Scotland, Part 5: Friday to Sunday

I was the first one up as usual, drinking coffee while looking at a grey and drizzly dawn. Two of the skinny-dippers I mentioned in Part 4 were hard to shake out of bed, but we were soon on the road again.

Standing at the water's edge of the famous Loch Ness we learned about the largest body of fresh water in Britain. In fact, this loch contains more fresh water than all the lakes and rivers in England and Wales combined. It looks long and thin on the map and it is: about 37 kilometres long and somewhere between one and two kilometres wide. At its deepest it's an astonishing 230 metres or more, with the bottom of the loch being pretty much smooth and flat. Because of its massive volume of water, Loch Ness never freezes over. The top 30 metres or so of water changes temperature according to the prevailing weather conditions, but down below that it never alters from around five or six degrees celsius. If the water at the top approaches freezing point, it sinks and is replaced by the warmer water below.

A few in the group went wading, but I was content to cup some water in my hands and look at pebbles.

Then it was on through Lochend and into Inverness where we had a brief stop before arriving at the Culloden Battlefield, where the last military battle on British soil took place, and which is something of a national shrine. Culloden is where the Duke of Cumberland (Prince William Augustus, the son of the King), leader of the British forces, faced Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart, the man who wanted to be King) and his army of Highland rebels.

The Duke was a gifted and very strict military leader, highly respected by the men under his command. He prepared for the coming confrontation with the Jacobites by giving his men several weeks of special training. His army was very well equipped, in contrast to the Jacobites who had a motley collection of weapons and barely any food. The Highlanders, however, had no lack of courage or aggression. Unfortunately, their usual method of fighting, the Highland charge, ran into terrible difficulties, not the least of which was Bonnie Prince Charlie's choice of battleground, a boggy and uneven moorland. Growing dissatisfaction with some of Charlie's tactical decisions, leading to temper tantrums and infighting amongst the Jacobites, didn't help the situation.

The Duke made short work of the enemy, while Bonnie Prince Charlie made his escape from the disaster. In the aftermath of the battle, the Duke had practically all the enemy survivors -- including the wounded -- killed in cold blood, a decision that earned him the nickname The Butcher. The Battle of Culloden sounded the death knell of the Jacobite uprising.

Our guide wasn't his usual self during the time we spent exploring the battlefield and looking at the monuments. He became almost solemn and I don't think the significance of this place could be overstated.

From here we headed southeast to Tomatin and the Tomatin scotch whisky distillery where we attended an interesting tour given by a very deadpan girl who explained how their scotch is made. I really enjoyed the visit to one of their many warehouses which held wall-to-wall barrels of scotch. A row of barrels in front of me contained scotch dating back to 1965! The inside of the warehouse smelled faintly of whisky fumes; a small percentage of scotch is lost from the barrels every year due to evaporation. The 1965 barrels, although full 40 years ago, are now only half full because of this evaporation. I didn't leave the distillery without buying a couple of bottles of 12-year-old single malt. (Perhaps I should have stuck around to get a bottle of the 40-year-old, which was soon to be bottled.)

We had a leisurely stop for lunch at Aviemore then a long drive back to Edinburgh. We made a brief stop or two on the way and our guide pointed out some things of special interest, including the incredible Forth Bridge.

That evening in Edinburgh we said our good-byes to our guide and to the tour. I don't think there was anyone who wasn't sorry the trip was over and that the group was breaking up. Most of the tour group (including me and V.) came together again that night for drinks and dinner at one of the pubs in the Royal Mile. Over the next couple of days a few of us spent some of our time in Edinburgh together, sightseeing and meeting up for dinner, etc. I also used the famous black cabs a few times in Edinburgh and I was no less than impressed.

On Sunday afternoon we took the train back to London. During the journey I read and enjoyed My Life by David Lange.

Scotland, Part 4

We left the Isle of Skye in the afternoon to keep an appointment with a fisherman at Stromeferry on the shore of Loch Carron, just north of Kyle of Lochalsh. The early Vikings made their mark on this area, and it also has the obligatory history of violence between the clans.

A small group of us went out onto the saltwater loch with our fisherman guide in his boat. The afternoon was sunny and calm, and the scenery was beautiful. Way out on the loch, and using a winch-and-net mounted at the back of the vessel, our fisherman brought up a shellfish catch from the deep and we helped him sort the pile into two different sizes. The biggest ones we kept and the smaller ones we put back over the side.

We were amazed at the many large starfish and other creatures like crabs that came up in the catch, which we handled and examined before putting them all back in the loch. Our fisherman was mainly after scallops, but there were also mussels and various other types of shellfish. With a little knife he deftly opened up scallops for us to eat. They were delicious raw, and I had quite a few. The girls, it must be said, seemed to be squeamish, so he cooked them some scallops with butter in a little frypan right there on the boat. I, too, became squeamish when it came time to eat a freshly-opened raw mussel. Never again. The fisherman also brought up a separate catch of very large red crabs.

This was one of the highlights of the whole trip, and we were sorry to leave the boat. While the second half of our party went out with the fisherman, the rest of us had hot drinks, played pool, and read books in the nearby lodge.

With night approaching, and all back on dry land, our guide bought some of the huge freshly-caught crabs from the fisherman for our dinner that night. We were headed for Loch Ness, but we stopped on the way to have a look around the famous Eilean Donan Castle which is illuminated at night. The castle sits on a small island in Loch Duich and is joined to the mainland by a footbridge.

The castle, destroyed in the 18th Century by English warships, is now beautifully restored. Back in the day, the Jacobites I mentioned in Part 2 enlisted the help of the Spanish in their plan to overthrow the British government and take the throne. The Spanish force that was supposed to invade the English mainland limped home with its tail between its legs, while the Spaniards sent to join forces with the Jacobites in the Highlands established a garrison at the castle. The government sent frigates and made short work of them.

The 20th Century restoration of Eilean Donan Castle had a strange twist: Farquhar MacRae had a vivid dream, a vision, of what the castle had once looked like, and it was this vision that guided the rebuilding. The old plans for the original castle, later discovered in Edinburgh, confirmed his dream was pretty much spot-on, so the castle we have today looks like the original.

We stopped at a late-night service station to stock up on a few things (mainly beer as I recall), then it was on to Loch Ness and our backpackers hostel for the night, situated in the general vicinity of Lewiston. Our half-crazy guide had got it into his head that he wanted to let off fireworks, but none were to be had in the village, so he went for a drive to buy some. (I later found out he'd been all the way up to the city of Inverness and back!) We walked away from the hostel across a field in the dark and, for a short time, disturbed the nighttime repose of the villagers with our fireworks.

We went to the pub with a few of us staying on till closing time, then we went back to the courtyard at the backpackers and drank beer and talked till the wee small hours. Three of our number then went for a walk to go skinny-dipping in Loch Ness. I decided to get two or three hours of sleep before we headed out later that same morning. We had a thing or two to learn about the famous Loch Ness, and we also had to spend some time at a revered battlefield where the doomed Jacobite rebels under Bonnie Prince Charlie met their awful fate.

(More later...)

Scotland, Part 3

Our next day kicked off with a walk into the hills of Uig, including the ascent of a lofty pillar of rock from which we had great views. Our guide and I tramped a bit further on, then squatted on the crest of a hill and talked while watching the shenanigans of our fellow travellers in the distance. One of the same girls as before slipped down another muddy hill and had to change her trousers. On the road we took in the views of Uig Bay from where the ferry leaves to take you to the Outer Hebrides. This part of the Trotternish region is also well-known for its fishing and the Skye Brewery, home of the Black Cuillin ale.

Heading north, and enjoying our guide's unique driving style (speeding around hairy corners while looking down at his iPod), we arrived at what's left of Duntulm Castle. This strategic location was once home to Vikings and their fortifications before they were chased off by the Celts. Once fought over by the clans, it now seems bleak and uninviting. It's the windiest place I've ever been, with some in the group having trouble walking or even standing up. The castle itself is just ruins, although there is a window, or hole in the wall, where you can look out to sea (I saw a photograph of this window on a number of postcards) -- and also a small dungeon where one of the MacDonalds was imprisoned for a year and a half. This poor man was fed salted beef and tormented with water jugs filled with sand. He went stark raving mad. I went into the dungeon through a small opening in the rocks. It's a very cold, damp, and dark stone room with a little gap in the rock where you can see daylight. MacDonald's fingernail scratches can still be seen around this gap. Another unfortunate incident at the castle involved a nursemaid accidentally dropping the baby of the house out the window to its death on the rocks far below.

Driving around the northernmost point of Skye then onto the eastern side, we stopped to see Kilt Rock, so named because the cliff face resembles a pleated kilt, and its waterfall. The sun was shining, and the view out over the cliff and across the sea was breathtaking.

We had a longer stop, and a hike around, at the famous Old Man of Storr, a huge pinnacle of rock amongst many jagged and rocky hills. From a distance it reminded me of the menhir Obelix carries around on his back.

Having worked up a healthy appetite we drove into the lovely little town of Portree. V. and I went to the pub where I had a Guinness and a hot roast beef lunch. It was sunny so we went for a stroll around the town, and I mailed a postcard to my Dad.

(More later...)

Scotland, Part 2

Our first port of call on Wednesday morning was Glenfinnan at Loch Shiel where Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), the grandson of King James II, attracted 1200 Highlanders to his cause: to take back the British throne. They were known as the Jacobites, and at a later date we learned of their eventual fate during a visit to a sacred battlefield.

Next we took a breathtaking hike up to Steall Falls, Glen Nevis; through forests, up rocks, and across streams, all the while amazed at the waterfalls and the power of the river. Here we learned about the Broonie, a sort of elf or sprite, which isn't very nice to look at (and doesn't like to be seen anyway). The Broonies, legend has it, may do good things for people if they are not mistreated.

On the road again, we stopped for a short time to take in the view at Loch Garry, then it was on to the Isle of Skye. We reached Skye by driving across the controversial bridge that replaced the ferries in the mid-'90s.

In the pouring rain, and surrounded by very rugged mountains, some of us followed our guide's example and dunked our heads in the river at Sligachan, a seemingly crazy act which, if repeated daily, is said to lead to robust health and long life. And here, standing with rivulets of water running down our necks, we learned the tale of two legendary warriors who shook the mountains with their epic battle.

We climbed a very wet and muddy hill to examine the remains of a Broch, a circular fortification from the Iron Age. By this time the inadequacy of some of the women's footwear was becoming painfully obvious. During the descent, they redeemed themselves in my eyes by (involuntarily) sliding back down the hill on their behinds, which amused me no end.

After checking into the hotel at quiet little Edinbane, scrubbed clean and wearing dry clothes, we found we had the pub to ourselves. Our guide and I tried the dark ale, and later on I discovered an appreciation for the local scotch. Not long into the evening two young men came in, one medium-sized with short blond hair and the other large-sized with long black hair. They picked up musical instruments and very quickly became the centre of attention. Blond was the virtuoso, demonstrating his skill throughout the night with several different instruments, starting with the bagpipes and moving onto guitar and piano. Black, who could strum a guitar and sing quite nicely, especially in accompaniment to his friend, had the personality and wit. As far as I know, they were not professionals, merely two local lads who had dropped in, probably more for the company than anything else. An old man came in later on to play with them, and they were much appreciated by our group.

We were also joined for a time by a couple of strangers and their dog. Blond & Black and these two strangers had never met before, but they were soon making music together. The woman was in her thirties with dreadlock-style hair and exceptionally beautiful skin. She came in carrying a saw -- a saw like the one your dad keeps in the shed for cutting up planks of wood. She also had a large rosined bow, of the type you might expect to see a violin player using. She expertly used this saw and bow, bending the saw this way and that, to accompany Blond and Black on all manner of songs and instrumentals. She seemed to be able to attain any note at will. Her boyfriend was a tall and very thin man in his twenties with a bumfluff beard and a camcorder.

We slept in the rooms over the pub.

(More later...)


- Proverb inscribed on the Canongate Wall in Edinburgh

Back from a week in Scotland.

On a Monday night we travelled up from London to Edinburgh on the Caledonia Sleeper train and headed off in a minibus towards Stirling on Tuesday morning. On the bus were 16 backpackers and one fanatically patriotic Scottish guide. I was the only Kiwi. There were nine Aussies, including V., two South Americans, and four girls from the United States. Before long we were all getting on very well indeed.

We took a bracing uphill walk to Abbey Craig in Stirling to admire the Wallace Monument while our guide regaled us with the stirring story of William Wallace. We stood where Wallace had stood and gazed down at the famous battlefield while learning how and why, on this occasion, his followers had been so successful against the heavily-armoured and mounted English.

After a stop at Callander it was on to Balquhidder to stand at the gravesite of the larger-than-life Rob MacGregor (Rob Roy) and learn about his tumultuous life. The gravestone tells us MacGregor died aged 70, but apparently he was around 63.

Lunch was at Killin. At Tyndrum we had a whip-round on the little bus and bought a bottle of Tamdhu single malt scotch. As we passed more-or-less officially into the Highlands, we stopped for some fresh air and to stretch our legs. The bottle was opened and started doing the rounds. V. had the honour of first swig. Once back on the bus the bottle continued to be passed around till the last drop was gone. Might seem a slightly sacrilegious way to drink a good whisky, but, despite the presence of a few philistines, it was enjoyed by all -- and that's what counts.

Now well into the Highlands, we went on a good long hike in the rain through the forest at Glencoe, up to Signal Rock to learn about the massacre of the MacDonalds. We stood on the rock where the fire was lit early in the morning as a signal for government troops to betray their hosts (so the story goes) and start slaughtering the MacDonald clan. It's also said, because of the complicity of the Campbell clan: "Never trust a Campbell."

In the evening we did our shopping for groceries at Fort William and had drinks and dinner at the backpackers hostel. We had a whole section of the hostel to ourselves, complete with kitchen, TV room, and dining room. I shared a dorm with nine women.

(More later...)