Thursday, 9 September 2010

Scotland! 9/8/2010

"The Scottish spend all their time in wars, and when there is no war, 

  they fight one another".
                          ~Description of the Scots written about 1500~

Scotland lies to the north of England and takes up 1/3 of the entire area of the United Kingdom.  The population is around 5 million.  Amazing considering how much land that covers.  Like I said, it is 1/3 the size of the UK, but England's population is 62 million!  

Scotland is broken down to three areas.  The Highlands and the Islands lie to the north.  (There are 787 major islands that are off the northern and north western coast of Scotland.)  The Highlands area is less populated and generally mountainous with high elevations.  There are also many rivers and freshwater bodies of water including Loch Ness. We REALLY wanted to get up to see Loch Ness, but it was another hour and half north and we just ran out of time.

Next lies central Scotland.  This is a low lying valley area that separates the mountains of the Highlands and the hills of the lowlands.  The area is covered with very fertile fields for farming and pine forests. This is the most populated area of Scotland.  In fact the only large city in the whole of Scotland that is not located in the central area is Aberdeen in the northeast area of the Highlands.  Even though the area is a low lying area, the hills in the distance are rarely from view.

Then come the lowlands.  They comprise of grass covered hills, broad valleys, with lochs and rivers scattered all around.  I can't begin to describe the beauty of all three of these areas.  We purposely planned our visit to include a lot of car travel as we wanted to see as much of the country as possible.  We were not disappointed!

Friday was a gorgeous sunny day (you learn to appreciate these). After six hours on the road our first stop was a little town called Guildtown, up in the Highlands.  That is where Neil, Joe's vendor who invited us up to Scotland for the games, lives.  We stopped at his house for lunch on the way to our hotel. We had a lovely lunch of smoked salmon, shrimp, salad and bread.  They were packing to head up to an old house in the village that the games are held.  This was about an hour from Guildtown.  Their extended family has rented the house for 25 years for the weekend of the games.  So we headed to our hotel with plans to meet them at the games the next day.

Our hotel was a large stone house that was formerly an old Victorian shooting lodge.  I don't know exactly how old it was.  Perfectly comfortable, friendly people as we seem to have lucked out to find everywhere.  When we were greeted by a woman, I was shocked that she sounded just like Susan Boyle.  I should have asked her to sing! They had cabins on the water and even a bunkhouse for single travelers.  Nice set up.  I was surprised to see how many hikers and bikers (bicycles) were around. But I guess I shouldn't have been.  The area is just beautiful for that kind of thing.  Although Scotland really gets the rain, much worse than England.
                        I forgot to take a picture of our first hotel so had to take it from a brochure.

Saturday morning we were headed to the games!  Neil had drawn us a map to take the scenic route.  It was so beautiful.  Two lane roads that meandered through the mountains filled with heather (wild purple flower) moorland, grazing sheep (sometimes in the road), with the occasional castle or manor house seen off in the distance.  Every once in a while you'd see a little stone house tucked in the hills.  But tons of sheep all over the country, whether it be dots on the hills in the distance or a huge field of them.  Many times they were not fenced in. We couldn't figure out who owned them and how in the heck they could keep track of them all, especially when they basically roamed free.

                                                            FIELDS OF HEATHER

By the time we got to Strathdon, where the games were being held it was raining!  We were told that it is the first time it has rained for these particular games in over 20 years!  It rains a lot up there, so they've been pretty lucky for 20 years.  We were disappointed in the rain.  We had gotten there early so we just sat in the car.  Finally it stopped raining, just as we heard the pipers parading up the street to the fields. With my camera in one hand and my Flip Video camera in the other I ran up to photograph the parade.

We really didn't know what to expect at the games.  We had heard about all the events and of course knew it was a Scottish tradition.  It's hard to say exactly when it started.  There are reports that going all the way back to the 11th century, when King Malcolm III of Scotland summoned contestants to a foot race at the summit of Craig Choinnich (overlooking Braemar).  The King created this footrace in order to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger.  Some say that was the start of the games.  There is proof that early Celts viewed such events as "war games" including real weapons and armor where the strongest and bravest soldiers would win the games.  But the modern Highland Games with set annual dates began in the 1800's.  They are called clan (a group of family members) gatherings where each clan challenges the others in friendly rivalry.

Just a note about clans.  The plaid designs of each kilt is called the tartan.  (I called it a plaid design and Neil about had a coronary).  Each clan has their own special designed tartan, going back centuries.  There are a total of about 200 registered tartans.  Yes!  They are REAL and registered.  So you wear the tartan of your clan or family.  Along that line, I was amazed at how few last names we would run into there.  I don't know if the Scots have stayed together over the years and not moved around or what but you hear the same surnames over and over again.  Neil's last name is Stewart, his tartan goes way back to the early days of his ancestors.  Of course there are more than one family of Stewarts, hence many Stewart tartans.  These are some common surnames: MacGregor, MacDonald, Gordon, Burns, Macleod, Bruce, Kennedy, Campbell, to name a few.  We also found the first names very interesting.  Neil's wife's name was Eufin, his daughter's names were Keira and Morvan.  Eufin's sister and mother's name was Elsbeth and another sister's name was Pia.

                                           KILTS, KILTS AND MORE KILTS!


                                               OH MY GOSH I LOVED THIS SIGN!

Back to the games.  When we got there we saw that the field was a big round coral, about the size of a football field, if it were squared down.  The stands were surrounding the whole circle.  There were all kinds of tents set up of people selling stuff on the outer sides of the stands.  Besides food tents there were Scottish kilts, blankets, hats (I bought one!), just lots and lots of souvenir stuff.  Shortly after we got to our seats, Neil's family arrived.  This included his wife's family (sisters, husbands, kids, mother) and several friends.  Knowing the drill after all these years they arrived with blankets, umbrellas, bags of food, alcohol (most importantly to Neil, his whiskey) etc.  They were a great bunch and we had such a good time with them.  It rained off and on all day but we just kept our umbrellas handy and basically it didn't take much away from the festivities.  The Scottish just adapt.

                                                    SCENES FROM THE GAMES

                                          THAT'S OUR HOST NEIL IN THE MIDDLE

As far as the games themselves, I have to say Joe and I were a little disappointed.  They had all the games that we've heard about plus dancing and bag pipes and pillow fighting (two people straddling a log that turns, trying to  knock each other off with pillows).  The hard part was that several games were going on at once so that you couldn't see everything. The stands were quite a way back from the field so you really couldn't get close (for pictures etc.)  I had envisioned being able to be right on top of each game to see the sweaty grimacing faces of the participants!  So it wasn't very good for pictures.  But you could see that the crowds loved it.  They were there with their groups cheering on their clans and socializing with all their friends, we just didn't really have a "horse in the race", to coin a phrase.  Joe spent plenty of time in the beer tent and we were "encouraged" to try some of the whiskey they are all so proud of.  (YUCK)!  We got up close and personal with many many kilts (see pictures).  They are a proud people, proud of their legacies, proud of their history and their country and proud to wear their kilts!  Joe and I liked them immensely.

After the games we went up to see the OLD house that Neil and all his relatives had rented for the weekend.  It was a little tiny cottage (I still don't know how they slept all those people) with no electricity and no hot water.  The little living room had a big fireplace with the old black kettle hanging above it for heating water.  On the opposite side of the room from the fireplace there was what looked like a closet.  When you opened it, it had a bed in it!  Back in the day I suppose the family slept in the bed where the fire was.  There was an upstairs with several twin beds around and a couple of rooms in the back of the house and another fireplace back there too.  But let me tell you that house would have been COLD in the winter.  It sat on top of a hill too!  I thought we were going to get stuck going up that steep drive in Joe's car.  They all loved it and felt like they owned a little piece of it after going there all these years.  We stayed a couple of hours and had a real good time with them.  They were such good people.  But I have to say that I'd like a wee bit more modern comforts than that!

                                                                THE RENTED HOUSE


We REALLY didn't want to leave the fun company and roaring fire but hated to drive back to our hotel after dark with sheep in the road and deer crossings everywhere on unfamiliar roads.  (No street lights out in the middle of nowhere!)  They were in the process of making their dinner of potato jackets with tuna fish salad on top.  Weird combination but it actually sounded kind of good to me.  They tried to get us to stay but we declined.  By the way, I thought the English accent was hard to understand!  The Scottish one is harder.  Their long a sound is a long i, so the word take sounds like tike, the word home sounds like him.  I really had to concentrate and sometimes ask on some of their words.  Joe and I bought a Scottish CD of songs and listened to it a lot.  The song we both new, Loch Lomond's words are "You tike the high road and I'll tike the low road, and I'll get to Scotland afore ye".  Love it!  My sister used to sing me that song, don't know how she knew it, but I forgot all about it until we bought the CD.  Coincidentally, we bought it in a town on the Loch Lomond!  (More on that later.)

The next morning we got up and ate our "full English breakfast", which is offered in all the B&B's and hotels.  This consists of 2 eggs, fried tomatoes, bacon, sausage, fried potato patty (tastes more like bread), black pudding (made from cooking pig or cattle blood mixed with fillers such as meat, bread, onion, oatmeal, etc. until thick enough to congeal), button mushrooms, toast and baked beans. This is the ONLY breakfast that the hotels serve (besides having yogurt, fruit and cereal available).  So you either have the whole English breakfast or just a part of it.  Joe has braved the black pudding when out of town with the guys (they get him to try stuff so easily).  I haven't (and probably won't).

On our way to our next hotel, Neil had advised us we should stop in a little village called Pitlochry which was on our way.  This is the home of the smallest distillery in Scotland.  The distillery is called Edradour and has been functioning since 1825.  Of course the Highland folk had been making whiskey for thousands of years before that probably starting in the middle east.  But wherever and however distilling started, the Scots and whiskey are inextricably linked.

"The Scots believe that it was only when distillation came to Scotland that it was perfected.  Some believe that Scotland was created for distillation with its climate and geology providing the perfect conditions for maturing whiskey.  Others believe that it was God himself who gave the Scots whiskey and only when realizing that he had been too generous in the number of beautiful things he had bestowed upon the country, gave them the English as neighbors to balance the books."

The distillery sits tucked in a mountainside with old buildings, refurbished and freshly and neatly painted and a babbling stream running through the property.  This clean mountain water source is very important for the distillery.  It is strong enough to drive several water wheels.  The whole place is neat as a pin and runs like a well oiled machine.  Their motto is quality, not quantity and they only make 12 casks a week.  The whiskey is completely hand made, we were able to tour the whole place and see these processes.  We were also given a wee dram of their 10 year product.  The Edradour whiskey has just five ingredients:
     A good quality cask

There of course is a strict process to making the whiskey that includes grinding the barley, adding water of different temperatures several times.  After all the barley and water processes are finished the leftover grist (barley once the liquid is sieved off) is picked by a local farmer daily and fed to his prize winning cows!  People there say they can't remember a time when the farmer didn't come.  Then yeast is added and the whole lot fermented.  Then it is heated and cooled and heated again.  It takes just a few days for these processes but then it takes 10 years of waiting for it to mature.

One fact we learned that was interesting was how prohibition in the United States affected the whiskey making business.  In an attempt to make a more sober Christian country, the irony is that the Americans were actually responsible for the great expansion of organized crime in the United States.

At the time of prohibition the owner of Edradour happened to be of a character that didn't shy away from a little illegal business.  He realized that there were many Americans who would not stop drinking alcohol and managed to sell his whiskey to them anyway.  This is well known in the historical records of Edradour.  The fact that the coast guard and police in America were as eager as the next person for a drink and so bribes were fairly easy to to come by.  A young man named Frank Costello (yes, THE Frank Costello, mob guy) visited the tiny island of St. Pierre just off the coast of Newfoundland and made a deal with the mayor there.  Within days a warehouse was built, the pier strengthened and shipments of whiskey were arriving from Scotland.  So although it may be a negative association, Edradour was linked to the mafia for many years after that.

The distillery is still going strong and hosts 100,000 visitors a year.

From there we headed to Callander, our stop for the next two nights.  Callander is in The Trossachs area of Scotland.  The Trossachs are a beautiful range of hills straddling the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands.  There are MANY lochs and rivers in this area.  The drive was just gorgeous the whole way.  From the tall mountains on one side to the rolling fields of farmland on the other.  Much of the farmland was separated by short stone walls throughout the fields.  There were what seemed miles of them throughout the country, even going straight up the hills and across the tops.  They were so pretty and from a distance made it look like the countryside was a patchwork quilt.  I was curious about these stone walls so did some research on them.  They are called dry-stone dykes.  Many thousands miles of them exist throughout all of the UK, (we just happened to see so many in Scotland that I was intrigued).  [I'm sorry, but yes, that means I'm going off on another tangent!]

There are some stone walls that go back to medieval times, but for the most part the walls emerged from the 17th and 18th century Enclosure Act. Up until this time there were few rules and regulations put to land owners.  Many land owners had laborers and servants who were given a small tract of land to work or graze a few animals.  There were also common  pastures that squatters were able to use freely.  Once the Enclosure Act was passed, the Lord of the Manor and his friends (who usually owned 3/4 of the land) just had to prove to Parliament that they were the land owners and the land was decreed theirs.  The tenant farmers then rented land from the land owners.  The tenant farmers did OK because once the land was divided and fenced off, the new fields were more efficient so they actually made more money.  The laborers also did well as now they had plenty of work building the stone walls to fence all the dividing areas.  The people it hurt the most were the small landholders who could not prove that they owned the land and also the squatters who had no common land to use now.  But once the laws were passed the demarcation of the land began.  Most of the boundaries were made from stone. There was tons of stone right there in the mountains so the farmers didn't have to buy materials or haul them.  And here they are over two hundred years later still standing and still separating the fields and looking extraordinary.

Once in a while we'd see piles of stones that looked like a rock tepee.  These stone constructions didn't seem to have any obvious purpose.  I tried looking up what they could be but the best explanation I could come of with was they were used possibly to mark a particular mountain or a boundary of some kind.


Throughout our time in Scotland Joe would gaze wonderingly at the hills in the distance and say "they are calling me to climb them".  He never gave up on the idea and swears we are going back to do it one day.

We made it to Callander and after checking into our B&B we headed out to find the Rob Roy visitors center.  We were lucky to get in right before they closed and found a very helpful lad who gave us ideas of places to go in the area along with maps and information booklets.  So back to our place to plan our day.  In a B&B the rooms are usually small (like a regular bedroom) so don't have comfortable easy chairs.  So we planted ourselves in the living room of the house for the evening (Joe with his novel and me with all the maps and tourist info).

                                            OUR BED & BREAKFAST IN CALLANDER

Later in the evening a family of Americans came in.  A husband and wife and three small children.  We didn't try to talk to them.  They were in the entryway of the house being greeted by the woman owner and showed to their rooms.  But it was nice to hear the familiar accents from home.

When we came down to breakfast the next morning the happy family was already sitting down eating.  I sat down at the table next to them hoping to meet them and chat.  We ended up REALLY liking them and had two mornings of great fun while we ate our breakfasts.  They were from Charlestown, SC but living in Germany for three years.  Their time is up this May. They had three little kids, Becca 7, Seth 5 and Liam 3.  Becca was sitting closest to us and we so enjoyed her.  She is smart as a whip, already learning to speak German.  Her mother home schooled her last year (mainly to teach her some German) but this year she will go into the German schools where she will be surrounded by only the German language.  She said she is starting a year behind what she really should because of the language issue.  But she said, "I'll be able to fly through this year lickety-split!"

Becca got the idea in her head that she wanted us to come visit them at their house in Germany and she never let up the whole two mornings that we spent eating with them.  She started by just plain inviting us saying, "Ya'll can come to our house and we'll show you around Germany".  Joe responded with, "the best part of that statement is hearing you say 'ya'll'.  It was refreshing to hear the little voice with the southern drawl.   Then she would get more desperate.  The adults would be talking about something, for instance, Joe was telling them how he loved the mountains and wanted to climb them.  She would jump in and say, "If you want mountains, come to our house"!  It was really cute.  She was such a little organizer that she got a pen and paper and wanted our email address and phone number.  We were talking about books for kids etc. and somehow Horton Hatches the Egg came up (one of my favorites).  They had never read that so I entertained them with my version of the story.  The kids were all sitting quietly listening intently.  They were such a nice family.

Are you wondering what brought them to Scotland?  For one, they were just trying to see more things while they are in Europe.  But mostly it was because their last name is MacGregor and they are descendent's from THE Rob Roy MacGregor!  In fact Scott's father, grandfather and brother are named Rob Roy MacGregor!  We told them that we had no ties with him, but because of seeing the movie and all the hype, we were going to head up to his grave also.  Of course Becca immediately wanted to make it a group activity, but her parents calmly told her to let the adults handle it.

That day, Monday was our last full day in Scotland.  We decided to take a drive heading north a few miles to the grave of Rob Roy and circling around the whole Trossachs area driving along the length of Lock Loman.  The whole area is part of the Trossachs National Park also.  It is such a beautiful area.

Standing at the grave of Robert MacGregor (1671-1734) was such an unreal feeling .  There next to him lie his wife and two of his sons.  Really hard to fathom that you were standing on such history!

I guess I should give you a little background on Rob Roy.  The following paragraph is a cumulation of several different sources.

"Robert MacGregor, known as Rob Roy, grew up as a herdsman near Loch Arklet.  He was also the leader of his clan.  After a series of harsh winters, and worried about the clan's livelihood, he borrowed a large sum of money to enhance his cattle herd.  After his chief herdsman disappeared with the money, Rob Roy lost all his money and cattle and defaulted on the loan. He was declared an outlaw by the Duke of Montrose who burned his house to the ground.  After this, Rob Roy's Jacobite sympathies became inflamed by his desire to avenge the crime.  Plundering the duke's lands and repeatedly escaping from prison earned him a reputation similar to Robin Hood.  He was pardoned in 1725 and spent his last years freely in Balquhidder, where he is buried.

                                     THE OLD CHURCH WHERE THE GRAVES ARE

We headed from there onward around Loch Loman down to the little village of Luss.  I had read that this village was a particular pretty one and I was not disappointed.  It had a beach on the water and the whole village was made up of tiny little cottages in a row on several streets.  The cottages were built about 150 years ago by the laird (who before that was the chief of the clan) to house the workers in the nearby mills and slate quarries.  It was clean and neat and amazingly a very touristy area.  People milled through the village right by all the cottages looking at the pretty gardens etc.  It's a wonder that the people who live there don't get tired of people taking pictures and walking right by their front doors all the time!  We ate a a wonderful little cafe that had the best home made food!

                                        BEAUTIFUL SIGHTS ON THE WAY TO LUSS

                                                         THE VILLAGE OF LUSS


                                        PICTURE TAKEN FROM THE DOCK AT LUSS

I found out something about my husband during this trip.  He hates to shop and never goes unless he absolutely HAS to (like Christmas).  BUT, he is a different person when we are traveling.  He loves shopping in touristy areas.  We used to do it all the time in Mexico but I thought it was just because the stuff was dirt cheap!  We passed all kinds of Wool shops as we went by different villages and towns.  We went into a lot of them.  They sell their hand made wool items like blankets, sweaters, scarves etc.  I don't know if its the souvenir type places that Joe likes or what, but I can tell you that I was happy!

As we continued on our way back to Callander we made one more stop.  We had read about an old priory  that sits on an island in Lake Monteith, which was barely off the beaten path home.  It is called Inchmahome Priory and is an old Augustinian monastery dating from 1238.  It once housed Mary Queen of Scots as she was hiding from the armies of King Henry VIII, before fleeing to France.  It is the only thing on the whole island and we had to be taken there by a little motor boat.  Amazingly a lot of the stone structure is still there as you will see in the pictures.  Of course there were descriptions of what you were seeing, so that you could figure out what each room was, back in ye old days!   There was also a trail around the coast of the island that we were able to walk.  A beautiful peaceful setting, perfect for ending our day.


                               PICTURES FROM OUR WALK AROUND THE ISLAND

After returning to our home away from home we went out for dinner and then ended up at the Visitor's center again for a concert put on by a small group of Scots.  There was an older man who told stories, sang and played guitar, a woman singer (with a wonderful voice), an accordion player and a fiddler.  It was a nice ending for our stay in Scotland.

The next morning after our breakfast with 'the fam' again, we were on our way home.  It was a long ride back, but we listened to our Scottish CD and dreamed about the next time we get to go to Scotland.


  1. I loved this post! Especially the little boys in the kilts- TOO CUTE!

  2. Wow! I can tell you spent alot of time on your latest blog - great job!! I expect you to be a top notch tour guide for us next month! Great pics, too. Sounds like a good time was had by all.

  3. Looks like you had a wonderful trip! I spent several years living in Scotland and it really is lovely. The pile of stones you saw is known as a cairn, and can mark many things, including roads/trails, the top of a peak, even an ancient burial site. Wikipedia's got some good info here:

  4. You sure are getting into the UK life! You said "wee" and "lad" a few times in your blog...I just can't get used to hearing that kind of thing from you. Weird :) Glad you had a fun trip, it looks beautiful! Good post!

  5. I'd been watching for this blog. Sounds like a great trip. Arnold would have also been of the feeling the mountains were calling him to climb them.

  6. Absolutely loved this post; so informative and accompanied by lots of pics! I originally came to your blog via PostSecret but have stayed to 'live the adventure' with you. Thank you for sharing with such detail and history and descriptions of the lodgings and breakfast, and fellow travelers.

  7. Hi Kathy-
    Great post about Scotland. It is on our short list of overseas destinations. Also, we have been to Ireland,where I know you really want to go. We flew into Dublin and did the southern coast, through Kilkenny, Kinsale, the Dingle, the ring of Kerry, up to Galway, and back to Dun Loaire. It took us about 8 days, but you could shorten it. Let me know if you want more details.
    Since you love reading about the kings of Britain, get the book Wolf Hall. It is about Henry VIII and his first 2 wives.
    Steve Horton (work associate of Joe's)

  8. Thank you all for the compliments! I always think that maybe I carry on with too much detail. I appreciate the positive feedback.

    Steve, your timing is perfect! I am planning a short 4 day trip to Ireland with Joe and two friends who are coming to visit the beginning of October. I have been researching where in Ireland to go. (Thank goodness for Trip Advisor!) We fly into Dublin and I made a rookie error in getting round trip tickets rather than flying home from Shannon. Anyway, I am looking at the same areas that you went, but a shorter list. We will be driving so it will be a drive down south and then back up again. I figure to see a few things but mostly just enjoy the scenery and the Irish folks along the way.
    If there is anything we MUST see, let me know. I have actually been looking at places that aren't so touristy, for example The Slieve League Cliffs rather than the Cliffs of Moher etc. We will be going back again for sure, just wanted to give our friends a taste of Ireland while they are here.

    Thanks so much for the book suggestion. I immediately wrote it down on my "books to read" list!

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