I hope all is well in your world and that you have a great birthday!!
July 14, 2009
We got to sleep in today. It was amazing. Almost 9 am which was amazing after all the early morning rises in order to get to our destinations. It felt really good!
I started the day by going outside our front door and snapping our view. The loch is right across the street with boats in the corner. Our cottage is literally at the end of Loch Linnhe but as you look to the west, the sun sets over our mountains – yes, they’re ours. I think they’re the Three Sisters of Glencoe but I’m not 100%. There are mountains everywhere so don’t kill me if I’m wrong. All I can say is they are beautiful.
Our little cottage is stucco white with flowers dotted along the way and a lovely pink rose climbing the side of the front door. We also have a large yellow flowering bush in the corner of the fenced in area that lots of little bees like to come and collect pollen. A lone seagull floated by searching for his own breakfast as mine was waiting in the kitchen – Scottish Blend tea from Tesco, a blackberry/raspberry yoghurt and a scone with Devonshire cream. Yum! Wendy got up a little bit later and we both hung out in the front yard. Did I mention we got to sleep in?
The day had a lazy start and we continued to putz around the cottage taking our time getting ready. Finally sometime in the afternoon we decided to check out the village of Glencoe. Our host suggested a few hikes along the loch and into the mountainside so we figured today would be a great day to check them out. After we hit the church and cemetery at Ballachulish.
There is no end to the amazing churches and cemeteries in the area. And the local history these places hold is remarkable. The beauty of the day still comes across in these monuments to loved ones. The crosses and obituaries are touching and placed with care among their neighbors. Wendy and I split, grabbing different shots of the area – we tend to gravitate towards the same shots – as I wandered towards the front. A bit later, two sweet little ladies came up arm and arm towards the church entrance. I asked if they belonged to this parish (because it’s active) and they said they were visiting from Fort William. The four of us started a dialogue where they told us a bit about the area and asked us where we were from. I said Chicago and they said they knew someone from Illinois, in the Chicago area, and could I mention some of the cities around there so they could remember. I tried a few – Skokie, Glen Ellyn, Oak Park - but they were a bust. They were some of the most charming individuals we’d met yet; deeply friendly and genuine. I really can’t say enough about the people here!
We waved our goodbyes and headed towards Glencoe to see what it was all about. There was a hike to the Hidden Valley that John Winkler, our “host,” had recommended so we decided to give that a shot. We’d really hoped to get some grub, but it seemed that we got there too late, so we just wandered around this marvelous little town.
Wendy and I noted that everywhere we’ve been in Scotlandhas been completely different – up a mountain, on the sea, by train, driving around – but there was really something special about this place. I called it Hobbiton because all the modest homes were perfect little places of beauty. Each had its own charm and personality. Flowers decorated every free space in the yard, and they were bright, unusual colors. Lots of purples with yellow and orange. Blue hydrangea everywhere. I mean, really breathtaking.
And as we were figuring out what we were doing in the car park, the little ladies from the graveyard popped up next to my car window, scaring the crap out of me! “I remembered the name of the town,” she said, all smiles at remembering. “It’s called Urbana.” I smiled and told her that that was about two hours from Chicago and a lovely area with a state university. She nodded, remembering that bit of information. She was so happy to have remembered, but even more so to have found us to tell us. It was the cutest thing, ever!
We ended up driving a bit and found an entrance to a trail by the Clachaig Inn; a pub that clearly states that “no Hawkers or Campbells are welcome.” A quick bit of history. The Glencoe Massacre happened here in 1692 where the Campbells slaughtered the MacDonald clans because they didn’t pledge their loyalty to the king. If you want more details, you can check the history of the Glencoe Massacre, but basically, it seems the Campbells are still hated for the attrition of the MacDonalds. Here’s the bad part; Wendy has Campbell in her bloodline. I threatened to out her if she didn’t behave. We took a picture of her at the sign for posterity and then hightailed out of there.
The Hidden Valley walk was truly hidden to us, so we ended up going to Signal Rock where, according to Undiscovered Scotland.com “There were up to 500 MacDonalds, scattered over the lower reaches of Glen Coe. The start of the massacre was signalled by a fire lit on what is now called Signal Rock at 5am. It was dark, it was snowing, and reinforcements intended to block escape routes from the glen failed to turn up, leaving Captain Campbell to make his mark on history largely unaided.“ Obviously a depressing place, so we headed right on up there.
The landscape was really beautiful; full, mossy tress hiding us from the sun. The walk up was very nice if a bit steep but we took it slow because we aren’t exactly the lightest on our feet. Several trips, slips and missteps later, we finally made it up to signal rock where we regarded the Three Sisters of Glencoe and had them pose for pictures. We got rather silly in our picture taking and finally decided to meander back down the path into town.
However, down was not nice. At all. I’d jokingly mentioned that this was how horror movies start – two stupid girls hiking alone in the woods... In fact, it was so horrid that Wendy took a fall, scraping her knee. We tried to do first aid (which was basically looking to make sure she wasn’t gushing blood) and then we heard some wild animal baying in the distance. Well, that got us moving rather quickly. Then it started to rain. We kicked it up another notch.
We finally found our way out, dripping wet and we marched back towards the car. As we drove out, we noticed that these jars of jam that we’d spotted on our way in were still for sale with an honesty box outside. We decided to grab some for our crumpets and made our way back home.
We were wet, shivering a touch and almost home when Wendy suddenly shouted out “A rainbow!” so we had to stop and look at this incredible view. All along the highways are these amazing little purple flowers, I think they’re Heather, that we just have started calling the “picture framing flowers” because they add that last thing your shot needs. Incredible! We snapped shots until the colors faded into the sky, disappearing from view. And that was the end of our lovely day in Glencoe!
July 13, 2009
Today was the day that I was so excited for – not like the entire trip wasn’t something to be excited about – because I wanted to see whales. We’d booked a trip through Sea.fari boat lines. The only problem? We had to get up WAY too early in order to get to the Isle of Skye, two and a half hours away. The tour was at 10am, so that meant we had to leave by 7am to give ourselves enough time. Early is not good – ever. But we got out, a little later than anticipated, and started our trek north towards the Skye Bridge.
On the way, we had much mountainside to traverse and it added a little stress to our journey as there were some quite steep sides to possibly fall over for two girls who are just learning to ride the other side of the road. But we tore through the scenery, ogling pictures we knew we’d want on the way back. I only saw quick glimpses of haunting mountains draped in greens and browns; waterfalls scarcely populating high regions of the mounds. A placid loch where the reflection of the mountain winked at the reverse image tempting me to stop and grab that beauty with my camera. There was no time to waste though, so we scurried onward towards our destination.
But then we saw Eilean Donan castle, one of the larger ones we’d see on our trip, and we had to stop for a brief moment. It was magnificent and cover in a slight drizzle, adding to the mystery of this ancient ruin. We’d stopped for long enough, however, and knew we’d need to hurry on.
Jumping back in the car, we continued onwards towards the Armadale pier, knowing that our Sea.fari boat trip launched from that same site. Many, many turns and fantastic scenery later, we finally saw the sign for the ferry. Finding parking was a bit of a challenge but we were directed to an area where we would be safe. We quickly jumped out and ran towards the pier, overlooking the bagpiper in the parking lot entertaining his adoring fans.
The bright red boat held about 15 total people if everyone was onboard but today we only had 11. We donned the sun yellow water jackets that barely fit over our heads (Wendy had a waterproof jacket and refused one) and made our way slowly down the steep steps to the waiting boat. We pulled away from shore and stopped quickly to look at relaxed seals on a nearby island mound. They lazily rocked back and forth trying to make their way into the sea. We paused for a bit to watch, then moved forward.
Our guide said that if we saw patches of these lovely little seabirds called shearwaters that lit on the water, it was usually a good sign for a whale or porpoise. There are tons of these birds around, so we did much stopping and starting but had little luck of seeing that beautiful minke whale. But what we got instead were views of many of the little uninhabited isles all along the Scottish coast, including amazing views of the Cuillin Mountains. Every turn had various peaks and greenery, each angle more beautiful then the next. Then, finally, we caught our break – a porpoise tooling about amongst the birds. It hung around for a little while, but not long enough to catch a picture. Our guide said they are not as playful as the dolphins so he quickly went on his way.
We stopped at a few more of these bird havens having pretty much the same luck. We were “lucky” enough to be able to sit and watch as the birds tore into a jelly fish – unsure if it was alive or dead – and have a feast. As much as the theory of that grosses me out, it’s interesting to see how nature takes its course.
So there we were, stuck in the middle of the sea surrounded by miles of water and hungry seabirds. And it was amazing. Peaceful doesn’t even describe it; there’s nothing like it. The clouds rolled by, concealing the sun from us in a game of hide and seek. There are so few craft on these waterways, it’s like you have the whole sea to yourself. The feeling is indescribable.
Eventually, we made it back to shore – no whales to be found. I was a little disappointed, but the journey was still amazing.
Heading back, we saw a sign for a castle and figured we’d go and take a look. Somehow, we got lost and ended up on another road, finding a cute little hotel with a few shops around it too. We detoured and headed back the way we came, remembering there was an Indian restaurant we wanted to hit before we headed back to the cottage. We’re always looking for a good Indian restaurant and this one looked really promising. It was closed. Sigh.
Then the search for food began as we hit the little village of Kyleakin right by the Skye bridge. There was a castle ruin there – Castle Moil – so we snapped a few pictures and found food at King Haakon restaurant (although I have no idea who he was). At the end of our bar visit, we thanked the bar man for staying open for us. “Tha’s alright,” he replied (which basically means you’re welcome) and then a very drunk elderly man came stumbling back to thank us as well. He quizzed us on our origins stating that he liked America, giving us a Scottish blessing of sorts: “I walk with sky above me, Skye below me and it flows through my veins. I wish to you peace and prosperity in your journey ahead.” I’m sure I blew that but that was the general sentiment. It was lovely and he truly meant it.
As we continued on our way, Wendy found this little town on the edge of nowhere on our map called Elgol at the southernmost tip of Skye. We wanted to get a better look at the Cullin Mountains and this seemed the place to do it. In order to get there, however, we’d have to travel the elusive one lane highway that we both are so fond of. And guess who was behind the wheel. Talk about getting your experience on the road!
The winding road never seemed to end, creating obstacle after obstacle, obviously the most worrisome being the cars coming towards you. After some trial and error, I think we got then hang of it, on some level. One lane road has passing places and whoever gets there first basically has to pull over to the side to allow the passing. The first time I had to do it, I kind of panicked and pulled to the wrong side. Eventually, we figured it out.
In addition to the cars you have to dodge, there were various blockades in the road that don’t give a damn if you’re trying to get somewhere. For example – sheep. They have no clue, nor do they care about anything. If they want to be in the road, they’ll be in the road and screw what you want. They were hanging out by a cemetery, eating the green grass on the graves, so we had to stop. In fact, we saw them open the gate to the grave yard to get in! Like I said, they go where they want to.
They are also very noisy. We had one little bugger who hung out in the road and tried to get hit by a passing car, just baaing at it. And it was quite a baa. It was the cross between a normal sheep and a crabby old woman that had smoked her whole life yelling at you. We both have it on video for posterity.
Still others hung in the background and explored. We turned around to see two of them trying to eat our Corsa, licking the bumper and then rubbing against the wheels. I tried to shoo them away, but that just elicited non-stop giggling from Wendy. We did get them off and continued to wind our way through the hills, mountains and lochs to the world’s end atop the mountain.
Up we climbed and the more freaked out I got. A soft mist started to drizzle on the windshield adding an extra layer of discomfort. We finally did reach a peak of sorts but the final stage of the road required us to drive down a pretty steep incline with limited visibility (and the Corsa already had a pretty awful blind spot) so we decided we were going to turn around.
The famed red phone booth was perched on this mountain and Wendy stopped to make a call, but it didn’t work so we continued on. I was so thirsty that I wanted to stop and have a quick drink. I figured it would wash down my nails that I’d chewed off on the trip up. As we pulled into the parking lot of this cute little seafood restaurant, Wendy realized that she’d lost her cash. We dumped everything on the seat from her backpack, tearing through it all. It wasn’t there. She figured she had around 250-300 pounds in the envelope. I feared that my ability to lose money at the drop of a hat had rubbed off on Wendy as I’d done the same thing on my trip out West with Kathy, losing $1000.
She was panicked. So was I but I tried to remain calm. The last place she remembered having it was at King Haakon so I went inside the restaurant and asked for assistance with their number. The couple was so incredibly kind (which, by the way, has really been the standard here. No one has treated us poorly) and gave us the number, offering advice that my cell wouldn’t work until we’d hit the loch several miles below. I thanked them and returned to the car.
Wendy had calmed some and decided to continue driving. I’d told her of my pangs of fear as I remembered losing my cash. But it’s only money and somehow I was able to let it go. I’d tried to impress that upon her as well, saying that we’d stay in more and work everything out.
We were anxious to get home to check around the cottage for the lost funds and then we ran into large, brown cows who decided they needed to hog the road. There’s no messing with a cow! They came right up to the window and looked in like they’d never seen a car before. It was quite hilarious and brightened the mood inside the car immensely. Shortly afterwards, we hit the mountain goats who like to perch atop the small hills. They always look like they’re ready to come and ram you so we cautiously made our way down through Nature’s obstacles.
Finally we wound down the mountain and I was able to call the restaurant. They looked around but it was to no avail. Our last remaining hope was that somehow the envelope was taken out of her book bag and it was at home.
The ride back was quiet but relaxed as we wound our way through. We’d seen some pretty amazing scenery on the way and stopped at a battle ground for Gala Shiel marked by a brown sign with two swords crossing. There was a beautiful bridge that was probably the keeper of some horrible battle; now it just contained horrible slugs. I’ve never seen slugs, but the first one I saw looked like a cigarette lighter that someone had dumped on the grass (which got me mad) but then I came to realize it was this plump, evil beastie. Oh, they were so gross, and everywhere! Absolutely disgusting!
Climbing back into the car in a much lighter mood, we took another peek at Eilean Donan castle, wandering up the path and getting a bunch of really nice shots of the sides and loch. It is a magnificent structure!
Our final stop was to ogle some highland cows that grazed idly along the road. They were easily frightened by us (and who wouldn’t be) and raced off across the pasture.
Getting home, Wendy ran upstairs to find the envelope with all her money sitting happily on her bed! Same happy ending that I had only much quicker when I’d lost my money. We could go to sleep with no worries after another wonderful day!
July 12, 2009
Today was the day we were going to find Puffins; Scotland is one of the only places on earth to find them. We got up at the buttcrack of dawn in order to get to Oban, a lovely little village on the loch (‘cuz there’s none of those around here). It was our first taste of Scotland mist in the morning as it coated our layers of clothes in droplets of dew-like water.
Most of the drive was through foresty stuffs with lochs along the way on either side. We knew we’d have to test our driving again, pretending not to be tourists by driving 20 miles under the speed limit. We were running a tad late – who knew Wendy had that ailment as well – so we had to hotfoot it on the road as the tour started at 10am. The problem was that we still had to buy our tickets at the desk because we couldn’t purchase them before we’d left the states. I’d tried to call the night before to leave a message and I’d sent an email but we never heard anything back. I grabbed the phone with the intention of calling along the way.
Oh, and I think I forgot to mention that there are castle ruins everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It’s just incredible to think how many people lived like that! We hit our first one of the day on the way to Oban, Castle Stalker; the only standing piece is a tower in the middle of an island. One can only imagine how they built it in the first place on this tiny piece of land. But we didn’t have time to look now as we had to get to our destination.
Many roundabouts, a few bridges and lochside views later, we ended up in Oban. This was the first port we’d seen with the ferries – and the ships were massive! The town itself was a good size – even having its own Tesco – so it stands to reason that the port would be a hub of lots of activity. Still, seeing that ship up close and knowing that we’d be on one in a few day’s time just shoots a sense of awe through your veins.
We parked the car, illegally it turns out, and raced over to find out where the ticket office was. The tour desk held our answers as a sweet man behind the desk nodded as I mentioned my name, informing us that the tour had been cancelled for the day. Ugh! I knew we should have called first, but we were in a hurry…haste DOES make waste. And speaking of waste (wow, what an awful transition) I needed to use the loo before we hit the road to our now new adventure, but had to pay 20 pence for it! As Wendy says, welcome to Europe!
We decided to make lemonade from lemons and figured we’d go find the Glenfinnan monument, dedicated to Bonnie Price Charlie who tried to rise against the English in 1745. They lost – badly – but it was a good show, apparently. Enough so that they wanted a monument to remember the fight and loss of life. In addition to this monument based along the stunning scenery, if you do a 180, you see the famous viaduct used in the Harry Potter movies (which we’ll be taking on Wednesday). Also in this area is this amazing church that Wendy randomly found on a website. We decided that we needed to find it and take our own pictures. So, that was the new plan of the day.
Tesco has this great lunch meal deal for 2 GBP that includes a sandwich, drink and chips so we figured we’d head over there first, grab our own packed lunch and hit the road to Glenfinnan. Well, that was the plan. Apparently getting to the Tesco demands some ancient Scottish ritual where you have to find the magic passage in order to enter the parking lot. We drove up and down, left and right and still couldn’t find it. We saw it from a distance, but it flipped its elusive middle finger at us as we tried to get to it. Along the way, Wendy found this little tiny road up into the houses of Oban. Unfortunately, there is no room to get your car by, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. And we didn’t. We also trucked along next to water and no guardrail which did not make for a happy time. Eventually we got to the top and found our way back down, shaking like a leaf at the bottom.
There was a Co-op next to the Tesco, so we ended up going there, grabbing a few groceries (but putting back the bagel that an old woman coughed on) and walking through the streets to get to the other store. Apparently that ancient Scottish ritual only applies to driving as we were able to walk there. Finally, we made our way out of the city and back onto the road. Where we promptly got lost – and didn’t realize it.
Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn at the round about and ended up in more beautiful Scottish country/mountainside. About twenty miles in or so, we realized that this area didn’t look familiar, as we were next to another loch. We found a place to turn around, and headed back to the cottage. This time we stopped at Castle Stalker and took pictures of the intangible little tower on the edge of the water. The day was dark and dreary – at least for the moment – as we snapped away from our various angles. We stopped briefly in the gift shop to use the washroom (and didn’t have to pay this time) and head on our way.
We stopped briefly at the cottage and decided to eat our meals at our dining room table, planning out our trip to Fort William and ultimately, Glenfinnan. It was my turn to drive, so I got to hit the roundabouts in the city. Wendy is MUCH better at them then I am so I managed to get us lost, which is pretty easy for me to do. Eventually, we got out of town and headed to the monument and another stage of this journey.
It took a while to get there, but we learned the rules of the road pretty quickly, allowing people to pass us either by pulling over in the passing lanes or just plain getting passed along the highway. Eventually, we got the feel for driving faster. In fact, someone even pulled over for me! That was pretty cool!
The monument and museum are on the side of the road at the bottom of a hill pretty much in a blind spot. And the speed limit is 60. It’s nerve-wracking trying to get in and out, but we got there. As we looked to the left of the parking lot, our hopes were realized as we saw the famous viaduct for the steam train from Ft. William to Mallaig – the trip in the Harry Potter movies. I had to giggle a little at the sight and the fact that we’d found it. It was magnificent!
We paid our 3GBP to climb to the top of the monument; this tiny little round tower. Oh, and I mean tiny. We barely were able to fit up the narrow staircase – this was even worse than the one at Melrose Abbey. There was a caretaker that checked our tickets who looked strangely like Finch with a black netting across his face, draped in a tannish overcoat to stave the rain off. Once we climbed the 57 stairs (yes, I counted) you have to duck through, squat and haul yourself up. We couldn’t fit with the backpacks, so we handed them off to one another.
But the view was stunning.
While we were only a little ways up, it makes all the difference. You’re on Loch Shiel, overlooking these amazing mountains that seem to courtesy to the loch itself. They make a valley for the still waters to roam about freely. The clouds hovered innocently, pretending they held no water to pour on us. Evil bastards! As we looked around, they started a gentle spit on us, reminding us that they were there, innocent or not! In the distance, we got our first real glimpse of the viaduct, and it’s magnificent! Do you feel a trend here? We even got lucky and a Scotrail train, the line we took from Perth, went cruising by. It wasn’t the steam train, but it was still cool as hell!
After squeezing back down through the hole at the top, we walked back to the parking lot and found a trail that went up a winding hill to overlook the monument and give us a better view of the viaduct. Along the way, we finally discovered what midges were; well Wendy did. And they loved her. A lot! A nice Scottish family offered us Skin So Soft (because we’d forgotten ours at home) and we sprayed ourselves with it. I actually watched the midges hit my skin and die – it was awesome! We stayed up top and got even more stunning views of the loch and the viaduct – probably one of the most beautiful spots we’ve seen, and we’ve seen a lot.
Jumping back into the car, we headed towards the little church Wendy had discovered. It was as lovely as we’d hoped, sitting peacefully on the loch just a few steps from the monument. They have services on Sundays at 1pm. The light gray stone is highlighted by the dark, added a deep tone and mystery to the church. The stained glass was various shades of blues and greens but you can only see it if you run up close to it, and stared into the house of the lord. The round glass always reminded me Notre Dame even though there’s no comparison, but this house of the holy still gets the message across, just on a smaller scale. Three prominent crosses are perched atop the roof, perhaps to symbolize the holy trinity.
All around the area, the grass is spongy and green, padding steps carefully as you circle the structure. In the back, there is a lone bench angled toward the loch to overlook the beauty that God created. At least, that’s what it seems like the church goers were aiming for. I would have loved to sit there all day, just breathing in the exquisiteness of the scene.
Getting our fill of the area and the midges, we hopped back into the car to go home and get Wendy’s inhaler. She’d gotten a bad whiff of some detergent in Oban and had been fighting it all day. We stopped briefly at the cottage, grabbed that, popped some chicken in the oven and headed back out in search of more castle pictures.
It turns out the grounds actually close at some of the castles so we didn’t have much luck getting to Castle Dunstaffnage. We turned back around and got sunny pictures of Castle Stalker and found some friends along the way. Little snails speckled the grounds and remnants of their relatives were crushed along the way. They’re so easy to miss so we were careful on our way back. Poor things!
At home, we made a lovely salad of chicken and rice and we enjoyed the comforts of our simple home. What a lovely day!
July 11, 2009
Today was the day we were dreading – renting the car. In order to do that, however, we needed to get to Perth via train. We said our goodbyes to Martin, thanking him for his assistance and jumped into the waiting cab. We got there in plenty of time, boarding the train and making our way through another portion of the beautiful Scottish countryside. Looking out the window, I watched the quilted landscapes of green and yellow fly by, sewn together with bunches of trees, shading the lazy sheep. It just never ends; the beauty of this country.
We arrived at Perth wondering at how to get the hell out of the stations without killing ourselves on the luggage. Two very sweet Scottish boys offered their assistance. They were going to the “Tea in the Park” music festival being held just outside of Perth. Apparently, there are something like 200,000 people attending (we did see a snippet on the news and it seems that’s an accurate count). Their hospitality was very becoming and we thanked them as we found our way to the door.
The moment of truth arrived – we walked into Enterprise, only to find that they did not have a GPS available for rent. Not a happy way to start this adventure…
Panic immediately set in as the papers were signed and we climbed into the vehicle. We tried to arrange all our items into the car so we didn’t look too touristy. No chance. Finally after we couldn’t avoid it any longer, we set off towards Tesco, the local grocery store, for items for the cottage. And while there at the advice of the Enterprise employee (but he’d deny it if he were caught), we picked up a GPS. He said they have a 30 day policy if you don’t like something you purchased there, you can return it. Not that he was saying anything.
So, with Wendy’s perfect guidance, she told me to stay to the left, passenger side to the curb. Follow the round-about to the left then go straight. Keep going forward. Remember to stay to the left. Turn right into Tesco, driving past the island and following the cars going through the parking lot. Then I had to park, which turned out to be extremely stressful. Back and forth, left and right. Finally, I just backed up and went across the way.
I’m a HUGE fan of grocery stores, so wandering in a foreign country is amazing to me. And more than that, I wasn’t driving, which was a huge bonus. We gathered all sorts of fun things to eat and drink at our cabin. I stalled as long as I could but it was inevitable… we had to drive again. Feeling a little more relaxed, I sat back in the driver’s seat and ate lunch with Wendy, contemplating what do to and how to work the damn GPS we’d just purchased. We didn’t have an address for the Tesco in Perth, so we just wrote Perth as our starting point, wanting to end up at Glencoe where our cabin was. That was our first mistake, and then it just went downhill from there.
Making our way out of the parking lot, Wendy and I seemed a bit distracted and I headed left into oncoming traffic sitting at the light. Luckily, I noticed that they were sitting there (I’d have to be daft NOT to see them) and not moving – which was fantastic – and I quickly veered back into the left lane freaking out as I hit yet another round-about. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the GPS took me into the center of Perth because we didn’t give it appropriate directions. We were like the Griswalds, heading around in circles as we cruised through the lovely town. However, there were a TON of round-abouts and I could feel myself freaking out. Wendy was an excellent navigator and talked me through each and every turn. She held it together better than I did and finally we were able to just make a decision to get the hell out of downtown and onto A85 to head towards Glencoe.
Part of the point of this driving thing was to go to Crieff, where Ewan grew up. We’d wanted to go see ‘The Knock’ at the suggestion of our plane-mate from London to Edinburgh which apparently boasts the most beautiful views of the city. They also have distillery that we’d like to visit. The roads were narrow and scary, especially having to drive the wrong way. Cars come at you like midges (more on them tomorrow) as you try to avoid them like the plague but it just can’t be done. So, the inevitable happened – I hit a car. At least I think I did. I know I hit something with my mirror. We tried to get back to the spot but ended up getting lost. In my defense (and Wendy’s as well) the damn streets are really narrow and when you have cars on every side of you, parking however the hell they want, it’s pretty hard NOT to hit something
So, that was the end of my driving experience; Wendy took over and we continued on. It was her first time behind the wheel and she was as scared as I was. You have to navigate how far you are from the middle, how far you are from the dipping curve. Driving here is NOT relaxing in the slightest. There is so much incredible scenery at every glance, and you’re holding on for dear life with the fear of getting hit, hitting something or dropping off the road in one shape or another.
We drove a bit more and got to the town of Comrie where Wendy’s depth perception got the best of her. She hit a mirror as well, but this time our left hand mirror cracked, pushing itself closer to the window like an injured bird. The problem was that Wendy panicked and couldn’t stop. We finally found a place to pull over and turn around, looking for the wayward car that we wounded only to see the driver straighten his mirror – like this had happened a hundred times before – and jump in his car off to his next destination. Ah, Scotland.
The driving continued, each of us shaken by what had happened with the mirror but many wonderful things were found, like Loch Earn and Loch Iubhair. Just a few of the amazing lochs Scotland has to offer. The first loch held two elderly gentlemen in a green tent, perched along the lochshore. They were fishing, and happily sitting and watching the crazy, screaming tubers whipping around on the loch, probably scaring all the fish away. I asked what they were fishing for and he said some fish I wasn’t familiar with and trout, pronounced “troot.” I wished him luck and headed back up the hill to be greeted by a Labrador puppy named Oscar who gave me a big sloppy kiss as a welcome to Scotland! And the weather was absolutely incredible. It was our reward for the horrors of driving in Scotland.
I need to back up a bit. When we started talking about doing this Scotland thing, there were a few things that we knew we wanted to do for sure: see some standing stones (there are several options), find Ewan McGregor, get some awesome pictures and pet a highland cow – the absolute cutest animal in the world. So, along our route, we finally saw our first cows and we both broke into giggles of joy. And they were just as cute as we’d imagined. Emo bangs hanging in front of their eyes like a throw back from the 60’s, cute ears flicking away at the midges and flies that eat at them all day. And both the male and female have horns, so it’s hard to know which is which. But this one Heinlin Coo as they pronounce it here seemed to be the leader, parked up top a lovely rolling hill. In the background, minus the electric pole, were the mountains all blue and misty. It’s exactly how I pictured we’d see them. They were so content, that is until, of course, two American tourists came and started ooing and awing at them. They must have thought we were crazy. They were close, but still no petting. Hopefully we’ll get to do that soon!
We stopped various places along the way but eventually did make it to our lovely cottage. It took us a while to find as there’s very little in your face direction. We went up and down the road, turned around several times (in opposite traffic that we weren’t comfortable in) and finally ended up home. Right on the loch, across the street from buoyed boats and rumbling mountains. Hunger got the best of us, so we quickly unloaded and jumped back in the car in search of food. Unfortunately, being Saturday night, everything was booked. We eventually found this little pub in Ballachulish where we ate amazing fish and chips then walked over to the “Co-op” where we stocked up on some groceries to get us through.
Back home, we opened the door to watch the sunset across the lake at 10:45pm! The bright purples and pinks painted the skyline like I’ve never seen. My camera didn’t do it justice (and was being snarky by not focusing) as the clouds rolled across the sky. The wind picked up a touch and the buoys across the way started to make a bell-like sound as they clunked against the moorings. So peaceful. We stood and took in with all our senses the scenery around us.
Behind us, in the mountains, the wind whistled through the forest and a distant cry of sheep echoed through, riding the breeze to our cottage. We knew we’d found something special.
July 10, 2009
This morning we had a bit of a crazy start. We’d planned the bus tour to Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel. We were to be picked up at 8:30 in front of the B&B. Everything was moving along smoothly; I was even up and ready early. The tele was on spouting the depressing news and I noticed that it said 8:15. I looked at our little wind up clock and had a cow because it said 7:45! We were screwed. Wendy and I raced around the room trying to gather everything we’d need for the day, praying we wouldn’t forget anything. As we were tearing out the door, flying past our breakfast, Martin stopped us and said that the driver was running about 25 minutes late. Phew! There still wasn’t time for breakfast so we grabbed a quick cup of tea and a piece of toast. Eventually, the huge grayline bus arrived and we were greeted by Graham Gordon, one of the funniest men I’ve met in my life.
We loaded on the bus, immediately met with the rolling “R’s” of the Scottish brogue. Graham pretended to be the angry Scottman, growling at the tourists, even bragging of hitting 118 last year alone with his bus. He turned out to be the best tour guide Wendy or I have ever had.
There were several stops along the way, picking up tourists from China, Australia, England, another American group and Italians. And boy was he unhappy about the Italians. I thought at first that he was exaggerating about their total lack of respect and rudeness but when the entire bus was basically empty and a woman in a group of Italian tourists insisted on sitting with me and my huge backpack, I was taken aback. Sure, we were near the front of the bus and maybe she needed to see out the main window, but it was the way it was done. The whole thing was so bizarre and uncomfortable. The rest of the group – about 12 or so- talked through Graham’s touring and also chatted on phones. I was utterly ashamed to call myself Italian at the pure rudeness of them.
Anyway, Graham was a font of historical information. One of the coolest facts he mentioned to us was the statue of Sir Walter Scott in the middle of Edinburgh on Princes Street. The white marble structure came from Genoa, Italy to sit beneath the towering metal ‘umbrella’ of the square. As they were removing it from the barge, it fell into the harbor in Genoa. There it sat for 3 years before they were able to pull it from the river, filled with algae and muck. I don’t think you hear about that in the history books.
We made our way out of the city with our tour group in tow, Graham filling our heads with more and more history. We sailed past Flodden Wall – the last part of old Edinburgh still standing – that’s over 500 years old! The tour was to take us to the Scottish Borders, further south than we had originally planned. He’d insisted that the southern part of Scotland was more beautiful than even the highlands. While we were ready to disagree, and still may after we see it, the south was magnificent. Graham was insistent on taking us on a side road to show us the rolling hills of hidden Scotland that’s not on his official tour route. The protected area was known as Tweed Valley Forest Park; a mostly deserted area that only the locals go through. Along the way, the bright green was speckled with roaming sheep, happily grazing away without a care in the world. We had a soundtrack by Capercaillie, the group that performed much of the music from Braveheart. It was beautiful and truly fitting as we wove our way around the tight roads. Graham informed us that at night he likes to toil over maps and found this route by accident. It was absolutely stunning.
All the little towns along the way held beautiful little cottages bursting with flowers and color. At one point, Graham was so overcome by the beauty of the area and the care of the potted flowers that he proclaimed, “If I was a bird, I’d nest in there!” which immediately made us burst out laughing. We tried to snap some photos along the way but the bus was moving too quickly. Thus was the nature of our trip.
The winding roads and tight traffic held our attention as we held our breath watching him weave through. Panic overtook us as we realized that we might be hitting buses head on through our own winding tours. And Graham was not shy about his views on tourists driving – especially female tourists. We took note and will make sure to heed his words.
The bus stopped briefly at Scott’s View – Sir Walter Scott’s favorite spot to sit and contemplate life. When he died, the horses in his funeral brigade stopped at the spot, thinking they were on their regular course. This stirred the emotions of all those in the funeral procession, saying the horses even paid their respect to their former master. Graham said, “They were two stupid horses that wanted a rest.” You see why we were so smitten with him.
Our first “official” stop on the tour was Melrose Abbey, an abandoned monastery founded in 1136 and destroyed in 1385 by Richard II. Upon approach, it’s just a stunning view. The square stones were pink and yellow hues stacked in arches of beauty surrounded by a strong wrought iron fence. Along the outside, grave stones dotted the flat landscape in deep grays. One of the highlights in the burial ground is the heart of Robert the Bruce, the real “Brave Heart.” I have not seen the movie, but apparently they misconstrued the actual history, making William Wallace the hero. Well, Graham, being the history aficionado he was, stated that Robert the Bruce was his hero, spurring on his love of history. He was angered by his portrayal in Brave Heart, touting the amazing feats of this man. I’ll find a link and let you read it if you’re interested.
The Abbey held a tiny, narrow staircase that we wandered up to get a panoramic view of the area. Honestly, it was really creepy trying to get up this dank, dreary stone, but the view of the top held much beauty. The outskirts of the territory were decorated with bright flowers of orange and yellow, trying to lighten up the sadness of this once-beautiful Abbey.
The tour was leaving soon (and we were the only ones that paid the admission to enter) so we quickly raced through grabbing a few more pictures to take home with us. I particularly loved the cemetery markers of Celtic design; crosses and circles. The visit was truly too short and I need to learn more of the history of the place, but it’s always amazing to me that something can still be in such amazing shape – especially after being attacked by Kings – after hundreds of years. Remember, the US didn’t even truly exist until the lat 1700’s. This Abbey was built 600 years prior!
Back on the bus we found a gleeful Graham after we told him we’d seen his hero’s heart. We wove our way through, noting that our stomachs were beginning to growl. Graham told us that we’d be stopping at Dobbie’s Garden Center, where of JK Rowling named the house elf from the second Harry Potter book. She’s spent some time there and liked the name enough. The food court was interesting and had the most important thing – food!
Graham took a quick sneak off the path again to see a hidden sculpture of William Wallace, at Graham’s insistance. The view in the surrounding area was gorgeous and filled with nature; but when nature attacks, it’s not fun!
I walked into some weeds and had rather thin pants on. Something felt like it had stung me, burning patches where the needles hit my skin. I looked down to see some evil plant with thorns on it. I immediately grabbed Graham and asked if I’d been poisoned and needed to go to hospital. He burst out laughing, telling me I’d walked into a Nettle bush. He leaned down under the pretense of assisting me, instead finding another thorny vine to throw at me, along with burrs. I continued to whine about the pain in my leg; it burned with every step and Wendy mocked me the whole way. A very lovely couple told me to use duck leaf to try and quell the discomfort. I’m not sure that it worked, but they were beyond cute and sweet to say anything else to him about the burning.
Our last stop on the tour was Rosslyn Chapel, the church featured in Dan Brown’s DaVinci code (so I’m told). What a beautiful little place of worship; unfortunately, it’s made of sandstone and is literally falling apart. Currently, it’s covered with a metal roof that engulfs the whole building. The idea is that after 8 years (according to Graham at least) the seepage from the water into the stone will dry out. They’ve coated it now in a cement lacquer that will preserve the church. Pictures are not allowed inside.
The inside of the chapel is now a stark gray from the coating, filling in the amazing, intricate carvings of the labor of love. The St. Clair family, wealthy folk in the region, began building their own chapel in 1446. They were Catholic and as the reformists came barreling through the area, portions of the chapel were destroyed. The interior is missing 220 statutes and it is believed that the family took them and hid them from destruction. What’s interesting is that in the carving you can clearly see corn and aloe vera plants chipped into the walls. If Columbus didn’t discover American until 1492, how were these indigenous plants of North America immortalized in the church, and why?
The entire church is dedicated to nature; flowers and leaves add their own kind of worship to the house of the Lord. Only later were religious artifacts added back into the church after the invasion. The thick columns of the interior were lined as the columns in front of the Parthenon, save for one. It’s called the Apprentice’s Pillar. The story states that the “master artist” needed inspiration to finish the final column in the church so he ran away to Italy, I believe, to be filled with the spirit. In the meantime, the artist’s apprentice received the word of God and carved the statue without his master. When the master returned two years later, he was furious that he had not thought of something so beautiful. And it is quite marvelous- a weaving in and out, candy cane column with elaborate designs of nature. It fits so well with the deep love for the rest of the building.
We were encouraged to climb the arched roof to get a closer look at the exterior of the building, so we did that. I was able to gather a few pictures of the faded detail of the once magnificent outer surface of the chapel. From this view, we were able to see the ruins of the castle nearby that we ended up getting to see up close! There was an artist there (who happened to be on our tour) who was doing quick water color paintings of the things he’d seen along the way. The story was that he’d forgotten his camera so he had to have a way to remember the areas he’s visited. I took video of him and also his email address hoping that when he made prints of his artwork, I could have a copy. Simply amazing how someone can produce such beautiful work so quickly.
Our tour was coming to an end which meant that our time with Graham was almost done. We let him know how very much we’d enjoyed his company and knowledge. He wished us well and dropped us downtown again where we ate a pasty for dinner and headed home for the evening.
Day two – July 9th
After my first Scottish breakfast which consisted of Sunnyside up eggs (the ones that look like little suns) a piece of bacon that looked more like a slice of ham, hot tomato (my favorite!), mushrooms and baked beans (really? That one threw me) Wendy and I headed out. We decided today we would be doing the bus tours around the city. We finally got out and about around 10:30 or so, jumping the local #23 bus into the City Centre to find the line of tour buses hungrily waiting to gobble up the tourists. There were four lines total and with the amazing Grand ticket, we were able to hop on and off any of these four buses. It’s too bad there were no purple ones because they truly looked like the Night Bus from Harry Potter.
The weather was all over the place today but it cooperated for the most part. There was worry that we’d get to Edinburgh Castle (our first stop) and it would be cloudy or worse – rainy. The bus route on the way to the Castle showed us other places we wanted to head back to, including St. John’s Cathedral and the adjoining St. Cuthbert Cemetery. We made a mental note to head back that way.
We jumped off the big red bus and strolled, well maybe stumbled would be a better description, up to the castle walls. Luckily, we got away with some nice moments from the Scottish skies and were able to take some nice pictures from afar. It was 13 GBP to get in and we didn’t want to see it that badly. We walked the surrounding area, filled with store touting the best Scottish crap around, and saw St. Giles Cathedral – a beautiful church steps away from the entrance of the Castle. Inside, the silver-piped organ with red trim dominated the foyer. I think there was someone playing it because it sounded like a mistake was made. That made it even cooler. We couldn’t take pictures inside the chapel, but outside we snapped away.
Back to the bus. We paid 15 GBP so, damn it, we were going to get our money’s worth. The best tour was with the actual person prattling on about the Scottish monuments as they cruised by. The minute you were able to snap the picture, it was out of site. Needless to say, my selection from the bus was very low. The most notable missed photo for me was the little dog statue on Chambers Street. His name was Greyfriers Bobby. This little dog lost his master when he was 2 and ended up following the funeral to the cemetery and stayed on his grave for 14 years. That’s the abbreviated version of the tale but it’s pretty cool –enough to make a monument to the pup and name a pub after him. Unfortunately, I have no picture, so you’ll have to take my word on it.
We also learned of the murdering duo that were paid between 10-15 GBP (depending on who was giving the tour) to bring in corpses to the local doctor. This physician had 500 students that needed cadavers in order to learn human anatomy, so these entrepreneurs went around gathering dead bodies to sell. Then, one night, they accidentally killed someone they’d been arguing with and realized that that was a whole new business venture. Eventually, one sold the other out and he was convicted of 17 murders. I’ll try and find their names but it was pretty brutal.
For me, one of the highlights today was making our way through the St. Cuthbert cemetery on our second pass. I don’t know what it is about the grave markers but I find them fascinating. The whole area was straight out of a movie with the dirty stones and faded carved lettering. The grass was a squishing sponge-like material that looked more like Astroturf. Throughout, various flowers were scattered; shades of purple and yellow. Even a bright orange buttercup. Marking the entrance was a huge 20-foot Celtic cross filled with green moss from age. It was a magnificent guard, standing in front of the hundred fifty+ year old stones. If you looked hard enough, you could see the Castle in the background. In fact, the cemetery was the best place to see the Castle and we ended up taking several shots of it through the stones. It rained, it got cloudy, the sun beat down on us all in the span of 25 minutes. I thought Chicago weather had a hard time making its mind up!
The tour suggested a visit to the free museums in the city – the National Gallery and the Scottish Museum of History. I’m always up for the art museum, and I love to find the Monet works, so we finally found our way to the Gallery. Of course, this required walking to find it. Lots of walking. And stairs. We did find it and they had three of Claude’s pieces that I’ve never seen before – one of the haystacks, and two harbor painting with boars. Beautiful. The museum itself is rather small but still brought the tourists in.
We then got directions to the Scottish museum which included WAY too many stairs to get to. We wandered the first floor, looking at the ancient carved stones that they’ve found all over the Isles. I can’t wait to see them up close in their natural environment. Another quick trip through the museum –including a replica of Mary, Queen of Scots tomb and a retired guillotine called ‘the Maiden’– and we were on our way.
Hunger pangs started to gnaw at us so we decided to look for food. Unfortunately, we didn’t know what to eat or where to get it. Eventually, we ended up back at Mark and Spense (where we changed our money earlier in the day), grabbed a sandwich and drink and jumped back onto the bus to get every pence out of that ride. We ate and enjoyed the tour, minus the freezing part. Oh, did I mention the weather changed, again? Sitting on the top part of the bus when it’s so windy/chilly isn’t the best of ideas but it’s the best way to see the city and learn the history through the architecture and locations.
As the bus toured, our guide pointed out some of the Harry Potter stuff –including the Elephant Castle (I may have the name wrong) where JK is said to have penned the famous novels. She also attended university there and the idea of Hogwarts is supposedly based on George Heriot School, close to where she went to college. They are all very proud of JK here and it shows.
The tour ended around 8pm and we were cold and wanted Indian food. We finally found a little place down the road where we had samosas and chicken tikka masalla as mini-appetizers. Just enough to tide us over. We then knew it was time to get home.
But we didn’t know where we were.
We wandered up and down the streets, looking for our #23. I saw a sign at a bus stop that said it was no longer running for the evening. We were tired and wanted to get back, but shelling out money for a cab seemed the wrong thing to do. So we walked. Forever. And ever. Blisters formed on our feet and we looked like little old ladies hobbling around. Everywhere was uphill, but even in the few spots that were downhill, it hurt. We stopped a bartender and another local but finally ended up looking at the map again to figure out where we were. Eventually, we figured it out and as we were about ½ mile from ‘home,’ we saw the #23 bus head right towards our B&B! We deflated just a little bit after realizing that we could have spared ourselves the additional pain but the 9 miles we walked today will do us good in the long run.
Now, we’re getting our final preparations for tomorrow’s trip to Rosslyn Chapel and Melrose Abbey. The bus will come and pick us up at 8:30 and we’ll be gone most of the day with that tour. It was something Wendy and I had looked at, so that fact that we can actually do this is very cool!
More later! I need some sleep before tomorrow!
July 8, 2009
The sun has just set from the window of our B&B in Edinburgh. It was still 10pm and light streamed through the clouds – amazing!
The flight here was long but overall pretty good. Wendy got a migraine, I got a little motion sickness but we traded off being sick so it all worked out. Neither of us got much sleep and we’re both exhausted. But were here and we’ve already ventured about.
Our connection was a little touch and go as we got into the terminal late by 25 minutes. Then, we had to take a tram to another terminal, go through security again and race to the plane. We had about 15 minutes to spare, I believe. On the plane, we were sat next to a young girl who’d just toured the states for the last month. Turns out, she’s from Crieff! For those that don’t know, Wendy and I met because of Ewan McGregor – who’s from Crieff. A brief stop in the town is on the agenda, and now we have a few points of interest to check out. It was ironic that it turned out that way but lovely.
We loaded our baggage on the bus from the airport and made it to Waverly station in downtown Edinburgh. From there, we grabbed a taxi and watched as our brave driver weaved his way around the traffic, trying to figure out how the hell to work a round-about. I’m still not sure how we’re going to actually drive here since neither Wendy nor I are very confident in our ‘wrong side of the road’ driving abilities. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. That’ll be a journal entry of it’s own!
We rang the bell of our B&B and the very charming Martin answered with a big smile. His not-too-thick Scottish accent immediately put us at ease (and maybe made us a little weak in the knees…oh! I’m rhyming and I’m tired! Woohoo!). He tried to explain how to get from here to there within walking distance (because Wendy and I were done with sitting) and sent us on our way.
The cars sped by and we had to constantly figure out which way was up so we wouldn’t get run over. There are cobblestone streets and tripping hazards for klutzs like us all over, so we were careful. No restaurants caught our eye, so we kept walking. We did hit a lovely little waterway trail called the Leith Walkway so we stopped and explored for a bit, taking a snapshot here and there. There are beautiful old churches on every corner, but none were open for inspection; instead we snapped pictures of their doors and steeples. The temperature was pleasant with just the right amount of dark clouds in the sky to add that ominous feel. It’s amazing.
After we couldn’t take it anymore, we finally ended up at Mather’s Bar where we were able to eat two meals for 8.50GBP, which is pretty cheap. Wendy had a John Smith beer and I was able to have an awful diet Pepsi. Old men gathered, as this was their watering hole, watching the highlights of the rugby matches on TV. It’s like Cheers where they all gather and know each other. I imagine we’ll find that a lot along the way!
The trip back seemed to take a bit longer since we wandered aimlessly the first time. We did get back, showered and we’re hitting the sack. Tomorrow there are a few bus tours we want to check out along with Edinburgh Castle.
That’s it from jolly old Edinburgh for now. I’m hitting the sack!