A Blythe Epiphany

...now with more curry

Monday, May 03, 2010

Dornie, Eilean Donan, and Flodigarry - May 3, 2010

Had a delicious breakfast overlooking the castle we're about to visit, Eilean Donan. That's my Dad, Aunt Becky, and Mom in the photo, with the castle visible through the window. Watching the new, gorgeous day dawn on the castle right before our eyes only served to enhance our anticipation.
DSCF3619(Click the pics for Hi-Res.)

Had a lovely chat with a couple who were also staying at our B&B, and then headed out for a tour of the castle. We got there before they opened for the day, so I found a quiet spot near the loch and sat alone in the pleasantly chilly air, happy to be exactly where I was.

The Castle has had an exciting history, given its strategic location at the meeting of three lochs. To quote their website:

Although first inhabited around the 6th century, the first fortified castle was built in the mid 13th century and stood guard over the lands of Kintail. Since then, at least four different versions of the castle have been built and re-built as the feudal history of Scotland unfolded through the centuries.

Partially destroyed in a Jacobite uprising in 1719, Eilean Donan lay in ruins for the best part of 200 years until Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 and proceeded to restore the castle to its former glory. After 20 years of toil and labour the castle was re-opened in 1932.

We weren't able to take pictures inside, so you'll just have to go see it for yourself. It's very well cared for by a friendly staff that clearly loves the place even more than the guests do. There are spyholes in the banqueting hall, fascinating recreations of food and cooking practices from the 1930's in the kitchen, and bedrooms fitted out as they would have been in earlier days, complete with little nooks and crannies and stairways to other places in the castle. It was a great day with beautiful weather (a brief spell of grey mist only embellished the scene).

I can never pass up a gift shop, but this time Mom and Dad got more goodies than I did. Dad got a vest, mom got table linens, and I looked for warmer weather clothes that I can wear at home, but only ended up getting some postcards and a cling sticker for my car.

From there, we traveled on to Skye, stopping at the T.I. for some info. The mountains are getting even higher, but there are still sporadic sheep dotting the hillsides. Mom, Aunt Becky, and I resist no opportunity to point every one of them out.
Lunched at a cafe, enjoying the cool and clear weather. We've been so lucky on this trip, that any wet weather has been light and/or brief.
DSCF3640Right in the center of this photo is a tall, slim rock formation called the Old Man of Storr, to the left of it, the larger formation, is called The Storr.

We decided to take the bridge to the Isle of Skye, and on the way back, we'll take the ferry. Heading through the beautiful, stark landscape we finally arrived at Flodigarry Country House. I realized as we got there, that the houses might not be so sparsely spread out as I first thought, because Flodigarry is somewhat hidden from the road, down the hill a bit, and separated from the road by a wooded drive (and more sheep).
The main house is simply gorgeous - lots of wood, plaid, and stuffed game, with a welcoming tray of whisky just inside the entrance. I could see would really like it here!
The house overlooks the bay, from high on a hill. Their website states that it is a popular spot for outdoor activities - hiking, climbing, fishing, swimming (brr!), biking, etc. - and I believe it! Some day I want to come back here and stay a lot longer.
Mom & Dad's room is in the main house, and Aunt B and & I are in the Flora McDonald cottage - named for the Highland heroine who played a part in Scottish history by helping "Bonnie" Prince Charlie escape following his defeat at Culloden moor. She lived in the cottage for several years, and the larger adjacent house was built about a hundred years later by an ancestor of hers.
After settling in to our cosy cottage room, I enjoyed a nice warm bath in the Victorian-style cast-iron tub, then Aunt B and I joined Mom and Dad for a wee dram of whisky and a chat in the sunroom before dinner. It was impossible to hide how simply happy we all were to be here and in each others' company.
For dinner, I had the langoustines, a native variety of what look exactly like crawfish to me, but were less salty, perhaps due to the method of preparation. After dinner, we all retreated to our respective rooms, and I took my laptop over to the big house to partake of the wi-fi signal, which apparently can only be had in the lobby. I stayed there until well after dark, and quietly made my way back to the cottage. The house was so pretty at night, the ground damp and the air cool, that I dared to stray from the path a bit to enjoy the liberating feeling of solitary exploration of the grounds after dark before snuggling into my warm bed right by the dormer window in the attic room.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Culloden Moor, Loch Ness, Dornie 05-02-10

Breakfasted at Westbourne House, including some lovely homemade shortbread made by our hostess, Nan. Following Mom's devil-may-care, let-serendipity-reign attitude, she asked me to find some possible B&Bs online last night to stay in tonight. Fortunately, her amazing luck was with us, and the first one we called had room for us!
DSCF3536(the memorial stone of Clan Fraser on Culloden Moor)
Left for Culloden Moor, and arrived for a 10am guided tour of the historic site of the final battle of the 1746 Jacobite Uprising. On the way in, I happened to notice Gerard Butler's donor stone. (squee!)
Our guide at the site was passionate about his subject, without being overly dramatic, and the weather was appropriately misty and cold. He very evocatively described the scenes of the battle - the events leading up to it, who stood where, Hoe many there were, how long it lasted, and the desolation of the battlefield at the end of the fight. One wall of the visitor centre was built in such a way as to illustrate the considerable loss of life on the Jacobite side, vs. that of the English, or government side. DSCF3545(click on the photo to see the details.)
The visitor centre was clear and thorough, and when we finished our tour, there were some ladies demonstrating how to turn freshly shorn sheep's wool into warm winter socks and sweaters. I was in heaven. But we couldn't stay - we were heading to Clava Cairns - a medieval burial site (said to have inspired events in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series of novels).
By the time we got there, the weather had cleared up, and since Mom, Dad, and I had all read the series, we really enjoyed wandering around the area where it all began. I kept going back and forth through the cleft in the stone to see if anything happened - if I went back in time 200 years to find my true love: a handsome, strong, educated, fierce and loving Scottish warrior with red hair, but alas. T'was not to be. Maybe if I go back near an equinox or something...

It was a lovely area for a picnic, but since we'd eaten already, we moved on toward Loch Ness.
DSCF3567The loch (lake) was vast and calm, and I could tell that Dad was aching to get on a boat and go out on it to fish. I wanted to get in a small sub and look for Nessie. We stopped at the Official Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition (not to be confused with the Original Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Center, which is completely different - update: they've now changed their names to Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition & Nessieland Castle Monster Centre, respectively.) and watched the film and walked through the center. It was interesting enough, and well put-together, but basically we spent $10 each to find out that it's unlikely that Nessie ever existed. Maybe if we'd gone to the other center, we could have gotten the other viewpoint, or at least a photo by the Nessie sculpture.
Continuing on, we came upon the ruin of Urquhart Castle, but since we'd spent (wasted?) so much time at the exhibition center, we had no more time to tour the castle. We stopped briefly for pics, but if given the choice again, I'd pick the tour of Urquhart over Nessie.

Continuing westward, the hills became starker and steeper. The heather is a rusty brown this time of year, and fewer sheep can be seen. (I'm sure Dad's relieved not to keep hearing "SHEEP!" every 3 seconds.) We stopped at Dornie for the night, at the perfectly situated Donan House, directly across from Eilean Donan castle. Mom and Dad's room has a stunning view of the castle, which is beautifully lit at night. Our host was patient with us Americans, and very kind. Considering we'd only booked the room this morning, I'd say we couldn't have been more lucky!
DSCF3610(view of Donan House from Eilean Donan Castle)
DSCF3599 Dornie is the pretty village that faces the point where three lochs meet, and we had dinner there at the Dornie Hotel. I had some more haggis, with 'neeps and tatties, and Mom said that her dinner was the best she's had in Scotland so far - and that's saying something! After dinner, we strolled around the grounds of the castle, casting long shadows against the walls from the lights surrounding it. We can't wait to tour it tomorrow, and when I got back to the B&B, I "friended" the castle on Facebook. They have lots of photos, one of which "cheekily" proves that their kilted guides dress in the traditional manner. Suddenly, I'm looking forward to that tour even more!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Inverness 5-01-10

We spent a leisurely morning in Pitlochry, a lovely town that's known for its hiking trails and big with outdoorsy types. I'd love to have more time to explore the area, but we're headed out this afternoon for Inverness.
Dad and I walked around the town, and I bought a couple of soft, warm wool sweaters and a hat to keep the rain off my head. It was nice to just stroll for a bit, with no hurry to get anywhere or do anything by a particular time. When we got back to the B&B, Mom wanted to go to the post office, so I gladly headed back out for a short walk with her. We stopped in at Heathergems, where they make "stones" out of the stems of the heather plant, and fashion them into jewelry and gifts.
We left Pitlochry around noon and got to Inverness around 2. Stopped at a roadside info center, got some maps, souvenir bath powder (smells of highland heather), and a recommendation of a pub to get a late lunch. Checked into our B&B, where the rooms are named for famous Scots -"Bruce," "Hamilton," McGillivray," etc.
We crossed the scenic pedestrian bridge over the River Ness to the town center and strolled around a bit, stopping to shop in a cute Victorian-style market area. But for the most part, we were unimpressed. To us, it seemed like a place that was probably pretty hip and jumping about a decade ago, but hadn't had a good clean and spiff-up since. I think we would've been happier to stay a bit longer in Pitlochry.

On the plus side, I found out that Inverness is where Karen Gillan (aka. Doctor Who's companion Amy Pond) is from. Also, it was apparently a big football (soccer) night, so maybe the majority of the population was at the match.
Dad and I decided that we simply couldn't wait for breakfast to eat again, so set out on foot in search of food. It was not easy to find. The restaurants we came to were either full, or had stopped serving, but we finally found a pub that was kind enough to find us a small table. I think we probably looked pretty pitiful by then. There weren't many menu choices still available by then, and since the place was so crowded, it took a while for the food to be ready, but we finally did get something warm and satisfying.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Pitlochry 4-30-10

I got a cat fix this morning when Tessa, one of the owners of our B&B, brought down her kitty for me to snuggle for a few minutes. It was an unexpected bonus of an already enjoyable stay.
Breakfast at Rick's again - fruit and yogurt today, in contrast to yesterday's haggis. Probably a good idea.

Mom and Dad left to pick up the rental car, and when they came back, Dad was shaking, and Mom's hair was standing on end. Apparently, it's a small challenge to drive on the other side of the road, but an even greater one to shift with the other hand, look in other places to find the mirrors, and get used to a new type of car, all at the same time, while driving in a large, unfamiliar city. There was a light rain as we set out, so I was glad I brought a nice waterproof jacket. We headed for the fishing village of Anstruther, and watched as the soft, rolling hills gave way to coastline and scores of fishing boats. Had lunch at the Anstruther Fish Bar, a local favorite for fish and chips. We had the fish and chips. We were underwhelmed. Afterward, Dad and I went through the Scottish Fisheries Museum while Mom and Aunt Becky...did something else. The Fisheries museum got us thinking about the centuries of life on the water, the life of a fisherman (or woman) and his (or her) family, the ways it had changed through the centuries, and the ways it hadn't.

The weather was clear and lovely as we left the museum, so we wandered around on the waterfront for a few minutes looking at the boats, then jumped back in the car for the short drive to St. Andrews, a.k.a. the Birthplace of Golf.

Aunt Becky is the golfer in our group, so I know we didn't stay at St. Andrews long enough for her, but we did get a good look at the "Old Course," and watched some people tee off. They were setting up for the Open Championship, which will be held there in July. Even without knowing much at all about Golf, or St. Andrews, I could still feel a strong sense of history and reverence surrounding the place. I wished for a moment that I could teleport my golf-loving friends here for the afternoon so they could really appreciate it as my ignorant self cannot.
On the way out of St. Andrews, I managed to convince the group to let me jump out and get some photos of the beautiful ruin of the St. Andrews Cathedral. Mom got out with me and we raced through the place as quickly-yet-respectfully as we could, trying to soak up as much as possible in a short amount of time. I believe that some day I must try to either camp in such a place, or take part in some type of reenactment at an abbey or cathedral ruin. Add that to my Bucket List.
We got back into the car and watched as the scenery rolled by, changing once again, this time to the beginnings of craggy highlands.
We made one last evening stop at what was to be possibly my favorite place on the whole trip: Glamis Castle. Steeped in history (and I really mean that), Glamis (pron. Glahmz)originated as a medieval hunting lodge, and has been in the same family since the 1300's. England's Queen Mother is of this family, and spent a lot of time here as a child. Said to be the most haunted castle in Scotland, it is the reported home of a servant boy, the Grey Lady, Earl Beardie, and others, who are said to haunt the castle and grounds. Also, Shakespeare wrote it into MacBeth, so it's got that going for it. All this being said, I think I could be quite comfortable there. There are over 100 rooms in the castle, but only about 11 were open to tour. Even so, the tour took about an hour and a half. I'm sad I didn't get the guide's name, because he was a great one - he clearly loves the castle, knows his history, and created a perfect blend of humor and respect.

About an hour's drive through pretty, sheep-filled farmland in many shades of green (Becky, the painter, could identify every one!) took us to Pitlochry, known for its hiking trails and outdoor activities. We noticed that the hills are starting to get a little steeper now. There was a short period of light rain during the drive, and then we were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow. We stopped for the night at Craigroyston House, run by the very sweet and exceedingly accommodating Gretta. Mom and Dad's room seemed plenty comfortable, but mine and Aunt Becky's was luxurious - large, with two beds, and a seating area in a bay window overlooking the little valley with the main shopping road and the hillside beyond.
We took a pleasant walk to dine at a nearby restaurant (yummy and light salmon, salad, asparagus and tea for me), then back to the room for a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, we'll sleep in a bit, and then head to Inverness.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Edinburgh, 4-29-10

Stayed the night at 53 Frederick St, a very comfortable and friendly guest house located in the middle of the New Town section of Edinburgh. Awoke at 7:30 local time and went downstairs to Ricks for a light breakfast of sausages, bacon, haggis, mushrooms, potato scone, eggs, and tomatoes, with orange juice, toast & coffee. It was my first time trying haggis, and I must say I found it delicious. Similar to livermush, for those who are familiar with that southern delicacy.

After breakfast we headed to Edinburgh Castle, (try the 3-D tour!) built on a well-situated hill created by volcanic activity sometime around 340 billion years ago, give or take. The castle was impressive, and there was lots of information, from the wall signs, tour brochure, and audio guide. There were human guides around as well, and they all seemed very well informed, and keen to answer questions thoroughly, rather than give simple responses. This made me happy, as I was keen to hear their lovely brogues, and tended to make up questions just to get them to talk to me.
Highlights of the castle include:
-The Honors of Scotland (crown jewels) -including the crown, sceptre, and sword that were once hidden away from Cromwell's forces for safe keeping in a wooden box, to be recovered later by Walter Scott. The Stone of Scone is there, as well, having been taken from Scotland to England in 1296 and returned finally in 1996.
At one point, I wandered into the gift shop, as I do. I love a shop. There was another guide there, dispensing small sips of whisky to those of age who were interested in tasting what they had on offer. So of course I stepped to receive a wee dram. I don't drink much, and can't remember the last time I tasted whisky, so I proceeded with caution. "Do I just ... shoot it?" I asked. "You can,...if you like," the pourmeister replied, a little dubiously. At this point, another interested patron, who apparently couldn't bear the thought of such a waste of good alcohol stepped in and said, "if you just put a wee bit under your tongue, just up near the back o' your teeth, and inhale and let the air move over it, you'll taste the aroma first. And then you can swallow it." Well, that sounded pretty sensible to me, so I tried it that way. I definitely tasted the aroma. Not unpleasant, but not something I could picture enjoying on a regular basis, either. At that point, I noticed a small bottle of 16-year-old Lagavulin on the shelf. A dear friend had given me strict instructions to bring a bottle of it home, so I seized the opportunity to seize a bottle. I asked for and received a taste of the Lagavulin, and the difference in taste was like night and day. I love the smokier and more smooth taste, and was quite pleased with my choice. I'm looking forward to enjoying it on a nice fall evening back home. I think it will be a very pleasant consolation.
After the gift shop, we realized it was very nearly time for the one o'clock gun, a tradition at Edinburgh Castle. We stuck around to watch that, then headed to lunch at a converted cathedral, where I introduced my parents to the spicy joys of Ginger Beer. We then took a walk along the Royal Mile, doing a little window shopping. It was mostly kilt shops and Celtic jewelry, but definitely fun, and an enjoyable walk. We got some information about a ghost walk later in the evening, and then Mom, Aunt Becky and I split off from Dad (who was feeling a bit under the weather) and continued on down to Holyrood Palace & Abbey for a tour. We had just enough time to make it through before they closed, and we got to see the setup for a banquet to be held later that night, when Princess Ann was due to make an appearance. We saw the room where Mary Queen of Scots witnessed the brutal murder of her Secretary by her jealous husband. Strange to think that such a dramatic and bloody event took place there in that clean, tranquil room. The ruin of the Abbey was beautiful, but then I am always drawn to those things.
Dinner was a quick fish and chips, and then Mom and I rushed back to the Royal Mile for our ghost walk. We were led by two young men whose names I've unfortunately forgotten, but I think one of them was Alex. They were funny and spooky, and told us stories about the gruesome history of Edinburgh, and led us down into the underground areas beneath the city that are said to be haunted. Of course, I enjoyed the heck out of it, but such walks have never been Mom's cup of tea. I think she just goes along to be supportive, and because 90 minutes of ghost stories are still preferable to her than 90 minutes of worrying about her "baby" daughter out there all alone in a big foreign city. It's sweet.
We walked around a bit after the tour, enjoying the sights of Edinburgh after dark, and got back in at about 10:30pm.

On the bill for tomorrow: Rent a car and drive through the East Neuk fishing villages to Anstruther, and on to St. Andrews (aka. The Birthplace of Golf).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Edinburgh, 4-28-10

Well, we made it.

We had smooth flights, and on the long leg from Washington DC to London, the four of us were originally to be separated, but at the last minute I was fortunate enough to get in an empty seat next to my mother instead of being stuck in the back of the middle section for 8 hours next to an elderly New Zealander with a strong personal scent and a penchant for talking. It would have been a long flight indeed if not for that empty seat.
I want to keep this post reasonably short, so I won't go into the difficulties of sleeping on a plane. But they are numerous, in case you weren't aware.
I realized at one point while sitting in the airport, that I don't have much of a dialect in my native country, so I'm used to people being unsure where I'm from. Here in Scotland, I am immediately recognizable as an American as soon as I open my mouth (if not sooner).
The final leg I had to take on my own, with Mom, Dad, and Aunt Becky following on the next flight, four hours later. While I love them all dearly, I relished having a little time on my own to navigate and find my way to the hotel. I planned to drop off my things and head back out for some sightseeing and general reconnaissance, but ended up sleeping for about 3 hours until the rest of the group joined me. So much for some alone time.
All in all, the journey took about 19 hours. I'm sitting in the common room of the B&B where we're staying, and the light of the day is slowly dimming over Edinburgh. We're in the relatively new part of town, as it's only about 200 years old, appropriately called New Town. Tomorrow I hope to see a little of Old Town so that I can compare the two. Also, more photographs, I promise. Today, I only got the one posted above before my batteries died. Boo.
Well, I'm exhausted, and after a delicious dinner of Arbroath Smokie fish cakes, a salad, and some "real ale"- Caledonian 80 (for Lamoureaux) - plus a short walk around the town, I believe I'll head to bed.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Pre-flight Checklist

It seems that most of the trouble with the previously-mentioned volcano has settled down, and we might actually go on this trip. Preparations are proceeding apace. I'm mostly packed, but will need to go through everything again once more to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. Which of course means that I will forget something. Probably my passport.
I ordered a globally enabled "loaner" phone from Verizon to take with me. What that means is that I should be able to take photos with the phone while I'm there and picture-text them to a twitpic account that will automatically update twitter, which will forward to a facebook status update. Yes, it's disgusting. But I can't help myself. My name is Epiphany, and I have a problem. Ten years from now, I'll read back over this and laugh at myself, in much the same way I laugh at photos of that perm I had in the seventh grade. You're welcome to join me, but be aware that I'll be laughing at you too, for reading a blog.
I was planning to do some cleaning this weekend, but an angel of a friend came over earlier this week and cleaned and rearranged and basically made my cute little house into a showplace. It's amazing. She's a wizard. No amount of cleaning on my part would have ever made it look this good. So I'm ahead of schedule, with not much else to do but work and anticipate the trip. That, and maybe plan a party or two for when I get back, just to show off the place.
I have the cat-sitting and lawn & garden care network in place, and look forward to the chance to pay these friends back for these huge favors they're doing me. They'll be the first ones invited to the party. Don't worry. You'll be second.
I've checked the weather reports online for Scotland, and it appears we'll have rain every day except one, and on that day, we'll have drizzle. Good thing I got a raincoat. (Actually, I've bought three in the last month, trying to find the perfect one - warm enough but not too warm, equipped with a hood, waterproof (obviously), nice color for the inevitable vacation photos - but at this point, who's surprised I'm going a little overboard?)