Scotland! I had already bonded with the country of my ancestors long before we arrived for a two weeks’ vacation. I was looking forward to traveling to a country of Gaelic speaking people, Highlands, Lochs and countless crofter’s cottages with thatched roofs and climbing roses growing around and through white board fences. For my husband Ken, a bag-pipe playing Scotsman, it will be a visit home.
Planning for the trip started long before it began. I sorted clothing into three piles; “want to take”, “might take” and “must take”. Ken looked over the three stacks and said, “Forget the first two, there’s a 50 pound limit on checked luggage.” “I know,” I said, “Part of the fun of traveling is in deciding what to pack.” He selected a jacket from my ‘must take’ pile. “Beth, you’ll need a bit more than this, I dinna think it’ll be warm enough an’ it’s nay waterproof.” He was quite serious about it because he brought out his Inverness cape that is a complicated waterproof neck-to-ankle Scotsman’s idea of a rain coat and commented that while he is a gentleman, I’d best be prepared with my own rain gear.
This was our second trip to Scotland, the first one was several years ago in July; Ken’s mother was not well, and my memory of the hurried trip was that the sun shone every day and it was lovely outside. Now we would be there at the beginning of October. As I selected clothing that would be appropriate for early fall in the states, I thought about visiting the home of my many times removed Clan Cameron grandparents. On our first trip, we visited the birthplace and museum of the Cameron Chieftain, Donald, The Gentle Lochiel. I gazed at his portrait dated 1744 and admired the slightly crooked aristocratic nose which is where the Cameron name originated; it’s Gaelic for ‘crooked nose’. Ken commented on my slightly crooked nose, but I don’t believe he said mine was aristocratic.
With only a little ‘first day’ jet lag, we toured the home and birthplace of Scotland’s Poet Laureate, Robbie Burns, near Ayr on the western coast. The gardens surrounding the cottage were lovely with roses, heather and primroses blooming in a riot of color. Touring Robbie’s home was a walk back through time. I could not help remarking that it was no wonder Robbie had 17 children when the guide pointed to the narrow bed Robbie and his wife slept in. What else was there to do on those awfully bitter cold and long winter nights?
The cottage’s one long room was divided into two areas, one for living quarters and the other for a manger. Our guide said the warmth from the cattle helped to keep the broch (Gaelic word for home) warm in the winter. I believe I would be distracted a bit with all of the mooing, not to mention the activity at the other end of the animal!
We stopped for lunch at a crowded pub where it appeared the entire village gathered to visit and catch up on the gossip. As we walked up the pub’s steps, Ken mentioned it was built in the 16th century and pointed to workers patching the roof with new thatch. Our waitress placed us at a table by a window that was so old, the glass was wavy. A bright fire burned in a fireplace built into a stone wall. The warmth felt good; the building had thick rock walls. The luncheon special was Haggis served with mashed tatties. I am well aware of the ingredients used to prepare Haggis, Ken makes a batch of it for our own Burns night celebration in January every year to celebrate Robbie Burns’ birthday. He doesn’t follow the traditional recipe which calls for heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach and tripe. He substitutes liver, lamb, venison and beef all ground, steel cut oats, spices and quite a bit of Single Malt Whisky! I ordered deep fried cod with chips. Ken ordered lamb shank with mint sauce and blood pudding. I truly believe they should consider renaming that dish which likely is very tasty; I say likely because I do not intend to find out for certain.
After a good night’s rest in a beautiful old Inn on Scotland’s west coast, the next day’s trip began with perfect weather. Ken asked if a stop at Dunadd, an ancient fort atop a rather insignificant hill would interest me; I asked why we’d want to go there. He explained that some fifteen hundred years ago, the old Kings of Scotland were crowned in that place and the ceremony included placing a kingly bare foot in a foot-shaped depression in a rock located at the top of Dunadd Hill. The fresh air of Scotland with beautiful scenery all around was an inspiration in itself, and visiting a historical place as old as Dunadd would add to the adventure. Yes, great idea! Besides, the view from the top would be breathtaking.
Traveling in the Highlands is often slow as narrow hedge-row lined roads could better be described as wide paths. There is space for only one vehicle on the road at a time; a pass-by spot allows one to pull over so another car can pass. On marketing day, usually Wednesday in most villages, it’s best to allow considerable more time to reach a destination. An appropriate saying about this is in Susan Branch’s book, ‘A Fine Romance’, “When it’s 3:00p.m. in New York, it’s 1938 in London.” Same for Scotland, only more so!
After a long hot summer in Missouri, the lush green grass and prolific flowers of this beautiful country were breathtaking. We drove slowly down a narrow lane amazed when we came upon a farmer using a stick to guide a stately Highland cow down the path. We followed behind watching as he gently tapped her on her side to keep her at the edge of the path. When we came to a passing place we drove around them and waved back when the farmer gave us a wave as we passed by.
Passing by a stately old home sitting almost at the side of the road, Ken remarked that the Scots never demolish buildings; they remodel and update. He speculated that the home we’d just passed likely sat well off the old carriage path, but when the new wider road was built, the house stayed where it was. He mentioned that his childhood home was constructed in 1545 and still has residents living there. As we drove through gently sloping pastoral hillsides with sheep grazing in grass up to their briskets, the beauty of this Celtic nation was soothing to our eyes and souls.
When we arrived at Dunadd, I looked at the hill and thought, “No problem to climb this;” It was little more than the highest hill on our small farm in hilly southern Missouri. Ken pointed out the narrow, rocky path with steps that appeared to be hewn from rock. We wondered how someone coming down could manage with someone coming up the steps, there was no way they could pass comfortably with the thick growth of gorse, thistle and broom along the sides of the narrow pathway. No matter, it was a pleasant day with a gentle breeze ruffling our hair…there was hardly a cloud in the sky, just a vague haze on the western horizon.
Ken reminded me of our conversation during the flight over about Scotland’s weather and how it could change at a minute’s notice. He recommended I get out my waterproof jacket and wear it over my sweater. I looked around, it was warm with bright sunshine and I waved away his concerns, put my jaunty tam on with its sprig of heather and posed while Ken took photos. A gentle breeze blew leaves around a bit, and there were a few more clouds. Ken had his camera and I had snacks and water in my backpack; we were good to go.
Ken led the way and I followed, stopping to admire the blooms of Scotland’s national flower, the purple thistle and buttercups, white blooming heather and wild violets. The clean, fresh smell was nearly overpowering. I would have loved to bottle it in a spray container for a winter’s day when things were all closed up at home.
The breeze increased to a rather gusty wind that blew over and around us. Ken looked back at me and said, “Best hang on to yer backpack, darlin’ it’s comin’ up a storm!” He pointed to the west where dark clouds were rapidly forming and moving across the sky; we could see rain falling beneath them. “Should we go back?” I asked, curious to see if he thought the weather might turn bad enough to be a problem. “Och, we’re only a wee distance from th’ top, let’s hurry an’ maybe th’ storm will bypass us.” I concentrated on climbing the damp and slippery steps and found myself grabbing gorse branches along the way to steady myself.
Suddenly, a great gust of wind took my tam! I watched as it twirled around and down the hillside. “Never mind,” Ken said, “We’ll find it later.” When a cold drizzle began and then became a downpour, we were within a stone’s throw of the top. Ken held out his hand and helped me climb the last few steps. Every stitch of clothing I had on was soaked and Ken was in no better shape, even his kilt was dripping water!
We searched for the king’s footprint; between the wind and rain it was almost impossible to see where we were standing, let alone a depression in stone. “I’m ready to go down” I yelled. “Aye, we’d best go, if we can.” Ken later said he thought we should have stayed put rather than starting down, but he had no idea how long the storm would last and we both were miserably wet and cold. I offered my best line for the day, “Ha, you didn’t wear your Inverness Cape, did you?” Slowly, he turned and gave me ‘one of those’ looks.
“OK, hold my hand, be careful where you put your feet an’ we’ll be down before ye know it,” he said. ‘Fine,’ I thought, ‘I can put one foot in front of the other, no problem,’ but then, I realized in the rain, I could not see the water covered rock hewn steps. “Can you see the steps”? I yelled. “I think so,” he yelled back.
The wind blew rain directly into our faces. We both heard a strange moaning sound, as if someone was in pain. “Are ye alright?” Ken shouted. “Yes, I’m ok, but what’s that weird sound, do you hear it?” I yelled back. “Aye, I do, ” he said.
Before either one of us could do anything to stop it, Ken’s foot slipped and he went base over apex exposing to the world exactly what Scotsmen wear under their kilts and landed, rear end first, on a huge outcrop of granite. I could only stand there, holding my breath…. broken bones, internal injuries and all sorts of awful things going through my head. Thank goodness he had the presence of mind to shout, “I’m ok, just shook up a bit.” I could see the same thing happening to me if even so much as a slip of the foot happened. Step by step I inched down closer to where he lay. “Give me yer hand an’ I’ll get back to th’ path,” he said. I looked at the distance between where he was and where I stood, ‘Impossible,’ I thought, ‘I cannot reach him from the path and if I leave it, the grass and rocks are so slippery I’ll also fall, and there’s no one around for miles.’ “Ken, hold on. You’re at the very edge of the rock and if you move, you fall all the way to the bottom.” “Ok” he said.
A solitary ray of sunshine broke through the clouds… I could see the path beneath my feet! “I think I can steady you while you get on your feet and stand up.” He reached for my hand and held on while he gained his footing. I held onto a thorny bush with my other hand. Carefully he stepped to the path ahead of me.
Finally, we reached the bottom of the hill. I needed to check that Ken was ok, so he grudgingly raised his kilt….. I gasped when I saw his backside; it was a mass of color, black, blue, purple, green and dark red. “Do we need to find a Doctor?” I asked. “Och, lass, I fell on my rear. It’s th’ best padded part of my body, if I’d fallen elsewhere, likely there’d be broken bones, but, I think I’m alright.”
Poor fellow, he spent the rest of the two weeks sitting on a pillow and the bruises eventually went away, but…..we’ll never forget our climb up and down the several hundred feet high Dunadd “hill” and how rapidly the weather can change in Scotland! By the way, we’ve since been told the moaning sound we both heard likely came from Scottish King Kenneth McAlpin from long ago. It’s said a terrible storm hit Dunadd causing the newly crowned King to slip and fall just as he placed his foot in the print in the stone! We both had a shiver as we talked about it.