Elgin Cathedral (pronounced with a hard “g”) sits on North College Street in the town of Elgin (Scots, Ailgin; Gàidhlig, Eiginn) near the River Lossie in Moray. It was originally built for the bishops of Moray (promounced “Muh-ree”, Moireibh in Gàidhlig) and was known as the “Lantern of the North” because it stood as the dominate structure over the fertile but flat landscape of Moray known in Scots as Laich O’Moray, laich meaning low-lying land.
(l) The west front, flanked by two tall towers which were part of the original building, and the center processional entrance, dating from after 1270. (r) Much of the nave is reduced to foundations, but the rest still stands remarkably complete.
It took us about a half an hour to drive to the east of Nairn on the A96, and we were soon wandering the grounds of the magnificent ruins. The Cathedral was originally built in 1224 and was expanded after a fire and a couple of armed attacks over the following two centuries. After the Reformation, the roof caved in, and the central tower collapsed in 1711. In the early 1800’s, the appointed keeper of the property, one John Shanks who was described as a “drouthy (thirsty) cobbler”, began to give tours around the property to those who were interested. Thus began Elgin Cathedral’s life as a tourist attraction.
(l) The stone bishop, looking like a giant chess piece, once stood in the crossing tower.
(c) From the top of the tower. (r) The octagonal chapter house dates from the late 1200s.
Pictish cross slab in the middle of the found on the site of St Giles Parish Church, where the town hall now stands, and the opposite side which depicts a hunting scene.
Before we left the town of Elgin, we made a stop in the center of town at the shop of Gordon & MacPhail, which has become a definite on the list of places to go. It is a wonderful place to find local cheeses and snacks for the car, and it has the most amazing collection of whiskies I have ever seen outside of the Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. Other than stocking up on edibles, my task was to step in to the non-whisky area and procure a bottle of Gilt Gin for Liisa. This particular gin is made in the same way as whisky, distilled five times from malted barley. I’m not a gin drinker myself, but I knew that she’d gotten a bottle of it when we were all in Scotland together in 2013 and that she really liked it.
Aberdeenshire, named for what was originally the County of Aberdeen, now includes parts of what were formerly Banfshire and all of the former Kincardinshire. Re-districting took place under the Local Government Act (Scotland) of 1994, making Aberdeenshire one of thiry-two Council Areas of Scotland. More commonly than Scots Gaelic (Gàidhlig), the Mid-Northern dialect of Scots called Doric is spoken in Aberdeenshire, where the rest of us are inabootcomers, and after being greeted with “aye-aye min” (“Hello”) may be asked “far div ye bide?” (“Where are you from?”). Apologies for bothering someone for directions or a request at a shop or tea room is met with “dinna fash yourself” (“don’t worry”). And, of course, one does not want to “droon the miller” (put too much water in one’s whisky). The northeastern part of Scotland, especially the area of Aberdeenshire, is recognized as the origin of what Sir Walter Scott named “Border Ballads” referring to the Lowland area near the border with England. In fact, researchers have shown that of the 305 Child’s Ballads, 91 of them came from Aberdeenshire.
Aberdeenshire is also the homeland of my ancestors and I love to wander through the countryside. When Kyle and I traveled to Scotland in 2005, we spent most of our time in Aberdeenshire looking for places named on the family tree which are tucked in the far northeast corner of the country within the triangle formed by Banff, Peterhead and Fraserburgh.
Having gotten ourselves well stocked with munchibles, we drove south from Elgin on the A941 as far as Rhynie, where we started winding our way along smaller unmarked roads eastward to the area north of Inverurie which has quite a few stone circles and solitary standing stones. Our main objective was to spend time at the recumbent stone circle, Easter Aquhorthies. We turned on to the single lane road that leads up a long sloping hill to the car park, and then walked for five minutes or so up another sloping hill lined with gorse bushes. The shorter lane off to the right that leads to the site was lined with tall purple wildflowers that were just starting to send their soft white cottony seeds to the winds. The circle itself is protected behind a fence with an easy-entrance gate. The circle sits upon a low bank built up with a dry stone wall, which was added at some date later than the origin of the circle around 3000 BCE.
Easter Aquhorthies may come from the Gàidhlig meaning “field of prayer” and it seems feasible since the recumbent stone (the large stone, lying on its side between the two upright stones) looks every bit like an altar. The stones of this circle are of different types: the circle is made of porphyry and have a soft pinkish color; the stones that flank the recumbent stone are grey granite; the upright stone on the east side flanking stone is red jasper; and, the recumbent stone itself is red granite, which was transported from Bennachie nearly six miles to the west.
Five miles north of Easter Aquhorthies is the village of Chapel of Garioch (pronounced “Gee-ree”), three miles or so northwest of the town of Inverurie. I had planned for us to have lunch at the Old Post Office Tea Room and we were not disappointed at the choice. It’s a very quaintly decorated little place located at the crossroads of two unmarked roads to the west of the A96. The building has been “sympathetically renovated” and much of the original building is intact, including the shelving along the walls. The tea room serves freshly-made light lunches and baked goods. We had some delicious soup and cheese toasties (grilled cheese). The young woman who was our server gave me a very nice compliment on my American accent “different from others (she’s) heard”. As sweet as the compliment was, it did not deter us from having dessert.
Staying on the unmarked roads, we continued to wind our way to the southeast toward Stonehaven. Just to the north of Stonehaven is the little fishing village of Cowie, the sign for which I can be seen smiling from in the banner photo above. Aside from being the place of the beginnings of the Cowie name as a sept of the Fraser clan, Cowie is the eastern end of the Highland Boundary Fault.
Running across the country, the Highland Boundary Fault begins in Arran, runs up the Firth of Clyde, and then crosses the mainland from Helenburgh on the west coast, through Loch Lomond and then eastward to Cowie on the east coast. It separates the topography that differentiates the Highlands from the Lowlands. The exact point at which the Fault ends is at the ruins of what is known as Cowie Chapel, alternatively called the Chapel of St. Mary and St. Nathalan. The ruin of the Chapel that was founded around 650 CE by St. Nathalan sits on the bluff above the North Sea and was on the only route between Stonehaven and Aberdeen for centuries.
South of Stonehaven is Dunnottar Castle. We reached the castle at a time when a lot of other people were leaving, and I smiled at my consistent luck at being there four times, all of them without any crowds.
Our accommodations for the night were at Croftsmuir Steading, just to the south west of Arbroath. Kyle, Liisa and I had arrived there in the dark in 2013, and I wanted to avoid the wandering around on unmarked roads again, so we set off to make the hour-long drive form Dunnottar in plenty of time to get there before sunset. When the three of us had been there, we were all completely taken with Gordon and Anne who own Croftsmuir Steading. Staying there is truly like going to visit one’s favorite auntie and uncle; they are warm and welcoming, and more that that they are fun to talk with.
We had time to stop and see Arbroath Abbey although it was closed by the time we got there. Getting to Arbroath in the daylight hours did not prevent me from getting turned around while driving through the countryside, and spending a bit of time wondering where I was in relation to the Steading. I would come to discover that my dyslexia had gotten the better of me and I had reversed numbers when I put the postal code in the GPS. I gave up after a couple of tries at it and called Gordon. He, in his completely wonderful way, asked me to describe what was around me, told me he knew where I was, and drove out to get us. When we drove into Arbroath for dinner, he put the code in my GPS for me so I could find my way back.