Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Climb way over that old mountain

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Having stretched out the journey to Inverness the previous day, we got into town quite late at night. We checked into our underwhelming accomodation - I think we truly got the worst-shaped room in the guesthouse, maybe in all of Inverness - and then went out looking for a very late dinner. We had very nearly given in and turned back to MacDonalds, but turned a corner and found the street with some life in it yet and a decent Italian chain restaurant still packed with tourists. Just quietly, I think there might be a rule that there has to be one of these on every second corner in every UK city.

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The next morning we got to see a bit of Inverness. Looking across the River Ness, on the left is the cathedral and on the right, Strathness House. Below, it's the view a little to the right of that with the Hotel Columba.

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One of our goals for the day was to go back to Loch Ness, which we had drive past on the way into town. But we decided to make a couple of other stops first. I picked the nearby town of Beauly because it sounded interesting.


We spent a lot of time exploring the ruins of Beauly Priory. Super cool.

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In the centuries after it was abandoned from its original purpose, it came to be used as part of a cemetery. It seemed like it was special to have a plot inside the bounds of the old building, even though it was partially ruined and open to the air. I found it fascinating that these very old church sites, long after they had fallen out of use and favour with the change to Protestantism, remained a desirable (holy?) place to be buried.

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We also had a look around in the nearby old schoolhouse which housed a group of shops including a very nice bookshop at the back and a big range of Scottish music CDs.

Before this day I had thought that we might manage to explore further north-west from Inverness but it just didn't end up being feasible. (Next time) Actually, as soon as we arrived in Inverness we had considered blowing off the second night in the guesthouse and making a rushed trip up to the Orkneys. We quickly realised this was going to be just a bit too crazy for just one night, a decent drive and a couple of hrs on the ferry each way. Just before we left a friend had provided lots of ideas and tips and had really pushed for visiting Orkney - but this was after we had everything pretty much locked in.

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Another day, another distillery! After Beauly we made a quick stop at Glen Ord. It had been raining lightly while we were in Beauly, but now it was a beautiful day.


Then it was back to Loch Ness. We stopped in Drumnadrochit, gave 'Nessieland' a miss, and had a cheap late lunch at the fish and and chips place there among the souvenir shops (also a tasty beer for the non-driver).

So this, though one of the weirder ones, is an example of the efforts to cater to vegetarians at every level. I just wouldn't expect a stall selling fish and chips to have a proper vegetarian option. But here the fish shop had this battered, deep fried felafel with chips. Tasty. Weird. Very very dense. I don't think I ate dinner that night at all.


After lunch, the search was on for somewhere to get closer to Loch Ness. We drove south, stopping briefly at Urquhart Castle. We decided we didn't want to take the time to pay to go in and soon left when we realised there was no easy access to the loch here.

We made a loose plan to maybe drive right around the the other side of the loch and go back to Inverness that way. But on the way we stopped in Invermoriston, had a look at River Moriston Falls, and then walked quite a way along the side of the main road to finally find a spot where we could climb down and put our feet in the actual loch! Which was lovely. I considered a quick dip (yes, seriously) but I couldn't face it, not only because of the cold water but because my feet hurt standing on the stones for even a few seconds. It was really nice and peaceful sitting on the bank though.

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Later we had a great night out at the Hootananny in Inverness, where North Sea Gas delighted a large, ever changing crowd of all ages, for several hours. It was brilliant.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Why don't you keep a few more cards in your hand?


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We wanted to make the most of this day on Skye, so we had a quick breakfast and started out early from Broadford, and made such good time we found ourselves in the carpark of Dunvegan Castle a bit before the 10am opening time. The people in the campervan parked next to us were cooking their breakfast on a little camp stove, right there in the carpark.

Although the gardens are a major tourist attraction we decided just to spend our time in the castle itself, seat of the chief of Clan MacLeod.

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Unfortunately we couldn't take photos inside. It was pretty cool, with public areas set up as a museum of MacLeod family history. There were lots of portraits of the various chiefs and their spouses - mostly wives but the clan was lead for 40 plus years last century by the formidable Flora MacLeod. Later I heard a few tales about her from my newly-met relatives - that she was born at 10 Downing Street, and apparently as clan chief she used to sit on a stone in front of the fire, instead of any kind of chair, to write letters.

There were also some mementos relating to Flora MacDonald and her passage to Skye with Bonnie Prince Charlie (theme of the Skye Boat Song).

And the Fairy Flag! A fascinating and ancient textile, whether or not of actual fairy origins.


There was an area downstairs with some history and artefacts from St Kilda, the now uninhabited archipelago waaaay out in the North Atlantic Ocean, formally evacuated in 1930. There were some fascinating photos of groups of islanders in the late 1800's, like this famous one of the St Kilda Parliament - note the bare feet, and groups of children with their very proper Victorian school teacher.


The MacDonald and MacLeod clans seem to have done a lot of fighting over St Kilda. What I've since learnt is a well-worn Gaelic myth (see Red Hand of Ulster) was lovingly retold here: a boat race between two clans, first to touch the land - in this case St Kilda - claims ownership. One boat is ahead, so a brave/foolish/berserk soul in the other boat cuts off his hand and throws it ahead, thus being the first to touch land. I can see why this is a popular story. Probably no way of knowing if it ever happened - anywhere!

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After Dunvegan we moved on to Carbost, home of Talisker Distillery, on Loch Harport. Most of the distilleries had their own distinct malty smells, some stronger than others. This was a strong one! Such a strange smell. Very drinkable whiskey though! We just had a brief look in the visitor centre, bought some small bottles for the road, then moved on to the pub for what turned out to be the most amazing chick pea curry. I really had some very good quality vegetarian meals in Scottish pubs. At this one we sat out the back in the beer garden with lots of people and a few lovely big dogs, including one hanging out with his master who was putting in a new deck. I always think it's lovely when a dog can go to work with its person. 

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More driving and admiring the bare hills. I loved them so much.

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Then a brief stop back in Broadford just before we took the bridge to the mainland, for me to spend a while in a lovely shop, The Handspinner Having Fun. Along with commercial yarns they stock a lot of independent and local handspun and millspun Skye wool. When I asked if there was anything from Raasay, the lady I spoke to said they would love to stock some but had not found any supplier. I did buy some Skye wool (and wished I had tried harder to source something from Islay).

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Once we reached the mainland, it was getting late in the afternoon but we were determined to squeeze in another castle before heading to Inverness for the night.

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This is Eilean Donan. Also known as the one from the Highlander film. It is in an incredible location, the meeting point of three sea lochs.

Interestingly, it's actually a 20th century rebuild. The castle was destroyed by the English Government during the Jacobite risings, in 1719. It lay in ruins until 1911 when Lt Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island and spent 20 years rebuilding it. Now it's a major tourist attraction

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We arrived in just in time to pay our entry fee and have a look inside. The public areas had a mixture of historical artefacts and MacRae family history. I did wonder how some of the family members feel about so many of their family snapshots from weddings and other events being displayed for random tourists.

As we drove off towards Inverness, I was still desperately trying to capture my Highlands feelings in photos. Desperate enough to take pictures like this. "Four white vehicles parked in front of a hill; owners in pub across the road". We got coffees for the road at that pub and they were kind enough to run my KeepCup through the dishwasher first. The server at the bar was from New Zealand.

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Thursday, November 02, 2017

When I bask in your light


It had been a long day the previous day, travelling from Islay to Skye and then the concert that night. I enjoyed the show immensely, and the venue was lovely, at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. So we had a more relaxed start this day, took a while to find breakfast, and ended up at Sconser waiting for the next ferry to Raasay, a bit after noon.

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Approaching Rassay on the ferry. The weather was amazing, one of the best days the whole time we were in Scotland. No cardigan required. We even broke out the sunscreen.

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We just picked a direction and started driving.

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Heather! (Heatherrrrrrrrr)


We pretty much spent the whole afternoon this way, driving around, stopping often, in this gorgeous, mostly empty landscape. We met some sheep, and very few other vehicles. We passed through a few little villages or groups of houses.



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Ruins of Brochel Castle. A MacLeod one. Sadly you can't get too close - apparently it is quite unstable.

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Back nearer to the port we found Rassay House set in a different, more genteel, sort of landscape. We also came across a new distillery which is still being built (which clearly suggests a plan of going back in 10 years or so for a taste).


And the return ferry to Skye offered this stunning view of the port town of Sconser with the hill Glamaig in the background. Apparently it's a corbett, not as high as a munro. It is also by all accounts a heck of a thing to climb. Seeing slopes like these give me a terrible urge to stop the car, jump out and sprint right up. It really feels like I could just do it! Funnily enough I didn't try that. Just went for a semi-successful jog along the sea shore later, after we checked in to our rather lovely BnB in Broadford. Later we went to a pub recommended by our host and had an amazing dinner - lobster for K and the most incredible macaroni cheese for me. I don't think any other macaroni cheese will ever match it. It was huge and we'd had a late lunch at Raasay House. I was so sad that I couldn't finish it. (I always clean my plate). I don't really understand the UK thing of serving garlic bread with mac'n'cheese but even that was good.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Don't stop me talking about love

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This day was wonderful and excruciating at the same time. Our itinerary was a bit tight - I had found a concert on Skye that I really wanted to see, but it meant that we needed to catch the 7am ferry from Port Askaig on Islay and spend much of the day driving up through the Highlands to get to Skye, either via the ferry from Mallaig or the bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh.

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Port Askaig

The reason I was so determined to get to the concert was because I was chasing Scottish folk and traditional music, and we had originally planned to go to a new festival with a great lineup, on our arrival in Scotland. Unfortunately a few weeks before our trip, the festival was cancelled. Annoyingly, that was the only part of our itinerary we had already planned. We got the ticket price back but not the hotel we had booked for that night.

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Loch Melfort

So I was keen to get there but I also torn because I knew this bit of the country was somewhere I wanted to spend more time. Even when we locked down the itinerary a few weeks before, I knew that driving through in one day was almost certainly not going to be enough. Just one of those compromises you make.

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Loch Melfort

We weren't in a tearing hurry though and were able to stop pretty much at will to take photos.

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I don't think I got any photos that came anywhere close to recording, or even eliciting, the feelings I feel when I actually look at these landscapes.
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Though most of the most amazing "guh" and "argh" moments happened later than this point, and usually when I was driving and unable to stop. Mountains always give me a thrill, (it happened in New Zealand too). Where I live you just don't have that experience of coming around a bend and suddenly the earth just rises steeply away. Right there next to you. And to add to that, when driving in the Highlands, at least half the time the land falls away into a beautiful loch on the other side of the road.

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We stopped in Oban. It was a bit of a grey day, but even so, Oban begged for lots of photos. I think we both really wanted to have more time to explore here. It would have been nice to stay a night - and next time I'm there, maybe board a ferry for an island visit or two as well. I'd like to go to Mull, as my little sister lived there for a winter when she was 18! (Chambermaiding, I believe)

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Another stretch of incredible scenic driving and the next stop was at Fort William, where we had to decide whether to divert to Mallaig and try for the ferry or to go the long way to the bridge. We already knew the ferry was booked up and now we learned that stand-by wasn't a good risk to take. We were disappointed, and annoyed we hadn't booked ahead. We had been hearing stories about how Skye had been mobbed with tourists, because Game of Thrones did some filming there.

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Fort William

I had heard that Fort William is very 'touristy' - it sure was busy with cars and people, and felt a lot (superficially at least) like Queenstown (NZ) with all the outdoor/adventure activities available. Can't really judge though as we were there for a very short time. Once we realised it was the longer drive for us, we had to get going.

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Off the A82, near Invergarry

We still stopped once or twice to take in the views.

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Is this a boring photo? I think I might print out a large copy to stare at when I need to. It's medicinal.

Loch Lochy