Another modest summer for 2003, stuck at home for the first three weeks for Catherine brought back a nasty bug from the Ivory Coast where she was sent in June as a examiner for the French Bac. Then we enjoyed our house and garden for a couple of weeks, or tried to. Not easy during a heat wave that brought temperatures into the mid 30s nearly every day all through the summer (killing 20000 French people, mainly elderly, in what is certainly a major scandal for the government). The heat wave continued when sisters Caroline and Fiona visited with their children, and continued still after they left. We needed a break (from the heat) so in mid August we Easyjetted off to London, picked up the motor home which my father kindly allowed us to borrow (merci, papa) and headed up to Scotland where we were sure of finding cooler temperatures (and probably more than a few drams of rain). In fact we got lucky, with just three days of rain during our 12 day tour.
Scotland is not a huge country but we found ourselves doing a lot of driving as the worthwhile sites are often far apart - 3000 kilometers at the wheel left us too little time to walk or even to relax.
Basically we liked Scotland a lot, though it sometimes reminded us of Brittany, the Massif Central or even New Zealand - we'd like to go back and explore some more at a more leisurely pace. We especially enjoyed the empty roads in the north, the 'hairy cows', the beautiful lochs, the changing light and … the lack of midges! We found the Scots to be generally friendly and sincere (with the exception of campsite employees) - I had been half expecting to feel more animosity towards the English.
Our tour went something like this (see map also). I've used pluses and minuses to show what we (I?) liked most and what disappointed us most (sometimes because the Michelin guide had led us to expect wonders).
- Through Glasgow (-) to Loch Lomond (++) and Sterling Castle (+)
- The Trossachs (++) including Loch Katherine (-). We often felt like we were driving through parkland (we were - this area recently became Scotland's first national park).
- Glen Coe (-)
- Glen Nevis (with views of Ben Nevis, which we did not climb)
- The Isle of Skye (--)
- Eilean Donan Castle (+)
- Wester Ross (++) (the Western part of the Scottish Highlands), up the coast as far as Ullapool and including Inverewe Gardens (++)
- Through Aberdeen to Loch Ness and its castle, (+) (No, Nessie did not make an appearance while we were there)
- Aviemore including excursions to Cairn Gorm (--) and Glenfiddich distillery (++)
- Blair Castle (++) and Scone Palace
- Edinburgh (+), its castle (++) and the festival ambiance (++) on the Royal Mile (we weren't able to get tickets for the military tattoo)
- On our last night we were kindly sheltered by an ex-Hong Kong colleague of mine, Mary Duncan Laird, in a privileged suburb of Edinburgh.
Loch Lomond is considered by many to be Scotland's most beautiful loch.
Near Loch Lomond is a pub where Catherine was befriended by an 83 year old local resident who introduced us to a family of Dutch tourists.
We were lucky to see bagpipes and highland dancing at Sterling Castle although the performers were actually Canadian.
Sterling Castle is well presented - the kitchens in particular are atmospheric with wax work figures and flames for light.
Loch Katherine in the Trossachs can only be explored by boat… an experience that Catherine seemed to find stressful?
Here below is Glencoe, where a 'heinous massacre' took place in 1692. In 1688 King James of England was forced into exile by the British government for his religious beliefs. He was sheltered by Scottish highlanders who shared his beliefs - these supporters became known as the Jacobites ('Jacobus' is Latin for James). The Jacobites led an uprising against King William of Orange which was eventually crushed in 1690. King William offered an amnesty to the Highland clans that had rebelled against him, provided they sign an oath of allegiance before 1 January 1692. The chief of the MacDonalds clan of Glencoe did not show up to sign until December 31, 1691 and his signing was delayed a week by technicalities. The king sent a regiment of British troops to punish the MacDonalds for not signing before the deadline - 38 clan members, including the chief, were murdered here.
Near Glen Nevis is an area where the first Commandos were trained on the orders of Winston Churchill. This is a monument to them - we noticed wreaths honouring commandos killed recently in Iraq.
Eilean Donan Castle is a well-known symbol of Scotland.
Catherine went crazy over the 'hairy cows' - I think she wanted to bring one back with her.
This is Gairloch - a relatively attractive and interesting fishing port
Inverewe Gardens displays colourful and exotic plants and trees from many parts of the world - all thanks to the Gulf Stream which keeps this little corner warm in the winter.
Have I done something wrong again?
This little tree is not yet any bigger than a dinner plate.
The family home of the Mackenzie clan is in a beautiful valley but the house is in need of renovation.
Picture-perfect vistas like this are frequent in Wester Ross.
Ullapool is about as far north as we got…
… although actually we slept even further north near this beach - why is nobody swimming in the turquoise water??
Loch Ness - look carefully and you might see Nessie swimming beyond the Urquhart castle…
At the Glenfiddich distillery we were shown around by a very professional and rather sexy Australian guide.. At the back left of this picture the fermented hops are kept in hot water for three days to give a sugary solution which is then fermented further before being distilled twice, first in the large stills to the right of this picture then in the smaller ones on the left. The result isn't pleasant to drink - whisky gets its nice taste from the casks in which it is stored for the next 12 years or more. Glenfiddich has 120 million litres currently sitting in casks…
The photo at right below shows the original Glenfiddich distillery, which was built by William Grant and his family.
Blair Castle and Scone Palace were both renovated in the 19th century and therefore have 19th century décor rather than the original medieval feel of some castles such as Urquhart (Loch Ness) and Sterling. But Blair Castle is large and has much to see - here is the Front Hall.
Scone Palace is shown here as seen from 'Boot Hill'. Boot Hill has a mausoleum and a replica of the Stone of Destiny (many Scottish kings ware crowned here) but its most interesting feature is perhaps its name. Boot Hill has this name for it was created entirely from soil carried to the Palace by noblemen in their boots! These noblemen wanted to be able to swear allegiance to their lord over soil from their own domains.
Now we are at Edinburgh Castle. The left building contains memorials to Scottish soldiers who have given their lives for their country, the right building contains the Scottish crown jewels ("older and better than the British ones", according to the guide) as well as the original Stone of Destiny mentioned above and the royal apartment where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the Scottish James VI who was to become the English James I, thereby peacefully uniting the two countries after many centuries of war.
Below is the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle.
The monstrous Mons Meg cannon below, built in the sixteenth century and used against the English, was capable of firing a 300 pound (140 kg) cannonball nearly two miles (3 km).
The Arts Festival was still running when we arrived in Edinburgh - it's the world's biggest with 22000 performances spread over 22 days this year. We didn't have time to see any proper shows, unfortunately, but we saw many performers doing their thing in the Royal Mile, the road that links the castle to Holyrood Palace.
The aforementioned Holyrood Palace, the Queen's official residence when she is in Scotland. Right next door the new Scottish Parliament building is being constructed. It's going to be a monument to the incompetence of the Scottish Parliament itself for it has overrun its original budget by a factor of ten! Apparently all the competent Scottish politicians are in Westminster - the ones left to run the Scottish Parliament are mainly poorly educated, clan-oriented folk from Glasgow's poorest suburbs.
Here's our friend and ex-colleague Mary, outside her house in southern Edinburgh.
Certainly a corrupting influence on us innocents from south of the border, Mary introduced us to one of Scotland's many quaint pubs - this one was special for it has two bars dating backs to a time when the two brothers that owned the pub fell out and decided that the only solution was for each of them to run a separate bar in the same pub!