Published: May 19th 2008May 18th 2008
A statue of Wallace on the Wallace Memorial in Stirling
Monday May 12 - Tuesday May 13
My last traveling of the year took me back up to Scotland. I really wanted to see the Orkney Isles and found that the easiest and most cost effective way was to go with a tour group. And then I would get to see some of the Highlands as well instead of just from a train window. So I booked with a group called Wild in Scotland and hoped for the best. On Monday, about 16 hours after I had got back from London, I boarded a bus bound for Edinburgh. It was a long bus ride. At 7 am Tuesday morning, my bus pulled into Edinburgh bus station and I began to make my way up towards the Royal Mile and the Wild in Scotland office and at 8:30 our tour bus left Edinburgh for the Highlands. On our way up to our first stop, Stirling, we heard the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. Then in Stirling we climbed up to the William Wallace Memorial that overlooked the town and castle and heard the real story of William Wallace, not the Braveheart version. It was really nice to get the history and
stories that go along with the people and places instead of just reading the information of of a plaque or out of a travel book. It is so much easier to remember when someone tells it to you, and more interesting too. At Stirling we also heard about the battle of Stirling led by Wallace in which the English were defeated partly because the location was ideal for the Scots - the English couldn't get their horses across the narrow bridge very fast and there was really marshy ground on the other side. So after Stirling, we piled back into our minibus and Neil, our tour guide, drove us to see a Highland cow. Neil told as that there are two different kinds of cow, hairy and smooth, and the "cow" is pronounced "coo". This particular Hairy Coo was named Hamish and he had survived infections and diseases and been brought to local classrooms and is now a tourist attraction. His horns were so long! We also got to feed him, and I kind of felt like I was back home at a petting zoo. After Hamish we went and had our own picnic lunch up on a hill above
the grave of Rob Roy McGregor. This hill overlooked one of Scotland's lochs (large body of water either fresh or salt that are all over the Highlands). It was a beautiful place to sit and eat. And the weather was fantastic! Bright and sunny and warm, it was had to believe that I was in Scotland! As we ate we also heard about Robert the Bruce and then we went down to Rob Roy's grave and heard his tale. His grave is facing the opposite direction of every other grave in the churchyard, which is quite strange. Then we were off once again and our next stop led us to a glen (a valley between to bens, mountains or hills). This particular glen was Glencoe. It was here that the MacDonald's were massacred on the orders of William of Orange because they were late in signing a document claiming loyalty to him. The thing about this was that it happened in the dead of winter and those sent to kill the MacDonald Clan were taken in and cared for under the Highland hospitality and then turned around and killed them while they slept. Not pretty. The glen however was beautiful
covered in yellow gorse and heather, though the heather wasn't in bloom yet. Our last stop of the day was Loch Oich where we just relaxed and enjoyed the weather before continuing to our hostel for the night.
Wednesday May 14
On Wednesday we were on our way to Orkney. The drive started off with the singing of our National Anthems to get us in a patriotic mood. It was quite interesting to hear the different anthems. While singing we were driving past the most amazing scenery. Our first stop was Ardvreck Castle, a ruin that was built on a sometime island. Legend says that the castle's builder pledged his daughter's hand in marriage to the Devil for help with the castle. The young girl did not like this idea and jumped off the castle's tower to her death. But since her soul had already been sold, she remained in Limbo and now haunts the castle. After wandering around and climbing the ruins, we crossed the road to a waterfall. In the distance we saw some deer, but they were too far away for a picture. Then it was back into the bus until we came to a John Lennon
Memorial in Durness where Lennon used to take family vacations. He also wrote a song inspired by the area, "In My Life". Then we drove a bit further to Smoo Cave. Colin, a geologist, took us around the cave on a boat. The cave has been formed by both sea and rain water. It was really cool. A single beam of sunlight was shinning in and Collin said that it shines into the cave for about 15 minutes every day. Then we were off to lunch on a beach. Now when I think Scotland I do not think beautiful, white sand beaches with Mediterranean blue waters, but that is exactly where we had lunch. Colin said that the beaches are white because they are made of shell instead of rock. I went and stuck my feet in the water which was surprisingly warm - warmer than the water in Cornwall or Normandy. It was so nice. After relaxing on the beach for a while, we headed on to the ferry with a brief stop in Tongue where I tried some Orkney ice cream - amazing! The ferry ride was quite chilly, but I really enjoyed watching the islands swim out
of the clouds as we went towards them. After the hour plus ride, we arrived at St. Margaret's Hope, where Margaret, the maid of Norway who was to be Queen of Scotland died before ever she was crowned. We made our way to the hostel for dinner and bed.
Thursday May 15
We started off our day in Orkney with a stop by the Churchill Barriers, or one of them anyway. During World War Two, the British kept their navy up in the Orkney's and at one point a German U-boat came in an sunk one of the ships. So the Italian POWs were made to build barriers on the east side of the islands so that there were not as many points of entry. These barriers doubled as roads and were quite useful for transporting goods, and now tourists. Then we went a bit further on to the Italian Chapel, also built by the POWs, but this time they built it for themselves so they would have a place to worship. The chapel was beautiful both inside and out and the painting behind the alter was wonderful. We then began to drive to Kirkwall and on the way saw
the Orkney flag which looks a lot like the Norwegian flag, but instead of white around the blue cross there is yellow. The Orkney's were actually a part of Norway until 1468 when the Isles then became a part of England, so for that reason Orkney is quite different from the rest of Scotland. It is also significantly flatter than the north of Scotland and its gently rolling hills are a beautiful green. There are no trees. Really no trees. A few people have trees in their gardens but I did not see a single tree growing on its own. This made it much easier to take pictures out of the bus window! This also meant it was windy pretty much all the time as there was nothing to break the wind. You should also know that Orkney is connected with the Arthurian legends, not until Malory, but still, the connection is there! Anyway, before we went to Kirkwall, we stopped at Mull Head and saw the Gloup. The Gloup is a collapsed sea cave where now the sea rushes through and crashes against the land, we were told it is pretty cool to see in a storm, but luckily
The old Church by Rob Roy's grave
we had beautiful weather. We were also told the tale of the Fin Man, who is very protective of the sea and does not feel that humans should leave the land - quite a problem when you live on an island! After being told how to distract the Fin Man - he likes shiny things - we continued to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. We were given a few hours to explore the town and I took the opportunity to visit St. Magnus' Cathedral. The outside is built of local stone in bands of red and yellow and the inside is full of stained glass. After spending some time in the cathedral, I looked around the town, tried some Orkney fudge and cheese, and went to the Orkney Museum where I made some crayon rubbings. Our next stop was Skara Brae the oldest village in Britain for sure as it was built around 3100 BC. The village is remarkably well preserved as it wasn't unearthed until 1850 when a huge storm ripped off the grass and ground that was covering the village. Inside the beds and materials, stone of course, of daily use were still preserved. A replica house had
been set up that we could go inside. The doorway was quite low and a family would definitely be cozy inside! What I thought was really cool was the dresser. It was really just shelves with everyday objects on them but it isn't everyday that you see a stone age dresser! The real village was amazing. Passages ran outside the walls and it was so easy to imagine people living there, much easier than just looking at the foundations of structures, I mean these were almost complete, just lacking the roofs! After spending time at Skara Brae, we drove on to the Ring of Brogar, which is a stone circle. Originally it had 60 stones, but only 27 remain today. I thought that the stones looked really great against the lochs and bens of Orkney and had fun taking pictures. And I had found another toy on my camera, wide angle, so this gave me a chance to play with it. Next we stopped at the Stones of Stenness, another much smaller, stone circle. It was really cool because you could see the Ring of Brogar from the Stones of Stenness. One thing that the Stones had that the Ring
The Bens above Glencoe
didn't was an alter. It is thought that perhaps women gave birth in this circle and that perhaps the dead were brought here too, a whole circle of life type thing. Our last stop of the day was a cairn, or tomb. The entry was really small and it was quite dark inside. Off of the main chamber were smaller rooms which could have been used to store important people or skulls. Inside the tomb, Neil told us the story of the Nuckelavee - a half horse, half man type creature with horrible breath whose sole purpose was to plague the islanders. We then returned to the hostel for dinner and then walked out to a beach to watch the sunset.
Friday May 16
Before we left Orkney, we drove down to the Tomb of the Eagles, a tomb roughly as old as Skara Brae. This tomb was much bigger than the one we visited the previous day and it is likely that they practiced excarnation - leaving bodies out for the birds to eat before moving the bones to the tomb. Kind of gross and yet strangely interesting. In the visitor's center we were allowed to touch some of
The tallest mountain in Britain
the actual artifacts including eagle talons that were found in the tomb which is part of how the tomb got its name. It seems that eagle talons were a mark of honor and were put into the tomb with the so-honored person. I also made a crayon rubbing of an eagle. In the tomb itself they still had skulls there that were preserved behind glass. After the Tomb of the Eagles we made our way back to the ferry and mainland Scotland. Our first stop was Whaligoe Steps. There used to be 365 steps leading down to a harbor where the men would bring in their fishing boats and then the women would load baskets with fish, put the baskets - weighing about 2/3 of their own weight - on their backs, climb up the steps and then walk 7 miles to the town of Wick. Crazy! I do not think I would make it very long doing a job like that! After the Steps, our next stop was a Clearance Village. After the Jacobite rebellions, the Highlands started to be cleared of people to make room for sheep, which were more profitable in the eyes of the lords. The
Highlanders were sometimes paid to leave, at other times they were just plain kicked out. They were pushed to the least hospitable places in the land, the cliffs overlooking the sea and for about 50 years scratched out a living. After this, many gave up and moved to Australia, New Zealand, or the Untied States. It is very sad what people do to their fellow human beings. We then continued on stopping next at Carn Liath, a circular structure built between 2000 and 1600 years ago. These structures were built all over the Highlands, but no one is exactly sure what they were used for. Our final stop was a Pict-made well that is supposed to have healing powers. What one is supposed to do is take a piece of cloth, dip it in the water, rub it on the ailing part of the body, and then tie it to a tree. As the cloth disintegrates, so too will the illness fade. The amount of clothing in that small grove was astounding. Not only did people use small strips of cloth but about every garment imaginable. It was pretty crazy. We then continued on to Drumnadrochit right near Loch Ness
where we spent the night. It turns out that one of the guys working there is a good friend of one of the Luther distance runners - small world! After a wonderful dinner of curry - provided by our host - we took a walk down to Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness.
Saturday May 17
Our last day started on the banks of Loch Ness where we heard the story of St. Columba and the monster and then the monster's, Nessie's, more recent history. If there is a monster down there it is well protected for it is against the law to harm the monster in any way, shape, or form. Pretty neat. Our next stop was the battlefield of Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie made his last stand and was sorely defeated. On the field itself are flags placed where the English and Scottish lines would have stood before the battle started. There is also a memorial to the Highlanders and stones commemorating the clans. This was pretty much the last stand of the Highlanders and then they started to get pushed out, which is where the Clearance Villages come in. We continued on to a
whisky distillery where we had some free samples and learned about the whisky making process. Lunch was in Carrbridge where we saw a wedding party all decked out in kilts - that was pretty cool. Our last two stops were forest walks where we saw a Caledonian Pine and heard a tale about how they were destroyed, and on our second walk saw a hunting lodge and waterfall. Then we were off to Edinburgh, where I left the tour bus and exchanged it for an overnight National Express back to Nottingham. It was a really great week and wonderful end to my traveling experiences. Now with only 10 days before heading home, I am quite glad to spend a good amount of time with my flatmates as we are all still in denial that next week we will be boarding a plane for the States. And studying, I will be doing a bit of that too.
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