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).

 

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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!