06 September 2011

scotland--the wild

Tuesday 23 August I got up quite early after a late night to get to the meeting spot in Edinburgh for my tour through the Highlands and Hebrides with Wild in Scotland. Six days of wonderful adventure, fun company and splendid scenery. As I said in the last post, each day continued to be better than the last making this section certainly the best part of my time in Scotland.

So this day, Day One, I joined about 15 others and our tour guide drove us off on our adventure. We stopped first at Glencoe hearing about the corrections to the Braveheart movie. It was quite interesting but I don't actually remember the details now. We saw the statue of Robert the Bruce King of Scots with Stirling Castle in the background. Then we drove on through the great glen stopping for a while as we reached the mountains. We wandered around for a while along a track in the valley. Heather was in flower all over the place. Back at the bus Matt, our tour guide, got out some whisky for us all to have a toast. Slangevar! (That's the gaelic salute.) We were just starting to roll into the highlands and settle into our tour and warm up to the group.

We had a few stops along the way that day. We never drove more than about 2hrs at a time and that didn't happen often. In fact our longest straight travel time was the ferry from the Isle of Lewis back to the mainland. But that comes toward the end. As for the first day, we got to see some highland cows up close. Funny hairy things they are. :) Apparently very lean meat and not so tasty but I do wonder if they've ever used their hair for yarn... We also had a short stop by an area that tourists kept adding piles of rocks by the side of the road. Interesting and odd to see. Later in the day we also stopped by Eilean Donan Castle still owned by the Clan MacRae that they open to the public. We then drove on to Plockton where we stayed in a compact hostel which was probably good for a bit of group bonding. We had a kitty we all put in to, we shopped for food supplies and cooked our evening meals together as a group. I actually quite liked this method and it made it a cheaper tour too. And Matt did a great job at finalising a decision for us easy-going bunch. Ha ha.

Day Two had us first into Stromeferry where the Wild in Scotland office is--overlooking Loch Carron. There we met a character, Neil, who took us out on his little fishing boat. While Captin Allison (one of the group) steered us around the lake, we scrapped the Loch floor with a net and pulled up an assortment of critters. Mostly oysters I think but also some starfish, sunfish, rocks, shells and other wierd bits and pieces. Neil cut open the oysters and people ate them. He also cooked some up in a little garlic butter as well. Everyone was poking around the pile of Loch floor stuff except me. I found myself standing back thinking, "I don't want to touch any of it." We also looked at some crabs and a lobster Neil was holding in some cages closer to shore. After that we climbed aboard our bus and drove over the bridge to the Isle of Skye. Here we got our first downpour while we were grocery shopping in Portree. Wonderfully this one downpour and most of the last day of the tour were the only real wet patches we had on tour. We really did have splendid Scottish weather. Matt told us loads of stories about the two main clans of the island, the MacDonalds and the MacLeods, and the horrible massacre.

Matt took us to see the Fairyglen which was a really pretty place that it seems the locals tried to keep from tourists for a good while. Some have found it though and I'm glad I got to see it. We drove through the Cuillin Mountains and stopped for a walk. About half way along you could take a track down to the road where you could meet the bus. Those who didn't take that track adventured along a route our tour guide hasn't been himself that was suppose to take us right to the hostel we were staying at. The scenery along the way was amazing. The mountains were intersting shapes and the scene across the neighbouring ones were full of rocks and grass and sheep but not a tree in sight. Certainly not what I'm used to seeing. We got to a point where the instructions we were given were not so easily interpreted in our surroundings. We ended up deciding to go down a track we thought might be the one. Down a very steep hill. A very steep muddy hill. Ha ha. Adventure I tell ya. :) We survived no worries and we even came out where we were suppose to though we weren't too sure at the time as the track led us to a road and we were expecting to end up at the hostel. But just as someone decided to call Matt we found out he was just around the corner in the bus coming to pick us up. The hostel we stayed at here was much roomier than the last and by the time I settled in I was hungry. Tonight I mucked in with getting tea prepared. Actually, Allison and I got it started and organised. Tonight, as the night before, and the nights to come, we ate and we drank and we played lots of Uno and dice games. And chatting and laughing too naturally.

Day Three I think perhaps was my favourite. The scenery this day still has me swooning over Scotland. And as a group we were really getting on and having lots of fun. Of my ten days in Scotland, this is the day I wish I could go back and relive.

We caught the ferry from the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Harris. About a two hour crossing in which I spent most of my time below deck by the window with a hot chocolate and my knitting. I went up on deck where most of the others were closer to Harris and soaked in some of the sunshine with them. It was another brilliant day. On shore we went into a Harris Tweed shop. There was lots of cool things in there. I particularly liked a bag and a funky poncho style coat but I couldn't bring myself to buy anything. Everything was pretty expensive--it all being made in Harris Tweed which has to be made on the Isle of Harris or Lewis to qualify as authentic. As well as it's the kind of stuff I look at and go, "I could make that and it would be cheaper." Besides, I was on a fairly tight budget with this holiday happening suddenly. So I just adored and fingered and left it all there.
Back on the bus we set off around the Golden Road. Called this because it cost a fortune to build. I can't remember why though. There was lots of rocks, grass and lochs over the hills out my side of the bus. The ocean was out the other. It was a perfect drive. Glorious sunshine, interesting scenery, chatter, music, Matt havering away with various stories. ;) I would have happily done another lap. We stopped off at a supermarket for more supplies and headed up toward the Isle of Lewis which is actually joined to Harris. We stopped by Rodel Church built after the Vikings were converted. Interestingly Matt pointed out that built into the side of the church is an image of the pagen god of fertility. My most favourite part of the day was the drive past the beaches. I've never seen sheep at the beach before. He he. The beach we stopped at was brilliant. After living in a coastal town in the south east of England I happily proclaimed, "Now that's a beach!" Silly Brits. This scene was simply stunning. Our guide and the USA guys actually went swimming and most of the others went wading. As nice as it looked and even though it's summer here the water was apparently pretty cold. I didn't actually touch it. I happily stood and sat on the sand and soaked it all in. I was in the glorious sunshine sitting on a sandy white beach--in Scotland--looking across the shimmering blue ocean to the horizon where we witnessed a huge raincloud unleashing it's drama on the earth. It was magnificent!

Our next stop was along the shore a bit where most of us set out walking to our next accomodation. The shore line was great here. Loads of cliffs covered with grass and sheep... Oh yeah, Matt said there was one, maybe two hills. Try about five or six. This body is not built for hiking. Or rather, it's not maintained for hiking. Thankfully I wasn't the only slow one so I had company and we stopped often to play with our cameras and enjoy the view and try and figure out where the next marker was. It was also deceptively muddy. You had to watch where you were stepping in all the winding and creek-jumping we did. I got it wrong at one point and when I stepped down onto the grass my shoe sunk right into the mud below. Ha ha. My whole shoe went black. From then on though I wasn't too worried where I stood and trotted around a little more carelessly. What I did like about this walk was it felt like we were just roaming the hill tops. There wasn't actually a path to follow, just the next marker to make it to. The sun was setting by the time we got to our destination--the fabulous blackhouse village of Gearreannan. We stayed in one of the blackhouses for two nights. They are great. Built like the old days but modernised inside.
Tonight Matt led a team to cook the very scottish meal of haggis, neeps and tatties for tea. Don't ask me what haggis is. I don't know and I don't want to. Neeps is veggies and tatties is potato. Only our neeps and tatties, only half mashed, were mixed together. I didn't think much of the haggis but I'd be interested to try it again from a restaurant. Just to have something to compare my first and only trial to. The games came out again to accompany the talking and drinking. There was a long conversation between the Aussies and Americans about lingo, teaching new phrases and explaining their meaning and how to use them. Ha ha.

Day Four got switched around a bit as some of the group needed to do some things in town first. So we spent the morning in Stornoway and did some group grocery shopping and also bought ourselves something for a picnic lunch. Then it was off to one of the beaches to eat whilst the sun bathed us again in another beautiful place. After lunch we walked over to the Iron Age house. It's a bit of an archealogical site but it's been rebuilt into a working hut, or something along those lines. The lady there explained about the hut and how it would have likely been used which sometimes, more practically, differed from what the scientists concluded. It was very dark inside and she had a fire going for us which was kind of a nice experience but without a breeze that day it wasn't venting very well. Yeah, we all stunk after that. Not just smoke but peat smoke. They have this cool fuel source there. Dirt. Ha ha. I'm not sure how it actually differs from other dirt but it's actually called peat. It's harvested from the hills and dried and stacked as 'firewood'. Apparently it takes 50years to regenerate or something so you're only allowed to harvest for your own personal use from your own area. Anyway, with the windows cracked and the fan blowing our stench away we comfortably travelled to Callanish.

Here there is a most ancient stone circle. Older than Stonehenge. The Callanish Standing Stones are 4000years old. Matt gave us a spiel to consider about earth energies and where various paths cross and the mysterious impact it can have on people--with a 'believe what you will'. I'm not sure what I think about all that but I do like rocks. These rocks were quite big and I wondered if they were found as they are or cut out before being brought here and pillared in place. There was a lot there too. Not just a circle but paths to the circle and other offshoots as well. Would have been quite a job setting them up. The next place was more rocks. The broken down Broch (fortified dwelling house) of Dun Carloway. It pretty much had the top half missing. It was interesting hearing how it was designed for defense with a very short door so attackers had to bend over to get in meaning they were in no position to fight the waiting defenders as they entered and how the walls were designed to hide the inhabitants so they could they could defend from above through small windows. Ingenious really. And we got to climb all over it. Though I didn't actually get to that part myself. From there we went back to the blackhouse through more splendid scenery. I joined some of the guys sitting on the ledge around the blackhouse roof as the sun was going down. Thought midgies were fricken annoying. Mozzie-like little buggars but smaller and don't make you itch quite as bad. Mostly just pesky but it began to rain a bit too so we went inside. We were soon cooking pizzas for tea anyway. As well as the ritualistic chatting and game playing began, the spanish girls, Nadia and Sandra, concocted a brew of sangria. (The main ingredient is red wine.) We were a happy bunch that evening as it was shared around. We were all playing around with the various languages this night--having spaniards, germans, french-canadians and swiss in our group. Laughing at the way things were said and trying out some new phrases. Ich liebe dich alle!! Ha ha. :) A few of us went outside later that night. Being in a little blackhouse village meant brilliant star viewing. We could see heaps out there, until someone else came out and the light coming through the door of our blackhouse had us readjusting our vision all over again. Got to see some shooting stars and we found Orion. I asked if they'd seen an iridium flare before but since I had to explain what they were, I guess not.

Day Five we packed up early from our stay in the Blackhouse and headed off. We stopped by a local weavers workshop to see some weaving. Unfortunately he'd finished a bolt the day before and was in the process of tying in a new one. So many threads--he said it takes about 3hrs just to do that. He explained how the loom works though and I found it interesting and I found myself hanging about when just about everyone else had gone back to the bus. I couldn't help myself. It all looked so wonderful, those bolts on the wall. Fabric--real Harris Tweed--full of endless potential just waiting to be crafted. I had to buy some. I ended up buying half a metre of two different tweeds.

I liked that this guy did his own patterning rather than the set patterns to be transported to the fashion designers. Makes it even more unique. And what was even more awesome was that he gave me some labels that verify this is authentic Harris Tweed so I can put it on whatever I make. Matt told me later too that the guy's face had lit up when I asked to buy some. :) So I didn't buy a Harris Tweed product from the store but I got my own Harris Tweed fabric direct from the weaver who made it on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland! With the added bonus of being able to create with it. I'm thrilled. Ok, moving on from my rant :p ...

We then drove up to the Butt of Lewis. Shortly after I mentioned to Matt that I found it an amusing name because its the north most point of Lewis (though Butt mean cliff or something like that) he realised he had missed the turn off. Would have been back where I saw the sign that made me think about the amusement of the name. So we had to backtrack. Ha ha. It was another interesting place to visit. We wandered slowly along the dramatic cliffs that dropped way below to stand in the way of the crashing ocean. Lots of rocks. ;) It was nice to just wander around there, viewing, chatting, photographing, playing. Then we were back on the bus and back into Stornoway. I went and had a nice lunch with a few of the others at a local hotel restaurant. Most tables were reserved so we squished around a coffee table on couches and ottomans. After lunch we boarded the ferry that would take us back to the mainland. This was the longest non-stop travel of our tour--about 2hrs 45mins. But being a ferry we could move about or eat and drink so it's more like chilling out while you're transported somewhere. I sat with some of the group and flicked through some of Dan's photos on his camera and then did a bit of knitting until Uno started up. I then played for about one and a half hours straight with Dan and the various others that came, played for a while and then went.

Back on the mainland we continued on to our hostel for the night stopping for a short while in some town to buy up a few more groceries and get ourselves some tea. Matt was able to give us each £15 back from the kitty (being the thrifty spenders we were) which he said is the most he's ever given back to a group. Since the sangria was a hit the night before we splashed out on a good supply of more ingredients for this night, our last night together. We had loads too. So much left over even after all the consumption that they filled up big softdrink bottles with what remained to take with us the next day. It was a loud and merry night. While Dan taught the USA guys some card game the rest of us played UNO and we all dug in to new york cheesecake straight from the pan. And Maree got friendly with all of us on facebook with the help of the gathered swarm of merry women. Ha ha.

Day Six began with a trade off. There was another Wild in Scotland tour there as well and six of us went with them to continue up to Orkney and five of them came and joined us to make our way back down to Edinburgh. It was a bit sad really but at least the first couple of stop offs were the same so we still got to see a bit of each other before we finally said goodbye. And our first stop off for the day is probably the most famous location in Scotland--one of those places you simply must go to if you're there. Loch Ness!

The weather today was perfectly atmospheric as Matt told us tales of the Loch and of Nessie (known to the rest of the world as The Loch Ness Monster). We stopped at Fort Augustus were some braved the cold to swim. I made sure I went wading--partly due to my nephew, Tim's, interest in my going to Loch Ness and partly because I wanted to. Now I can say "I went wading with Nessie in Scotland." The water wasn't too bad once the numbness had set in. The rocks on the Loch floor were a little uncomfortable to walk around on but there was a buzz from all of us just from being there. We also stopped briefly to catch a view of Loch Ness over the top of Urquart Castle. There I ran around taking some photos in the misty rain with my raincoat on and barefeet. He he. It wasn't really cold and my feet were a bit dirty after walking up the shore of Loch Ness from my wade. I hadn't wanted to put my shoes on but after this stop where it was all tarred parking area my feet got washed. I put my shoes back on for the next stop--tourist shopping stop. A big souvenier shop for Nessie and general Scotland memorablia. That's where we finally said good bye to the switched travellers, hugs all round, and while they headed off north for another five days of Scottish exploration, we headed south (in a round about way) to wrap our tour up.

We went up through Inverness to Culloden and the Battlefield Memorial there. I honestly don't remember much details unfortunately. Some massive battle between the government army I think and the Highland Clans known as the Jacobites and I can't remember what exactly happened but it was a short battle and there was massive life loss. The story was interesting I just don't remember the details now. We didn't stay outside on the battlefield for long as it was raining. We also stopped by Dunkeld and checked out the over 1400 year old cathedral that was attached to the ruins of a Roman Catholic church. Inside, shoved aside into a corner, was the tomb/casket of Alexander Stuart, Earl of Buchan known as the Wolf of Badenoch rumoured to have been so cruel and evil that no one wanted his dead body until the church here finally took it. Leaving this place I felt quite sad simply because I knew our next stop was the airport to drop me off for my flight back to London.

The whole trip was just fabulous. The scenery--especially the outer Hebrides--was stunning, the group was a fantastic bunch of people to explore and share the days with, lots of fun with them, and Matt was an awesome guide in many ways. Six days was certainly a good length of time, I wouldn't have been near as happy with a shorter stint, but it was such a great experience that there was most definitely that longing in me for it not to end. But such is life. I was soon left at the airport after hugs and farewells with just my luggage, hundreds of wonderful photos and splendid memories and a bunch of new facebook friends. And what better ending really? It was a fantastic tour!

If you're going to tour in Scotland I highly recommend Wild in Scotland. Not only is it friendly to the wallet it's a fun way to experience Scotland.

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