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.

An old travel diary, day 7: Over the sea to Skye

The night was a rough one: I woke at 4 am from a nightmare of bugs crawling all over me and it was hours before the psychosomatic itchiness subsided.
Once more unto the breach: we opened the day’s travel with a drive into Glen Nevis, home of the Nevis Range and the mighty Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak.  It’s also one of the wettest parts of Scotland, unfortunately, meaning that the rain and low-hanging clouds were veiling the whole thing pretty heavily in mist.  We drove for a time, occasionally driving sloooooooowly up to the sheep standing in the middle of the road and waiting until they took the hint and ambled casually out of our path.  As the road gradually got narrower, we had time to appreciate the differences between this glen and Glencoe; they’re both steep-sided and heavily verdant, but here the slides of sharp gravel are replaced by heavier, craggier stones nearer the road, dense trees covered with lichen.
We’d come to view the falls known as “the spout” in Gaelic, which lie about a kilometre from the end of the road, which gradually opens into a parking lot after spending some time as the now-familiar “one lane with passing places” model.  Here, a sign warned “danger of death” and encouraged proper footwear; but we’d come to see at least part of the prettiest short walk in Scotland, so on we went.
Spoiler: we didn’t make it all the way to the spout.  However, we did get to see a number of other rather beautiful waterfalls even though we did have to clamber over some nasty-sharp-looking rocks to do so.  Some hardy soul had pitched a small campsite by the trail-side, and there were a few shirts hung out to dry on a line; optimistic, I think, given the omnipresent damp.
Eventually it was back to the car for us, and onward to Mallaig for our ferry crossing.  As we drove, we noticed some great gouts of steam coming up in places; a steam train, most likely, very possibly the Hogwarts Express, which lives here.  This is Harry Potter film country, apparently a boon to the tourist market.  (It’s interesting to see just how much of Scotland seems to subsist on tourism; big chunks of this part of the country seem to make all their money in summer and then…I don’t know what they do in the off season.)
The ferry ride was brief – fortunate in more ways than one, as a large number of the passengers hadn’t bothered to turn off their car alarms.  As the ferry pitched and rolled in the choppy crossing, a chorus of alarms accompanied every heave; it began as funny, then annoying and eventually warped round to being funny again.  The waters below us were an interesting, shifting blue-green even in the rainy gray light; at one point we passed just above a…flock? school?…of jellyfish, watching them waver and swirl.  (I scanned the rocks for seals, but haven’t seen any yet…though this is certainly selkie country.)
I suppose when Flora McDonald brought Prince Charlie over here it was a much worse crossing; if the song is to be believed it was outright stormy then, instead of just intermittently coming down.
The intermittent rain’s been fairly constant all day, unfortunately, making today an awkward day for sightseeing.  It certainly makes the isle of Skye impressively atmospheric though.   From our landing point at Armadale we soon found ourselves driving through miles of rolling, moorlike ground (with still more sheep!) as we made our way to an attraction with a bit more indoor facilities to tour: Eilean Donan castle.  Every so often the moors were dotted with tiny little cottages that looked a bit like the way young children draw houses: window, door, window, pointy roof, chimney.  Or in this case two chimneys, one at either end.
Eilean Donan is That Castle On The Island With The Little Bridge Going To It; I guarantee you’ve seen it before.  Highlander?  Yeah.  That one.  It’s the seat of Clan MacRae, strategically situated at the meeting of three waters, and for hundreds of years it was just a ruin, after the English captured the teeny pro-Jacobite Spanish garrison here and blew the castle to smithereens with its own gunpowder.   Finally, in the 1920s, the then-clan-chief decided he really wanted his castle back up and running, so he teamed up with some colleagues to build himself one of the most romantic of the castles in the Highlands.  And it is,  I have to admit, rather charming, even a little coy as it poses for visitors, all daintily poised on its little island.
The interior’s all done up in Romantic Scottish Countryside, too; lots of little coats of arms and carven oak details.
Amusing aside: carved over the door in Gaelic is the date and “As long as a MacRae is inside this castle, a Fraser shall never be outside it.”  Apparently the MacRaes and the Frasers were BFFs.
Arrived in Portree, a cute little seaside town, and checked into our lodgings; I haven’t been feeling fantastic, I must admit.  Perhaps it’s tiredness, or perhaps I am flirting with being ill, or perhaps it’s the vague dread that’s been bugging me the last few hours, much to my irritation.   It’s meant to be a vacation.
Things continued somewhat exasperating as we scoured Portree’s tiny “downtown” looking for somewhere to eat that actually had room for us.  This was a surprisingly tough quest; we eventually ended up getting a place in line at a place called “The Antlers” which the Whitings held for us while Mark and I asked around at four or five other spots.  Nothing available before 8:30…
…which was a problem, because we’d spotted a sign in the square advertising a storytelling/music event starting at 9.
In the end we did indeed manage to get a table at The Antlers – and despite Mark’s “It looks like a Kelsey’s” misgivings it actually turned out to be a pretty nice little place.  I had a venison and apricot burger, which doesn’t sound as though it should work but did.
The real highlight of the evening, however, was the storytelling event.  This was held in a little pub just off the town square, and was hosted with tremendous enthusiasm by an assortment of locals: Daniel, who appeared to be the ringleader, his second (whose name I forget – let’s call him Howard), Katrine, who played all the female parts, and their musical accompanist Minna, who provided very capable backing on her guitar.
It’s the first year the event has run, apparently; a medley of Skye island lore and traditional Scottish music they’re calling “The Misty Isle” after Skye itself.  They’ve had some pretty small crowds up to now, but perhaps we formed a turning point: so many came to the show we went to that they had to pull out extra chairs.
They opened by telling of the Giants, beings as superior to men in virtue as they were in size and strength – and of the giant hero Fingal, who has left signs of his passing all over Scotland, including here.  The tale of his marriage to – and loss of, spoiler alert – his wife Sadbh was interwoven with an assortment of fishing legends (including the last leviathan and the “blue men of the Minch”), the famous Fairy Flag of Dunvegan, the real-life story of Flora McDonald (unsurprisingly this was set to “Skye Boat Song”), and the creation of the Cuillin mountains due to a weeks-long battle between Cu Chulainn and the warrior woman Scathach.
It was rather community-theatre in production values – an assortment of costumes, props, and wigs and a single guitar before a painted backdrop – but it was weirdly endearing, and I think all of us found ourselves with warm feelings toward the motley crew of misfits storytelling their hearts out.  It was actually a pretty good show – well constructed and with good singing/performances – and I sincerely wish them well with it.
Afterward I went home and passed straight out, still feeling vaguely feverish.  Another rough night lay ahead as it turned out, but not just for me this time (unfortunately.)

An old travel diary, day 6: Oban to Fort William

It’s another travel day here.  This one opened with a trip out to McCaig’s Tower one last time for some morning shots of the Oban skyline, and then (after bidding our hosts farewell) we set off for the day’s first stop.  It was a bright enough morning, but as we’ve learned during our stay so far the usual state of the weather in Scotland is “unsettled.”  Based on my experience with weather reports in this country so far this means literally “we have no goddamn idea what the weather will be like; just wear like three layers and do your best.”
In practice, this seems about right.  So far we’ve been pretty lucky, the rain holding off or letting up altogether when we step out to visit one of the local sights.  The damp is in everything, though: it’s great for skin, I suppose, but it’s disconcerting to open a suitcase and find that everything inside feels just that bit moist.
Anyway, our luck continued to hold as we reached Dunstaffnage, our first stop for the day.  This tiny castle is largely a picturesque ruin today, but has a claim to fame as the prison, for a time, of Flora MacDonald.  (If you’re like me and going “who?” at that, she’s the person responsible for eventually escorting Bonnie Prince Charlie to Skye dressed as her maid.  This action eventually allowed Charlie to escape to France, where he apparently went on to let everyone down by idling away his remaining days in drinking and such.)
We also found our first geocache of Scotland here at last.  Huzzah!  This one was a nice hide.
From Dunstaffnage, it was a short drive to our next stop, Bonawe Iron Works.  This wasn’t a forge, but rather a smelting operation – a charcoal-burning smelter that had run for a surprisingly long time.  Here the smiths made some clever use of the landscape, placing the storage sheds for raw materials up at the top of the hills so that as the process moved along everything was gradually ferried downhill to the water, where a boat would carry the finished iron onward to be forged and wrought into useful things.  Quite a production, though: it took two tons EACH of charcoal and iron ore to make one ton of smelted iron.
The smelting apparatus is gone now, but the buildings are well preserved, and the exhibitions inside give a pretty good impression of what life must have been like back then.  The town was all crofters and fishermen until the ironworks showed up, though.  Industry must have really blown up the place (so to speak.)
It was only just late morning at this point, so as the trip to Fort William (our stop for the night) was quite short we made another detour, this time to Glencoe.  This is…well…a really beautiful spot; epic mountains, remnants of Scotland’s volcanic prehistory, rake steeply up either side of the glen, broken up here and there by huge boulders or entire hillsides covered with sharp, spiky gravel that sometimes shatters away from the mountains above due to ice or heavy rains.  As with most of the glens, sharp little ribbons of water constantly run down the mountainsides, cutting them a little deeper, eventually pooling to make wider rivers or lochs at the bottom.  Patches of sunlight drift across the landscape, moving with the gaps in the clouds, and patches of snow and ice still cling to the highest of the peaks.
This area (along with much of the highlands) is a haven for hikers, cyclists, climbers, and outdoorsmen of all sorts, including the truly batshit-insane: the ice climbers.  (The notion of trying to scramble up a sheer face of ice using just an axe and some spiky shoes and such seems like madness to me.  I’ll stick to snapping photos from here, thanks.)
After a quick lunch we resolved it was a good idea to get into the spirit of the place ourselves and do a bit of walking, so we left the car behind for a hike up to Signal Rock, where according to lore a fire was lit on the night of the massacre.
…and oh, yes, about that.  This is the place, all right, and here we got to learn more about the massacre itself.  It’s often presented as the Campbells being assholes, but at the place itself we learnt a bit more.  It was, as with so many atrocities, political: what we had was a king who needed to bring the unruly highland clans under control.  Fine: let’s establish an amnesty – any clan lord who comes in and swears fealty will be forgiven past crimes.  However, anyone who doesn’t will be treated as traitors and punished accordingly.
Not being complete idiots, most clans seem to have said basically “oh, fine, very well” and sworn fealty within the deadline.  However, the MacDonalds weren’t so lucky: a series of miscommunications and the wrong people being out of town led to their oath being rather late.  (There were some pretty sickening quotes from people being like “Yes!  Score!  Someone we can make an example of!” at this.)
Accordingly, troops of soldiers were sent out to Glencoe, very likely with no idea what it was they were actually there to do; as was the highland custom they were received with all hospitality.  For twelve days they hung out as visitors, while other troops moved into position…
And then the leader, a Roy Campbell, finally received his real orders.  (I can only imagine how that must have felt.) Thirty-eight were killed, with more driven out into the snow.  Interestingly, there are stories that some of the MacDonalds were warned and given a chance to flee.  Perhaps some of the soldiers had a bit of a crisis of conscience, in the end.
Today there’s not really much to indicate that awful things once happened there; in the parts that we saw there’s scarcely so much as a foundation to show where the MacDonalds lived.  Just the glen, all forbidding and majestic, and the deer and the eagles…and, naturally, the sheep.  (It looked as though a croft or two have been grandfathered in, and sit serenely in the middle of all that dramatic landscape.)
The hike up to Signal Rock was pretty and densely forested.  I looked as hard as I could for signs of wildlife but couldn’t find any, unfortunately.  (We were a rather noisy group, what with all the conversation.) Still, it was good to take in some of the wilderness and its atmosphere: ferns and lichen-covered trees and the distant sounds of wind and water. A bit restorative, even.
A quick stop in town netted us a second geocache, this one hidden in a fake rock near a war memorial.  Returning it was a bit problematic, as a car with a couple of people in it sat for some time just staring down the end of the street near the memorial.  I had to hang about for some time pretending to read signs before I could return it.
By this time it was getting late, so we made our way to Fort William to settle in at our next B&B.  The rooms were massive and had some interesting restrictions (like “no hanging things to dry in rooms”) that suggested Fort William’s status as jumping-off point for all sorts of outdoorsman-ly activator in the Highlands.  (And our hosts had easily the broadest Scots accents we’d heard all this trip.  Perhaps they become more pronounced the farther north you go.)
Settling in, we made a brief jaunt to the nearby hotel for some venison stew for dinner, then picked up one last cache on the way back to our rooms.  This one was at an old bridge between the hotel and our B&B, and even with the hint it was a very tricky find.  I doubt we’d have come across it at all if a pleasant middle-aged lady hadn’t eyed us curiously and asked “Are ye lookin’ fer somethin’ hidden?”
Ashamed to be caught out by a Muggle, we admitted we were, and she nudged us toward the  cache: an elaborately-rigged beer can hanging by some kind of stout fishing line from the side of the bridge.  The line it hung from was green, making it all but invisible.
Cache logged, we returned to our room to have a wash up.

An old travel diary, day 5: Pilgrimage to Iona

Day 5 dawned bright and early and a little crankily as the two of us, tired from a night of little sleep, scrambled downstairs for breakfast.  Here we learned something else about our hosts, as in one corner of the dining room a television showed what appeared to be something like the interior of an aviary or rabbit hutch.  Sure enough, after a few moments a plump, fluffy chick wandered by on the screen – not a chicken, though.
These were mottled and brownish and vaguely familiar…quail chicks, as our hostess informed us a few minutes later.  Quail almost never hatch their own eggs in captivity, it seems, since generations of incubated chicks have dulled the instinct, but somehow this particular batch did so.  (Taped below the television were a pair of cards congratulating our hosts, baby-shower style, on the fluffy arrivals.)
We paused for a moment to purchase some cold Scotch pies and sausage rolls for lunch before heading to the ferry for the first leg of our journey today: a ride to the Isle of Mull.  Mull is the third-largest of the Hebrides, and a popular spot for vacationers; certainly this morning’s ferry trip appeared to be full of them.   The ferry itself had a few interesting features, including a coffee shop, bar and cafe (all separate facilities) and an array of gambling machines.  There was also a bit of a clue as to the remoteness of the places we were about to visit – one of the vans was some sort of mobile branch of the Bank of Scotland, something I’ve never seen before anywhere, while another seemed to be the Royal Mail.
The crossing took about as long as my daily commute, and for a while there was little else to do except watch the landscape drift by and do our best to stay out of the rain.
The ferry from Oban lands in Craignure, and as far as I can tell there’s almost nothing there save the docks themselves – a visitor centre, a cafe, a petrol station, and a convenience store make up pretty much all the rest of the amenities.  From there, you have a momentous choice to make: go right to colorful Tobermory, unofficial capital of the island, or go left toward a second ferry trip that takes you to Iona.  There’s not really any way to do both in a day, and Mull’s most major road forms a “U” that essentially runs along one curve of the island, from one to the other.
We went left.
Here is the thing about the roads on Mull: even the most major of them is a single lane.  A single narrow lane, one that is often literally just wide enough for the car; every so often there are “passing places” into which, by some strange etiquette, one car will ease so that others may pass.  Even so, sometimes the passing places are so narrow themselves that I caught myself holding my breath a bit as a car pulled by.  Especially terrifying: passing, or being passed by, a bus on these super-narrow roads.  (It happened.  Several times.  Doesn’t get any less scary basically ever, let me tell you.)
This said, here is the OTHER thing about the roads on Mull: the countryside they pass through is gorgeous.  In the rain the craggy hills, green and implausibly steep, are cut here and there by these savage little silver ribbons which, close up, reveal themselves as rushing water.  Here and there a little farm or crofter’s house will suddenly manifest, white and gleaming even in the dimmer rainy light.  This is a place for the very, very deepest of introverts.
Every so often, a stone bridge of unknowable vintage would appear in or near our path, reminding us that humans do still have some impact in this place.  Or, perhaps, a ruin or old foundation, some long-ago person’s attempt at enduring change.  (Something has endured, but perhaps not what they believed.)
Other than that…sheep, of course.  There are sheep everywhere.  And cows, this time the shaggy, long-haired highland variety.  There are other animals too, of course: the sign that read “Slow Chickens” did indeed mean “hey, there are chickens wandering around loose in front of this cafe, please don’t run over them,” and “Otter Crossing 6 Miles” presumably meant just that, though to my sadness I didn’t see any.
As we approached Fionnphort and the ferry the rain gradually let up, though the sky did not lighten past a pale silver gray.  The ferry landing has even less going on than that at Craignure: a (closed) ticket office, a tiny shop, and an even tinier booth selling food called “The Creel.”  A house or two, and…that’s it.  Across the water the abbey we’ve come to see is visible.
This ferry, unlike the one from Oban, is tiny and mainly for foot passengers; it pitches and rolls with every heave of the sea, and though the ride is short I was glad to step off and be on land again.  Even in the gray light the sea looked greener here; a row of little buildings – one or two bearing signs indicating their status as guest houses, shops, or a pub – stretched out toward the abbey, and that was about it.  No great surprise, really; the entire island is only about one mile across and three miles long.
Perhaps it was my imagination or suggestion at work, but it felt a little different, somehow.  Perhaps it was the remoteness.  Perhaps it was the pilgrimage-like quality of the trek out there.  Or perhaps there is something to the story of a visitor who asked what made Iona special and was told that it was a “thin” place.  Somewhere that veils are readily pierced and an otherness closer to our everyday reach.
(Certainly it did a number on Mark’s phone, which mysteriously lost all battery power shortly after landing on the island.  I had to take over photography duties for a time.)
The island has been a place of worship for over 1400 years, and is still a place of worship today.  Long ago pilgrims would land there, as we did, and pause at huge stone crosses erected alongside the “road of the dead” to pray and contemplate as they approached the abbey.  This was founded by St. Columba, who came over from Ireland a preposterously long time ago and brought Christianity with him; the abbey he founded became a powerful pilgrimage site with a legendary scriptorium.  The Book of Kells was actually…written? Drawn? Composed? I’m not sure what word to use, but it came from here.
Pilgrimage sites were wealthy, of course, and that was bad.  Not because of the temptations of avarice for the Christians, unfortunately…in this case it was bad for the monks because Iona is pretty far north. And a certain people famous for raiding and ransacking places aren’t too far away.
Yep.  Vikings.  They raided the hell out of the place for what wealth it had, slaughtering many monks in the process.  It’s because of them that artifacts like the Book of Kells were taken to Ireland in the first place.  (An interesting aside, though: when the oddly named Magnus Barelegs came to raid the abbey he opened the chapel that contained the relics of St. Columba and, the story goes, stopped short and ordered his men not to touch it.  What power could make the man who supposedly burnt every tree on the Isle of Lewis check his swing, I don’t know, but I can see how the legend makes for a potent retelling.)
For a long time, the abbey was just a picturesque ruin.  It was one of the Earls of Argyll who rescued it, restoring the abbey to a workable state while retaining much of its ancient and historical properties.  Today, it’s still a working church and still conducts services; those seeking a deeper sense of communion can even come out and spend a week or two in retreat here, exchanging room and board and the chance at study for daily chores and such.
It’s not a large abbey, but it is weirdly lovely.  An artisan laboured for thirty years to carve the capstones for all the columns in the new cloister; the chapel that formerly housed Columba’s relics has been restored and now is a place for quiet prayer.  Saints of particular interest to the Celtic peoples (like Brigit, who shares a name with one of their great goddesses) are depicted in its tiny stained glass windows…though most windows are clear, letting in a clean, bright light that made my photographs look a bit as though I were trying too hard.  And what is, we were told, officially the very first Celtic cross ever carved – St. Martin’s cross – stands just outside St. Columba’s chapel, situated so that the light from the sun will cast its shadow to the chapel door.
In the nave, little clusters of quartz pebbles mark the graves of men who died so long ago their names are lost; they were found during the restoration.  The baptismal font is carved with Celtic designs that mimic the crosses outside; a plain silver cross sits atop the altar.  Stairs lead up to a tiny room barely large enough to sit in that holds a chair, a window, and a niche for prayer books – and nothing else; on the door is carved “Stand Fast.”
There are, here and there, elements that make me think as much of pagan acts of faith as Christian ones.  Seashells and stones and little trinkets are left in a window in St. Columba’s chapel.  Ferns sprout incongruously from the walls both within the abbey and without; these are, I’m told, a rare kind of fern that really shouldn’t be able to grow here.
As we explore, a service begins; as if on cue the sky brightens and sunlight spills over everything.  The wind outside the cloister is no less sharp or harsh or cold, but the change in the light underscores the point. Iona is a thin place, and good for contemplation.  Everyone seemed to feel something of the power of the place; Mark says there’s something about the austerity and the quality of the light that brings with it a sense of deep sacredness.
I obtain a trinket for my mother as thanks for her contribution to my funds for the trip: a tiny Celtic cross that echoes the ones outside, wrought in silver.  For myself, a different sort of trinket: a fragment of Iona greenstone, a weird combination of nephrite and marble that is reputed to have nebulously mystical properties.
The ferry ride back is even rougher than before as the wind picks up farther, but it is at least blessedly short; the sunlight stays with us as we return to Craignure, dappling the vivid green of the hills and making our next stop, Duart Castle, look impressive even with its unwieldy armor of scaffolding.
Duart Castle is the ancient home of the MacLeans, and is still owned by them; we were really just there to have a quick look round, as the place was about to close to the public any minute.  Had an unsuccessful attempt to geocache despite, I think, standing right next to it, though both of us accidentally discovered that stinging nettles are a thing in looking for it.  (I think I got off rather lightly, overall.)
A long ferry ride to Oban later we went for dinner at Oban Fish and Chips, centre of a local controversy some years ago when a BBC celebrity I’ve never heard of proclaimed their fish and chips “the best I’ve ever tasted.”  Good for them!  Less good: a second fish and chip shop apparently tried to sneakily suggest he’d said it about THEM instead.  It was written up in the local paper some time ago.  (Drama!)
Be that as it may, they were indeed excellent fish and chips, and the portions were MASSIVE; my “fish tea” would easily have been enough food for two people, really.  It was with very full stomachs indeed that we made our way up to the day’s final stop, as evening set in over Oban: “McCaig’s Tower,” a curious structure at the very peak of the Oban hills that vaguely resembles the colosseum, except all the arches are pointed.
Mr. McCaig was apparently a local banker who also fancied himself an art critic and philosophical essayist; his grand plan was to build a great tower in the middle of this construct and fill it with statues and portraits of his ancestors. It was to be a grand monument to his greatness – and if it provided some extra work for unemployed stonemasons, so much the better.
Unfortunately, he died before the grand project could be completed.  Oh, he left enough money to finish it, right enough – but, you see, his sister rather wanted all that delicious cash.  So it was that a deal was struck with the city: they could have the tower if she got the cash.
And so it was. Now “the crown of Oban” has worked its way into much of the city’s branding.  I wonder how Mr. McCaig would feel about that?

An old travel diary, day 4: Stirling to Oban

North, today.  To the Highlands, and then west, to the coast.
In the old days there was but one way to get from the lowlands to the highlands, and that was to cross the river Forth at the one spot one could easily build a bridge across it: Stirling.  As with Edinburgh, Stirling is built on and around a massive hill, though by the time one reaches it it’s clearly just one hill among many – and as with Edinburgh, the city is crowned by a great castle, ancient seat of the Stuart kings.
Stirling is an interesting contrast with Edinburgh, too: where the latter is all stone that looks gray in some light and golden in others, the buildings here are a humbler gray stucco that might, in winter, seem positively soul-crushing.  The castle itself, however, was once a literal bright spot in the landscape: a great deal of the thing was, back in the Renaissance, plastered over in a warm honey yellow they called “The King’s Gold.”  Today, only the Great Hall at Stirling is done up in this fashion, but even with twenty years’ fading after the restoration it’s plain just how vivid it must once have been.  (I hear there was some pushback about the color when the restoration happened.  Everyone forgets just how bloody gaudy the Renaissance actually was; how vivid and sometimes clashing the colors actually were.). It is also incredibly windy, or was today.
As seems increasingly likely to be the case everywhere we go, there wasn’t really enough time to see all of Stirling, though we covered a lot of ground, I think.  It’s a popular spot with…well…everyone, it seems.  Kids in princess clothes running around underfoot. A high school band in full Scottish regalia, kilts and all.  And of course the requisite squads of tourists, including ourselves, with all our many languages.  Some of us, as we did, wander the grounds with audio guides, listening to a really rather spiffy retelling of the tale of the ill-fated James V and his succession of French wives, the uncommon canniness of Mary of Guise, and the early life of Mary Queen of Scots.
We also got to hear of the Battle of Bannockburn, wherein Robert the Bruce was on the point of surrendering to the English – greatly outmatched – when one of the Englishmen, doubtless thinking this was his shot at fame, tried to cut him down.  This seemed to remind Robert the Bruce that this is Scotland…the land whose motto is literally Latin for “Nobody fucks with me and gets away with it”…and he chopped the guy’s head just about in half before letting loose his Highlanders on the English in maybe the most iconic ever Highlander charge.  It, uh, didn’t go well for the English.
The restored castle has a number of nifty features.  Costumed actors hang about being people from the Renaissance; we were particularly impressed by a young noblewoman doing embroidery and sharing with us – and everyone else – all the court gossip.  Chambers have been fitted out with furnishings appropriate to the time – in all their gaudy color.  Even the light fixtures, now fitted with electric faux-candles, have some sort of trick to them wherein the fake “flames” quiver as if in a breeze.
One room is hung with massive tapestry recreations of the famous unicorn hunt tapestries; these did not hang here at Stirling originally, but A set of unicorn tapestries did, and since nobody knows what the originals looked like, these were used as a basis for the reproductions.  There’s a whole exhibit devoted to the tapestries, showing weaving and dyeing techniques used, samples of the wool colors, explanations of the iconography – the works.
Another room – intended for the use of James V, who died before he could really settle in – has a crazily-elaborate ceiling set with medallions depicting all sorts of people, from the king himself to the Nine Worthies to fashionable court ladies to Julius Caesar.  These were carved in oak, which had to be imported from Eastern Europe; a previous King had cut down all the mature oaks in Scotland to build a ship. Oops.
We also heard the amusing story of an alchemist who resided at the castle for several years, attempting to turn lead into gold via various means with about as much success as you’d expect.  In a bid to restore his flagging reputation, he announced he would leap off the battlements and fly to France – and made ready to do so, appearing on the big day fully kitted out in…well, a chicken suit.  Let us call a spade a spade.
At the appointed moment, he leapt off the battlements as planned…and plummeted promptly into a bog.  This likely saved his life; he escaped with only a broken leg.  Afterward, he realized his big mistake: chickens are ground-loving birds.  If only he’d used eagle feathers!
Still, it seems that with this stunt he earned himself the right to hang around for a while.  As publicity stunts go it can likely be called a success in that sense.
Anyway, our time at the castle concluded, it was time to make our way cross-country.  This got off to a rough start right away when the GPS accidentally got us pointed toward Glasgow, entirely the wrong way.  However, we reasoned, there was nothing stopping us from just cutting straight across country to Loch Lomond and driving up it to our eventual destination, the seaside town of Oban.
(Yes, THAT Loch Lomond.  And yes, we made the requisite road jokes.)
In all, I’m not sorry we made this little unplanned jaunt; it let us have a good look at what seems to be the Scottish equivalent of the Midlands.  Gentle, rolling hills, winding roads, and lots and lots of those little gray stucco houses.  Still, we were all curious as to what the famous loch would look like, and eventually the trees lining the roadside opened up to reveal…
…something that looked rather a lot like it might belong in the Bracebridge area, to be honest.  Oh, the hills were rather steeper, yes, but still, not entirely unfamiliar to the Canadian contingent.
At one point we hopped out of the car to snap a photo and ended up talking to some Australians who ran some sort of metal detector business; as the conversation went on I drifted away from the group and found myself looking at some little pink wild flowers.  Primroses or something, perhaps?  Something that unfurled, slowly, from tight pink bud to paler-pink five-petaled blossom; it seemed poetic to think of, somehow, these little flowers unfolding quiet and unnoticed by the roadside.
We also had our first encounter with a particularly infamous denizen of Scotland: midges.  I miraculously didn’t get bitten, though Mark was less lucky.
From there we took a long, scenic drive through rolling hills along the sea coast.  Spotted no less than two pheasants (one male, one female), two deer, and a number of interesting birds, from mallards to something that might have been an egret.
Scotland’s west coast is dotted as heavily as the rest of it with castles; we drove past Clan Campbell’s seat, which is surprisingly fairytale-style, though we were too late to go in.  This seems to be a bit of a trend; nearly everything of tourist interest in Scotland shuts down no later than six pm, usually by five, meaning that you often find yourself with only twenty minutes or so to see a place.  Ah, well.  It was still cool, even if the Campbells were apparently backstabbing assholes, according to legend.  They reputedly set the MacDonalds up to get slaughtered en masse at Glencoe.
We also stopped briefly at Inverary, a town that was very obviously laid out in the Georgian era: the entire Main Street is composed of solid, white-plastered buildings with black-painted trim.  There’s a historic jail, a pub older than Canada, and one of those sweet shops that seem to be everywhere in Scotland so far, catering to nostalgia for sweets I’ve never heard of, or have only read about in books.  There’s also a bell tower which apparently has some of the most splendid bells in Scotland, though sadly we didn’t get to hear them ring.
From there the road turned north, leading us past many, many small villages, the names of which weren’t always evident.  This is another thing I’ve noticed about Scotland: they do not seem to give a damn either about road signs or about signposting the names of villages.  I suppose if you don’t already know where you are, the general reasoning is you don’t need to; Karen hypothesized that many of these signs may have been taken down to stump the Nazis and then just never put back up again.
We did stop in one called Kilmartin, though: this tiny little village is home to a charming church  with bright-purple doors; a terraced cemetery spirals away from it down the hill.  As we hopped out for a look we noticed that apparently the village is also home to some carved stones dating back to the medieval era; a fortuitous find, and one that made for an interesting addition to our photo collections as we made our final descent into Oban.
Oban is known as “the seafood capital of Scotland,” and is a quaint little seaside town that, like many spots we’ve visited so far, seems heavily slanted toward tourism for its livelihood.  It’s also somewhat baffling to navigate by car, as our GPS kept directing us to roads that had no signage.  Eventually we made our way up a very steep hill to our local lodgings, where we were greeted by our very affable new hosts and shown to our surprisingly spacious rooms.
The landlords were even kind enough to book us a spot at a local seafood place called Ee-usk (the phonetic pronunciation of the Gaelic “iasg,” or “fish”), and so after dropping off our bags we set off down the hill to eat.   Walking the hill really drove home just how steep it truly was; anyone living here must surely have powerful legs.
The tide was out when we arrived in the harbour, but the restaurant was cute; an airy green space and a surprising if intriguing section of the menu where they specified the sources of their fish.  As in, “Our mussels come from Nigel on the Isle of Mull; he grows them on ropes and we don’t know what he does to them, but they’re sweet and tender!” (Loosely paraphrasing there, but only loosely.)
Well, the only thing to do seemed to be to order the sampler plates, then; Mark ordered the fish sampler and I ordered something called the “seafood platter” that offered up a mix of oysters, langoustines (think tiny lobsters), mussels, and a massive crab claw.  It was…seriously delicious; kind of a foodgasm, especially after a convenience-store lunch and on an empty stomach.  Afterward we hauled ourselves all the way back up the cliff and into our B&B, where we crashed into bed.  A rough night as it turned out, but there is always another day, no?

An old travel diary, part 3: Things ancient and nautical

Before I begin, something I forgot to mention last time: ever heard of John Knox?  Big figure in church reform?  His house is a visitor attraction?
Well, he’s buried in Edinburgh, near the Mercat Cross.  This is fine, except there is now a car park there where the cemetery used to be.
…and no, they didn’t move any of the bodies.  And no, nobody besides Knox has a monument.  But he’s got one: a plaque, in spot number 23.  I took a photo to prove it.  I hear a Porsche is normally parked on top of him, but he was visible today.

Our first stop today was the National Museum of Scotland.  This has recently undergone an extensive renovation, and is both huge and rather lovely.  We came to get a grounding in the history of Scotland – and this we did, seeing as there were extensive exhibitions on pretty much everything going all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs.  I don’t associate Scotland with volcanoes, but it was volcanic once; the huge hill they call “Arthur’s Seat” and the spine of the city along which the castle and Royal Mile run are both the remnants of a volcanic age.  (Today, of course, they just look rather rugged and majestic, dotted here and there with flowers.)

Eventually, along come the Picts, or “the painted ones,” of whom we know little; there were several examples of their navigation stones (?) on display.  At least, the plaques assure us that’s what they are; they don’t seem to bear any resemblance to maps of the area.  Instead, they’re covered with strange crescent-moon-like arcs intersecting with combinations of lines and circles; nobody seems to know what they mean, but they’re interesting in an eerie sort of way.
After them come the Celts, as we know them; there was a special exhibition on of Celtic art at the time we happened to be there, and it was, I feel, well worth the ten pounds or so of entrance fee.  Much of their art is lost, of course, as leather, fabric, and wood aren’t known for their sturdiness over thousands of years, but there was a remarkable collection of cloak-pins, torcs and other jewelry in various metals.  (One hoard was found by a guy who literally bought a metal detector, took it out to play with, and walked about seven steps from his car before he got a beep and unearthed a massive trove of bronze and gold jewelry.)
Also on display were the remnants of “carnyxes,” a kind of horn, usually shaped like a boar’s head; there was a video of a man playing a modern reproduction.  It’s a weird, haunting noise,  and it’s pretty easy to imagine it being pretty scary to an enemy army.
Then there was the Gundestrup cauldron, all in silver and lined with panels showing (on the outside) eerie faces set with glass eyes and (inside) some rather mysterious scenes featuring horned men, warriors being perhaps baptized or drowned, and a number of other strange scenes. A hole at the bottom was mended with a silver shield boss depicting a warrior woman that had just finished fighting a lion…though it didn’t look all that dead, rather as though the two of them were taking a nice break.  Clearly it had been well used, though why had it then been tossed into a bog in the end?  Odd.
Anyway, many examples of intricate compass-work, elaborate knots and swirling spirals; other pieces on display showed the ways that Roman and later Christian elements worked their way into the iconography.  The knot work we know today is really a kind of fusion-art, it seems.  Nothing happens in isolation, I guess, especially in Europe.
I mentioned the Romans, and they were next; them you know so I won’t devote a ton of time to them.  After that things start to get more familiar: the clans, Robert the Bruce (we saw a drinking cup of his, which also featured a lion at the bottom, surrounded by shields bearing the insignia of his clan.) Gradually we move toward the unification with England, the Catholic/Protestant troubles, and the insane burst of literary and scientific flourishing that happened during the 1700s (with its darker side of course; the medical school Edinburgh was so known for was also the unfortunate root cause of a good deal of body-snatching.)
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay to see the whole thing; the day was getting on and we had a lengthy jaunt by bus to make to get out to our next stop – the Royal Yacht Britannia.  A hasty picnic was assembled from ready-made sandwiches and portions of fruit and such, and eaten as we waited for the bus to take us there.
The Royal Yacht Britannia is, or was, the Queen’s residence at sea, and apparently one of the places she’s most fond of; Royal honeymooners like Charles and Diana have used it as well.  It’s a sleek, dark-blue ship with a band of gold running around its edge…literal gold, of the 24 carat variety.  Inside, it’s surprisingly simple, apparently at Her Majesty’s request; everything looks a bit like a somewhat swankier version of a country house as of, say, 1952. Lots of chintz furnishings, bamboo, etc.  I suppose this was the Queen’s equivalent of going to the cottage, though of course when she does, she brings with her something like six tons of luggage.
An extensive entourage, too: the yacht had something like two hundred plus sailors aboard at any given time while it was operational, keeping everything neat and tidy and sort of disturbingly shipshape.  (State dinners with many guests could take up to three hours to set tables for, as someone had to go round with a ruler and make sure everything was just so.). Every teacup and wineglass and fork had its own place, and people could end up changing uniforms up to 16 times in a day, so the laundry was vast.  (Some amusing signs of the humanity of the sailors, though: the lockers in the berths were covered with stickers for everything from bands to some sort of contest for a PlayStation.)
There was even a full band on board at all times, which seems kind of crazy to me.  How often during an average day does one – even the Queen – require a band of marines?
Visiting is a reminder of a couple of interesting differences between the UK and North America.  One: the UK is obsessed with status.  There were no less than four different messes available for the sailors: one for the officers, one for the lesser officers, one for the senior regular shipmen and one for the average seamen.
Two: the UK is a lot more into boats than I am.  I suppose that if you have built an empire on naval power you’re more likely to be all about boats, but there was a great deal of stuff about the glamour of sailing! And sailing technique!  And the glories of the sea! And so on that as a child of a landlocked city I have to admit I don’t really get.  I don’t swim and I don’t share the fondness for The Seaside that many Brits seem to have.
By this time it was getting on to late afternoon/early evening – or, as Mark calls it, The Time It Rains In Scotland.  Feeling a bit tired and hungry we set off for a pub recommended in Karen’s literature, at 9A Holyrood.  She’d gotten it into her head that this was along the Royal Mile, and although I did say a few times that we needed to cut to the right through one of the closes, we’d made it all the way to Holyrood Palace without sighting the place.
At around this point I explained that it was actually parallel to the road we were on, and we trekked back up the hill and left, locating it almost at once.
Dinner was burgers and some cider, both tasty.  Made an abortive attempt to locate a geocache (nearly impossible without data on this thing) before eventually retiring early to plan our drive for the next day.  I feel rather lame for not doing something interesting with our last evening in Edinburgh, but then…who knows, maybe the planning will turn out to have been for  the best, ultimately.