Monthly Archives: October 2011

Scotland……the Last Wee Bits…

So this is it – my last night in Scotland. How better to celebrate than an evening at the most popular place in town – with a whisky that Andy, the Pub Keep, brought out from ‘upstairs’ especially for me. Balvenie Doublewood 12 year. It’s apparently matured in two woods. First in the traditional Oak Whisky cask then a ‘First Fill’ European Oak Sherry cask. We both had a rather hushed reverence as he carefully poured my dram. He then instructed me on the fine art of introducing water to the glass. Water opens up the flavor so having it ‘neat’ is really robbing you of the fullness. One ice cube is the best – slipped into the glass – not dropped – rolled around and then….enjoy! Being as how it’s a last night and all – I didn’t ask the price – just handed him my credit card… I found out later – it was free!

The weather is cooperating as well. I got to sit outside with an amazing view of the waning afternoon sun and- get this – no wind! Maybe this is my fare-thee-well from beyond the beyond… Whatever it may be – I am in total appreciation.

The last wee bits of my time in Scotland. Certainly they are too numerous to mention. As I said in an earlier post – a post by definition is not a novel so while I could go on forever – I’ll keep it as succinct as I can. Just a few things that come to mind:

Food – it’s rich, rich, rich here! Pasties, meat pies, shepards pie, fish and chips. It seems that anything that can be deep fried or smothered in butter – is! Potatoes are a staple as is Tablet. A super sweet and hard form of fudge. Bakeries are everywhere. Forres alone has three and it is a pretty tiny town. Being gluten and egg intolerant – it’s a bit like torture to look but don’t taste…sigh. Stand alone butcher shops are popular and venison is right there along with the angus. I have tried the haddock and found it to my liking as well as the atlantic salmon but not the farmed raised stuff. Venison pate with oak cakes – well – you just haven’t lived ’til you’ve tried it. The one delicacy I heard about but didn’t get a chance to partake was deep fried Mars Bars. Not Kidding! Apparently you take a regular old Mars Bar – dip it in batter – and stick it in the vat. When it floats – it’s done. Probably a good thing I wasn’t introduced. While my clothes still fit – I can say with all certainty – I’m gonna have some ‘splainin’ to do to my scale when I get home!!

Since Paris is my next stop and I will be meeting my Beloved there (read Absolutely Can’t Wait!) it puts me in mind of all things romantic. That includes PDAs – public displays of affection for the uninitiated. Paris is considered by many to be the height of romance and anything goes. Having been there twice before – alone – I can only surmised by what I witnessed. It seems as if the attitude was anything goes but it also felt a bit contrived – as if the inhabitants had a reputation to live up to. What I appreciated in my forays in Scotland was an ample albeit reserved public demonstration of ones regard for ones mate. It was lovely to see and was not just a hallmark of the young. In fact, most of the hand holding, kissing, walking arm-in-arm and door openings-by-men were by older couples. There was a gentle deference by the men towards their women – a public chivalry that I just haven’t witnessed elsewhere. And before any reader cried foul and tries to deride the happy recipients – the Scottish women I’ve had the pleasure to chat with are about the strongest lot I’ve met in some time. Not many shrinking violets here. Or for that matter – Barbie Dolls or Princesses. The climate alone wouldn’t allow it! At least as far as what I was privy to – there just seems to be simply an appreciation for each other and a celebration and gratitude for the differences between the sexes and – at the end of the day – the power of two. Perhaps I’m waxing poetic but I found it lovely to witness anyway…

Being from Seattle – I don’t have much in the way of daily reminders of my area’s history. Here the evidence is just everywhere. Cairns, ancient burial sites, Pictish forts, castles – restored and in ruins, even farms separated by stone fences hundreds and hundreds of years old. It is not out of the ordinary to see a stone archway and remains of an ancient building tucked away in a new development. Standing stones are everywhere as well. I saw many and a few of them were in pastures with little fences around them to keep the livestock from using them as scratching posts. So many of the homes in the villages are at least two hundred years old and they have the delightful tradition of naming the house. Your address would be: Lockney Cottage 212, Forres….

Another delightful tradition – dogs are allowed in the pubs! In fact, they are welcome members. I met several – large and small – young and old. In fact, just this evening an older couple was coming by the Kimberly and their spaniel jumped up the stairs to where the outside tables sit. The owner gave the leash a tug – the dog looked at him askance – the owner looked at me and said – perhaps a bit sheepishly, “it’s a cryin’ shame when your dog knows your habits that well”. Being a dog lover I’d welcome them too. I have a wonderful ‘niece’ – her name is Sophia – and as a standard Blue poodle – she’d make sure she was the belle of the ball. Of course – she is a princess by any definition so we might have to make allowances…. LOL!

Dogs reign and they are the happiest dogs I’ve seen. They cavort, chase birds ever hopefully, hop around in the surf, swim endlessly and being Scottish dogs – rocks are just fine to retrieve. No need for sissy tennis balls here, thank you very much.

Bicycles are a popular form of transportation and not just for the Lance Armstrong Wannabees. All ages can be seen pedaling away – chatting on cell phones, smoking cigarettes – and – drinking a beer (yes!) – makes me almost want to put a basket and bell on my mountain bike.

Soccer is for wimps – rugby is king. The World Cup finals is all you hear about right now and the fact that France beat England…..

Laundry is hung outside to dry and not just on the fine days. As long as it isn’t raining – sheets and socks are flapping away. Dryers are not considered a right and with electricity as expensive as it is – mother nature is put to the task. The sheets smell divine…

All in all what I have appreciated most about Scotland is the lack of pretension. I can’t quite find the right words but what comes to mind is ‘real’. Now this of course is coming through the filters of my own experiences, my own world view, my own perspectives. Another traveler may and most probably will experience something different all together. But that’s for them to discover. What I know is I have discovered a little piece of heaven on earth where you don’t have to lock your doors, people are – for the most part – down home friendly and inviting, dogs are really really happy and – you can fry up a Mars bar and no one will think the less of you….

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The Scottish Highlands……Beyond the Beyond….

I could have spent most of my time on this journey just in the Scottish Highlands. While not that big an area – it’s not an easy piece of country to get around in via public transportation. As in previous posts – some of my experiences – guidebooks not withstanding. No particular order or level of importance – it was all wonderful:

There is confusion in my family as to whether or not my grandfather – Stewart Thompson – was really from Montrose. Since there is no actual proof yet that he wasn’t – I took a swing through the tiny little whistle stop town to see my roots. While not much there I did hike all the way to the Montrose Golf links to view at least one Scottish course. Established in 1562 – it’s the 5th oldest course in the world. Right by the sea with attendant constant wind – I can’t imagine what manner of corrections one would have to do with their swing to manage anything resembling a straight shot down the fairway. It’s a devote religion here with prayers and penitents alike. The country has over 500 courses – 67 in Edinburgh alone. If you think about it – it’s a pretty spiritual game. You can’t be thinking about the office, the bills, the kids, not getting any the night before, etc. or you’re going to muck it up. I wonder if my brothers know they are practicing the art of ‘being in the Now Moment’ when they play…..I can hear the groans now… see the eyes roll…

On the train from Edinburgh north I got to watch two matched draft horse colts racing the train. Sorry to say the only picture is in my head – I couldn’t get to the camera fast enough.

Inverness is the unofficial capitol of the Highlands. It was here that I was introduced to another Scottish passion – flyfishing. This particular group of senior “guys” were quite talkative – sharing their favorite flys, what they fish for most, and letting me in on the secret that they also use worms. They showed me the “Rogue Gallery” in their fishing shack – photos taped to the wall of the various catches over the years – the fish reverently lined up on the ground in each picture. But, as soon as I turned on the video – they clammed up, mumbled a few hellos and that was that….

While in Inverness I was introduced to Scottish Eagle Owls. They are huge birds and not nocturnal. Amber and Skye were on hire to farmers to keep the rabbit and fox populations in check. They can also take down small deer. When they aren’t hunting they are on display for public education and outreach. The little owl is named Willow. I’m not sure of her breed but her eyes kind of bore into your soul…..

Didn’t see any sign of “Nessie” on my boat trip up Loch Ness. The 6th century castle ruins of Urquhart were the best part. I steered clear of the gift shop –

Here’s a pic of the “Barrel House” I mention in an earlier post. Recycled Whiskey kegs….

I got to try my hand at Scottish Country Dancing in Findhorn. Quite lively, a little complicated at first and an absolute riot! Not for the faint of heart – it’s a lot of work. One poor woman missed a hand off to her next partner during a reel and ended up on the floor. So be forewarned – there are ‘flingers’ in every crowd.

I spent an afternoon at the Culloden battlefield. This was the site of the battle that essentially ended the Jacobite Rising and the clan system. The museum was structured so you got the Scottish point of view and story on one side of the building and the English on the other. While walking the actual battle field there were a line of clan grave markers. Some had coins placed on the tops of the stones. The Well of the Dead is still there and flowing after more than 350 years. It was moving in ways I’m still trying to figure out.

Ever tried dowsing? I had heard of water witching but not energy dowsing. While at Balnuaran of Clava cairns – an ancient burial site predating the Picts – I got to give it a whirl. And it works! It was pretty eerie – walking along holding these two bent pieces of coat hanger and then all of a sudden one or both of them would swing strongly in the other direction – against the wind – me following behind. Some say that there are energy vortexes all over this region of Scotland. I have no idea but the pull on those coat hangers was quite insistent – that’s the only way I can describe it – so I have to think there’s may be something to the rumor…

The wind blows something fierce here. I actually watched two seagulls flying Backwards!! Not kidding. Umbrellas are useless in the rain for the most part. They just blow inside out…

Another word on Scottish pubs. While not officially a law any more – there are a few establishments that hang onto the idea that women DO NOT belong in the bar. Many pubs have a separate ‘lounge’ for women. I experienced this first hand in Forres. Amy and I decided to head down to the Red Beastie ahead of the gang who would meet up with us later. We went into the bar and as soon as we walked in – it got quiet. One of the gents said “I think you’d be more comfortable in the lounge…” We shook our heads and said cheerfully “Oh no, that’s ok. We’ve some friends coming so we’ll just wait here” You could’ve heard a pin drop. His pal said – a little louder, “Really, we think you’d be more comfortable in the lounge.” I was about to start in with a bit of attitude but Amy stopped me, took my arm and told them she was just sure we’d be more comfortable in the lounge and thank you…. Who knew…..

Finally -The Myth confirmed – at least in the tiny village of Findhorn on the Moray Firth.

During a rousing conversation at the Kimberley Pub – the subject of kilts came up. My question was “why kilts and not pants?” One of the gentleman looked at me like I was…well…New – and said “no sewing machines”. Apparently in the really old days a kilt was just a really long piece of tartan wound about the waist and then the excess tossed over the shoulder. The pleats and other fancies came later. Easy to move about it, get in and out of, plenty of activities could be performed without the annoyance or delay of removal….. I can see a few wheels grinding on that one!

Said gentleman then told our group that the next time we saw a lad in a kilt kneeling….” Ya dinna want ta be goin’ ta stand where that lad was!” Why? “Well Lass, are ya daft? He’s just finished a wee piss!” He went on to describe the difficulties of using the men’s urinal to relieve yourself. “Well, first ya hafta swing the sporran outa the way to the back of ya. Then ya need both hands for yer business right? So what do ya hafta do then?” (pause for effect) “Ya gotta hike up yer skirt like a lass under your chin and hold it there!. It’s the only way ya can grasp your parts properly.” “so, it’s easier just ta kneel” You can’t deny there’s a certain logic in that… The Myth? Yep – there taint nuthin’ but air under a kilt…..

There is a wildness that’s hard to place or articulate here in the Highlands. But it’s there – I can feel it. An unpredictability that is oddly in alignment with where I find myself in this journey. Like a wild card is in play and all I can do is keep my hands inside the ride at all times….. Happily…

Scottish Castles….Ramparts, Dry Moats & Drop Bridges….

…..At least two of them anyway. Another blond moment – when I finally arrived at the ticket counter after an impossible line (I am not a natural queuer – really… how many Americans are??) I was asked if I was planning on seeing any other castles while in Scotland and they had this fab pass that would give me a steep discount, etc. etc. I declined – I only planned on seeing two – how many more could there be? Scotland’s not THAT big. As my brother Dan is fond of saying, “What are you? New?” As it turns out – the country is literally awash with them. In retrospect – considering the current Pound to Dollar exchange rate (Ouch!) I should’ve gotten the pass…..

Pretty much everywhere you look in Edinburgh is dominated by some view of the Edinburgh Castle. Which is appropriate when you think about it – a castle in those days was really a fort and it was of particular benefit to be able to survey the land and approaching enemies as close to 360 degrees as possible. Is that why corporate execs have corner offices? I digress… My first impression was that it looked like it grew out of the rocks. I know I have made this observation in previous posts – but how did they do this level of construction without benefit of modern machinery? And it’s still standing – after being razed completely save for one small chapel at least once in the last 1000 years. I followed the obligatory tour and once again was delighted with the Scot’s amazing capacity for story telling. Much more fun that reading a guidebook account and the accent is to die for. It was declared impenetrable and was only breached once in its long history by a small band of brave lads scaling the cliffside ramparts. Try that without modern climbing gear, at night, in the driving rain, archers at the ready above you ….in a skirt….

As with many Scottish castles – so I was told – moats made no sense. With the topography being mostly hills – moats would simply drain into the villages below. But the concept was still employed as yet another means of protection. Scaled the cliff and external wall successfully? OK, but now you have an expanse of ground to cross without benefit of cover – all manner of nasty instruments of death and destruction lying in wait and a second rampart to conquer. If you managed that still standing – ok – you’re in. But wait – now you have the king’s close guard to overcome. In addition to being the best of the best, more than likely they are armored (you left yours at the bottom of the cliff to lighten your load) and they aren’t exhausted, probably got a decent nights sleep – maybe even a roll with a willing wench (but they’re probably in skirts too) As I was meandering the grounds I could see the ghosts of these soldiers – marveled at the courage, strength and tenacity it must have took in those days to be a warrior. Not at all a slight on our military today but you have to agree – it’s not quite as personal any more – save – for the most part – the added benefit of pants.

No, I didn’t misspell Draw Bridges in the title. At least the Edinburgh and Stirling castles employed a Drop Bridge. Having missed that part of the guided tour I can only surmise that – given gravity – it’s a helluva lot faster to drop several tons of lumber than it is to raise it. I’m sure there is a much more elegant and thoughtful reason – if you find out let me know.

Tourists are the main bread and butter for current castle revenues but it is also a very popular and auspicious place to wed. Indeed – there were happy (hopefully) nuptials taking place the day I visited. The groom was resplendent in his Scottish formal attire and the bride was glowing. After witnessing the Florence wedding at Dante’s House with attendant misgivings – remember? Inferno, Divine Comedy, Purgatory….. I was simply taken in by the grandeur of the scene and silently sent them my heartfelt congratulations and well wishes. My friends Kim and Russ were married in her namesake castle just outside of Prague. I was unable to attend but if it was anything like this – what an extraordinary start to a life together. A true Kodak moment – with both parties in dresses! I’m telling you – Scottish men have the corner on the “secure in their manhood” market… LOL

From the current Stirling town entrance by train – the castle is not visible. More than likely the town grew against that face in the last few centuries. The first thing that struck me was the “King’s Gold” colored building in the center of the grounds. The ‘Great Hall’ as I discovered later. It looked odd and garish. As I made my way in and around I noticed more rooms that either had been restored or were in the process of being restored as close to original likeness as historical documents can provide. At first blush I thought it was a sacrilege – as if there was a defacement occurring. Ok, yet another blond moment…sigh…. It dawned on me that the decaying edifices that I saw all around me weren’t always decaying edifices. Hello! At one time they were new construction (yes I can hear Dan clearly…What are you? New?) If you believe the history books – James V wanted Stirling castle to be a glorious and imposing beacon of his reign and sovereignty. A visual display of the promise of greatness to his people. Ok, perhaps he just wanted to show off but with an unlimited budget like his – why not? He was new and young with a statement to make. Hmmmmm….brings to mind another new young leader intent on making his own mark by spending loads of his people’s cash on showy displays…. I digress, again. After this stunning (tongue in cheek) revelation – I started to imagine the rest of the castle in all its original splendor and how it must have looked to a contingent of – say- Spanish nobles coming in to swing a deal.

A word to Brave Heart enthusiasts – do NOT – under pain of excruciating embarrassment – raise your hand when queried by the castle tour staff if you’ve seen the movie. I myself admit to having seen the film at least 5 times and cried every single time William rips off the helmet of his attacker and finds the Bruce. Ahhhhh – the betrayal….. Any Scot will tell you in no – absolutely no uncertain terms – the movie is nothing but a grand pile of Coo Shite (a Coo being a scottish cow with long hair) Suffice to say – Mel and Hollywood have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do and at least as far as the movie is concerned – are not terribly popular here either. While I heard conflicting stories as to why William Wallace was decidedly not the embodiment of the Brave Heart – it was uniformly concurred that Robert the Bruce was the true savior and leader of the times. While Edinburgh castle is wonderful and convenient – I found Stirling castle much more historically interesting and well worth the train trip. I have to admit – after my visit – if I deign to watch Brave Heart again – I probably won’t cry.