My last post from Scotland, and a very fond farewell

What an incredible time we’ve had in this beautiful country; I can’t imagine how it could have been much better.  We walked around Inverness yesterday after our REI guide, Angela, dropped us off, and it rained lightly off and on.  I had one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten for dinner last night – yeah, in Scotland, go figure (aubergine, bell peppers, mushrooms, artichokes, pesto, goat cheese and mozzarella).  This morning we woke up to full-blown proper Scottish rain, and much cooler temperatures.  After a breakfast of porridge (oatmeal), poached eggs, and tomatoes (add bacon in Kurt’s case), Zane, our female tour guide (her father was a big fan of the American author Zane Grey) from the WOW Scotland tour company, picked us up outside our B&B, and we promptly headed off for a combination Scotch whisky tour and a viewing of an occasional golf course (for Kurt), and historical/spiritual Scotland (for both of us).  Zane is a wonderful guide, with what we are coming to realize is a lovely national wit and sense of humor.

This will be my last blog post, which is good, because frankly, I’m running out of steam!  Kurt may do another guest blogger stint re: his Scotch whisky tour today, so I’ll leave that to him.  This will also be a somewhat lengthy post, since we really packed in a lot this morning, as all of our points of interest were within a few miles of one another.  So if you just like to see the photos and don’t care too much about my personal, or the historical, commentary, you can skip to the pictures below.

Our first stop was to an ancient site outside of Inverness, the very interesting Clava Cairns (the perfect stop for me, eh, loving a good cairn as I do).  Clava Cairns is the site of an exceptionally well preserved group of prehistoric burial cairns that were built about 4,000 years ago. The Bronze Age cemetery complex comprises of passage graves, ring cairns, kerb cairn, standing stones in a beautiful setting and the remains of a chapel of unknown date.  Like Stonehenge in England, there is a connection between the architecture of the Cairns and their relationship with the rising and setting sun.  One of the interesting things about the site, as with many such ancient sites in both Ireland and Scotland (and many other places around the world, I’m sure), is the co-existance of the old and the new side by side.  A farm road cuts through the edge of the Cairns site, as you will see in one of the photos.  It must have begun, as Zane told us, as a simple route for the cows to come home, and then evolved into a bona fide country road.

After the Clava Cairns, we went to the historic battlefield of Culloden, just a few miles away.  The battle of Culloden was the last pitched battle on the British mainland.  It was the last battle of the final Jacobite Rising (supporters of the restoration of the House of Stuart) that commenced in 1745 when Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), grandson of the exiled King James VIII & III, arrived in Scotland from France to raise his standard at Glenfinnan, his aim being to put his father on the throne in place of the Hanoverian George II.  The battle was a total and bloody defeat for the Jacobites, as never again would an armed uprising be used in the attempt to return the Stuarts to the throne.  As the battlefield was rainy and muddy this morning, I spent my time in the excellent Visitor’s Centre and allowed Kurt and Zane to do the dirty work, as it were, schlepping around in the actual battlefield.

Next, we saw Rodney’s Stone, which is a two-metre high Pictish cross slab now located close to Brodie Castle near the village of Forres.  The Picts were a group of Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Celtic people living in ancient eastern and northern Scotland.   Rodney’s Stone is designated as a Class II Pictish stone, which means that it has a cross on one side, and Pictish symbols on the other.  On the Pictish side there are depictions of sea monsters, a double (or mirror) disc, and a z-rod.  It is beautiful.  On it is a Pictish inscription which is written in the ancient Ogham alphabet, and contains the name Ethernan, who is a prominent Pictish saint.

After Rodney’s Stone, we went to see the ruins of Elgin Cathedral in, appropriately enough, the town of Elgin.  One of Scotland’s most beautiful medieval buildings, Elgin Cathedral is a magnificent ruin, much of which dates back to the 13th century.

From Elgin we went for lunch to the nearby Craigellachie Hotel, built in 1893, near the River Spey.  Kurt originally wanted to stay here (before we ran out of time and money), because it is a superb venue for exploring this area, and for sampling some of the 650 (!) different malt whiskies displayed in Craigellachie Hotel’s world famous Quaich Bar, which range in price from 3 pounds to 275 pounds per dram.  The Speyside area of Scotland is famous for its malt whiskies.  While every single last drop of Scotch Whisky in the world is made in Scotland (of course), half of the world’s malt whisky distilleries are on the Speyside doorstep.  Which is why I am now  in the lovely Craigellachie Hotel library working on this blog, and Kurt has been spirited off  (so to speak) by Zane to the nearby Aberlour distillery for a tour and tasting.

In a bit, Zane will pick me up and we’ll go grab some goodies for Kurt’s and my picnic on the train to Glasgow, the airport of which we will depart for the U.S. in the morning.

I’ll close with a few thank yous.  First, I’d like to thank all of you who are reading this blog, especially those of you brave enough to post a comment.  Your comments delighted, excited, and encouraged me, and kept me blogging when I just wanted to go to bed.  Thanks to Sara, for encouraging me in the first place to attempt a blog, and thanks also to Paul and Theresa, for giving me so much to blog about, and for helping me with the information on many of the Irish sites, and Theresa for even giving me some of the wording for the blog when I was brain-dead.  Lastly, many thanks to Kurt for being the other half of my brain at times, and helping me with names of sites, towns, mountain peaks, etc., and for holding my hand through the technical challenges of blogging.  It’s been a great trip, thanks for coming along!

Listening to old-timey traditional music (like Scottish Lawrence Welk) and watching dancers at Hootenanny's Pub in Inverness

Listening to old-timey traditional music (like Scottish Lawrence Welk) and watching dancers at Hootenanny’s Pub in Inverness

Leakey's Bookstore and Cafe in Inverness (Paul and Joe, you would be in heaven)

Leakey’s Used Bookstore and Cafe in Inverness (Paul and Joe, you would be in heaven)

Clava Cairn surrounded by megaliths

Clava Cairn surrounded by megaliths

Kurt at entrance to Cairn

Kurt at entrance to Cairn

Megalith separated from Clava Cairn by country road which was built through the site

Megalith separated from Clava Cairn by country road which was built through the site

Memorial built on Culloden Battlefield about 150 years ago

Memorial built on Culloden Battlefield about 150 years ago

Marker/memorial of where clan chief died on the Culloden Battlefield where a natural spring lies

Marker/memorial on a hallowed spring where clan chief died on the Culloden Battlefield

Front of Pictish Stone with sea monsters and double disc

Front of Pictish Stone with sea monsters and double disc

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Sandra at the Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel at Speyside

Sandra at the Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel at Speyside

"Malt Library" at Craigellachie Hotel

“Malt Library” at Craigellachie Hotel

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Craigellachie Hotel, Speyside
Ancient "Coffin Bridge" in Speyside built  to carry the dead from the village to the church across the river

Wonderful ancient “Coffin Bridge” in Speyside built to carry the dead from the village to the church across the river

Our wonderful "WOW Scotland" tour guide, Zane, dropping us off at the Carrbridge train station for our journey to Glasgow and onward towards home.  I'm ready!

Our wonderful “WOW Scotland” tour guide, Zane, dropping us off at the Carrbridge train station for our journey to Glasgow and onward towards Austin. I’m ready!

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That’s all, folks!

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Last day of Scotland hiking, drowning our sorrows in Scotch

Yeah, the title is a bit misleading.  This IS our last day of hiking, that much is true.  And Kurt somehow managed to get the group to want to go to the Talisker distillery for a Scotch tasting and tour (much to Angela’s dismay).  But as we are doing the tasting in the morning, and the hike afterwards, we will do the tour but take the tasting drams ‘to go’ (or should I say ‘takeaway’ as they do here), to drink tonight at dinner for our last night in Skye.

Last night after dinner, a German and Austrian tour of about 20 men and women showed up in the lodge bar for a performance by Norrie, our charming bartender.  He played the guitar and sang quite well, displaying quite a wide repertoire ranging from traditional Scottish folk songs, to the Beatles, Elvis, and Jim Croce.  It was so much fun, with many of us singing along to the well known songs.  Tonight we had a performance by his daughter, Alice, who played the bagpipes, and quite well, I must say.  When I mentioned to Norrie that they are quite the musical family, he responded facetiously, “Yes, like the von Trapps.”  Indeed.

Kurt is quite the popular guy here:  With Angela, our guide, because of his botany background, he is something of a teacher’s pet.  Whenever she spies a new plant or lichen, she calls out to him, “Kurt, come look at this.”  Then, as we are in Scotch country, many of our fellow hikers want to avail themselves of his superior knowledge of whisky, hence the clamor to squeeze into our tour a visit to a distillery.  I could tell he fell just a little in Angela’s estimation, as he was the instigator of the distillery tour, but she’s a consummate professional and a great sport, so she bowed to majority rule.  Not enjoying Scotch, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this change in plans, but as the wife of the instigator, I had to get with the program.

Today we tackled Trotternish Ridge, filled with the strange rock pinnacles of the Storr and the Quaraing, a long ridge hike that is considered one of the finest in Scotland. It was a fanTAStic hike, as Angela would say, as it misted and rained a bit and had an almost surreal ‘Lord of the Rings’ quality to it.  In addition, it was very challenging, again a very steep mountain slope with some slippery rock (from the rain) and scree.  But we made our way up to the ‘table’ and the views were incredible.  See for yourself.  Then we made a quick shopping stop in Portree, the capital of Skye.  What a lovely little seaside village.  This evening we had another fabulous dinner at Sconser Lodge, closing quite nicely and fittingly with a recital on the bagpipes by dear Alice.  Tomorrow we leave first thing in the morning for Inverness and a final goodbye to Angela, our tour guide extraordinaire, and our fellow hikers.

Norrie, our bartender at Sconser Lodge, and the German host of the German/Austrian tour

Norrie, our bartender at Sconser Lodge, and the German host of the German/Austrian tour

Morning view of ferry crossing Raasey Strait in the fog

Morning view of ferry crossing Raasey Strait in the fog

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Most of the hikers at breakfast in the Sconser Lodge, Isle of Skye

Scottish breakfast with sausage, bacon, egg, tomato, mushroom, and toast

Scottish breakfast with sausage, bacon, egg, tomato, mushroom, and toast

View outside dining room window at Sconser Lodge

View outside dining room window at Sconser Lodge

Kurt at the Talisker distillery for tasting and tour

Kurt at the Talisker distillery for tasting and tour

Port of Portree

Port of Portree

Village of Portree

Village of Portree

The first leg of our hike to the Trotternish Ridge

The first leg of our hike to the Trotternish Ridge

Heading up into the misty heights

Heading up into the misty heights

Rock pinnacles on the Trotternish

Rock pinnacles on the Trotternish

The particular part of the ridge on which we will be hiking is the Fiodegarry.

The particular part of the ridge on which we will be hiking is the Fiodegarry.

Above Kurt's head, another view of the pinnacle towards which we will be climbing

Above Kurt’s head, another view of the pinnacle towards which we will be climbing

The "Prison" rock formation

The “Prison” rock formation

Our lovely red-headed Scottish guide and lass, Angela, looking out over her beloved Scottish landscape

Our lovely red-headed Scottish guide and lass, Angela, looking out over her beloved Scottish landscape

The last stretch up into the pinnacles

The last stretch up into the pinnacles

We are high enough now that we are looking down on the pinnacles!

We are high enough now that we are looking down on the pinnacles!

On McLeod's Table, a mountain mesa among the pinnacles

On ‘The Table,’ a grassy summit plateau that offers dramatic views of the surrounding landscape, including the Cuillins, the Western Isles, and the mountains of Wester Ross and out to the sea

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A view from the Ridge looking out over the North Minch, the body of water between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides

A view from the Ridge looking out over the North Minch, the body of water between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides

Can't get enough of the heather, especially among the vivid green ferns

Can’t get enough of the heather, especially among the vivid green ferns

Alice playing the bagpipes at Sconser Lodge

Alice playing the bagpipes at Sconser Lodge

Sandra with her new dear  friend, and youngest hiker in the group (at 18), Olivia

Sandra with her new dear friend, and youngest hiker in the group (at 18), Olivia

Alice and her dad, Norrie, bartender and bard at Sconser Lodge

Alice and her dad, Norrie, bartender and bard at Sconser Lodge

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I ascend my first Munro! And the Scottish mist descends

Last night as I was finishing yesterday’s post sitting at our second story window, Kurt and I viewed an amazing sunset.  It kept morphing into one beautiful palate of colors after another.  We looked below and even the innkeeper, Craig, the young man who runs Sconser Lodge with his wife, was also taking photos of the amazing Skye show.

This morning we woke up to another hearty Scottish breakfast – Kurt and I had smoked haddock and poached egg with grilled tomato.  Full breakfasts both in Ireland and Scotland start with cereal or porridge (oatmeal), and follow with all sorts of breakfast meats and fish, tomatoes and mushrooms, toast and jam, and eggs.  Normally we don’t and can’t eat this way (I usually just have a bowl of oatmeal or cereal with fruit), but since we are hiking many hours a day we can afford to, and it is a wonderful treat.

After breakfast we began our hike in the rugged Black Cuillin Muntains, the training ground for British climbers preparing for alpine ascents.  We hiked up to the peak of Bruach Na Fruithe or “slope of the deer forest.”  Angela had warned us (especially me with my fear of heights) that we would be hiking up relatively steep slopes, but what is more, slopes of scree, i.e. loose rocks, which can be very tricky and even dangerous.  On the way up it was warmish, but we could see clouds and mists collecting above us, and Angela prepared us for the possibility that we might experience some rain.  It became overcast, and as we moved up the mountain we felt drops of rain, and the temperature (mercifully) dropped, which made for a much more comfortable hike, asides from the occasional slippery rock.

After the most difficult part of the hike, nearing the top, we all celebrated with photos and hugs.  It was the most difficult physical challenge I’ve ever conquered (the hike the other day up to 2,000 ft being the second most difficult!), and I got a little weepy (no surprise to any of you, I’m sure) at the relief and joy and triumph of the moment.  We soon made it up to the top, but by the time we got there it was raining pretty steadily, and we had to hurriedly eat our lunches before heading back down.  Chris, knowing how much this hike meant to me, asked to take a photograph of me in a victory pose as I reached the top. No one took many photos because of the rain, but there was another couple up at the peak when we got there, and they kindly took a group photo of us.   As one of my fellow hikers commented, it wouldn’t have been a proper hike in the British Isles without a little rain.

As I have mentioned, the hike was over 3,000 ft, which makes it a ‘Munro.’  Those more schooled in mountain climbing than I probably know that a Munro is a mountain in Scotland with a height of over 3,000 ft.  They are named after Sir Hugh Munro (1856-1919), who produced the first list of such mountains, known as Munro Tables.  Many people make it a goal to complete all the Munros, of which there are 282.  Angela has completed all of them.  Today I finished my first!  The hike was 9.2 miles, and took us, with several breaks, over seven hours.  What a day.

Sunset from room window over Strait of Raasay

Sunset from room window over Strait of Raasay

Our B&B, Sconser Lodge, on Skye

Our B&B, Sconser Lodge, on Skye

Today's Goal, Bruich Na Frithe in the Black Cuillin Mountains (we hiked up to the peak on the far right)

Today’s goal, Bruich Na Frithe in the Black Cuillin Mountains (we hiked up to the peak on the far right)

Waterfall on path to today's goal, peak of Bruach Na Frithe

Waterfall on path to today’s goal, peak of Bruach Na Frithe

On the second leg up to the peak

On the second leg up to the peak

We stop to have our 'first lunch,' the remainder we'll eat at the summit

We stop to have our ‘first lunch,’ the remainder we’ll eat at the summit

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We made it!  The hardest part is behind us.  I've never been happier or more relieved.  Just 25 more minutes up to the marker on top of the peak

The peak behind Frederic in the black hat is our final destination

The peak behind Frederic is our final destination

Clouds, mist, and rain descend

Clouds, mist, and rain descend

I made it!  Chris took this photo of me in a victory pose as I got to the top, very happy and relieved.

I made it! Chris took this photo of me in a victory pose as I got to the top, very happy and relieved.

The whole gang at the top of - from left to right - John (crouching), Frederic (in black hat), Heidi, Olivia, Angela, Kurt, Sandra, James, and Chris

The whole gang at the top of Bruach Na Fruithe – from left to right – John (crouching), Frederic (in black hat), Heidi, Olivia, Angela, Kurt, Sandra, James, and Chris

We take a minute to put on our rain gear

We take a minute to put on our rain gear

A cairn in the path on the way back down

A cairn in the path on the way back down

Waterfalls were abundant on the mountain path

Waterfalls were abundant on the mountain path

Mountain goat bellowing at us from his perch above, indignant that we should invade his territory

Mountain goat bellowing at us from his perch above, indignant that we should invade his territory

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Kurt in front of one of the many waterfalls we encountered

Kurt, a walking advert for REI,  in front of one of the many waterfalls we encountered

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A good walk unspoiled

(For this entry, Kurt will serve as guest blogger for those of you golf fans out there. Photos from his iPhone.)

I just could not justify coming all the way to Ireland and Scotland without playing a little golf, so I opted out of joining the fifth visit to Early Christian ruins on Ireland to play the last nine holes of the 11th ranked Parkland golf course in the country (Golf Digest) named HeadFort Country Club. The course was built on the former estate of the Earl of Bective. The palatial home was turned into the first all boarder prepatory school in Ireland in the early fifties. The new course that I played on was relatively straight forward, although the greens were quite protected with strategic pin positions bringing into play trees and several sand traps. In keeping with the majority of players I pulled a trolley and had a great relaxing round managing to shoot one or two over bogie for the nine.

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Headfort House looking back up 16th fairway

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Earl of Bective’s home, HeadFort House, became first all boarders prepatory school in the fifties.

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17th tee, and green on right across pond, stone bridge on left.

Headfort was not the traditional links course that all golfers hope to play went visting the old country and since the British Open was in play when we went to Edinburgh I had to run out to the course on the second day of the tournament. I only had about ninety minutes after hopping on the Scotsrail line to look around so I did not pay the entrance fee of 75 pounds but just scouted out the course. Watched a few professionals including Molinari putt on hole 1 and their drives from the second tee box. The course is built near the sand dunes on the Firth of Forth about 15 miles east of Edinburgh. There is a path which borders the course along the three and fourth hole which I took a few snaps.

Muirfield is considered, among the old championship courses, one of the fairest tests of golf, not having extraneous challenges like the excessive deep pot bunkers of Andrews. Hope to return one day and play the course. I heard 20,000 were in attendance but it seemed like it was relatively open and easy to access (at least on the second day of play). Wonderful that the Lefty one by three strokes. At the pub in Inverness I learned that Phil was seen walking around town the weekend before where he won the Scottish Open.

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View of British Open; the third Fairway from the cheap seats.

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Muirfield from the sand dunes.

Beach by Muirfield on Firth of Forth

Beach by Muirfield on Firth of Forth

I did see a beautiful 9 hole links course in Gairlach, which probably would be quite reasonable, would like to return to play it on another adventure in the highlands.

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Fairy Lochs and Goodbye to Gairloch, Hello Midges and Horseflies

We left Gairloch today, and are sitting in our hotel room on the Isle of Skye, watching a beautiful sunset over the water from our bedroom window, and hearing the baaas of sheep returning home for the night.

This morning before we left Gairloch and our wonderful hunting lodge, we took a hike to the Fairy Lochs (don’t you love that name?), a series of small highland lochlans that dot the moorland between the Sidhean Mor and Loch Gairloch, so close to our hotel that we just walked, and didn’t have to load up in the van.  The lochs offer an excellent display of local geology, and a touching memorial to the crew of an American WWII bomber that crashed here in 1945.  Then we hiked home and had our sack lunch in the lounge of the lodge.  We usually eat outside on our hikes, but the flies and midges (tiny flying and biting insects, a little larger than no-see-ems) have been terrible. Plus, it still has been unseasonably hot here in the UK, and, as we Texans know, there are few things worse than being hot and insect-bitten.

En route to Skye we stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, one of the most spectacular castles in Scotland.  The castle was built on the site of an ancient fort in 1230 by Alexander II who hoped to re-establish Scottish rule after the defeat of the Vikings at Largs.  It became the seat of the MacKenzies, Earls of Seaforth.  Kurt has a special connection with the MacKenzie clan, as his maternal grandfather’s name was Thomas MacKenzie Edgar, and his brother, Don’s middle name is MacKenzie.

Depending on the weather tomorrow, we may do one of our most challenging hikes ever: a 3,000 foot ascent in the Cuillin Mountains.

While in Skye we are staying at Sconser Lodge, a wonderful old B&B on the water, but, sadly, unlike our other B&Bs, they do charge for internet access, and you all know me well enough to know that I am loathe to spend money if I don’t have to.  So I will be cutting this post relatively short so I can add the photos before my time runs out.  Before the photos of our hike this morning and Eilean Donan Castle, I have included a few more photos from our hunting lodge and Gairloch.

Sunset at Shieldaig Lodge outside of Gairloch

Sunset at Shieldaig Lodge outside of Gairloch

Sandra with her new friend Baz, curmudgeonly canine  at Shieldaig Lodge

Sandra with her new friend Baz, curmudgeonly canine at Shieldaig Lodge

Morning hike with Fairy Lock in the background

Morning hike with Fairy Loch in the background

Fellow hiker, James, going native in his kilt

Fellow hiker, James, going native in his kilt

Sign pointing to crash site and memorial of WWII bomber crew

Sign pointing to crash site and memorial of WWII bomber crew

Part of propeller from 1945 bomber crash in loch water

Part of propeller from 1945 bomber crash in loch water

Inscribed stone plaque from WWII Memorial

Inscribed stone plaque from WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial at bomber crash site

WWII Memorial at bomber crash site

Fairy Loch

Fairy Loch

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Chris and Olivia wearing midge nets

Chris and Olivia wearing midge nets (the only ones in our group to have them )

Hiking back down

Hiking back down

Eilean Donan Castle, seen in films "Maid of Honor" and "Highlander"

Eilean Donan Castle, seen in films “Maid of Honor” and “Highlander”

Front gate of castle

Kurt viewing front gate of castle

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Queen Elizabeth holding her new great-grandson, seen in the little seaside town of Plockton where we stopped for a break on way to Skye

Queen Elizabeth holding her new great-grandson, seen in the little seaside town of Plockton where we stopped for a break on way to Skye

Port of Plockton

Port of Plockton

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Bogs, Bothies, and the Caledonian Caribbean

Kurt is in the bar of our wonderful old hunting lodge near the village of Gairloch, conducting (what else?) an informal scotch tasting with the men in our group, and I’m in one of the comfortable lounges writing this day’s post.  I’ll be sorry to leave this place, both the lodge, and this beautiful country.  We had a wonderful day on the Scottish coast, hiking around Rua Reidh.  We descended about 1,000 feet down from the bogs and moors (which Angela described as ‘Wuthering Heights’  landscape) to the beach which was gorgeous, like a slice of the Caribbean in Scotland.  As we picnicked on the beach, five of our group ran into the frigid waves, including the mother-daughter team, Chris and Olivia, who didn’t bring swimsuits, but didn’t let that stop them (they swam in their skivvies – I’ve always wanted to use that word).  I was so amazed and proud of them.  They estimated the water temperature was about 58 degrees F.  Brrrrrr.

(I don’t think that I’ve mentioned that while we’ve been in Ireland and Scotland, the days have been very long, and the nights very short.  It doesn’t get dark until around 10:30-11 p.m., and gets light around 4 a.m., which wreaks havoc with one’s circadian clock, especially for light sleepers such as myself.)

On the way to the beach cove, we came across a ‘Bothy.’  A bothy is a simple shelter, cabin, or cottage in the UK, available for anyone to use, with the permission and support of the owner of the land and property.  The Mountain Bothies Association is a non-profit that maintains about 100 shelters in the more remote parts of the UK.  They are often very rustic – rehabilitated ruins, even – and there is no booking system and no charges for use.  If one is staying in a bothy and others arrive, one is expected to make room for the newcomers.  Most of them are very simply stocked, if they are stocked at all.  The one we saw was relatively luxurious:  it had a fireplace, a loft, some food staples, a few books, and other various and sundry items.  I especially liked the ‘Bothy Book’ which is a journal where people staying in the bothy can record their impressions, comments, sketches, etc.  What a lovely concept is a bothy.

The trail back up to the cliffs was a little ‘dodgy’ as they say here, as it was very narrow and quite a ways down to the beach below.  I just put one foot in front of the other, watching my steps carefully, and didn’t look down.  Chris reminded me of Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice:  Do one thing a day that scares you.  I definitely had that covered for today.  Along the hike we saw a wonderful variety of wildflowers and flora:  Three kinds of heather, Bog Beans, Wild Mountain Thyme, and Heath Marsh Orchids, among others.

Tomorrow we hike to the Fairy Lochs, stop at Eilean Donan Castle, and then travel on to Skye.  Now, enjoy the photographs from today.

Seaside view of our Shieldaig Lodge, our B&B near Gairloch

Seaside view of our Shieldaig Lodge, our B&B near Gairloch

Front view of Shieldaig Lodge

Front view of Shieldaig Lodge

View from our dining room window at Shieldaig Lodge

View from our dining room window at Shieldaig Lodge

 

Kurt in one of the B&B lounges

Kurt in one of the B&B lounges

Heather in bloom on the way to the ocean in the background

Heather in bloom on the way to the ocean in the background

Angela talking about the 'bog beans' in this small pond

Angela talking about the ‘bog beans’ in this small pond

Our destination beach below the cliffs

Our destination beach below the cliffs

The Bothy which we visited above the coast

The Bothy which we visited above the coast

Sign on the door of the bothy

Sign on the door of the bothy

'Living Area' inside the Bothy

‘Living Area’ inside the Bothy

'Kitchen area' of the Bothy

‘Kitchen area’ of the Bothy

"Bothy Book"

“Bothy Book”

Sea cove where we will have our lunch

Sea cove where we will have our lunch

Sandra and Kurt at our picnic area on the beach

Sandra and Kurt at our picnic area on the beach

The intrepid and exhilarated sea bathers coming in from the cold

The intrepid and exhilarated sea bathers coming in from the cold waters

Another view of the coast on our way back up to the cliffs

Another view of the coast on our way back up to the cliffs

Wild mountain thyme

Wild mountain thyme

A lonely sailboat off the coast

A lonely sailboat off the coast

A very Mediterannean-like coastal scene

A very Mediterannean-like coastal scene

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Thistles, the national symbol of Scotland

Thistles, the national symbol of Scotland

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Hike up An Teallach Mountain to Coire Toll An Lochan (Lake)

Last night was the first night I was so tired I couldn’t send out my blog before I went to bed.  We hiked all day, a total of 9 1/2 miles up a 2,000 plus elevation (but not nearly as steep as the day before).  I have to say that this is the most physically demanding work I have ever done: I am built, and we trained, for endurance, not elevation so ascending these steep mountain faces has been incredibly challenging (and the descent can be equally difficult, especially on aging knees).  But because the weather is so fair, Angela wanted to do the highest peaks while it was clear – the hiking equivalent of making hay while the sun shines.  No point in hiking up a mountain if you can’t see anything when you get up there, let alone the safety issue of hiking on granite rocks when they are slippery.  So, until we tackle the sea cliffs at Skye, we have the most rigorous hiking behind us.

After our hike, we went for a cold drink and ice cream (one or the other, not both!), and drove to our new B&B about 45 minutes away, an old Victorian hunting lodge on the edge of the small seaside village of Gairloch, Shieldaig Lodge.

A few notes about the photos.  The first is of Nevin, our host at our last B&B. Nevin owns the Ladysmith Guest House, and waited on us while his wife, Pauline, prepared our wonderful dinners and breakfasts.  Yesterday morning, Nevin told us animatedly about going fishing with his mates the previous day, and how the boat was surrounded by a school of around 50-60 porpoises which circled the boat and followed them for a bit.  A lovely, intelligent, man-boy in his openness and enthusiasm, Nevin told us it had been one of the most exciting days he’d ever had on the water (and this is a man whose B&B is decorated in a very strong nautical theme).  It was such a joy to watch him describe this magical experience.  Is Nevin’s a great face, or what??

On the Highland coast, there is relatively abundant seafood.  Due to over-fishing, however, not as abundant as in days past.  Plus, most of the seafood is shipped off to places where they are paid much more for it than the locals can afford.  One of my days at Ladysmith Guest House I had seafood four times:  breakfast, kippered herring (see Kurt’s herring breakfast below);  lunch, salmon sandwich; starter, salmon salad (the best!); and dinner, fresh sea bass.  That was indeed a good food day.

Nevin, our fabulous host at Ladysmith Guest House in Ullapool

Nevin, our fabulous host at Ladysmith Guest House in Ullapool

Huge kippered herring Kurt had for breakfast this morning (and which I had yesterday) - awesome!

Huge kippered herring Kurt had for breakfast this morning (and which I had yesterday) – awesome!

The gang's all here - except for Angela

The gang’s all here – except for Angela

Waterfall at a stunning slot gorge we stopped at on way to our hike

Waterfall at a stunning slot gorge we stopped at on way to our hike

Suspension bridge above stunning slot gorge and waterfall we stopped at on way to hike

Suspension bridge above stunning slot gorge and waterfall we stopped at on way to hike

Kurt and I on suspension bridge over slot gorge

Kurt and I on suspension bridge over slot gorge

On our way up An Teallach, getting bitten by horseflies for an hour or so along the way

On our way up An Teallach, getting bitten by horseflies for an hour or so along the way

Crossing expansive granite pavements on our way to An Teallach

Crossing expansive granite pavements on our way to An Teallach

Mountain above Angela's head is our destination - we make our way about halfway up to a beautiful mountain lake

Mountain above Angela’s head is our destination – we make our way about halfway up to a beautiful mountain lake

We make our way closer to An Teallach

We make our way closer to An Teallach

Kurt standing at first of mountain lakes we encountered on our hike

Kurt standing at first of mountain lakes we encountered on our hike

'Glacial Erratic' - glaciers move boulders to incongruous places along their path

‘Glacial Erratic’ – glaciers move boulders to incongruous places along their path

Kurt and Sandra at lunch before final push to Coire Toll An Lochan

Kurt and Sandra at lunch before final push to Coire Toll An Lochan

Coire Toll An Lochan

Coire Toll An Lochan

Kurt and Angela getting potable water from lake stream (I wasn't brave enough)

Kurt and Angela getting potable water from lake stream (I wasn’t brave enough)

Hikers deliberating on who is brave enough to swim in frigid lake

Hikers deliberating on who is bold enough to swim in frigid lake

While many of us wade in the water, Jim is the only one to fully immerse and swim, if only for a moment!

While many of us wade in the water, John is the only one to fully immerse and swim, if only for a moment!

Mother-Daughter Olivia and Chris playing tribute to Jim for his bravery

Mother-Daughter duo Olivia and Chris playing tribute to John for his bravery

Impressive monoliths on way down from lake

Impressive monoliths on way down from lake

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Waterfall on way down mountain (swimmers not with our group)

Waterfall on way down mountain (swimmers not with our group)

Wooded area of Caledonian Pines near end of hike near foot of mountain

Wooded area of Caledonian Pines and rhododendron near end of hike near foot of mountain (white house in distance belongs to Tim Rice, collaborator with Andrew Lloyd Webber)

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Inverpolly National Nature Reserve, Cul Mor, and Nodding Souls

We took a long and grand hike today, six miles and an ascent of over 2,000 feet up to the peak of Cul Mor in the Inverpolly National Nature Reserve.  The INNR is the second largest nature reserve in Britain, and is rich in indigenous plant life such as heather, stag moss, and miniature wild orchids.  The weather is still unbelievably amazing – I hiked most of the six and a half hour hike (including about half an hour for lunch) in a T-shirt. We hiked up through springy bogs, and sandstone and granite rocks and crags.  At one point we were rock climbing more than hiking, and the face was steep enough that Angela advised us to put one of our hiking poles away, and use that hand to steady ourselves as we climbed.  It was a little scary for this acrophobe, but the view at the top – and all along the hike, actually – was well worth it, as you will see.

Angela has got to be the best guide ever.  She is knowledgable about not only all things Scottish, but is also extremely well read and informed on ecology, geology, the arts, cultural matters, and international affairs.  It is rare to find a subject upon which she cannot intelligently opine.  And she is a sensitive soul, in the bargain.  As we were coming down the mountain she commented on a large and lovely patch of bog cotton (somewhat similar to fluffy dandelions), blowing in the wind.  She said, “Kahlil Gibran has this great line in one of his poems about heaven being full of nodding souls.  I’d like to think I’ll come back as a nodding soul in the Scottish moors….”

I’m too tired tonight for a lengthy and detailed post, so I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.

Kurt at the beginning of our hike; the peak behind him to the right is Cul Mor, our destination

Kurt at the beginning of our hike; the peak behind him to the right is Cul Mor, our destination (actually higher than the peak to the left, though it doesn’t look it)

A lochan (small lake) on the moor

A lochan (small lake) on the moor

Sandra about a quarter of the way up the mountain

Sandra about a quarter of the way up the mountain

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Cul Mor peak in sight, but about two and a half hours away

Cul Mor peak in sight, but about two and a half hours away

Kurt in front of a tadpole-filled lochan

Kurt in front of a tadpole-filled lochan

Stopping for a little snack about an hour away from Cul Mor peak

Stopping for a little snack about an hour away from Cul Mor peak

We are high enough now to see the Atlantic Ocean - The Mirch - in the background

We are high enough now to see the Atlantic Ocean – The Mirch – in the background

We made it!  At the top is a survey marker used by early map-makers

We made it! At the top is a survey marker used by early map-makers
Putting our hands on the marker as a ritual celebrating our summit of the peak

Putting our hands on the marker as a ritual celebrating our summit of the peak

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Kurt and Sandra at Cul Mor peak, getting ready to enjoy our lunch

Kurt and Sandra at Cul Mor peak, getting ready to enjoy our lunch

Angela eating her well-deserved sandwiches at the top of Cul Mor

Angela eating her well-deserved sandwiches at the top of Cul Mor

Another view from the top

Another view from the top

A view on our descent down the other side of Cul Mor

A view on our descent down the other side of Cul Mor

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Field of bog cotton, Angela's 'nodding souls'

Field of bog cotton, Angela’s ‘nodding souls’

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Inverness, and Ullapool (where the great hiking adventure begins)

We stayed at a nice little B&B last night where my friend, Connie, stayed a year or so ago when she did this REI Highlands and Islands hike.  We didn’t have internet access at the B&B, so went to the pub down the street and had some wine and hand-cut chips while I blogged and Kurt chatted up the friendly guys at the bar.  The pub was a hopping little place, mainly locals whooping it up on a Friday night.  The Highland Games were in Inverness today, but we didn’t want to pay 10 pounds to get in for only a short amount of time, so we just did a self-guided walking tour of the city.  Inverness is the “Capital of the Highlands.”  The Northwest Highlands, which we will be exploring in this hiking tour, is  wild, rugged, and sparsely populated (except now during tourist season when many are here for hiking, kayaking, and mountain biking).  Inverness was bustling today with lots of local tourists here for the Highland Games and other activities.

We met our fellow hikers and our guide, Angela Gillespie, at the train station at 1:30 and she drove us all and our luggage to the attractive little fishing port of Ullapool (in Norse that means ‘Ully’s Farm’ – this area was populated by Vikings for over 400 years at one time).  Angela won a 2011 REI Adventures Top Guide award in recognition of her guiding skills and customer service.  I can see why:  She is hilarious, has an encyclopedic knowledge of this country and its landscape, topography, and history, is a great story-teller, and has had a very interesting life.  She is a grandmother, runs hikes for REI in the summer, works in France as a ski guide in the winter, and also leads tours up Kilimanjaro. Can you believe it?  It was a beautiful drive up into the hills and mountains on our way to Ullapool, and I saw a majestic highland deer with a full rack of antlers along the way.  We checked into our lovely little B&B, took a quick walk into town to check it out, and then came back for a 2-hour hike up and down Ullapool Hill.  Kevin, you were right that the Hill of Life in Westlake would stand us in good stead for this hike, as a good part of it was as strenuous as the HL.

Our fellow hikers seem like a great group of people, hailing from east coast to west.  Chris and Olivia are a mother-daughter couple from Connecticut, James is from Seattle, John from Rhode Island, and Heidi and Frederick are from San Francisco.  Most of them are widely traveled, which led to an interesting and lively discussion at dinner time (apparently Mongolia is the new hot travel destination – go now before it becomes too commercial).  Dinner was excellent (sorry Richard, no photos), featuring local seafood and meat.  The co-owner of the B&B is Nevin, and he is a hoot – if you can understand his thick Scottish brogue.

Enjoy these photos from Inverness and Ullapool.

Inverness, on the River Ness

Inverness, on the River Ness

Sandra and Kurt in front of the Inverness Castle

Sandra and Kurt in front of the Inverness Castle

Faith, Hope and Charity statue

Faith, Hope and Charity statue

Foxglove along the Caledonian Canal, connecting the Moray Firth with Loch Ness

Wildflower known as Fireweed in North America, but as Rosebay Willowherb in Britain, along the Caledonian Canal in Inverness, connecting the Moray Firth with Loch Ness

Fly fishers on the River Ness

Fly fishers on the River Ness

Memorial to area soldiers killed in past wars

Memorial to area soldiers killed in past wars

Two girls busking in downtown Inverness (they were pretty good, too!)

Two girls busking in downtown Inverness (they were pretty good, too!)

Part of our REI hiking group in front of Ladysmith Hotel in Ullapool

Part of our REI hiking group in front of Ladysmith Hotel in Ullapool

View from hike up Ullapool Hill

View from hike up Ullapool Hill

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We made it!

We made it!

Kurt at the top of Ullapool Hill

Kurt at the top of Ullapool Hill

Cairn at top of Ullapool Hill I love a good cairn)

Cairn at top of Ullapool Hill – I love a good cairn – I put the top rock on 😉

Kurt and Angela, Guide Extraordinaire

Kurt and Angela, Guide Extraordinaire

Wildflowers on the hike: Bog Cotton and Bog Asphodel

Wildflowers on the hike: Bog Cotton and Bog Asphodel

View of Ullapool on descent

View of Ullapool on descent

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Sandra eats haggis, and not only survives, but thrives

Last night Kurt and I went to a local restaurant, The Orchard, and had a delicious meal.  I ordered “haggis fritters” operating under the credo that anything fried has got to taste good.  And I was right.  Haggis fritters were delicious.  They were served with apple chutney, and reminded me of Pennsylvania scrapple which we had as a child, and which my dad fried up and served with ketchup.  Scrapple and haggis have in common that key ingredients are heart, liver, and other organ meats.  And it still tasted great.  We wanted to order ciders, but couldn’t decide which ones, so our great waiter, Matt, brought us samples of three of them.  We choose Strongbow and Addlestone.  I also had a wonderful steak and merlot pie.

This morning Kurt went to Muirfield to check on the golf scores at the British Open (Tiger is currently in second), and I went to the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, a mere six blocks away from our B&B.  What a place.  The RBGE has one of the largest and most important plant collections in the world – covering all continents and most plant families, it represents 7% of the entire global flora – that is incredible!   As I mentioned, we are having unseasonably warm weather here in Scotland – the Scots give us credit for bringing it from Texas, and told us to stay as long as we like.  Scots are a reticent sort to start, but once engaged, they are warm, hospitable, and chatty.  There were lots of locals in the Gardens, many young moms with babes in strollers, and also tourists from around the world.  I was able to spend several hours enjoying the Gardens and the wonderful gift shop and Terrace Cafe.  Afterwards, I walked to the place Kurt and I were going to meet for lunch, and on the way saw several used and rare bookstores.  One had an old book on Edinburgh, with prints of paintings of the city’s sights, which was calling to me.  I went into the shop, and asked the young man at the desk about the book, and we had a lovely conversation.  He told me that one of his favorite places in Scotland was the Isle of Iona, and when I told him that our hike was taking us to the isle of Skye, he said derisively, “Skye always wins out over Iona.”  I assured him that one day I would like to travel to Iona, as I have heard it is a very special and spiritual place.  I told him I wanted to buy the book, which was 15 pounds, and I thought I could cobble together 15 pounds, just.  As it turned out I only had 12 pounds and change, and he said that would be fine.  What a nice guy.  And I loved the name of his shop:  Gently Mad.   That describes many of the lovely people I know who are crazy about books.

This evening we took the train to Inverness for the first day of our REI hike of the Highlands and Islands – what a pleasure.  The train was only about a third full, and got us to Inverness in great comfort and ease in about three and a half hours, through charming towns and beautiful scenery.  We had a picnic on the train for our dinner:  cheese, gf corn/flax cakes, pork pate, red and green bell peppers, spicy hummus, and, of course, chocolate.  All in all, another great day in Scotland.

Our man, Matt, best waiter ever, at the Orchard

Our man, Matt, best waiter ever, at the Orchard

My lovely steak and merlot pie at The Orchard

My lovely steak and merlot pie at The Orchard

Flowers at RBGE

Flowers at RBGE

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Note by school child in RBGE interactive display

Note by school child in RBGE interactive display

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Could this be the giant and aggressive salad plant?

Could this be the giant and aggressive salad plant?

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Sandra with Andy Goldsworthy sculpture "Slate Cone" at RBGE

Sandra with Andy Goldsworthy sculpture “Slate Cone” at RBGE

Waterfall at RBGE

Waterfall at RBGE

Our great lunch at the Piano Cafe of Summer Lemon Chicken Soup, and Lentil Salad with hazelnuts, blue cheese, and cranberries, YUM!

Our great lunch at the Piano Cafe of Summer Lemon Chicken Soup, and Lentil Salad with hazelnuts, blue cheese, and cranberries, YUM!

Sandra and Kurt on the ScotRail Eastern Coach

Sandra and Kurt on the ScotRail Eastern Coach

Dalwhinnie DIstillery that Kurt managed to photograph through the train window proving that where there's a will there's a way

Dalwhinnie DIstillery that Kurt managed to photograph through the train window proving that where there’s a will there’s a way

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