Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Day 23: Fort William to Inverness

It's not very far from Fort William to Inverness - around 60 miles at a rough approximation - so our plan was to drive through the "Great Glen" to Inverness, find accommodation for the night and then head northwards to see how much we could look around before heading back to Inverness for the night.

Scotland is almost split in two by the "Great Glen" in which a string of long narrow lochs are connected by canals, and the road doesn't rise very much above sea level, although there are mountains on either side. So the route is fairly direct.

First though, since we had skipped Glen Coe, we decided to take a side trip of ten miles or so up Glen Nevis, which curves around the bottom of the mountain range which includes Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain at 1343 metres or about 4000 feet.

That "small diversion" took us almost three hours, taking photographs of the scenery, at first through the mist, and then in clearer weather.

A very small selection:

Finally we were on our way again. A couple of small lochs - Loch Lochy and Loch Oich - and then we reached Fort Augustus on the Caledonian Canal at the western end of Loch Ness. We made a brief stop to look around (and buy ice creams)

and then continued along the northern shore of Loch Ness. The map shows the road travelling right beside the loch, but in fact it is enough above the loch that vegetation screens it from view for a fair bit of the way, and when it can be seen, it is nothing remarkable. In my opinion, it's not the most well-known lochs that are the most beautiful, but some of the smaller ones. Of course, Loch Ness is really known mainly for the monster. No, we didn't see it, although suggestions were made that if I took a swim in the loch other tourists might report sightings!

Half way along Loch Ness, near the small settlement of Drumnadrochit (I'm never quite sure what is the dividing line between a town or village), is the ruined castle of Glen Urquhart. We parked at the visitor centre and admired the view from above - the castle is on the shores of the lake down a steep slope. The wide earth-topped wall of the car park provided a fine vantage point to take photos.

And then further along we saw the sign.

But there were so many people standing on the wall anyway, that we decided to continue to ignore it. (P took a photo of me standing on the wall, right beside another sign which also proclaimed "no climbing on the wall").

Drumnadrochit has a Loch Ness visitor centre, which is reputed to have rather kitschy exhibits on the monster, but we didn't stop to check it out. As we approached the centre of Inverness we started to find b & b's lined up along the road, so we found a place to stay, acquired the key, and continued into the centre of town.

We went to the information centre thinking we would be able to get a map, but found that since it was a Sunday, closing was at 4 o'clock and it was just after. We were parked by the railway station, so I thought I might find one there. It wasn't too silly an idea - there were all sorts of tourist brochures, but the only map was a big fixed map on a stand.

The trains were very colourful:

So we headed off mapless. I wanted to see the small town of Dingwall where some of my ancestors had lived in the early 1800s. Dingwall lies at the head of a long inlet, the Cromary Firth, and is Scotland's smallest Royal Burgh (originally a town with the privilege of holding a market). It has declined in importance since it's harbour silted up. Though the link above describes it as a "bustling market town", I didn't think it amounted to very much, though perhaps our visit was too hasty.

We continued north along the Cromarty Firth:

then through Tain, across the Dornoch Firth and then a mile or two east on a side road to Dornoch

These are both Royal Burghs - the road by passes the centre of Tain, but I thought Dornoch looked more substantial and interesting than Dingwall - however by now it was approaching sunset, so time to head back to Inverness and look for a meal.

We parked near the station again, as I had noticed several promising looking cheap restaurants on our walk earlier. Again, it pays to note the day of the week. Most seemed to have closed early, it being Sunday, so we eventually had to settle for our third choice, somewhat pricier than the others - but at least it had free wireless internet!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Day 22: Loch Ard to Fort William

The next day (Saturday) it was time to pack up and move on. Again we were going to be stopping in a different place each night, before flying out of Manchester the following Friday morning. The plan was to head up the west side of Scotland, through the "Great Glen" to Inverness, and down the east coast, then cross back to the west and down through Dumfries to the Lake District before arriving at Manchester on Thursday night.

We lingered a little by the shores of Loch Ard to take a few photos - I had spotted these boat houses in passing on several occasions. This is one of my favourite photos from the trip.

At Aberfoyle we turned south and then west to Balloch, where we headed north again, up the A82 which runs up the west side of the "bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond". The south end of Loch Lomond, from what I could see, is quite picturesque with many islands. The frustration, however, is that the traffic tears along the A82 and, like many roads in the UK, there are few places to stop. We took a side loop road that passes through the villages of Aldochlay and Luss - at Aldochlay there was a layby which appeared to have a good view of the islands, and small boats moored nearby, but it was already full of parked cars. Eventually, back on the main road north of Luss, we found a layby and hazarded crossing the road where we found a narrow path through the weedy bank to the shore. By now, however, we had passed all the islands and I thought it was a rather ordinary stretch of water.

Half way up Loch Lomond we had a choice. We could continue in a more or less northerly direction, passing through Glen Coe, which the guide book describes as "spectacularly beautiful". Or we could take a longer route, heading westward to the sea, and wind our way round the coast of Argyll. We chose the coastal route. Only a mile or so separates Loch Lomond from the sea, a low pass (hardly a rise at all) which the Vikings used to drag their long boats over. "Loch" in Scotland refers to both inland lakes, or long coastal inlets. We reached Loch Long, a sea inlet, and shortly left it again to climb up Glen Croe in the Argyll Forest Park to the summit, the aptly named "Rest and be Thankful" Pass.

View of Glen Croe from the summit:

The road then descends down Glen Kinglas to Loch Fyne, another sea loch. The picturesque town of Inveraray is on the northern shore of Loch Fyne. It is a planned village, built by the Duke of Argyll in the 1700s so that the villagers wouldn't encroach too closely on his restored castle.

We travelled southwest down the northern shore of Loch Fyne, then turned north at Lochgilphead, away from the coast for a while, and stopped at Kilmartin, an area rich in ancient and prehistoric monuments. The church here has an interesting collection of gravestones, the Poltalloch stones. They were carved by a group of sculptors working in the late 14th and 15th centuries.

There is a small archaeological museum at Kilmartin, which was showing an audio visual but we decided not to stay, as we had plenty of ground still to cover that day.

The road continues north, alternating between the shores of sea lochs and inland stretches, through Oban. Just north of Oban we stopped to visit Dunstaffnage Castle. The link has quite a bit of information about the castle's extensive history.

There is also a marine laboratory and small harbour nearby:

We had no more stops planned, but when we caught a glimpse of Castle Stalker we had to stop and take photos. This castle is in private hands and only open to the public on a few dates each year - the link gives details.

By a little before 6.30 we were heading into Fort William, with bed and breakfasts lining the main road. After finding a place to stay, we headed into the town, inspected all the restaurants and chose an Indian restaurant for dinner.

Fort William was full of climbers. Apparently there had been a charity event at Ben Nevis that day, with around 300 making the climb. The three young women at the next table had hiking poles - I gathered they had had some drama, so I didn't think it would be kind to suggest that any mountain that can be climbed with a hiking pole isn't a real mountain! We did, however, find the UK very flat by New Zealand standards. (Mount Cook in New Zealand is about three times as high as Ben Nevis, Britains's highest mountain. Everest, of course, is a lot higher than either!)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Day 21: Inchmahome Priory

After three weeks of rather hectic travelling, and being with each other almost 24/7, one or two tense moments were inevitable. So when we decided to visit Inchmahome Priory, I was delighted with the tranquility of this beautiful place.

We had a late start to the day. We had done all the things that were on my priority list for the week (visiting the archives and the ancestral farms etc), and we were checking the guidebook that came with our Heritage Passes to see what else was in the area. The two nearest were Doune Castle, which we never quite got to, and Inchmahome Priory.

The priory is situated on an island in the Lake of Menteith - Scotland's only lake (all the rest are lochs). There was a fishing contest taking place on the day we were there:

The entry fee covers a seven minute ride on a small boat.

There were about half a dozen to a dozen tourists on the island while we were there, along with the young woman who drove the boat, and her colleague manning the small Historic Scotland information centre and shop. It was the least crowded tourist attraction of any we visited.

The priory is mostly in ruins. The best preserved part is the chapter house which used to serve as the business office as the priory but was later converted to a mausoleum by the island's owners, the Graham family, in the 1750s. It contains some fine medieval effigies moved for safekeeping from the priory church.

The warming house was the only place that the monks were permitted to sit around the fire and warm themselves. It is the only part other than the chapter house which is still roofed, and I was intrigued to see that the moisture dripping from the ceiling was beginning to deposit small stalactites.

The priory's main historic claim to fame is that the four year old Mary Queen of Scots was brought here for safety by her mother in 1547.

We also spent some time strolling round the rest of the island.

This was taken on the way over to the island. The weather wasn't really quite this gloomy, but I loved the black and white effect that the backlighting produced:

And for something more colourful, the wee Post Office in the village of Aberfoyle, where we stopped to post our postcards on the way to the lake:

We finished up the day with our usual petrol, supermarket and internet trip through Stirling and returned through the villages of Doune and Callendar (but too late for Doune Castle).

Next day - we move on...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Day 20: Edinburgh

We were up early the next morning, as I wanted to visit Edinburgh. Actually, I wanted two days in Edinburgh. Or a week. Or a month. We just couldn't figure out how to fit it in, along with everything else. So a day trip had to suffice.

Friends, and the Rough Guide, warned in strong terms against taking a car into the centre of Edinburgh. We decided to chance it anyway. In fact, we found a car park fairly easily, only a few blocks from the centre of town. As long as we didn't translate the hourly rate into New Zealand dollars (around 3 dollars to the pound), the prices didn't seem too bad! We put enough money in the meter to park there until 1 p.m., and I had about fifteen minutes to walk down to the Balmoral Hotel near Waverley Station where I had arranged to meet my long-time e-mail friend M (see her blog at Creative Voyage), taking photographs on the way.

I had a lovely time talking to M while P went off and explored on his own. M and I strolled along Princes St and had refreshments in the cafe at the National Gallery. (The building on the right in the photograph:)

Busking Scottish style:

Edinburgh is quite similar to Stirling in some respects - both are centred on a long hill, sloping up to a high point which falls off abruptly with steep cliffs. In each case, the castle is located at this high point. Edinburgh, of course, is much bigger. A few hundred years ago the Old Town became very crowded, dirty and unsanitary, and a New Town was built on the other side of Princes St. Between Princes St and the Old Town was once the "stagnant, foul-smelling Nor' Loch, into which the effluent of the Old Town flowed for centuries." It has been drained, and in its place now run the railway line and the very attractive Princes St Gardens.

The tower which can be seen behind the gardens is the High Kirk of St Giles, the original sole parish church of medieval Edinburgh:

After a couple of hours talking to M it was time for another meeting - with my (third) cousin S, a fellow genealogist. Again we met on the steps of the Balmoral Hotel, and spent his lunch break chatting at the Palm Court tea rooms inside the hotel. I'd hoped to catch up with his daughter and son-in-law too, after meeting them in New Zealand when they visited on their honeymoon, but unfortunately son-in-law J had had some serious health problems since then, and they weren't able to make it. The Palm Court is described in my guide book as a more affordable way to get a taste of the atmosphere of this upmarket hotel.

Back to the car to meet P and decide where to go next. It was time to move the car, so we found a mult storey car park at the foot of the Castle Hill, and headed up to the castle.

Approaching from this direction, you can see the scaffolding which supports the seating in front of the castle, where presumably the audience sits for the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The tattoo takes place in August, and I would have thought they would have removed it for the rest of the year, but apparently not. A modern intrusion on a beautiful set of buildings (the castle is really not just a single building)

The "lang staircase" was the original route to the top of the castle, before a more gradual route was built, suitable for dragging up heavy guns:

Again we were just in time to join a tour. Our guide was entertaining, but as far as information goes, he was a bit lacking - for instance, he told us how St Margaret's Chapel was used for weddings, particularly for members of the armed forces, but I later overheard another tour being informed when it was built, by whom, etc.

Still, there is always the internet to look up that sort of information. We took a lot of photos, as usual, and enjoyed the panoramic views over Edinburgh and out to the Firth of Forth.

By the time we left the castle it was close to four o'clock, and raining (again! - patchy rain throughout most of the week and a half in Scotland, but it never quite seemed to be enough to spoil our plans for the day). At this point I was tired and my mind deserted me a little - I'm sure we could have found something interesting to see for another hour or so. I just couldn't think what it was, right then... so we headed back to Stirling.

It took us a little longer to get out of Edinburgh than it should have. There is a motorway ring road right around the city, but we missed the first turn off that we should have taken. This didn't add any distance, but it did mean more travel on local roads before reaching the motorway, which slowed us down. So it was after six by the time we got back to Stirling, and after the usual petrol and supermarket stops, we headed to the library where there was supposedly free internet. (Mostly in Stirling we relied on Burger King, but that seemed to shut around seven most nights). It was a late night for the library, but I couldn't quite remember how late, and when we arrived just on seven we found that was closing time. Not deterred, we decided to try finding their wi fi network from outside on the pavement. It turned out that you needed to have a library card number and PIN number to use it. However ... the restaurant next door had an unprotected wi fi network, and it proved quite possible to use that with a large wheelie rubbish bin serving as a desk for the laptop.

So, e-mailing to the family taken care of, we headed back for the resort, but not before stopping to take photos of Stirling Castle, beautifully floodlit:

(No tripod, but the squishy pillows I took along to use on the flight proved very handy, placed on the car roof, with the camera on top).

Friday, October 26, 2007

Day 19: Exploring the Highlands

I'd had a hard time deciding what route I wanted to take in our last week, when we planned to head as far north as Inverness. Mountains or coast? We solved the problem by settling for the coastal route, but planning a day trip up the A9 which is the central route north through the Scottish highlands.

As usual, the time information on my photos shows it was late morning before we got away. We headed east as usual through Stirling (for the usual petrol and supermarket stops - the petrol station near Stirling castle was the cheapest we found on our whole trip). The main road skirts around Perth before turning northwards. Our first stop off was at the village of Dunkeld:

On the map I noted another small village nearby - Birnam, whose name will be familiar to Shakespeare fans. In fact a bit south of here is a visitor attraction called "The Macbeth Experience" although we didn't make that stop. As usual, there was far more to do than we could fit into one day. (And yes, Macbeth was a real king of Scotland).

From Dunkeld we returned to the main road and continued north to the village of Pitlochry:

We did a little shopping here. I was charmed by this sheep in a shop window (though I didn't buy it):

A mile or so east of Pitlochry is the Edradour whisky distillery.

Edradour is the smallest distillery in Scotland. If the stills were a centimetre or so smaller, they would be illegal. Apparently there is a legal minimum size as it's considered that small stills are too easy to hide, and thus escape the excise tax gatherers.

We arrived just in time to join a tour of the distillery, which starts with a free taste. I will admit, I'm not a fan of whisky, but their cream liqueur -similar to Baileys - is very smooth and slips down easily!

We felt at this point that we hadn't really seen the highlands. In New Zealand, we are used to mountains!. The A9 seemed to us to travel a rather gentle sloping hillside - not quite the dramatic scenery we had expected. So we continued north for half an hour or so, until we had nearly reached the valley on the other side, southeast of Loch Ness. The scenery here seemed no more mountainous, but it was more barren -more heather, less lush green grass (though the grass was still quite lush in the valleys). The heather was just coming into bloom while we were there and we could only imagine how spectacular it would look a few weeks later, with the hillsides covered in purple bloom.

We turned back south, taking a side road through the village of Blair Atholl, where we were too late to tour Blair Castle, so we had to be content with photographing the gatehouse, and the castle itself from the wall by the road. We weren't too disappointed - after all, we had seen quite a few castles and stately homes already, and a whisky tour instead of a castle seemed a fair exchange!

These cows were grazing in a fenced area just by the entrance to the castle grounds:

One of them was staring at me, posing perfectly, until the exact moment when I got my camera focussed and he strolled off to munch at the grass, so I had to be content with taking photos of this one who seemed to have an itch.

Just north of Pitlochry we turned westward so that we could take a different route back via several lochs. This is Loch Tummel:

The photographs were taken from a spot called the "Queen's View". It is indeed a spectacularly beautiful view, but as it was late in the afternoon I couldn't turn my camera directly westward - the first photo is looking eastward and the second is as far to the west as I could manage without getting the sun directly in the camera lens - the strategically placed tree shielding the sun a little.

We continued around Loch Tummel then south across some moorland to Loch Tay. At the western end of Loch Tay is the village of Killin, and just past the village we were surprised by this beautiful sight right by the road - the Falls of Dochart.

(And just for once, there was actually room to park and take photos, right there - parking by the roadside was generally a huge problem wherever we went, unlike New Zealand where most roads have quite wide verges.)

There were several more small lochs between us and our hotel. Unfortunately it was getting dark, so we took the quick route back, rather than the more scenic route. The road south passed the turnoff to Loch Voil, and the village of Balquhidder where Rob Roy's grave is located. It then runs along the east side of Loch Lubnaig, and if it had been daylight we would have turned west along Loch Venachar and Loch Achray, then south through the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park - but as it was dark we continued back through the town of Callendar, which is a tourist centre for the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

Once again I was left thinking that a whole week would not be too much to explore the area we had tried to cover in a day.