Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Scotland Day 8 - Kilmartin

Today (because I'm finally catching up, at least with a skeleton outline), I went a short-hour south of Oban to Kilmartin, an area with a large concentration of prehistoric sites, including standing stones and huge cairns, sites that had been used over and over again over the centuries by different groups.

It's often been said that the difference between Europe and US/Australia, is that in the former, 200 years is hardly any time at all, but 200km is way too far to travel in a day. In Australia, a 200km daily commute is not all that uncommon, but we have very little (European) architecture that is much more than 200 years old. In the (rather excellent) Kilmartin House Museum, there was a large panel showing key events over the past 14,000 years, including the most recent period of glacialisation (ending roughly 10,000 years ago (8000 BCE). It notes that cave paintings in Europe date back to ca. 30,000 years ago, but doesn't mention that there is evidence of far older cultures in parts of Australia (40,000 years is the lower estimate, upper estimates are more than twice as old as that).

I'll add more info later that I glean from the photos I took of the various panels. It being a little after midday, I thought I'd have a cuppa tea before setting off to enjoy the two mile long (round-trip) walk along the line of cairns that spread along the valley. But then the heavens opened (again), and even though it was sunny again before I left the cafe, I decided against a long walk that might leave me stranded in another downpour.

And yes, of course I touched one of the standing stones, and no, I didn't get transported back 200 years into a romantic historical fiction. Ah well, probably for the best.

I'll enjoy another seafood dinner tonight (Oban being the 'seafood capital of Britain', or so says the banner across the main street), and then head down to Glasgow tomorrow morning (around 2.5 hours).

Scotland Day 7 - Skye

As with most days outside of Edinburgh, the day started wet, but generally eased through the day, although there were often intermittent showers.

On the other hand, the rain did make for excellent waterfalls, but somewhat obscured mountain tops (and middles), and pretty bays.

I had a pleasant half hour or so wandering around the Skye Museum of Island Life, a collection of thatched cottages, each showing a different part of crofting life (weaving, fishing, milking/cheese making, etc)

I had booked my accommodation for this evening in Oban (oh-bin), but discovered after confirmation that they required I check-in by 6:30pm. A little after one, at the far end of the Trotternish peninsula, I checked my map and realised I was more than 4.5 hours from where I needed to be in little more than five hours time.

It was a very tedious drive, and meant that I drove past a couple of places that I regret not pulling over to take a photo. I did stop briefly at Eilean Donan castle, but didn't go in.

Scotland Day 6 - Strathpeffer to Kyle of Lochalsh (scenic route)

This was a fairly long day's drive, along single lane roads in the painfully scenic southern edge of the Northern Highlands, around 4hrs + stops, or 190km.

This post will be mostly pics, including a map, hairy horned highland cows, steep hillsides covered in soft purple heather, and some smoked sea trout (I bought some hot smoked, but the proprietress gave me a taste of the cold-smoked sea trout from her own fridge - it was jaw-droppingly good).

Again, due to the bank holiday (long) weekend, practically all accommodation on Skye was booked, certainly in my price range, so I had picked a place just this side of the bridge that now joins the island to the mainland. I had a light supper in the pub (same menu as the restaurant, but 20% cheaper; but soccer-blaring telly was the price). Another perfectly reasonable night's accommodation: single bed, far-too-warm duvet, but window that opens, and a kettle and ensuite.

Scotland Day 5 - Culloden and Fort George

The previous few days of lots of walking (to which my legs were unaccustomed), followed by lots of driving (in a car with an awkwardly small accelerator pedal and no cruise control), had left me a bit achy. I had booked a massage to iron out some of the kinks, so had a few hours to kill between checking out of the hotel and my appointment at noon.

I explored one of the Poundland shops (there are two, one at either end of the mall), and bought a BLT sandwich, a brolly, a doohickey to mount my phone in the car (for use as GPS), and some bandaids (blister on my heel from my sandals yesterday), (each £1) and a plastic bag (5p) for separating the laundry in my bag. I had a hangover-soothing chocolate milkshake (actually a Starbucks mocha frappucino, a tolerable substitute), and a bit of wander.

After my massage, I collected my car from the hotel, and headed north of Inverness, to Culloden Moor. I'll fill in more of the details later, but I have a requisite photo of the Fraser memorial stone, and a sense of the why the battle was so utterly doomed.

[pics to come of Culloden moor]

I then went across to Fort George, built shortly after Culloden, to guard the heads of the Moray Firth, and therefore sea access to Inverness. As it was built after last stand of the Jacobite rebellion, and has been occupied continuously since then as a garrison, it is in outstanding condition. It also offers glorious views across the Firth.

[pics to come of Fort George, including stained-glass bagpipe-playing angel]

As this is the Saturday of a bank weekend, accommodation was rare and expensive. I'd found a somewhat cheaper place 30 minutes out of town (or 50 mins from Fort George).

Strathpeffer was once a massively popular spa town during Victorian times, and it has a good half dozen substantial hotels "dripping with faded grandeur" (per Lonely Planet), including mine, the Highland Hotel. With accommodation over four floors, and a commanding view over the valley (strath = valley) for those willing to pay for a premium room. My small single room did not have such views, but it did have a bath, and I enjoyed an extended soak after dinner.

Dinner was served in the massive dining room, which occupies the ground floor of one of the wings. I was originally only going to have the two courses, but was still a tad peckish, so chose to also have a third course. Those on FB have already seen the, ahh, unusual cheese selection offered as one of the third course options. I have not ever had a processed cheese (mini Babybel) included as one of the 'selection', nor been warned off the "green cheese" by my waiter ("very bad"). (It was actually a perfectly reasonable Stilton, or similar, but he would not be persuaded.) The other two cheeses were a small serve of an unnamed cheddar, and a reasonable sized wedge of an immature brie. Plus a Jatz cracker, a Sao cracker, a digestive biscuit, something that might have been an oat biscuit, and a little bit of 'celery'.

Scotland Day 4 - Loch Ness (with some pics)

I woke this morning at 6:30am, a significant improvement on previous days. After the requisite pissfarting about, shower, chat w JD and the boys, I headed to Beauly (corruption of 'beau lieu') for breakfast.
Stornoway Black Pudding (between the egg and the toast); good, but I prefer haggis.
I then had a brief wander about Beauly Priory (or what remains of it)

I drove down the south side of Loch Ness to Urquhart ('URK-it) Castle, found a rarer-than-hen's-teeth carpark, and emerged from the visitor centre/entry pavilion to a good drenching of rain. You never know whether these 'showers' will last ten minutes or two hours, so I set off into the rain towards the ruins. (Yes, it did abate ten minutes later.)

As with many strongholds, it has been variously occupied by English and Scottish forces, who often looted or destroyed the buildings when they left. As with many others, it has been rebuilt several times, and materials from earlier iterations can be found throughout the region, the site having been used as a quarry/Home Depot/Bunnings for centuries.

But it is a glorious location, on the banks of Loch Ness, its waters stained dark with peat.

This tower was built by John Grant of Freuchie, as part of his obligations for receiving the land from King James IV in 1509.
I headed further south to Fort Augustus, at the bottom of Loch Ness. It has two waterways connecting it to Loch Lochy - one a natural waterway, the other a series of locks, allowing ships to manage the 12m difference between the two lochs.

Construction of the locks began during the Napoleonic War, to allow ships to take a shortcut along the series of lochs that diagonally score the country (extend a line between Inverness and Fort William, and you can see what I mean). Of course, between the start and finish of construction (1822), the Napoleonic War was over (see also: Battle of Waterloo, 1815), and the railway had come to Scotland. Even before it was finished, it was a massive white elephant (in the words of one of the 'Scottish Canals' chaps I spoke to).

[I hope to update with pictures of the locks in action in due course. I began writing this on the day, but fell into conversation with a couple of charter pilots, and we ended up eating together at the tapas place up the road, until they kicked us out, and then back at the Beaufort Hotel for another round, until they too declared it closing time. It was a somewhat slower start the next morning...

Friday, 25 August 2017

Scotland Day 3.1 - Scone Palace, Queens View (w pics)

My jet lag is catching up with me. I'm doing all the right things, getting plenty of sunshine, going to bed at a reasonable (but not too early) hour. But I'm still waking by 5:30am, and even with a bit of pissfarting about, shower, breakfast, chat with JD, I'm still on the road by 8:30am. I had two powernaps on the side of the road on my way to Inverness today - a function of lack of sleep, long boring highways, warm sunny days, and patchy radio.

My three quid English breakfast (yes, that's haggis at 7pm, and it was delicious!)

My first stop after leaving Dundee was Scone Palace (pronounced 'skooon'), just outside of Perth. For a fairly steep fee, you can walk through a number of rooms and 'admire' the furnishings and objets d'art (no photographs allowed), and then about the astonishingly extensive grounds. The current palace was completely rebuilt 1803 to 1809 (or thereabouts), and is owned by the Earls of Mansfield. 

For me, it was an off-putting display of centuries of wealth and privilege. It may have been where several kings, including Robert the Bruce and Macbeth, but any traces of the medieval abbey were destroyed during the Reformation.
Chapel on Moot Hill, with wicker sculptures of deer in foreground.
I then continued towards Inverness, turning off the road at Killiecrankie, to visit Queen's View. Made famous by Queen Victoria's visit (railways had recently opened up these previously inaccessible areas), but it was probably named after Queen Isabella, wife of Robert the Bruce. There is a magnificent view over Loch Tummel (made larger by the hydroelectric dam, built at its outlet ca. 1950). It really is very pretty countryside, with big trees, and purple heather.

Here are two photos of the loch looking west, in steady drizzle, and an hour later (after lunch) in spotted sunshine.

Lunch was a v yummy toasted sanga, sorry croque monsieur, with mushroom and red onion, plus a broccoli and Stilton soup. An excellent way to wait out the rain.
After my underwhelming response to Scone Palace, I decided to skip Blair Castle, at Blair Atholl, and instead went on to Inverness, and my accommodation for the next two nights.

This hotel (Beaufort) was randomly picked from on the basis of availability, cost (still more than £100 a night), and not being a shared bunkroom. I will, however, be skipping the breakfast as £13.95 (or AU$25.50) is rather steep. I'll find something in town.

On the other hand, they have a bar (with at least a grigio by the glass in the absence of a sparkling), with bar food, and tolerable wifi, so I shall update some of my earlier posts with photos and more detail.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Scotland Day 2.2 - Cheese, Crail and St Andrews (w pics)

As I was driving towards Crail, I passed a sign to a cheese shop and factory. I threw a u-ey (or rather a carefully negotiated three-point turn on the narrow, stonefenced road, and returned to said establishment.

I got to talk to the cheesemaker, who told me more about their cheeses. They make a Cheshire-style cow's milk cheese (dry, crumbly), and two flavoured versions - a smoked one, and one with garlic, sage, and annatto, as well as a Cheddar style. The Cheddar style one was glorious. A full flavoured cheese, with far far more personality that a mass-manufactured vintage cheddar. For a tasting plate (3 serves, total ~150g, plus accoutrements), I had the difficult problem of choosing two other cheeses from their marvellous selection. Naturally, I preferenced Scottish cheeses, and with the assistance of the cheesemaker herself, narrowed it down to a Roquefort-style, sheep's milk blue (St Duthuc), and a hard goat's milk cheese from Ayrshire, called Bonnet. Of the three, the Bonnet seemed the weakest (but as I nibbled the rinds at the end, I think it simply needed to warm to room temperature).

I was very glad I hadn't had lunch, as I was well and truly stonkered after all that deliciousness (which included a glorious relish, red grapes, apple, oatcake, and other stuff (I was told, but I was distracted by the cheeses).

After that, I went on to Crail, a very pretty seaside port, with a very pretty stone harbour.

I sat on the harbour wall and watched the incoming tide crash (whooomph) against the seawall, with the sun on my back and a delighted grin on my face. Note that the sea was incredibly calm - various birds were bobbing on the gentle waves. It would be incredible to experience in heavier weather!

On to St Andrews, where I had a very brief wander through the ruins of the once-great cathedral. (When consecrated, in 1318, it was the largest building in the country.)

The romanesque arches of the east wall (where the altar etc stood), viewed through the gothic processional entry in the west wall. The west wall was rebuilt three times, having succumbed to storms (~1272) and fire (~1378)

There was no explanation provided, but they clearly changed from a Romanesque (round) arch (left) to the Gothic (pointed) arch (right) at some point, perhaps reflecting a change in fashion by the time of the post-fire reconstruction.
I managed to cajole the staff member to give me a token to access the St Rule tower, even though they had closed. I then climbed the (?)336 steps to the top to look over the town of St Andrews. The tower is pretty much all that remains of St Rule's Church, which preceded the cathedral but the church was later used as a quarry for the rest of the town.
Of course, I managed to hit the video button, so all my intended photos from the top were short videos.

We were firmly encouraged to leave the grounds by 5:30pm (even though the sun was high in the sky, and the grounds were full of people).

Onto Dundee, crossing the very long bridge over the river Tay. I have almost passable internet in my room (definitely an improvement on yesterday), but I haven't got the patience at the moment to go through the tedious process of uploading the photos from my phone, then transcribing the code to add them here. This post was updated in Inverness.

I found a pub for a drink, (or three) but was a little late to order dinner (kitchen closed at 8:30pm), so got some chips from the F&C place next door on my way home. It's daylight savings, and a fair bit north, so even in late August, it's still quite light at 9pm.

Scotland Day 3.1 Culross, Dumferline and Aberdour

I again made excellent use of my Historic Scotland Explorer Pass (7 days in 14), visiting three sites: Dumferline, Aberdour, and St Andrews Cathedral.

I took full advantage of the breakfast component of the B&B, meaning I could (potentially) skip lunch, and find an early dinner when I got to Dundee. Instead, it meant I could skip lunch, and feast on yummy Scottish cheeses mid-afternoon. But more on that later.

First stop was Culross, which doubled for Cranesmuir in Outlander. I also wandered futher up, and found (yet another) ruined abbey (pics to come).

Next was Dumferline, one of the most important abbeys in the area, the resting place of several Scottish monarchs.

I stopped also at Aberdour (Dour being the name of the burn (stream) that runs along the foot of the property). More impressive ruins, and a delightful dovecote (doocot) - pigeons provided an excellent source of both meat and fertiliser. And a cuppa tea.

Pictures of pretty medieval Scottish ruins, with a bit of history, to come (eventually)

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Scotland Day 2.2 - Doune Castle (w pics)

From courtyard, to kitchen block
So what do Monty Python, Outlander, and Game of Thrones have in common? They've all used Doune Castle (pronounced 'doon')for one or more of their sets.

Exterior, 22 August 2018

Outlander S01E02, Castle Leoch
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

View from the bridge over the River Teith, which helps explain why the Duke of Albany chose this location for his castle.

I then returned to Stirling, got some wifi to update my maps, and then cross country to the guest house I randomly picked from the internet. It is in the middle of nowhere, but had a vacancy and was less than a hundred quid (AUD160) for a night's accommodation. The claim of wifi is strictly accurate, but perhaps a tad overstated. On the other hand, there is a kettle in my room, so many things can be forgiven.

I'll head out shortly for some dinner, and will likely collapse in a heap when I return.

Scotland Day 2.1 - Stirling Castle

I'm still waking obscenely early (not helped by the astonishingly powerful resonance chamber that is the courtyard of the hostel, and the snorer on the other side of the paper thin wall). I showered, packed, and went for a cuppa (Starbux) and a pain au chocolat and yoghurt from Sainsbury's next door. I then walked to the car hire place, and collected my wee, three door, Fiat 500. Most impressively, if you have the car in neutral and the clutch unpressed, it turns off the engine, the engine automatically restarts if you depress the clutch. (I had seen requests/reminders to turn off your engine when waiting at traffic lights, to reduce pollution - this makes that a practical request.) Also, if you forget to change into neutral before stopping (which in a normal car would then stall), it will automatically restart when you depress the clutch from neutral. Quite ingenious.

Australians don't really have any cities with the kind of road issues that these much older cities have. Major roads that have parking on both sides, leaving two narrow lanes between them. Down these you have double decker buses coming up against large lorries carrying rebar, which can't actually really fit side by side.

Anyway, I eventually made it out of Edinburgh (45mins) and then another 45mins up a freeway and a few turns got me to Stirling Castle. It took almost as long to get up the hill to the parking area as it did to get out of Edinburgh (okay, not quite, but it would have been easily 15-20 mins, with no possibility of doing anything but staying in the queue. The reason became apparent at the top as each car had to stop at the parking booth, get out of the car, pay the parking fee, get back in the car, and then find a car spot. I can think of several different ways that could be done more efficiently. However, it is a very effective (if not very environmentally friendly) way of throttling the flow of patrons.

Stirling Castle, like Edinburgh Castle, is situated on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a strategic position. In this case, it is Stirling Bridge. For quite some time, it was thought that Scotland was divided by an inland sea, and that the Highlands were physically separated from the Lowlands by the Forth River. Stirling Bridge was one of the very few ways of crossing the river, and the two-horse-wide timber bridge was a key factor in William Wallace's defeat of a much larger English army in (year to be checked).

Rather than getting an audio guide, I instead chose to join one of the free guided tours - definitely a good decision. Joe was a born-and-bred Stirling local, with a booming voice, lovely accent, and a solid grasp of the history and the buildings. Rather than take photos while on the tour, I went around after and grabbed a few.

The pock marks of cannon balls on the entry turrets, thanks to Oliver's Army (cue Elvis Costello earworm); the recreation of the royal kitchens; the detailed explanations of the process by which the Unicorn tapestries were recreated (no photos of those, but there will be photos of the replicas; the originals are housed in the Cloisters gallery in New York (?link to my own post about visiting the Cloisters).

By 2pm I was knackered and peckish, so ended up having a large bowl of (rather salty) cockaleekie soup (chicken, leek, diced potato in a broth), and sought directions to Doune.