[England] [Something about Scotland]...  

Late August 2002:

Our friend Jane was coming over for a whirlwind 5 week visit. Scotland was a must for her and we had been itching to get up there too. We had a little over a week to see and enjoy as much as possible. Just over the border into Scotland we stopped at a small town (whose name shall remain nameless) for some lunch. The lower western borderland part of Scotland is unfortunately a little bland in architecture and culture. We all found ourselves humming the "duelling banjos" theme from the movie "Deliverance". Not a very inspiring start to the trip.

Our first overnight was Glasgow. We met up with Jane's Scottish friend Wendy for a great dinner at a tapas bar. No haggis there. The next day was spent being graciously ferried and guided around by Wendy. Jane and I were both very interested in seeing some of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's architecture and that became the theme for the day. Poor Mike was just along for the ride. Whilst Glasgow is quite the grotty cousin to Edinburgh, it still has loads of character. We really enjoyed our day there, in particular a visit to "A House for Art Lovers", a house which was built recently from an old Charles Rennie Mackintosh plan, originally unrealised. A stunning place to visit and had a really great restaurant attached - hey, food for the soul has to be accompanied by food for the stomach as well...

The next day Wendy zipped us down to Edinburgh to do some sightseeing. An hour later and we were parking the car. On the way into the city, we kept an eye out for the central hill with the castle but as it was extremely misty that day we couldn't see anything. When we had walked into the city centre, the mist was still so thick that we could only make out the base of the hill - the castle was invisible. Cobbled streets and gothic architecture give Edinburgh quite a dark appearance but without a doubt Edinburgh is exceptionally beautiful. The city centre is dominated by the hill and its castle. Along the bottom length of one entire side of the hill a large park exists. The park is stunning with lots of lawn and many benches on which to sit and admire the view up to the castle. Most of the attractions and museums are located around the park area and on the road leading up to the Edinburgh Castle.

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Highland cow on web front/splash page appears courtesy of Phil Banks. www.philbanks.co.uk

At the time of our visit, the Edinburgh Tattoo and the yearly comedy festival was taking place. So when we had wound our way through the narrow streets, stopping along the way to watch a bagpiper and to visit some street markets, we found upon entering the square in front of the castle that scaffolding and seating were in place for that night's two performances of the Tattoo. The queue at the ticket counter was quite deep and after querying, we found that seats were booked out for the 7pm performance and that very few remained for the 10pm performance. The tickets were very expensive and I imagine that the profit will keep some people in kilts for awhile to come. I think part of that particular night's appeal was that Her Majesty, the Queen was supposedly visiting the Tattoo that night for the first time in many years.

The next day we headed off to Loch Lomond, a lake popular as a weekend retreat for Glaswegians. There were people everywhere and we found that vacant accommodation was far and few between, due to the fact that it was not only British school holidays but also Scottish school holidays. This proved to be an bad omen for accommodation to come. We would always find somewhere to stay but not without taking several refusals first.

The three of us wanted to try and do some walking whilst up in Scotland and we did this the next day while sightseeing in the Argyll Forest Park region. This is a state forest with planted pines but has many paths marked out with different routes and lengths for walkers and cyclists. We decided to break the bodies in slowly by doing a circular walk to a waterfall which took about an hour all up. The scenery was not much different to that of a pine forest in Oz, the exception probably being that, near the waterfall, where the ground was much damper, under the rows of pine trees, the ground was covered in moss, not grass. It looked like a plush velvet green carpet.

We made our way to Oban, a fishing town the next night. The guide books show it as a very pretty spot but unfortunately it didn't seem that way to us. Perhaps the fact that some diesel and oil had been spilt on the water and was washed up on the shore of the cove dulled our senses. That, and the most greasy fish and chips we had ever tasted.

I had pre-booked a B&B in the nearby small village of Taynuilt and as we were running a little early decided to zip down to Loch Awe to see the famous Kilchurn Castle ruins. It was a little late in the day for a tour so instead we traipsed through some marshy foreshore to get some shots of it from the other side of the Loch. This was to be our first taste of the famous 'midges', a type of sandfly cum mosquito. Thankfully there weren't too many of them and they didn't prove to be as annoying as expected. We were lulled into a false sense of security - we were to be bombarded later in the trip.

At Glencoe the following day we took some time to visit the information centre, a stunning lowset complex with national park information, great little gift shop and an exhibition hall. Here we discussed possible walks to do in the area and decided to undertake the dreaded 'Devil's Staircase'. The drive along the A82 was really breathtaking, even in the misty rain. It's no wonder this stretch of road is considered a highlight of touring the Highlands. Weathered rounded escarpments surround you and waterfalls cascade down the eroded sides. You can clearly see how glaciers carved out the valleys in this area.

The area is very popular for walking and the car park at the foot of the Devil's Staircase was almost full. From the foot of the walk, next to the highway, the hills you are about to climb don't seem all that high. In fact compared to the surrounding mountains, they seem like foothills. I guess in terms of height Devil's Staircase isn't a large or steep walk but what kills is the fact that the slope is constant, there is no let-up and most of the walk is spent climbing natural stone steps and rocky pathways. It's your calves and lungs that eventually do you in. Despite the pain, we all really enjoyed the walk. In fact the walk doesn't actually stop at the stone cairn we eventually reached. The section we walked is actually part of an extensive national path called the West Highland Way. We came across many trekkers, several of whom were walking the entire length. Their fortitude put our small walk into perspective.

That night we were fortunate to stay at a farm B&B, complete with hairy highland cows and calves. I never tired of seeing these animals - they look beautiful and extremely lovable, though we were told that they are quite temperamental.

Isle of Skye was our next area to visit. We had intended to stay there overnight but due to the fact that a conference was being held on the island, it proved extremely difficult to find accommodation so we just spent the day touring the island and dashed back to the mainland that night. We had to pay quite an expensive toll over the controversial Skye bridge and were surprised to find the cost quoted was only one way and that we would have to pay the same again to return. This, we found, was the cause of the islanders unhappiness with the bridge. The bridge is owned by a foreign company and doesn't give the islanders a discount to travel via it.

Despite all the hype and supposed commercialism of the Isle of Skye, I found an island that still seems quite undisturbed, particularly in the northern regions where roads are few and those that exist tend to be single lane. This drove Mike insane at times, with the constant pulling in and out to give way to vehicles, and sometimes sheep! The hilliness of the island lends itself to stunning scenery and the island's tartan colours are highly appropriate. The green and purple of their tartan is reflected in the greenery of the landscape and the large quantity of purple heather found growing everywhere. Little art galleries and craft industry can be found everywhere on the island - great for souvenirs and gift buying. This is where, I think, Jane first seriously started denting her credit card.

Back on the mainland we found a luxury B&B located near Loch Maree to spend the night. This is where the midges finally made their presence felt. As we got out of the car, we were attacked - forget about the big dog barking inside the house, we had more pressing worries. How to get in the house ingesting as few a midges as possible. They seemed to come in thick black clouds. They obviously liked the B&B too, as the house was surrounded in mosquito screens. The couple who owned the B&B worked as a team, she front of house, he as the chef, and man, what a chef. Partway through the meal, they invited us into the kitchen to see their friendly local pine marten, a creature we had hoped to see but were told was very shy and elusive. He was a beautiful animal with a coppery brown coat. They leave the occassional tidbit outside the window for him.

Chris and Joanna, of the Old Mill B&B are fortunate to live a lifestyle most of us would envy. They work heavily through spring, summer and autumn and then shut for the winter months and take off somewhere around the world. It was great chatting to them, they have seen and done so much touring.

We backtracked inland towards Inverness and along the way stopped at a whiskey distillery. Something souses Jane and Michael just felt the need to do. Made sense I guess, whiskey distilleries seemed almost as thick on the ground as what the midges had been the night before. The one we visited was called Glen Ord Distillery. I chose it because it had beautiful gigantic copper distilleries in the photo. Proved to be a good choice as the guided tour was very interesting and the whiskey, as far as whiskey goes, tasted very smooth. We then drove down the length of Loch Ness. Mike and Jane expecting, I'm sure, to see the monster that no one has ever probably really seen - what a sceptic I am!

The last two days was spent driving through the Cairngorms (local area for skiing when snowfall permits) and the Trossachs before exiting Scotland. Both areas while not as dramatic as the Highlands were extremely picturesque. We stopped in the pretty village of Aberfeldy where Jane and I went berserk in an art gallery - Mike, thankfully, was down the road at the time. Fortunately the town was holding an event which helped take Mike's mind off my extravagances. They were holding their local Highland games. We watched cute little boys dressed as sailors and little girls in their highland frocks competing in dancing jigs, large lumbering men in kilts tossing even larger wooden poles and dogs racing each other for a fake rabbit.

As we drove through the Trossachs we stopped to visit the graveside of Roby Roy. We also stopped at the quaint township of Pitlochry where the local dam has a glass viewing chamber through which you can see salmon climbing the fish ladder. The water in the chambers was quite murky and we were fortunate to see one little salmon taking a breather from the current, right next to the viewing glass pane.

In a little over a week we had managed to see an amazing amount of Scotland. I can understand all the hype about it. Great scenery and great food - we all came back a stone heavier I'm sure! Mike and I loved it so much that we plan to take another longer trip. Next time to see the more isolated northern parts, along with one of my favourite animals, otters, something we didn't get to see this trip.

Highlight of the journey: The Glencoe region and the village of Aberfeldy with its Highland games

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