Regular readers will notice that I’ve been pretty quiet lately. Some have emailed me privately, concerned that perhaps my idyllic summer of nomadism with my lovely (I mean dashing) husband hasn’t, in fact, been so idyllic, but that’s not the case at all. The case is that internet outside Edinburgh is, simply, difficult to come by. We have had some access—most public libraries allow visitors to use the internet, but it’s generally only for 30 minutes, which is barely enough time to complete the necessities and unfortunately there have been more pressing commitments than this blog . Occasionally a coin-op system is available, but those don’t allow more than one window to be opened at a time (!), and are very expensive. Finally, this afternoon, we pulled into a tiny coastal town, Findhorn, on the east coast of Scotland, somewhere a bit north of Aberdeen, and happened upon one of the charming small hotels we’ve become so enamored of (rooms, dining room for guests where breakfast is served, restaurant, and pub), and saw that it had WiFi! Turns out the bartender plays a lot of World of Warcraft, and so he understands the addiction to instant international feedback.
So I’ll give you a list of places we’ve stayed, and some highlights from each. We’ve traveled anti-clockwise around almost the entire country of Scotland, skipping the Borders and heading northwest from Edinburgh.
Our first night we spent in Kinlochleven, which boasts the world’s largest indoor ice climbing wall. We didn’t visit it. Loch Leven is a sea loch, so has a tide. It looks like a lake, though, so the tide surprised us (not in any serious way, like stranding us on an island or anything), as did the shellfish farms. Scotland also farms a lot of Atlantic salmon (at least this is where it’s from, unlike the Atlantic salmon farms in Chile. But I digress onto a soapbox I’m not really all that stable on).
The next night we stayed in Plockton, a small village near Kyle of Lochalsh, where the ten-years-old-but-still-reviled-bridge connects mainland Scotland with the Isle of Skye (which, incidentally, was supposed to get a new [old] Gaelic name as of 1 June . . . but everyone still calls it Skye). Plockton has a castle nearby that we walked to, which also evidently has its own railway station.
Nights 3 and 4 we were in Kinlochbervie, one of the most important North Sea fishing ports in Europe. Every few days big fishing boats come in and deposit their catches into a huge warehouse and giant lorries carry everything off to the continent (on the one lane roads). As our hotel owner said, “the boat that’s in harbour right now has been doing some deep sea fishing. There’s probably lots of squidgy things that we don’t eat. Those’ll go off to France or Spain.” Sure enough, when we toured the huge crates of ice and fish, we saw some things that I, at least, would categorize as “squidgy”. We also saw a Greenland Halibut bigger than either of us.
Night 5 was in Tongue. I believe they have a pageant there, every year crowning a “Tongue Queen.” In the hotel bar, where we enjoyed a tasty lunch and a coal fire, we saw posted a photo of three blonde girls wearing T-shirts saying “I love Tongue.” It was a lovely place.
I should point out that the roads we were driving on (well, I was driving on because it would’ve cost $280 to add Ian as a driver . . . or, I suppose . . . to add me as a driver but I really like driving and, um, I know how to get my way), pretty much between Plockton and Scrabster where we left the mainland, were generally one lane with “passing places.” This works surprisingly well. I imagined myself, gibbering and chewing my fingernails to bits, just parked in one of the passing places, deciding never to go on, after a close shave with a caravan (RV), but I never did have the close shave, and gibbering isn’t my style. So I drove along as quickly as ever any Scot did, and enjoyed myself immensely.
After Tongue we drove to Scrabster and caught a car ferry to Orkney.
Orkney was fantastic. It made me question whether or not we really want to move to Orcas someday, or if we’d rather just move to Orkney. Our first night we attended the open rehearsal of the Orkney Accordion and Fiddle Club. Ian was, of course, in heaven. But I was too--the kind of heaven where you're just so thrilled that something so awesome exists that you find yourself tearing up, just at the fact of the thing. Of course most of the members were ancient, but there were at least a couple musicians of each instrument below 50. Ian noticed in particular the difference between having a national music and not—of the 15 or so people present, all of them knew all the songs they played for 2 and ½ hours. One person would call out a song and say “oh, in D and G”, play a few bars, and the rest would join in. It was really cool, and not something we'd expect to see, even on Orcas.
Orkney has a dairy that makes ice cream, lots of sheep and cows, and about the densest Neolithic ruins of anyplace on earth. Everywhere you look are 5,000-year-old settlements (it was warmer then and things grew a bit better and didn’t ice up so much in the winter), standing stones, chambered cairns, and regular grass-covered mounds that no one can be bothered to excavate. I went for a horseback ride with a girl who’d grown up on Orkney and she speculated that farmers uncovered things all the time while tilling their fields and just covered them back up again because it’s such a bother to have an antiquity on one’s land.
We stopped one afternoon at a place called The Wool Shed, and bought some yarn from the woman who runs it, yarn from North Ronaldsay sheep (one of the outer islands), which feed almost exclusively on seaweed (I'm not sure what this does to the wool, but it evidently gives the meat an interesting color and texture). Neither of us had brought any knitting needles, but I at least was itching for a project (in Tongue we'd watched the ridiculously bad "Slap Her She's French" and I'd really missed having something meaningful to do, because clearly turning off the TV wasn't an option), and the lady offered to give us some needles that would work with her wool. "I suppose it's a bit morbid," she said, "but not really. It's just that, whenever anyone dies around here, their children give me their knitting needles. They assume that, since I knit, I can use them, I guess. It's really rather sweet."
We spent three nights in Stromness, on Mainland (what “Orcadians” call the largest island in the archipelago), at the Orca Hotel (we couldn’t resist), then two nights at the Pierowall Hotel on the more remote island of Westray, staying in one of those charming hotels with all the different rooms to eat in and the rooms to sleep in upstairs. One of my favorite things about the Pierowall hotel was the “snug,” a sort of parlour behind the pub downstairs, where we lounged on overstuffed leather couches and I beat Ian at cribbage while we sipped Highland Park 12 Year single malt scotch (made in Kirkwall, on Mainland).
We tore ourselves reluctantly away from Orkney and came back to the rest of Scotland, where we visited John O’ Groats, a tourist trap and one end of the End to End cycle route, then stopped by the Old Pulteney distillery in Wick, where the samples at the end of the tour were generous indeed.
Last night we stayed in the lovely town of Helmsdale (I keep wanting to say “Helm’s Deep”), which looked like any little inland river valley town until you saw the sea, and tonight we’re here in Findhorn using the internet.
I have to say, having looked up all the hyperlinks for all these places, it does seem that the Information Superhighway didn’t end before it got to Scotland . . . but all the same, it’s not all that accessible to visitors.
So I’m almost at the end of the second pint (that’s an imperial pint, you realize) of whatever strong tasty ale it was, and I can’t remember right now if there was anything else specific I wanted to write about. So I’ll stop for the time being, post this entry, and get some pictures up. We’re only in Scotland two more nights, then on an overnight train, then three nights in London, three in Italy, one in London, and an unknown number in Portugal. Maybe we’ll have ale breakfast tomorrow, which would allow me to add more stories . . . but that would probably be a bad idea. Kippers, porridge, mushrooms, tomato, etc etc seems like quite enough. Cheers!