A day (and night!) in Paris

Taking a break from some design work, it is both a little strange to be writing up my travel experiences which now seem so long ago, and a lovely way of reliving them. Rather than being in New Zealand this afternoon I can imagine I am back in Paris!

We landed in Paris on the 1st of August 2016, and the ladies at passport control never lifted their eyes from the desk; much less answer my cheery ‘Bonjour!’ It felt unlikely that within 10 minutes of landing we were through security and free, where was the heightened guard against terrorism that the media had led us to expect?

The long train ride into the city was a taste of the variety of Paris, the day was growing dark as out the window grey, graffiti-ed apartments flashed past. The assorted airport arrivals interspersed with a motley selection from all walks of life. A large German Shepherd sat opposite us in a muzzle, at the feet of a security guard on his way to work. Someway down the train distant trills of an accordion toting busker drifted against the background noise of the train. Paris is grime and poverty versus romance and wealth. It takes me a little time to see past the ‘beware of pickpocket’ signs.

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While hordes of tourists queued for every famous attraction, we relaxed in the Luxembourg Gardens which are surprisingly large and free (rare in Paris). Radiating out from Luxembourg Palace are flower beds, wooded areas, ponds and long corridors of grass edged by rows of trees. One section of grass was for picnicking on, so we lay there, surrounded by Parisians in carelessly short summer dresses.

Doing our best to act as locals, we caught the Metro to the Marais area of Paris in the evening to meet a Parisian. Marais is an historic area in central Paris, now considered young and hip. There we spent a happy couple of hours sitting in a very typical Parisian scene; outside a little cafe, on wicker chairs, in a small tree shaded square where cigarette smoke and rain made a cosy atmosphere.  We sipped wine and chatted, we learnt that this was obviously a cafe that saw a lot of tourists as the menu listed wine by types of grape (eg Sauvignon Blanc etc) whereas the French way is by region and colour only.  Even in France the conversation quickly turned to Brexit (which was then just a couple of weeks old). We had heard little support for Brexit in the UK, and apparently the French reaction was also one of disbelief, they felt hurt and cast aside.

Not yet ready to head indoors in the warm evening, and with the rain eased, we visited the Eiffel Tower to see it light up. Perched on a small strip of grass littered with cigarette stubs we were surrounded by many hawkers plying their wares. The goods were primarily drinks; every few minutes another black man with a bucket of melted ice and bottles would approach: “wine, champagne, beer beer?”

At 9pm it had not been dark enough for the light show, but as 10pm approached the sky was inky and on the hour the majestic golden glow of the tower was interrupted by twinkly, crazy white lights flickering all over. When it started the crowd reacted as one, regardless of language “Ooooooooh!” The light show runs for five minutes starting on the hour. We got up and walked to see it sparkling from different perspectives. As we walked a police car stopped near some hawkers who were displaying their goods on a square of fabric on the footpath. Nonchalantly the hawkers stood up and pulled a string which lifted the squares corners turning it into a bag, they were ready to make themselves scarce! We had guessed that selling alcohol from a bucket was not legal – but it appears neither are knock off Eiffel tower models.

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The light show finished and we walked along the Seine riverside towards Le Caveau De La Huchette, the famous Jazz bar. It lies down a very busy alleyway, full of people and clubs – clashing beats from each door. Le Caveau de la Huchette was very unassuming from the outside. We paid the €13 entry and found ourselves in a nearly empty bar. The bar tender turned out to be a real character; I said “Je Voudrais un Sauvignon Blanc s’il vous plait” and was met with a nod of understanding. Yet when my friend asked for a cider in the same manner he was met with a blank look and shrug. My wine arrived in front of me, but the bar tender then busied himself with other customers – pretending he didn’t understand. Eventually he supplied the cider with a big grin as if to say ‘wasn’t that a funny joke!?’ We paid and headed downstairs to the 16th century vault the place is named for. The jazz band was in full swing and already the dance floor was busy with Lindy Hoppers!

A young boy had taken position behind the piano, he looked to be approaching 15, yet he played with great confidence and gusto. His whole frame leaning into each pulsing note. It was thrilling just to watch and listen and dance – the energy of the music and the band was marvelous. Le Caveau de la Huchette has been a jazz bar since the 1949 when jazz greats such as Count Basie played this same stage.

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The band went on break and the dance floor emptied, I went to find us waters (as we had been dancing so much!) and made the mistake of asking the bartender for them in English. He spread his hands in a shrug and pointed to a lone lady at the other end of the bar – clear sign language for: ‘ask her to translate’. She had been watching the exchange, she looked my age, confident and sleek in a slim, loose black dress hanging from thin straps – not flushed and sweaty from dancing like me! I explained I was after two glasses of tap water and she translated (in French far more fluent than my own) to the bartender who replied in perfect English “I don’t speak French” and handed me two waters!

I escaped back downstairs, the band struck up its final set and we danced and danced. The American lady from the bar came down and watched, I gave her a wave and she made a motion of a kiss into her fingers as if to say “beautiful!”

There had been a young man with slick backed hair, woolen ’30s suit and braces, an older couple pulling brilliant jazz moves and many more brilliant dancers. We had rescued a young Korean Lady on her own from the over enthusiastic attention of an older, drunker French man. And then all these people had faded away, leaving us with the dance floor to ourselves, while from various nooks and perches secreted away around the perimeter other punters watched, sipping drinks.

When band began packing away at 2am, I wanted to say something to them, but couldn’t think of the appropriate words in French. So instead we headed out of the bar, through tiny arched door ways and up stone spiral staircases. We emerged from the subterranean jazz cavern to find ourselves in a now largely deserted city. Litter blew down the street, taxis prowled. A few lonely walkers marched home, homeless and drunks lay in doorways snoring. The Metro had long closed for the night, so we began the long walk to the hotel.

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We crossed onto the island Ile de la Cite, walked past Notre Dame, crossed more bridges, and chose our route based on avoiding dark and scary looking streets, picking whichever option seemed brightest. My feet which had been so happy dancing were now throbbing. But it was warm and at night Paris is quiet and calm.

Eventually we found our Hotel, without listening to the new reception man I asked “Parlez-vous Anglais?” He answered “I gave it my best shot” with an American accent. As we walked to the lift, I still needed to have it explained that his welcoming words had been in English: “Which room number? I’ll get you your key.”

We left Paris the next day, Paris had felt surprisingly safe, perhaps because I knew to expect hawkers and police with ridiculous guns, perhaps because I had imagined more fear caused by the recent terror attacks than there actually is. Paris still smells like a urinal, has more homelessness, cigarette butts and street con artists than I’m comfortable with. But the air is fresh (no black boogers like London), the Parisians are for the most part friendly (contrary to popular opinion) and the pastries are delicious.

The Prototype Men’s Waistcoat of 1937

Taking a break from the travel posts, here is the first garment finished in 2017; a men’s double-breasted waistcoat circa 1937. This has been made on a sewing machine of no fixed abode, from Auckland to Algies Bay to Napier – the trusty domestic sewing machine has come into its own while we holiday and attempt to move cities.

Once more the Napier Art Deco Festival is on the horizon, this will be my fifth Deco Festival but the first with a dapper gentleman at my side – so the focus in this year’s lead up is on his wardrobe! (For posts on my previous years see Discovering Deco  and Art Deco 2016 .) We had grand plans for a full three piece suit; unfortunately this seems less and less possible as we have not found a suitable summer weight suiting. However, in the remnants bin we found just enough for a waistcoat.

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1937 Men’s Suits for Spring

The original inspiration image for the suit (above left) is of unknown origin, google has attributed it to 1937. The cut and colour of the left hand suit caught my eye, but the main attraction really was the waistcoat – despite very little of it being visible.

Further research turned up another image showing a variety of waistcoats and this helped fill in some detail to the design.

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Plate from 1927 J.L. Taylor men’s fashion catalogue, style #839

Although these waistcoat designs are from 10 years earlier (1927) the style of #839 was still fashionable  in 1937, although according to The Vintage Dancer by the 1930s “Most [waistcoats] were single breasted … but a few still choose the more formal double breasted waistcoat.  They were not required to be worn and typically only were worn by older gentlemen or savvy dressers.”

Well we’re aiming for the savvy dresser rather than an older gentleman!

I started with a very basic Simplicity pattern (#2077) and adapted it, adding the collar and revere, four pockets (all real!) and reshaping the lower edge to the angled cut of the inspiration image.

It was a squeeze cutting the pieces from the 1 metre remnant, but despite this I was just able to pattern match the main seams and the result when pinned on the mannequin was quite fetching!

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First test on Manny

The fabric has a subtle check which made the fob pockets a challenge, and is a wee bit lightweight despite the multiple layers of interfacing applied, so there are definite improvements in mind for the next waistcoat – but nothing too major.

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Pattern matched pocket (well almost…)

The first outing was today, tested on the dance floor at The Lindy Tops, and I managed a wee photo-shoot afterwards. The waistcoat certainly needs a bit more length when worn with modern trousers, but I’m looking forward to making a pair of super high-waisted 1930’s trousers and seeing the silhouette they create.

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The dapper chap

So, watch this space for more Art Deco era men’s wear!

 

Twinkletoes in Britain Part 7: A Week in Wales

There was no obvious sign marking the divide between England and Wales on the A55 from Chester, but the countryside grew greener, the flat fields grew curves and castles appeared on the hillsides; we were clearly in Wales.

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The route we drove through Wales

Wales has a quantity of imposing castles, but these are not a testament to Welsh power; instead they are a reminder of English invasion and enforced rule. The string of Castles which we visited along the north-west coast from Conwy to Harlech were built by King Edward 1st of England in the late 13th century to retain control of Wales. Despite that, they are incredibly picturesque these days. The first we visited, Conwy, is just a small coastal town. The castle and its largely intact walls hug the wee township.

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Conwy

We were staying a couple of towns over, in a three hundred year old, crooked farmer’s cottage with low beams and even lower doors. The lane to the house was edged by tall earth banks topped by hedgerows full of honeysuckle flowers, wild roses and holly.  Inside, no wall in the house is completely straight and no two stair depths are the same. According to our host very few of this style of home remain, the size and age are not valued and most are torn down or left to dereliction on account of their lack of windows and low ceilings. But hers is clearly loved, and has been in the family over 100 years. She thinks it a travesty that they are slowly vanishing from the landscape, and I agree; these places have so much charm.

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Demonstrating a low doorway

Just down the road is an award winning pub – the White Lion Inn – which served a delicious meal and was bustling with locals. At 9pm a quiz began, we were not taking part and had intentionally sat at the back, but the tables around us were full of participants and the man bellowing out questions from the other end was clearly audible. He asked “who painted the Lady in Gold?’ “What is a corsair?” “Who is credited with the invention of the little black dress?’ before accidentally missing a question. This got the crowd going as they all haggled about how to fix the mistake!

On the walk home we chatted to some small black bulls through a farm gate. I had thought them young due to their size, but apparently these are in fact ‘Welsh Black’ famed for their tender meat and smaller than most cattle.

The following day we visited Gwydir Castle, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years after reading the book ‘Castles in the Air’ the story of its purchase and recovery from dereliction. This is not one of the imposing fortresses built to subdue the Welsh to English rule, and is not really even a castle, just a rather grand home. We arrived and rang a bell, a middle aged man opened the tiny door set into the larger gates and bid us enter. Stepping through the door we entered a courtyard filled with peacocks basking in the afternoon sunshine, the geometric box hedge garden was being slowly flattened by the lounging birds.

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Gwydir with peahen and peachick

The temperature inside the house was chillier by far than outdoors, we put our coats back on as we explored inside. The rooms were lit by natural light from the windows, it was not bright; it was authentic. The furniture (some dating back to the 15th century) was not roped off; a solitary teasel was placed on the ancient chairs as a reminder to their fragility. To add to the feeling of authenticity, the doors croak in protest to opening, and bats still live inside the roof space. In some rooms small open fires burnt in cavernous fireplaces, only giving warmth if you were to climb in beside the flames. There is a priest hole tucked behind the main fireplace and a bedroom labelled the ‘ghost room’.Spiral stone stairs lead to the upper floor, each stair’s tread worn down in the centre by the centuries of feet. Upstairs the floor boards creak and the ceiling is high and beautifully arched.

The most famous aspect of the house is the wooden panelling of the dining room. In 1921 the estate was auctioned off and the wooden panelling and leather frieze of the dining room were bought by William Randolf Hearst and shipped to America. For decades the panelling sat in its original shipping crates, never opened. Hearst died and they were left to the New York Metropolitan Museum. The current owners of Gwydir managed to trace them and negotiate with the museum for their return to Gwydir. When those boxes were opened, it was the first time since 1921. The panelling has since been painstakingly put back together like a jigsaw puzzle of tiny carved pieces. The room is now complete with the wood panelling and leather frieze which runs around the room between the top of the wooden panels and the ceiling. It is not recognisable as leather though, being so richly decorated in silver and gold.

Gwydir was just as I had hoped, not a museum, but more real than any other castle I had visited. The floors creak, the doors groan, the fires are real, the rooms are dark, the wood and stone appear old. So many castles are either ruined, roofless husks of former grandeur, or completely restored and full of reproduction furniture, bright colours, gleaming floorboards, re-enactors, and spotlighting. By contrast Gwydir smells old, yet is still someone’s home. I never asked, but I assumed the man who let us in was the owner, and that the lady in gumboots and gloves spraying some mold in a dark corner of the courtyard was his wife. They are still battling away against frequent floods and searching other treasures lost in the 1921. It would be a cold and unforgiving place to live, but definitely worth the effort.

We left in a bit of a daze, and regained energy at the local tearooms, another low ceilinged building, this time covered in ivy. We took the last available table and I sat inside the large fireplace!

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Tu Hwnt Ir Bont Tearooms in Llanrwst near Gwydir

We continued on through Betws-y-Coed to Bethesda, through the remarkable scenery of the Snowdonia National Park. The clouds were low but occasionally they would part revealing brilliant green pasture or massive rocky peaks. At one point the clouds were seemingly pouring off and over hills, bright rays of sunshine battling through.

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A view through clouds in Snowdonia National Park

The next day dawned damp and grew wetter as we arrived in Caernarfon another Welsh town dominated by an English Castle. I imagine it would be a cute place on a nice day, but it lacked charm in the rain and the castle tour was also disappointingly mundane. We sought refuge in a busy café, a friendly local offered us a place at her table as there were none spare and warned us that the service was shambolic. That turned out to be an understatement, but it is for a wonderful reason: the café is run to provide jobs and training for young people with mental disabilities. At the door they advertised ‘suspended coffee’, thinking this was some strange form of brewing we enquired as to the meaning and discovered you could purchase food and drinks for yourself as well as ‘suspended’ meaning you paid for an item from the menu, the receipt was put on a notice board at the door and anyone in need could redeem it. After finding out these things the poor service was no bother at all.

Speaking of food, asking for pepper with a restaurant meal in Wales with a kiwi accent is a challenge, the best response we had was “is A4 ok?”

Our GPS struggled in Wales too, telling us to turn right into hedges and spelling out place names rather than attempting to pronounce them.

The next couple of days were spent in foggy rural solitude near Llaenalhearn climbing hills and cooking big dinners. Fog continued to hinder our journey south along the coast so we did not bother visiting Mount Snowdon but as we approached Harlech the clouds lifted and it turned into a brilliant day of hot sunshine!

Harlech is an adorable village sat halfway up the hillside, with big views out across the golf links to the distant sand dunes which shield the beach from view. The castle was once positioned on the sea’s edge, but the centuries have created a wide flat expanse of land in front which is now dotted with homes and the golf course. The Castle still dominates the village and the landscape, although its seaward gate is now landlocked.

Despite the heat of the day the castle was dripping wet. Each step I took up the narrow stone spiral staircase my jandals flicked more water up the back of my legs; clearly during rain the stairs turn into a spiral waterfall.

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Harlech Castle

Back at the car I did some Mr Bean style changing into a proper summer dress and we headed for the beach. One thing we were learning is that Wales has a proliferation of pay and display car parks. Even here in a small village with a big beach, parking was not free.

The beach was busy, but due to its size the  picnics were scattered far apart; patches of brilliant colour on an otherwise over exposed landscape of white and blue. The water appeared shallow for miles, but even in the sun warmed shallows it was cold. The air was so hot and still though, that I enjoyed an impromptu swim in water just over my knees.

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Harlech Beach

It was in the late afternoon that we dragged ourselves away from Harlech, the perfect little town of castle, ice cream and beach. That night we stayed in yet another ancient farmhouse, chickens met us in the yard and in my bare feet I dodged the chicken poo. Inside, we found ourselves on the cold, stone flagged floor of a 500 year old kitchen. The ceiling had low black beams and an enormous open fireplace, sat next to it was a box of baby chicks and ducklings happily twittering away.

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Our farmhouse accommodation near Machynlleth

The day dawned warm and grew hotter as we headed for Aberystwyth, fast becoming apparent that this was no average Welsh summers day, but what would be the hottest day of the year. The surf lifesaver signs proudly proclaimed air temperature of 31 degrees, water temperature 15, and the town basked in a heat haze. There are virtually no trees in Aberystwyth but we clung to the scarce patches of shade provided by pastel painted Georgian terrace houses, as we explored from the castle ruins to the pier and along the waterfront. It was like a day in the Mediterranean had got lost and ended up in Wales; we ate at a Greek restaurant, fanning ourselves with menus and drinking copious quantities of iced water, had multiple ice creams and multiple swims.

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Aberystwyth

Early in the afternoon we’d had enough of Aberystwyth in the heat and instead got into our superheated car in our togs. I promptly fell asleep and only awoke when we arrived in Cardigan. We stayed not far from town in a small place named Eglwyswrw (pretend all the ‘w’s are ‘u’s) in a handmade shepherds hut. It was utterly adorable; even the window latches were handmade from string and wood. The kitchen was a separate rustic building made from curly oak branches, ladles and pans hung like wind chimes and we cooked on a coal BBQ in the fresh evening of a scorching day. We had a delicious late dinner of slightly burnt everything, followed by raspberries from our host’s garden!

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The Shepherds hut

From Egwyswrw we left the coast and headed inland on ‘A’ roads to Merthyr Tidfil. We had booked two nights there as it was near the Brecon Beacons National Park, but that was not our best decision. The town centre was filled with endless shop fronts of slowly dying discount stores and the high-street had more litter than people. I felt cheated; we had left the idyllic rural coast for this depressing, downtrodden place. Even more disappointing; the Brecon Beacons appeared barely more than rolling hills. Fortunately our Airbnb host made up for the disappointment by having copious character! She explained that during her lifetime Merthyr Tidfil has changed from an area thriving, to what it is today after the mines and the Hoover factory closed. Her enthusiasm and bossiness kept us entertained for the duration of our stay, and it wasn’t long before we realised that the pint of orange juice she carried around was not as innocent as it seemed (gin!?)

Despite immediate appearances Merthyr Tidfil made a nice end to our experience of Wales, our host tried to teach us a little Welsh and we enjoyed living in a beautifully restored miner’s cottage. Our host showed us photos of the building when she purchased it with the kitchen roofless and the stone walls crumbling, and it was good to know that even in this sad town there are still people who care for it.

Twinkletoes in Britain Part 6: South to Edinburgh

After Orkney it was a comparatively hasty journey south,  we headed first to Dunnet Head, the most Northerly point of Mainland Britain. It was strange to visit Dunnet Head after Orkney, as if we had stolen Dunnet Heads thunder by previously visiting a point further north. The day was bright and gusty and the heather was beginning to come out along with bright little orchid flowers.

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A wild orchid on Dunnet Head

 

The night’s destination was Tain, and we visited the Rockrose Gin Distillery, the Castle of Old Wick and Pultney Distillery along the way.  The scenery changed greatly in that time, in contrast to the tree-less fields of Orkney and the tussocky fields around Dunnet, Tain was Paradise. We hadn’t realised how much we missed Trees!

In Tain we stayed with a lovely Emma Thompson doppelganger.  She was fiercely opinionated about the recent Brexit vote results. She explained how a year on from the referendum of Scottish Independence there were still friendships lost through opposing opinions, but now, given the choice between the EU and UK her vote would be to leave the UK and stay in the EU, a “unity is strength” sentiment. This was a perspective I have since heard again, from a drunk old Scots accountant in a pub who was “European FIRRRST, Scottish SECOND and British THIRRRD” in his allegiances. It was welcome to have discussions with voters so passionate. By contrast we had sat in a café on Orkney and watched the results unfurl with great surprise and trepidation, but the rest of the café customers seemed disinterested.

The drive further south the following day was through pretty coastal farmland dotted with privately owned castles and lush estates. But the road was big and boring.

Fort George was our tourist destination for the day, fortified walls run 1 mile around the grounds of this military garrison still in use by the army today. The walls are topped by cannon and the view from them is spectacular – looking out over the Moray Firth we saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins!

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Fort George

The Fort was built to defend the government against any potential Jacobite uprisings after the failed 1745 rebellion which had culminated in the Battle of Culloden just a few miles away. There’s a historical interpreter who did a wee talk and show of weapons, but the maximum impact is really just from the scale of the place, by wandering around the multitude of barracks and offices you get an idea of the overwhelming force the crown put in place to tame the rebellious Scots.

Our home for the next couple of days was near Glenlivet, a small settlement with a very large whisky distillery of the same name. Glenlivet has something of a monopoly on the American market for Scotch – so its factory is appropriately on a grand scale. Just standing outside the barrel storehouse (where the whisky is left to mature) the smell was strong and sweet.

From Glenlivet we visited two castles and a falconry:

  • Balvenie Castle has very little left; in fact our strongest memory of this castle was being chased around the crumbling remains of the kitchen by an irate oyster catcher which was dive bombing us to protect its wall top nest.
  • Huntly was much more impressive, especially in the atmospheric torrential rain which greeted our arrival there. The chap manning the ticket booth took pity on me in my insubstantial ‘wet weather woolly hat’ and lent me a Walkers Shortbread umbrella. It was toting this big brolly that we pranced into the grand chambers of the castle – these are also open to the weather with streams of water cascading through the planks of a deck style floor above. The castle was six floors of dripping, carved rock. Ornate fireplaces stood in rooms which lacked both windowpanes and roofs. Below the castle were big dry cellars and the remains of a moat.
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Huntly Castle

Between the two castles is a Falconry Centre, it was not immediately a nice place to visit as the birds all seemed bored and twitchy (I would be too were I tied to a perch all day). But as the demonstration got going and birds were given a chance to fly my distaste dwindled, the handler clearly loved and cared for the birds. We were shown a falcon which swooped and wiggled its tail, landing with deft precision on the falconers gloved hand. When the man asked who wanted to wear the glove and be a falcon perch I leapt at the chance! The bird was surprisingly light and I may as well have been a post for all it cared, as its attention was not on me but fixed on the falconer and his pieces of baby chicken.

The next bird was an eagle owl which had been hand raised and was fearless and friendly, so for the first time I was able to pat and hold an eagle owl, it didn’t seem to mind my ruffling its feathers. I even stroked the tufted ‘ears’ atop its head!

The star of the show though, was Bob the deer; as an uncooperative falcon sat obstinately on a fencepost, Bob wandered over and gave the small audience moist kisses and offered his velvet antlers for scratching.

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The Eagle Owl

The last stop before returning the rental car was Stirling Castle. The castle has had a great deal of work done to it in recent times, while this is wonderful as it means everything is now well preserved for future generations, it rather lacks any fodder for the imagination. Everything is a little too clean and new in appearance. But, do the guided tour and suddenly the history of the place takes centre stage, the turbulent past is thrilling and the tour guide was not just knowledgeable but a quick wit. We learnt about the kings and heroes, but also the restoration of the buildings after they had been used as army barracks. The Great Hall’s exterior is now painted in authentic ‘Kings Gold’ a colour which stands out against the surrounding sombre stone architecture of Stirling.

When we dropped off the car back in Glasgow we had completed 1700 miles (2735km) over 25 days.

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Map of route driven, including all our extra meandering the total miles driven was closer to 1700.

Before leaving Scotland we had a few days in Edinburgh – my favourite city! We arrived to rain, grey skies and despite the early hour it was very close to dark. There were homeless people sat in puddles, the shops seemed run down and unattractively littered with torn posters and advertising. I had a moment of self-doubt – was this really the great city I remembered? However, further from Haymarket Station the suburbs changed and by the time we arrived at our accommodation (a lovely Georgian flat with thistles on the wall paper) I was convinced of Edinburgh’s charm again.

I didn’t even know Edinburgh had a canal, but over the next few days we came to know it very well as it was our quickest route to the old town. It was a peaceful sanctuary through the central suburbs and has on it a river boat café which possibly serves the best coffee in Edinburgh. The canal edge is also a very popular cycle path, each day we checked the cyclist counter and it was in the hundreds by mid-morning. We even saw a group of tandem riders all wearing matching knee-high tartan socks!

At the end of the canal is the modern city which in turn leads to Grassmarket and here the glorious view of the Castle is a backdrop to everything. It rises above the rest of the city crouched atop the rocky cliffs and gazes down the royal mile, still owning the town. Unless you have a particular interest in regimental history, or feel the need to see the Scottish crown jewels, it is not worth paying entry as the view from either the Grassmarket or Princes Street is the castles best angle.

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View of Edinburgh Castle from the Grassmarket (please excuse the almost naked busker)

The better castle for exploring is Craigmillar, known as ‘Edinburgh’s Other Castle’, it is as exciting to explore as Huntly. Despite being a ruin there are plenty of spiral staircases and nooks, some rooms are roofless while others even have window panes! The sun was shining and despite the scattered visitors it felt as though the castle was ours alone.

We happened to be in Edinburgh for the celebrations of the opening of the 5th Session of Scottish Parliament, down by Holyrood Palace were crowds watching Highland dancing girls perform. The crowd seemed waiting and expectant. Nearby were the sad remains of a pro Scottish independence ‘Vote YES’ camp with banners saying ‘End London Rule’.

The day was sunny so we left the festivities behind and trailed up Arthur’s Seat. The gentle green slopes at the foot change to steep bare rock at the top. During the climb the city is obscured by the surrounding hillside, it is at the top that the whole vista suddenly appears in front of you; the Castle dwarfed when viewed from this height, blends into the city.

These are the memories we have of Scotland; grand views, ancient castles and wild scenery. But while in Scotland there are also some tastes which are not to be missed –for a moment forget about the grand scenery and history, turn instead to Scotland’s incredible flavours; surprisingly the most ‘Scottish’ combination seems to be ginger and rhubarb (despite neither being a native of Scotland). There are of course also whisky and haggis, but Gin and vegetarian haggis seem to be gaining popularity too. Here are some of my personal favourites:

  • Vegetarian Haggis: You don’t need to be vegetarian to enjoy this, I like traditional meaty haggis too – but the vegetarian one is possibly a winner! It is served in most pubs (particularly in cities) and is best with whisky sauce.
  • Crowdie: a tasty Scottish version of cream cheese, a little harder to find on menus, but very good on a roast potato!
  • Edinburgh Rhubarb and Ginger infused Gin liqueur: all the best flavours!
  • Wooleys of Arran Oatcakes: We’ve tried a lot of oatcakes, these are the thickest and most satisfying.
  • Crabbies Ginger Beer: available back home too – but made in Edinburgh!
  • Mackays Rhubarb and ginger preserve: delicious on toast.
  • Mackies of Scotland Haggis and cracked black pepper potato crisps: I checked and the locals also enjoy these (I was concerned they were just a tourist novelty!)
  • Ginger Grouse Alcoholic Ginger Beer: surprisingly good and very warming drink containing Famous Grouse whisky.

Of course I cannot recommend Scottish brands without digressing and also recommending a visit to:

  • Walker Slater: High end tailored wool clothing, in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket there are separate menswear and ladies wear stores. I was particularly enamoured with the ladies store as it is so rare to find elegantly tailored ladies coats equal to mens. I didnt buy anything, but as a designer it is an absolute treasure trove of ideas and a thrill to try things on!

And with that, we left Scotland (but don’t worry it wasn’t long before our return).

 

Twinkletoes in Britain part 5: Orkney

The drive north and east from Ullapool to the Orkney ferry at Scrabster took us through a changing landscape. From a land of wild and barren mountains we found ourselves in rolling farmland of equally impressive proportions. The tiny farmhouses dotted about gave the vast vistas scale. We spotted peat being cut and left to dry near the roadside, presumably to be used for fuel, maybe even in whisky making.

After learning from our host in Ullapool that bracken is not a native to the Highlands, but in fact a noxious invader (harbouring ticks, smothering hillsides, inedible to farm animals) we looked at the patches of brilliant green very differently. Spreading like poison up dark heather covered hillsides, their dense foliage changing the landscape, garish against the sombre native colours.

The road along the north coast is single track and there is no fence between the fields and the road. Sheep and lambs wander along freely, able to cross the road at will and lounge about on the shoulder. The field boundaries are marked by cattle grids and fortunately the fields are enormous so these are far apart. For miles there were lochs and mountains and farms, no towns. Places had strange names, we passed Bad Call Bay, and further around came upon a town named Tongue. There the roads became two lanes and had painted edges!

At Scrabster we boarded a large and comfortable ferry, the sea was a calm expanse. I stood wrapped up outside and watched the Old Man of Hoy (a famous Orcadian rock formation) drift past. Fishing boats dotted the coast like toys beside the enormous cliffs.

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View from St Margaret’s Hope

We landed in Stromness (which seems like a port with a town attached – Kirkwall definitely has more life) and immediately drove to St Margaret’s Hope where we were staying. The short drive took us through most of the Orkney Mainland and onto the island of South Ronaldsay. Orkney seemed to have far more luscious farmland than the Highlands; rolling hills of vivid green dotted with more sheep per acre than the sparse highlands is capable of sustaining. There were signs for a craft trail and a feeling of thriving community. These things surprised me – I had imagined a rustic backwater, virtually forgotten by the modern world. But instead we were in a thriving tourist centre, with busier roads than the Highlands, and a community which looks to the future despite having so many reminders of the past (standing stones etc).

The blustery Isle that I had been expecting failed to materialise the following day, instead we were greeted with impossibly blue skies and heat! We drove to Kirkwall past fields full of buttercups, over the Churchill barriers constructed by Italian POWs to protect the Scapa Flow from enemy submarines. Pieces of wrecked ship littered the shallow waters. To our right, and visible  almost all the way around to Stromness, was a large oil rig, conspicuous against the clean, clear waters. It hovered like some great metal beast. In a land seemingly unchanged in 5000 years it was out of place.

On Kirkwall high street every second shop was a local Jewellers – this seems to be big business in Orkney! Just a short walk from the High Street are the Bishops and Earls Palaces. The Earls Palace is the perfect ruin. Enough remains to understand the grandeur and size of the palace, but it is also clearly old – not a perfectly restored place, but somewhere that invites imagination. The fireplaces were massive, even a tall bloke can comfortably stand in one without ducking!

The Bishops palace was less complete, but one tower remained and from the top there were glorious views over Kirkwall and the surrounding farmland.

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View from the top of the tower in the Bishops Palace

Just outside Kirkwall, sitting unobtrusively in a field is Cuween Hill Cairn. Owned by Historic Scotland but unstaffed, the 4500 year old burial mound is free to explore. A wooden box like a letterbox holds a torch (with charged batteries!) for lighting the dark interior. The burial chamber is accessed down a narrow, low passage and inside is cool and damp. The chamber is surprisingly spacious, room to stand after crouching and shuffling in the passage. As our eyes adjusted we could see alcoves which would have held the grave goods. I crawled into one; it was a strange feeling sitting in the dark in what had been the last resting place of an ancient people.

The landscape is riddled with ancient monuments; Cuween Hill is unremarkable on Orkney. I heard stories of standing stones being used to hold up clotheslines, so numerous are they. But there are still places which even in the rich picking of Orkney stand out from the rest, the most famous standing stones are the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. Both are free, and both are definitely worth a visit. They stand very near to each other and mark what was clearly an important Neolithic site; the remains of a settlement of similar age to the stones sits in a nearby paddock (the Barnhouse Settlement).

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The Ring of Brodgar
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The Stones of Stenness

But more impressive by far are two other sites, Maeshowe Neolithic Chambered Cairn and Scara Brae Village. The standing stones are large and impressive edifices, but the Cairn and village have a more human interest and certainly provide a more personal perspective on the ancient people who once lived here.

Maeshowe is essentially a larger version of the Cuween Hill Burial Cairn, but is accessible by tour only (pre-booking essential in busy months). But what really sets this one apart is not just the size, but the Viking graffiti! According to our guide, in the 12th Century one hundred Vikings broke into the cairn of Maeshowe, entering by removing the capstone roof and clambering in from the top. Supposedly they would have been familiar with the shape of burial cairns as they are also scattered through Scandinavia – so would have known how to get in. For three days these hundred Vikings sheltered in Maeshowe from a blizzard and passed time by graffiti-ing the walls with runes. The hilarious thing is how inanely the runes translate, for example:

‘These runes were written up high’

‘These runes were written with an axe’

(The Viking equivalent of) ‘Call Ingerbjorg for a good time’

Another had clearly started writing thinking he was taller than in reality, so his text written up the wall trailed around a 90° corner and continued at the maximum height his arm could stretch.

The guide was very entertaining, we learnt how the Vikings, having weathered the storm left the cairn, which now roofless filled with debris and soil over the centuries. Then in 1861 a dreadful archaeologist named James Farrer conducted an excavation. He and his team also entered through the roof and in our guides words “made more of a mess than one hundred Vikings” as they cleared the cairn of the built up debris using pick axes and took great chunks out of the walls in the process. Farrer made several discoveries including bone fragments, but when he packed up and headed back to London, he accidentally left all the finds on the train and they were never seen again. The cairn was once more open to the elements and it was a local farmer who took initiative and built a new roof for it, so it is thanks to the farmer that the cairn and its runic carvings are preserved and visible.

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Sunset at St Margaret’s Hope, during the summer solstice this is approx 11pm

Orkney has some brilliant place names: on our third day we drove through Twatt and The Loons on our way to the most famous of Orkney’s historic sites; Scara Brae. The 5000 year old village on the edge of a wild beach with a blowing gale is beautifully presented. Before visiting the real Scara Brae you pass through a reproduction Scara Brae house. This one is built to portray how the houses would have looked with roof and furnishings. The thing which is most striking is how identifiable everything is; it feels like a home. The beds are draped in furs, shelves filled with trinkets and everything is focused around a central hearth. The house consists of one room entered through a stone passage and even has closable stone doors – details which are preserved in the original village!

It is a short walk to the archaeological site. Along the side of the path are stone markers interspersed accurately to take you back in time, we passed the American Independence, the completion of the Great Wall of China, the birth of Christ, the building of the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. It really did illustrate just how ancient this village is.

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Scara Brae

Scara Brae was discovered in the mid-19th century when a nasty storm ripped the earth off the top of some mysterious mounds near the beach known as Skerrabra. The storm revealed the most complete Stone Age village yet discovered. The houses are connected by corridors to each other but all corridors have stone doors to allow privacy of the occupants. The beds, hearths, shelves and even pots and jewellery are all still in position.

Scara Brae was properly excavated and presented to the public in the 1920s and appears to have been left more or less untouched since then. It is simply but thoughtfully displayed; a path meanders along the edge of the village at ground level, but as the modern ground level is higher than that of the Stone Age (and the houses were probably dug into mounds) you are essentially walking above the homes and as they are roofless it is easy to see in. The village of Scara Brae is incredible, not for its size or grandeur, but specifically because it is on such a human scale and such intimate glimpses of the distant past are so rare. Previously if I thought of Stone Age humans living 5000 years ago I would not have pictured something so recognisably ‘home’. These weren’t the mystical, unknowable stone circles; these were homes of the average Stone Age ‘Joe Blogs’.

The houses are a uniform size and layout, none show greater wealth or ostentation – suggesting this was a society of equals. There is no obvious building of power or religion, aside from the homes there is only one other building, identified as a workshop.

Included in entry to Scara Brae is the Mansion of Skaill House. This was home to the man who discovered Skara Brae after the storm, William Watt, local Laird. The house is worth a visit but aside from some spectacularly hideous pink ‘50s décor in one of the bathrooms is a fairly standard stately home. There’s an impressive collection of P.G. Wodehouse in the library and a secret room behind a bookshelf, but Scara Brae really takes the cake.

In Kirkwall is a famous pub and Music venue, The Reel, there we sampled some rather tasty local whisky (Highland Park) and enjoyed the folk music open night. Local musicians drifted in and joined those already playing, there were violins, guitar and banjo and some good foot tapping songs. The bar quickly filled with spectators, but the busier it got the more obvious it became that the crowd was mainly made up of tourists. While the musicians played in an inclusive manner, the crowd sat still with phone cameras out and seemed to suck the soul from the music. But perhaps I was just tired.

As we drove back to St Margaret’s Hope in the dusk a thick fog began rolling in from the sea, wispy at first but before long all trace of the brilliant sunset was lost in the solid ghostly white.

And that rather sums up our week in Orkney, it is a land of mood-swings and opposites; bright, hot sun or dark, wet fog. Ancient history sits alongside vibrant thriving culture, and the brisk sea air refuses to let anything grow stale.

Twinkletoes in Britain Part 4: Farm Lass

In my last post I was on the Isle of Skye in June, summer hadn’t exactly set in and it grew colder as we headed further north. We spent a night in a tiny place named Camas-Luinie and then a night in Garve on our way north to Ullapool. The road signs we followed were simply written and pointed us to ‘The North’.

Ullapool was to be home for a week as we tried our hand at being Highland farmers! But first we spent some time exploring the town in drizzly rain and a freezing wind. We stocked up on winter woollies at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and then sat in the warmth of the local pub/café named ‘The Ceilidh Place’. There we were met by our host for the following week, a wonderful older lady who is struggling to run her small highland farm virtually on her own and unable to afford paid farm-workers.

Her farm is home to 400 sheep, 12 cattle, 1 sagging old Labrador and now us. Next door lives the shepherd, a proper Scotsman who spoke with “Och aye’s”, drank incredible quantities of whisky and called ‘ewes’ ‘yows’, to rhyme with ‘how’. With his accent we could understand the Gaelic spellings for places, in Gaelic ‘Inverness’ becomes ‘Inbhir Nis’ and from his mouth the ‘bh’ could just be made out, halfway to a ‘v’ sound. He had a most sleek and intelligent young sheep dog. She canoodled around the table, laying her head in each person’s lap and requesting pats. She has incredibly shiny, silky hair and a slim face with bright eyes.

The farm lies at the tip of Loch Broom and over the next week we saw an incredible range of moods descend on the Loch – from stormy purple clouds to searing, endless blue skies. Scotland’s Highlands have a unique light: there can be brooding hills under brooding skies, yet patches of brilliant golden sun stream through, lighting just one glen, or just one island, like a halo. It is a spectacular sight far beyond the capabilities of my phone camera to capture – but I do try!

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View from Ullapool down Loch Broom

It isn’t just the highland light which makes this area so appealing though, it is also the raw history and physical reminders of the past. The farm is an ancient place, the farmhouse though old (circa 1690) is significantly predated by the stone barn across the yard. Both building are mentioned in local stories of Bonnie Prince Charlie. According to the stories Prince Charlie was being smuggled north to safety and this farmhouse was intended as a safe haven. However the Scot organising the thing was captured by the English and details were leaked. The Hanoverian (English) soldiers ended up stationing themselves in this farmhouse – likely the soldiers in the barn and the officers in the house. Bonnie Prince Charlie would have caught wind of what was going on and never arrived as intended. However he was still greatly supported by the locals who banded together and slaughtered the Hanoverian soldiers. From my small amount of research I can’t find mention of the slaughter, but it seems true that the house was used as barracks for Hanoverian soldiers!

The turbulent past is not forgotten, and while we visited a possibly equally twisted period of British history was on the brink. It was just a week before the ‘Brexit’ referendum. Staying on a Scottish farm during that time gave us a unique insight into the mixed opinions and conflict even within an individual. Our host was convinced that she must become self-sufficient as leaving the EU would cause chaos and poverty, yet there was still a deep hatred for a system which fails the farming community. Her sheep cost more to have shorn than the price the wool will fetch at market. True, she receives a government subsidy, but there are many requirements, it is not free money. If her field contains too many rushes, she might not just loose the subsidy but also receive a fine. It sounded to an outsider not like a choice between good and bad, but between a rock and hard place for a small-holding farmer. I was sorry for the tough decision facing the country, but also immensely pleased that the hate mongering of the press appeared to have had no effect on this little group; race and immigration were not considered in any way part of the problem.

These were just the opinions of two people, I cannot for a moment assume this was reflective of greater Scotland, but it was interesting none the less to learn their perspective and reasoning.

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View from the farm towards Loch Broom

Our first taste of proper farming came the day after we arrived; as we sat down to lunch the phone rang. It was the Ullapool police! Our sheep had escaped their paddock and needed shepherding off the main road! We abandoned our omelette on toast, leapt into cars and zoomed down the road to block traffic and herd unwilling sheep back into the field. The gate was standing fully open and had no fencepost to secure it shut, so we piled rocks to hold it.

That first day also saw us constructing new gates in preparation for the cows’ artificial insemination later in the week. We worked hard concreting posts, carefully measuring distances and checking everything was level. Our efforts marvelously repaid with a hearty dinner of lamb steaks followed by strawberries and cream.

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The completed cow gates

The following day we completed the cow gates under bright skies – no woolly jumpers required! The field was full of wild and luscious stinging nettles, so working in summer clothes was dangerous. But by lunch we had completed the cow gates – all properly concreted in place, and we paused for a wonderful outdoor lunch. Under the shade of a large tree in the garden of the farmhouse we ate sausages fresh off a coal BBQ and drank elderflower cordial. Then lay back in the grass afterwards for a wee siesta before getting back to work.

The gate to the sheep field still needed mending and the stone walls all around the same field were crumbling. It was with makeshift building materials we had to make the field secure – two bed ends played a starring role, along with rocks from the nearby river bed. It is hot work lugging rocks from the river to the wall, but as the cows are moving into this field the walls need to be extra secure and able to withstand stroppy escape artists. One cow in particular is a force to be reckoned with: a very strong willed Highland Cow named Anne. In the past she had rebelled and made her own life decisions by breaking into the neighbour’s field where a large black bull lived. As our host said “she found herself a big black man”. Anne was pregnant already (unlike the others waiting for their AI’s), but not with a purebred Highland calf as intended!

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Broom in bloom

The high skies and warm weather didn’t stick around and the next few days were stormy. We worked in the barn assembling shelves and stacking paint cans. In the barn we discovered an enormous wooden box with unidentifiable paddle contraptions and a driveshaft which looked as though it might have once been powered by a water wheel. Our host confirmed later it was for threshing during the early to mid-1800s, when these fields were for grain not livestock (perhaps pre highland clearances?). There had been a waterwheel which was fed by a burn (mountain stream) and a small hill lochan was damned so the burn would flow only when the water was released. I marvelled at the history contained in this one small farm, and the number of stories which accompany the physical relics. It is strange to sleep in an unassuming farmhouse and know that it is older than any building in your own country (New Zealand being so young). That feeling of wonder was repeated many times throughout our stay:

  • A burnt out Manor house lies not far down the road, once the main house on this farm. It is a ghostly ruin now, pine trees over twenty years old grow in each room – all now open to the sky. Intricate ‘crow step’ stonework adorns every gable.
  • Metal detectorists have found ancient coins.
  • At one point we visited friends of our host, it was a strange feeling indeed approaching a 12th century castle not as tourists, but as potential friends or guests. Our host warned us it was ‘riddled with ghosts’.

The highlands are incredible really in their closeness to history, the land feels old, but so is the connection between man and land. The crumbling crofters cottages left to ruin by the highland clearances fringe lochs and tuck into hillsides. Some merely foundations or rubble, others still support chimneys and look as though all they need is a roof and some love. But so much is in languishing decline (although as I write this I am tucked up next to the fire in a crofters cottage which has been saved!)

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Ardvreck Castle, a short drive north of Ullapool, all that remains of the Clan MacLeod stronghold (later captured by the MacKenzies).

In the evenings we nestled in front of a roaring fire and listened to our host storytelling about her own life here in the highlands and about local history and myth. We enjoyed many delicious dinners including locally caught pheasant, home grown turnips and salad, local Venison, and home grown Rhubarb crumble (our host was once cook for the Duke of Argyll).

Our final day was spent assisting with the cows being AI’d. It was our only early morning farm start. In the still of dawn we herded the cows across the highway, long before all the motorcyclists were out.

I had never witnessed an artificial insemination; the vet was efficient and did her best to calm all the cows. Some stood placidly when the vet inserted her arm, others struggled, their eyes bulging and backs arched. Many had a good big poo as soon as the vet removed her hand. A plastic guide was used to insert the ‘T’ shaped AI and a blue cord was left hanging out like a tampon string.

Our final night we drove to Ullapool for takeway curries, and on the way back home I pointed out the signs saying ‘red squirrel next ¾ miles’ and asked our host if she had ever seen any. “Oh I have a couple in the freezer” she replied. “I hear they make good fish bait and they are always getting themselves run over.” Not the answer I had been expecting.

The following morning we each received a heartfelt hug, our time as willing workers on this highland farm was over. The enduring memories are of the people whose lives we briefly became a part of; our host’s incredible stories and cooking, the shepherd’s quick humour. The road was once more drawing us north though, this time beyond the British mainland and over to the Orkney Isles. If we had thought the Highlands were filled with ancient history, we hadn’t seen nothing yet!

Twinkletoes in Britain Part 3: Over the Bridge to Skye

The weather has realised winter is approaching, daylight savings has ended and the Irish rain seems set to continue indeterminately, so perhaps over the next few weeks I will catch up a little on sharing photos and stories from this year’s travels.

Once more, pretend it is summer in the Highlands of Scotland, although you wouldn’t know it because the sunny days of Ford are behind us. Further north the high, clear skies gave way to sullen grey as we approached Oban.

Oban seemed like a bustling metropolis after Ford; there were traffic lights, buses and pay and display car parks! The temperature was growing decidedly cool, but we braved visiting McCaigs Tower for views over the harbour before seeking the refuge of warmth inside the Oban Distillery.

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Dunstaffnage Castle

On the outskirts of town we visited Dunstaffnage Castle, it is a well preserved ruin; more imposing from outside than in. The battlements are a lovely spot for lunch and offer views over the surrounding woodland. The trees are covered with bright new leaves and a lush growth of ferns, moss and bluebells grow beneath.

Our destination for the night was Glencoe, and we had not booked anywhere to stay. Ford had been so empty of guests we had no worries about finding accommodation; in fact we expected establishments to be haggling for patrons! But as the rain lashed down and it grew dark, we discovered not one single ‘Vacancy’ sign.  Unknown to us it was the weekend of the Caledonian Challenge (a kind of Iron Man-ish event) and the rain didn’t seem to have put anyone off. We continued down the road to Kinlochleven. The road clung to the side of a rain lashed hill, each bend offered new views down the sodden glen and over Loch Leven. Halfway down this road we came across a holiday park advertising luxury caravans for rent, with our only other option a tent (with no sleeping bags, in torrential rain, in midgie swarms) we were pleased to accept the offer of an uncleaned caravan at half price! The lovely proprietor, Patsy, handed us a fresh set of sheets still warm from the iron and we set up home in the cleanest of the uncleaned caravans.

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Caolasnacon Caravan and Camping Park, situated halfway between Glencoe and Kinlochleven

Despite the weather, the gathering dark and the midgies I went for a stroll. There was a bluish late light illuminating the beautiful loch. Low clouds hung over the looming hills, just their noses pushing through the clouds, and the rain eased to drizzle. My woolly hat was pulled down past my eyebrows, my scarf wrapped around three times and pulled over my nose. Squelching through damp grass, unable to stand still because then the biting midgies caught up. This is how the Highlands should be – challenging but glorious!

Down the track to the loch edge I passed brave campers lighting fires and setting up tents. The Loch opened out from its narrow, constricted section by the campground and the view down it towards Glencoe village was fantastic in the cold half-light.

The following day saw us heading further north, the first stop was for fuel and there was a very cheery man working at the petrol station. He said “better day today – yesterday reminded me of the last two and half years!” (I giggled) “You think I’m joking!”

 

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A typical stretch of road that day…

At Fort William I ate the best Steak pie I have ever had from a bakery on the main street. It was a busy wee shop advertising award winning pies. There were bronze and silver winning pies of various flavours. But the ‘Highland Brue Steak Pie’ was the only one with gold. The lady explained to me that Highland Brue meant it was made of “Heeland Coo”, so I had to try it. The meat was deliciously soft and tender – melt in the mouth.

As an afterthought we visited the local museum, it is independently run, staffed by volunteers and incredibly well laid out. Full of interesting exhibits including the kilt and full highland dress gifted to John Brown by Queen Victoria, as well as many artifacts purportedly worn or owned by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Free entry, free wifi, free loos – definitely worth a visit!

Then on, past Inverlochy Castle and Eilean Donan Castle towards the Isle of Skye. The roads here are lined in glorious colour by self-seeded (read: invasive) rhododendrons, their abundant blooms in no way diminished by the steady rain.

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Skye

Over the bridge to Skye though, the terrain is drastically different. On Skye there are no rhododendrons and even whin (gorse) is sparse. It is a rugged and barren landscape, bleak, treeless and windswept. Grey clouds hung low over the menacing Cuillin Mountains as we drove towards Talisker. Hoping to have less trouble finding last minute accommodation on this wild and remote island it was with horror that we found once more all the B&Bs displaying ‘NO VACANCY’ signs. A friendly chap at the hostel informed us it was the weekend of the Skye Marathon, and also that Skye is Scotlands 2nd most visited destination (after Edinburgh). But he blithely suggested; “don’t worry – there’s no trespass laws here – just park in a paddock and sleep in the car!”

Fortunately it did not come to that.

A warmer, sunnier day dawned; a good day to climb Ben Tianavaig. It was rumoured to have a track up, but no trace could be found, so we simply struck off through a farmyard – making the most of yesterday’s info about the lack of trespass laws. Our noses took us through a wooded glen with a small stream and bluebells, and then out into sodden farmland full of heather and bogs. The sheep were sparse in the massive fields, black faces lifted to judge us, horns looking menacing. Lambs galumphed.

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Striding through heather is tough going, it felt like wading through a mattress, but the slow pace meant it was easy to spot wildlife. There were large yellow dragonflies, black toads and tiny golden frogs. I nearly stepped on a fledgling bird which fluttered off and hid in a heather bush, then allowed me to offer it a crumb from my muesli bar.

The gradual incline grew steeper, and eventually we were above the sheep tracks. There were rocky outcrops and hidden valleys and squelchy bogs. I ascended the last section on hands and knees, my shoes sliding on the slick grass.

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The view from the top of Ben Tianavaig

The top offered 360 degree views from Portree to the Cuillins and across the sea to the Isle of Raasay. At the top there was an Ordnance Survey pillar, a cloud of midgies and bugger all else. But there was an obvious path! It wound leisurely up the opposite side of the hill.

After a day spent in the open air, our last day on Skye was to be spent driving around and visiting the touristy spots.

Dunvegan Castle has been privately owned by the McCleod clan chief since it was built over 800 years ago, admission is pricey but I was entranced for hours. The gardens are a riot of colour, a sharp contrast to the rest of Skye. Full of poppies, ladies bonnets, roses, hydrangeas etc. They were first laid out in the 18th century and added to ever since. There was also a patch of well-tended woodland, the story goes that much of Skye was once covered in forest, but in the 16th century it was cut down as it provided cover for bandits.

The castle itself is not immediately imposing, it is a uniform pebbledash brown in appearance, with large sash windows and a lack of turrets and arrow slits. However the interior is fascinating and it feels homey – as it should! The family has lived here over 30 generations! It is thoughtfully laid out, less as a museum than as a family proud to share its heritage. It is not clinical or perfect, some signs are misspelled, myth and history are mixed together. Fairies are real here, so real that their flag is on display. They are as much a part of the landscape here as the castle is.

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Dun Beag Broch

Next stop was Dun Beag Broch, built circa 2000 years ago and inhabited till the 18th century, it sits atop a natural rock formation with views out across the Loch. Free to visit, it is surprising how much still stands of this ancient and mysterious building. Double stone walls encircle the living space, now grazed by sheep.

On to Talisker Distillery, our ‘Friends of the Classic Malts’ passes got us a free dram each, it was not as smokey as we had expected and therefore enjoyable!

Last for the day were the fairy pools. Just a short way from the distillery and on the edge of the Black Cuillin Mountains, a string of parked cars marked the start of the track. The track wound down the hill and across the valley to the foot of the Cuillins, looming, cloaked in cloud.

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Before even leaving the car the midgies found us, and they weren’t to be tricked, they flew along beside us like a black veil. For the first time, even as a moving target we were not safe!

The walk and pools were busy, some folks were even swimming and squealing at the cold. The pools are circular and blue, clear and deep. The water is fed by gentle waterfalls, a whole series of pools and falls extend up the valley.

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A fairy pool

The further we walked, the more we had the place to ourselves. By the time we reached the scree at the base of the Cuillins we had only the midgies for company.

The next day dawned clear and sunny, the Isle of Skye no longer moody as we drove back over the bridge to the main land.