Getting in touch with Scottish heritage (not ours, obviously)

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May 15th 2009
Published: May 17th 2009
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Getting in touch with Scottish heritage, or, The English are All Bastard-People!

In contrast to yesterday’s stunning sunshiny weather, today was drab, dreary and wet. Rain rolled into the UK with a vengeance.

Jer and I aren’t strangers to rain. We live in Seattle, for crying out loud! We KNOW rain. We know rain like true Northwesterners, so much so that we can discern between a drizzle and a shower, a mist and a sprinkle.

Despite our familiarity on the subject, we learned today that there exists such a thing as Highland Rain. There is normal rain and Scottish Rain. They are related to each other but they are totally different. Scottish Rain is frigid. I remember, years ago, visiting my friend Cyndy in Alabama and marveling over the warm rain that washed over me in sheets and soaked me through. THAT rain was invigorating. Now imagine the total opposite sensation. Rain that soaks through but chills you to your core and makes you so cold you don’t think, short of standing between several bonfires, you will ever be warm again. We were in a rain shower for less than ten minutes. It penetrated through my non-penetrating pink raincoat and absorbed into the denim in my jeans and HELD on.

Did I mention we visited a battlefield this morning? Yep. A friggin’ battlefield! I will say I felt much more sympathy for those poor Scotsmen, imagining them toiling and battling in the frigid weather.

The new visitor’s center at Culloden was impressive and informative. It provides incredible detail about the events leading up to the Battle at Culloden from both sides, although I wonder if anyone really thinks the Jacobites, in the aftermath of their defeat, deserved such a slaughter. Following a brief guided tour of the battlefield, Jer and I walked to all corners of it to see all of its notable points. The rain ceased while we were in the visitor’s center and was kind enough to remain at bay while we were outside. I wish I could say the same for its cousin Wind. Just like I’d heard, the wind in Scotland really does penetrate all layers of clothing. I had a nice hot cup of tea at the cafeteria following our brisk battlefield jaunt.

Our next destination was Castle Urquhart, a ruined castle on Loch Ness. I’ve taken plenty of photographs…the layers of cloud in the sky provided a nice contrast to the broken stone walls and lush greenery. We spent a while soaking in the ruins. The rain did not threaten to soak us until the very end of our time there.

We proceeded from Urquhart Castle to one of the Loch Ness Monster exhibits. We’d originally planned to take in two such sites but found our, um, curiosity satisfied after the perusing of just one. Instead, Jer and I decided we should plot our next adventure, since we no longer had a planned itinerary, loose or otherwise. Like true tourists, we took our cue from a postcard of a pretty castle I’d purchased in one of the souvenir shops. I pointed to it and said, “I want to see this.” We dug out our trusty Lonely Planet and came up with a plan. We’d drive to Glenelg, which was near said castle, Eilean Donan. We plugged our coordinates into our GPS, which we’d by this time nicknamed Dorcas, and were on our merry way. I was so satisfied with this plan that I dozed off.

When I awoke a short bit later, we were in the Highlands. They were as one would expect—high—and gorgeous. We liked our planned course very much for the journey of it. It was getting late and we knew we’d be too late to see the castle. We decided to find a place to stay in Glenelg so we could wake up early in the morning to visit the pretty castle first thing in the morning.

…but then we saw a sign for a ferry.

Ferries! We love ferry boat rides! But where would the ferry take us? A quick perusal of the guide book showed that the boat sailed to the Isle of Skye. Isle of Skye! That sounds awfully lovely, doesn’t it? Why don’t we go there instead? Sure, we may find a B&B or two in Glenelg, but there were bound to be plenty of accommodations on a big fat island, right? I mean, looking at it on a map, it looks positively HUMUNGOUS.

The road climbed us up higher and higher while it shrunk narrower and narrower. Our little econo car didn’t like the slopes but handled well on the winding serpentine tarmac. Occasionally a car would approach and either we or they would have to swerve onto the appendage of asphalt labeled “passing zone” or some such thing that protruded from one side of the road or the other to let the other person squeeze past. Our ears popped as we climbed higher in elevation and further into the middle of nowhere, the overabundance of sheep our only assurance that we hadn’t completely left all vestiges of civilization. I pondered whether we’d fallen off of the map and were driving into nothingness (really, how could a single lane of tarmac be called a road?) while Jer questioned the validity of the sign that promised a ferry crossing (ferries generally don’t cross at the top of a mountain…).

The road didn’t get any wider but it did eventually lead us down the other side of the Big Hill we’d crawled up. A few small, quaint farms came into view on the flat land below and the sheep peppered the country and hillsides like fluffy white fuzzballs on a lush green carpet. Our concern now grew to whether we’d miss the last ferry crossing; the sign had said 6pm and we were now at 5:30. The last few miles had been driven at a twisted crawl. We decided to press on. If we missed the final ferry crossing, we’d simply turn around and wind back around to where we’d begun this errant adventure.

We met some incredibly kind, funny people while we waited for the ferry. Initially, we thought the two women standing around were also waiting to cross. They weren’t. They were locals. The man there was painting the exterior of the outbuilding near a small lighthouse and the women were helpfully pointing out the places he’d missed with his brush. While he made repeated swipes at the noted areas, they all laughed and joked to each other. All three of them were incredibly friendly to us and displayed the Scottish hospitality we’d heard about while researching for our trip.

The ferry was across the water on the other shoreline. Even though Jer and I were there at 5:45, which was fifteen minutes before the final sailing for the day, the women said the crossings may be finished. She said it depended on the mood of the captain. Jer and I conceded that we wouldn’t be too surprised if this happened and that we’d just shown up on a lark anyway. The two ladies then pondered where we could stay if we were turned away. They knew the hotel in Glenelg was full and the operator of one B&B was sick, so that meant we’d have to stay at the other B&B. They seemed confident that Jer and I would have a place to stay, so we didn’t worry about it. While we waited, the number of dogs loitering with their driftwood fetching sticks increased from two to three. Another car pulled up. Jer and I hoped that this would assure us of a crossing, since there were now two cars instead of just one. One of the ladies told us they were locals and explained that one of the ferry operators had just earned his captain’s license and so she and others were amassing for a party at the boat launch. She laughed and said we could always join the party if the ferry crossing didn’t pan out. The newcomers started preparing for celebration by setting out a low table and bringing out flowers.

The prospect of celebrating with locals didn’t seem like such a bad outcome. The ferry by this time was approaching. Another vehicle—a short tour bus—pulled in. Another
Dog on the FerryDog on the FerryDog on the Ferry

He belonged to the captain
shepherding dog showed up. One of the men hollered to the ferry crew if they were taking another pass. They said they were, so we climbed into our little car, waited for the two cars to unload and drove down the concrete boat launch toward the wide rotating metal platform that would eventually shift around to set us right with the tiny boat. The touring bus pulled in behind us, the captained had us pull forward to balance the load better, and we were on our way. The woman who’d spoken most to me looked over and smiled and shouted, “I guess you’re not staying then?” I shouted back that we weren’t and wished them a fun party.

I was able to climb out and walk around a little while we crossed. Jer was parked very close to the railing on his side and would have needed to climb out through my side if he’d wanted out. He was happy remaining in the car.

The fourth dog from the shore was aboard and walking around the edge beyond the railings like an expert. The woman from the shore had explained that this dog was the captains and crossed
Isle of SkyeIsle of SkyeIsle of Skye

Relaxing with a couple of bottles of the local brew.
with him every day, all day long. She also said the other dogs ride the ferries back and forth. It struck me as a pretty good life for a dog. The dog’s master was at the controls at the back side of the ferry, singing aloud a Scottish folk song with such fervor and enthusiasm that it carried across the crash of the waves and the metallic churning hum of the ferry motor. I twisted to see the captain at the helm and noted the look of satisfaction in his eye, and felt content in his contentment.

We proceeded onto the Isle of Skye on a road that was so similar to the one we’d just left that it could have been its sibling. It wound and bounced us around for quite a few miles. We cheered ourselves in knowing we had a full tank of gas and acknowledging that we should not encounter any oncoming traffic because the last ferry had sailed for the night.

Like our impromptu trip to the Isle of Skye, we made our decision on where to stay based on what some would say is a trivial reason: we were running out of ready cash. We’ve found that we like to use currency when we are abroad; it’s easier than hoping that your credit card will work at the shops and restaurants, much less whether they will accept it. Lonely Planet helpfully narrowed our options based on cash machine locations. Only two villages on the Island had them, so we had to choose one or the other. We opted for Portree. The cash was obtained and we proceeded to find a place for the night.

We got lucky at the second place we stopped at. We unloaded our bags, headed to a local restaurant for dinner and sampled the island brew. We devised a plan for the following day (including visiting the castle that led to our adventure) before finally going to bed.


17th May 2009

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