Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Trossachs and the Highlands

Outside Spean Bridge, Scotland

This is an account of a trip that I took with my in-laws through central Scotland.

Day 1 - September 10, 2007: My two older kids have week-long school trips this week, so this seemed like a good time to take a mini-trip through Scotland. Accompanying me on the trip were my wife, her parents, and my 5-year old. We started the trip by heading out of Aberdeen down the Royal Deeside trail. Our first stop was at Crathie Church, which is where The Royal Family has attended since Queen Victoria's days when they are in residence at nearby Balmoral Castle.

Because my father-in-law has had several heart attacks, I inquired at the visitor's center about driving up the hill to the church. They informed me that this was fine if there was a physical reason for needing to do so. So we drove up and parked in the back. I played outside with my son while the others went in and checked out the church. After a few minutes, a tour bus pulled up, so we left. But we had to drive by the parade of tourists as they walked up the hill, and some of them glared, certainly wondering why we were able to drive to the church.

The Royal Family was in residence at Balmoral, so we weren't able to visit it. We did pull off to the side of the road (where a sign said "No Parking") and snapped a couple of distant pictures of the castle.

We headed on to Braemar, which is a place we had stayed when we visited Scotland in 2000. Braemar is a very neat, if touristy village where the Highland Games take place. We wandered around Braemar for a bit and had lunch there. From there we had intended to go to Rob Roy country, but while I studied the map over lunch, it looked like it would be a more efficient use of our time to go straight to Stirling and then work our way back through Rob Roy country. So, I got on the phone and started trying to book a room. No luck. I was told that the university students were coming back that week, and everything in town was booked. Still, I decided to risk it and push on to Stirling.

So, we turned south into some very rugged country split by a narrow road. I can remember taking this route once before, and although the scenery is spectacular, the drive is unnerving. For some reason, Scottish roads often have curbs appearing on the inside lane when you encounter a curve. In that case, if a big truck is coming, you are really squeezed in on both sides. Go to far to one side, and hit the curb; too far to the other, and hit the truck. And these roads are very narrow. I clenched the steering wheel tightly numerous times, bracing for impact as a truck or RV passed me.

On the way to Stirling, we passed through Dunblane, site of the school shooting that haunts me more than any other. Sixteen 5 and 6-year olds plus one teacher were gunned down in class. My son is 5, and I have tried to imagine a 5-year old having to cope with something like that. I have to admit that many nights as I tried to fall asleep, the memory of this shooting crept in and made it impossible for me to sleep. It is simply incomprehensible to me.

We pulled into Stirling, with me still trying to work out a plan for the rest of the afternoon. It was about 4, and I wanted to go to Stirling Castle, one of the best ones in Scotland, and then onto the Wallace Monument. We saw the Wallace Monument from a distance, but we decided to go explore the castle first.

Stirling Castle is very cool. It is set up on a hill overlooking Stirling, and is one of the most impressive castles in Scotland. My wife decided to go on the audio tour, my in-laws went on a guided tour, and I went on the 5-year old tour. What that meant was that I went and did whatever my son wanted to do. He has wanted to visit a castle for a long time, and this one had lots to explore. He dragged me all over the place, exploring every room. It was hard for me to really get an appreciation for the various rooms and gardens of the castle, but it was worth it.

On my mind the whole time was the fact that we still didn't have a place to stay for the night. I called a couple more places, but no luck. We could have gone to the tourist information place after the castle visit, and they could probably find something for us, but I thought our chances were better if we just went over and visited the Wallace Monument, and then pushed on to Callander, our next stop 15 miles away.

We all wandered around the castle - in 3 separate groups - for a little over an hour. We all met back up near the front and decided to run over to the Wallace Monument. When we arrived, the visitor's center had closed, so we snapped a few pictures in front of the Mel Gibson - err - William Wallace statue (looks just like Mel Gibson). Pretty soon, a bus pulled up, and the driver said he was taking one more trip to the top. He said he would take us up, but we had to walk back down. We all agreed, and he hauled us up the hill to the monument.

There is quite a view from the monument, and you can look out over where The Battle of Stirling Bridge was fought by William Wallace and his troops. We didn't get to go inside the monument, as it was closed, but the big attraction there anyway is climbing to the top. Given my father-in-law's heart condition, we weren't going to be doing that anyway. So we wandered around for a bit, walked back down the hill, and headed for Callendar, and hopefully a good bed and breakfast.

We recently bought a navigation system, so I typed in Callendar and off we went. The system is pretty reliable, although once it tried to send me down a one-way street, and another time down a bike path. This time it tried to send me through the middle of the college campus, but I went around it instead. Twenty minutes later, we were on the outskirts of Callendar, stopping at one B&B after another. We stopped at one place after another with no luck. I also got some very unfriendly looks; once when I pulled into a guy's driveway (the B&B was next door, and I thought it was their driveway), and once when I was pulling out of a blind driveway, and a guy walking a dog stepped in front of us. Callendar was seeming a bit less friendly than the last time we were here, and suddenly a lot more touristy to me.

We finally found a place that could accomodate all of us. It was called Abbotsford Lodge, and was run by a very friendly fellow. When he asked where we were from, I told him "Aberdeen. Can't you tell from our accents?" Anyway, he set us up, and also told us that a good Italian place had opened up down the road. That was good, because the guide book we were using said there weren't any good restaurants in Callendar. But we took his advice, and had a very nice meal at Ciro's. I can say that Callendar has at least one good restaurant.

Day 2 - September 11: Hmm. 9/11. I didn't realize that until I had been up for a while. I had thought about it when I was planning the trip, but it had slipped my mind after the busy day yesterday. I hope it's a quiet day.

After we had the traditional Scottish breakfast, we checked out and headed downtown. We needed to stop at the grocery store first and get supplies, because we probably wouldn't be near a restaurant at lunch time. As we were shopping, my cell phone started ringing. This is odd, because hardly anyone has the number. But my two older kids were on a week long trip, and I was concerned that something may have happened. The number said "Private", but because I was concerned about the kids, I answered. It was a headhunter, asking me if I would be willing to leave my company. The oil industry has a terrible manpower shortage in the North Sea, so these kinds of phone calls are very common. I explained that I was on an expat assignment with my employer, and that they sponsored my work visa. "Oh, that's not a problem", she told me. "This other employer can buy that visa." I had always wondered about that. Not sure if she had that correct, but that's interesting if true.

So, I got off the phone, and continued shopping. Five minutes later, the phone rings again. Headhunter again. She tells me that she has confirmed the visa situation. She wants my CV. I told her I would think about it. Back to shopping. This time, it goes 10 minutes before she called back and asked if I might be interested in this other company. I told her I was on vacation, and we could talk about it some other time. I turned my phone off.

So, we finished shopping, and then made our way to the Rob Roy Visitor's Centre. Couldn't find a parking place. This is another thing that drives me crazy when traveling around Europe - you can't ever find parking. (The first thing that drives me crazy is that you can't ever find bathrooms). We eventually did find a spot where you could park for 30 minutes, which meant we couldn't stay in there long. We all went inside, and they informed us that they had removed the most interesting exhibit. It was a display of Rob Roy sitting around a fire and talking about his troubles. Apparently there were some who disagreed with the politics of what he was saying; I had read that in a book. Maybe that's the reason they pulled the plug on the exhibit.

I wanted to keep an eye on the car, so I bought a pair of little plastic swords, and my son and I stayed outside and had sword fights while the others spent time in the visitor's center. People walking by got quite a kick out of our sword fight; a number of people stopped and took pictures or video of us. One guy walked by and said "Go for the shins."

While we were out there, I saw a couple of instances of one other thing that drives me a bit crazy. Circling the visitor's center was a very narrow road, with parking in the back. While we were out there sword-fighting, two cars driven by elderly men just stopped and parked in the road. They completely blocked the road, and started to go into a store. They almost made it into the store when a large truck tried to turn down the road that they were blocking. It couldn't turn in, so he just stopped, blocked traffic, and sat there. He was glaring at the men, and it finally hit them that they had completely blocked the road. They moved, but it wasn't 10 minutes before someone else came along and did the same thing.

A Scottish Highland

On the way out of town, we stopped at the Trossachs Woollen Mill to pick up some souvenirs. I spent most of the time outside, where they had Hamish - a Scottish Highland bull - on display. These are really unique looking animals. As my father-in-law said, they look like they have bangs. I took some pictures with my son while the others shopped, and when they all came out we were on our way.

At Loch Lubnaig

Our plan was to drive all the way to Rob Roy's gravesite, but we barely made it out of town before we came across a spectacular lake. The lake was Loch Lubnaig, and the scenery around it reminded me of something from Yellowstone National Park. We pulled off at a parking area, and walked around the lake some and took pictures. We saw a tiny mole - probably only about 2 inches long - sniffing around a rock. I tried to get down and take a picture, but it didn't turn out very well.

We finished there, and pushed on to Balquhidder, which is where Rob Roy is buried. The road down to his gravesite is very narrow and winding. I would hate to drive that every day. In fact, we almost saw a wreck on that road after we stopped. Someone stopped in the road, and someone else came flying around the corner. I thought there was going to be a fight, because the car that almost hit the second one stopped in the road for a long time. (They were lucky someone didn't come around the corner and hit them).

Anyway, we spent quite a bit of time at the church and cemetery. We took pictures of the grave marker and the remains of the old church. The "new" church, built in 1855, happened to be open. I don't recall that this was the case the last time. So, we opened the door and went inside and had a look around. It amazes me that people don't vandalize or steal things from the church. I think if this was a church in a remote area of the U.S., and it was always left unlocked, it would just be a matter of time before someone vandalized it.

We took some walks down a trail behind the church. The path leads to a waterfall in the woods, so we went down and took some pictures. There are some really old-looking ruins down that path, but no explanation of what they are. We probably spent an hour puttering around the area before heading for our next destination, which would take us through some spectacular scenery.

We were headed to Fort William, and this would take us through Glen Coe. Personally, I think the scenery through Glen Coe is the most spectacular in Scotland. The first time we drove through, we thought it looked like Montana. There are huge green mountains, waterfalls, heather on the hills, and deer wandering around. Some of the scenes from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were filmed there. We stopped several times as we drove through and took a lot of pictures. Once we took some close-ups of some red deer stags with very impressive racks. Another time we snapped some pictures of a very impressive waterfall.

Once we passed through the valley, we stopped at the Glencoe Visitor Centre and looked at the exhibits. Apparently the area was formed as a result of a massive volcanic eruption. There was quite a lot to see at the visitor's center, including some panaromic outdoor views of the glen.

We left there and pushed on into Fort William. We drove to the visitor's center there to book a room for a night. They couldn't find anything suitable in Fort William, but located something that sounded pretty good in the next town, Spean Bridge.

We wandered around downtown Fort William for a while. It was really different than I remembered it from before. There is a pedestrian walkway down town with lots of businesses, but it seemed reallly run down. The last time I was there, it had seemed really charming. We went into a little fish and chips place and had a bite. They actually charged a pound more per meal if you ate it in the restaurant. I got the fish and chips, and my in-laws, thinking I knew that this would be good, had some as well. In fact, I almost always find the fish and chips in the UK to be pretty awful, but I keep getting it in the hope of finding some place that serves it at least as well as Long John Silver's in the U.S. It was bad, as it normally is. I told my in-laws that I could have warned them; that I was just gambling on it maybe being good.

After eating, we headed on down the road to our Bed and Breakfast at Spean Bridge, about 10 miles down the road. It ended up being out in the country in a very beautiful setting. The B&B was called Coinachan Guest House, and we were met at the door by a 15-year old American girl. She told us that her mother was Scottish, but that she had grown up in Virginia. She had been back in Scotland for several years, and she was just starting to pick up a bit of the accent (she was not happy to hear that). Her mother had run into town on an errand, but she arrived within the hour and introduced herself. She told me that she was an environmental consultant, and I told her that we might have a lot to talk about.

The guest house was directly across the street from the Commando Memorial, dedicated to commandos who trained in that area during WWII. There was also a great view of Ben Nevis, although it spent most of the time in the clouds. The hills all around were covered with heather, and all of this combined to make for a really neat setting. To top it all off, the owners had a very friendly Rough Collie (the same breed as Lassie) which they let us play with the entire time we were there. Needless to say, I highly recommend this B&B.

We spent a lot of time outside playing with Max, the collie. There was a ball that he liked to run and catch, and he would bring it back all covered with slobber. It wasn't long before I was covered with long hair and dog slobber. We walked up a hill right on the property, and threw the ball down the hill and let Max bring it back up. After about 4 runs down the hill, he brought the ball back, dropped it at my feet, and then peed on it! I wasn't sure if he had done this on purpose, so I picked the ball up (gingerly) and tossed it back down the hill. He looked up at me with a look like "I am not touching that", and that was all of our ball tossing.

The owner stayed up late visiting with the women, but I turned in early with my son as I had a long drive the next day. There were skylights in the room, and I left the shades on them open so I could see the stars (when the clouds weren't covering them up).

Day 3 - September 12: This was to be our last day on the road, and the main item on the agenda today was Loch Ness. We had a Scottish breakfast with a twist. Instead of having sausage with my scrambled eggs, I had smoked salmon. Delicious. We packed the car and said our goodbyes, but then modified our plans slightly. The owner had told us about a nearby walk through the forest that someone had decorated up in a fairy theme. She said that when she first heard about it, she thought it would be pretty corny. But she said after she went and saw it, it was well worth the trip.

We had a bit of a tough time finding it, but we finally found what we thought was the right location. We had been told that it was about 10 minutes into the woods, and that most people failed to walk far enough. We would know we were on the right path when we saw a partially submerged barge in the lake next to the trail. After about 5 minutes, we spotted the barge (which my son wanted to investigate) so we knew we were on the right path.

The walk itself was very cool. The forest was very dark in places, and lush green everywhere. As far as my son was concerned, we were just taking a walk in the forest. We walked for probably 15 minutes before we came across the first signs of it. It was at a very dark portion of the forest, and it looked like something right out of a fairy tale. The place was decorated up as a home for gnomes and fairies. My son was just bewildered (and excited). He must have asked "What's happening?" 50 times.

In the Fairy Forest

I was a bit concerned about the in-laws, who had stayed in the car. I told them we wouldn't be long, but this thing was further into the forest than we thought, and it was also a lot more substantial than we had realized. Someone had invested thousands of hours (and dollars) into decorating the pathway.

Finally, after about an hour we returned to the car. It had been well worth the loss of time, but we had a long drive in front of us and we needed to get on the road. So, we got in the car and headed toward Loch Ness.

We were only 20 miles away, and I thought we would be there in 20 minutes. But after only about 5 miles, we got behind a pair of trucks transporting some huge pieces of equipment that basically took up 2 lanes of traffic. It was also moving about 15 miles an hour, but had to frequently stop and clear the road ahead of them. The funny thing was that a BMW had passed me at very high speed just after we left Spean Bridge, but ended up right in front of me when we encountered the trucks.

We debated what they were hauling. It appeared to be some pieces of pipe that were around 10 feet in diameter. I thought it looked like parts of a vessel or distillation column. One thing for sure; there was no getting around them, and there was no place for them to pull over and let traffic around. It looked like we were just going to drive the next 15 miles at 15 miles an hour.

My son started to get car sick. That had been a theme during much of the trip. With the winding roads, and all of the stops and starts, several in the group spent part of the trip feeling car sick.

The trucks finally turned off toward a different destination, and traffic could flow freely again. But we had spent a full hour behind them, and had moved about 10 miles. After just a few more minutes, we started seeing Loch Ness over on the right. Loch Ness is a very long lake, and the road winds along right nest to it. We stopped at one point and took some pictures of Urquhart Castle, overlooking the lake. We pulled into Drumnadrochit at lunchtime, and stopped at the Drumnadrochit Hotel, which is also next to a visitor's center. My son and I played on the same plaster Nessie model that I had played on with my other two kids seven years earlier. There were 3 Chinese tourists there watching us, and one asked if he could take our picture as we played.

I was finally able to drag my son off of Nessie, and we went and had some lunch in the hotel. Following lunch, we pushed off for Inverness, which was on the way before returning to Aberdeen. We had a long, but pretty uneventful drive back to Aberdeen. We passed through a lot of mountainous country, but we were all pretty traveled out at that point. I think we were all glad to finally arrive back in Aberdeen.



Blogger PKPWV said...

Great blog! How I miss Scotland! My mother is from Glasgow and I spent every year going over from tennessee-so your kids must be having a ball coming from texas to Scotland! It will be a life altering experience for them! And yeah for bio-diesel!!

8:11 AM  

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