Note: Though much here was filled in from notes after our return, brackets [ ] specifically indicate comments that have the advantage of hindsight. And, as usual, links and such are under construction.
Saturday, August 21
After a fairly normal Saturday morning, Judy came by at about 2:30 pm to drive us to the airport. Tracie came by for the official changing of the guard at the house. Gave her the key and final instructions and kissed the dogs good-bye.
Security was tight. Waiting for the airplane, we heard strange sounds, like birds and squirrels chirping. At an airport gate? It was a man named Ray Clay who can imitate all kinds of animals. Seemed to know much about owls. Showed us photos and told great stories about his career/life with the woods and the animals in them. A kind-hearted gentleman who gives tours of woods in northern Michigan to tourists and other interested parties. A wonderful person. What a fine start for the trip.
The change of planes at Boston was annoying. The flight to London was long; hour after hour of vain attempts at sleep.
Sunday, August 22
Gatwick airport was very quiet: few people making noise. Quite unlike the American airport experience we’d left, full of hubbub. Since we had nothing to declare we went through the “green” line which it turned out meant we didn’t go through customs at all.
While Liene and Alex stopped for strong coffee and sweet hot chocolate, I went to the Europcar desk and rented the car that was to take us around Scotland. We expected a Ford Escort and wound up with a Renault 19. Knowing about Renaults, I wondered whether it would last the week. Loaded the car up in the rain. Got behind the wheel and ventured into traffic constantly reminding myself to stick to the left side of the road. Mercifully, we were very soon on the M23 road; the road was divided and on-coming traffic was separated by a guard rail from this dangerous driver, with quite a sleep debt and inexperienced in the ways of left-handed driving. Around London on the orbital (the beltway). Rain and mist in London town. People drive in these small cars at speeds ranging from 60 to 85 mph. By the time we were half way to Cambridge, our first stop to see the Eblings, the sky had cleared a bit.
The road passes near the city of Nottingham. Just off the road is what is purported to be Sherwood forest. Signs lure cars towards the Robin Hood museum and the like. Alex was by now fast asleep in the back seat and missed our proximity to such a legendary place.
Found Histon and Fran and Hazel’s home, a semi (semi-detached – much like a duplex). Very nice to see them again. Francis was much older at five and Douglas was a wild man at two. Talked a while, caught up a bit. Fran offered a can of Tetley’s Bitter. Very nice hop nose. Fran had us try British bacon, which was wonderful.
The three weary travelers napped through the late morning. After lunch, Fran and Hazel drove us around for a quick tour of the city by car. Stopped at a wooded area [whose name we can’t remember] where there had been an old settlement back in the Stone Age or Iron Age or something like that (few details remembered; we were still a bit foggy). There was earthwork all around – remnants of an extensive moat that had been dug out. Hiked a bit, picked up bits of chalk, ate blackberries and elderberries that were all around. Back home where Alex got a bit sick from the berries. Had dinner. Talked some more, catching up after not having seen each other for years.
In the evening, for our first proper pub experience, Fran took us on foot to a local pub called King William (affectionately known as King Bill) while Hazel was kind enough to stay with the sleeping boys. Cozy surroundings, easy to imagine the fireplace going on a winter’s evening. Had a pint of draught Greene King IPA. Very smooth, the yeast aroma actually overpowered the hop nose that should have been foremost. The hop taste was fine. Very like a bitter.
Monday, August 23
Good sleep. Woke up to beautiful, sunny weather. Spent the entire day in Cambridge.
Went to the University and visited the archeological museum where we inquired as to where we might find fossils in Scotland. We had seen David Attenborough’s program in which he is standing on a beach somewhere in Scotland and more or less picks up any old rock, splits it and finds a fossil. We wanted to do the same but couldn’t remember the name of the place. A very talkative man in a white lab coat told us that many fossils can be found in the Caithness area, northeast Scotland. Perfect. We plan to go along that coast on the way to John O’Groats, the northernmost town on “mainland” Scotland.
Visited the King’s College Chapel, inside and out magnificent. Changed some money at the bank. Bought some fruit at the outdoor market. Saw the oldest building in Cambridge, dating from around 1000 AD. Climbed the spiral staircase in an old church tower for a lovely view of Cambridge. Heard the bell directly underneath us chime 11 o’clock.
Walked through town, stopping at a few shops. Though the day (the whole trip so far for that matter) had been delightful and was beginning to take on that fantastic quality that major trips take on, one incident demonstrated to me that we were in fact still in the real world. A man, about 55 got out of his silver Mercedes which was parked in front of a shop, walked around in front of his car, picked up the two bicycles that were parked there, and threw them a few feet further down the street. It became evident that he needed a little more space around his very expensive car in order to pull out of his parking space. Two young black men came rushing out of the shop. They were clearly upset, rightfully so. They explained that he could easily have moved the bicycles or even asked them to move them. The man showed no remorse. In fact, he became indignant and, shall we say, verbally abusive. At this point, fearing there was little time before the potential escalation and with nothing in the way of explanation, I hurried Alex and Liene further down the sidewalk. One of the young men wanted to, shall we say, “discuss” the issue further. The other was a bit calmer and intervened. He evidently didn’t think it was worth getting into a brawl. Things everywhere are the same, I thought. In this situation, white vs. black, haves vs. have nots, age vs. youth, the ending of the story would not have been good for the two men if it had escalated and the police had arrived to break it up. The two young men picked up their bikes and examined them for damage. Arrogance got in his car and drove away.
Bought items at a shop for lunch (Indian spiced pasties, sandwiches, etc.) and proceeded to a spot of common land near the River Cam. Bought some beer to go in “plastic pint pots” at a nearby pub called The Mill. I had Maulden’s Best Bitter. Hops taste and nose seemed identical to Tetley’s. Fran’s Maulden’s Titanic was quite bitter and very good.
After lunch, we hired a punt and punted downstream along the Cam, viewing some of the spots we had seen earlier: King’s College Chapel, a relatively large area of common land (land that anyone can graze their animals on) with cows grazing, “Mathematical Bridge,” etc. Punting was quite relaxing. Stopped for ice cream on the bank, then returned upstream, exploring along the way a somewhat stagnant “tributary” of the Cam, only to find it led us, literally, to a brick wall. When we returned the punt, some cows were grazing precisely the spot where we had had and some other folks were still having lunch. People and cattle sharing the land and the moment. An interesting and, I take it, not uncommon sight.
Afternoon comprised a trip to the Round Church, built around 1400, and tea at Henry’s (Mr. Henry, as Francis calls him, was quite gracious, but the waitresses were less than helpful). I had a scone and jam and Liene had a flapjack. I expected the scone to be dry and full of soda, like the ones I have had back home. It was more bready. Hazel explained later that an Irish scone is made with soda, the English scone is in fact more bread-like. The flapjack was, of course, not like the American pancake by the same name. It was a very tasty, coarse cake-like, granola bar-ish thing. Earl Grey tea for me. Liene had coffee.
Hazel and Fran took the kids home while Liene and I walked to the Botanical Gardens. Got there with only about 45 minutes to spare before closing time. Walked through several of the areas which were laid out in themes. There was the chronological area, where the plants were set out in what we assumed to be order of acquisition, dating from the recent past all the way back to the 1500’s. There was the scented area, where all the plants were aromatic in some way: flowers, leaves, etc. There were other interesting areas such as the rock garden, and annuals, etc. Unfortunately, the shop, where we hoped to find a book on the place, was closed. Walked back to a pub from which we called Fran or Hazel to come get us. While we waited, I had a cider and Liene had a bitter. Hazel came and off we went.
That night, Fran and Hazel arranged for baby-sitting while Fran, Hazel,
Liene and I went out for the evening. At the Cow and Calf, I had
a Directors Bitter, Courage’s top of the line bitter. Little
hop nose but well-bittered, good balance, spicy aftertaste on back of palate.
Good bit of alcohol. Liene had an Elgood’s Cambridge bitter which
was grainy in aroma and taste. The pub cat watched us from the window sill
for a while before leaving on some business. Out to an Indian restaurant
where the food was wonderful and the service terrible. We got a lesson
in how “service” works in the UK. It is not at all like in the US. The
concept that it is necessary to set up a rapport between waitperson and
customer does not exist. They bring you your food, no one gets too friendly,
you pay your bill, you leave. No one owes anyone anything. I guess they
like it that way. [This script was to exhibit itself again and again during
Tuesday, August 24
Another beautiful day. Where is all this gloomy weather everyone always talks about the British isles having? Left Fran and Hazel’s in Histon shortly after 9:00 am. We went north. Near the town of Corbridge, which was very touristy, we saw Hadrian’s Wall. The wall, built around 2000 years ago, separated the Roman conquered south from those “barbarians” in the north. Saw only a small bit of the wall in some sheep farmer’s field. Drove on. At about a quarter after five, got to Bamburgh Castle on the east coast of Northumberland. Overcast now. Appropriate for the rough land and seascapes. First sight of it was a beautiful view across farmers’ fields – an impressive castle against a an ominous sky with the gray green ocean beyond. Reminded me of the approach to the Mont St. Michel in northern France. With very little time left before closing, we rushed through the castle. The portrait of the resident Lord showed a remarkable resemblance to the portrait of the Lord from the middle 1700’s. The nose, the jaw, and the castle have evidently been in the family a long time. The castle [like most working castles we were to see] was also a museum. Lots of items from the past displayed. The part of the castle where people still live is more or less off limits to visitors. Then there are the older areas: the spacious, old kitchen along with an area housing a well dug down through the rock right inside the castle (even if under siege, water would still be available). The dungeon was pretty eerie. After leaving the castle, walked the grounds for a while before buying some food to take along in the car for the drive to Edinburgh.
Called Hazel’s mom from a nearby gas station; said we’d be arriving in Edinburgh tonight. Heck of a long drive. Made it to Edinburgh by about 9:00 pm but, having taken the wrong road into the city, got terribly lost and spent an hour driving all around inside the city at night, up and down downtown streets, around Arthur’s Seat. Luckily, didn’t have to meet Hazel’s mom (Mrs. Cathy Ainslie) until after 10:30 pm. While in the downtown area, asked directions of an elderly Edinburgh gentleman, complete with flat cap and heavy Scottish accent. He was clearly a local and it was evident that the knowledge of which way was north was not something all locals concerned themselves with. He no doubt found his way around the city his entire life by other means. He did know that the large edifice overlooking our brief encounter was the castle (certainly more than we knew) and had heard of the road we were looking for (Grange Loan), but couldn’t tell us where it was. About 20% of his words lost to the fact that we were not yet accustomed to the strong Edinburgh accent. Drove around some more, and asked a young woman who was both more knowledgeable and more intelligible. Finally found the place at 10:05 pm. Grange Loan. Went to John Leslie’s, the pub across the street that Fran had mentioned as both a landmark and good place for a pint. The proprietor was there and allowed us in with Alex; not common practice to have a child in a pub. The pub is beautiful: dark, glowing wood everywhere. Left side with tables and comfortable chairs for sitting and talking. Right side with counter for standing and talking. We entered the left side. Orders made through small bank teller-like openings. Liene had a Caledonia 80’, a cask-conditioned ale. Full, sweet with a nice “aged” (for lack of a better word) quality. I had a Murphey’s Stout. Smooth, with a nice foamy head. Alex had a lemonade. Mrs. Ainslie told us later that Sean Connery used to drink at Leslie’s pub with his dad.
At about 10:35, walked across the street and Mrs. Ainslie kindly took us in. A very long day. By the way, driving on left by now is beginning to feel almost normal.
Wednesday, August 25
Up at 8:00 am to move car; can’t leave it on the street in front of the apartment. Shower felt good. Breakfast at Mrs. Ainslie’s; cereal, toast, OJ and coffee. Perfect. Walked from Grange Loan to the center of the city where we visited Edinburgh Castle. Views of the castle and of the city from its walls quite impressive. Many, many tourists because we are right in the middle of the world famous Edinburgh festival. Walked around Princes Street, George IV Bridge, etc. Shopped for souvenirs to take back home for people and looked for a sweater of Scottish wool for Liene. The style she wants, basically an Arran but with a wide collar, seems to be very hard to find. Dropped in on a wonderful toy museum that had toys and games and gadgets of fun from
Visited the National Museum of Scotland. Very nice. We were too late to see the Museum of Scottish Antiquities for anything more than about 15 minutes. Too bad; the Pictish exhibit looked like it had information that would help with the things we were to see later on.
With dusk fast approaching, we walked east to Arthur’s Seat, the large outcropping(s) that stick up in the middle of the city, where Liene and I climbed about half way up the south side of the main mound. Alex went all the way up to a pathway, crossed it and touched the main rock (the dead volcano’s neck). Came down and walked back to the apartment. Walked to a small restaurant nearby for fish and chips and what they called pizza. Back to Leslie’s for a pint. Liene – a Bass Ale. I – an ale made especially for the festival by the company that owns this and four or five other pubs in town. Back to apartment at about 8:30 pm and watched a bit of a detective story. Great picture quality on TV here. Good programs besides.
Thursday, August 26
Breakfast at Mrs. Ainslie’s. Using maps and yesterday’s knowledge of the city center, Alex navigated us through downtown Edinburgh, over the bridge over the Firth of Forth. (A “firth” is the wide opening of a river into the sea, a bit like a bay, or inlet, but longer.)
Drove north through the Cairngorm mountains. Through the partly cloudy sky, the sun would break through onto the hills and mountains, farms, and the never-ending fields of cows and sheep. Often, we would pass by hills covered in purple heather, bright where the sun shone, deep where in shadow. Of particular interest was one rather impressive ruin, four large stone walls still in pretty good shape for the evident age of it all, standing alone on a flat-topped hill surrounded by a farmer’s field, in turn surrounded by the mountains covered with trees, shrubs, rocks and heather. Liene searched the map for a description, but it soon became clear that the reason it was not shown on the map was because there are just too many of these ruins. Many, perhaps most, are either of no significant historical interest or have just not yet been excavated or explored. Just another ruin ....
Went to Scone Palace, where the queen stays when in the area, but decided not to go in (too expensive an admission price for simply ritzy rather than the ancient which was more what we’re looking for). Started for some castles northeast but decided instead to head for whisky country. Took some very narrow, winding roads that took forever.
Got to The Glenlivet distillery about mid-afternoon. Very interesting. The distillery is on a large estate with rolling hills; the country and distillery grounds were magnificent.
The three of us had a tour (essentially a personal tour as there were no others in the party) led by a very knowledgeable and entertaining man. The distillery was just starting back up after several weeks without production while maintenance work was being done. The place was beautiful, spotless. Here is what we learned. (Digression here on the method used to make Glenlivet Scotch. If not interested skip to the * below.)
Water rains on the peat-covered hills nearby, filtering through the peat into wells. They use that water to make the whisky since it is very clean and very acidic. They buy malt (some German, some English) from some maltster elsewhere, already kilned and peat smoked. [Note: there are very few distilleries that still malt, kiln and smoke their own barley. Laphroaig, described later, does so, but only with about 30% of the total malt they use.] One ton of malt produces 400 liters of alcohol or, at 40% by volume, 1000 bottles of whisky.
The malt goes into large storage hoppers and is transported everywhere in the process by screw/auger conveyors. The grinding mill runs unattended at night (to avoid human contact with the inevitable dust). First roller cracks, the second crushes the malt. Fairly fine grist; finer than needed for beer brewing.
The large mash tun is filled with the peaty water that is heated to about 68° C by steam, which is heated by burning coal. The mash tun has revolving blades that stir the mash. Two hours later, after some more additions of hot water (11,000 gallons total), it is filtered through the bottom of the tun and the blades scrape the tun clean. The “wash” is then cooled to about 20° C with water that is recirculated through their outside pond and cooling towers.
This then goes to large fermentation vats made of pine. The wooden vats have a life of about 40 years. Two yeasts (one a beer yeast, one not, both in dry form) are added at the rate of 1% to the wash as it enters the tank; a total of about 500 lb.. of yeast per tank. Fermentation begins within 2 hours and lasts a total of 8 hours. The foam is a full six feet high at peak fermentation but is prevented from rising higher by the revolving blade at the top of the tank, which disrupts the very top of the foam without disturbing the fermenting liquid below. Each area in the building had its own wonderful aroma: the malted barley, the mash, the fermentation, the still area. We all sniffed one fermentation vat that was at the height of fermentation. Liene stuck her head a little too far into the top of the tank and was assaulted by the aroma and CO2 of 11,000 gallons of wash at peak fermentation. There are eight tanks. Seven going at any one time, one being steam cleaned, all done on six hour cycles, repeating every 48 hours.
Next, into the stills. Copper of course. Four pairs of pots for the two part distillation done in four shifts. Interestingly, the shape, size and height of a still pot determine as much of the character of the distilled spirits as just about anything else. (According to M. Jackson in his book about single malts, when a still pot needs to be replaced, they make an exact copy of the original even down to banging a dent exactly where there had been one on the original pot.) The fermented liquid is heated to 75°C, the boiling point of alcohol, and the spirits are captured into a storage tank overhead. The leftover (full of dead yeast, etc. left over from the fermentation) goes off to a building next door where it is mixed with the draff, the mash filterings. There it is made into pellets of cattle feed supplement (about 27% protein) and fertilizer.
The spirits from the first distillation (about 17% alcohol at this point) are put into the second still pot where the temperature is about 60°C. In this pot, there are 3 separate “cuts” of the distillation. That is, as the vapors rise up, the distiller directs them into different storage areas so as to separate them. The first cut is very light, too light and without body to be included in the final product, and is called the “foreshot.” The foreshot is put back into the storage tank above. The second cut is called “the heart” (this is about 63% alcohol) and is taken away to become Glenlivet whisky. The third cut, the “feints,” is composed of oily, heavy alcohols. This also goes into the storage tank. After the next batch of fermented wort is distilled and put in the second still for its secondary distillation, the stuff in the storage tank from the first batch is added to it to go through the process again.
The “heart” is mixed with more of the original peaty water to reach a 57% alcohol content and put in casks to age. The casks must be made of oak. A few come from sherry makers in Spain. Most of them come from Kentucky after having been used for 3 years in the making of bourbon. Scotch makers prefer these casks to new oak since the wood has been “conditioned.” (The definition of bourbon includes the requirement that the casks be new oak. I believe that FDR had that written in to the law as a way to keep people employed.) Some distilleries use a higher proportion of sherry casks to bourbon casks; each imparts its own flavor. Oak breathes so that some alcohol is lost but the atmosphere, which in the case of the malts from the western islands is salty, iodine-y, etc., is also let in, imparting its own characteristics. The oak also imparts the characteristic color. Since the distillate is essentially clear, the different colors of different single malts are due partly to the water they are mixed with prior to casking [in Islay the water is very, very noticeably brown] but mostly to the time spent in cured oak casks. The stuff must age at least 3 years before it can be called “whisky.” Before that it can only be called “spirits.” We had a taste of the 12 year Glenlivet before leaving; rather light and vanilla-like. The operations of the entire distillery are run by about 12 people but there are a total of about 22 employees including the grounds-keepers, etc. As we were leaving, in the parking lot which gave a wide view of the lovely countryside, we met Sam, a border collie from a nearby farm, who entertained us with tricks and a drool-soaked rubber ball.
Although it was late afternoon, we made an attempt to find other distilleries in the area that might be open for a visit. None were, but we did manage to see several from the outside, all with the same appearance, business-like yet very tidy and stately. Alex and I had a very late lunch at a tea room in Dufftown while Liene browsed the main street.
Drove on to Burghead on the north coast of the eastern Highlands, west of the Spey, on the advice of one of our travel books. Very small town, but famous for an old well dug into the ground. Discovered in the 1800’s, it is actually in someone’s back yard. One must request the key into the walled in area from a family down the street. No one is sure who built the thing because it is so ancient. Steps lead down from ground level to about 20 feet below. There is a chamber with very good echoes. At the foot of the steps, the water is at your feet. A bit eerie. Also saw a couple of Pictish carvings in a small display window of the library. (How long, we wondered, would similar antiquities last in an unsecured window on a street in an American town?) From the point in Burghead that juts out into the Moray Firth, we could see the coast stretching east and west. We were headed west.
Drove on to Findhorn thinking it would be a nice place to stay, being right on the coast and on the way to other good things to see. We were right. Arrived early evening. It was beautiful. Reminded us of the place where they shot Local Hero, the movie that planted the idea of a trip to Scotland in Liene’s head 10 years ago. Walked along the bay and along the beach of the Moray Firth. The firth is very wide here because it is opening into, essentially becoming, the ocean. Found a room at the Culbin Sands Hotel. Slightly broken down hotel but quite tolerable. The room had a grand northerly view: an enormous window overlooking the firth about 200 yards away. Walked to the nearby Crown & Anchor for dinner. I had a pint of Boddington’s Bitter (nothing great) and Liene had a pint of Tennent’s Lager which was very good. Yeasty, very full body. Liene and I split a fish and chips, Alex had something else that was called a pizza. Short walk on the beach at night in the drizzle. Very pleasant.
The sign at the hotel said “Bar Lunches in 1/4 Gill Snug.” Later, I
inquired as to the meaning of such a phrase, a phrase in what I had thought
was my native tongue. A snug is a small, cozy bar. A gill (pronounced like
Jill) is a measure of liquid volume (a quarter(?) of an imperial cup or
something like that).
Friday, August 27
Woke to a great view out the window. Another partly sunny sky was the background to the beach of the Moray Firth. Proceeded downstairs for breakfast to find the dining room empty and no one around. Suddenly the proprietor ran across the hall, from one door to another, dripping wet and wrapped in a white towel, fresh from a shower. He was astonished to find it was so late, and embarrassed that we were waiting for breakfast.
Not too much later, had breakfast at the Culbin Sands. Alex, Liene and I had cereal, the “Full English Breakfast” and grilled kipper, respectively. Alex likes the bacon; much more meat and less salty than American bacon. Talked to an interesting couple in the dining room. English, the husband a retired RAF pilot. Spoke of his days flying, doing aerial photography in the area, food and “trucklements,” past trips taken and places we should consider going while here.
On the way out of Findhorn, at Kinloss, stopped at an old Abbey ruin. Like many other points of interest, not on any map. Just another ruin. Next to it was a great old cemetery with head stones from World War II and others dating back as far as the 1720’s. Some of these older stones showed carved skulls, bones and hourglasses.
Continued west. Just before reaching the town of Forres, is Sueno’s Stone, a very large carved Pictish stone depicting a battle from the 9th or 10th century. It is impressive in its detail, age and size, about 20 feet tall. It is completely enclosed in a glass structure, which helps protect it from further weathering. In Forres, parked the car and walked to a quaint museum (the Falconer Museum) with exhibits about the area and the city. We asked about where to find fossils. One young woman said she had found some along the eastern shore of the Black Isle, north of Inverness. If she could do it, we would certainly have some luck. Another woman, a geologist working at the museum, said it was very unlikely we would find any because of the area’s geology and the fact that most have already been dug. Very unlikely.
Forres is a very old city. It used to be called Varris and appears as such on 2000 year old maps of Ptolemy’s. It is considered to be the city in which the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s MacBeth take place.
On the way back to the car, stopped at a computer store. A small shop, owned by a friendly man who moved here about twenty years ago from Plymouth. We talked computers and software and the status of the technology in the US as compared to the UK.
Drove on to Brodie’s Castle, which we did not enter. Nearby, however, we did see Rodney’s Stone (named after the finder of the stone), also known as Maiden’s Stone, another Pictish carved stone from about the 9th century. It has a small roof over it but is rather weathered. A short stop to look at the castle from the outside and for Alex to play in a wooden fort-like structure among the trees near the parking lot.
Drove to Culloden, the scene of the famous battle where Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites were defeated in the late 1700’s. About 3000 people were killed in the battle and many were buried at the site. Tourists galore, not much else of interest except that feeling that comes from knowing that some fateful event took place exactly where you stand.
Roads getting very narrow now. Only one car at a time with an occasional “passing place” for cars to pass. When the very large tourist buses come towards you on such a narrow road, things get interesting. One such road led to the Cairns of Clava. A site where people around 300 BC cremated and buried their dead. Stones are piled into large round, mounds with chambers inside. When these were excavated in the 1800’s, charred human remains were inside. Some of the cairns have standing stones arranged in circles around them, some of these with markings. Trees cover the whole area in a hushed shade. Liene described the place as magical. Sheep grazing in the surrounding fields, a large aqueduct-like bridge nearby. Many of the stones from the cairns were removed over the centuries (as were the stones of Hadrian’s Wall and other ruins one sees everywhere) to be used by the locals in building the ubiquitous stone walls that section the fields.
Drove on to Inverness. After losing track of downtown and winding up in the posh neighborhoods filled with expensive stone houses that overlook the city and the water, we found a car park near enough to the museum and castle. The museum had exhibits on the geological history, social history, and animals of the area (two examples: the hedgehog figured prominently in the-animals-you-are-likely-to-see-in-your-garden exhibit and the poor North American puma that was found roaming around northern Scotland in the 1980’s which some fool had brought over). Much information about, and several stones carved by, Picts. The stones showed bulls, wolves, deer, and geometric designs composed of the typical Pictish graceful lines.
Left the museum and stopped at a McDonald’s. They were very busy. We took our food and walked back to the car park. Drove across the bridge to the peninsula known as the Black Isle. At Tore, we took a small road heading to the east coast. We passed the “Clootie Well,” a well that has been used since pagan times as a place to leave your troubles. If you leave a rag hanging near the well, your trouble will be left with it. If you take a rag, you will inherit the trouble left behind. There are hundreds of rags at this spot, hanging from nearby trees and bushes. Very odd indeed. Drove further. Judging from the names on the trucks parked nearby and the equipment, someone was filming a movie or TV show at the Fairy Glen, a lush little glen where the Black Fairy is said to have lived. No time to investigate: fossils to find. The one lane road we took among farm fields was very quiet, very winding. So winding was the road, that Alex got motion sick [not the last time this was to happen] by the side of the road. He decided that his burger had been rented rather than bought. We searched and searched but found no road or path down to the shore, where we had been told we might (or might not) find fossils.
Decided to drive on and made it all the way to Cromarty, the town on the northeastern tip of the Black Isle. There we visited the cottage of Hugh Miller, the famous Scottish stonemason turned geologist. Our friend, KC, geologist back in Ann Arbor, had lent us the classic book by Hugh Miller, The Old Red Sandstone, which describes his exploration of this area and others in Scotland. Cute cottage. Very low ceilings. Information about Hugh Miller and his life. We asked the caretaker there where we might find fossils. He said that there was some path somewhere along the road we had come on, a path near the gorge at the burn (Scottish for small stream) which we remembered passing.
Walked down the road to Alan’s General Store for an ice cream and stopped at a knit shop, ever in search of a wool sweater for Liene. No sweaters that fit the bill, but did see some interesting photographic portraits of Shetland life done by the proprietor’s friend. Each portrait was a collage of individual snapshots more or less butted up against each other which, taken together, gave a fish-eye view, of a kitchen interior or a couple of old sisters.
Headed back through the town of Newton and down the road we’d come on to find the path to the beach. No luck. We stopped at a farm near the burn, Eathie Grain Farms. An old man answered the door. He had trouble walking and seemed a bit blind. We had trouble understanding some of his speech. We asked if we might trek across his field to find a way down to the shore. He did pretty well at hiding the fact that he thought we were crazy, and said it was all right. We crossed the road and began walking through waist-high fields of two-row barley. I imagined that this barley might wind up in an ale or Scotch whisky I might someday encounter. At last we came upon his fence, near the drop off at the burn to the north and the drop off to the Cromarty Firth to the east. Both ways were dense with trees and brush. We decided it was impossible, or at least impassable. We went back to the farm to thank the man and met his daughter, who had just returned home. She pointed south across the field and explained that there was the path we could take, about a mile down the bluff to the beach. We did.
It was a long way down to the water. The afternoon was beautiful, as was the view of the Cromarty Firth. The off shore oil rig stuck out from the calm water but was not obnoxious enough to spoil the moment. We searched along the beach for stones that might contain fossils. Not many candidates, but Liene finally succeeded in finding a piece of slate-like stone. As no one was in possession of a geologist’s hammer, I used another stone to crack it open. It revealed a very nice, rather large piece of a brachiopod. Stayed a while to enjoy the water and rocks. Finally headed back up the walk in order to make it back before dark. Very steep and tiring.
Once back in the car, we headed back along the road to Tore, Inverness,
and along the west shore of Loch Ness to the town of Drumnadrochit. The
Benleva Hotel, a B&B seemed like a nice place to stay. It was. Very
good food, fine vegetarian fare. At dinner, I had a McEwans Export (sweet
and full body, no hop nose, low hop flavor), Liene had a Tennent’s Lager.
A nice vegetarian curry. Room was very nice.
Saturday, August 28
Great breakfast at the Benleva. A quick 2-mile drive took us to Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. Though the monster was nowhere to be seen, the view was spectacular. The sun was shining warm enough to balance the strong breezes coming down along the loch. We climbed the spiral stairs and walked among the ruins, imagining the people who had lived there and the battles they had fought there. The castle was built in about 1300 and has a pretty violent history. There is a ditch dug out of rock around it that a drawbridge used to cross. Some buildings are/were several stories high. There are prisoner chambers, kitchen areas, etc. Leaving the castle, we heard pipes being played. What a picture; quintessential Scotland in sight and sound. We followed the melody and found a bagpiper named Murdo playing near the entrance to the castle grounds. A photo op in return for some coins in a hat. Drove back to Drumnadrochit in order to catch the Glenurquhart Highland Games. There were kids and adults competing in races, jumping, hammer throw, shot put, weight tossing, and bag pipe playing. The kids ran barefoot. All this took place on a green near the town surrounded by the hills and mountains. One man, Aly Munro, excelled in the weight tosses and consistently threw the hammer about twice as far as the average of all the other competitors. He was clearly the local hero and I have no doubt that all the women present above the age of 30 thought he looked pretty good in that kilt. Unfortunately, we had to hit the road before the caber toss event.
Off we went to Skye. Quite a drive. Nearing Eilean Donan Castle, we stopped at a gas station where we bought, besides petrol, a bottle of Cragganmore, a single Highland malt rated highly by M. Jackson, and one of Columba Cream (a Bailey’s-like liqueur made from Scotch). We had no idea what the Columba Cream was like, so the two women working there gave us a sample. A sip of liqueur at a gas station among the rocky mountains of the western highlands whose peaks were just disappearing into misty clouds .... The proprietor told us that the movie The Highlander was partly filmed up the road at Eilean Donan Castle. We remembered the movie and the scenes. He had been an extra in the movie, an old Celt with beard and helmet. He did admit however, that he had rewound the video many times in a futile attempt to catch a glimpse of himself in the film.
A few miles further, Eilean Donan appeared, looking as we remembered from The Highlander and The Year of the Comet. Situated on a piece of land in the loch, surrounded by water, now connected by a narrow stone bridge to the mainland. The castle was built in the early 13th century. The McRae clan took it over in 1509. It was destroyed in the 1700’s so as not to be used by the Jacobites. It was rebuilt from 1934 to 1937 by an architect named McRae, a member of the McRae Clan. Wonderful place.
Just up the road was the ferry to Skye. A quick 10 minute ride to the wild island. Another stop at a woolen shop near the port in search of the perfect sweater. No luck. The Isle of Skye was very wild and misty. As we drove further, avoiding the sheep in the roads, following the bilingual road signs in English and Gaelic, the mist got denser and descended. At first the clouds were covering the tallest mountains. By the time we made the west side of the island, we were driving through the mist. Went all the way to Carbott navigating some pretty torn up roads (due to construction) to see the Talisker distillery. Unfortunately, being Saturday, it was closed. No wonder the island scotches taste so wild and salty. The sea becomes mist and rain and swallows the places where they’re made.
The mist was so heavy at times that at one point I mistook some sheep for light colored boulders in the hills. Inevitably standing jokes emerge from trips of this kind, and these “woolly outcroppings” quickly became one of the main ones of this trip.
Drove back through several towns on the only roads available, more narrow one lane roads shared with large trucks and buses. We turned off to go through Sleat, the southern part of Skye, which was greener, bordering on the lush, ... comparatively speaking. Made it to the ferry just in time for it to take us to Mallaig on the west side of the mainland.
Very windy drive through more mist along a winding, forest-lined road along the coast. It was time to stop for the night and it looked like a storm was brewing. The “town” of Lochailort (the Lochailort Inn and its small parking lot) appeared along the road when not much else would. We stopped. A room was available along with bar food. After settling into the room, we went down to the bar and ordered dinner.
The owner, sitting at the bar, told us how, although the exterior shots for the movie Local Hero were supposedly taken on the east, the “sunny” side of Scotland, near Aberdeen perhaps (we’d heard that before from a woman at the Culbin Sands), the interior shots for the movie were filmed upstairs. The bar scenes were shot at the very bar before us. The nearby wee church was used as a model in building the church, a prop, for the beach scenes in the movie. The hallways looked slightly familiar though it had been quite a while since we’d seen the movie. Another man at the bar, a bit tipsy, was grinning at what seemed our gullibility. Was the owner pulling our leg? An hour later, after we had spent time with Alex’s chicken dippers, Liene’s and my fish and chips, and pints of Tennent’s Lager, we noticed that the grinning man was still grinning, continuously, at just about everything anyone said. The evidence so far was inconclusive; perhaps the story was true.
The room upstairs was cozy, okay. The visitors book was full of comments, many about the “good crack” (slang for “fun”), by folks from all around the UK and the world who had stopped there traveling. More than a few came back several times over the years.
Sunday, August 29
Full English breakfast, very good, this time with black pudding (Liene and I tried it but gave most of it to the dog) and a baked tomato. We were all feeling good about the trip so far: only half way through, and we had already enjoyed so much. We were still intrigued by the possibility that we had entirely by chance happened upon the place where they had filmed Local Hero. The dining room did not look familiar from the movie, but the upstairs and the bar were beginning to seem so. We asked the Australian who was cooking and serving breakfast and who, interestingly, had come for a short vacation and stayed two and a half years (I could quite understand why one would stay a bit longer than planned). Yes, indeed, he said, the interior shots were done here. [The final corroborating evidence appeared to us in the form of closing credits on the movie, seen on video a month later at home.]
Left the Lochailort Inn, with the previous night’s storm finally clearing up. The famous Highland midges were numerous and biting. We got in the car quickly and drove away. Alex had the brilliant idea of opening the sun roof along its back edge to suck the beggars out (worked like a charm) as we sped along the narrow winding road toward Fort William.
Drove past Ben Nevis, the whisky distillery that rates rather low in our guide to Single Malts, and its namesake, tallest mountain in Scotland. Further on, stopped at the famous statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie standing overlooking Glenfinnan at the north end of Loch Shiel. Headed south along Loch Linnhe to Glencoe, per Fran’s suggestion. A truly beautiful panorama had Glencoe. I bought a tape of traditional Scottish fiddle tunes and popped it in the car’s player. By chance, one of the first tunes was “Glencoe March,” which we listened to as we left Glencoe. Headed south again along Loch Linnhe.
Near Portnacroish, through the trees and bushes that lined the road on our right, out peeked Castle Stalker. We pulled over and stood in awe at the sight. Castle Stalker stands very alone and defiant on a small patch of land, barely larger than itself, surrounded by water when the tide is high. It was built in the 13th century and looks it. Unfortunately it is not open to the public, because it is still lived in.
Arrived in Oban at about 1:40 pm. Our intent was to take the ferry to Iona, where MacBeth and many famous Scottish kings are buried. It is a small island on the west side of the Isle of Mull. The ferry left at 2:00 and at 4:00. We decided to take the 2 o’clock ferry. Then decided, no, to eat lunch and take the 4 o’clock. Being a port and fishing town, our guide book said to try a couple of particular restaurants for their seafood. Unfortunately, most places seemed to stop serving lunch at 2:00. We wound up in a restaurant that would have been reasonable but for the incredibly awful service. Oban looked like a town that had once had quite a heyday. Still nice, but not great. It had its pretty side and its not so pretty side. It has a 1/3 scale Roman Coliseum, that was built overlooking the city by a local man. Not sure why.
Regrouped, rethought and decided that seeing Iona would be too much of an effort, take too much of a bite out of our schedule and make the rest of the trip too rushed. We wanted to have a day of more or less relaxation somewhere along the way, rather than rush constantly. Staying in one place for a day or two would give us a break from the winding roads, which seemed to give Alex motion sickness. More than once, we’d had to stop for ... a purging. So, now the plan was to make the ferry to Islay the next morning from Kinnecraig, a few hours south. We could just hang out Monday, perhaps go horseback riding and then Tuesday see the distilleries of Laphroaig and Lagavullin, just generally relax in an out of the way place like Islay.
Just before leaving, as we sat parked near the train station, we turned on the radio and heard Gaelic. A few sentences into the speech, it became clear that we were hearing a Sunday sermon.
Driving south from Oban, stopped at Kilmartin to see some grave stones carved by Scots dating from the 1300’s. Symbols included swords, soldiers dressed like Crusaders, Celtic knot patterns. A little further south, we missed the road to see the standing stones and cairns at Stockavullin. We turned right onto a small road in order to turn around and caught sight of a falcon perched on a standing stone in the middle of a farmer’s field. This 8 foot tall slab was surrounded by a large fenced in grassy area which was dinner for the several cows grazing about. The falcon flew to another standing stone a few yards away. Then another. These stones were not on any map. Ancient stuff, now just a perch for a passing hunter.
Turned back and stopped at Stockavullin to see the cairns and stone circles there. There were 3 or 4 sets of them, parts of a 2 kilometer stretch of burial/ceremonial grounds dating back to 3000 BC. No doubt the falcon’s stones were part of the holy area.
Further south, we stopped at Dunadd Fort. The ruins of the fort sit atop a large rocky outcropping in the middle of more or less flat land that is in turn surrounded by hills and mountains. Quite a nice climb. About 100 feet up. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing. There were four sets of concentric rock wallings – at least remnants of them. The fort and its protective walls were built over time, between 500 and 1000 AD. A footprint, an almost Pictish image of a wolf, and a small basin are carved into a large flat-faced stone at the top. A book we had said they figured in the crowning of Scottish kings. Wow. Alex and Liene tried their feet in the indentation. Not too bad a fit.
There were more wonderful views in the late afternoon and evening sun of Loch Fyne and more mountains and glens as we drove south past Tarbert to Kinnecraig where the ferry would leave tomorrow at 7:15 am. Stopped in to check it out. A small pier and a ticket office in an area that looked suspiciously like the middle of nowhere. No booking meant we’d have to arrive early in the morning, said the large, gruffly friendly man there.
Drove just a bit further down the road to find the nearest B&B. South of the ferry is a town (a word used loosely for an area comprising about two streets) called Whitehouse. But wait, a hand painted sign with “B&B” and an arrow pointing down a ruinous road. We take it. Immediately, on the left an ancient house turned tea room. We venture further. The car bounces and groans. A farm. We stop and ask. No, you want the “second opening on the right further down.” The car waddles further down the broken road. The second right is a very old, large almost gothic house, the structure and gardens of which are, mildly put, run down. I tell Liene and Alex to get ready for a quick exit in case the man who opens the door has on a black cape. We knock and ring on the front door, and call “hello!” all around the house. A carved sign built into the wall above the front door reads, “Love God, Honor The King, Fear Not Men.” Finally, as we are about to give up and leave, an old man, hard of hearing, comes out and says his dog let him know there was someone outside. No, the B&B is the next right down the road.
Will the car make it down this road any further? Yes. To a very old farm. Is this the place? Yes, the woman says she’ll need to make up a bed but shows us the room. Quite nice. Very friendly. It’s getting late and we ask about where to go for dinner. She suggests a spot about 6 miles up the road, but then offers a wee bit of dinner at the house. Very kind. By the time dinner is ready, we have wandered the garden (nice veggies and beautiful dahlias) and conversed with the dog whose occasional limp, the woman assures us, is feigned. We sit down to a beautifully spiced lentil soup, creamy. Then a tender, cold roast pork with pickled pearl onions, salad, from the garden no doubt, and chips, clearly home made. A soft, soufflé-ish cheesecake to finish. Wonderful all. A “wee bit of dinner!” Remember this place: Arivore Farms, Whitehouse, Kintyre Peninsula.
Monday, August 30, 1993
Up at 5:30. Cows mooing. Last night we thought we’d catch the farm folk milking the cows at 6:00 am. Through the window, outside in the dark, we caught a glimpse of a shadowy male figure walking among a few cows, but when we went downstairs, inside and out we could find no one. Since we needed to go, we left payment and a thank you note on the dining room table and left the house in order to buy tickets and be ready for the ferry at Kinnecraig by 6:30. Caught the ferry to Port Ellen on the south coast of the Isle of Islay. On the deck, Alex approached a nice English couple, through their two Irish terriers, Kipper and Lotte. I soon joined the pleasant conversation they were having as did Liene a bit later. Bob and Margot Tinker from Darbyshire were very nice. They were visiting Islay since Margot’s dad or mom was from there. Two hours on the ferry to Islay. Wind blowing strongly, sun shining. Upon arriving at Port Ellen, immediately headed east a couple of miles to the Laphroaig distillery and another mile to the Lagavullin distillery. By seeing when their tours were, we might make plans to fit them in over the next two days. They both had tours at 10:30 am. Is there some rivalry here? No doubt (their histories are rather intertwined and being as geographically close as they are, a certain rivalry is to be expected). After some discussion, we decided on Laphroaig since they still malt some of their own barley. Took the tour with several other people. (Digression here on the method used to make Laphroaig Scotch. If not interested skip to the * below.)
The man who guided the tour (I believe he was Ian Henderson, the distillery manager) was a bit of a snob but was very knowledgeable. Here is what he said. Much of the barley used in Laphroaig comes from Fife. They do DNA checks of the barley from time to time to verify that it is indeed the proper variety of barley needed. Consistency is of course all important. What they look for in a barley is the combination of low nitrogen and a large seed. The barley to malt phase of the process is very labor intensive and costly. Therefore, they malt and smoke only about 30% of all the barley they use on premises, more for tradition’s sake than anything else (the other 70% is malted to their specifications at the large maltster in nearby Port Ellen). There are 3 concrete floors in one building that can each hold 16 tons of barley while malting. Two floors were in the process of malting during the tour. Here of course they achieve the same yield of 400 liters of alcohol from 1 ton of barley. They use about 5000 tons of barley per year. They are at about 75% of production capacity.
After malting comes smoking, and that means peat. The Laphroaig distillery owns about 650 acres of peat fields. (By the way, about 15% of the land on Islay is covered with peat. When cutting peat, the topmost layer of live plants is of course not used; however, the next two layers are cut out and left to dry. The deeper layers are left undisturbed.) The guide said that under current production and peat cutting activity, they believe they have about 600 years worth of peat. That works out fine since it is estimated that it takes about 600 years for peat to be formed. The cut peat is left to dry for 6 to 8 weeks (which is less than if the peat were being used as fuel). They use one and a half tons of peat to smoke 16 tons of malt. A lot of peat that had been cut in recent weeks was still out in the fields (we saw them later as we drove through Islay) because of the very wet summer they had had.
The kilns smelled rich and quite intense, the wooden walls impregnated with decades of peat smoke. We were able to enter them and stand on the grates through which rises the smoke from the peat burning in the ovens below when they are being used. The malt is left for 18 hours on peat and 12 hours on air. The cooling makes the kernels go dry.
The whole process to this point was quite human, as had been all of the Glenlivet. However, here the entire mill to mash to wash to still portion of the program is totally computerized and automated. Nevertheless, it was quite interesting. The transport of the grain, the grinding mill, the grist, the water, the mash, the introduction of the yeast, the fermentation, and the preparation for distillation are all computer controlled.
As in all single malt whiskies, the distillation is a segmented process. After the first distillation, an experienced distiller decides when to direct away the “foreshot” (the early distillates that are too harsh), the “spirits” (what will become the whisky), and the “feints” (weak but recyclable) into their respective paths. This immaculate distillery area has glass-enclosed areas where the alcohol (about 70% strong) pours off in such volume that it might be emerging from a garden hose. From here, the spirits will be casked (in used Kentucky bourbon oak casks) for the proper number of years.
As I mentioned, the tour guide was a bit snobbish and from his remarks, it was clear that Laphroaig was far and away the only whisky worth bringing to one’s lips. It had always been our favorite. [Little did we know that Lagavullin was beckoning – Fran had raved of its charms. We would soon know them too.]
* We bought two bottles of Laphroaig 15 year, since it is $100 a bottle in the US. They said it was about £40 in London. At the distillery, £28 (about $42). Proceeded to Lagavullin, a clean and ever so stately distillery, not for the tour but for a bottle. The shop was closed for lunch and so we went to Dunevyn’s Castle ruins, a couple of hundred yards from the distillery. The castle was built in the 14th century. Its ruins lay right between Lagavullin and the sea. Climbed among the rocks on the shore. At 1:00 pm, bought a bottle of Lagavullin 16 year, rated 95 in M. Jackson’s book.
Both Laphroaig and Lagavullin are on beautiful sites, looking south over rocks from the Isle of Islay. The Isle of Islay.... The day was warm, clear, sunny. Breathtaking.
Drove back down the road to the ferry to book passage from Port Aiskaig on the northeast side of Islay rather than from Port Ellen, to allow us to wend our way across the island without having to backtrack too much. Booked for 3:55 pm next day.
Drove through Bowmore, which is the “capital” of Islay, and changed $ to £. Then to Bridgend, a small town at the northeast tip of Loch Indaal, where we stopped for lunch. Actually, they don’t sell lunch after 2 pm but would soup and sandwiches do? We figured that if you can’t get lunch, lunch is the second best thing. [I know that what is meant is a restaurant meal as opposed to a “bar meal.”] Good food.
Drove to the nearby Islay Woolen Mill, quite well-known. Officially established as a business in 1883, but supposedly there had been a mill on the spot since the 1600’s. Next to a stream where the decrepit water wheel had once been used to power the looms. The proprietor, whose true passion it seems is horses, gave us a tour. The ancient looking looms that are loud enough to wake the dead are run by his main employees, two teenagers. One is his son, whose true passion is surfing. There must be surfing on Islay. The mill makes traditional tweeds and the owner has done work for lords, the royal family, and Paramount Pictures (did much of the tweed seen in Far and Away, the Tom Cruise movie, and is working on some material for costumes for an upcoming Tom Hanks movie).
Drove to Bruichladdich intending to look for the place where we would ride horses the next day. A store keeper with an accent that seemed originally American modified by several years in Scotland gave directions: back up the road, make a left at the sign and it’s “up the road a wee bit.” We drove quite a bit more than what we considered wee and saw nothing that looked like it might be a horse farm. Turned back, stopped at a large house where the man of the house was in the act of releasing a bird that had inadvertently entered the house, and asked directions again. Yes, in the direction we had been going, about six miles. I suppose “wee bit” means six miles. It seemed especially long because of the single lane road with only the occasional passing place. Either we or some oncoming car would sometimes have to back up to pull over. Finally, on the left, we saw a beautiful horse farm with horses and sheep and acres and acres of green in front of the complex of stone houses and stables. Half rocky, half grassy hills rose up behind. This must be the place. We stopped, looked around and finally found a resting, black dog and a young woman who kindly agreed to make arrangements for a trek tomorrow. Wow.
Drove back in the sun through Bruichladdich and to Port Charlotte. We began looking for a place to stay. Not many options as all of the shore-side rooms were taken. The name Ted Sikes was thrown about by some of those we asked. He could do a B&B. Everyone said he split the majority of his time between his home and the pub in Port Charlotte. We found him at neither. Liene did however, upon entering the pub filled with men sipping ale, encounter a very large dog; she was warned by the smiling proprietor, “He eats females.” Everyone had a laugh, some more nervous than others. We gave up momentarily on the search and went to the beach on Loch Indaal near the Croft Kitchen Inn. We ran into the Tinkers again. Alex played in the water while Liene and I had tea with Bob and Margot in their caravan (trailer RV). Alex proceeded to fall in the water with his clothes on and wound up using the caravan’s bathroom as a changing room.
Finally, it was late afternoon and time to get a move on. The Tinkers, who said that the proprietors of the Croft Kitchen Inn knew most everything that went on in the area, suggested we go there to inquire about places to stay for the night. Even though the restaurant was just closed, they offered us dinner. Fish & chips, scampi & chips and chicken nuggets. We asked for water. When they brought it in a glass pitcher, they apologized, saying that we needn’t drink it if we didn’t want to. It was amber colored. Not dirty, very clean actually. Just peaty. It seems that the water runs through the peat on the way to wherever it is collected. It was delicious. It’s more acidic than most waters; its pH and its color make it a perfect starting point for the best whiskies in the world. It seems everything we encounter in Islay, whether pretty or odd, reflects Islay.
The proprietor called an acquaintance down the street, a Mrs. Ruth Hastie, who occasionally offered a B&B. She took us in on very short notice and was friendly and kind. We took baths in Islay water. Its pH feels good on the skin as well as on the tongue.
Mrs. Hastie’s home is on the road just north of Bruichladdich. Just across the street is the shore of Loch Indaal. Night was falling and the enormous full moon came up over the water. It was a blue moon. The sky was clear and deep blue turning black but for the stars. I took a dram of whisky and crossed the street, to the beach. The lighthouse near Bruichladdich stage right, the full moon stage left. Quite a picture. The moon reflected on the water as well. The smell of peat smoke was in the air as people burned it in their fireplaces, and in the flavor of the Laphroaig on the tongue. Islay is fine.
Tuesday, August 31, 1993
Up at Mrs. Hastie’s. Pleasant breakfast of cereal and conversation. Another beautiful sunny day. The man at the distillery had told us that we were lucky to be experiencing this weather here. It was unusual for a place where the “rain can be horizontal for days at a time.”
We drove to a pay phone at the Bruichladdich pier to call Northwest and confirm our flight out Friday from Gatwick. To pleasantly kill some time before our appointment with things equine, we stopped at a museum of life on Islay. Ate quickly at the Croft Kitchen across the road and drove, this time more confidently, back up the road to Rockside Farm. A young woman, Heather, put Liene, Alex and me on Porridge, Mull and Arran, respectively. She took us on a ride up and over hills, rocky peaks, grassy dips, etc. Yesterday’s dog ran circles around us the entire time (we realized that he wasn’t so much laid back yesterday as just plain exhausted - Heather explained that he did this every day).
The panorama was spectacular with the warm sun shining. Not a cloud in the sky. Liene asked Heather if she didn’t have the best job on the island. She assured us she did. This was a summer job for her, between terms at university. Not bad. We rode down to the beach and across it. The North Atlantic was very blue. Wonderful, beautiful, breath-taking views every step of the way. We commented on the weather and were told that this was the best day of the year so far. It was hard to picture horizontal rain while taking in what we were taking in. Even now, it was clear that this was to be the highlight of the trip. After a 2 1/2 hour ride, we headed back to the stables. As we went up the long drive into the farm, Alex had a long conversation with the sheep who were grazing to our right. He was clearing making sense to them with his imitations of their sounds; they answered back with great enthusiasm.
After saying good-bye to our four-legged friends and Heather, we made a quick stop at Mrs. Hastie’s to pick up Alex’s still moist pants that we had left hanging on her clothes line, and proceeded to the Woolen Mill again for some photos. Drove on to Port Aiskaig on the eastern side of Islay, just across from Jurra, in order to catch the 3:55 ferry. We bid farewell to Islay (clearly a name for a fiddle tune to be composed later) as we saw Port Aiskaig and the Caol Ila distillery just to its north fade away. The Paps of Jurra (the two peaks on the Isle of Jurra) stayed in view for quite a while. Liene talked to a nice woman during the trip. Alex and I had dinner below, not very good, but better, we comforted ourselves, than the Haggis and Neeps that others on the boat were having.
Landed at Kinnecraig, drove north and around Loch Fin. Then down towards
Glasgow. Today’s was becoming a very long drive. The whole scene started
getting seedier, more touristy and busier as we drove southeast along Loch
Lomond. Nothing romantic here. Places to stay would have been expensive,
if they hadn’t all been full. Finally getting dark, exhausted and tired
of driving. Too late to get past Glasgow’s aura before sleep would be needed.
Desperate for a place to stay, we took many wrong or just plain weird turns,
winding up in Dumbarton. Finding nothing but seedy places, we took it out
on each other in the car, and generally had a terrible time. Until we chanced
upon a tolerable place, the Dumbuck Hotel. Stopped with the intention of
asking directions, since we knew there would be no vacancies. There were.
The place took itself too seriously but at least it was a nice enough place
to stay. Alex and I took baths and we all watched some of Bonfire of
the Vanities on TV before bed.
Wednesday, September 1, 1993
Breakfast. I had poached smoked haddock, Alex cereal, and Liene a full English breakfast. Liene had a wonderful bath before we more than happily left Dumbarton. Drove north-ish to Helensburg to see the Charles Rennie MacIntosh house. Not open till 1 pm and there was no way we were going to stay in Glasgow’s shadow that long. We did walk around the grounds and peeked in windows. MacIntosh’s designs are beautiful. Simple shapes and lines imbued with a humanness and friendliness.
Drove back through Dumbarton, around Glasgow and away as fast as our little Renault 19 would take us. Glasgow’s pallor persisted till well south. The Scottish farms and fields that should have looked pleasing were rather scraggly and scruffy. We were relieved to finally hit the Borders where things began looking pretty again, though clearly transitional between the Scottish landscapes we had gotten used to and the flatter, low rolling hills that we remembered in England on the way north. The Renault, by the way, had served us very well indeed.
About a mile before reaching Peebles, we ran across Neidberg castle. There it was, just there, by the road. Very nice castle on a small loch, complete with pit prison, and rather impressive rooms upstairs. Built in 1070 or so, modernized in the 1600’s. Another find that was not on most maps. We stopped in Peebles for lunch and shopping. Alex and I stopped in a small restaurant in which the visibility was near zero due to the cigarette smoke. The burgers tasted strange. None of us bought anything in town except food for the car trip.
Off to Innerleithen. Immediately upon entering the city limits, a woolen shop appeared and the car practically pulled over by itself. Liene found the sweater she’d been looking for during the whole trip. The Arran style but with a wide collar. Near Innerleithen, was the Traquair House, our next stop.
The house is old and has been inhabited since the 1100’s, visited by Mary Queen of Scots and other royalty. Friendly peacocks and ducks, with their children, greeted us as we got out of the car. We visited the house which is set up much like a museum. The house was very interesting, the grounds very pleasant. The brewery in the house, which not long ago was put back in operation, was undergoing some repair. We walked through the maze in the back of the house. Our first experience with a garden maze constructed of hedges. Quite a bit of fun.
After the Traquair House, we drove on south with the intention of visiting
York tomorrow. Stopped at the Fox and Hounds, a pub and B&B. The room
was okay. The food better. The service was terrible. We were essentially
ignored as we sat at the table. Called Fran and Hazel to let them know
we would be stopping again in Histon.
Thursday, September 2, 1993
Service was better for breakfast than for dinner. We talked to the bartender/manager and were able to purchase a couple of “pint pots” to take back with us for future ale consumption. Paul was kind enough to give us an unsolicited break on the previous night’s bar bill. The weather was cloudier now. Out the window of the car, the fields had the color of being close to harvest.
York was extremely touristy and full of tourists. Still, the walled city was rather nice: old buildings, musicians in the streets, some nice shops. One Christmas-oriented shop had a very tempting item: electronically controlled bells that you put on your Christmas tree and plug in like lights. They play ten different Christmas carols. Like a bell choir, the bells are all tuned to different notes and the timing of the clappers is controlled no doubt by some silicon chip somewhere. When they really get going sounds come from all over the tree. Tempting for their curiosity value, but £40 was too much. We did see the museum with exhibits on the 1976-1981 excavation of the ancient Viking village called “Jorvik” that had been on this site. In 1976, during the building of a shopping center, some Viking artifacts were found. Excavation started and they decided instead to just use the spot for what it was and build a museum around it. Well done.
Left York at about 3:00 pm, thinking we’d be in Cambridge by 5-ish.
However, we ran into three separate and very long backups. One had us go
less than five miles in 30 minutes. During one of the long stops, we saw
the signs for Nottingham and Sherwood Forest. Alex was awake this time
to see some proof of their existence. We made it to Histon and Fran and
Hazel’s after 6:30 pm. We talked about our respective holidays. The Eblings
had gone north to visit some friends. They fed us dinner. Homemade pizza
with a very nice scone-based dough and pie, mostly apple but with blackberries
and elderberries. Shared some Traquair Ale and scotches and Islay water
(we had picked up a bottle in Port Aiskaig). Packed for tomorrow’s trip.
Watched some TV: a drama about the investigation of DNA’s structure that
was conducted in Cambridge, just up the road.
Friday, September 3, 1993
6:00 am. Coffee and cereal with Fran, Hazel, Francis and Douglas. We hope to see them next year when they visit Ann Arbor. It has been wonderful to see them and to have them be our introduction and farewell to the whole experience.
We drove south as we had come. The clouds and rain started in. Gray London passed us on the right as we made our way to Gatwick. This time the terminal was extremely busy, security quite tight. Though one is allowed only one liter of liquor per person and we declared all items we needed to, customs in Boston had nothing to say about the five liters of single malts we had hand carried, nor about the small block of Islay peat that we had brought home as a souvenir. Arrived quite tired in Detroit where the weather continued cloudy and cool. Back in Ann Arbor, everyone told us we had missed a hot spell.
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