Monday, 27 August 2012

Scottish Highlands, Islands, Cities

Scotland is one of the few countries in Europe that we had not yet explored so on this trip we decided to explore my ancestral roots of the Campbell clan.  As we found out the history of Scotland is very bloody.  It was not safe to be alive in Scotland 300 years ago because you were either executed, burned at the stake, or killed in battle fighting the British or their Scottish clansmen.  But Scotland has been at peace for over 200 years and our travels begin in the safety of our bus. 

The tour group was represented by 4 countries.  Our group of 10 Canadians were outnumbered by an equal number of people from the US and Australia and a small contingent from New Zealand.  Our tour director was Kate who lives in Scotland so her knowledge of the history of the country would make the trip much more memorable.  But enough about the group…it’s time to explore Scotland.

Although this was summer you wouldn’t know it by the cool, wet weather.  It put a bit of a damper on the trip with temps between 14-17 degrees Celsius.  Interesting to know that because of Scotland’s latitude/longitude position, the sun did not set until almost 11pm and rose by 5 am.  There was plenty of daylight but I can imagine how dark it must be in the winter.

After our arrival dinner in Edinburgh at the Granary, we spent the next 2 days touring the city and the surrounding lowland area.  Edinburgh is a rugged and beautiful city.  They are currently building a new tram system, 40 years after tearing up the original system that had been in place for over 50 years.  Our guide for our visit to the 11th century Edinburgh castle, which is built high up on a huge rock with beautiful views of the city, was Keith who wore a Scottish kilt.  He was very entertaining.

After a stroll along the Royal Mile for some shopping and lunch we drove to Rosslyn Chapel which was built in 1047.  It is more recently famous for a scene that was filmed here for the Hollywood movie “Da Vinci Code” in 1997.  In the evening we went to Prestonfield house for a traditional Scottish show and of course the piping in and toast to the haggis (which we were forced to eat by the way.)

On day 2 we headed south into the borders region where we visited two 12th century Abbey’s at Jedburg and Melrose.  Melrose Abbey is where Robert the Bruce’s heart is supposedly buried.  We drove along the scenic Scottish coastline and lunched at the picturesque resort town of North Berwick which is popular for it's beaches and golf courses.


In the afternoon we visited the Royal Yatch Britannia which was the official yatch of Queen Elizabeth from 1953 until it was decommissioned in 1997 and put on display in Edinburgh.

The next day was a highlight for me.  We visited the home of golf at St Andrews. Golf was invented here in the 14th century by the Scots.  In case you don’t know golf stands for Gentleman Only Ladies Forbidden.  As an avid golfer this is the spot that I have been waiting to see for a long time. 

Although I wasn’t able to play, as tee-off times are pre-booked many months in advance, it was great to at least take a picture of the famous course.  St. Andrews is a beautiful spot on the ocean and the beach is where they filmed the running scene for the Hollywood movie “Chariots of Fire”.  The ruins of St. Andrews cathedral built in the 12th century is an enormus site to behold.

Later in the day we visited Glamis Castle which was the childhood home of the late Queen Mother.  We also visited an old stone from the Pictish Scottish culture.  Pictish stones are monumental stelae from the 8th century which are the most visible remaining evidence of the Picts during the period in which they became Christianized. About 350 objects classified as Pictish stones have survived, the earlier examples of which hold the greatest number of surviving examples of the mysterious Pictish symbols.  We then stopped for the night at the Thistle hotel in Aberdeen.  At our hotel in Aberdeen we had a highlight dinner of haggis (again).  We have now eaten enough of haggis for a lifetime.

On day 5 we headed into the Scottish Highlands for wonderful views of the landscape along the valley of the River Dee, past Ballater and Royal Deeside, through the rugged Cairngorm Mountains to Speyside.  This area is renowned for producing some of the best malt whiskies in the world.  We ended up getting a couple of whisky bottles from Ballater and Balmornal and it was yummy.  In Ballater we visited Queen Victoria’s train carriage which is on display there followed by a visit to Balmoral castle which is the current summer home of Queen Elizabeth.  Typically the castle is off limits to visitors as the Queen usually stays there during the summer but this year she was busy opening the Olympic Games in London in July so we were able to have a quick visit as they prepared for the queen’s visit in August.  Our final stop of the day was at Neil’s sheep farm.  His family put on a display of how their trained dogs rounded up the sheep through Neil’s personalized whistles for each dog and a demonstration of sheep sheering.

The following day we visited the site of the infamous Battle of Culloden, where Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army was defeated by the British in 1746.  It was the last battle on UK soil to free Scotland.  The battle lasted 1 hour.

We had a coffee stop at Loch Ness which is famous for the tales of the Loch Ness monster.  We did some Nessie spotting but the only one we saw was the one posing for us beside the gift shop.
Our lunch stop was at the beautiful Dunrobin castle, which resembles a French ch√Ęteau with its towering conical spires.  The beautiful gardens were inspired by the Palace of Versailles.  There was also a falcon show and got some good pictures of birds in flight as shown below.

Before we stopped at our hotel in Thurso (in northern Scotland) we visited the Grey Cairns burial site which is over 3,000 years old.  You could enter the burial chambers (no bodies are there) but it was only 2 feet high and too claustrophobic for me.
Day 8 turned out to be an excellent day as we took a ferry ride from John O’Groats on the mainland to South Ronaldsay on the Orkney Islands which is on the same longitude as Greenland.  The Orkney’s are made up of 76 islands with no trees and although the weather is typically cold (10-12 degrees) in the summer it was clear and dry to visit some amazing sites.  The winds were unusually calm for the 1 hr ferry ride which gave us breathtaking views of the fertile land and the unique houses on the islands.

The Orkney’s were initially inhabited by the Vikings and our first stop was the historic Neolithic stones called the Ring of Brodgar which is a UNESCO world heritage site.  These stones are similar to Stonehenge but smaller and older (some 5,000 yrs old).  Historians are still trying to figure out their meaning as any markings have long disappeared.

We then visited the Neolithic village of Scara Brae which is the oldest known village in Europe where you can still see the houses with their original stone furniture dating back over 4,000 yrs.  I was really interested in this.

Before taking the ferry back to the mainland we visited the 12th century cathedral of St. Magnus, which is extremely well preserved, and a beautiful Italian Chapel that was built by Italian prisoners during World War 2.

The next day we packed an overnight bag because the Tongadale hotel in Poitree that we stayed at was not big enough to accommodate large suitcases for 45 people.  We then headed into the Isle of Skye which to me is one of the most beautiful part of Scotland with its many lochs and beautiful mountains.  The following is just a small sample of the beautiful scenery in this region.


On day 10 we visited an outdoor museum depicting typical life in the Trotternish region of the Isle of Syke over 200 years ago.  It was really well done and worth a visit.

Our next stop was the medieval castle of Eilean Donan (meaning Island of Donnan) originally built in the 13th century.  It is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. The reason for that is simple - it looks stunning at almost any time of the year. The castle is on an island in the middle of the point where 3 lochs meet.  It is surrounded by mountains lurching in the background.  The castle is well worth a visit if you like history and ancient castles or just as a beautiful place to wander around for a couple of hours.  It has also been featured in many films including the 1999 James Bond film "The World is Not Enough", and in the original 1984 "Highlander" film.  I have been waiting to see this castle in person for many years after a friend visited here and framed this beautiful castle on her livingroom wall. 

We concluded the day with a gondola ride to the top of Ben Nevis, which is the highest mountain in Scotland, before settling in for the night at an old Victorian house that has been turned into a hotel at Ballachulish.  We had the most beautiful room in the entire hotel, which must have been the honeymoon suite, because the entire tour group was talking about it.

The next day was a bit of a wash out because of heavy rains all day.  This was unfortunate because it was difficult to see the beautiful landscape on the Isle of Mull.  We took a ferry ride from Oban across the mouth of Loch Linnhe to Craignure on the Isle of Mull which is the fourth largest Scottish island.  We drove to Fionnphort before taking another short ferry crossing to the island of Iona. On Iona we visited the Abbey where all of the Scottish Kings are buried.
On day 12 the sun decided to make an all day appearance.  This was the nicest and busiest day of the trip as we traveled through stunningly beautiful Glen Coe.  This is the area that my ancestors, the Campbell’s, massacred the MacDonalds in one of the most infamous events in Scottish history in 1692.  Gee they never forget anything.

One of the most bizarre events of the trip occurred when we noticed a deer running far away in the distance towards us.  As it got closer to us, the bus driver pointed out that he thought it was going to run right into the bus.  Unfortunately for us we were at the back of the bus so we could see the deer leap right in front of the bus like a kamikaze pilot.  Fortunately he missed hitting us and continued on his way at full speed.  How I would have loved to have been at the front to get what would have been a spectacular picture….but it happened so fast.
Our next stop was a cruise on Loch Lomond from Inveruglas to the Tarbet Hotel. Along the route we sailed past the Inversnaid Hotel where the poet Henry Wadsworth and Queen Victoria once stayed.  It is said that the waterfall beside the hotel inspired Wadsworth to write one of his poems.

We continued down the road and stopped at the Ledard farm run by Fergus and his son Gregor.  This was an interesting lunch stop where we dined on lamb and wine while listening to an energetic performance of music sung by Fergus and Gregor.  The farm was written about in the book Rob Roy.

Before we ended this very busy day we did a tour of the Glengoyne whiskey distillery before stopping at the Jury’s Inn in Glasgow.  We were somewhat worn out by all the travel of the day so instead of joining the tour group for a drive out of town for dinner, we decided to make reservations at the Two Fat Ladies restaurant on our own.  The Two Fat Ladies was a BBC television cooking program in the late 1990’s starring Clarissa Wright and Jennifer Paterson and later ran on the Food Network in the US.  The restaurant and the meal were fabulous and I highly recommend it. 
For our final full day in Scotland we traveled south of Glasgow to Alloway to visit the birthplace and monument to the famous Scottish poet Robbie Burns.

Before heading back to Glasgow for a tour of the city we stopped at one of Scotland’s most beloved Castles called Culzean Castle.  It was in a beautiful setting on the Ayrshire coast surrounded by beautiful gardens, shops and restaurants.

While the rest of the tour group went shopping, our bus driver drove me to the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum for a personal visit of the exhibit of life which was much better for me than shopping.

Our farewell dinner with the group concluded another successful trip abroad.  While the weather was not the greatest it did not stop us from exploring this beautiful and historic country of my ancestors.  And now it is time to plan our next adventure.