We went to Scotland?! WHA?
Here’s the jist… a member of my close-knit group of girlfriends from college (the five of us call ourselves, “The Birds,” based on other friends joking about us flocking together and chirping away or something) was married in a castle outside of Ayr, Scotland last weekend. Our bird, Lee, a Barrymore-award winning performer/writer/director/teacher, recently moved outside of London with her finance. He spent childhood summers in Scotland visiting his Mother’s side of the family and they decided to marry there. So, three of us birds (plus Paul) managed to make the trip.
Leaving the kids with my parents, Paul and I arrived a few days early to explore the Highlands… hence, our travelogue begins…
Here is our big travel savings tip… when flying to Europe, check out the independent vacation airlines. We found direct flights on flyglobespan to Glasgow from Orlando (worth the drive!) for half of the regular price of flights with 2 or more connections. The downside is more possibility of flight delay, since there are limited planes flying the route (read: one plane flying the route). An unexpected upside were the hilarious “what to expect in America” videos they show on the flight back to the States.
Although our arrival was a few hours late, we manged to get the rental car (Peugot) and start off North before 11am. We had about 4 hours sleep, but were committed to get through the day — for a variety of reasons (limited lodging due to Highland Games) we had 200 miles to cover to get to our pre-booked B&B.
First rest stop: Loch Lomond.
I couldn’t get enough of the street signs in Scotland. First was the fact that everything is incredibly well-marked (at least, once you got outside of the cities). From when we left the airport Monday morning until we returned to the airport to get Christie (another bird) on Thursday morning, we did not take even one wrong turn. The second wonderful thing about the signs were that they were clever in that high-brow speak of the UK, with things that no one in the States would get away with without getting egged.
Light bites, anyone?
Something else about that picture above… the whole driving on the left side of the road thing? Driving around Loch Lomond for the first time on the left was like a Baptism by fire. I can’t say more than that without experiencing post traumatic stress over the certainty of being rubbed against a mountain wall and/or driving through the low stone wall and crashing into a loch. (What I can say is that Paul rocked the driving in about 600 ways.)
Mile for mile, Scotland is by far the most stunning and dramatic scenery of any country I’ve seen. We were shocked how quickly the landscape changed.
From Loch Lomond, we drove through Glen Coe. (The sign in the picture below says you’re looking to the Glen Coe valley.) We went to the park visitor center to pick up information on area hikes (all we could do that day due to the late flight was a few quick walks to overlooks) and see some of the informational displays. In 1692, the valley was the site of a massacre, where families (women and children) were murdered by guests in their homes. The families (the MacDonald clan) were thought to have not pledged allegiance to William II and Mary II, who had recently taken the British Throne. So, William had his officers, guests in MacDonald homes, rise up and murder their hosts.
In general, I felt that the Glencoe Massacre offered a valid representation of how much of Scotland seemed to unfold for us: incredible beauty with complex, interesting stories of history, intrigue and tragedy.
Mountains seem quite close… but a walk into the valley quickly sets you straight. Be careful reading guides in Scotland. The term “short walk” closely resembles what we in the States might call “heavy mountaineering.”
The village of Glencoe is close by — just a mile or two around these munros. (Munro = large peak, distinctively a peak over a certain height that I can’t remember at the moment.)
We didn’t spend a lot of time in the Glencoe Valley because we were already getting tired and had so much more ground to cover to get to Skye. We stopped a lot as we traveled… sometimes at official pull-off areas (the more touristy of which included bagpipe players) and sometimes at areas on the side of the road that didn’t look too deadly.
Driving was more exhausting than we had prepared for — the constant hyper-awareness and adjustment to the positioning was tiring for us both.
When the views were particularly spectacular, we were so shocked that we weren’t able to stop for a photo. The entire drive was so amazing that it seemed impossible to even try and capture it.
The clouds moved rapidly and changed the scenery every few minutes.
We stopped at a Monument build in memory of Commandos that lost their lives in the Second World War, where we could look back over the plain to Ben Nevis (highest Munro in UK), which was mysteriously shrouded in moving, rolling clouds (see picture above). Best part of the stop: seeing an elderly man take tea (complete with china saucer and cup) at a table in the back of his little British mini-van.
About these pictures… few weeks before the trip, I found a used 5D at great condition for half of the price of new. It was a fantastic deal, so I jumped on it — Canon stopped making the original 5Ds when they introduced the (very expensive) second version, so I’m happy to have gotten one while they can be found! The full frame is heavenly and it rarely left my hands… leaving Paul with the rebel and either the 50mm or a telephoto lens we rented to try out for the trip. This is why his pictures are all wonderfully arty, like this one:
It looks dark in these pictures, but really, it was in the prime of the afternoon. In August.
We took the northern route to Skye, avoiding the car ferry. The landscape got more rocky and less lush the further we got.
Around 4:50 — without a moment to spare — we arrived at Eilean Donan. The 10 minutes we had before the last entry into the castle gave us just enough time to get a few photos from further up the Loch.
It’s the most photographed castle in Scotland. It was beautiful and gave an interesting and informative tour… with absolutely no references to Highlander (phew).
The Clan MacCrae are caretakers of the castle. After sitting in ruin for 200 or so years (the result of a mishap with the Spanish in the 1700s) a MacCrae purchased the castle and spent a few years spiffing the place up. His family still uses the property (in fact, a one Mrs. MacCrae had just spent the night in the castle and left the morning of our tour).
Remember the severed heads on stakes decorating this bridge in Highlander? We learned that this came from historical record. Apparently a 14th century disciplinarian thought it good measure to do this to folks he felt were not up to par — so Highlander was simply reflecting history in that gory little detail.
Our tour of the castle was self-guided, though there were several caretakers giving tours and explaining the uses of various rooms. We tried to hang around and listen to a tour… but, with no exaggeration, we were much more able to understand the Spanish conversation of the Argentinian tourists behind us than we could understand the Scottish tour guides. In case you haven’t heard, Scots don’t use consonants in speech. But it’s really no matter. They are so incredibly friendly that they don’t at all seem phased by repeating something 12 times, slowly, and then finally writing on paper “do you want white or black coffee” so that your thick head understands.
Also. We noted that Scottish stairs, while steep and winding, are much less intimidating than Inca stairs.
In the parking area next to Eilean Donan, we saw this van tricked out with Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield comics (in German). Over the following three days, we saw this van in different places at least 8 times.
From Eilean Donan, we sent off for Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye Bridge. Paul’s exhaustion was getting into scary territory and his patience for my pleas for stopping for pictures was limited — so we didn’t get any photos of the beautiful bridge. The drive from Eilean Donan castle to Portree, the largest town on the Isle of Skye, was about 50 miles.
Here’s a little Scottish oddity: speed limit signs, car pedometers, and distance signs are all in MILES. Miles per hour and miles of distance. We discovered this leaving the airport on the expressway as Paul asked, “how can the speed limit be 30 km per hour?!” and then noted that miles per hour were what the dashboard indicated on the car. Who knew?
Driving over to the Isle of Skye was like crossing a rainbow from one lush dreamland into another. The beauty of the Isle hit us quickly. Skye is a lush, misty island filled by sharp mountains, twisting, running streams, and sweeping sea vistas. The magic of the place is infectious.
Paul wasn’t walking down into the valley to water the flowers in relative privacy — he was going to take pictures of them, see?
We checked into our Bed and Breakfast before heading into town for dinner. Because the Highland Games were taking place in Skye that week, lodging was VERY difficult to find — and what was left was quite expensive. But oh! The loveliness of where we stayed in Skye!!
Here is the Bed and Breakfast we found for the first night. The beauty of the outside (this picture is from the following morning) does not do justice the warmth and hospitality of the inside.
We stayed in a huge room on the top floor. It felt like walking into a Scottish home decorating magazine spread. Also? Standard in Scottish B&Bs are complimentary assorted teas, coffees, biscuits, and chocolates in your room. Just in case all of this isn’t enough…!
The bathroom was pretty enough to picture, too.
Even our cute little staircase up to our private top floor retreat was worth documenting.
All of the above, plus a FULL breakfast (cereals, fruits, beautifully set table, juices, coffee, tea, made to order Scottish breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, haddock, bacon… you name it) was a peak-season rate of GBP 55 per person, per night. (1 GBP = 1.64 USD… roughly.)
After the delight of settling in, we took off to town for dinner… where we opted for take away fish and chips.
We ate by the bay with a couple from Australia. But they weren’t the only friends we made as we munched delicious fresh Haddock and perfect potatoes…
(See a few more pictures from the Day here… in a post made from Scotland.)