To Ullapool, Almost

Our little sunrise excursion to the cliffs of Duncansby left us a bit chilled; we returned to Bencorragh House for a warm shower and a good breakfast and then headed south along the coast of Caithness. The A99 runs from John O’Groats thirty miles or so south to Latheron where it joins the A9. The twenty minutes or so that it took us to get to The Hill O’ Many Stanes (that I have written about here) and have a good wander around the hillside was just enough time to be ready for a good cuppa, and I knew just where we could find one. The Laidhay Croft Museum is just another ten miles south and across the car park is their wonderful Tea Room with the best scones with cream that I have ever had.

Thusly satiated we continued south on the A9 through the Berriedale Braes, a steep drop in the road near the boundary line between Caithness and Sutherland. Berriedale (Gàidhlig: Bearghdal) is most likely named for the Old Norse berg, “rock” and dalr which means “valley”. Brae is a Scottish word for “hillside” which comes from the Gàidhlig word bràighe. Add it all up and it’s a very rocky hillside along which the road winds down in hairpin curves, across a bridge, and then hairpin turns itself back up the other side. I have driven this particular stretch of road a few times now and it’s always a bit of a challenge. When we had driven north a few days before, it had been nearly dark when we drove through the Braes; I was happy to have the morning light on the return trip.

It took nearly three quarters of an hour to make our way through the next forty miles or so. We reached the village of Dornoch (“the pebbly place”: Dòrnach in Gàidhlig; Dornach in Scots), located off the A9 via the A949, on the northern edge of the Dornoch Firth. It was granted Fair Trade Town status in 2005, and that only serves to make it an even better town in my book. We shopped for a little while, wandering along Castle Street until it was time for lunch at the Dornoch Castle Hotel. I’ve been to the tavern there for lunch on three separate trips and it has become a “must” for me. The food is always amazing. This time it was Squash & Coriander Soup, a Dornoch Cheese and Chutney Sandwich and a small Rocket Salad. The bartenders are always helpful and forthcoming with suggestions for a whisky to try. I got a wee dram of the Glengoyne for Marsha so she could try it, and got the Ardmore 12 Year for me, and loved it. I wish that there had been a fire in the 11-foot fireplace although the room is still full of ambiance even when it isn’t lit.

Located across the street from Dornoch Cathedral, the original building on the site was built for the Caithness bishops sometime in the 13th century. The present building may have been built by 1500; in 1557 it was gifted to the 11th Earl of Sutherland by his brother-in-law, Bishop Robert Stewart. After a few incarnations of use, some private and some public and one forced by fire, the building became a hotel in the late 1940’s. The tavern is located in the original kitchens area from 1500 with the original stone walls and Caithness stone slab floors.

It would have been faster to leave Dornoch and travel along the Dornoch Firth on the A949 to Bonar Bridge and then take the A836 north and west to Rosehall and then further west towards Ullapool, but speed was not our main goal for the day. We backtracked north on the A9 as far as The Mound at the head of Loch Fleet. Running alongside of the causeway of the A9 where it crosses the River Fleet is an older bridge that was built in the early 1800’s. The older bridge was built with a sluice to hold back the sea as it flows into Loch Fleet. If one passes at the right time and stops in the car park near the old bridge, it’s possible to watch salmon as they swim in from the sea and upstream to spawn. The Mound was also the location of the old Dornoch Light Railway which operated from 1902-1960.

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From The Mound we took the A839 through Sutherland. Sutherland is named from the Old Norse: Suðrland, “southern land”; the Gàidhlig name for it is Cataibh. We drove northwest to the southern edge of Loch Shin (Loch Sìn) and the town of Lairg (An Luirg,”the shin”). Lairg is the largest village in the Highlands that is not located on the coast. Its location is pretty much in the center of the northern part of Scotland, specifically Sutherland, where four roads met giving it the nickname “The Crossroads of the North”. We connected with the A837 west of Lairg in Rosehall and continued west to Ullapool.

We had allowed ourselves plenty of time to stop and enjoy the scenery. This was my first time in that particular part of Scotland and I was not disappointed. The day was lovely, the hills were deep green, the clouds were objects of art in the sky, and the road was for the most part empty of any other cars than ours. The drive provided us with photo opportunities, one after another. It was all too perfect of a day, and we were looking forward to enjoying a leisurely meal in Ullapool before going out to Loch Broom for the night.

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Unfortunately, it was getting late in the day when we reached the Knocken Crag, (Creag a’ Chnocain, ‘crag of the small hill’). Thirteen miles away from Ullapool, on the southern border of Sutherland with Ross-shire, the Knocken Crag is a geological marvel. The first thrust fault to be discovered in the world, tectonic plate shift had moved older rocks over the top of younger ones by some 44 miles. This made for quite a bit of confusion amongst geologists in the 19th century until two of them, Ben Peach and John Horne, figured the whole thing out in 1907. I had wanted to do a bit a hiking around the trails, but with the light fading in the glen, I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough of it to find my way back to the car safely.

Plans were made to be broken, I guess, even if they weren’t necessarily broken on our account. The account of the Great Flat Tire Adventure is here.


Posted in Ancestry, Dornach Castle Hotel, Eco-travel, Hill O'Many Stanes, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Scottish Dialect, Sutherland, Travel, Uncategorized, Whisky, Whisky tasting, Women Writers | Leave a comment


Lighthouse on Stroma  Island in the pre-dawn light from Duncansby Head

Lighthouse on Stroma Island in the pre-dawn light from Duncansby Head

Sunrise was a 6:47 AM. At 6:00, we quickly dressed and quietly left the Bencorragh House, heading in to the pre-dawn mists and driving the narrow country roads out past John O’Groats to the single track road that crosses the Burn of Sannick (Old Norse, Sandvík) and leads to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head. When we arrived, it was still semi-dark; the large herd of sheep on the open field around the lighthouse looked at us as though we were nuts to be out there so early. We parked in the car park, looked across the Pentland Firth to Swilkie Point on the north side of Stroma Island (Old Norse: Straumr-øy, “island in the tidal stream”) and could just barely see the Stroma Lighthouse. We walked toward the Duncansby Head Lighthouse and found the path that leads out to the cliffs. The muckiest place of the path had been made in to a board-walk so we didn’t have to sink in to the soft earth up to our ankles. Still, it was in walking across the heath that I learned there was a leak in my boots, and by the time I reached the cliff’s edge, my feet were soaked. Not bothered by the discomfort, I continued on with my goal of standing at the most north-eastern point of the Scottish mainland and greeting the rising sun.

The view from Duncansby Head cannot be captured in a photograph, though many more people than I have tried. All of the photographs I have seen of the area had been taken in the bright sunlight. The soft, vermillion-hued light of the sunrise coming through the lifting mists, the muffled sound of the waves crashing to the rocky beach 210 feet below the cliffs, and the fresh salty air blowing over the field of musty wet grasses combined with the fragrance of wet sheep’s wool made for an earthy yet ethereal experience of natural beauty at its most rugged and breathtakingly beautiful.

Looking over the Geo of Sclaites to the Stacks with the coastline ofAberdeenshire in the far distance

Looking over the Geo of Sclaites to the Stacks at sunrise

Duncansby Head is located in the Caithness area of Scotland, which was named after the original Picts who were of the Cat or Catt tribe, the Catti. Ness comes from the Old Norse and means “headland”. The area was called Katanes (“headland of the Catt people”) by the Norse who settled part of the area starting in the 10th century and it slowly developed into Caithness. The Gàidhlig name for the area is Gallaibh (“among the strangers” or “land of the non-Gaels”, referring to the Norse).

In modern times, the Gàidhlig for Duncansby Head is Dùn Gasbaith (although sometimes Rubha Duncansby is used). The name for Duncansby Head comes from the Old Norse, Dungalsbær as it is written the in Orkneyinga Saga (“The History of the Earls of Orkney”). Dungals-bœr, “the farm of Dungall” is the Old Norse version of the Gàidhlig name Dùghall which in turn comes from Dubgall, dubh gall, (“black foreigner or Dane”). It seems that at some point, Dungall had a farm with an incredible view.

The Duncansby Head Lighthouse stands on the cliffs, just to the south of the Glupe, where huge areas of collapsed coastline called a “geo” have formed an arch of land between them. The lighthouse was built by David Allen Stevenson (cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson) in 1924 and is built as a square instead of the usual round structures. It looks over the Pentland Skerries, churning waters caused by the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, each moving in a different direction. The opening to the Pentland Firth has had the nickname “Hell’s mouth” since the days of the sailing ships.

Duncansby Head Lighthouse

Duncansby Head Lighthouse

Walking across the heath from the lighthouse, another bit of collapsed coastline called the Geo of Sclaites is to the south. Named from the Old Norse, Langa-gjá-sléttna (“long geo of flats”), the Geo of Sclaites is a collapsed portion of a cave with the cave still continuing beneath the cliffs. A little bit further south along the eastern coastline is a sea stack called The Knee (Old Norse, Kné “knee”). During the summer, puffins can be seen roosting on The Knee.

(roll cursor over photos to see captions)

We got our first look at the Stacks of Duncansby (Old Norse: Dungals-bœjar-stakkar) just as the sun rose. Also called The Stacks (Old Norse: Stakkarnir), they are probably the most impressive of any sea stacks in the Biritsh Isles. Certainly, rising out of the dissipating mists into the glowing sunrise, they were one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen. The largest of them stands higher than the cliff edge and over 650 feet from the shoreline.

Stacks of Duncansby with Thirle Door just visible at the center of the photo just at sunrise

Stacks of Duncansby with the Thirle Door just visible at the center of the photo

Smaller and closer to the cliffs are other sea stacks that form the Thirle Door (tirl, the upright axle of a waterwheel), so named for the churning of the surf as it is washed through the opening formed by two of the sea stacks and a geo.

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John O’Groats

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Canisbay Church, Canisbay near John O’Groats

On the way back to Bencorragh House, we drove past John O’Groats and saw it in daylight for the first time. Named for a Dutchman who ran a ferry from Gills Bay to Orkney in the late 1400’s by direction of King James IV, John O’Groats is Taigh Iain Ghròt in Gàidhlig (taigh, “house” and Iain Ghròt, “Jan de Groote”). John O’Groat’s house is believed to have stood where the John O’Groats House Hotel now stands. The history of the house is interesting because O’Groats had seven sons, and the story goes that they were in competition for control. O’Groats sent them all away, telling them to return in a year and he would have the answer then. They returned to find that he had built a house with eight doors and eight sides to the dining table so that each had his own entrance, and no one sat at the head of the table.

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Circles, Rings & Stones

Sunday morning was bright and sunny; after we left Lana & Billy’s Orcadian Crafts shop in Kirkwall, we drove around the Mainland to continue our tour. The objective for the day was to avoid the tour buses which were out in great number since there was a cruise ship in the harbor. We drove west on the A965 past Maeshowe and the Barnstone (that I have written about here.) We turned right onto the B9055 and up to the Standing Stones of Stenness on the south-eastern shore of the Loch of Stenness (Old Norse Stein – nes, “stone point” and locally pronounced Stane-ness). Like the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness are encircled by a henge; this one is 13 feet across and 7.5 feet deep with a diameter of 144 feet. It was rock cut circa 3100 BCE and is one of the oldest stone circles in Britain. Although there are only four of the original twelve stones left standing now, their height of nearly 19 feet makes them an imposing mark on the landscape. Just down the road, but a bit separate, is the Watchstone.

A solitary monolith to the north-west of the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Watchstone stands where the saltwater Loch of Stenness is joined to the freshwater Loch of Harray (Old Norse, Heraðvatn) by a small stream. The narrow road that goes across the Brig O’ Brodgar to the Ring of Brodgar goes right beside the Watchstone. The stump of a companion stone that stood about 40 feet south-west of the Watchstone was unearthed in 1930. It is thought that perhaps the pair of stones marked the entrance to the Ness of Brodgar. Observing the Winter Solstice from the Watchstone, the last rays of the setting sun shine from the notch formed by the hills on the island of Hoy (Old Norse, Háey, “high island”) making the same “flashing” phenomenon that occurs at Maeshowe on the Solstice, but a few days later.

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The Watchstone stands at the Brig O’ Brodgar with the Standing Stones of Stenness in the background

We had pulled to the parking area just as a tour bus was leaving, and were fortunate to have the area to ourselves except for a couple who had bicycled to the site. Each of us was considerate of the others and we kept still and unobtrusive when photos were being taken. I saw another tour bus approaching and signaled to Marsha that it was a good time to move on. We passed by the Ring of Brodgar, saw that it was filled with people milling about from the three buses parked in the car park, and decided to go over to Skara Brae and come back later.

Staying on the B9055, we drove for ten minutes, going past the Loch of Skaill and then to the Bay of Skaill (Old Norse skáli, “a hall”, probably referring to former sites of the post-Viking era). At the southern edge of the Bay are the remains of a Neolithic village that began its existence farther away from the water than it is now. Centuries of erosion and sandblow have brought the Bay closer to the ruins, and are putting them in danger. The ruins were exposed by a storm in 1850 after forty centuries under the sands and serious excavations began then, even though there were written references to the “catacombs” at the “Downs of Skaill” in 1769 when a skeleton was found within them holding a sword and a Danish axe.

Originally called S(t)kerrabrae, and then Skerrabra until the 1950’s, the village of Skara Brae has eight remaining houses which are connected by low stone slab-covered passages much like the one leading in to Maeshowe. Built entirely of stone, Skara Brae was inhabited for 600 years between 3200 BCE-2200 BCE. The homes were large square shaped rooms each heated and lit by a central fireplace. Beds were made from stone slabs and most likely covered in furs for warmth. Shelves of stone slabs make dressers that stand on the wall opposite the doorway, perhaps to welcome guests with displayed finery and goods.

We drove back east on the B9055 until just past the Loch of Skaill and then turned south onto the B9056 until we joined the A967 at the north-west shore of the Loch of Stenness. Heading further south, we drove in to Stromness to find some lunch.

Julia’s Café and Bistro is located across the street from the Northlink Ferry Terminal (where I had traveled to/from Orkney twice before) and its easy-access car park. Julia’s serves fresh, local and extremely delicious food and coffee drinks. Marsha had the Orkney salmon cakes with rocket salad, and I had the nut roast with cranberry wine sauce and a rocket salad. It was one of those meals that one doesn’t want to end because they taste so good. Fortunately, we segued into a small sampling of the baked goods accompanied by a latte for me and hot chocolate for Marsha.

Thusly satiated, we headed off to the Ring of Brodgar which I have previously written about here. We drove out of Stromness on Back Road, around the southern shore of the Loch of Stenness on the A965 until we made the (now) left-hand turn on to the B9055. We drove past the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Watchstone, across the Brig O’ Brodgar and the Ness of Brodgar (with its archeological dig well covered for the season) to the car park. A short walk up the path and we found ourselves alone for the most part at the Ring. As Marsha slowly walked counter-clockwise around the circle, I chose this time to just stand in one place and spend my time taking in the view that surrounds the hill on which the Ring of Brodgar stands.

Across the Loch of Harray and a bit to the south sits Maeshowe; the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Watchstone are just to the southeast across the Ness of Brodgar. The Ring of Brodgar is surrounded by a number of prehistoric earthenworks, cairns, burial places, and mounds, of which Salt Knowe is one (Scottish: knowe, “knoll”). Standing to the south-west of the Ring, Salt Knowe mimics the shape of Maeshowe. It dates from 2500 BCE-1500 BCE and measures nearly 20 feet high. It stands adjacent to the salt water Loch of Stennes which is probably how it got its name. Unlike Maeshowe, the Salt Knowe was not made to cover a structure. It is a mound of earth for which the significance has yet to be determined, although this is some evidence that it may have been a place where ritual was performed at the top, or it was a mound that held no actual bodies and was instead dedicated to the ancient ones.

We were due to check in for the Pentand Ferry just after 4:00 PM and so we made our way back across the Mainland through Kirkwall and south on the A961 across the islands and the Churchill Barriers to St Margaret’s Hope for the ferry to Gills Bay. We had our last night at Bencorragh House and then special plans to greet the sunrise in the morning.



Posted in Maeshowe, Orkney, Ring of Brodgar, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Skara Brae, Stromness, Travel, Uncategorized, Winter Solstice, Women Writers | Leave a comment

Knitting Yarns & Weaving Tales

And so the long awaited evening at Lana’s arrived. After a little bit of confusion in finding her house, we were welcomed warmly by her husband, Billy. I immediately recognized him from my visit to their shop in Kirkwall nearly ten years ago. What followed were four-and-a half hours of some of the most pleasant, interesting and informative conversation I have had in a long time. Little bits about each of our lives were the warp into which talk of Orkney, its culture, history, and folk tales were woven.

Lana and Billy Fotheringhame own a shop on Bridge Street in Kirkwall called Orcadian Crafts. It is an homage to the hand-crafted goods that have been made in Orkney for generations. As previously mentioned, Lana is a master knitter, knitting intricate patterns from memory and with such ease that she was able to switch between patterns and techniques as she demonstrated them to Marsha. Under the name Glengarth Knitwear, the hats of hers that I have are variations on the Fairisle pattern Northern Star (yes, that’s plural; the next day we went to Orcadian Crafts and I walked out with another hat and a sweater).

Billy also knits, using wool from the Northern Shorttailed primitive breeds of sheep that live on the beaches of North Ronaldsay and eat only seaweed. He is also an award-winning weaver using the local specially-threshed and cleaned oat straw to weave baskets and other items. Called “straw coil work” from the technique of adding bits of oat straw as the weaving progresses to make one long coil, knowing just when and how much straw to add and when to tie it off with twine made from seagrass is an art. Billy’s work includes picnic baskets, cubbies, shopping baskets, and the famous style of Orkney chair. Known locally as stuls (stools), Orkney chairs were designed with a hooded back, a heided-stul, which gave protection from drafts and kept the warm air from the fire close to the person sitting in it. Sometimes the chairs have drawers in them underneath the seat; a nice place to keep one’s knitting, a book, or perhaps a flask of whisky.


One of the other guests was Neil Leask who is the Custodian at Corrigall Farm Museum and Kirbuster Museum. Kirbuster Museum is the last un-restored firehoose in Northern Europe. Occupied until the 1960’s, Kirbuster house (near Birsay) dates from the 16th century, and is an excellent example of a central hearth croft house. There have been expansions and improvements over the years but the original dwelling housed the animals as well as the people, all warmed by the peat fire in the center of the building. Corrigall Farm Museum (near Harray) is an example of a 19th century but and ben house, from the Scots to describe a two room dwelling where the outer room was the kitchen, the but, and the inner room for sleeping was the ben.

Neil is an extraordinary teller of folktales. I first heard him tell a couple of tales on the CD that Lana had recommended to me, Orkney: Land, Sea & Community. Part of the Scottish Tradition series from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, there are thirty-four cuts on the CD. Lana and Neil both contributed to this marvelous compilation of music, song, history, culture and folklore. He has that kind of storytelling voice that makes one want to listen, and I was happy that he had come prepared to tell a few more stories.

Another guest, Christopher, is a native of Orkney who works as an archeologist (MA, Orkney College, UHI) and tour guide at the Ness of Brodgar site. He is a wealth of information about the history of Orkney and we enjoyed being able to hear him talk about some of it with us. The Ness of Brodgar excavations began in 2003 and cover nearly 6.5 acres. By all accounts, the site could end up being more important than Stonehenge. It dates from 3000 BCE and is believed to be the largest structure of its kind in northern Britain, and possibly the center of ceremonial life of the Mainland. Unfortunately for Marsha and me, the dig had been closed for the year in August.

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St Magnus Cathedral

One story that was very intriguing to both Marsha and me was the telling of the story and the history behind the Kirkwall Ba’. For over 300 years the men of the Mainland have gathered in front of St. Magnus Cathedral on Broad Street in Kirkwall on New Year’s Day (now on Christmas and New Years) and then spent the rest of the day and into the night vying for control of a three pound leather-covered, cork-filled ball. The teams are divided in to two factions: the “Doonies” originally hailed from north of the Cathedral and the “Uppies” from south of it, although now it’s more a familial bond and less a geographic one. There is some reference in this designation to a rivalry between the King’s Earl who lived in the north (“The Burgh”) and the Bishop who lived in the south (“The Laverock”). The goal of the game for the “Uppies” is to get the ba’ to the wall in the south end of town, and for the “Doonies” to get it in to the water of Kirkwall Bay in the north. The game begins at 1:00 PM with the Cathedral chiming the hour. The ba’ is thrown into the crowd from the Mercat Cross at the edge of Broad Street in front of the Cathedral. After that, there do not seem to be any rules except against blatant misbehavior. The game lasts for hours while the teams scramble up and down the town trying to get the ba’ to their goal by any means possible. Windows and doors along the streets have been boarded and bystanders are well advised to keep their distance.

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The plaque for the Kirkwall Ba’ at the Mercat Cross in front of St. Magnus Cathedral

This yearly pandemonium is based in folk tale which is based in history. There is a folktale of an Orcadian traveling to Scotland to kill a tyrant named Tusker and then, having done so, tying the severed head of the tyrant to his saddle while riding back to the Pentland Firth (Pettland, “the Firth of the land of ‘the Picts). On the way, he was scratched by one of the teeth and by the time he crossed the Firth again and reached Kirkjuvagr (Kirkwall), he was near dead from the infection. With his last bit of strength, he reached the Mercat Cross and threw the head into the crowd standing there. They took their rage about the death of one of their own out on the severed head by kicking it all over the town. There is an historical account from the Orkneyinga Saga (“The History of the Earls of Orkney” written c.1230) about Orkney’s first Earl, Sigurd Eysteinsson, traveling to Scotland and killing his enemy, the Scottish Earl Maelbrigte Tusk. The account of the severed head, the scratched leg, and the death from infection is the same.

We then segued into talking about traditional dancing and music, and how it has woven its way over to the US from Scotland via the immigration patterns. This is a rich traditional culture that I became very familiar with during my summers in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of my aunts was well-known for her singing and guitar renditions of the old songs. Lana had invited us to stay over the weekend and join them all in the weekly dances held on Monday nights by The Orkney Traditional Dance Association, of which they are all members. We wished we could have, but our travel schedule wouldn’t allow for it. As the clock neared midnight and the time for leave-taking, we got to quickly meet Lana and Billy’s two dogs, a beautiful white Samoyed and a Parson Russell Terrier.


The next morning found us in Orcadian Crafts with Marsha getting another knitting tutorial and buying one of the little stools that they had woven with seagrass, and me just enjoying the last bit of time with these extraordinary, and extraordinarily kind, people. I bought one of Billy’s woven baskets as well as a sweater. Oh, yeah. And that second hat.

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Posted in Ancestry, Eco-travel, Kirwall Ba', Orkney, Orkneyinga Saga, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Self drive Scotland tours, Travel, Uncategorized, Women Writers | Leave a comment

The Mainland, Orkney

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The “Orkney Hat” from 2006

Orkney is a special place filled with ancient sites and the peacefulness that island life creates. Orkney gets its name from the Old Norse name Orkneyjar (Orc-nee-yahr), “Seal Islands”. When they arrived in the ninth century, the Norsemen heard the Pictish word for the place, Orc (“wild boar or wild pig”, possibly referring to a tribal totem animal), as orkn (Old Norse, “seal”) and then added the suffix eyjar for“islands”. The Norse Orkneyjar became shortened to Orkney over time. With its history dating back as far as the Mesolithic and continuing on through to the era of the Picts and then the Dalriadic Gaels, to Norse rule and then to Scottish, the archipelago of Orkney holds thousands of treasured sites and its history weaves through its modern day culture.

In the beginning stages of planning this trip, I sorted through the memorabilia from my three previous trips to Scotland. In the assorted papers, pamphlets, and notes I came across the retail tag from a hand-knit hat that I had purchased in Kirkwall in 2006. It’s been one of my favorite hats over the years, special to me not only because of its intricate design but also because of where I got it. I’d worn the hat as I continued to travel around Scotland, and several times people remarked that it was obvious I had been to Orkney because the design on the hat is specific to the island. I have always referred to it as my “Orkney Hat”. Since the friend that I was traveling with this time is a knitter, spinner, felter, and lover of all things woolen, I thought that it was fortuitous that the name of the person who made my hat was on the retail tag. “What if,” I thought, “I could somehow arrange for Marsha to meet with the woman who knit this hat? Or, at least perhaps find out about good places to buy wool on Orkney?” (A note here, it’s “yarn” in the US, “wool” in Scotland.)

I was able to find Lana online and what followed was a wonderful back-and-forth discussion over the next few weeks in which she gave me good advice about the Pentland Ferry, talked about wool crafts people that we could find on Orkney, and the best thing of all: an invitation to spend the evening at her house enjoying conversation and storytelling with some of her friends.

After arriving in Orkney and having our tea, we drove onto the Mainland (Old Norse: Meginland, “the largest island”). Our first priority was getting to our 1:00 PM appointment to tour Maeshowe (also sometimes spelled Maes Howe; I have written about it here). We were just early enough that we had time to stroll out to the site and enjoy the view for a bit. There is no way to adequately describe the winds on Orkney. I forewarned Marsha, but the full realization of it showed on her face as she stood out in the middle of the moor with the winds and the not-quite-ready-to-rain clouds overhead.

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Marsha, outside Maeshowe

The Old Norse for Maeshowe was Orkahaugr, ”mound of the Orcs” or perhaps “mound of power”. The inner chamber is softly lit, showing the depth of shadow off the drystone construction that dates from 2700 BCE. The huge slabs of stone are impeccably placed to create the chamber. Scratched into the stones are various lines of runic writing; nearly thirty separate inscriptions make up one of the largest collections of runic writing in the world. Written in the 12th century, the runes are a comparatively modern addition to the site. The full meaning of the chambered cairn at Maeshowe is not clear, although there is evidence that it was build over another site, most probably a stone circle. What is known is that the sunset of the Winter Solstice shines down the entrance passage and directly on to the back wall. Just to stand in there with the realization of all those (pre-tourist era) people who stood there over thousands of years, for whatever reason, is an honor.

Our tour completed, we drove off to the northwest part of the Mainland, staying on the A966 as it follows the coast up to Tingwall (Old Norse: Þingvöllr, “field of the parliament”) and then past the Loch of Swannay and over to Birsay (Old Norse: Birgisherað, “the fortress district”). The village takes its name from the island Brough of Birsay which is joined to the Mainland during low tides. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the area was a Pictish stronghold; by the 9th century the Norse had taken over, and it was the seat of the rulers of Orkney up until the 12th century when Kirkwall became more prominent.

Our destination was located on a small hill overlooking Birsay Bay. I had found a few possible places for lunch, and I am glad that we decided upon the Birsay Bay Tea Room. The people there were cheerful and the food was delicious. I had the farmhouse cheese quiche & sweet potato rosemary soup which was excellent; and Marsha had the soup and a turkey sandwich with Orkney chutney and Redbush & Vanilla tea to drink. We sat looking out over the Bay to the Brough of Birsay with soft waves of fog drifting overhead. It would have been a great place to hang out for a while longer, but we had places to see before we went to Lana’s house for the evening.

The first one on the way was the ruins of the late 16th century castle that was built by Robert Stewart (1533-93), half-brother to Mary Queen of Scots. He was created Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland and Knight of Birsay in 1581 by James VI (Mary’s son). He built the castle as his primary residence on Orkney. It was not used as a primary residence by his heir, and by the late 17th century it began to collapse. The castle is located just down the road from the tea house on the northern edge of the village of Birsay.

On our way back in to Kirkwall (pronounced “Kirkwaa”, from Kirkjuvagr ,pronounced “Kirkvoe”, “the church bay”) we were met on a single lane road by twenty or so head of cattle being herding down the road by an SUV and a man on a bicycle. All I could think of to do was stop the car. I thought that if I kept the car still, they would just pass by and none of them would get startled and possibly hurt. Just to the right of where I stopped was a driveway, but there was a chain across it so it wasn’t going to be any help to me. And then, a man came out of the house, un-hooked the chain and motioned me to quickly drive in to his driveway. I rolled down my window to thank him and here again came the recognition of a foreign accent followed by a pleasant conversation. He was so welcoming and kind, he almost had us in for tea. With the immediacy of the situation gone after cattle passed by, we thanked him once again and set off down the road.

Since we wanted to be able to spend a lot of time at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stennes, and we had decided to go into Kirkwall and find a shop to buy fresh clothes to wear to Lana’s, we drove straight to our accommodations for the evening, The Ardconnel B&B just outside of Kirkwall. Margaret was very helpful and once we got settled, she directed us to M&Co where we were able to find new jeans and tops. The sales ladies were very patient with us as we ended up keeping them a few minutes past closing. As we apologized, we explained our predicament with the luggage, and they were very understanding and helpful. A fast trip back to the B&B for showers, and then, just as the sun was setting, we were on our way to our evening of storytelling.

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At Bencorragh House

We arrived at the front door of Bencorragh House in Upper Gills, near John O’Groats, and it was opened by Sandy Barton with a cheerful welcome that was quickly followed by the news that our luggage had not been delivered there as promised by British Airways. It was getting late and we were hungry; I had researched the Seaview Inn when I had been planning the trip, and knew that the menu had vegetarian selections and that they served until 9:00 PM. Since it was a little past 8:00, we had enough time to make the ten minute drive and have our dinner.

When we arrived, just a little after 8:30, we had to enter through the pub entrance where we were told that the dining room had closed. John O’ Groats is not a large town. It isn’t as though we had any other choice for a restaurant. The server clearly registered the look of overwhelming disappointment on my face (that probably looked more like despair at that point) and she went off to the kitchen to see if they would fix something for us. We were invited to sit in the pub and she arrived in just a couple of minutes with a “pub grub” menu, asking that we order something simple and the kitchen would be happy to fix it for us. We then enjoyed what still rests near the very top of the list as one of the best meals we had on the entire trip. We each had Grilled Goat Cheese on Rocket Salad with a balsamic and wine dressing; Marsha had ginger beer and I had a half pint Scapa Special.

Grilled Goat Cheese on Rocket Salad with a half pint Scapa Special, Seaview Inn

When we got back to Bencorragh House (named for the small hamlet on the western coast of Ireland), Sandy was both helpful and supportive as I tried yet again to get in touch with British Airways and locate our luggage. She allowed me access to her desktop, since the battery on my laptop had run down long before and the cord was in my suitcase. We checked the status which still said that they were out for delivery; we emailed to let them know exactly where we were and how to contact us; she let me use the house phone so that I could call again. This took us until past 10:00 PM, and the entire scenario repeated itself in the morning before we left to catch the ferry for Orkney. 

1 Bencorragh House Gills (3)

Woven in between the telephone madness and during the long periods of time on hold were conversations with Sandy about her life in the windy north of Scotland. Bencorrahg House is a ten acre croft, complete with Highland coos, Jersey cattle, sheep, ducks,, geese, a couple of guest-loving cats, and Sandy’s champion show dogs. Her Irish Red Setter is Bardonhill Wait Until Dark over Bencorragh, and her Irish Read and White Setter is Taniswood Summer Rose with Bencorragh. When I saw the garden out in front of the house in the morning light, even in its autumnal state it called to me to come and sit in it, and I wished I had had the time to do so. It looks out over the Inner Sound to the island of Stroma (Old Norse: Straumar-ǿy, “island in the tidal stream”), the most southern of the islands in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Mainland of Scotland. (Pentland, from the Old Norse Petlandsfjörð  “the Firth of the land of the Picts”) The picture windows in the dining area look out in to the small animals’ area where the outbuildings show the charm of the steading.

On my previous trips over to Orkney, I had taken the big Northlink Ferry that sails between Scrabster and Stromness. This trip, I had been advised by a friend who lives on Orkney to take the smaller, less exprensive, environmentally-friendly and locally-owned Pentland Ferry that sails between Gills bay and the island of South Ronaldsay (Old Norse: Rognvaldsey, Ronald’s island”). It was a smooth crossing even though it was raining and we docked at the charming, out of a storybook town of St. Margaret’s Hope. Now the third largest town in Orkney, the site was originally a chapel named Sant Margrat in the Howp, pronounced “Hup”, and the town is still referred to by the locals as “T’Hup”. The chapel and then the town were named for one of the two famous Margarets in Scottish history. The leading opinion is that it was named for Margaret, the wife of the Scottish King Malcolm III, who spent her life (1045-1093) doing charitable work and was canonized in 1250. The other possibility is Margaret, Maid of Norway, who was a very young Queen of Scotland for four years until she died on Orkney at the age of seven in 1290.

One of the neatest things about driving around in Scotland is that not being able to find what one is looking for brings opportunities for some very nice conversations with locals. It’s the American accent that gets their attention, I think, and they are all too willing to be as helpful as they can. While doing research for this trip, I found a tea room/ art gallery where I’d thought we would have tea when the ferry landed at 10:00 AM. We had a tour appointment at 1:00 PM and we wouldn’t have tie for lunch until afterwards. The online directions made it seem as though the tea room was closer to the center of town than it actually was. As I drove and the road was heading further out of town, I saw a couple out for a Saturday morning stroll and stopped to ask if I was on the correct road, which I was. We waved cheerfully at them again as we passed by going the opposite direction after we discovered that the tea room was closed for two weeks. Things can turn out to be even better sometimes; we happened upon the Fossil and Heritage Center and Café in Burray Village on the little island of Burray as we drove north. We had yummy in-house made treats, good coffee, and a fun conversation with the young server who was getting ready for her first trip to New York City.

Thusly satiated, we headed to Mainland Orkney continuing on the A961 which crosses the Churchill Barriers. The Barriers are now causeways that were originally built in WWII as naval defenses protecting the anchorage at Scapa Flow just off the coast of Orkney. In 1939, a German submarine was able to get past the nets that were in place and unfortunately sank a ship in the anchorage. Churchill ordered the barriers to be built, but they were not completely until four days after the was in Europe ended.

There are huge signs warning drivers to cross at their own risk because the waves occasionally come up and cross the road. Crossing during a heavy storm is forbidden. With the rain, there was an occasional spray of water, but nothing very threatening. We crossed all of the four barriers that connect the islands of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimphs Holm, nad Lamb Holm to Mainland Orkney.

We had the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday on Orkney (which I will write about next) and then we drove across the barriers again to take the ferry back to Gills Bay where another night at the Bencorragh House awaited us. Sadly, our luggage did not. Sandy greeted us warmly but quickly since she was on her way out to be part of a group that was counting bats as they left their cliff side cave homes near the little town of Latheron Wheel (Latheronwheel, Latharn a’Phuill, “muddy place of the pool”), about an hour’s drive south of Upper Gills, near the town of Lybster (in Gàidhlig, Liabost, from the Old Norse hli “slope” and bólstaôr “farm”). She was away for three hours, and I was still on the phone with the British Airways call center in India when she got back. I had just been told that the offices in Edinbugh were closed and there was nothing that they could do. Two hours and forty-five minutes of my life wasted. At that point, we drove off to the Seaview in time to get to the dining room for dinner. The dinner wasn’t anywhere near as good as the pub grub had been, and we wished we’d ordered it again. Still, we had a good night’s sleep ahead of us and clean clothes to wear thanks to Sandy, with another day to look forward to.









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From Oban to Upper Gills

Castle Stalker, north of Oban

Castle Stalker, north of Oban

I had been looking forward to another meal at Cuan Mor (Gàidhlig: “Big Ocean”)  in Oban (An t-Òban, “The Little Bay”) even though the new menu there no longer includes vegetarian haggis in Oban whisky cream sauce that I had enjoyed so much the last time I was there. (I wrote about Oban here.) All the same, the food was incredibly good and the service was still very friendly. I asked for Glengoyne whisky with my dinner and the server brought me the 21-year and then made another trip to the bar to get the bottle so I could have a look at it. Yummy stuff, that!

The rest of the evening was spent taking the tags off the clothes that we bought in Greenock that morning and re-arranging things in the carry-on bags that we had with us. The bed and breakfast was nice enough, but the breakfast was lacking in that everything was pre-packaged, microwavable food. After a half an hour or so on the phone trying to locate the luggage, we walked down to George Street to find some real food. Right around the corner from the Oban Distillery we found a sweet little café called Julie’s Coffee House. The food was good and the coffee was excellent; sitting there for a little while, looking out across the harbor, gave us time to re-start the day after the stressful time on the phone with British Airways. I gave them the address and phone number for the B&B near John O’Groats where we would be staying that night and again in two nights so that our bags could be delivered there. It was plenty of time, and I was assured that they were out for delivery.

We headed off north on the A828 and since we were still feeling a little ungrounded from all the nonsense with the luggage, I pulled in to the car park at the Highland Titles Nature Reserve since we were driving right by. After a quick “good morning” to David who was surprised to see us again after our visit the day before, we took a few minutes to once again walk in the peace of the place. We left feeling refreshed and settled knowing that we would be reunited with our luggage that night.

Marsha has a plot of land at the newer Highland Titles Reserve: Meadowview, or Bumble Bee Haven as it’s become known, so we turned west on to the A830 near Ft. William and went in search of any signs along the road that would let us know where it was. I had the general idea of its location, but without any signs, we weren’t able to find it. After a while, it began to not matter so much since we were thoroughly enjoying the drive as it wound alongside Loch Shiel. We drove as far as the Glenfinnan (Gleann Fhionghain, “white glen”) overlook.

Glenfinnan Monument

In 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, raised his standard on the shore of Loch Shiel (Loch Seile) and there began the Jacobite Uprising. The monument that now stands to commemorate the event was erected seventy years after the event.

We then turned back to the east on the A830, ultimately heading northeast to John O’Groats, our destination for the evening. The main objective for the early part of the day was to capture as many photographs of Ben Nevis as we could. As part of a flute choir, Marsha has played Catherine McMichael’s Falconer many times. It is a flute quartet in which two of the four movements are named “Snow on Ben Nevis” and “On Seeing Castle Stalker”. We had achieved a few good shots of Castle Stalker on the previous day and now it was Ben Nevis’s turn to be in our spotlight.

Ben Nevis from the A830 along the shore of Loch Shiel

Ben Nevis from the A830 along the shore of Loch Shiel

Ben Nevis from the town of Corpach (A' Chorpaich, “the place of the bodies”, named because it was used as a resting place when taking coffins of chieftains on the way to burial on the Isle of Iona)

Ben Nevis from the town of Corpach (A’ Chorpaich, “the place of the bodies”, named because it was used as a resting place when taking coffins of chieftains on the way to burial on the Isle of Iona)

As we turned north on the A82 at Ft. William, the road began to look very familiar to me. Just as I was saying that I thought there was a neat little place to eat nearby, I recognized the turn off to the Nevis Range Ski Area. Nearly ten years ago, I had stumbled upon the Lochaber Farm Shop and Café when I had been doing just what I was doing on this trip: trying to find places from which I could get a good clear shot of Ben Nevis. I turned up the steep road, and at the top, and up an even steeper driveway, was the building that houses the Café and the little crafts gallery/store. It’s located in the same complex as the Lochaber Rural Education Trust, near Torlundy (Tòrr Lunndaidh,”eminence of the marsh”). After I got a few photos taken we went in to eat.

Ben Nevis from Lochaber Cafe

Ben Nevis from the Lochaber Cafe

The food was as good as I had remembered it to be; butternut squash soup and rocket salad for me and a brie and cranberry turkey sandwich for Marsha. The little shop turned out to be a treasure trove for us. I found a locally-made hand knit hat. I had packed three hats in my suitcase, promising myself that I wouldn’t succumb to my seemingly insatiable love of hats and buy another one on the trip. But, there I was, in need of a warm hat, so somewhat gleefully, I walked out of the shop owning a new one. I also found some wonderful goodies to have with us for snacks in the car. Thusly fed, rested, and warmed, we were off again heading for the North Country.

We drove up the A82 as far as Drumnadrochit (Druim na Drochaid, “ridge of the bridge”) and then drove west a little to take the A333 north through Beauly and Dingwall and then join the A9 north of Inverness as it finished crossing the Black Isle. (Dingwall comes from the Norse, Þingvöllr “meeting place”; it is also called Inbhir Pheofharain in Gàidhlig, meaning “the confluemce of the Pheofharain” referring to the nearby river.) We would see Dingwall again in a few days under the cover of darkness, but as we passed by on this day, it was bright and sunny. We were trying to make it to John O’Groats before sunset, but the way the day had unfolded did not allow for some of our planned stops and it kept us on the road until after dark.

GPS is a wonderful thing, except when it isn’t. Out in the open moors of the Parish of Canisbay (Canaispidh, probably from a Pictish name) in the Northeastern corner of Caithness (Gallaibh, “among the strangers”) the roads are narrow and run in winding ways that connect several small hamlets. We were looking for the little hamlet of Upper Gills and our lodging for the night but the GPS kept us one road over to the east so that it kept saying that we had reached our destination. The destination it had us reaching was a completely dark road in between two completely open fields. We saw a bright light a half a mile or so away and so I drove off to find a road that would get us there. After a couple of wrong tries, we found our way and were very thankful to find that the bright light was indeed a beacon leading us to the Bencorragh House.

 A82 north of Dornach

Heather-covered hill along the A9 north of Dornach


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Kelpies, Part 2

1 Kelpies at Falkirk (3)

The memories page on Facebook has reminded me that I wrote about the Kelpies at Falkirk a year ago today. Back then, I had not yet seen them and my notes on them were a postscript to the information on the kelpies as water spirits, not as sculpture. Even though I had written a bit about them, I was not prepared for the experience of seeing them.

We drove south on the M9 from Stirling on our way to South Queensferry where we would stay the night after taking the train into Edinburgh and back. It was a quiet Sunday morning; the road was free of heavy traffic and gave plenty of opportunities to enjoy the scenery as we passed by. Suddenly the tops of the heads of the Kelpie sculptures loomed at us from over the treetops to our right. After what seemed like a circuitous route to get off the M9 and back to the Helix where the Kelpies are installed, we were at the car park. A leisurely walk of half of a mile or so through a preserved wetlands area showed us why we had had to drive so far afield, or in this case so far a lagoon, to get there. As we walked, we could not see the Kelpies but enjoyed the swans and the occasional dog out walking its owner. We turned a curve in the path and suddenly they were across the park from us. Bordered by the canal alive with houseboats parked along the edge, the open area in which the Kelpies stand is accessible only by walking across wooden footbridges that cross the canals. It is the hub of 27 kilometers (nearly 17 miles) of walking and biking paths that connect the surrounding sixteen communities.

Andy Scott, the sculptor who created the Kelpies, envisioned the classic working horses, the horses that moved goods throughout Scotland. His idea was to pay homage to the great pulling horses: the Percherons, Shires and Clydesdales (two of which were used as the life models for the sculpture). These were the majestic horses that pulled the plows across the fields, the wagons through the roads, and the barges along the canals and rivers.

At 30 meters high (98.4 feet) and weighing 300 metric tonnes (nearly 330.7 tons) each, the construction of the Kelpies sculpture was a feat of engineering that was monumentally completed in 90 days. Each one has a base of concrete reinforced with steel weighing in at 1200 metric tonnes (2,656,000 pounds). Nine Hundred small individually cut steel plates were used for each head.

1 Kelpies at Falkirk (19)

I walked around each one of the heads, slowly taking in each and every angle. I was amazed at how full of life they are. They are certainly majestic. Mr. Scott has captured the very essence of the horses and I’m not too sure they don’t come the rest of the way out of the ground and gallop around a bit when no one is looking.

1 Kelpies at Falkirk (14)

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Freeing the Trees

We arrived at the airport in Edinburgh mid-afternoon, but with all the time spent with the lost luggage situation, we did not get on the road until a few hours after we had planned to do so. This meant that on the way to Largs we did not get to take the little detours I had planned so that we could see a couple of the rocking stones that I had previously written about and wanted to see in person. Instead, we went directly out to the farm so that I could find the way in the remaining daylight. After we were settled in a bit, we went back in to town for dinner.

In the morning, our plans to drive over to Dumgoyne (Dùn Geòidhean) and visit the Glengoyne Distillery were cancelled in deference to our need to go shopping to get a few items of clothing. The outdoor temperature in San Francisco had been nearly 100 degrees when we left. I had worn only a thin cotton gauze shirt on the plane expecting to be able to pull a sweater or my jacket out of my suitcase when we arrived in Scotland. We stopped in Greenock and found a Primark store where I found a nice rain jacket and Marsha and I both found some warmer shirts, socks and underwear to last for the two days that we had been told it would take to get our luggage to us.

Loch Lomond & Ben Lomond

As we drove north on the A82 and the scenery changed from the outskirts of Glasgow to the rolling countryside, we felt ourselves settling in to the actual trip instead of dealing with the luggage nonsense. Our intention was to get as far as Crianlarich (A’ Chrìon-Làraich; “withered or little site”) and then have some lunch. As it turned out, it was a good thing that we hadn’t taken the time to go over to Dumgoyne because after stopping to take some photos on the shore of Loch Lomond with Ben Lomond in the background, we experienced something that I had never experienced in Scotland before: a traffic jam.

The A82 is a narrow two-lane road that has a lot of very tight curves as it winds alongside the northern part of the Loch, and for some reason we were there at a time when quite a few large lorries (trucks) were making their way in the southbound direction. As they came around the curves, all traffic came to a standstill to give them room to make the turns. One thing that can consistently be said about drivers in Scotland is that they are patient and polite. There was no horn-blowing or impatiently cutting in front of other drivers; everyone simply settled in to waiting out the time and staying as close to the left side of the road as possible in order to give the lorries as much room as they could. While we waited, we enjoyed a prolonged view of the Loch and lots of fresh air wafting over us through the trees.

Just north of Crianlarich is the town of Tyndrum (Taigh an Droma; “house of the ridge”), which is where we found The Real Food Café gluten-free and pet friendly with a lot of vegetarian items on the menu. We finished off our lunch of Vegetable Pakora & Minted Yogurt Dip for me and Homemade Spiced Vegetable & Lentil Burger for Marsha, Ginger Beer for both of us, and a slice of Courgette (zucchini) Cake to share, and were on our way again.

We had an appointment with David, one of the Rangers at the Highland Titles Nature Reserve, at three o’clock, but we still had enough time to take in the view and stop for as many photos as we wanted to as we drove up the A82. We passed Rannoch Moor (Mòinteach Raineach), Black Rock Cottage, and drove through Glen Coe (Gleann Comhann), and down the A828 along the shore of Loch Linnhe.

Perserverance along the A82

The Highland Titles Nature Reserve is located near Duror (Dùrar, ”hard water”) on the A828, just south of the town of Ballachulish (Baile a’ Chaolais, ”the town of the strait”). I have previously written about the Reserve here. We spent a few hours out on the Reserve with David; he found the two small plots of land that I had purchased for Kyle and myself a few years ago when he turned 25. Then, we took the buggy up the hill and found Marsha’s plot which is located up near the top of a hill overlooking Loch Linnhe (Loch Linnidh). Her bit of the land is located right in front of a beautiful birch tree. Liisa’s plot is also in this area, just a few yards away from Marsha’s. Then, we went to see the three rowan trees that Kyle, Liisa and I had planted on my larger, ten square foot plot.

During the past couple of years, Stewart, the Estate Warden, has been keeping an eye on the trees for me. Every now and then he sends a photo of them to me; he knows it makes my day to see photos of them in the changing seasons. Recently, he built a bridge over the little burn that comes out of the lochan right beside the trees. I was excited to see them again in person. After a few minutes of discussion with David about the green mesh that we had put over the saplings when we planted them, we agreed that it was time to take the mesh off. They are wee bitty trees that don’t stand much higher than the grasses and the heather that grow with them, but they are full and healthy. I was happy that we had freed them. A dragonfly landed upon my back as I was leaning over to take close up photos of them. It made me feel that they were happy, too.

Rowan & Heather


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Mishaps Do Not A Total Disaster Make

We flew in to Heathrow and then on to Edinburgh. Our luggage did not.

It took the British Airways baggage claim people an hour to let us know that, due to a scanner failure at Heathrow, there were somewhere around five hundred pieces of checked baggage that were essentially missing. It took another hour to get our information sorted out with baggage claims. We were told that it would be more than twenty-four hours for the bags to be delivered to us, so I gave them the address where Marsha and I would be staying on the second night of our two-week journey through Scotland.

What followed was six more days of exceedingly frustrating calls to the baggage claim call center somewhere in India that lasted on average two hours each. Two hours each morning of being on hold, only to be informed that the whereabouts of our luggage was not known, and that there was no way for them to get in touch with us if they did locate them, for they could neither call out nor send emails. I found it both very frustrating and very telling that the customer service numbers for both British Airways and the courier company were taken out of service. It was not until I pulled the medications in the bags card, which was absolutely true, that I received a call from a very nice man at the Edinburgh Airport baggage claim who immediately had our luggage flown to our next stopping point: Tarbert on the Isle of Harris.

During those six days, we not only spent hours on the phone, we also spent a lot more time than we would ever care to shopping for something to wear in the meantime. I am choosing to look at these experiences as more time to chat it up with Scots who are not in the tourist/ food service industry. We met some very nice people. The Primark store in Greenock wins the prize for helping us sort out the UK vs US sizes, and the M & Company in Kirkwall wins the patience prize as the two sales women stayed a few minutes past closing to accommodate us. I am also choosing to look at the experience overall as a lesson in the fact that I really can wear the same pair of jeans for five days, rotate the wearing of three shirts, and yes, even wear the same bra for six days (with one washing out of it). Tesco was our go-to for new socks and underwear.

Marsha and I had just about gotten our heads around the lost luggage fiasco, when the next one came with a literal bang. We were on the A835 just south of Strathcanaird (Srath Chainneart), heading in to Ullapool (Ulapul) when a truck (lorrie) came fast at us up a hill and took up more than its fair share of the extremely narrow road. As I drove through the next minute or so, I saw it all come before me in the proverbial slow-motion of a catastrophe.

Flat Tire

As I saw that the lorrie was not going to move over to the right, I scanned the left edge of the road. There’s never any shoulder on these winding roads, and so I expected that I would be off the asphalt and into the dirt. What I didn’t expect was that the road would choose that particular place to have fallen away at the edge, leaving a gaping hole that dropped a good eight to ten inches to the ground. I knew that the front left tire was headed for that hole as if a magnet were drawing it there and I had no time to correct the situation. My first thought was that the car might flip, but instead it hit the hole with the resounding pop of the tire exploding upon impact. I have never had a tire blow while I was driving, and I have often wondered how I would handle the situation. Would I remember everything that my dad taught me about emergency driving if an emergency actually presented itself? I now have that answer to the question. If I do say so myself, both the car (a Vauxhall Mokka) and I performed beautifully. There was not a bit of swerving or loss of control, and I was able to bring the car to a stop in only a few yards. Fortunately, there was a pull out located directly across the road from where I stopped the car. (As I write this, I wonder why the lorrie driver couldn’t have managed to use the pull out for more room instead of taking it from my side of the road.) I got the car over to the pull out without having the tire come off the wheel and then I did the next most practical thing I could think of.

I calmly got out of the car, closed the door, looked at the tire, and then let the loudest f-bomb I could muster reverberate off the hills of the Highlands.

And then, I started to change the tire. This is when I learned that new cars don’t have spare tires. I flagged down a passing car and a woman and her father were extremely gracious in trying to help us set up and use the compressor that was in the trunk (boot) of the car, but the tire was too badly blown. We were able to get enough phone reception to call the emergency number for the car rental company, and soon help was on the way. They would be there in two hours time.

We settled in to whiling away the time. As the sun set and the clouds moved over Ben Mor Coigach (Beinn Mhòr na Còigich; 2438 ft/743m), Marsha pulled out her knitting, and I read aloud from Neil Oliver’s book, Vikings, which I had purchased for Liisa. This was the time when I received the phone call from the sensible and very helpful chap at British Airways who flew our luggage over to Harris. It’s very interesting that up until that evening, I had not been able to get phone reception anywhere I had tried it. After that, it worked like a charm for the duration of the trip.

At 9:00 PM, our rescuer, Robert, safely strapped the Vauxhall to the flatbed and we were off on the hour’s drive over to Dingwall where we could get the tire fixed. I’m sure there was a place in Ullapool that could do the job, but rental companies and insurance companies being what they are, Dingwall was our only choice. Robert kindly stopped in Ullapool so that we could get a warm drink, and as the three of us rode along in the cab of his lorrie, we learned that the reason it took him so long to get there was that he had driven from Tain, which is north of Inverness. We talked about many things: his job as a lorrie driver between Scotland and Brittany; the vote for Scottish independence; his parents’ jobs as tour guides in the U.S. for UK nationals; and where our trip was taking us.

We were only half an hour or so in Dingwall (Scots: Dingwal; Gàidhlig: Inbhir Pheofharain) while the tire was replaced, and then we were on our way back to Lochbroom (Loch Bhraoin), just a few miles south of Ullapool. I had been in touch with our hostess, Marie, at the B&B, and she left the door unlocked and the lights on for us. At 11:30 PM, we quietly came in to the house to find a bowl of fruit and yogurt waiting for us so that we didn’t go to bed hungry. We crept in to our respective rooms and, I don’t know about Marsha, but I was asleep in minutes.

The Clachan Farmhouse is located in a serene glen with rolling green fields. Clachan refers to a small village or settlement, and the farmhouse is located quite near a little church. A working farm, Clachan has North Country Cheviot sheep, Luing cattle, and champion Border Collies that, sadly, we did not get to meet. Marie welcomed us in the morning with a hearty breakfast and a hot pot of tea. We were disappointed to not have been able to enjoy the fire she’d had waiting for us in the drawing-room the previous evening, but were consoled by the her admission that we wouldn’t have been able to see the sunset from there as we had from the roadside.

In good time, we were off to Ullapool and the ferry that took us to Stornoway, Isle of Lewis from which we drove to Tarbert, Isle of Harris and our luggage.

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