Come along, you are invited!
This is the first of several Scotland travel letters. Its good reading if you’ve not been to Scotland, and wish you could; or even better reading if you plan to visit Scotland sometime. If you’ve been there, read along and remember the beauty of this country. It’s possible some readers know little about Scotland. I could write all day about the misty mountains, deep valleys and now empty Highlands. The history of the people of Scotland is fascinating. Kick back, put your feet up, get out a map of the UK or Scotland and track along as you read.
It’s late September and we’ve just arrived at the airport in Manchester England. The flight over took a little over 7 hours; we managed to snooze a couple of hours, however with the time difference of 6 hours between the US and the UK, we’ll need to stop, get out of the car and grab some coffee at least a couple of times during the day to stay awake. We’ve learned it is best to stay awake the first day as much as possible and sleep the first night, then, on the second day in Scotland your body will begin adjusting to the time change.
We will have 12 days to visit Glencoe, Fort William, travel the Road to the Isles, ride the ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, Inverness, Pitlochry and Edinburgh. We’ll have to plan our travels carefully to visit all these places, it’s not that the distance between them is so far, rather it’s the roads to get there are not built for speed. To explain further, on Skye, most of the road that circles the island runs through open range for sheep and/or cattle to cross at their leisure and they expect vehicles to stop for them. On the mainland, the road winds through the Highlands and while it has two lanes (that seem very narrow to those of us from the US); there’s rock fences, sometimes on both sides, that sit right at the very edge of the paved road. One slightly wrong turn of the steering wheel and you’ve knocked out a rock fence along with creasing the side of your car. We’re traveling in a rental car and driving on the left side of the road – the car’s steering wheel is on the right side, for Ken, my Scottish husband, it’s not a problem.
Before long, we begin to see road signs, “Scotland”, underneath is the flower of the Thistle, Scotland’s national flower. There is quite a story surrounding the choice of the prickly thistle, and I’ll tell you about that later; for now, we’re counting the kilometers to our destination. As we cross England’s border into Scotland, we stop, get out of the car and look at the beloved land of our ancestors, we’re home! The CD in the car is playing “For These Are My Mountains,” It’s a tearful moment for both of us. Gretna Green is the first town we’ll come to and is a tourist’s favorite place to shop for hand-knitted Scottish sweaters, socks and scarves. We found handmade soaps and lotions, and Harris Tweed clothing, including purses and wallets with leather trim. A big table in one store was full of handmade sweaters of Scottish wool at 25 percent off! When a person invests in buying one of these sweaters, it is so well made that it will become a part of his/her estate – they really do last that long!
Back in the car, with some things we may not have needed, but liked so much we bought them anyway, we’re feeling refreshed after a bowl of savory carrot soup served with thick slices of bread with butter. Ken has tea, and I have coffee. We both have squares of real Scottish shortbread made with butter…the shortbread is so ‘rich’ it crumbles with every bite. We carefully scoop crumbs off our napkins and eat them too.
It’s time for a Scottish story. ‘Tis a sad one I’m tellin’ ye. Its aboot poor ol’ Sandy MacPherson who was dyin’. Tenderly his wife Maggie knelt by his bedside and asked, ‘Anything I can get ye, Sandy?” There was no reply. “Ha’ ye a last wish, Sandy?’ Faintly came the answer…’Aye, a bit of yon boiled ham.’ ‘Wheesht, man,’ Maggie says, ‘I’m savin’ it for th’ funeral.” Aye, Scots are a thrifty lot. The humor may be a little dark, but in a way, it is funny… Ken has a story he tells every chance he gets. It’s about McDougal who is on his death bed and says to his good lifelong friends standing around him, “Would ye honor me by pourin’ a bottle of good single malt over me grave? “Aye,” Ian MacDonald says, “I’ll buy th’ bottle an’ carry it to the gravesite meself. I’ve a question for ye McDougal. Do ye mind if I pass it through my kidneys first?”
Ok, moving on, we’re traveling north on the M74 (known as the A74 in England), in the far distance, we see the foothills of the Highlands. The road passes through beautiful countryside. There are rock walls surrounding pastures where sheep graze on lush green grass. Every so often, we pass cottages, some fairly close to the highway, others scattered throughout rich farm land. Always, there are cottage gardens, hanging baskets of flowers and colorful planted flower beds. Every available spot is landscaped with heather, primroses, roses, begonias, and dahlias. Frequent rains keep them watered and the rich Scottish soil grows dark green leaves and big, plentiful blooms. Everyone in the United Kingdom loves flowers and grow them if they can. If not, they buy them. It’s been said that if a Scotswoman has enough money for two loaves of bread, she’ll buy a bunch of flowers and one loaf instead. Food for both the soul and body.
After a restful night, we’re taking the A82 along Loch Lomond to Glencoe. Close your eyes for a minute and picture in your mind haunting mountains with deep glens that are partially covered by misty clouds that shift, form and reform by the minute. The terrain is beautiful, but this place is actually oppressive. In “Survival of the Blood”, Gordon Cameron describes what happened here. It is a chilling telling of the tale and one you’ll think about on dark nights. No doubt in anyone’s mind that Scotland’s historical bloody past still haunts many places today. Ken and I both comment that we’d neither one want to be caught here on a dark night in February when the snow lays heavy on the ground. Nope, no way!
Glencoe has a modern visitor’s center with tours and programs that are both informative and interesting. We watched while a guide made a kilt from a length of wool tartan plaid. It was fascinating how he carefully laid a length of cording on the floor and covered it with the fabric. He began folding the fabric into pleats, then he had a member of the audience lay down on the pleated material, tied the length of cord around the fabric and the person’s waist and then helped him stand, pulled the top portion of the material over his shoulder, tucked the remaining portion into the cording and there he was, wearing a fine looking kilt! Amazing! In Gaelic, it’s called a ‘Killie Mhor’ which means “Great Kilt”.
As we leave Glencoe, I mention to Ken that Glen Lochy, where the Cameron clan chieftain, Donald Cameron lived, is not far away. Glen Lochy is the name of Ewan and Janet Cameron’s Broch (Scottish home) in “Survival of the Blood.” In the book, Donald Cameron’s great grandfather (known as the Gentle Lochiel) gave use of some of the land and surrounding property to Ewan Cameron’s grandfather who built the Broch where Ewan and Janet live.
Even though it’s a little late in the day, we decide to drive up the narrow lane to take a few pictures of the Cameron Broch known as Achnacarry Castle. We arrive about 4:30 and find not only a beautiful castle, but also a museum that is just about to close for the evening. We beg a few minutes to walk through the museum, and both came to a halt in front of a framed painting of Donald Cameron. There, before me, was my ancestor. I cannot describe the feelings that ran through my mind as I looked at this handsome man who had a slightly crooked nose (as do I). Somehow his nose was more aristocratic than mine. By the way, Cameron in Gaelic means ‘crooked nose’. I smile to myself, I got mine through DNA!
Nightfall is not long away and deep shadows are forming at the base of the snow-covered mountain range to the east of Achnacarry. We begin walking down a tree lined lane leading to the castle, taking pictures as we go. When we reach the castle, lights are beginning to glow in the castle’s windows and both fireplaces at either end of the building have smoke curling up to the sky. The sun is below the horizon and a peaceful twilight surrounds us. It’s quite chilly and I wish for my jacket still in the car. When we reach the parking lot, I turn around and look back over my shoulder. I wish I had words to describe the sight; I knew the Castle had been rebuilt after The Duke of Cumberland ordered it to be destroyed, but it was easy to think of this building as it might have looked then in 1746 with candles glowing in the windows and the warmth of fires on a chilly fall evening. Guess I’m a dreamer after all. It’s time to make our way to our hotel.
We are on our way on the A82 through Fort William with only a cursory stop, while there’s historic places to see here, it’s become more of a tourist attraction. Now on the A830, we catch glimpses of Loch Linnhe as we travel on the ‘Road to the Isles’ to Mallaig. I think of Janet, the Cameron Scotswoman of “Survival of the Blood”, riding through these lands with her nephew, Daniel. She’s hiding from the King’s British Army after the Battle of Culloden has taken place and is desperately hoping to find and free her husband, Ewan who has been captured by English soldiers. They will take him to Inverness and it is likely he will be shipped out to New Zealand to be sold as a slave.
In Mallaig, we’ll catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We spend a little time walking around Mallaig window shopping. Tucked away in a corner is a small bookstore, I find one to add to the collection while Ken does his ‘long-suffering husband’ routine. We sit down in a small coffee shop and have sweet rolls and coffee while we’re waiting for the ferry to begin loading. It leaves at 4:00p.m. and there’s still plenty of daylight in this far northern country in August; in fact, it will be light until 9:00p.m. However, once August is over, the sun has already started its return south, and the days quickly grow short and the nights are very long. In the middle of winter, it’s not unusual to have perhaps 6 hours of thin wintery sunlight between snow storms. Twilight begins at 3:p.m. and it’s dark by 4:00p.m., especially in the northern parts of Scotland. You may be wondering about the weather in Scotland; there actually are places in southern Scotland, along the western coast where palm trees flourish. This is because a warm Gulf Stream flows north past England’s western coast (which can feel almost tropical at times) to Scotland. But, don’t be fooled by the palm trees, winters in Scotland can be brutal with high winds blowing in from the north sea; Scotland’s northern coast is only 300 nautical miles from Denmark. Winter months bring snow, ice and harsh cold winds. It’s a good time to tuck in, get out the mending or select a book from your collection. Summertime always has some rain and some sun and 75 degrees would be ‘very warm’.
Time to board the ferry. Ken has his bagpipes ready and will play us over to Skye. He plays ‘Skye Boat Song’ which is about Flora MacDonald transporting Charles Edward Stuart to Skye. Flora loaned Charles some women’s clothing for a disguise and told everyone he was her maid, Betty Burke. Ken plays Scotland the Brave and several other tunes. Everyone enjoys the music and applauds his expertise in playing the pipes.
When we reach Skye, it’s about an hour and half drive to Portree. Foothills are to our left with snow-melt burns (streams of water) flowing down the hillsides. To our right is the southern shore of Skye; fishing boats are still out on the placid water. To the far west are the Cullin Hills; a dark purple smudge in the evening sky with the sun setting behind them. When dark clouds rapidly blow in from the north, it begins raining. That’s to be expected – Skye has more rainfall than nearly any other place in Scotland. It’s a fairly long, thin island surrounded on all sides by water, western side by the Irish sea, northern side, the North Sea, and between Skye and Scotland is the Sound of Raasay. There can be violent storms on the western coast which blow across the island. “Survival of the Blood” describes such a storm that ravages the coast where Dunvegan Castle is located. When the moist warm air of the Atlantic merge with the cold, icy air from the north sea, it’s a clash of winds. I describe one of these storms in Ian’s words in “Survival of the Blood.”
Our hotel sits only a short distance from the pier and our room faces the waterfront. We open the window and breathe the tangy smell of salt water. Brisk and refreshing! Spying a waterfront restaurant that advertises fresh seafood, we walk the short distance there for dinner. Talk about fresh seafood, what is cooked was caught that morning! It is all totally delicious. Our dinners are served on wooden boards with food absolutely piled on. Besides fish, there are potatoes, yellow squash, carrots, turnips, and a side dish of mushy peas. Love mushy peas. We decide they are reconstituted dried green peas that are cooked with seasonings then slightly mashed.
The next morning, we begin the trip around the island’s northern coast. We stop at the far northern tip of the island to visit the Museum of Island Life. There are crofter’s cottages with interiors complete with furniture and belongings as they were in 1700 and 1800. We both remark that the cottages seem dark and a bit dreary. Candlelight and light from a fireplace likely would not cast much light into the rooms. Residents of these cottages were concerned with staying in a dry place; a thatched roof would do that. The cottages are small, very small by today’s standards, maybe 300 square feet. There were two tiny sleeping rooms and a central sitting room with a fireplace and kitchen. There were large families (what else was there to do on those long, cold winter nights?) huh? The wind always blows on this part of the island. Always. Part of the Island Life display included two poles with clothesline cording and wooden clothes pins. I wonder how many times wives hung out the laundry only to have it blow away or be soaked with rain.
We’ll tour the Talisker Distillery located at Carbost. This is a good time to tell you about Scottish Single Malt Whisky (never with an ‘e’ in whisky). If you’ve not tried single malt here’s several reasons you might give it a try. First, it’s made with dried malted barley, which is the only grain used. After distilling liquid from the heated barley mixed with water, the raw whisky has more fresh clear water added. Many say it’s the water from Scotland that makes single malt so delicious – we agree. Then the whisky is stored in oaken barrels for the aging process. Sometimes the barrels have had wines stored in them and a bit of the bouquet and flavor of the wine will co-mingle with the lovely barley single malt. It’s a drink that is to be savored. I might suggest you sip single malt while sitting beside a toasty warm fire on a chilly fall evening. ‘Twill warm yer innards, it will!
The next morning we are on our way to visit Dunvegan Castle. In “Survival of the Blood”, this is where Ian Douglas’ mother lived with other members of the MacLeod clan. A MacLeod Chieftain lives in the castle today which is open to visitors. Dunvegan is the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod, who trace their ancestry back to the Vikings and Norsemen of the north. Ian Douglas, in “Survival of the Blood” tells of his mother’s clan MacLeod lineage. Ian will someday take her place as clan bard (historian). The gardens are beautiful and soften the somewhat intimidating exterior of the Castle which was a fortress for the clan. A tour of the castle is not to be missed. We peer at the framed piece of the enchanted and magical Fairy Flag in the Castle’s great room. The flag’s history is told in “Survival of the Blood” along with a story that gives the Fairy Flag credit for saving the clan on a dark and stormy night.
Well, we’ve completed the circle around the island. Dinner in Portree tonight is lobster, baked potatoes, mixed green salad (with salad cream) and thick slices of buttered bread. We talk about Skye and her people which is another story to tell. We will leave Skye in the morning, traveling over the Skye bridge to the mainland and Inverness. The bridge makes it possible for many Skye residents to find jobs on the mainland, adding to the economy of the island.
On our way to Inverness, we’re going to visit Eilean Donan Castle, one of the most photographed and beautiful castles in all of Scotland. It is easy to understand why people come here, the setting where three great sea-lochs meet. Surrounded by the majestic splendor of the forested mountains of Kintail, Eilean Donan Castle is truly breath-taking. As we tour this magnificent place, we learn the history of the castle; this is the fourth version. It began as a monastic shelter in 634AD. Then was expanded later to withstand attacks from Vikings. The history and building changes with time periods. The castle today was reconstructed as a family home between l912 and l932 by John MacRae-Gilstrap and incorporated much of the ruins from the 1719 destruction. This was when the bridge to the castle was constructed. It is a structure that is much a part of the classic image as the very castle itself. We wandered around the rooms of the castle admiring the displays of weapons, and fine art. We liked the great room with its huge fireplace that would hold a massive amount of wood. Truly Eilean (Gaelic for Island) Donan Castle can only be described as magnificent.
During our time in Inverness, we’ll stay at the Bunchrew House, a very special small hotel with only about 14 rooms available, set in 20 acres of wooded land on Beauly Firth. Every room is named after a clan; we stay in the beautiful Frazier room which has a huge 4 poster bed, a fireplace and which overlooks the Firth. A person could sleep on the plush carpeting in our bedroom. Downstairs, we choose single malt from a large selection in the hotel’s bar, and then retire to the library to sit and sip by the fire; it burns year around and feels toasty good. Earlier that afternoon, high tea was served accompanied by a tea cart loaded with sponge cakes, fruit tarts, cookies, cakes and pastries. Yum! Tea was served from a silver teapot in real china cups. Elegant! The Bunchrew House is a historic marvel – parts of it are over 500 years old and on the outside, it looks just like a fairy tale castle. In the library is a painting of a lady dressed in green. There is something mysterious about her and the story is told that she haunts the house, never waking or disturbing anyone who is asleep. She travels up and down the hallways and staircases, humming a tune as she goes.
We are sightseeing today; first is Fort George, a military fortress constructed after the Battle of Culloden for the sole purpose of keeping Jacobites in line. This fortress is still in use today. Then, my favorite place in the entire world! Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness! Here I’ll stock up on my winter’s reading. With Ken helping me sort through piles and shelves of books, we find books that are not available anywhere else. Some are so old there is no print date. I have to watch and not buy a book that’s in Gaelic; we’ve found several. It’s a sure bet our checked luggage is going to be overweight. Maybe we can repack our carryon luggage and find some extra space for the fourteen books I selected. Ken has a bit of a smile on his face; he knew what to expect.
Now we’re on our way to Drumossie Moor, better known as Culloden’s moor, where “The Battle” was fought. In “Survival of the Blood” I’ve told the tale of how the Highlanders walked from Inverness to the battlefield without food and there was nothing for them to eat when they arrived. Promised artillery never came, and the Highlanders fought with what they brought with them. The battle, the last one fought in the United Kingdom, was an overwhelmingly tragic event. In fact, “Survival of the Blood” has an entire chapter devoted to the battle where nearly five thousand Highlanders died. No one can walk over Culloden’s moor and see the markers where clan members perished without feeling the sadness of this desolate place where the wind sighs as it blows over the heather and even though the sun may be shining, there are shadows that a person feels rather than sees.
We have lunch in the visitor’s center. Potato soup with cheese and crackers is tasty and we each have a slice of jam cake. It’s heavy cake with raspberry jam filling frosted with whipped cream. Really a perk-up for both of us. We leave feeling a little better.
A stop at Brodie Castle is next; the day is beautiful and there’s not a cloud in the sky. You can see the castle from a distance. Built with light colored stone, the castle has two five story towers on opposite corners. There is no surrounding wall, but it does have a guardroom and secret passages so the occupants could escape assassination attempts (I think this sounds like a tale to be told). We tour the interior of the castle and remark about the well-preserved antique furniture, oriental artifacts and, the ceilings painted with landscapes and clouds. The library downstairs is especially interesting with many books written by the Earl of the Castle who devoted his entire life to propagating and growing daffodils. Gardens surrounding the castle were dedicated to growing this beautiful flower and many varieties that we enjoy today had a beginning in these gardens.
Upstairs in a drawing room with lovely upholstered furniture we discover a very old piano. A lady in the tour group asks if she could play the piano. The tour leader says yes, and we are treated to a song that is most appropriate for such a delightful setting. As we listen to a mini-concert, we gaze out the wavy glass windows where there’s blue sky, sunshine and the lovely countryside of Scotland. There’s a tiny cafe and gift shop downstairs and we stop in for tea and cakes. Our tea is delicious, and the cakes are as well. I have a slice of sponge cake topped with fresh strawberries and thick clotted cream. Ken has lemon cake layered with cream with raspberries on top. In the gift shop we buy a small pillow decorated with hand-sewn butterflies and tea in small boxes marked “Specially blended for Brodie Castle”.
As we leave Inverness we’ll travel down the A-9 to Blair Castle, another of Scotland’s historic homes. It sits near Blair Atholl, a small village. We decide to take the visitor’s tour of this beautiful place which resembles a Castle that easily could be sitting in Disneyland. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d think it was a Disney Castle with crenellations and turrets, a grand ballroom and fine antique furniture. Over nineteen generations of Stewarts and Murrays of Atholl have lived here. Our tour guide says these two families were both winners and losers, fell into and out of political favor, won battles and lost them. They were adventurers and politicians, Jacobites and Royalists, entrepreneurs and agriculturalists, soldiers and scholars. All of them, one way or another, left their mark on Blair Castle. As we walk from room to room, we learn that Mary, Queen of Scots stayed here, Lord George Murray, whose story is in “Survival of the Blood”, spent time here as he planned the Jacobite uprising. Queen Victoria’s love affair with Scotland’s Highlands began here. Truly, it is a place where history was not only lived, but made.
You can sense the history in the great room where hundreds of rifles, pistols, muskets and other artillery are mounted on the wall in a grand display of weapons. We walk through rooms that obviously are ladies’ areas with pastel painted walls and lovely portraits. There’s gentlemen’s rooms with dark brocade walls and heavy dark oaken furniture. The great dining room has a table set for dinner. It seats 24 people; china, silver and crystal gleam and shine in glow cast from four crystal chandeliers hanging over the table. Chairs upholstered in striped silk are at the table and a fine linen tablecloth drapes beautifully over the table nearly to the floor. This is an elegant room – we both find ourselves comparing this finery to the crofter’s cottages on Skye.
Now we travel the short distance to Scone (pronounced Scoone) Palace, just outside Perth, where the old king’s of Scotland, including Robert the Bruce, were crowned. The Palace is surrounded by pastures with Highland Cattle happily grazing in thick, green grass. If you are not familiar with this breed of cattle, they are remarkably adaptable to their surroundings. We raised registered Highland animals on our small farm in southern Missouri and found the animals to be loveable and curious about everything around them. The cows are excellent mothers who calve easily. Highland steers make really tasty beef.
Scone Palace is the home of the Earl of Mansfield and the family continues to live in upstairs rooms in this grand place. Downstairs, we are regaled by beautiful paintings, furniture and decorations befitting an Earl and his family. The grounds of Scone Palace are amazing. Peacocks strut amongst beautifully landscaped flower gardens.
We hoped to have some time in Edinburgh, but with only a day and a night left, we must begin the return trip to Manchester. On the way, we’ll stop at Hadrian’s Wall, the northern limit of the Roman Empire. Hadrian’s Wall was a Roman defensive fortification designed to keep the Scots in their place. It’s said the Romans intended to take the entire island, England, Wales and Scotland, but somewhere along the way the Roman soldiers lost their desire for Scotland; we think it had to do with the determination of the Scots to run them off. Really, the Scots can be very formidable when they are angry, even yet today. Hadrian’s Wall extends from the east coast to the west coast of England. There is a fort about every five miles. A significant part of the wall still stands and is a World Heritage Site. After taking this in, we meander back the way we started from.
Reminiscing, we talked about all of the delicious food we’ve enjoyed – fish and chips, steak and ale pie, roasted lamb shank with mint sauce, potatoes, peas and carrots and, the desserts! Oh my! Always the food has been superb and our tight belts are proof of it. Are we a little sad at leaving Scotland – oh yes! But, we’ve video’s and pictures to remind us of this most beautiful place, the people and the history of a country who continues to struggle under England’s rule. Only last September (2014) the Scots voted to obtain freedom from England. Forty-five percent of the people voted for it and the remaining fifty-five percent voted against it. We think financial concerns led to the votes against it. Many of Scotland’s banks have main banking centers in London. Could Scotland’s people stand on their own? Most certainly they can! But, after years upon years of surviving under English rule, they may have a fear of whether they could or not. It seems that the question will remain unanswered.
We hope you’ve enjoyed traveling with us. Please join us again for the second trip to Scotland. We’ll be traveling to Edinburgh, visit the Falkirk Wheel, Rosslyn Chapel, and then swing north, up the eastern coast to Aberdeen. We’ll board a ferry for a 6 hour trip to the Orkney Islands where we’ll visit five World Heritage Sites, including the Italian Chapel. Along the way will be Dunnotter Castle, Glamis Castle (birthplace of the Queen Mother) and many other interesting places. Please join us for this trip.
Ken and Beth Bristow
PS: I nearly forgot to tell you about Scotland’s thistle – many years ago Vikings arrived in Scotland intent upon capturing the people and claiming the lands for themselves. The Highlanders were aware that the Vikings’ longboat sat in the Moray Firth, just outside Inverness, and they knew their intentions. The Highlanders bedded down on a hillside covered with the prickly thistle. They covered themselves with their dark plaids and blended in with the surroundings. They wore heavy leather boots that laced up to their knees.
Just before dawn, the Vikings came ashore and decided to climb the hillside where the Highlanders lay sleeping. The Vikings planned to overtake the village below and begin their assault on those living there. But….as they climbed the hillside their feet became tangled in the thistles, and their shouts at the pain they felt as they waded through the prickly thistles woke the Highlanders who fought them down the hillside, back into their long boat and watched as they sailed away. So…..that’s the tale of Scotland’s bonny beloved thistle. Aye!