Geo: 57.4767, -4.23145
We are officially in the Highlands now. It wasn't as clear a day as we've been having, but it was still not bad. Very, very cold though. The landscape is gorgeous, ranging from low hills and glens to pleasingly alpine crags. I've mentioned all the sheep and lambs, but Martin says what we see is a pittance compared to how the area would have looked in the 19th century when there were tens of millions of sheep in Scotland. We've seen a few Highland cows (aka hairy coos) too.
We visited Leault Farm, run by shepherd Neil Ross, this morning. I had actually been there before back in 1998 when Didi and I traveled together. I confirmed it by asking Neil if he had a dog named Glen 18 years ago. He did; Glen died around five years ago. Today, Neil had seven or eight dogs working with him, including one poor boy who went blind last October. Of course, he can still smell the sheep and hear the signals, so he still thinks he's part of it all. He tried to start herding a flock, but he ran into a couple of the sheep and they all got tripped
Neil demonstrated how the dogs respond to whistles and commands to herd the sheep, including occasionally a loudly whispered "Lie down!" Pretty incredible. While the main dog is taking direction from Neil, the other dogs are watching intently and sometimes go out to help a bit without taking over the operation. They run like the wind. You'd think the sheep would have gotten used to the process by now, but no. But like Declan from the Ireland tour said, the combined IQ of a flock of sheep is about minus two.
When the dogs finally had the sheep in a tight little circle, Neil used his crook to hook one ram by the horns and pull him out. Then he demonstrated how to hand-shear a sheep using some scary-looking shears. (He only sheared a portion of one leg so the sheep wouldn't get cold.) A few group members tried their hand at it also, with Neil keeping control of the ram. The resultant wool was twisted into a ball and tossed aside, and one of the dogs picked it up and tried to take off. He dropped it instantly after a sharp noise from Neil.
Earlier that morning, a couple of the
ewes had given birth. Neil brought a little white lamb out — only two hours old — as well as a black-faced lamb. So cute! The women all squealed and descended on these little creatures, while the men stood back and rolled their eyes. And then Neil brought out four sheepdog puppies that were only eight days old. I got to hold one of the warm, palm-sized bundles and really didn't want to give him up. So soft! He would fit just fine in my little bag. When Neil collected all the puppies again, he put them all inside his fleece vest to keep them warm. He's lucky he got all four back, quite frankly.
After that, we drove 15 minutes into Aviemore to have lunch. I ate at Mambo's (There's a cafe called Mambo's in the Scottish Highlands!) and then went looking in some of the outdoor gear stores (Aviemore is a ski resort) for a fleece. Lots of stuff was half off, so I got a zip-up fleece for £14. It's a color that doesn't go with any of the clothes I brought with me, but at least I'll be warm(er).
We drove for a little while longer and ended
up in the Cairngorms, where most of the group went with Martin and James on a hike to a loch, and some of us stayed behind on the bus. If we'd known that across the road and hidden by the trees was a visitor's center with a cafe, we would've gone there, but we didn't find that out till over an hour later. While the others were hiking, it rained, hailed and snowed, so those of us on the bus felt pretty smug about not going on the hike. The hikers didn't get back for over 90 minutes, and one of them didn't come back at all. Martin and James finally had to go find him. Dave was fine; he had just gotten distracted by the glory of the outdoors. He's from Kansas, so maybe the hills did him in.
Martin told us that all Rick Steve guides are issued with a .32 caliber pistol. If a tour member gets injured on a hike (twists his ankle or whatever), it would obviously be in the best interest of the group for that person to be gone, so the guide will shoot that person. Martin has a weird sense of humor.
we got underway and rolled into Inverness just before 5:30 p.m. I'm on the third floor in the back of the hotel, and it's the tiniest room I've had thus far. I don't think I can stand far enough back to take a photo of it. The Royal Highland is a railway hotel so the lobby is lovely, with pillars and a grand staircase. The single elevator, however, is slooooow.
We took a walking tour with local guide Cameron (aka The Man in the Kilt), checking out the clock tower, the castle (which is now the criminal court), a nice statue of Flora MacDonald, the oldest house in the city, and a church with a graveyard containing a grave of a victim of the Battle of Culloden (1746). Very cold still, but sunny.
I hit the ATM afterward and went to a grocery store to pick up a sandwich and chips for dinner. Also got my first Kinder Egg of the trip (Hi, Yvonne!) and ended up with a weird little Ninja Turtle.
The pigeons in the courtyard outside my window are very noisy with all their cooing, and there are seagulls circling and screaming too. Go to bed, birds!
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