Puffin Rock

We’ve been unbelievably lucky with the weather on this trip. I haven’t (and won’t) use fully half of the clothing I packed, and have spent far more days in shorts, a T-shirt and sandals than I ever expected. No day better illustrates the luck we’ve had than today.

Our plan was to take a six-hour boat excursion through the islands. Imagine a country with a reputation for rainy, gloomy and cold weather, and then picture yourself on a boat off the coast of such a country. We have creative imaginations, so we expected (and planned for) the worst. Here’s what we got instead:

Sunny, warm, absolutely glassy, flat water. Are we truly in Scotland??

Yesterday, we arrived in Tobermory by ferry. This morning, we left again by boat, this time on a tour bound for the Treshnish Isles of Staffa and Lunga. On the former, our goal was Fingal’s Cave, a geological wonder of basalt made famous by composer Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote an overture inspired by the cave.

The real show, however, was on the island of Lunga: puffins! Iceland is also known for puffins, but when we went there two years ago, the only one we saw had gone off to join the choir invisible long before we encountered it. Today, we saw more puffins than one could ever hope for.

And Lunga was more than just a real-life Puffin Rock: the island was home to countless other species of sea birds, the names of which I can’t even begin to tell you. National Geographic could easily film a program here. Turn up your speakers for this video clip:

Back on dry land, we explored more of Tobermory.

“Picturesque” is an understatement.

Pints and pies: a recurring theme.

Yes, we’re on island time here.

Today we also got a sneak peek at what tomorrow holds in store for us. I’ll give you the same sneak peek, but you’ll have to wait till tomorrow for more details.

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Island Travel Day

Today was an inter-island travel day from the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Mull, with much of it spent in the car, so we don’t have a lot to report. But I wouldn’t dare call it boring—this is Scotland, so there’s always something beautiful to see. Case in point:

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll recognize this location:

That’s right, it’s the Glenfinnan Viaduct, instantly recognizable even without Harry and Ron careening above it in a flying car.

I wonder if they allow hippie children at Hogwarts.

Our journey included two ferry trips, which helped break up the car ride and make things more fun and interesting.

Even the drive itself was exciting (if a bit nerve-wracking), with much of it spent on single-track roads off the beaten path, mostly driven by locals who don’t care to slow down much on roads with lots of blind curves. Here’s a close encounter with a different kind of local:

We’re now settled into our Airbnb in Tobermory, an unbelievably charming harbor town (way more so than Portree on Skye). We can’t wait to explore it!

Skye’s the Limit

Between the magical Fairy Pools yesterday and the sights we saw today, Skye definitely lived up to the hype. The scenery rivaled what we saw in Iceland two years ago.

First, the fairy theme continued with a visit to the Fairy Glen. The morning mist worked to great effect to enhance the beauty and mystery.

Our self-guided tour around the Trotternish Peninsula—and elsewhere across Scotland—has taken us on a number of single-track roads, narrow lanes wide enough for only one car. They have regular “passing places” (turnouts where cars coming in opposite directions can pass one another), but it can still be tricky—and the large number of wandering sheep, and the fog we had today, don’t make it any easier.

When we arrived at the top of the peninsula to see the Quiraing, a dramatic series of cliffs and crags, we expected to see just the inside of a cloud (as you can see in the above video). We were optimistic, however, and hiked out a bit to see if our luck would change. Sure enough, the sun broke through, and the short hike and accompanying views turned out to be the highlight of the day.

The clouds poured over the cliffs like waves.

Back down to the coast, we saw more famous Skye sights like Kilt Rock, Mealt Falls and the Old Man of Storr.

Sheep cover the hills of Skye, and it appears to be lamb season, because they’re everywhere too. And they’re too cute not to share.

Lastly, we passed a brewery, so of course I stopped in to visit. They were pouring samples, but when I asked, the server said it was for a private group only. I am just not having luck in the sampling department. I guess they just don’t do samples at breweries and distilleries like they do back home.

Both time and WiFi are limited, so we’re off to the Isle of Mull! Puffins and castles in our near future….

O’er the Sea to Skye

Today was a travel day—from northeast Scotland to the islands in the west—so one might expect to have little to report. But that’s certainly not the case; the bit of the Isle of Skye that we’ve seen suggests great things are in store for us tomorrow.

Just before we crossed o’er the sea to Skye like Bonnie Prince Charlie, we came upon Eilean Donan. It comes as no surprise that it’s the most photographed castle in Scotland.

We have a lot to see in Skye during our short stay and we had some extra time this afternoon, so we headed for the Fairy Pools to check that place off our list. We expected a nice hike with some fun pools along the way, but did not expect the jaw-dropping scenery surrounding the trail. It was truly epic. And the little pools and falls hidden away in nooks and crannies were magical indeed.

 

There’s a wee bit o’ faerie magic in each bottle of single malt, so it’s perhaps intentional that Talisker is located mere miles from the Fairy Pools. We got there just ten minutes before they closed, so I had barely enough time for a selfie and a quick purchase of a bottle sold only at the distillery (Jason B, if you’re reading this, plan to come over soon).

We’re settled in Portree for the next two nights; it’s a gorgeous little harbor town that, to me anyway, is a bit reminiscent of Avalon on Catalina Island (but without all the kitsch).

The WiFi is slow and spotty on this remote island, so I’m quitting while I’m ahead. More tomorrow!

History and Whisky

History, scenery and whisky were three of the things that brought us to Scotland, and today we got a bit of each.

First stop, Culloden Battlefield, site of the Jacobites’ last stand against the armies of the English in 1746. This devastating loss marked not only the end of the Jacobites’ bid to restore the Stuart dynasty to the English throne, but also the end of highland clan culture. The TV series Outlander vividly brought this battle (and the events leading up to it) to life, and I highly recommend checking it out.

These stones mark the mass burials of the fallen highlanders (as many as 2,000, nearly half that number killed just in the first few minutes of the battle).

We didn’t have far to go in distance to go 4,000 years back in time to the Clava Cairns, a series of Bronze Age tombs and standing stones.

Cassie and I couldn’t help testing the standing stone to see if it would take us back to eighteenth century Scotland a la Outlander.

Then it was time to head to the Speyside region, the area with the greatest concentration of whisky distilleries, including the most well known brands like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan, Balvenie and others. It’s the River Spey that gives the whisky region its name, as well as serves as the foundation of the liquor itself.

As luck would have it, today marked the grand opening of The Macallan’s brand-new distillery and visitor’s center. Six years in the making, at a price tag of some $180 million, it was quite a coincidence that the opening fell on the same day we were in the area.

The facility is built into the side of a hill, meant to blend in as much as possible (down to its turf-covered roofs).

The interior was vast; I could look up numbers to quantify the experience—I did hear the figure 15 million liters produced annually—but words won’t really convey what it’s like inside.

It was a treat to visit the home of the whisky that introduced us to single malt Scotch, but Cassie and I both agreed that we preferred drinking the whisky over visiting the facilities that make it. Unlike breweries and wineries, where you get to taste the beverages and pick your favorites, here it seems more limited—get a small taste as part of a tour, or buy a dram at the bar, which you can do anywhere. Then again, we only stopped at Macallan and Glenfiddich, so we could be doing it wrong.

In Iceland, we couldn’t go a day without seeing a waterfall. The same is true in Scotland, except it’s castles instead of waterfalls. Today’s was Balvenie Castle (after which the nearby distillery is presumably named).

Tomorrow, we begin the next leg of our trip, heading—in the words of the Outlander theme song—o’er the sea to Skye.

On the Hunt for Nessie

We’ve had a pretty full week so far. That, combined with the blackout shades in our Airbnb flat, led to us sleeping in till 9:00. Which was just as well; we all needed the rest. And we planned a somewhat light day as well: following in well-trodden footsteps to Loch Ness, and nothing else.

I originally planned an itinerary that would take us on a full circumnavigation of the lake, with a lunch stop in Fort Augustus (where Loch Ness connects via a series of locks to other lochs, and eventually the Irish Sea). But we figured a lake is a lake, and driving around the entire thing would just show us the same view for several hours. Instead, we headed straight for Urquhart Castle, the most picturesque spot on the lake.

“Picturesque,” in this case, does not mean “intact.” Urquhart is by far the most ruined of the castles we’ve seen so far, but in my opinion, that only added to its charm. Though, let’s be honest, in this kind of a setting, it’s easy to make a pile of rocks look charming.

When we first started talking to Molly about this trip, the mention of the “Loch Ness Monster” scared her. But after reading and talking about Nessie, she’s become more and more excited about today’s visit. (Grammy’s hand-knit Nessie stuffie before we left was also a big hit.) I foolishly left the binoculars in the apartment, but she settled with Cassie’s camera, taking about 100 photos in her search for the elusive beast.

We finally managed to get a couple of family portraits today too.

And just for some extra color and variety, here are a couple of photos of Inverness and Nairn.

Quick shot as we passed through; that’s Inverness Castle in the background.

The coastal town of Nairn, looking back from the beach, not far from our apartment.

Bonus: Here’s what my blogging setup looked like tonight (don’t get the wrong idea; up till tonight, I’ve been doing it unglamorously from bed).

“Your Mother Was a Hamster”

Another day, another couple of castles. Because Scotland, known for Scotch whisky, has more castles than distilleries (disclaimer: that might be fake news, but it seems likely to me).

We started the day by picking up a rental car (more on that later). Our first stop was Midhope Castle, not far outside Edinburgh. For me, this was an exciting visit. Before I explain why, let’s see how many of you recognize it.

Yes, that’s right—it’s Lallybroch, home of Jamie Fraser in the TV series Outlander.

Scotland has been on our bucket list for a long time—for me, since college, when I fell in love with English and Scottish history and saw the movie Braveheart; and for both of us, since becoming acquainted with Scotch whisky at a pair of Macallan whisky tastings when we lived in NYC. But it was our recent consumption of this TV series, most of it shot at various locations in Scotland and showcasing the gorgeous scenery, that lit the spark and brought us here now.

Our second castle of the day also has a deep-rooted tradition in movies and TV: Doune Castle.

This was the only castle that the Monty Python troupe was able to secure for filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail (from which this posting’s titular quote is from), and thus the location was used for nearly all of the castle scenes in the movie. Doune also stood in for Winterfell in the Game of Thrones series, and Outlander fans will recognize it as Castle Leoch, home of the Mackenzie clan. It was also great fun to explore.

We also stopped in Falkirk to see the Kelpies, a giant art installation that we knew Molly would enjoy. Which she did indeed, even bringing her sketch pad to render their likenesses.

Another stop mainly geared for Molly was to see the Leault working sheep dogs in action at a sheep farm. It was quite impressive to see what these dogs are trained to do, and feeding lambs and meeting the puppies was an added bonus.

And now that we’re in the Highlands, we’re surrounded by scenic beauty. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to cull down the vast number of photos I’m sure to take in the coming days.

A parting note about our rental car. I’ve done a lot of things in my travels: I’ve lived abroad for several years of my life, I’ve visited nearly every continent, I’ve crossed the equator at sea multiple times… but I’ve never driven a car on the opposite side of the road. Today, I jumped right into the deep end by picking up our car in the heart of downtown Edinburgh. To say it was a white-knuckle drive out of the city might be an understatement. But we made it, and the more miles we’ve covered, the (slightly) easier it’s become. I will say, though, without the GPS navigation afforded by Google Maps on my phone, we’d still be circling around the heart of Edinburgh.

Tonight, we’re laying our heads down in a nice Airbnb flat in Nairn, just yards from the harbor and beach in the Firth of Moray. We have a couple of exciting days ahead, including Loch Ness, the battlefield of Culloden and the grand opening of the mega-million-dollar new Macallan distillery. I’ll try to keep up the blogging….