The trip was billed as “Scotland’s Highlands and Islands.” Our first island visit was the Isle of May, a National Nature Reserve. Before boarding the ship for a short ride from the village of Anstruther to the island, we had lunch at the Anstruther Fish Bar, touted as (ta daaaaaaa…) Scotland’s Fish & Chip Shop of the Year. I’ll admit, there was quite a queue waiting to be seated and served. Naturally, I ordered the house specialty, those famous fish and chips, and hot tea.
The tea was excellent.
The boat was packed to the gunnels with amiable people – many of them students and birders. In order not to agitate the island birds and wildlife unduly, only one batch of humans per day is permitted on the island. We were it, that day.
Hundreds of grumpy nesting terns met our boat. They protested our arrival by dive-bombing us as we went ashore. They nipped at hats, riffled hair and pooped on umbrellas, notebooks and jackets, which some held aloft to protect their hats and hair. Once we were ashore and out of tern nesting territory, we were no longer harassed. We enjoyed a lovely sunny afternoon hiking the gentle hills and trails, taking pictures and appreciating the spectacular views of sky and sea and island. In addition to the terns, we saw kittiwakes, shags, razorbills guillemots, and – my favorite -- puffins.
Puffins look as if they were designed by a graphic artist who is fond of Art Deco design: stocky little black and white bodies dressed up like miniature penguins, black caps, white faces, bright orangey-red feet, huge orange beaks, and round white “faces” punctuated by black-accented eyes. They’re adorable. Their nests are in burrows, underground. I bought a local artist’s painting of a puffin.
The next day we headed for the highlands, which are, as advertised, gorgeous. Hills, mountains (some snow-capped), valleys, waterfalls, pretty little lochs which can be either fresh or brackish, depending on their connection to an ocean.
We visited Stirling Castle, another surviving 15th century building, an excellent example of Renaissance castle-building. Stirling played a key part in Scotland’s everlasting battle for independence, but it was not my favorite ruin. Nor my favorite castle. The guides were dressed up like historic figures: Mary Queen of Scots, James V, etc. and I thought it too contrived, too spiffed up and theatrical. To my mind, old castles should look crumbly and moldy. Ruined, actually. Stirling wasn’t.
Our lodging was at Knipoch Hotel, a country house on the shore of Loch Feochan. After sidestepping the resident sheep and their inevitable residue, we moseyed down the driveway to dip our toes in the bracing waters of the loch.
The next day, in the village of Oban we boarded a ferry and headed for the Isle of Mull – an island made up of undulating glacier-scoured granite, green valleys, picturesque lochs, and oodles of peat bogs and wildflowers. We went beyond Mull to the island of Iona, one of Scotland’s most sacred sites, where we toured an abbey, a cloister and a monastery that was founded by St. Columba in 563. Old. Extremely old. And suitably crumbly and moldy by my standards. The cemetery was cheek-to-jowl with gravestones. So many bodies had been buried beside the ancient buildings, the ground had actually heaved up, that is, risen. Is it possible that some day, our whole planet Earth will be so full of buried bodies we’ll all be six feet higher instead of six feet under?
Back on the mainland, we drove through Glen Coe, a magnificent mountain pass. The bus stopped and parked and we got off. This, by the way, is called a “lay-by.” We had a chance to take photos of three mountains (called the Three Sisters) which form the southern wall of the pass.
Our guide, Vinnie, who happened to have earned a degree in geology as well as archeology, explained alleuvial fans, lateral plains and other geological phenomena. The examples were in front of our eyes. Classroom learning pales beside this. Geology isn’t as boring as I thought it was. Apparently, this is an example of the over-quoted phrase: “Travel broadens the mind.” We checked into a hotel in Fort Augustus on the shores of the famous Loch Ness, the largest lake in Scotland.
I can’t say I saw the Loch Ness Monster, nor do I believe she exists, but it’s fun to indulge in the legend as well as read and hear the breathless honest-to-goodness testimonials from those who swear they’ve see evidence that Nessie exists. The aforementioned St. Columba was the first to sight her. In the 6th century, for Pete’s sake! This rumor has been circulating for more than 1,500 years. Why stop it now?
The Scottish people are a rugged, but cosmopolitan and sophisticated bunch, extremely respectful of their environment, lovers of a good story and keepers of tradition. I hope they vote to gain their independence on Thursday, Sept. 18. They’ve been fighting for it for a long, long time.
In the next installment, Chapter Four, we examine some prehistoric standing stones and graves, visit the Isle of Skye, stand in the middle of the actual field where the Battle of Culloden took place and learn more than anybody needs to know about that wonderful Scottish delicacy -- haggis.