Our trip comes to an end ~ August 8-11, 2011

Our last Scottish breakfast was delicious, if not bittersweet.  After breakfast we walked about three miles round trip to the Harley Davidson shop for a t-shirt for Ken’s brother (and I found a favorite as well).  We finalized our packing, leaving us each with our overflowing backpacks and a rolling carry-on bag packed to maximum capacity.  We left our wimpy cooler in our room for our house keeper, it wasn’t worth keeping.  And then we left our bags in the hall of our inn and settled our bill, before heading for Arthur’s Seat.  Finally, some hill-walking!  We didn’t have time for a full summit – but made it halfway up the 822 foot hill overlooking Edinburgh and had a beautiful view.  The rain had stopped and the sun was shining.  We said our farewells.

We will be back.  Of all of the places we saw on this grand adventure, Scotland felt like home.  If there’s such a thing as genetic memory, Scotland was it for me.  It’s my place.

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We hustled back to the inn for our pre-arranged cab to the airport.  Our inn host ran out to tell us a million thanks for leaving the cooler, apparently their housekeeper was overjoyed to have it as a gift.  We’re glad we could make someone’s day!  We have decided that UK taxi’s are perfect.  Comfy and with plenty of room for us with all our crap.

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At Edinburgh airport we went through airport security, which was shoddy at best compared to American security.  Shoes were left on, pat downs were willy-nilly and not at all thorough, officers were less than intent on their work.  I’m sure many Americans might see this as an improvement over TSA – but I was less than impressed.  We found lunch, and bought a couple more souvenirs – and then we were on a plane to Dublin.  And then, on arrival, we found a taxi with a very talkative driver.  A new accent, a new lilt.  New politics, new points of view.  It was a very fun drive, and a jolt into another world.  He dropped us off at the Celtic Lodge downtown, on point with “the Spire” for us to use as a landmark.  It was a hot, sunny day and we were ready to explore.

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Our inn also owned a pub and a fine restaurant right next door.  We enjoyed both.  Guinness tastes the best in Dublin – where they know how to pour it and they take pride in serving it.  For the rest of the evening we simply wandered the streets of Dublin city, and took it all in.  Tomorrow would be our one full, action packed day!

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The streets were full of musicians.  We walked past the statue of Molly Malone multiple times and a jovial bodhran player was there every time – he had the place staked out!  We peeked into shops and walked off our dinner, but it was getting late and we were tired.  The pub at the Celtic Lodge had live music, so we sat and listened and then heard it still from our room upstairs when we decided to call it a day.

The next morning, we became vikings!  We decided an organized tour of Dublin would give us the best bang for our buck – and so we went with Viking Splash Tours because it seemed the most fun.   We donned plastic “viking” helmets, and boarded a bright yellow World War II amphibious DUKW vehicle with a hilarious tour guide.  The best part was roaring at all of the “celts” on the sidewalk!  We were encouraged to make as loud of a noise as possible, and especially at stoplights the poor celts on the street would suffer the wrath of us raucous vikings!!!  It was hilarious.  We drove through Dublin at lightning speed, with only really enough time to catch a glimpse of the famous places our guide described to us.  For the water portion of our tour, we cruised past Bono’s recording studio.  According to our guide, Bono is the patron saint of Dublin – or at least that’s how he’d like to be considered.

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After our tour ended, we walked a few blocks to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells.  We waited in line outside for almost an hour just to get in the doors.  The museum was brief, but the book was beautiful and of course elaborate.  A page is turned in the book weekly, and if we lived there we would want to visit each week to see more.  It was incredible artistry.  The library itself was also beautiful, and I wished we were allowed to explore it rather than just pass through.  Photos were not permitted but I can still see it all in my mind… beauty like that simply becomes tattooed into your brain.

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Next, was on to the Guinness storehouse.  It was a long walk on a hot day, but worth it.  This place is more than a brewery tour, it’s a museum of Dublin history and the story of Guinness itself.  It was self-guided, in-depth and very well done.  At the top of the storehouse is the Gravity Bar, where your complimentary pint of Guinness is served with a view of the city.  When we arrived, a hostess made an announcement that if anyone could pick out the one famous person in the room, they would have an additional free pint.  Ken deduced that the woman who attempted to hide her identity by placing her hat on someone else’s head was the individual in question, so he pointed her out — and won!  Even now we don’t know who she was – a backup singer in a 60’s band that we didn’t register the name of.  Ah well, Ken was happy!  And the view was incredible!  The room was also packed.  Ken walked away for a moment and I was plunged into a ferocious celtic battle for his honor – or at least for his seat next to mine.  I emerged victorious.

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We spent far too much time in the gift shop – we really didn’t have room for more goodies in our luggage.  Afterward, we saw horse-drawn carriages parked outside!  Neither of us had ever had a carriage ride, and we had a bag full of souvenirs to carry yet.  What better place than on an ancient cobble-stone street?  We were treated to a ride from Molly and her master, and felt transported back in time.

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Once we were closer to our hotel, we still continued to browse and enjoy the music on the streets and to window shop.  We had hit all of the must-sees that we had planned for the day.  We meandered back to home base to clean up for dinner.  The music and art everywhere was beautiful, and is what I remember the most about Dublin.

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We had no plans for dinner, but walked to Temple Bar to stumble upon something.  What we found was overpriced and rather disappointing considering what we had savored over the last month of travel.  But, enjoying Temple Bar made up for it.  It was a quiet walk along the river back to home.

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We spent the evening tapping our toes in the pub near our room, to live fiddle and accordion.  We went to bed late, and woke up early, managing to pack our bags to bursting with all of our souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home.  We secured our bags in the lobby, and then hit the streets to see what we could see before leaving for the airport.  As we walked down the street, I suddenly decided I wanted a tattoo!  This would be my first ever tattoo, and I had always wanted a tattoo to have meaning if I were to do it.  Honestly, I had anticipated finding a symbol on an ancient stone somewhere in Scotland, but I’d never found something that grabbed me by the shoulders and insisted that I keep it with me forever.

We strayed from what had become our normal route into the busy area of Dublin, taking a side street on a whim.  And, there was a tattoo shop!  It seemed clean, reputable – and it was there.  We walked in, and I laid €50 in the hands of Kit at Live Fast Tattoo.  I had chosen a simple triple spiral, a symbol that is known for being carved into pre-Celtic stones, not the least of which being Newgrange near Dublin – a tomb we didn’t have time to see, but which reminded me of all of the Neolithic stones we had seen in Orkney.  Simple, Celtic, Neolithic, and on my right ankle forever.  And I love it to this day.

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With not much time to spare, we flew through a couple of exhibits at the National Museum of Ireland, and walked past the birth home of Oscar Wilde on our way to visit a memorial to him in a park nearby.  And, suddenly, our time in Dublin had come to an end.  I wanted to stop in so many shops on our way back to the hotel, but Ken kept me moving.  We had an appointment for a shuttle to take us to the airport, and we didn’t have time to be late.  We had lots of stuff and we felt overloaded, and couldn’t wait to check it all in at the airport and forget about it!

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Life was a blur from here on.  We made it to the airport, checked our things without issue, and successfully retrieved them all again in Frankfurt.  The shuttle driver to our hotel in Frankfurt asked Ken if  he had a bomb in his backpack, because it was made of camouflage fabric!  We looked at him like he was insane, and he decided it wasn’t worth pushing the issue.  Our hotel in Frankfurt was close to the airport, and we weren’t interested in leaving the room.  We were once again blasted with German, nothing in English on TV and snooty Germans at our hotel looked at us like we were bums because we carried our own bags to our room.  At our hotel was Restaurant “Unterschweinstiege”, a 230 year old forester’s house – turned German buffet.  And we buffeted… and buffeted… and buffeted.  It was all very strange, delicious food.  We went to bed full, and tired, and happy.  We were ready to go home.

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The next day would become one of the most miserable on memory.  At the airport there was no organization or reason.  We checked-in, then we were told to go to one place and then the next to continue our journey toward the gate.  All 300+ travelers on our flight were soon standing in one massive line that completely filled a major corridor, where other people could not get past us.  Once through security, we were all crammed into a tiny boarding area with only a single, handicapped toilet that did not have a sufficient supply of toilet paper.  And, there was a screaming baby.  Not just a screaming baby – a bloodcurdling, top-of-the-lungs, I’m being murdered right now screaming baby.  Everyone was looking at each other like it was going to be a very long 9-hour flight.  And it was.  The screaming baby sat next to us.  The stewardesses were rude and did not even offer to help the child’s mother.  The child’s mother did not seem to think that there was anything wrong.  Not even when this three-year-old child took his sister’s wet diaper and decided to unwrap it and try it on.  Or wave it in the faces of the people in the row behind him.  We were all looking at each other in horror, as if it were some kind of Jackass-show stunt we were about to see unfold.  But we quickly forgot it again when the kid started screaming.  Really, how can a human scream for 9 hours straight?

We had to stop in Anchorage for customs.  My head was about to explode.  I felt exhausted from the stress.  And then, because they were picking up new passengers in Anchorage, we all had to scramble to find an empty seat when we got back on the plane.  Ken and I were seated at opposite ends of a 747, and he couldn’t tell me that he had left one of our suitcases behind for me to pick up on my way out.  It was left on the plane.  And then, after retrieving it and attempting to go through Fairbanks customs, it was stolen.  A whole bag full of our painstakenly-chosen souvenirs was stolen.  I was so upset!  It was quickly solved by a customs agent who had snatched it, thinking it was abandoned when it was obviously set down right next to me.  We felt discombobulated and irritated and why-did-we-ever-come-back!?

For the next week, we had time at home to unpack, catch up on life, and prepare to reassimilate to normalcy.  I only remember being the happiest and most relaxed I’ve ever felt, ever.  I had completely forgotten about work and had to call to remember what my schedule was, and what the code to the secured door was.  Neither of these things had changed while I was gone – I had simply forgotten.

But I will never forget this trip.

Stirling, Rosslyn, and Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe ~ August 6-7, 2011

Our rental car reservations were supposed to end today, as previously we had anticipated we wouldn’t want to drive in the city and would use public transportation.  But, after two weeks of driving we had fully adjusted and called Condor Self Drive to arrange to keep Gutless for the day.  Breakfast at our inn was uncomfortable and awkward, in a large dining room with lots of other people who were trying to be as quiet as possible.  We scarfed our haggis breakfast and hit the road.  First stop, Bannockburn Battlefield.

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The field was huge, green and quiet.  It didn’t hold the same sadness that Culloden had, and maybe that’s because this battle was victorious for Scotland.  It was still a beautiful sunny day and a great walk.  From here we drove to Stirling Castle, where we spent a long time exploring.  The castle has recently been undergoing major renovations, and it all seemed very new.  Almost too new, as the paint was vibrant and the textiles newly re-created.  People walked around in period clothing and interacted with you.  It was obvious that it was an extravagant, historic, important place – but it was also somewhat disappointing in its new-ness.  We enjoyed the military museums on site, and saw every corner of the place.  For us, it didn’t hold a candle to Edinburgh Castle.  And, after several hours of wandering the campus, Ken said, “Is it wrong that I’m kind of castled-out?”.  How spoiled, we were!

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As we drove away, the clear warm day began to turn to mist, and then to pouring, drenching rain.  The rain would last for the rest of our two days in Edinburgh.  How lucky we were to have gone to the Tattoo on a dry evening, as the show is never cancelled for weather!  All of those pour souls would be sitting through rainy shows – although I’m sure it didn’t dampen the performance one bit.

For our last journey with Gutless, we drove to Rosslyn Chapel.  This was our last day with the car, and we wanted to get the long-distance stops checked off of our list.  At Rosslyn, no photos were allowed inside, but it was really just spectacular.  You could spend weeks exploring every corner of the chapel and still not see every carving, catch every reference, understand every meaning that was put into the place.  Our guide explained as much as he could about the family that had it built, the people who crafted it and the drama involved, and the mysteries of those who are buried beneath the floor – still unknown to history.  He also showed us a spot above the staircase where the stone had been stained from a symbol that had been applied, then removed while filming the Da Vinci Code!  We walked out into rain that was pouring even more than when we had gone inside.  Fun.

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We sloshed our way back to town and took Gutless to a Tesco, where we bought carry-on bags for all of the souvenirs we had bought along the way.  Then, we unloaded the car at home and took our faithful Gutless to the rental place.  They actually fined us £20 for a tiny mark on the hubcap where we had hit a kerb!  The jerks.  We hoofed it back to the inn, showered and changed, and then to Brewdog for dinner.  Yep, Brewdog again… I’m sure there are so many good places to eat in Edinburgh, but the food here was awesome and the people so friendly that we couldn’t get enough of it.  We shared a meat and cheese plate and a pint each, and then went to explore Festival Fringe.  Performers were in every corner, all up and down the Mile and in hidden theaters all over town.

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We looked at posters, explored the catalogue of events, and settled on an impromptu performance tucked into an office building.  The catch of the show was that the audience had to come up with one word for the entire performance to be built upon.  A vote of the audience – possibly twenty people strong – resulted in the word “hummus”.  And that was that.  Hilarity ensued in the form of a humming moose, committing hummus-cide, or something along those lines.  It was fantastic.  But we wanted more.  We wandered the Mile for awhile, watching performers, and then saw a poster for “Armageddapocalyse – The Explosioning“… a play based on spoofing all action films ever made.  The show also took place in a portion of the ancient Edinburgh Vaults.  It was phenomenal.  It was also very late!  We meandered to a bus, and then to bed for the night.  Another full day awaited us.

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In the morning, there was more rain.  Lucky for us, we intended to spend the day indoors at the National Museum of Scotland.  We walked in and saw the signs directing us toward all of the historic Scotland exhibits – and became lost.  For over two hours we wandered Scotland – from the most ancient to the most modern.  We recognized so much from our travels, and it cemented everything we had learned up to this point.  We saw items that belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert the Bruce, ancient stones and artifacts, and neolithic carvings of animals (that have also inspired Ken to someday have a moose tattoo done in that style!)  Just as we finished, we realized we had only seen a fraction of the building.  Walking down a corridor, it grew into Smithsonian-sized exhibits, room upon room upon room of things to see!  There was just not enough time for it all!  We passed casually over as much as we could, without really absorbing any of it.  A high point was seeing Dolly, the famous cloned sheep.

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We spent the next several hours buying souvenirs.  Woolen tartan blankets, scarves and other textiles, a set of toy bagpipes, canned haggis, and other silly things for our family and friends back home.  We were fully loaded and decided to take our loot home, then find dinner before the grand finale of the day.  On our way toward the bus stop, I decided we should take a different bus that our hosts had suggested, but wasn’t the normal route we had been using to this point.  As we boarded, I confirmed with the driver that the bus went down Dalkeith Road?  He nodded yes, so we found seats.  The bus did not go down Dalkeith Road… but maybe it would loop back around.  Nope, not looping…. still not looping… where the @*#& where we headed?  Ten minutes and we knew we were leaving town.  Twenty minutes and we knew we were lost.  Thirty minutes and the bus stopped at the end of a residential road in… Dalkeith the town.  Ugh.  The driver took his smoke break, and then it was back toward Edinburgh we went.  At a hospital Ken grabbed my arm and we bolted for the door and caught a taxi!  Quick to the inn, drop our crap, and quick, hail another taxi!

Serves me right for trying to be helpful – we had missed our dinner, but were just on time for the night’s event…  The Haunted Edinburgh Vaults!  We spent a couple of hours with a fantastic guide for Mercat Tours and had a ball.  Ken was volunteered (by me) to be tortured at Mercat Cross – as it used to be done so long ago – by being whipped and having his tongue cut out.  It was awesome.

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Our guide took us down dark closes, told us ghastly stories, and then we went into the vaults for not nearly enough time.  People have rumored to see ghosts down there, sense “people” touching them or speaking to them – but we experienced no such event.  We wandered around in the dark vaults by candlelight, and then had wine as a group in a room built into one of the vaults.  The room felt ancient and as if many historical, mysterious and conspiratorial events had occurred there.  It was so much fun.

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And then, since we had missed our dinner and it was close to midnight, we found fish and chips.  It was pouring rain and we ate our food standing up in a dimly lit doorway next to the street.  The rain made the foot taste even better!  It was time to go back to our room and try to pack all of our junk.  Tomorrow we would be leaving Scotland.

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Fort William to Edinburgh ~ August 5, 2011

Today was the last official day of driving the roads of Scotland, and there was a full agenda on tap in addition to four hours of driving.  Perhaps the most important thing was to make it to Edinburgh in time for the opening night of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.  We had purchased tickets over six months earlier, a day before they sold out completely.  There was no way that we could miss this show!

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First thing’s first, was a delicious breakfast at our inn.  The host was friendly and we could have yakked with him all day, mostly about politics and then about Alaska.  His wife was mysteriously quiet, she never said hello – but she made a fine meal. From here we toodled on to Glencoe, and visited the museum and valley near where the Massacre of Glencoe occurred in the 17th century.  The hills were very eerie, and also beautifully green.  They begged to be walked upon.  But – you know the tale – no time for that now.   For our lunch, we had juice, coffee and dessert at Castle Stalker Cafe, simply so that we could sit and admire this castle.  The castle is privately owned and only opened to the public a couple of times per year – not to mention the minor obstacle of being on its own island and not easily accessible – so admiring from afar was the best we could do.  Though the castle is surely significant in many ways, it was mostly significant to me being “Castle AAAARGH” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Very important to my own personal historical scale, you see.

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Back on the road, it was south some more to Oban – just passing through – and then on to find Kilchurn Castle on the banks of Loch Awe.  This castle is also very often photographed, but remarkably also hard to find.  We could not see it from the road, and drove past it.  Then, down a side road where we could see the castle from the far side of the loch.  We walked down to the edge of the water, but we weren’t close enough.  Oh, how did we get to it?  Fine then, back into Gutless, and back down from where we had come.  We spied a small dirt road, and took it – which opened into a car park and a trail underneath of a railroad bridge and then across a marsh.  The castle was unsigned from the road, and therefore not a tourist trap – we had it to ourselves!

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We walked in as if we owned the place.  The door was marked with the date 1683.  The stones were still in great condition, and we walked through every space.  Through each window was an incredible view.  We climbed the steep steps to the top and just enjoyed the silence, with our own personal castle.  We spent at least an hour, absorbing it all, and as we prepared to leave another visitor arrived and offered to take photos for us in the courtyard.  This place is still one of my ultimate favorites from the trip, and I smile every time I see a photo of Kilchurn in Scotland magazines, calendars and books as if I know all of Kilchurn’s secrets!

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After thoroughly enjoying Kilchurn and Lochawe, we felt pressed for time.  It was a straight shot to Edinburgh now, with no other stops along the way.  Or so we thought!  At Castle Stalker Cafe’s gift shop we had bought children’s books about “Hamish the Highland Cow”… and just as we came into a clearing what did we see but signs for Hamish himself, himself!  It was a split second decision to stop, and photograph Hamish (the bull), Heather his mate and a wee little red coo that was hoping for handouts.

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And finally, road weary, we were back in beautiful Edinburgh.  Our B&B was in a lovely old town house, but the hostess was not friendly at all.  We avoided her like the plague and only dealt with her husband.  Our room was likely the smallest and least comfortable we had, and – horror upon horrors – *gasp* no WiFi!  We were so sad that we had wanted to try a new place and therefore mistakenly booked this one for the next two nights.  With the Tattoo beginning tonight and the Festival Fringe also in full swing, the Albyn Townhouse, where we had stayed two weeks ago, was full.  Ah well, we had too much to do to spend time here anyway.  It was a quick bus ride into the Royal Mile, and we found dinner at Brewdog.  We admired Fringe performers on our way up the Mile to the Castle Esplanade…. And then!  The show!

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At Brewdog, we were greeted as friends.  Locals wanted to know more about us, and we got to talk about our great adventure.  Men who had been born and raised in Edinburgh were jealous of what we had seen!  We were fast friends and were almost late to the Tattoo for how friendly and fun the conversation had become.

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Sitting in the new grandstands built just this year, our butts being the first in these two particular seats EVER, the excitement became simply too much.  My face literally hurt from smiling.  I. was. so. happy.

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Trip of a Lifetime-1431 No words could describe how impressing this show was.  Pipes, pipes, pipes!!!  Marching pipes!  Drumming and pipes!  Highland dancers and naval demonstrations.  An RAF flyover.  Light shows projected onto the castle walls.  Fireworks.  Comedy and drama and excitement and PIPES, holy smokes — video does not do this show justice.  If I could afford it, I would come back every year, for just one day, to see this show.

At the end, everyone in the grandstands exited to the Royal Mile, and as one big, smiling mass we followed the pipe band down the ancient street.  Pure. Ecstasy.  Silly policemen were singing and joking with passersby on their megaphone.  We went back to Brewdog afterward, and found the same people we had been talking to before the show.  Again, they were excited to hear about the Tattoo from our perspective, and we were there for a couple more hours, just being friendly with folks.  Laughter and good grog and good food and what a fantastic night!

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(video below!)

Skye to Ben Nevis ~ August 4, 2011

Our day of driving to Fort William began beautifully but quickly settled into fog, then mist, and finally drenching, saturating rain as we continued south to Armadale, where we planned to take the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry to the mainland at Mallaig. We parked Gutless in queue for the ferry, and then hopped into the little shops nearby. We purchased keychains made with local leather and embossed with celtic knots, and I found the perfect silver knotted ring that I had hoped to find along the way. We drove onto the ferry, and settled into the cozy seats upstairs. It reminded me of all of the Alaskan ferries we have ridden on, but smaller. At the galley, Ken found a bottle of beer brewed in Skye that he hadn’t seen anywhere else, and he tucked it away in his bag for later. I can’t remember how long the trip was, but it seemed it was over as soon as it began. Soon we were driving again, with our first stop at Glenfinnan

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We wandered the museum for the Glenfinnan Monument, celebrating Bonnie Prince Charlie and this place where he raised his banner, and summoned his forces for the Jacobite uprising that would end so brutally at Culloden.  Inside of the monument, we took the supremely narrow staircase to the top of the monument, where we barely fit through the hatch to climb up and stand next to the statue of a Highlander… and have an amazing view.  On the way down, we met people coming up who had to back up and go back down the stairs – this staircase was a one-way only affair.  At the gift shop we had heard people asking where “the Harry Potter bridge” was… and we heard there was a trail above the museum overlooking it.  We slogged through the mud to the overlook, and saw the Glenfinnan Viaduct but without any beautiful steam engines chugging across it.  Still, the view was spectacular of the monument and of the valley itself.

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Back on the road then, and on to Fort William.  We arrived after only three hours of driving for the day, and cruised into town.  At a grocery store downtown we found ice for the cooler, an ATM for our wallets, and called the owner of our night’s stay for directions, but he didn’t answer the phone.  What we didn’t realize is that we had driven past Kilmalyn Guest House on our way into town.  The GPS was confused, and our maps weren’t helping either, but we followed the GPS’ lead back the way we came, and then down the A82 instead of down the A830 that we had arrived on.  I knew we were going the wrong way, we were out in the wide open country again and getting further from civilization.  So, I turned Gutless around and headed back toward town.  Then, the GPS decided we needed to take another detour… so I listened… and we ended up driving a long, twisty narrow farm road past crofts and sheep and the like.  Of course, this road was simply running parallel to the nice two-lane road below, which would have taken us to the exact same place.  Sigh.  We turned back on to the A830, right at the local distillery that sat at the two roads’ junction, and that we had driven past three times now.  Just a wee bit down the road was our farmhouse inn.  We had taken the scenic route, but we were here.

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Kilmalyn

The house was beautiful, built in 1818 but now renovated and very fine.  The bathroom was the most unique part of our suite, with fully tiled walls and floors with lights built into the tile.  There was a claw-foot tub with a hand-held shower — a sitting-down shower was unique.  We probably used it incorrectly, but getting water on the floor seemed terribly wrong so it minimized the mess to bathe while sitting.

We didn’t spend time in Fort William proper at all.  Perhaps it is best known for being in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles at 4,409 feet.  When we had first started planning our epic Scottish adventure, years prior, a summit of Ben Nevis was at the top of the list.  But, somehow, we hadn’t made time for it regardless.  Today was a dreary, foggy day and not perfect for a view from the top anyway… but it was still quite sad.

Ah well then – what to do for dinner?  We didn’t have a place picked out, Fort William was just a stop along the way and we hadn’t made any special plans except for our fancy inn.  We relaxed on our posted bed, and I surfed Trip Advisor on my iPod.  We picked a couple of places out, the first being known for steak and Ken’s first choice… so we drove to it, but it was closed.  Ok then, number two — and we plugged Ben Nevis Inn into our GPS.  And oh, how glad we are that we did!

Ben Nevis Inn Ben Nevis InnIMG_1714 IMG_1716 Ben Nevis Inn

The “wee little inn at the foot of the ben”, a barn built of stone 200 years ago, had long wooden tables and a grand window overlooking Ben Nevis.  Ken had steak with whisky sauce that he still talks about today.  I had chicken Orkney and sticky toffee pudding that I still talk about today.  We were right next to Ben Nevis.  Our brains were oozing over with happy good feelings.  This was Elysium.

After a dinner we wished would never end, we decided to walk up the trail a bit.  We could have kept going, easily, but knew it had to end.  Happy hikers greeted us on their way down, and as darkness set in we climbed back in to Gutless and headed for home.  For our next trip to Scotland (because oh yes, there will be a next time) we WILL make Nevis a priority.  And the thought of how much better that food will taste at the end of a day’s climb is simply astounding to contemplate.

B

Trip of a Lifetime-1301

Ben Nevis

Orkney to Skye ~ August 1-3, 2011

We had left Orkney early in the day, so had plenty of time for the four hour drive to Ullapool.  In the beginning, I had hoped to base out of Ullapool and take a ferry to the Isle of Lewis, but there just wasn’t enough time for it.  It will stay on our list for the next time.  The drive south was beautiful, and quiet.  There wasn’t very much traffic and the roads were narrow and winding.  We admired the hills, stopped to harass Heilan’ Coos, visited pretty red phone boxes in the middle-of-nowhere, competed for the road with lorries full of wool, and became quite comfortable with the ways of highland roads. 

 
We arrived in Ullapool as evening was setting in.  We settled into our inn, which was not as homey as others we had stayed in and awkward with a shared bathroom downstairs.  The breakfast room was cramped, and the hosts English and standoffish.  It didn’t strike us as a favorite of the trip.  We wandered town and found a cheap fish ‘n’ chip dinner, and then a pub with live music.  The pub was packed, as it was the only place in town with music for the night and a large amount of tourists for such an out-of-the-way town.  We battled for a little bit of butt-space on a rail near the entrance, and settled in to harp, accordion, flute and strings.  A young girl had an enchanting voice, and they played great old Scottish tunes.  Eventually, we were able to find a table to sit and listen more comfortably.  High-school aged young people danced around us and I wished I knew the steps to join in.  Everywhere we had gone, the live music had been performed by young people in their late teens and twenties – things you wouldn’t catch Americans of that age being caught dead doing.  What must it be like to live in a place with a culture that is still full-blooded and strong?
 
 
We linked arms and strolled back to our inn.  In the morning we were on the road again.  Ullapool was just a stopover on our way to Skye.
 

Our first stop for the next day’s driving was Eilean Donan Castle, probably the most photographed in the country and famously filmed in Highlander.  Somewhere along the way, the single-track highland roads melted into two-way roads and our fingers loosened on the wheel a bit.  Our GPS then tempted us off of the nice road and down a long twisty one-lane side road, that dead-ended at a mud track heading up a steep hill.  There was no way that we were in the right place!  I don’t know what kind of Eilean Donan we were going to, perhaps it was also the name of a ben or glen nearby… so we turned around and got back on the main road.  Serves us right for trusting technology, as if we had stayed on the main road we would have been at the castle in a jiffy.  All in the adventure, eh? 
 
 In my mind’s eye I had pictured this castle being much more remote, but surprisingly it was right on the A87 and near a modern bridge, which explains why photos of the castle are almost always taken from the North so as to continue deluding people like me into thinking it is remote!  Due to the fame, it was packed with tour buses full of people.  As soon as we were in the carpark, my stress level shot up and I almost felt like just leaving.  Too. Many. People.  I’m glad we didn’t leave.  Walking up to the castle was like walking into all of the photos I’d ever seen of it.  And going inside completely captured my imagination.  The castle is private, having been restored as a family home in the 1920’s.  No photos were allowed of the interior, but it is full of lovely little corners, cubbies, sitting places and tiny castle windows.  There was a lovely surprise around every corner, and if I were to choose any castle to capture as my own, it would be this one. 
 

 
 
 
We explored every inch that was opened to the public, ate a lunch at a picnic table at the end of the cobblestone bridge, spent time and £’s in one of the best gift shops we’d seen yet, and then hit the road, to travel “over the sea to Skye”.
 

 
Driving on to Skye was, again, like entering another country.  Everything was green and rugged and mystical, and we were driving near to sunset which highlighted everything in just the perfect angel-singing-halleluyah kind of way.  We saw a border collie driving a flock of sheep and to this day I regret not stopping to watch the dog work – I only caught it out of the corner of my eye as we flew past.  It was a sign of what was to come for this place, as once again we had shorted our time here.  No time for hill walking or stopping to admire the scenery.  At this particular moment, we were rushing to Tallisker Distillery to see if we could have a tour before closing time.  We had driven past lots of distilleries in the last week but never at the right time for a tour or with time even to stop and see.  But this time, much like at Maes Howe, we were the last two in a long line of people that were allowed onto the last tour of the day!  No photos were allowed, but it was a great little tour and we bought trinkets for my dad as a memento.  Then, it was off to Portree.
 
 
 
We pulled in to town and squeezed into parking on the street.  We were staying at Ben Tianavaig, with a lovely view of the harbour and “the Lump”, where the local Highland Games are held.  That’s right, we were on Skye for Highland Games!  As we finished washing up from our time on the road, we walked into town to find food – and then heard pipes.  People began convening at the centre of town for the Isle of Skye Pipe Band, and we watched them march and play.
  Nothing else stirs our blood better!
 
 

 
We found dinner, and then a ceilidh, and sat and tapped our toes.  And then, joined hands with everyone in the hall right wrists over left, shook each other’s hands up and down while running in and out and singing Auld Lang Syne.  We felt we had just been formally inducted into the local universe.
 

 
In the morning, everyone met in the centre of town to follow the pipe band to “The Lump”. 
 
 

The man above sat on his rock on the field for the entire eight hours that we were there.  He had a front-row seat to the action, and I was terribly envious, as we had a tiny little parcel of real estate that we had to battle for constantly.  If we moved a leg in, someone would sit where the leg had been.  We kept ourselves sprawled as much as possible so that we had breathing room.  We were parked right on a rock wall, near an entrance point for the band, and they would come and go within touching distance of us throughout the day.  If you thought pipes and drums were exciting, try having them so close!  It was quite thrilling.  We ate haggis-dogs with relish and became quite sunburned as it was a glorious warm sunny day for the highland games in this lovely natural ampitheater.
 

 

 
We took turns walking around the field and watching different events, while one of us defended our seating space on the grass.  The 4k hill race was entertaining… starting at the lump the runners must choose which route to take to the foot of the hill.  Longer and safer via the road, or an obstacle course that goes over a low wall with an eight foot drop into a cemetery, through a graveyard, over barbed wire fence, down grassy bank avoiding the nets drying, over a gate and onto the beach, then across seaweed, mud, stones, a couple of paddles through burn outlets, then back up to the road beside the petrol station.” (Scottish Hill Racing)  We watched the runners run up the hill, and saw the white flag at the midway point.  Ken asked a local how we would know if anyone cheated and turned around before the flag?  The man replied with, “Have ye no heard ae Scottish honesty?” 
 
The last hour of the day was devoted to tug-of-war.  This is where things really got serious.  People put on their spiked boots and pulled out their gloves and game faces.  People screamed and the crowd was allowed down onto the field, and kept getting too close to the competitors.  It was very exciting!  We weren’t able to stay for the grand finales though, as
 we had dinner reservations at The Three Chimneys. 
 
 


 
Everything was perfect for dinner.  Maybe too perfect, as I really didn’t need someone to place my napkin in my lap for me!  Every detail was taken care of, and the meal really was a beautiful experience.  We had looked forward to it for a very long time, and it had been one of the first plans we had made for our time on Skye.  I think that if I could go back I would probably trade our time spent at dinner for time spent walking a hill – but at least now we know what all of the fuss was about.  A competitor from the Skye games was eating nearby, an American from New York that we had cheered and favored and whom had done very well.  We went to say hello and to congratulate him before we left.  The sun sat on the beautiful rolling hills as we drove back to Portree.

 
Back at Ben Tianavaig, we met the two other couples that were staying there as well.  One gentleman was a police officer in England, and Ken and he enjoyed swapping the intricacies of law and order.  We talked about Alaska and the UK and everything in between, and nearly two hours went by before we knew it, entirely spent standing in the entry way of the inn!  In the morning our hosts fed us another delicious breakfast, they were definitely the most friendly and talkative of the hosts we had stayed with so far and it was hard to leave the beautiful view and get back on the road. 
 
 Skye had definitely imprinted itself in our souls.

 

 
 
 
 


 

Twenty-Four Hours on Orkney

We were up early and on the road before our wonderful host at our B&B could make us her delicious Scottish breakfast.  She had already gone out of her way so much for us, from our super late arrival three days prior to doing our laundry and being so patient and helpful.  The day was cool and rainy as we headed North from Inverness, and we felt hurried.  If we didn’t get to Scrabster before the ferry departed, we wouldn’t have time for Orkney at all!  As it was, we would only have a very brief twenty-four hour visit, and we were both stressed and excited for the adventure. 

 
 
 
 
 We found a decent breakfast at the ferry terminal at Scrabster, after only a few hours on the road.  Again, we reached our destination sooner than our Alaskan-scaled minds anticipated!  We had quite a bit of time to relax before departure.  The ferry trip was about four hours long, and as we drove off of the boat it was as if we had entered a new country entirely.  The land was windswept and mostly treeless, the weather more cool and damp than we remembered it being on the mainland.  And as soon as our tires hit road, we beelined for Skara Brae.
 

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There were plenty of people here, but if you closed your eyes and listened to the wind you could imagine you were alone – and here many, many years before.  As we walked toward the ruins, a timeline was set along the path to try and help us understand how ancient this place was.  Older than Stonehenge, and the Pyramids, an almost unfathomable anciency.  We weren’t able to wander into the ruins themselves, but a mock dwelling had been constructed for us to explore.  It was close quarters, dark and dreary but still very homey.  I think I could live there!  Also nearby was the beautiful residence of Skaill House, where the man who discovered Skara Brae lived.  The home, the land, the ruins… it was all perfect. 
 
 


 
We drove the countryside for some time, just exploring, and trying to visit the local brewery, which we had been eagerly anticipating… but alas, it was not yet open to visitors.  And then, mostly by kismet, we stumbled upon Maes Howe.  Somehow I had skipped over this site in my planning!  We went into the visitor center and learned that you had to join a tour to see the inside – and there was only one tour left for the day.  We were the last two on the last tour of the day, with others behind us missing the draw.  What a stroke of luck!  The tour was still three hours into the future, so we decided to drive into Kirkwall to scope out a place for dinner and see the town before dark. 
 

We wandered the tight little streets of downtown Kirkwall, which were very quiet and serene with the cool weather.  There weren’t many people out and about, as it was a Sunday.  There weren’t many shops open, either.  I had discovered the Judith Glue shop in Inverness and fallen in love, but the shop in Orkney was open – and so perfect!  Ken was ravenous from the long boat ride, so found a sandwich in the back while I loaded up on Orkney trinkets.  Local soaps and foods and beer, knit clothing from local wool, local artisan crafts and prints – I was in Jen heaven.  With our prizes, we continued down the street and visited 12th century St Magnus Cathedral, and The Bishop’s Palace.  Finally, on our way back to “Gutless”, we found a little pub that was advertising live music.  We knew we would come back here after visiting Maes Howe.
 
 
 

 
Our group was small, as the interior of the tomb is small.  No photos were allowed of the interior, and I’m glad, as it would have distracted me from the power of the place.  Still in my memory I can remember the low tuck in the doorway to the cavernous room, the smell of ancient stone, and the presence that could only be created by antiquity itself.  More than antiquity – there isn’t a word to describe something so ancient as this.  There are so many rolling hills in Orkney, and this is one of the only ones that has been excavated.  What would be found if other tombs were opened?  On the stones was a dragon – or was it something else? Carved by Viking raiders, so many years ago.  Our host asked us to just stand and aborb the silence.  I had chills down my spine.
 
And then finally, it was time for the highlight of our visit.  The standing stones.  We had not wanted to visit Stonehenge when we were in London, because we had heard it was near a road and that you could not touch the stones.  I wanted to be able to touch them, to sit beside them, to lay down in the middle of the circle and just contemplate my existence.  It was a cool, rainy and windy day and not what I had imagined this day would be.  But maybe this is what was best, as it kept other visitors away.  We had the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness all to ourselves.
 
 

Perfect.  Magical.  Exceptional.  What words can describe this?
 

 
The darkness had set in, and it was time for dinner.  The owner of our B&B had asked us to arrive at 10pm, so we had time to enjoy a meal.  Today when I think of the best burger I’ve ever had, it is the burger I had at a pub in Kirkwall – a burger with red onion marmalade and a mystery beer from Edinburgh that was nectar on my tongue.  I don’t know the name of the pub, and really it doesn’t matter. 
 

 
 
 Just as we were needing to leave the music finally began, and sadly we had to leave for the drive to our inn instead of staying to listen.  It was still perfect, and so was the place we stayed… likely the best room and house of our entire stay, and we only had enough time for sleep and breakfast. 
We visited with other guests from England as we prepared to leave in the morning, as our hostess charmed us with her hospitality.  We recognized the Scandinavian lilt of her Orcadian accent, and wished we could stay longer to talk and learn more about this place.  As we boarded the ferry in Stromness and left for the mainland, we knew we needed to come back someday.  We ferried past the Old Man of Hoy, stood out on the decks of the ferry and breathed the brisk air, and then were back in Scrabster filling our cooler for the road before we even knew what hit us.
 
  Twenty four hours on Orkney was just not enough time.
 
 

 
Bulk Scottish Candy – an adventure!

 
 
Filling our lame cooler with ice was a daily event.
 



Basing out of Inverness – July 30-31, 2011 – Part Two

We had started the day early, with what was likely the best haggis breakfast we had the entire trip. A couple of women in the breakfast room of our B&B had just finished hiking the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness, and they inspired us to do the same one day. The trip’s quick pace had not allowed for much hill walking, and we vowed to make our next Scotland trip focus on the great glens and bens. For the day, however we were planning a long road trip out of Inverness, with a drive to Fraserburgh, slowly checking off the boxes on our itinerary along the way. Our first stop was Culloden, and we were the first visitors of the day. The visitor center was empty, and solemn. The atmosphere was grave and the experience of standing on the battlefield almost holy.  It was a glorious morning, with warm and bright sun.  The silence was perfection.  We’re so glad we had the opportunity to connect with this place.

The Culloden Battle

Towards one o’clock, the Jacobite artillery opened fire on government soldiers. The government responded with their own cannon, and the Battle of Culloden began. Bombarded by cannon shot and mortar bombs, the Jacobite clans held back, waiting for the order to attack. At last they moved forwards, through hail, smoke, murderous gunfire and grapeshot. Around eighty paces from their enemy they started to fire their muskets and charged. Some fought ferociously. Others never reached their goal. The government troops had finally worked out bayonet tactics to challenge the dreaded Highland charge and broadsword. The Jacobites lost momentum, wavered, then fled. Hardly an hour had passed between the first shots and the final flight of the Prince’s army. Although a short battle by European standards, it was an exceptionally bloody one. The National Trust for Scotland

 
 
 We walked amongst the flags and stones, all markers of the bloody battle.  New visitors were coming onto the field and we knew our time there had come to an end.  Strolling back to the parking lot, Ken decided he wanted his first turn to drive Gutless.  I offered him my advice, “start slow and stay off of the main roads for a bit!” and I settled in to the passenger seat.  Oh, how odd to sit on what should be the “driving” side of a car, and not be driving!  I got the GPS started toward our next stop, and Ken got us going.  He hardly had a chance to get comfortable before a sign for Clava Cairns popped up.  I had thought about stopping here a long time ago in my planning, but never put it on the list because I didn’t think we’d have time but — here it was!  “QUICK GO THAT WAY!” I shouted, and Ken jerked the wheel to the right, while I squealed and held on — that stone wall nearly hit us, I swear!  No, not really, it just felt that way.  I was not a very good passenger. 
 



 

The cairns were our first ancient stones.  As we pulled into the car park we realized we would be the only ones here.  The cairns were tucked away off of the main road, and most people nearby were at Culloden.  I felt almost dizzy with excitement.  Ancient stones were a priority for me in Scotland.  We strolled the site and touched the stones, stood inside and pondered our existence….

 
 Just the way we had hoped and planned to do.    
 
 

 
 
And then, ROAD TRIP! Ken was back in the driver’s seat and we found our way to a nice and easy dual carriageway to Fraserburgh.  As a passenger, I was comfortable.  There was lots of breathing room between other cars and no rock walls on my side of the car.  We turned up the celtic tunes and dug into our Haggis “crisps”.  We were on our way to Fraserburgh. 
 
 

Cullen – of Cullen Skink fame
 
 Our main reason for driving to Fraserburgh was to see Brewdog’s brewery, one of Ken’s top picks for the trip.  In our minds we pictured a brewery tour like the ones we’d already been to, with a gift shop and a storefront, but when we got into town we couldn’t locate the place anywhere.  We stopped in to a Tesco to ask for directions, but could only find one girl who even knew what we were referring to.  We drove around the block a few times, then drove into a warehouse area.  The only clue that we were close was a Brewdog van parked outside of a warehouse.  We asked a forklift operator if we were in the right spot, and he said we were.  I felt weird and embarrassed, like we were in the wrong place, and wanted to get back in the car and leave — and I sensed Ken maybe felt the same way.  I got brave and asked if we could have a tour?  He looked at us like we were odd sorts and then said he’d go and ask.  Awkward.  And then, all was suddenly well when head brewer Franz came out to say hello.  It was as if we were old friends.  He walked us around, we talked beer and brewing and craftsmanship, and then he walked us back to the offices and found a couple of glasses.  And poured a couple of tasters.  Straight from the tanks.  That had never happened at a brewery tour before!  We felt honored.  It was a highlight in Ken’s book, for sure.  So glad we stopped! 
 

 

 
I had one other place planned for our Fraserburgh stop, just as an aside in case we had time… and we were running tight on that.  With Clava Cairns as an extra and a long drive to get here, the Lighthouse Museum would be closing soon.  We hopped back in the car and plugged the address into the GPS… and arrived literally as the last tour of the day was organizing in the lobby.  A man with a Sean Connery-esque accent (which is unusual, I guess) rounded up our little group and we went outside to visit Kinnaird Head lighthouse.  Our guide was very humorous.  My favorite part though was when we climbed the ladder into the top of the lighthouse and no one wanted to walk behind Ken… because he was wearing a kilt.  It was very entertaining.  And the view was marvelous! (The view of Fraserburgh, I mean… *ahem*)
 

 
The sun was low in the horizon as we walked back to the gift shop.  Lighthouses are a “thing” for Ken’s mom, and we had to find her a trinket from our stop.  No time for the rest of the exhibits, the place was closing and they hurried us along.  Then, we had a little meat and cheese picnic with Gutless in the parking lot before loading up and heading back to Inverness.  We arrived to a place that felt like home.  Parking the car at the B&B, we walked to the river and searched for a restaurant that the owner of Ostler’s Close in Cupar had recommended to us, and found it near a wedding party dressed in kilts and finery.  We enjoyed the cool evening, a bottle of wine and a fancy steak dinner next to the River Ness before wandering our way back to home base. 
 
What a wonderful day.
 

 
 
 And for those who would like to understand Brewdog a bit better, enjoy the video below. (They’ve since built a fancy new brewery 30 miles south in Ellon, are starring in their own TV show and opening craft-brew pubs all over the UK – so we are even luckier to have seen them where they got their start!):
 
 

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Basing out of Inverness – July 29-30, 2011 – Part One

We had planned three nights in Inverness, with the intention of making quick trips out of town to check off stops on our itinerary.  Little did we know how much we would end up loving this city, and wishing we had planned more time in it!  Even today, when we talk about coming back to Scotland, Inverness is at the top of the list.  We simply didn’t see all that we wanted to. 

We had a late start at our B&B.  We had arrived after midnight and felt terrible about making our hostess stay up so late, and then she offered to do our laundry as well.  She showed such wonderful hospitality in every way, she was just lovely. 

Our priority for today was Loch Ness, Ken’s top pick for the trip.  On our way south we stopped at Black Isle Brewery for a tour and for tshirts.  These shirts have become favorites from our trip – such a great logo.  We had left too late for breakfast where we were staying, so found a place along the way.  It was rather unimpressive lunch fare, but filled our bellies for the long day ahead.  Drumnadrochit is the first little town we came to, at the Northern tip of Loch Ness.  It’s main attraction is the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition – an impressive museum of monster history.  We paid the hefty entrance fee, and wandered room to room for sequential videos and dramatic lights and props describing the history of the loch and its resident monster.  Afterward, we wandered the gift shops without buying anything.  It was all a bit much, and we were ready to move on.  It was a glorious, bluebird day and it had drawn everyone and their brother to the area.  I was already tired of people, which is a common ailment of mine!

Urquhart Castle was just a quick drive down the narrow, twisty roads beside the loch.  It was absolutely plagued with visitors.  We had to wait awhile to find a parking spot, with lot monitors guiding vehicles and people trampling each other to get into the visitor centre.  Ugh.  The gift shop and visitor centre was top notch, and there was a great history video that we watched before shoving our way through the crowds of the gift shop to walk down to the ruin.  If you know me well, you will know that I am not a happy camper in big crowds of people.  In fact, I’m nearly intolerable.  This castle was by far the most crowded we experienced the entire trip, and even now this castle is ruined in my head by the crowd we had to share it with.  I know it’s my own issue, but…. yeah.

It really was a beautiful day, the loch was calm and bright blue.  We battled up the tower for a view, but were quickly shoved back down the narrow staircase by others who wanted the same.  We stopped at a window overlooking the loch, trying to find Nessie, but others shoved us out of the way and we moved on.  We didn’t doddle anywhere, I was so frustrated we nearly raced through each inch of the ruin without really getting to appreciate it.  Before the trip, this castle had excited me – but now I just wanted to put it behind us.  We ran through the gift shop to pick up some things for our family and friends – and then had a picnic with Gutless in the parking lot before continuing south.

Playing the Real McKenzies’ “Nessie” on repeat – we continued down the loch to Fort Augustus.  It was a happening little town, and we bought ice cream to enjoy while watching the locks of the Caledonian Canal.  Apparently in the UK – a “double scoop” means the scoops are side-by-side.  🙂

 
Our favorite souvenir from this long, warm and sunny day on the loch is a little glass Nessie Monster from Iceberg Glass.  It sits on Ken’s desk at home and reminds us of the day.  We never saw head nor tail of her, but it was still a great day to try.  We had intended on driving up the road on the east bank of the loch, but realized it was not as well made as the road we had come down, so as the sun began to set we began our trek back to Inverness. 
 
 

 
 
Back in town, we parked our car and changed for dinner.  We didn’t know where we were going to eat, but started walking to try and find a place.  We found my favorite gift shop of the whole trip, Judith Glue.  The shop is based out of Orkney, so I was excited to see it again later on the trip.  Walking back up the River Ness, we stumbled upon Hootananny.  Live music was on the docks for the night, so we quick ran our Judith Glue treasures back to the B&B, just a few blocks away, and ran back for dinner. 
 
 
 
 
The evening started with Thai food and local Black Isle brew, and escalated to accordion pipes and whistle,  Ken walked away for the loo and then suddenly a red headed Scots girl with long braids linked her elbow into mine and I was whisked into the fray. My right elbow connected with another and then my left into yet another and we were all stripping the willow, skipping to the rythmn of a great hopping tune. It was over before Ken was back, and I was upset he missed it – but I was beaming for the rest of the night and kept hoping the dance would start up again. It never did, but I was near to tears I was so happy for the experience.  We walked back across the River Ness, elbows linked.  What a lovely evening, we wished it didn’t have to end.  It was time to get to bed, and rest up for another day on the road.
 

Scotland – Cupar to Inverness – July 27-28, 2011





We woke up in our lovely farmhouse in Cupar early, and hustled to get the car loaded and on our way.  Today we planned a lot of driving and sightseeing and we would need every minute of the day.  We had another lovely Scottish breakfast before we hit the road, but this time we had added Arbroath smokies to our plates.  Our hostess made sure we knew that this was not a traditional Scottish breakfast, and we knew it, but trying them now meant we didn’t have to make another stop in Arbroath on the road north.  I don’t care what she says, adding a smoked haddock to a Scottish breakfast is delicious!

As we hit the road for the short twenty minute hop East to St Andrews, rain spattered our windshield.  It was going to be a dreary, soggy day.  We made it to 12th century St Andrews Cathedral just as it opened, and were able to wander the ruins in peace.  It was very eerie and solemn, and you could almost hear the old stones speaking to you.  In the gift shop we were given tokens to go up into the tower and we squeezed up the tight stone spiral staircase to the top.  I dropped my lens cap between the safety rail and the edge, and had to climb up and teeter along the edge, swallowing my fear of heights, in order to retrieve it.    But, what a view!  And with the silence, it was a magical moment. 
 
 
 
 


  


Within an hour, other people were also wandering around the cathedral and so we continued along to the castle, which was just a quick walk away.  Beaten by the sea, there was hardly anything left but the outer walls and a couple of small rooms. Ken could hardly fit into the door to the bottle dungeon, which was entertaining.

 
 

Our next stop after the castle was previously unplanned, and something suggested to us by Jan, the owner of Castle Levan.  We weren’t sure we should try to cram any more activities into this day, but it was simply too intriguing to pass up.  We plugged it into our GPS and headed off into the farmland of the Kingdom of Fife. 

 
 

The farmhouse in the middle of the sweeping countryside was so uninspiringly simple, that I actually forgot to take a photo of it.  But, underneath was a truly impressive bunker from the Cold War.  We passed through the bunker quickly, passing our eyes over each room and admiring the efficiency and creepiness of it all.  I wouldn’t have wanted to have to live here – it was very claustrophobic.  Lucky for them, it never really had to be used.

 

We managed to complete the bunker in about an hour, and as it was close to noon we really needed to hit the road.  We didn’t see any more of St Andrews – which is a bit of a regret – but next on the agenda was a castle.  THE castle, MY castle – the ONE castle that I had to see, come hell or high water.  We were on our way to Dunnottar.

It was a rainy day and I was sad about it.  I wanted a clear, blue-bird day for this place.  I was mopey for the whole drive north, but two hours later, just as we pulled into the parking lot the clouds began to part.  I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough, I was literally bouncing around the parking lot in excitement, and dragging Ken down the path to the edge of the cliff until I saw it!  I know my heart stopped.


There were far too many people here for my liking.  Of course, I would have liked to have had the whole place entirely to myself.  Before we came on our trip, I had read an article about the woman my age who lives here and takes care of the grounds – oh, to have that job!  For every photo I took, I waited at least a minute, so that there were no other people in the shot.  I searched for quiet corners where I could sit and feel the castle in my bones.  We spent five hours here, seeing every nook and cranny, and fully digesting it and the beach below.  I didn’t even realize how long we’d spent until we got back to the car and noticed the time. 

 It was now about 6pm and we had at least a five hour drive through twisty highland roads to get to Inverness.  There was what looked like a ruin just down the way, and up on a cliff, and Ken wanted to hike to it.  I knew we didn’t have time, so talked him out of it.  But, once back in the car I started driving that way and realized we could get to a path that led straight to it.  Feeling rushed, we almost literally ran up the hill, to a war memorial for the town of Stonehaven.  It gave another wonderful view of Dunnottar, and we admired the view.  We also saw the sun sinking low in the sky.  Our visit was brief.

And then we were off!  Even now, as I think of the highlands of Scotland, I first remember our long night of driving to Inverness.  The sky was clear, the sun was setting, the roads were tight and windy and there were sheep all across them.  Driving through the Cairngorm mountain range and seeing all of the trees and coaxing little “Gutless” up, up, UP those steep hills.  Listening to the Scottish music we’d bought up to that point and wishing I could stop right here and stay forever.  It was perfect and I regret not stopping more to take photos. 

 
We stopped at a pub for burgers, calling our inn to let her know we’d be late. The food took forever, it was agony waiting to get back on the road. But it was local venison and lamb, and sooo very tasty. And then, just as the sun was setting, we arrived at Carrbridge, where we were able to check the oldest bridge in the highlands off of our itinerary, and a day early!
 

 

As we dropped down into Inverness, it was close to midnight.  We saw the Kessock Bridge across the Beauly Firth, all lit up amongst the city lights.  Our hostess helped us park on the street, and saw us to our little room, where we would base for the next three nights.  We were finally, officially, in the Highlands!

 
 
 

Scotland – Dumfries to Cupar – July 24-27, 2011

Dumfries was a bustling little town, but we didn’t spend any time sightseeing.  We were there primarily to visit 13thcentury Caerlaverock Castle, which I had fallen in love with a long time ago due to its unique triangular shape and its moat.  I thought it would be a perfect place for a unique Scotland souvenir – professional portraits.  From Alaska, I had lined up a photographer, and on this morning managed to talk him in to coming and picking us up to go to the castle… as we didn’t really feel ready to drive again after the day before.  It was a perfect bluebird day, and we were the first at the castle, so were able to wander in peace and enjoy the place without crowds.  The moat was alive with fish, frogs and birds, and it was all very peaceful.  Roger, our photographer, drove us back to Dumfries after a couple of hours, and was excited to go over maps of Scotland with us, to see our route.    We had packed Ken’s suit and dress shoes, and my dress and heels, all the way here just for this event – not to mention paying for dry cleaning in Edinburgh!  We changed in the parking lot of our B&B and just threw the fancy clothes in the back of the car – we intended to mail them home and forget about them from here on.  Our GPS was still messed up, so we checked the maps and hit the road – stopping at every petrol station trying to find a cooler for lunch time snacks on the road.  We improvised with plastic sacks and bags of ice – but were amazed that coolers were so impossible to find!


Apparently, we were still adjusting to the change in map scale.  We were used to traveling the great distances between places in Alaska and Canada, and anticipated a long day on the road.  A couple of hours later in Greenock, we found a Tesco (think Walmart or Fred Meyer) and stopped to find a cooler… and eventually found a super cheap-o “chill box” for £18, after combing every section of the store.  This was the only box available at this store, and the only one we found for the rest of the trip.  Apparently the UK doesn’t use “chill boxes” all too often.  For the rest of the trip, we had to restock the thing daily  with small bags of ice purchased near the tv-dinners and frozen haggis – the insulating qualities of the box were pathetic and there were no large bags of ice near the checkouts like in the US.  And, this ice was “special”, intended for whisky and such, not for keeping stuff cold, like Americans are used to.  Weird.  We bought lunch, and looking at the map, braced for another few hours on the road – and then literally five minutes later were in Gourock, where we would spend the next three days!  The small distances made us feel much more content that we would accomplish our busy two-week itinerary.

In Gourock, we found our hosts at Castle Levan sitting in their courtyard, enjoying the warm summer day.  A goal of our trip was to stay in a castle, but most castles in Scotland are very expensive (£200+/night) and very modernized, with wallpaper and modern furnishings.  We wanted a real “Castle-y” experience, somewhere with real stone walls and as authentic as possible – with a B&B price.  And, after many months of searching, I finally found it.  We were the only guests during our stay there, hosted by a Czech couple who bought the house for £30,000 a decade ago.  It is now worth closer to a million GBP, and the most charming place in the universe.  It was remodeled in the 1980’s from a 15th century ruin, the rebuilders taking special care to recreate it as close to its original style as possible.  I loved this place, with its tight spiral staircases, tiny windows, and massive wooden doors that made the most spine-tingling beautiful clanking sounds when closed into the cement walls.  We had a four-poster bed, and full access to the battlements for taking in sunset views.  It was very hard to leave this place during the days to see our other planned destinations.

Castle Levan

In the mornings, our castle hosts gave us a smorgasbord of breakfast, more food than we could hope to have eaten.  We felt like royalty.  They sat with us and sipped coffee and told us ghost stories about the castle, of guests that have seen the “White Lady” floating through our bedroom; the hostess seeing her in the very dining room we were sitting in!  Needless to say I kept waking up during the next two nights of our stay, uneasy about ghostly presences in our room.  Thoroughly entertained, we hit the road and headed south to Kilwinning and Ayrshire, in search of my ancestral home and the homes of Robert Service and Robert Burns.  Again, we reached our destination much quicker than we anticipated.  In Kilwinning, we found a place to park and intended to walk around and explore where we had traced my father’s ancestors from.  We stumbled on Kilwinning Abbey, and wandered through the property.  A random stranger wearing a ring of the Free Masons followed us, and gave us a long summary of the history of the place and its history with monks and free masons, making the place much more special for us.  We wanted to see the tower, with a collection of Robert Service memorabilia, but it was not open yet.  Our stranger directed us to a church in a nearby town where I could trace more of my ancestry, so we intended to return for it and the museum later.  In the meantime, we were back in the car and south to Alloway to visit the birth place of “Rabbie” Burns.

Kilwinning Abbey

Robert Burns’ writing desk

  

Creepy nightgowns representing Burns and his siblings

The Robert Burns birthplace museum stretched out into several sites within a mile of each other.  We saw an impressive museum, then walked to the Brig ‘o Doon and Alloway Kirk, scenes from Burns’ famous poem “Tam o’ Shanter”.  We wandered the Robert Burns gardens and the house where he was born, as a piper played for a wedding nearby.  Pure Scotland.  For lunch, we decided to drive to a castle ruin we had seen perched on a cliff as we had entered Alloway – it took awhile to poke through neighborhoods, and had to ask directions once to find our way.  We walked the beach, stopping for a cheese and meat lunch in view of the ruin, and then climbed up the steep cliff face to the castle.  We had no idea what the name of the castle was, and this added to the thrill – vandals had broken the side, where it had been bricked up to ward off visitors, and we snuck in.  We climbed up the broken stairs of a tower, where a rope had been rigged to swing in to the main hall of the ruin.  I was too chicken to take the risk, so Ken didn’t go either – and now we both wish we’d just swung on that crazy rope.  It was still such an adventure, and to this day remains one of our favorite spontaneous events of our trip.  We didn’t learn that it was 16th century Greenan Castle until we were back in Alaska, and I had spent a good deal of time looking it up.  Due to our adventure, we did not have time to return to Kilwinning or to research my ancestors.  We drove back to Castle Levan and found dinner in Gourock, then wine and sunset from the castle battlements.  We felt we were the rulers of our domain.

Greenan Castle




Sunset on the battlements of Castle Levan



The next day was our planned “Glasgow Day”, where we drove to the railway station in Gourock and took the train in to Glasgow.  We took a hop-on, hop-off tour bus, and saw the impressive Glasgow Cathedral and kirkyards, ate lunch at a local brewery, visited the People’s Palace (a museum) and then rode the bus the rest of its route for the audio tour.  My favorite part was discovering a statue of the Duke of Wellington, with a traffic cone on his head.  Apparently, the cone is removed every day, and then replaced by hooligans every night.  This is an impressive feat when you realize the statue is approaching 100ft high. But really, we weren’t too impressed with Glasgow.  If I could go back I would like to see the Kelvingrove Art Museum, and maybe there was more to Glasgow than meets the eye – but we ended up going back early in order to enjoy Castle Levan for our last night there.  Once back in Gourock, we spent over an hour at the post office mailing our dress clothes and extra goodies back home – it cost a small fortune, and in the future we will know better than to make such plans!

The Duke of Wellington





The “Squinty Bridge” in Glasgow




Glasgow Cathedral

In every city we went, there was an accordion!
Glasgow Cathedral from the kirkyard






Dinner in Gourock

 

Gourock Harbor

   
 It was a sad goodbye to Castle Levan and our Czech hosts on our last morning there.  It had felt like home, and was the best place we stayed on our trip.  For our next section of driving, I had finally figured out how to make our GPS function by turning on the UK maps that had been downloaded to it (duh!) and from here on we only used our paper maps as backups.  Save for a few incidents, the GPS ended up being quite reliable and handy.  This day of driving was our first off of the “motorways” and into the single-lane rural roads.  It wasn’t too bad until we got to the “bonny, bonny banks” of Loch Lomond…and were sandwiched between stone pasture walls and giant lorries, bearing down on us going 20mph over the speed limit and with no shoulders or medians.  Literal inches separated us from impact, every time, and we ducked and cringed around every sharp, blind corner.  We drove the speed limit, but that wasn’t fast enough for some, and we surely annoyed local drivers.  We were more than relieved to stop at Loch Tay, to take in the Crannog Centre.  This was a stop that Ken had requested for our itinerary, and it was really great.  A crannog is an iron-age dwelling that is built on posts driven into a lake.  Remains of these ancient dwellings have been found in many places, and at Loch Tay they recreated a dwelling where some remains had been found.  There were guides dressed in period clothing, and they tried to help us step back in time.  The most fun was when Ken demonstrated how to start a fire with bow and drill – something I had done before, but he’d never successfully been able to do…until now!  We had a great little snack lunch on the banks of the lake, and then back onto the twisty-turny roads to Cupar, where we would spend the night. 

Crannog on Loch Tay



Building a fire with bow and drill

In Cupar, we checked into a restored stone farmhouse, which was very beautiful and had a lovely view of the valley.  The main reason for staying the night in Cupar was to eat at “Ostler’s Close”, a fine restaurant tucked into a tiny close (alley) in downtown Cupar.  The owner/chef was thrilled when she discovered our last name, and said we were probably the first Ostlers, and definitely the first Alaskans, to ever eat there.  Dinner was perfect, with local hand-dived scallops and fresh-picked raspberries.  It was well worth the detour!  We didn’t see much more of Cupar, but for a walk through the neighborhood and then back to the farmhouse.  Our itinerary was turning out just perfect, not over-planned or overly tedious.  And so, so much fun!

A night in an old farmhouse in Cupar