Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Castle Mey

By Claire
Leaving John o' Groats, we drove 6 miles to the Queen Mother's home, Castle Mey. It is in a beautiful setting, overlooking the North Sea with farm land and stone walls stretching as far as the eye can see.

View from Castle Mey

The Queen Mother, who died in 2002 at the age of 101, bought this castle after her husband died in 1952. She was grief stricken and wanted a place out of the public eye. She had friends in the area and while visiting, found this derelict castle. She decided to renovate and 3 years later began spending her summers here for the rest of her life.

This painting is on the wall of one of the rooms in the castle. What a beauty! She was just 24.

This is the Queen Mother in the garden at Castle Mey. Would you believe this is a photo I took of a picture on one of our tickets?

There was a guide in every room, including the housekeeper who had worked there for years, who greeted us in the foyer. Each room was cozy and comfortable and rather worn. She didn't believe in replacing anything until it was thoroughly worn out. An item on exhibit in the foyer was a blue coat and hat that she bought when she began visiting the castle and used it there for the next 50 years whenever she visited for the summer! It was a fun visit on our way to our next campground.

Continuing on from the castle, we stopped at a sign for the "Clearance Village" in Badbea. This is a place where tenant farmers went after they were thrown off the land. The laird figured out that he could make more money raising sheep and didn't need them to work the land. Records show that they lived here beginning in 1793. They settled in this windswept place with dangerous winds and cliffs. The story goes that people had to tether their cattle, hens and even their children to stop them from being blown over the cliffs. Some of the men became fishermen, a dangerous occupation for people used to living inland. It was difficult to farm this infertile, hostile land and some of them left for New Zealand.

This is the only remaining house in the village.

Landscape of the village

We saw these strange flowers in Orkney.

We finally rolled in to Dingwall Camping and Caravanning. It's nice and quiet and there are lots of trees and bunnies. We'll only be here one night and then we're off to the Isle of Skye.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. ~ Mark Twain quotes

The Orkney Islands

By Claire
Before we left for our trip, John and Penny encouraged us to see the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland. They are at the same latitude as St. Petersburg, Russia and Churchill, Canada—the polar bear capital of the world. They have 8 months of winter and 4 months of summer—no spring and no fall. Our tour guide told us that last year they had a great summer—it was on July 4.

This is definitely a land of the midnight sun. There is even an annual summer charity golf event hosted by Highland Distillery that begins at midnight. As the contestants finish each hole, they are given a double shot of whisky; whoever manages to finish the entire round of 18 holes is a winner. The sun does require a little help from artificial light for a while; but, the sun rises again at 3am!

There are 70 islands with 19,000 Orcadians living on only 16 of them—7,000 of whom are in Kirkwall, on the Mainland. If you squished all the islands together like a jigsaw puzzle, you could fit them inside the ring road around London. These islands were originally part of Norway. King James was to marry Princess Margaret from Norway. Her dowry was to be the equivalent of £60,000. Her father, the King of Norway, could only come up with £10,000. He owned the Orkneys, King James wanted them, so they were thrown in as security until he could come up with the rest of the cash. The rest of the money never materialized and The Orkneys passed to Scotland. Today, the Orkney flag is just like the Norwegian flag except that it has a yellow border rather than white. There is a strong sense of community among these islands and because of tourism, the unemployment rate is only 1%. That guy is really bummed out.

We are grateful to John and Penny for pushing us to go. When we met up with them in London we had already decided to blow it off—too far, too expensive, too complicated. We lucked out by meeting Jill and Mike at the Edinburgh campground who not only told us how easy it was, but gave us a brochure for a bus tour of Mainland, the big island that we would be visiting. They assured us that there was a great campground (one of our better ones, as it turns out) and that it was right next door to the ferry office. Simple!

We walked 200 yards to catch the ferry where we embarked on a 40 minute journey to the island.

We searched the waters for dolphins, whales and puffins but didn’t have any luck this time. Coming off the ferry, our bus awaited us. Stuart, the driver and guide, was exceptional in his delivery, corny jokes and driving ability. It was relaxing, exciting and a wonderful history lesson. The more I learn through our travels, the more I realize how little I know.

We drove over one of the Churchill Barriers at Skapa Flow, where the entire British navy was anchored in 1939. What a pretty place this is! We also saw some of the ships from WW I that had been deliberately sunk by the British to form a barrier against German attack in that war.

Churchill Barrier

In October, 1939, a German U-boat was able to penetrate the barrier because the strong currents had shifted the ships. Because of this, they torpedoed and sunk the HMS Royal Oak, killing more than 833 young men, most of them cadets 18 and under. Their plan had been to destroy as many battleships and destroyers as possible. Fortuitously, all the other ships were out at sea.

Because of this event, Churchill ordered 4 barriers to be built on the eastern entrances to Skapa Flow. Italian prisoners of war were brought in from North Africa to do the job.

Our first stop was in the tiny village of Stromness where we were given 90 minutes for lunch and a wander.

Back on the bus, Stuart slowed down so we could see Rambo, a Jacob’s sheep. He has 2 sets of horns: on top of his head and on the sides of his face! He’s The Man around here and has sired thousands.

Our next stop was Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old Neolithic village discovered by William Watt of Skaill in 1850 after a severe storm stripped the grass from a large mound, revealing the outline of a series of stone buildings. He began an excavation of the site. Professional excavation did not begin until the late 1920s. The stone buildings were discovered to be older than the pyramids of Egypt.

After going through the visitors’ center, watching a video and learning the history of the village, we entered a replica of one of the stone houses. Each house shares the same basic design—a large square room with a central fireplace, a bed on either side and a shelved dresser on a wall opposite the doorway. From there we walked down a path by the beach to the actual village

Excavations of the stone village in the twenties

Skara Brae Village

Entry to stone house

Inside stone house

Included in our ticket (£5.60) was a tour of Skaill House, home of William Graham Watt, 7th Laird of Breckness who unearthed Skara Brae in 1850. Overlooking the spectacular Bay of Skaill, the house was originally built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham and has been added to by successive Lairds over the centuries. The southern wing of Skaill House stands on a pre-Norse burial ground and several Bronze age burial mounds have been found nearby.

I really liked the library with the swing-out bookshelf revealing a hidden place for valuables. There was also a round rent table with a drawer marked for each tenant. The dining room even had Captain Cook’s dinner service.

We had 90 minutes—plenty of time—to see and enjoy this fascinating area. I might add that every place we stopped on this guided bus tour had bathrooms. The entire tour was very well organized and the pacing was just right.

We arrived at the Ring of Brodgar, generally thought to have been erected around 2200 B.C. It was built in a true circle, 340 feet in diameter and is thought to have originally contained 60 megaliths, of which only 27 remain. It is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. The stones vary in height from 7 to 15 feet.

And wouldn’t you know, just around the corner…another stone circle, The Standing Stones of Stenness! The tallest stone stands 19 feet high but only 4 of the original 12 stones remain standing. They date from 3100 B.C., older than the Ring of Brodgar.

Back in Kirkwall for a 2 hour break to see the town, the cathedral and two palaces, we set off for cappuccinos as the first order of business. Revived, we walked over to the Bishop’s Palace, possibly dating from 1137 but much of what now stands is from 1541-58.

Bishop's Palace

Directly across the street is the Earl’s Palace, begun in 1600. It is hailed as “the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland.”

The building of St. Magnus Cathedral was started in 1137 by Earl Rognvald Kolsson. It was originally a Catholic cathedral but once in Scottish hands, it became Church of Scotland. The Orcadians were going to demolish it; but because the King was marrying a Catholic, he preserved it. Today, services are held here by Catholics, Protestants and Jews. It is also used for flower shows and dancing.

St. Magnus Cathedral

Our final stop was to see the Italian Chapel, built by the Italian POWs. This was built around two Nissen huts which were covered with cement, then plastered and painted.

The inside walls and ceiling were painted to give a 3-D effect and the lanterns were made from their rations of beef tins. The side walls were made of compressed cardboard and the altar railing from polished concrete. All the building materials were scraps left over from the construction of the barriers. One of the men was an artist; he directed the project and painted the altar from a small card his mother had given him.


Pressed cardboard

Painted ceiling

Painted walls

Outside the chapel is a statue of St. George. This was created by the lead artist using barbed wire and cement. Amazing!

On the way back, Stuart pointed out a spot from which we could see the North Sea, Pentland Firth, the Atlantic Ocean, Scotland and the Orkneys, all in one glance. We drove on to our ferry, which was just coming in to port. We had an uneventful ride back, futilely searching for Puffins, arriving at 8 pm. Later, we saw the beginnings of a beautiful sunset at 10 pm.

We had a fantastic day with the best kind of weather we could hope for. These islands are known for wind and in fact, had a hurricane in 1952 that swept all their chickens out to the North Sea along with the wind monitoring device that was blown away just after measuring 124 mph. There are no trees to speak of on the islands, unless they are sheltered by buildings. Our day was mostly sunny with lots of puffy white clouds and the occasional big, dark gray ones. Not a drop of rain.

It is 11:38 pm and it is still light out.

In Scotland, when people congregate, they tend to argue and discuss and reason; in Orkney, they tell stories. ~ George Mackay Brown, poet and novelist and native of Orkney.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

John o' Groats

By Claire
Yesterday, a Sunday, was supposed to be a lazy, relaxing day at "home" but we spent the better part of the day planning our next 3 weeks. We would not be able to do this without a computer and internet access. For finding campgrounds and making a booking, it is essential. It's difficult, though, figuring out how long to stay in each place, let alone which places we want to see and which we can pass by in order to have more time for others.

It was a good day to stay in. We're finally getting the rains of Scotland. In fact, I think we experienced all 4 seasons today. Sun, rain, sun, clouds, very dark clouds, pouring rain, sun, sun, clouds, rain, sun, pouring rain. That was just one 30 minute period. Naturally, we had done laundry and some of it was just drying when the rain started. We sprinted across the grass to the communal clothes line, snatching out things off the line just in time.

One of the things we've liked about our stay at this campground is the bread delivery guy who comes in the morning, beeping his horn. There is also an ice cream man who drives through the place, music tinkling out of his speakers, announcing his arrival. I've never seen so many people rushing out of their campers and tents making a mad dash for the their dessert. Most of them are grown men, Chuck included.

These potato chips look tasty, don't they?

We drove up the northeast coast of Scotland today to John o' Groats Caravan and Camping, in a place called, of all things, John o'Groats.

All we really had to do was stay on the A99 until it stopped--or end up in the water. I was curious about the name and looked it up on Wikipedia:

The town takes its name from Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who obtained a grant for the ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, recently acquired from Norway, from King James IV in 1496. The lower case and second space in "John o' Groats" are regarded by many as correct, as the "o'" means "of" and thus is not cognate with Irish names that begin with O'; but the name can be found with the capital and/or without the space. People from John o' Groats are known as "Groatsers".

The name John o' Groats has a particular resonance because it is often used as a starting or ending point for cycles, walks and charitable events to and from Land's End (at the extreme south-western tip of the Cornish peninsula in England). The phrase Land's End to John o' Groats (LEJOG) is frequently heard both as a literal journey (being the longest possible in Great Britain) and as a metaphor for great or all-encompassing distance, similar to the American phrase coast to coast.

We appear to be near the same latitude with Stockholm, Sweden and will have 21 hours and 13 minutes of visible light today. The sun rose at 4:01 am and will set at 10:27 pm. I am a fair weather person and love sunlight; it's going to be really hard to go back to shorter days which come all too soon. This has been an unexpected treat.

We enjoyed this very tiny town with its local museum, known as The Last House in Scotland. We toured it in about 15 minutes. I thought this local woman was quite interesting: born in 1824 and died in 1924, she married and moved into The Last House in 1845 and lived there until her death. This picture was taken on her 100th birthday. She died 3 months later. She was a midwife all her working life and was a widow for 70 years.

Cambell Laird

Wandering around, we spotted this threesome who are doing what so many others have done, biking 864 miles from Land's End to John o' Groats. They're doing it for the Heart Association and they were just starting out. We saw many cyclists with loaded paniers making this journey. There was even a lone walker making his way to John o' Groats.

And here's the Last Hotel--falling into ruin, but impressive none the less.

Tomorrow we head to the Orkney Islands, a 40 minute ferry ride from our campground.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Loch Ness Monster

By Claire
We're really taking our time during our self-imposed vacation. We generally don't go anywhere until 10 am at the earliest. Today's plan was to go into town to top up our Vodafone dongle for the next month then head to Drumnadrochit, home of the Loch Ness monster.

We opted for the Loch Ness Centre, a more academic style of experiencing the TRUE STORY of all the sightings. I went in an unbeliever and came out an unbeliever. This place has done years of research and concluded that there aren't enough fish to feed a giant monster. It was interesting and I'm glad we did it but I'm not sure it was worth £5.50 each. [Chuck: It was not what I expected; but, I did enjoy it. I thought it was a well-done media experience and I especially enjoyed the presentation of continental drift and the explanation of how Scotland moved from the Equator to its present location over a very long time.]

This is the world's smallest submarine, used in the search. It was also used to tow Nessie into place for the movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

In the meantime, Chuck has gone completely Scottish.

Driving farther up the road another 5 miles or so, we came to Urquhart Castle, a ruin with a glorious view of virtually the entire lake. We watched a very well done video that covered 1,000 years in 8 minutes, then wandered among the buildings, taking in the gorgeous surroundings and the fresh, clean air. It really is beautiful here.

It is not known precisely when the castle was built, but records show the existence of a castle on this site from the early 1200s. St. Columba is believed to have dwelt on the upper hill area where the castle is located while evangelizing the Picts in the mid-500's. [These were Celtic tribes living in what was later to become eastern and northern Scotland from before the Roman conquest of Britain until the 10th century, when they merged with the Gaels--speakers of one of the Goidelic Celtic languages: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx.] Eventually, the castle's owners blew it up to keep the Jacobites from taking it.

Loch Ness--24 miles long, less than a mile wide, the third deepest in Europe, and containing more water than in all the fresh water bodies of England and Wales combined.

We're back home, doing what we do best: reading. We're both into Never Go Back, by Robert Goddard. It's a mystery that takes place in a Scottish Castle.

Scottish by birth, British by law,
Highlander by the grace of God. ~ Anonymous

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Highlands

By Claire
We're having a great time here in the Highlands. The scenery is beautiful, the weather is cooperating and shopping is always an adventure. Plus, we're seeing men in kilts. In the campground this morning, a brawny guy in his kilt was doing chin ups from a tree limb. It was quite entertaining.

We are staying at Bught Caravan Park (€21.60), just a few miles down the road from Culloden but within walking distance of the town center of Inverness. We enjoy watching the various campers and tent campers that arrive and set up. This one was fascinating to watch. It worked like a magic box, starting out as a tiny cart attached to the back of their car. It even has a full kitchen under the awning.

We walked around Inverness, easily finding the TI where a very helpful woman answered our questions and made suggestions. We were lucky to find out that there would be a pipes and drums show at 7:30 in a little town called Beauly, about 20 minutes away. There would also be some Highland dancing. She showed us on the map how to get there and told us to go to the town square. We set Susan to take us to the town center, a very useful setting as we have found out, time and again. We found great parking in a lot (free), and walked into town.

Beauly has a population of 1,800 and puts on a show every Thursday night of the summer, weather permitting. It has a small town square and some of the people were standing or sitting in the glare of the sun. We chose a spot next to the stage.

With 15 minutes or so before the start, we wandered over to the local cemetery and found a priory from the 15th century. We learned that in the summer of 1564, Mary Queen of Scots traveled through the Highlands to Easter Ross. She stopped at Beauly Priory before visiting Dingwall, capital of the Earldom of Ross. It is known that Mary was touched by the beauty of the priory, which was enhanced by a fine orchard. She is reputed to have said: "Oui, c'est un beau lieu" (Yes, it is a beautiful place.) Some suspect that part of the phrase has been corrupted to 'bew li', giving the town its current name.

We wandered back to the square (about 100 feet away--this place is tiny) and chatted with the MC for the evening, a local man, who was very friendly and did a wonderful job.

The show started off with Ken, another native, who played the accordian. It was fun and again, very small town. I almost felt like we were at a live Lawrence Welk Show.

30 minutes later, the dancers were announced and up they came. They were adorable and so serious.

This little girl seemed entranced by them and chose to sit front row, center.

We really enjoyed the dancers who ranged in age from six to sixteen. The MC was very encouraging, always telling them they had done a fine job. One little girl stopped in the middle of her dance to reposition her swords while her partner continued to dance.

With great fanfare and excitement, the Beauly Pipe and Drum Band were announced and paraded back and forth through the square. They were great and it was nice to see their ages ranging from a girl of about ten all the way up to a man in his sixties. The Drum Major was quite skilled and threw his mace up in the air, where it spun around, then deftly caught it without breaking stride. The band recently came in third in a regional competition.

I noticed that they all wore Wing Tips and of course each had a sporran and a knife tucked into their sock.


It was a thoroughly enjoyable, low key, non-touristy event and just what we were looking for.

This morning we planned the rest of our itinerary in Scotland then headed to Chanonry Point in Fortrose to watch for Bottlenose Dolphins. The woman at the TI had told us that this was the best spot to see them. Jill and Mike, who we met at the Edinburgh campground, had recommended that we go and see the dolphins.

We crossed the Beauly Firth on one side and the Moray Firth on the other as we crossed a bridge leaving Inverness. It was a 30 minute drive to the point which has a lighthouse and good parking. We fixed a picnic lunch then decided to walk over past the lighthouse with our chairs. There were about 20 other people, binoculars fixed to their eyes and cameras ready. We sat comfortably for awhile sharing our binoculars. I spotted a seal who popped up, looked around, then slipped under until he popped up again yards and yards away. It wasn't long before I saw a dolphin leap out of the air, his buddy close behind. It really was a thrill. We had quite a show for about 15 minutes. Another nice, low key, wonderful experience.

Viewing spot

We drove off to our first distillery, Glenmorangie, further north. The tour was nice and the wee dram was even nicer. I wanted to try "the original" so Chuck went to ask about two more wee drams. No problem. We both liked it even better and decided to buy a bottle for those cold evenings--whenever those show up. As usual, everyone is outside basting themselves in the sun as I write this--at 8pm.

One of the people on our tour of 5, Chris, stayed and chatted with us for awhile. We were quite relaxed and had the tasting room to ourselves. He is an accountant from London, probably about 40, who has left his job and is traveling through Scotland by motorcycle for 3 months. He was sick of his job and hopes to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. We enjoyed talking with him.

Glenmorangie Distillery

We learned that they use American barrels that have been used once because they give the best flavor.

O ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond. ~ Anonymous