01-05-09 May Day/Beltane Friday
Groggily waking up, I find a cup of coffee on my bedside table, and a contented smile spreads across my face as I listen to the sound of the shower in the next room. I switch on the TV as I prop myself up on the luxuriously plump pillows and daintily drink my coffee. Even though it came in a tube, as did the sugar, the real cream that was in the small refrigerator next to the armoire takes the bite out of the instant concoction, and I greedily drink the contents of my cup.
With a steam-clouded whoosh, the bathroom door opens as CG appears, tells me the water feels so good on the aching body and then warns me that there is scant room to turn said aching body around in the corner stall. Deciding that I am not quite awake enough to shower and that it is still a wee bit too early for breakfast, I grab the laptop and start downloading pictures while I check my email.
|The River Ness|
In the meantime, already dressed (and jacketed), CG heads outside for his first cigarette of the day. When he gets back, he is animated as he tells me about the river otter that stuck its head out of the water, and then disappeared, and I tease him that it was a baby Nessie. CG notices that the battery is getting low on the laptop, finds the plug converter pack, chooses the appropriate adapter and plugs it into the wall socket to charge. I stiffly get out of bed and take my turn in the shower, cramped as it is, and soon appear back into the bedroom, just as he did, in a whoosh of steam.
Excited to get going, I throw on my clothes, find the blow-dryer in the armoire, and plug it and my flat iron into the second socket. Soon, I think my hair is dry enough and grab the clicking flat iron. After asking CG if it was supposed to be making weird noises, and being reassured that the instructions had indicated that there may be some clicking, I place the oddly smoking plates to my hair and take the first swish down the narrow strand. The crinkly sound and acrid smell of burning hair somehow surprises me as I drop the straightener back onto the top of the mini-fridge, and I turn to CG with astonishment and laugh. After CG unplugs the offending apparatus, we quickly leave the stench of the room and head down the stairs to our first full-Scottish breakfast.
Finding our table marked with our room number in the beautiful yellow and white Georgian dining room, we take our seats. A server appears and we order our first pot of coffee (promptly delivered in a coffee press) to fill the giant cups on our table. We happily sip the authentic brew as we look out the bay window towards the river. As we listen to soft classical music from the sideboard, a large bowl of porridge is placed in front of me, and CG gets his yogurt and fruit and some juice from cabinet. Soon we are done with our “first course” and, after receiving the large breakfast plates, I stare down at the steaming scrambled eggs and salmon on mine, as CG rubs his hands together (ok, in his mind he is rubbing his hands together) as he looks at the two pieces of Canadian-style-bacon strips, one link of sausage, one egg (over medium), lightly toasted halved-tomato and sautéed mushrooms. We both grab a piece of brown toast from the basket on the table and dig in. IT IS HEAVENLY!
|The Dining Room at the Alexander Guest House|
After finishing breakfast, we retreat back to our room, open up all of the windows, call the number of the taxi driver we had the previous day, and then happily hop into the back of the taxi when it arrives on the narrow street in front of The Alexander. We are off on our first full day in Scotland!
On the way to pick up our rental car, the taxi driver is full of suggestions of his own (he, too, recommends the Mustard Seed). After a confusing and somewhat nervous ride (for me) through rush hour traffic, he finally deposits us in front of the nearest Arnold Clark Car Sales and Rental establishment, points the way out towards the right, and waves goodbye as he drives off. We head into the lobby, fill out the necessary paperwork (in my name), CG opts to pay extra for insurance, and then we are handed the key to a silver 2009 Volvo X70 Diesel. Smiling, we hop in and CG, too, heads out, admitting that he is a wee bit nervous to be sitting on the right side of the car and driving on the left. However, I am duly impressed how quickly he becomes a semi-pro as he navigates his way around the first roundabout, up onto the carriageway and merges easily into traffic.
The narrow two-lane roads take a few miles to get used to, and we soon find our turnoff to our first stop (per P’s tour notes) – Culloden Battlefield. Even though it takes a second thought and even a third thought to remember to turn right across traffic into the parking lot, we are quickly situated, and CG hops out to smoke a brief cigarette.
We have already glimpsed the battlefield on our way in and, fittingly, as we head towards the door to the new visitors center, the wind picks up and rain drops start to darken the sidewalk. After an abbreviated tour of the center’s dioramas, relics and a demonstration on how to authentically fold a kilt, we decide to brave the impending Scottish weather and tour the battlefield. We each grab an audio-GPS device from the attendant near the door and step outside to view infamous battleground. Out into the wind, we wrap our jackets closer around us as we walk somberly past the large stone markers denoting the clans who fell against the British 263 years ago, the stone monument to all the gathered clans, and the one solitary marker to show the approximate vicinity where the Redcoats fell. The wind takes my breath away as I turn to view the expanse and try to hear the ghostly voices of all of those passionate fighting Scotsmen. Back inside to warm up, we turn our GPS devices in and join a queue waiting to watch a short historical movie. It is there, standing in the middle of four large screens which surround the small gathering of tourists, that I feel the weight of despair and grief the most as I watch the re-enactment of the desperate battle. With tears in my eyes, I quietly exit with my thoughts, and memories, and head towards the car.
Perhaps it is due to the reflective mood that I am in that the next stop, the Clava Cairns, seems so magical. We successfully follow the small tourist map down the appropriate carriageways and then the narrow, one-lane road to the unassuming parking lot of the historical site.
Breathless, I get out of the car and approach the colossal oak-treed glen. I marvel that this site is free and open to the public as I gingerly step through the gate and into the mossy meadow for my first up close view of the nearly 3000 year old man-made rock formations. Just as we enter the site, the sun comes out and bathes the surrounding countryside in light while we catch a few rays through the rigid branches of the towering trees.
CG and I quietly walk around each structure amongst the 6- foot- high standing stones and, even though there is another small group in the glen with us, we feel as though we are alone. We read that the rock edifices have been here for over 3000 years but the trees have only been here a mere 150 years, planted by the land’s owner who thought the structures were built by Druids. I calmly inquire in my head if it is ok to pick up a small stone or two, certainly not from around the mysterious stone formations, but a few rocks from the glen for myself and L, and immediately feel approval. I reach down and instinctively pick up a rock and then another catches my eye a few minutes later. Placing them in my pocket, in awe I think “these are Beltane treasures.” For some reason I am a bit reluctant to leave, and when CG suggests that we walk down the road to take a picture of the roman-influenced railroad bridge we had passed on the way in, I gladly agree.
After snapping some photos of the brick viaduct, we head back down the stone-fenced lane towards the car, and the mysterious, mystical glen. With one look over my shoulder as we leave the car park, we point the car towards the next stop of the day.
The top of Cawdor Castle peeks through the trees as we drive up the dirt road towards the car park and find a place to stop. After getting out of the car, we head towards the castle to acquire our tickets. As we stroll up the road to the fortress I snap a photo of CG, smiling and eager to visit his first castle, and then we move in through the walled arch to the cobblestone area inside.
Mindful of the assumed restaurant hours of the country, we decide to catch a bite to eat in the small café off the courtyard, and, after we finish the light lunch (mine is a salmon sandwich w/tea and CG’s egg salad w/coffee), we start the self-guided tour through the castle of Macbeth fame. The fact that the castle is still inhabited in season by the present occupant takes the shine off the stronghold for CG and we quickly move through the luxurious rooms. We end up on the lower level in the large cool kitchen and then exit through the last room, which is the gift shop (what a clever marketing ploy).
I spot the maze that had intrigued me the last time I had visited and point the way towards the hedged opening. It turns out it isn’t a maze after all but a series of beautiful gardens, and we stroll through, taking pictures around every corner and following trails into garden grottos. We exit the hedged gardens and then tour the formal gardens to the left of the castle. While the flowers have not yet blossomed, the ordered paths and newly turned soil of the flower beds promise that the growing buds will soon flower to the delight of the visitors in the upcoming tourist season.
It is time to strike off to our next destination and we are again on the narrow two-lane road. Up to this point I have done a pretty good job of quashing the gasps and groans of my anxiety of riding on, from my point of view, the white line at the edge of the road on the left. And I have been reassured by CG that the center yellow line to the right is equally under his own seat. However, the quick smack of the mirror on the stone wall as we scream (again, from my point of view) around a bend of the road elicits a wee shriek from me and I stare wide-eyed at CG. Calmly he answers “Glad I got the insurance package,” and whether it was due to our off-kiltered time schedule or because it was just damned funny, I burst out into hysterical laughter and he starts to laugh too. This time the tears in my eyes are from merriment and it feels so good to let loose.
The fourth stop of our first day takes a few errant turns and backtracking to find, but we finally arrive at the Dallas Dhu Distillery (we had chatted with F at The Alexander, our other delightful host, on our way out the door this morning and she had recommended stopping in and seeing this little gem). Bleached cream by the sun, the distillery is nestled at the base of sheep spotted green hills, and we find a spot for the car in the car park (which is rather easy as it has but one other car in it to compete for space).
We locate the entrance, pay the nominal fee to the dapper English gentlemen behind the counter , are handed telephone-like devices to help us on our self-tour, and we are off, gadgets to our ears. We seem to be the only ones touring the site which makes it most pleasant, and we peek into hoppers, walk across diamond-plated sheets of steel flooring, climb up metal walkways, and are quite pleased with ourselves for deciding to find this little gem. We learn that it is a Scotland National Historic Trust site, and that the last batch of whisky was barreled 26 years ago in 1983.
|The Dallas Dhu Distillery|
We finish our tour and return to the gift shop where we turn in our telephone gadgets and are invited to “meet my brother on the other side for a wee nip of whisky” by the helpful English gentleman. We exit the gift shop and enter the tasting room right next door and are greeted by the same English gentleman who was behind the counter – he had humored us and had a big smile on his face (he had slipped though an interior door for our – or his – amusement). He told us that the distillery had just over two years left of the original Dallas Dhu Scotch, and that we were sampling a blended whisky called Robert’s Dhu instead, which was quite flavorsome in-of-itself. After saying our goodbyes to the three staff members, we are off to our last in our sojourn of the day – the ruins of Elgin Cathedral.
The ancient town of Elgin is at the farthest point in the nearly straight line of our days outing, and I reassure CG that it is the best of the day, and well worth the mileage. After surprising an oncoming elderly couple with a quick right turn, we finally start to descend into the mid-sized town bustling with rush-hour traffic.
Not really knowing where the cathedral is located, we take an educated guess that it is amongst the earliest buildings that we can see from the crest of the hill, and we head that way. Due to the jumbled traffic, however, we are shunted off a few different ways before we find a car park in the city park, and are finally able to pull up into a spot next to a lovely pond. I suggest we visit the library to the right to find out where the kirk is located, and we walk along the banks of the pond towards the building (CG is quite happy to have a chance to nip a few puffs on a cigarette).
Just as we are approaching the end of the pond in front of the library, we are overcome with the breathtaking sight of the majestic cathedral ruins down the tree-sheltered lane to our left. We have found it! As we walk towards the bare stone frame of the once imposing cathedral, I am elated and take several shots of our approach.
We locate the stone gift shop to the right of the building just as a young gentleman is closing the door. We apologize for entering so near closing time (well – to be honest it was about two minutes after closing time) and he graciously motions us into the shop, and then towards the door to the ruins without charging us, explaining that since we won’t have ample time to tour the ruins he won’t request the fee to do so. I wonder if it is also partly because he is eager to hop on the bicycle leaning against the wall outside to head home or to the pub, and we smile thankfully at his kindness as we step out the door.
The empty-windowed stone façade looms over us as we walk towards the arched doors and into what was once the main entrance into the nave. We spot open doorways in both towers and quickly scale the narrow stone steps to the top of each one, carefully avoiding other visitors using typical one-lane mountain driving protocol. The view from the top of each tower of the floor of the nave and transepts is awe-inspiring, and without the usual benefit of the massive walls, we are able to see burial tombs that would otherwise be tucked away in the alcoves.
Once we are at ground level again, we enter what once was the substantial nave of the building. Grass has replaced most of the stone floor, but we are able to imagine the grandeur as we stroll down the center aisle and turn back towards the delicate fretwork of the huge center window. How the colored light must have streamed through the stained glass to the stone floor below it, inspiring church goers with the splendor of the morning and the goodness of God!
Finally crossing the bridge over the River Ness in Inverness and finagling the car into the wee car park behind The Alexander, we go up to our room for a quick rest, and then head down again to town for a bite to eat. After locating both dining venues the evening before that P had suggested in our tour notes, and already having partaken of the more expensive of the two, CG and I find ourselves an open table at a bustling pub called Johnny Foxes and order a few beers.
Even though the service is somewhat slow, we pass the time people watching until our steak and mushroom pie is delivered to our table. A gentleman in a wheelchair arrives with two friends and situates himself at the table next to us. After awhile, the friends leave and, I suppose since he didn’t have anyone else to talk to, the gentleman turns his chair to our table and promptly introduces himself as “B.”