’s cool to see an ancient craft in use in the modern day, and it appears there’s plenty of local interest: the last apprenticeship that opened up got more than 100 applications.  (And yes, that’s a classic apprenticeship, with a journeyman supervising and everything.)
Here I learned something that becomes evident very fast if you hang around Speyside very long: everyone has different ideas about what the Most Important Thing in whiskey-craft is.  At the cooperage, they unsurprisingly said it was the barrels – the contact of oak and alcohol. (In fairness, this does seem to be somewhat borne out by the part where different designs of barrel will have greater or lesser effect on the flavor of the alcohol stored in it.  Want very oaky booze?  Opt for a smaller barrel, like a firkin; some distilleries insist on these.
I also learned that barrels like these have an active service life of about 60 years or so – a long time!  If you assume a resting time of 12 years, that’s five batches of whiskey, for example.
Our tour included a taste of a liqueur called “Stag’s Breath” that’s made with whiskey and fermented honey.  Probably unacceptably sweet to most serious whiskey fans, but I thought it  pretty delicious, actually – perhaps a bit dangerously so if you’re like me and like sweet things.
Anyway.  That adventure told us all about the barrels; but what about what goes in them?
To find out, we went (at the advice of my old travel book and of our landlady) to Glenfarclas distillery, one of the last truly independent distilleries in Speyside.  Sad but true: almost all of the other whiskies made here are in some manner in hock to the big boys at Chivas or Diageo or whatnot.  Glenfarclas, we were told, is still family-owned and operates in a more traditional manner – so of course that was the distillery we opted to see.
I’ll note here that Glenfarclas’s tour is not considered to be the best one.  Sources agree that the best distillery tour is Balvenie’s – but as waiting periods for that one can be a year or more, that one’s not really a viable option.
Be that as it may, we darted into the visitor centre at Glenfarclas out of a pouring rainstorm to find that a tour had just left – so we hurried to catch up.  The only two people presently on it were a couple from Nevada (I gather the guy was into sales of alcohol in some fashion and he seemed to really know what he was on about); I suspect they were not best pleased with the sudden incursion of a party of four Canadians, but they bore it well.  Our guide was an unassuming but pleasant fellow named Murray who rocked some tartan pants and got right into it with a will.
Whiskey starts with two main ingredients: water and barley.  The water in Glenfarclas’s case comes from a spring rather than from the nearby river or its tributaries – and has at least once been a limiting factor for them, as if the year is dry or they produce too aggressively they can find themselves without enough water to proceed.  Interestingly they seem fine with this, even telling our group they aren’t really interested in expanding much farther than they already have, remaining a relatively boutique product.
The barley, once harvested and threshed, is allowed to sprout (which turns the starch in the barley into sugars) and then toasted (the toasting process is known as “malting,” and is where the “malt” part comes from.). Air circulation is quite important during malting, and to this end most malting sheds are crowned with little structures that look like pagodas.  Supposedly these improve air circulation, but it does make for an incongruous little architectural detail.
The toasted grains are rather coarsely milled, and the resulting mess will then be combined with hot water and yeast to ferment.  (Yes, all of it, including the little bit of flour and the barley hulls.  The hulls prevent the mixture from becoming an airless paste; the flour prevents the water from passing into and through the mixture too quickly.)
Fermentation takes a surprisingly short time compared to everything else in the process, really.  In as little as sixty hours you can have…well, essentially a beer; alcohol, but not distilled.  This distillation takes place in a series of giant alembics, more or less; huge copper devices with bulbous bases and long necks.  The copper is apparently important to the final product, as it helps to remove sulphites and other substances that might cause unpleasant flavors in the whiskey.  Most distilleries heat their alembics with a coil that wraps around the base of the still, but Glenfarclas insists on the application of direct gas heating; Murray informed us that they experimented with the coil method but that it changed the taste of the  whiskey.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the distillery folk seem to feel that the single most important factor in whiskey is the shape of the still; a shorter, fatter still produces a whiskey with a heavier body, while a taller one will give you a lighter, airier result.  During distillation, extracts emerge from the stills into a spirit safe, in this case a kind of steampunk brass thing with a number of globes in it; an experienced still operator can tell from the color and behavior of the liquid emerging into the various gloves and pipes what the percentage of alcohol is and when to begin decanting the relatively small percentage of the substance that will eventually go into those casks to rest.
The resting, of course, is next, and at Glenfarclas the barrels are simply moved into great warehouses to wait out their maturation time.  During this rest – which may be very long – quite a lot of the liquid inside the barrel continues to evaporate away as the fabled “angels’ share.”  We saw more of these warehouses across the road from our B&B; once a distillery and now closed, the warehouses hold whiskey from a large number of distilleries in the area.  (This sharing of warehouse space is not uncommon in the industry in Speyside, it seems; perhaps they feel that it keeps them honest?  At any rate, Glenfarclas doesn’t participate; they like to keep themselves to themselves.)
As the whiskey ages, it takes on more qualities from the wood holding it, as well as losing some of that back-of-the-throat burn common in the youngest of the whiskies.  Once it’s sat there long enough, it’s finally bottled – and at last the tax that was owed the moment distillation started can be collected. (Murray joked that distilleries weren’t so much sellers of alcohol as tax collectors; the tax represents a very great deal of the prices we pay!)
Once our tour completed, we settled in for a quick tasting at the visitor centre – a 10-year whiskey and a 15-year whiskey.  The difference is indeed noticeable – and a splash of water helps to moderate the burning, which I suppose is why whiskey and water is a thing.  (Interestingly, this is just a LITTLE water; an eye dropper, gently used.  Noted, in the event I am ever called upon to serve someone whiskey and water.)
It still has a bit of the burn to it, of course, but an interesting, earthy flavor.  Many elements coming together.  You can see why in Gaelic it’s “the water of life.”  Warming, certainly, on a cold, rainy day like this one, and it was fortifying as we braced ourselves to step back out into the wet.
Our last formal stop of the day was Ballindaloch Castle, whose claim to fame is mainly that it’s still occupied by the same family that built it, years and years later.  More the castle of a laird than a clan chieftain, it’s got a number of the features we’ve seen at other big properties – gardens, picnic areas, and whatnot – and for an additional charge you can tour the castle itself and admire the ridiclously vast collection of china, furniture from the 1700s, authentic paintings from even earlier than that, ancient weaponry, and whatnot.
It is an interesting sort of mixed bag of feelings, touring one of these places.  On the one hand, there are some truly beautiful objects, and occasionally some spiffy stories as well.  On the other, as an uncouth North American, few things inspire class rage quite like seeing a whole hallway full of photos of the family at various Royal events (with invitations, of course, prominently displayed), or a casually-displayed bit of artwork in the nursery that depicts on one side a young girl in plain brown coat, sitting on an obviously lower-class stoop with a bulldog seated next to her and on the other, a girl of similar age, but wearing a fashionable coat in Black Watch plaid, carrying a muff, with a greyhound trotting along beside her.
One of those girls is labeled “The Masses,” and the other was labeled “The Classes.”  Want to guess which?
To cool off my inner Enid a bit, we went for a stroll in the gardens.  These were, as is usual for big places like this, lovely: great smooth lawns occasionally broken by beds of roses and other flowers, or huge, majestic trees.  There was a “doo’cot” (a dovecote; here we learned that dove droppings were once considered a cure for baldness) and a tiny building dressed up to look like a train station: inside were elaborate toy trains, whether for the family alone or for the masses visiting the grounds was unclear.
Mark and I also had a little conversation about our favorite flowers. I like roses best: vivid and varied in color and scent, all the intricate layers unfurling and unfolding around a golden heart that’s rarely seen.  He likes lilies the best, the sort with a single white petal curling round, simple and graceful and austere in form.  I mused there might be a personality test in there somewhere; he seems inclined to agree.
As everyone was still a bit damp from all the earlier rain, we adjourned briefly to our lodgings to change and dry off a bit before heading to dinner at a place called Tannochbrae, in Dufftown.  It wasn’t difficult to find (hunting for a new place is pretty easy in a village with just two primary streets!) and soon we were being escorted to “the bar” to wait by one of the best candidates for the label “strapping young man” I’ve seen in some time…an enormous fellow whose polite soft-spokenness was deeply at odds with a frame that would be more at home punching someone through an oaken door at a pub.  (Also not from around here; his accent sounded familiar, though I didn’t place it until he mentioned it to other diners that he was from Yorkshire.)
Tannochbrae is a guest house as well, so “the bar” was really more of a tiny room crammed to the gills with multitudes of whiskies; a slightly larger area (with, happily, a crackling fire) allowed seating while we waited to be seated for dinner – deep leather armchairs and sturdy wood furnishings that suggested the smoking-room.  The Yorkshireman took our orders for dinner, and we discovered with some mild dismay that the place was rather expensive – but what the hell.  Here we were, so we might as well move forward.
I had a pheasant breast, prepared with bacon and currant sauce, with carrots cooked with star anise and a honey glaze, boiled potatoes, and cauliflower/broccoli cheese, followed by a creme brûlée.  It. Was. Ridiculous.  The Yorkshireman bustled about attentively, looking after us as well as a table of folk who were having some sort of insanely expensive whiskey themed dinner (he’d bring them a whiskey, tell them about it, and then leave the bottle) and who were speaking a language that none of us could readily identify, but that didn’t sound Gaelic, or French, or Spanish, or German.
As we finished our meal and prepared to leave, we saw the Yorkshireman speaking to the chef, who was ALSO a simply massive individual.  (Mark commented that if he was in a tavern with those guys it’d be the safest tavern ever; nobody would dare rob the place for fear of having their heads bashed in.)
As we left, the sound of piping caught our attention, reminding us that tonight was practice night for the local junior division of the bagpipe corps.  (Or whatever it is called.) This meant a group of teenage folk, boys and girls, playing rousing pipe tunes as the drummers tapped away and one (the most senior, I suppose) kept time.  And, really, they were pretty good – it was the just-noticeable wheeze at the end of each piece that marked them as trainees, more than any irregularity in the performance itself.  (Some of the trainees were pretty small folk, too; one girl really didn’t seem much taller than the pipes she was carrying!)
At last the order came to “fall out,” and the group dispersed.  On that note, so did we…making our way back to Fairbank House and thence to bed at last.

An old travel diary, day 11: Return to the mainland

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.

An old travel diary, day 10: The Sabbath, for godless heathens

First, a haiku:
Isle of Lewis Day
Wow, that’s old!  What was it for?
Don’t step in sheep poop
It was Sunday in the Isle of Lewis today, which means everything was closed, with the very very few exceptions of a couple of dining establishments that serve tourists.  Other than that we were on our own and out of doors: even the grocery stores were shut on Sundays, so it was definitely a good thing we’d picked up some groceries beforehand.
This said, there was still plenty to see on the isle, so like the good little godless heathens we were we loaded ourselves up and headed out for a little further adventure.
Our first stop was the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a concrete bridge that picturesquely spans a little gorge leading down to one of the broad, sandy beaches.  This one was built by a gentleman by the name of Leverhulme, a soap magnate of some sort who had the brilliant idea of building a road to connect the two long roads that extend from the main highway north to the very ends of Lewis.  The locals didn’t really want to DO roadworks for the rich guy, unfortunately…they wanted land to croft, thank you very little, not industrial jobs. And so they pretty much ignored his grand project, and the bridge that was part of phase 1 is really all that’s left of it.
The beach nearby made for a pleasant walk, as well: the sun was out, making the water a vivid blue-green and turning the sands pale gold.  The route down gave us a ringside seat for a flock of geese – goslings and all – some of whom had run across the road in front of our car as we drove out.  It was obviously a haven for rabbits, as well; an array of beachfront rabbit condos were tucked into the grassy verge near the beach’s lone picnic table, and judging but the sheer number of holes and…er, other signs…the population must have been substantial.
Toward the far end of the beach were some pretty spectacular spires of rock, as well; at least one of them had a natural tunnel of sorts leading right through it.  Too wet to wade through, but pretty to look at, in a sort of mysterious way.  Mark was particularly fond of these beach-megaliths, and seemed to quite enjoy his time wandering around and through them.  (It was a first class brood spot.)  I’m not generally much of a beach person, but the isolatedness of this one was quite appealing, if only it hadn’t been so damned cold whenever the wind blew.
And make no mistake, there’s a lot of wind.  Wind turbines are common on the isle of Lewis, and they seem to be moving at a brisk pace most of the time.  More on this in a moment.
Our next stop was the prosaically named “Butt of Lewis,” the northernmost point of the isle – and, incidentally, of our vacation.  This is, similar to Neist Point, a rocky, craggy tip of the island; huge boulders rise up from the sea here, showing swirling folds along their sides and dozens on dozens of nooks that form havens for seabirds and their nests.
On one of these rocks, quite low to the ocean, a local pointed out a seal, basking in the sunshine.  Not doing a whole hell of a lot, to be sure, but I was happy to see him anyway.  A seal! In the wild!  Something else crossed off the Scottish bingo card.  Selkie country indeed, though the waters here are freezing.  Can’t be that comfortable for them!
The local also told us a tale or two about the lighthouse that keeps vigil on the point.  Vaguely Spanish in flavor, it’s automated now but was manned until a surprisingly short time ago; remember what I said about wind?  In the winter the winds here are so very high that the waves crashing against the rocks would be thrown so high that water would come down the chimneys, putting out the fires in the keeper’s family home.  (We also asked, on a whim, about peat.  Yes, he does cut his own and yes, he does still burn it in fires.  He doesn’t sell it any more, though – too much trouble.)
Aside from wind and peat, the other thing the Isle of Lewis is very rich in is Neolithic sites…or, at least, constructs that long predate the advent of the written word, and whose greater purpose, if any, is long forgotten.  A surprising number of these are unmanned, as well, seemingly trusting to the honor system and the remoteness of the locations to ensure nobody damages the ruins.
The first of these we visited was Steincleat, a circle of stones with what appears to be a collapsed cairn set into the side of it, not unlike a drawing of a moon in its orbit.  Like most things in Scotland, it’s reached by climbing a hill; unlike most things in Scotland, the hill in question is remarkably mucky.  All that grass only LOOKS like grass; it’s actually clumps of sturdier ground surrounded by boggy moorland of varying degrees of wetness.  Got my feet damp here, unfortunately, as that would stay with me for most of the day.
Steincleat’s hill is ALSO heavily covered in shit.  No, literally.  Between the rabbits and the sheep there are pellets of various sizes literally everywhere, and it’s worth watching your step.  This would, sadly, turn out to be the case most places we went that hadn’t explicitly been sheep-gated.
All this said, there is something weirdly interesting about these old ruins.  What were they?  A ritual site?  A burial cairn?  Just a sheep fold?  What motivated people, thousands of years ago, to drag all these big heavy stones up there and arrange them just so?
Pondering this, we made our way to a “Norse mill and kiln” a little way down the road.  This site was also unmanned, situated prettily in a slightly sheltered bit of the hillside where a brisk stream likely represents the remains of the long-ago mill-race.  Two little huts, thatched roofs weighted into place with the same stones that make up the walls, now house the reconstructed kiln and mill.
When I hear “kiln” I think pottery, but not in this case, as it turned out.  Back when there was a working mill here, one would have to sort of lightly toast the grain before grinding it, and the kiln was where that was done.  Once finished, you could take your toasted grain and dump it into the hopper over at the mill, whence your grain would be fed into the holes atop the rotating millstones for grinding and spill out into a bin at the bottom.  A lever allowed you to set the distance between the millstones a little farther apart or a little nearer together to adjust the fineness of your grind.
I’m not sure whether the “Norse” in “Norse mill” means it was actually used BY Norsemen (not unlikely given the Viking tendency to come ransack the place) or whether it just means “in the style of Norsemen”, but it was pretty similar to other mills I’ve seen in my life, albeit much smaller and more remotely-set.  The stones were horizontal, though, and massive.  I found myself staring at the little hopper where your flour was meant to come out, just three slabs of coarse slate, and thinking for about the four millionth time how damned difficult life must have been then.
This theme carried on into our next stop – Dun Carloway Broch.  A “Broch” is a round tower with an unusual double-walled construction, found as far as anyone knows only in Scotland; they look a bit like watchtowers, but may also have served as housing for important folks in the surrounding lands.  This particular one happens to be the best preserved of the lot, and stands on a high, windswept hill (not that everything on Lewis isn’t windswept) that must in its time have been rather lonely, though today there are a couple of crofter’s homes nearby.  As you scale the hill for a look at the tower, you can look down into them – and, if you’re versed in the construction of blackhouses, there are unmistakably the foundations for some in the croft yards, now being used as material storage or sheep folds.  (Some of the sheep were obligingly hanging out in the remnants of the fold where their ancient ancestors probably slept.)
There isn’t much left of the tower itself, of course.  Doors so low that they barely seem to qualify as human-scale let you duck through a low wooden gate and out of the wind, but none of the original floors of the broch survive.  (Interestingly it seems that the stairs may have been nestled into the space between the two walls, though.). Again the impression is one of deep remoteness.
Not so much, of course, as the remoteness embodied by the Callanish Standing Stones, which we returned to as our next stop.  I neglected to mention the broch’s age, but it’s believed that it dates to the time of Christ.  This seemed pretty goddamn old to us, until we considered that the Callanish stones date back to 5000 BC as far as we know.  That would mean that they predate the great pyramid of Giza.  By about, oh, 2500 years, give or take.  I honestly have no capacity to comprehend time on that scale in any meaningful way; these things are so old that their age is literally meaningless.
The obvious parallel here is Stonehenge – but unlike Stonehenge, here you can actually walk up to and around the stones – touch them, even; run your hand, as I did, over a band of pink granite and ponder the site’s purpose.  What could they have been for?  Astronomy?  Ritual?  Burial?  Did they come here to celebrate Beltane, put out all their fires, then light them again from a central flame kindled by a priest?  Did it have something to do with the distant outline of a reclining woman some say you can see in the hills? Did they sacrifice here, as Mark thought, looking on the great central stone and the eye-like nodule in its side?
The new age-y folk have come here, to be sure; remnants of their passing linger in the bouquets and remnants of garlands and such that they leave behind.  I cannot begrudge them; who can say whether any of us are right?  Does it matter?  Are things like the Callanish Stones not a mirror of sorts, reflecting ourselves back to ourselves?
Either way, it’s a wild and mystical sort of spot. (And, like other places of power we’ve visited this trip, it drained Mark’s phone battery instantly, only to have it restored to 75% immediately after returning to the car.  What do the ancients have against the iPhone 4S?  The pagan and the Christian gods both seem to have it in for it, for some reason.)
By this time it was getting quite late in the day, but we had one more stop we wished to make: at least getting a view of the beach where the Lewis Chessmen were found.  This proved easy enough to do, though we did manage to take one wrong turn and found ourselves in the…settlement (“village” seems like too strong a word) of Ard Uig, which seems to consist of…a few houses in poor repair, a handful of battered vehicles, and a general air of desolation.  Even the “shop” some villages on the isles have – a kind of combination post office, general store, laundrette, etc. – was absent, and we were more than happy to turn right around and leave the ill-maintained track of a road behind.
The beach itself is like others on Lewis, and there was not time to hunt for the spot – but Mark did pose for a picture with a “life sized” chessman before we made our way back to Stornoway.
There was still some time before dinner when we made it back to town, so we stopped in at Stornoway’s war memorial.  It seems that, for some reason, the isles suffered heavy losses in the war, heavier than most of the rest of Britain, and the monument was meant to be a grand and somber tower one could climb and reflect.  However, the tower quickly became unsafe to climb, and so it’s barred to visitors, the plaques within relocated to a nearby circle of standing stones for those who wish to pause and reflect.
It was while pausing and reflecting that I heard it: a song, a female voice in a language I didn’t recognize, soft and mournful and plaintive against the cold, ever-present wind.  Curious, I climbed the hill to investigate and soon located its source: the female half of a pair of backpackers, standing at the base of the tower in one of the few sheltered spots. It seemed…rude…to disturb her, and so I simply stood by, waiting and listening.
As she finished, Karen asked what she had been singing (she’d been attracted by the song, too.) It was, the girl said in broken English, a traditional song from her home in the Ukraine.  Something about remembrance, though the language barrier precluded much more information than that.
A somber sort of note on which to move to dinner, but a haunting moment.
It being Sunday, of course, hardly anything was open to serve us food – but we did manage to get reservations at “Eleven,” the buffet restaurant in essentially the island’s answer to Holiday Inn.  This was…more or less exactly what you’d expect in the circumstances; some rather nice pork roast complemented by indifferent mashed potatoes along with some sort of beet business and…cabbage with cheese?…I’m not entirely certain.  Still, there was a light, fluffy mango cheesecake in the offing before we returned to our hotel and collapsed with an episode of something British Detective-ey.  (“Wycliffe,” which I’d never seen before.  Not as fun as “Lewis,” though.  Why are British detectives so craggy, anyway?)

An old travel diary, day 9: To the outer Hebrides

Another travel day today, this one with an especially early beginning, as we had to be at the harbour for our 9:30 scheduled departure a full 45 minutes early.  This one departs from Uig, near where we split from the road for the fairy glen yesterday.
Porridge with honey for breakfast this morning – not much of an anniversary meal, but nicer than I would have thought; not slimy as I usually fear with porridge.  It rained heavily as we got into the car to leave – that “unsettled” weather again – but as a nice little trade off, we got to see a rather magnificent rainbow, a full, sky-spanning arch with the complete spectrum brightly represented.  (I hope it’s a sign.  Perhaps it’s an anniversary sign.)
I think this is easily the biggest of the ferries we’ve ridden yet, and the longest crossing so far: disturbingly, before getting on board we had to hand in a little card with our names, sex, and ages.  What is that for?  In case we sink?
Be that as it may, we had a few minutes before boarding to check out the tiny pottery next to the pier.  It’s known for its whimsical designs – puffins, chickens, and whatnot – and there’s a little workspace where you can watch the potter – a cute young girl with a ponytail, in this case – work on new pots.  We bought a little something here – a “quaich,” a kind of drinking cup that was typically filled with whiskey or brandy and shared communally as a mark of hospitality.  This one’s blue and white, like our other tableware, and has a simple knotwork design that should, I think, suit its purpose well.
This morning’s sailing is packed to the gills with…runners and their families; it seems there’s a half marathon on Lewis today.  And now, half an hour into the crossing, I am the only member of my party not asleep, and I am watching blue-gray sea meld with blue-gray sky, the horizon only briefly disturbed by misty ripples of rock that must be various other isles of the Outer Hebrides.  There is something incongruous about knowing that out there somewhere in all that slate-colored wildness there are seals and dolphins and sharks and all manner of creatures, living as they have for always, while here we are inside on a boat full of dogs and long-distance runners, with some sort of home auction program flickering bland enthusiasm and faded flowered wallpaper on a screen at the fore of the cabin.
Perhaps it’s just a sign I need some coffee.
— Some time later —
I spent the rest of the ferry ride sitting in the canteen having a coffee and a bit of shortbread and watching the seas drift past.  When at last we emerged, it was into the tiny town of Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris.  The first thing one notices out here is that English starts to take second place to Gaelic on the signs; there are more Gaelic speakers here than in most other places.
Lewis and Harris are actually a single island connected by an isthmus on which Tarbert sits, though their landscapes are quite different.  The isles are, I’m told, very strong in their culture yet, including the fairly rigorous observance of the Sabbath; we discovered very quickly that we’d have a hard time getting into anything on Sunday as the sidewalks would essentially be rolling right up during that time.
Very well, then: we set up a plan to take in most of the isle’s interior attractions, though there aren’t many.  For a start we set off on a loop road round Harris, the southernmost portion.
The guide refers to this part of the world as “an inhospitable moonscape,” and that’s not far off.  In some parts of the world nature bothers to cover up the rock beneath our feet with, say, dirt or grass or trees or something; not so here.  Admittedly Magnus Barelegs is supposedly to blame for the trees; lore says he burnt them all down and left the island bare.  But there is precious little else in the way of vegetation: heather and coarse grasses in amongst the rocks, but that’s about it.
There are sheep, though.  Of course.  Here they provide the most important of raw materials for the famous Harris Tweed, the only fabric with an Act of Parliament dictating what qualities a textile must have before it can bear the name or the orb trademark: dyed and hand-woven on the outer Hebrides, much as only a small subset of the cheeses calling themselves Parmesan are true Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Traditionally many of the dyes come from the isle as well: green from nettles, purple from iris roots, and so on.
We learned all this at a tiny visitor centre in the middle of nowhere; the cheery proprietress informed us that she’d been to Petrolia in the past.  Afterward, we took a brief pause at a beach.  The Outer Hebrides is known for its beaches, apparently, and are popular for kayaking and surfing (!), though I doubt very much I’d have the stamina to swim in water that cold.  It’s also extremely windy, or was during our visit.  Personally I don’t think of a proper beach as somewhere you have to wear a jacket to go to, but the Brits apparently disagree.
Our path wound in and out along a pretty steeply-slanted one lane road through this weird moon-landscape until we reached St. Cuthbert’s, a tiny, tiny medieval church on the isle’s far southern tip.  A pair of female bards are buried here; one, at her own request, was buried face-down, to keep her “lying mouth” – her own words – from causing further trouble.  (There’s a story there, I’m sure.) Nearby, a hotel offered food and drink; we stopped in at the nearly empty restaurant for some excellent fish chowder before winding our way back north and west onto Lewis.
Most of the weaving industry has been relocated here, and there are some 600 weavers still on the island; we drove past several houses that seemed to have sunrooms to one side with big looms ready to be worked.  It’s also marginally less inhospitable, though instead of steep rocky hillsides like Harris, Lewis looks very much like wild moorland. A little deceptively so, honestly; most of that stuff that looks like rolling grassland is in fact peat bog.
Peat happens when there’s especially poor drainage in soil; plants sprout and die but then cannot fully rot, as there’s not enough oxygen getting in down there.  This suffocating plant mass eventually sort of merges with the soil to produce a substance that the locals slice off in brick-sized chunks, resulting in what looks like a pile of the world’s least appetizing brownies. These are dried out and then carefully stored until it gets cold, at which point they’ll be burnt for fuel, resulting in that distinctive smelling smoke we can taste in whiskey.  Peat-cutting is a summer activity in the isles, so here and there we were able to see people slicing off the bricks, or piling them up to dry.
Our first stop was the visitor centre for the Callanish standing stones, which we’ll be making a proper visit to tomorrow.  Like Stonehenge, this stone circle was erected approximately forever ago by people nobody really knows much about for reasons that are largely unknown but are (say it with me) probably of religious significance.  More on these tomorrow.
It was already getting a bit late by this time, and we hadn’t yet checked into our B&B, but we thought perhaps we might just have time to pop round to Argol Blackhouse on our way to Stornoway.  A “Blackhouse” is a type of construct that was the done thing in the isles many years ago and which had two primary features: one, your animals lived in the same house as you and two, everything was warmed by a central peat-burning hearth.  On the upside, this meant you could keep everyone warm a lot more easily, and the rising smoke killed bugs that might otherwise have been lurking in the thatch.  On the downside, I expect people had a pretty strong tendency to die of lung cancer back in the day.
Sadly, as we arrived the little one-room centre was just closing down, but we had a chance to roam the site and investigate the nearby ruined blackhouse, which helpfully labeled all the rooms.  I don’t know about you, but I think I would be…reluctant…to have my kitchen quite so directly across from my cowshed. (The smell must have been astonishing.)
Our B&B in Stornoway is…interesting.  Weirdly sparse furnishings, no art on the walls at all, and the general feel about it of a staged house.  (Which it may well be given that there is a big for sale sign out front.) In comparison with some of the prior places we’ve been it just doesn’t quite seem like they’re trying as hard, though the person on hand to help out (not the owner) seems kind.  Stornoway itself didn’t make much of a good first impression, either; gray and dark in the rain, with a number of shops that seemed to be going out of business.
As in Skye, it turns out that restaurants and other such establishments book up very, very quickly on a Saturday evening when everyone and their dog wants to go out; the only place in town we could get a spot was this crazily expensive place at a local hotel.  And…true, it had local lamb on the menu (and Lewis lamb is apparently particularly unusual in flavor; the huge amount of heather in their diet means their meat is sweeter than the norm).  But…
We were tired.  And hungry.  And even though it was our anniversary, did we really want to eat out at a pricey place because it was the only thing available?…
In the end, we ended up going to “Golden Ocean” – a cheap Chinese takeaway with a vivid turquoise shopfront, an equally vivid purple interior, and a seating area equipped with abundant IKEA.  The cider was a bit bland and tasteless, the fried rice bore no resemblance to anything I’ve had before…but it was inexpensive, and different from all the pub food we’ve eaten lately.
Afterward, we spent some quality time together watching a British mystery show and wished each other happy anniversary and a good next year.  Starting from a bare little white room at the end of the world, it seems sort of symbolic.  May it all be up from here.

An old travel diary, day 8: Skye sightseeing

The Isle of Skye has quite a lot to see.
That’s the short version.  Here’s the slightly longer version:
Rolled out of bed to find that Mark hadn’t really slept at all thanks to a combination of my illness (?), his inability to sleep without something covering him, and the regrettable lack of top sheets.  (In his defense, a duvet IS much too heavy.). Still, there was – is – nothing for it; our time is limited and we want to see and explore as much as we can…so off we go.
Our very first act was to book a table that evening at one of the local restaurants.  We had cause to be glad we did, I think: even phoning first thing in the morning, we couldn’t get a table within the prime dinner range.  9:00 for dinner it was; this in mind we dropped by a grocery to collect picnic ingredients for lunch.
The Isle of Skye is sort of an assemblage of peninsulas – three of them to be precise.  We came in along the southernmost, and today planned a circular route that would take us up and around the upper two.  As you leave Portree to the north to head up and around the northeastern peninsula, you wind along the edge of the Cullin range (those mountains supposedly carved out and thrown up by the great battle between Cu Chulainn and Scathach) and come almost immediately to the first of the notable landmarks of our journey: the Old Man of Storr.
This is a spire of rock, perhaps one of the giants – legend has it some of them fell to earth and became stone.  A path winds up to it, rocky and very steep; especially rainy as it was, it’s a strenuous climb, such that your calves burn in protest on the way up and your knees shiver with strain on the way down. We did a bit of it anyway, eventually scrambling winded (in my case anyway) to a point where we could see the Old Man from a bit closer than the road.  It looks lonely there, standing all by itself, though lonely in a proud sort of way.  Perhaps nobody fucks with him and gets away with it, either.
The rain continued, off and on, as we peered over the overlook onto Kilt Rock and its accompanying falls.  The Rock is so named because its vertical “folds” resemble those on a kilt.  Impressive, but we were being rained on pretty hard, so we didn’t stay long.
At least the rain slowed a bit as we rounded the northern tip of the peninsula, our path meandering along sometimes-precipitous drops, through and over rocky moorland.  It isn’t the high season yet – not for a couple of weeks – but already the number of visitors we’re seeing is quite surprisingly large.  Plenty of Europeans – Germans, French, Dutch – but also a surprising number of explorers from Asia.  The Chinese folk I’ve seen tend to move in packs, on big buses, as we saw in Glencoe; Koreans and Japanese folk have been in smaller bunches.  (Cat hats are plentiful.)
Our next main stop was the Skye Museum of Island Life, a collection of small thatched huts situated on a slightly bleak hillside.  These were actual crofters’ huts, and inside were collections of artifacts and stories telling more about the lives of those on the isles before the days of, say, electricity, or plentiful ferry crossings.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like living with up to fourteen people out of three rooms in a little thatched hut that, to this day, smells strongly of peat – a dense, smoky, earthy smell that you can often pick up, in somewhat reduced strength, from a good whiskey.  At least it keeps the wind out, I suppose.  Harder still to imagine rising so early in the morning that there was time to scythe a sheaf or two of grain, thresh it, and turn it into oatmeal for everyone to eat before the children went to school.  (No thanks; I’m not a morning person.).
Crofters’ wives often had the toughest of the work to do – field work AND cleaning AND cooking AND shopping, like as not; one of the items on display was an interesting contraption that would allow a crofter’s wife to carry eggs safely to market to be traded for other goods, a common practice.  (One that still seems to be carried on on the island: as we drove around I saw a number of signs advertising fresh eggs, sometimes with essentially a little egg box and a place to deposit cash for them next to it.  The honor system?)
Overall, I’m happy to live in an age where I don’t need to devote quite so much of my energy to obtaining sustenance; certainly I’m pleased that I have never had to bleed a cow, mix the blood with oats and whip up a “black pudding” to avoid starvation.  (This was indeed a common practice; the family milk cow was so prized she was often kept in her own byre in the winter, to keep her warm and producing milk.  Eating her would doubtless have been just about unthinkable.)
We also got a potential answer to why it is that we’ve seen so few pubs out here on the islands.  In England there seems to be a pub about every ten feet or so; since it was pretty typical not to have much space for socializing in one’s house, pubs served as a kind of communal living room.  On the island, though, it was more typical to co-opt one of someone’s buildings as “the ceilidh house” and have social gatherings there; this explains the absence of pubs to at least some degree, though it does make it a bit frustrating to find somewhere for lunch.
Ah well.  We had other lunch plans anyway: to locate and picnic in the “fairy glen” on the island.  This isn’t signposted really much of anywhere, despite being one of the isle’s notable sights; we had to ask a local which road to take.  A sharp left, just past the Uig Hotel (Uig is the rather bizarre name of the port town from which our ferry will leave on Day 9.). This takes you up a steep and winding one-lane road – and then down an equally steep and winding one-lane road that looks very much as though it’s meant to be someone’s driveway: we stopped and asked directions from a local gentleman just to confirm we were on the right path.  I couldn’t really make head or tail of directions like “It’s just down the brae”, but the answer seemed to be affirmative, so on we went…
And then, there we were.
It is instantly obvious why the islanders might believe fairies lived here.  The glen is a rich, emerald green that almost glowed from within in the sunlight as we entered, and the rounded hills – almost conical in places – bear a startling resemblance to some of the cairns and mounds we’ve seen elsewhere on our journey, constructed by humans.  One of them is crowned with a rock that looks for all the world like a tiny, turreted castle, and the sides of the hills have formed natural terraces through some quirk of erosion.  A tiny picture-perfect mini-loch fills one part, and the trees and ferns and wildflowers seem more delicate here.  An open area with a partially-ruined wall contains a soft carpet of green grass that would be ideal for dancing, and one of the rock faces nearby had exposed a patch of brilliant white shaped very much like a harp.
Here we stopped and had our picnic, though the light didn’t cooperate by lingering, and the rain meant we spent most of our dining time in the car.  Still…”It’s not polite to visit someone’s house and eat without sharing,” I said to Mark, and tore off a bit of my sandwich, tossing it out into the glen for any, er, “locals” that might be there. (A few moments later I saw a kind of silvery flash dart through the greenery near where it landed.  A bird with rain-slick feathers?  Something else? Who can say? ;))
As we made our way out of the glen, the rain cleared, eventually brightening to a warm sunshine that would linger for the rest of the day (and indeed long into the evening; we’re far enough north here that it scarcely gets dark at all in the summertime.  I expect in the winter the opposite is true; the idea of spending days and days and days barely seeing the sun makes rather a good ground for understanding why so many people, especially in historical sources, called Scotland a bleak country.
At any rate, our next stop was Dunvegan, seat of the clan MacLeod.  Dunvegan is a good example of what I have christened “Clanstanding,” the apparent effort each clan makes to demonstrate their awesomeness in front of all the other clans.  Dunvegan isn’t all that LARGE a castle, but it’s got huge, dramatic gardens: a Victorian-era round garden, an older walled garden, a water garden with carefully planned falls…
Two odd things registered for me.  One: how remarkably luxurious, decadent even, it felt to walk across a soft, well-manicured lawn after days and days of hiking over rough Scottish countryside.  Even through my shoes, the difference was palpable.  Two: how starved I suddenly realized I had been for color.  Oh, there IS color in the Highlands, right enough, but most of it is shades of green and brown and gray, with the occasional splash of pinkish-purple.  To see red, or orange, or those bright deep blues, or pink…to see them all at once!  So much color in one place!  All of a sudden it makes complete sense that castle gardens like these are such attractions in themselves.
Within the castle, of course, other points of interest: the fairy flag, of course, wherever you believe it comes from – there it is, the once-golden fabric faded to a pale yellow-gray, mended here and there with vivid red thread.  The MacLeods are firm believers in its power, though: according to the castle staff, the chieftain offered its power to Winston Churchill during WWII. (Churchill declined politely.). We also learned of a chieftain who murdered his first wife by tossing her into the dungeon (which, disconcertingly, is literally right next to the drawing-room; more of an oubliette than a dungeon as we normally think of it, with a rather cruel slit in the wall that would allow the prisoners to smell the food from the kitchens.) There was also a drinking horn that formed part of the initiation rite for new chieftains: it would be filled with claret and had to be emptied in one go, without flinching, choking, or stopping.  (Since it holds a litre and a half that’s no small feat.)
We also learned a bit about St. Kilda, a tiny, TINY island in the middle of nowhere that is part of the MacLeod holdings.  So remote is it that there was no mail service: instead, the islanders would literally toss a waterproof bag full of it into the ocean attached to a boat-shaped float that read “please open.”  Astonishingly, this actually WORKED most of the time, even if it did mean that mail was often picked up in Norway to start its journey to the eventual recipient.  No man of St. Kilda could marry without having first created a horsehair rope; this would be used to hunt puffins and such, and demonstrated that he could feed a family.
As we headed back toward Portree for the evening, we passed by a tiny little building that was marked “Giant Angus MacAskill Museum.”  Curious, we took a look; though the sign said “OPEN,” the building didn’t appear to be inhabited.  There was a bell, though, with instructions to ring it, so this we did – and a short time later an elderly gentleman came down out of the house next to the building to let us in.
He was a MacAskill as well, as it turned out, and had established this little place to…well, presumably to make a little coin out of the tale of his ancestor, who was a bona fide giant at something like 7 feet 9 inches (and apparently he spent some time in Nova Scotia.) The museum was little, but full of artifacts (a giant sweater, for instance, or a chair so big I felt like a five year old sitting in it) and stories of his feats of strength.  There was even a replica of a coffin he’d have fit in, which was completely massive.
At this point it was still a long time before our 9:00 dinner reservation, so we headed out to Neist Point, the farthest west one can go on the Isle of Skye.  It is a long way out there, and consists mainly of one of Scotland’s trademark super twisty roads with passing places that goes past farms…and fields…and hills…and fields…and farms…and, eventually, The Three Chimneys, the only restaurant in the isles with a Michelin Star.  We weren’t wealthy enough to eat there (and anyway bookings are long LONG in advance) but it was still interesting to see, situated in a little white cottage so like all the others, very deliberately in the middle of nowhere.  (It’s a little too bad, really; I hear the food’s amazing.)
The Point itself sees visitors park in a little lot at the top of a very long, very steep cliff.  Stairs (with a fortuitous handrail) lead all the way down to the bottom, where one can stroll through what looks like the remains of a long-disused croft…and then all the way back UP on the other side, where a lighthouse overlooks the ocean amid picturesque rocks.  The adventurous (or the mad) can climb up farther, off to the side, where a very very tall cliff provides amazing views.  I know this because we climbed it.  It was quite a haul; very steep up and very steep down.  By the time we got back to the car my calves were shaking and my knees ached – but I’m not sorry I did it.  It was a hell of a view.
This little side trip completed, we returned to Portree for a dinner of sea scallops over risotto, with a cider on the side that was easily one of the best I’ve ever tasted.  (Thistly Cross, made in Dunbar over on the mainland.  The packaging claims its secret is that it’s exposed to the elements during fermentation.).
From there, back to the B&B at last, for a hard crash after a long day’s Explore.