Scotland; Castles, “Midgies” and More

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The View at Eilean Donan Castle

We headed east, then northeast, stopping at the 13th century Eilean Donan Castle at the Kyle of Lochalsh. This is the castle used in some scenes from the original Highlander movie. We parked on the mainland and crossed the multi-arched bridge on foot to the island where the castle beckoned.The day was clearing as we arrived and the mist was lifting from the loch beyond, giving everything a magical appearance. The views here were endless and entirely captivating, changing before our eyes…

Eilean Donan Castle on the Island

As we toured the castle, within and without, it was easy to see that it had been well fortified. Its history was long and interesting and the castle has been well restored. When we returned to our car, there was a lone bagpiper playing in the verge between the castle bridge and the car park. Pat convinced/paid the piper to say hello to our grandson and play him a tune which Pat recorded on his phone and sent home like a postcard.

Pat Paid the Piper, so to Speak…

Sculpture in Front of the Torridon Hotel

The Torridon Hotel

A River on the Extensive Grounds at the Torridon Inn

We continue on to our destination for the day; Torridon Inn, an adventure resort. As we drew closer, we drove beneath dark and towering cliffs so it was no surprise that rock climbing was one of the “adventures” featured there. Mountain Biking on rough roads, kayaking and many other outdoor, guide-led activities were available. We had our own, slightly less strenuous agenda to attend to but it was a very interesting venue to be based at for a few days.

The Cottage we Stayed in at the Torridon Inn

One of the Adventure Vans at the Torridon Inn, Gorge Scrambling???

Once we got settled, we walked around many of the trails and discovered the inn here began as an estate with a hunting lodge down on the loch. That lodge is now an elegant early Victorian hotel, the Torridon Hotel, which we walked around and through and admired. We explored the stream that ran through the property from the mountains to the loch, deciding my brother Jon would love to cast a rod and line there. We toured gardens where much of the food served here is grown. We went back to the dining room at the inn and had tea, then settled into our room in one of the stone cottages and planned our next day in this gorgeous country. The scenery in the Highlands and islands is almost overwhelming at times with its rugged and majestic beauty.

Loch Broom at Ullapool

We set out for the small fishing community of Ullapool, next morning, clear and cool. The scenery across the loch was more than worth the trip. Once we strolled around the harbor and out on the pier a bit, absorbing the stunning views, we continued our day trip.

A lot of driving this day, and a lot of sheep! We took a road along the clifftops, overlooking the ocean, that was breathtaking. It was also VERY narrow, dirt and gravel and not on the GPS. It involved a few “weak bridges” as the confidence-inspiring signs declared; flimsy looking suspension bridges spanning ravines, usually with huge boulders on each end making an interesting angle requiring tricky navigation. We consoled ourselves that even though the road was not on our map; that it had to come out somewhere and we’d at least be able to return by a different route. We were wrong.

Our Road Where it was Wide Enough to Get Out of the Car to Take a Photo!

Seemingly Endless Road to Apparently … Officially … Nowhere

After many miles in which we saw only one or two vehicles going the other way, we finally arrived at a very isolated lighthouse and a dead end road. We got out and walked for a bit, as it was beautiful, and getting out of the car and and stretching was always a good idea. We noticed some stony outcroppings below the cliffs we were walking along the top of. We were amused to see seals and sheep, both stretched out in the sun there, like best friends, taking in the fine weather.

Finally, facing the inevitable, we turned the car around and retraced our perilous way back to what was passing for civilization today. We had a hot meal in the dining room of the inn and then listened to some live music in the pub there for a while. An interesting map was propped against a wall, detailing the various origins of Scottish whiskies and their attributes. It was a nice way to wrap up our time in Torridon.

Scottish Whisky Origins and Attributes

The following morning we awoke to a pretty hard rain. After a simple breakfast, we got an early start from Torridon. We were planning to take a boat ride on Loch Ness and to visit Urquhart Castle. The very rough “road” we took through the Highland moor, was soon flooded with the rain. All the potholes we’d been swerving around, soon looked just like the omnipresent puddles we’d slowed down for. ‘Slowed down for’ being a relative term as we were not moving very fast to begin with, visibility and road conditions being far from ideal.

Before too long, we (I) hit the inevitable pothole, just right, so that our tire went immediately flat and all the bells and whistles in our tricked-out car began to ring and shriek. We stopped where we were, afraid to drive further and damage the rim. Of course, there was really no edge of the road as it was barely as wide as the car here. We took a deep breath and got out into the deluge. We were immediately swarmed by (no exaggeration) millions of midges, which we’d been warned about but had yet to experience. Apparently, the “midgies” as the locals affectionately call them, are a very tiny, nearly invisible on their own, fly; something like our “no-see-ums” but smaller. They come out in the Highlands when the weather is wet and there is not wind. They come in clouds and get in your eyes, ears, nose and mouth in nano-seconds.

The Site of Our Puncture…

In this situation, we alternately opened the trunk, paddled the air in a vain attempt to keep the midgies away, pulled out all our luggage into the puddles in the middle of the road, swatted at midgies, and searched for the tire jack and spare. There was no spare. We were soaked, our luggage was soaked. We looked through the wet luggage in the rain, searching for the bug nets I’d packed but so far hadn’t needed and finally found them in the bottom of a bag, the last place I looked of course…

We threw all the wet  luggage into the back seat and jumped into the car, pulling on our bug nets in a vain attempt to escape the awful pests. We managed to trap dozens of the bugs inside the bug nets as there was no place without them around us. They’d also followed us in a grey cloud into the car. At this point, Pat was pretty annoyed and I was feeling awful about hitting the pothole and a bit ridiculous in my bug net in the car. The entire situation hit me as so hilarious I couldn’t stop laughing. Totally inappropriate of course.

By some miracle, we had intermittent cell phone service in this spot, and Pat reverted to practical action. He called the car rental agency, and after being dropped a few times and lots of hold time, arranged to have someone come and fix the tire. It would be a few hours wait they explained, but eventually, someone would be along. The nearest garage was a long way off and they already had other similar calls to attend to on the way. No surprise I guess…

So, I pulled out one of my Isle of Lewis books and resumed reading where I’d left off the night before, bug net on and rain pounding on the roof. Pat, called the boat tour service we’d reserved tickets with for a ten o’clock trip and explained that we would have to consider the noon trip instead, explaining we were stuck with a flat tire several hours away. Just then, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Pat remarked that at least if we had to be stuck somewhere, we could not have chosen a prettier place. The wind picked up and we rolled down the window to let the midgies out. Seconds later, a car came around the bend ahead, rather fast, and hit the enormous puddle next to our car, splashing a couple of gallons of water in Pat’s window and showering him with muddy water. The perfect storm. At that point, he began to see the humor in our situation and instead of being angry, we both resorted to uncontrollable laughter. That was good therapy.

Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle

Eventually, a roadside assistance van came along and after about another  hour, replaced the tire and placated all the electronics in the car. Pat called the ferry company back and explained that we were not going to make the noontime ferry either. They could be heard in the background saying, “It’s the puncture man again”. Cute. We continued our journey toward Urquhart Castle just south of Inverness Scotland, determined to at least complete that mission!

Have to Love These Signs…

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

When we finally arrived there, the sun was shining but dark clouds were massing on the horizon. We read the informational signs and watched the history-of-the-castle video inside. By the time we went outside and completed the walk to the castle ruins itself,  the wind was wild, making it hard to stand upright in. Soon the rain began, sideways. We could see below us, from our high promontory above Loch Ness, the tour boat we’d hoped to be on, struggling to make headway in the wind and waves of the loch. A sense of relief hit us at that moment, that we had not made that tour. No Nessie sightings, sorry!

The Intricately Carved Wheel on this Trebuchet Fascinated Me

We stoically climbed around on the ruins in the crazy weather, though cautiously avoiding the high parapets and cliff edges as the wind was strong and unpredictable and the footing was getting slippery. We completed our tour of the ruins, rather sooner than we’d planned, but the weather was making it challenging and we still had a ways to go before we reached Ballater, the town next  closest to our next two night’s stay. We traveled through the Royal Deeside, Royal Donside and Royal Speyside regions, which were rich with those rivers, stone bridges, farmland and whisky distilleries. All lush and beautiful countryside with many undulating hills and curvy roads.

Urquhart Castle Ruins Up Close, In and Out

Once in Ballater, we stopped at the Clachan Grill where we had a simple late day meal. Then we walked around the small but charming village, which was also close to Balmoral Castle, where Queen Elizabeth II and her entourage were currently in residence. The weather had cleared but the air still felt damp and it was starting to darken so we returned to the car and headed out of the village in search of our accommodations, while we could still see to read signs.

Glendavan House at Dusk

After several back roads through picturesque farm country, then back into the National Forest, we found our inn, the Glendavan House in Aboyne. I have to say, this place was one of the wonders of Scotland; as far as we were concerned.

Our Luxurious Library at Glendavan House

Glendavan House was a former hunting lodge built in the 1800s. It is a gorgeous stone dwelling in the heart of the Carirngorms National Park, across from Loch Glendavan and surrounded by woodlands and wildlife. It has been immaculately restored and the mother and daughter hostesses could not be more welcoming. We were admittedly pretty ‘knackered’ to coin a local term, tired and road weary at his point in our long day and still a bit damp from our Urquhart experience. We were shown through the lofty entrance hall, then around downstairs; the elegant dining room where we would have breakfast, the butlers pantry with a fully-stocked refrigerator filled with everything from wine and beer to soda and milk. Then the cupboards where teapots, cocoa and so forth could be found. A large cake stand with several freshly baked goodies enticed. All for the convenience of guests here. Then the wide curving stairway that led to our ‘room.’

Our Bathrooms at Glendavan

We opened the door and to our surprise, we had an entire suite of rooms! Each room was amazing and sumptuous. The bedroom had an antique tester bed. The library was enormous and full of comfortable furniture and a fireplace, a large desk and several bookshelves stocked with every genre imaginable. There were actually two bathrooms, one with the commode and sink and marble tile. The second with an enormous tub, glass shower and fireplace! We were completely overwhelmed! Each room had several deep-set windows overlooking the natural surroundings.

I just wanted to throw away the car keys and spend the rest of the vacation right here!

On a funny note, when we could finally tear ourselves away and stop oohing and aahing long enough to get the luggage out of the car, when we opened the trunk, out flew a swarm of midges! Sorry Glendavan!

We had a very luxurious evening here and a wonderful breakfast in the morning, shared with other couples from New Zealand and the Seattle US area. Then we forced ourselves outside to begin our busy day of exploration.  The sun was struggling through the clouds and we were energized and refreshed.

Kildrummy Castle Ruins

First we headed for nearby Kildrummy Castle ruins, a 13th century stronghold that has been under restoration on and off for over 100 years. We spent quite a bit of time there as it was very interesting and we were the only ones there so we took our time.

Inside Kildrummy Castle Ruins

We were enjoying the nice weather and finally pushed on to our next destination, Craigievar Castle, south of Alford in Aberdeenshire. which dates from the 12th century. My initial impression was that it was hard to take seriously as it appeared more like a Victorian confection folly than a serious fortification. I was quite wrong and upon some research, learned that it had seen its share of history, including having been in the same family for over 350 years!

Craigievar Castle

Once surrounded by a fortified high wall and towers, only part of that remains and that has been incorporated into the nicely landscaped grounds. The castle itself is pink-harled, which means the structural stones are covered in a mortar mixture which includes pink marble giving it the unique coloring. Craigievar Castle has towers at the corners of its seven stories and has many other interesting architectural details. We chose to enjoy the grounds here and not to tour the inside as we still had another castle to see.

Bramar Castle as We Approached

Next we drove to Bramar Village where we were able to tour Bramar Castle. The weather was turning damp and although it wasn’t much warmer inside, it was drier. Bramar is entirely cared for by volunteers, which is an amazing and admirable undertaking! This castle was home of the Clan Farquharson where they resided until 2009 and has been restored beautifully inside. It’s actually quite cozy feeling in many of the rooms. Several of the chambers have been converted to museum-like spaces, depicting collections of weapons and other military and campaign memorabilia. This castle was where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote at least part of Treasure Island, on a visit to the family here. Bramar was also used during uprisings as a fortification.

The Buttery at Bramar

We were not far from Balmoral Castle and we were able to drive to a spot that overlooked that site as it sits, curiously I think, in a vale and not on an elevated position like so many of the castles we’d seen, which were built for defense and not luxury. Not being much of a star gazer, this was no thrill for me and besides, if we’d been invited for tea, we could not possibly have fit it into our schedule!

Restored ‘Black House’ on the Loch Muich Nature Preserve

We had one more stop and the weather was turning wetter and cooler with a breeze so we did not want to dally. We headed for Loch Muick which is a nature preserve and long abandoned village located on the backside of the Balmoral estate. There was such a long and seemingly desolate drive into this site, on a narrow rutted track with no signage or lighting, that we nearly turned around as it was getting dark, but the lure of a herd of red deer that called the loch home, kept us going.

We finally arrived, parked and embarked. We did not see the deer as they were probably wiser than we were and hovering in the forest there, out of the weather. We did have a nice, if wet, walk through the abandoned village and the nature center, before heading back to our car.

When we finally arrived back in Ballater, we had a good meal in the Balmoral Pub where I had possibly the best mac & cheese ever. We were pretty damp and made our way back to our awesome accommodations at the Glendavan House in the dark. A hot bath was just the thing in the antique claw foot tub there, then we settled in to watch some favorite British Mysteries on the telly in the wonderful library of our marvelous suite! It was a  full day that we didn’t want to end…

Another relaxing and tasty breakfast. I was so impressed that they had rhubarb on the buffet, with several other fruits. Also, interestingly, the amazing spun honey they served with the porridge, was from bees that made a hive in the roof of the lodge and had been there over 100 years! We compared day trip notes with the other two couples there once again, and travel plans going forward. Finally, we packed up the car and headed for our further Scottish adventures, and surprise, more castles …

Things we learned:

Rental cars do not necessarily have spare tires.

When in the remote areas of Scotland (and I’m sure, many other places) you cannot expect to get cell phone and internet coverage, for days even.

What looks like a short distance on the map, will take 2-3 times longer to drive in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, than what you are accustomed to in your real life. 

Please see the fourth and final installment: Scotland; Our Adventures Conclude

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