On it, we have Glenn and Jeana, a couple from New England, and Denise and Debbie, two friends since their childhood, coming to Scotland for the first time. They are also celebrating their birthdays.
(Pic: Debbie, Denise, Samantha, Glenn, Jeana)
We set off from Edinburgh this morning and an exclusive little, hidden accommodation that our guests have been mightly impressed with. As we travel along we have been practicing our Gàidhlig. We started with the word Fraoch. The name for Heather Ale. Which led us onto ale at lunch. Our pronunciations are varying from Fraych to Frach, but generally getting in the right vacinity (which of course, cannot be rendered here in English). Looks like we'll have to practice with a bottle or two to aid the vocal chords. Jeana, a natural linguist, cannot apparently get her tongue around Fraoch. She later confesses her failure is deliberate and to wind Scot up.
We 'began' our tour with the journey through / to The Stones. Here are some impressions:
Denise and Debbie: “very picturesque, very intriguing, how did they come to be there? The hike was arduous and invigorating. The falls were amazing. I wish we could let our husbands see.”
Jeana “They brought me to tears. I heard the buzzing. I had to run out of there.”
“Very powerful” says Glenn, “gave me vertigo”. There's a special place we can sit by the stones to get the most amazing view, sat right on the energy flow. I encourage our guests to sit in this place for a few minutes, in silence, alone in their thoughts.
Jeana “You should tell them that you came down with one less guest”. (She'd gone ahead, people, not lost to time.)
The day of the Handfasting. Jeana and Glenn asked if they could renew their marriage vows while on the tour. It took some planning, but we think we got it right: they are to be married (again) in the chapel that Claire married both Frank and Jamie in.
In our tradition, a renewal of vows first involves dissolving the bonds that tie a couple together.
Glenn: “Spectacular. Between what was said and where we were, it was almost like going back in time. I felt closer, the two of us, because there is nothing else like it.”
“Very moving.” Denise and Debbie (temporarily known as Murtagh and Dougal). They played their part in the ceremony, giving readings and calling in the Four Airts, as well as watching the door should someone steal away the bride.
Denise: “The chapel was awe inspiring. It's 500 years old.”
Bride and Groom are going for the record of being hand-fasted, as in bound. They are going to stay bound till breakfast tomorrow morning, so they say. Photos will be taken. By the way, Jeana and Glenn are wearing traditional highland garb. Don't they look Gorgeous? Remind you of anyone?
We planned this tour to coincide with an evening of live Celtic music in Drumnadrochit. We enjoyed everything from fiddles to pipes to Gaelic singing. Much to our surprise, the BBC were filming the event! Who knows, maybe the group will be able to catch the performance again.
Alas Jeana and Glenn managed only to 11:03 pm being bound. That said, they do still have the record of about 11 hours. Helping each other to enjoy lunch while tied was perhaps the cutest (Pic).
Today is our into-the-wilderness day. We are firm believers that Scotland can not be really experienced through the window of a motor vehicle. If that was the case, it would be cheaper to just buy the DVD. We're spending the morning on horses and the afternoon on foot in some of the most remote lands in Scotland. Most importantly for the tour, the places are the closest in feel to those described in Outlander / Cross Stitch that Claire first experiences with Jamie, the men, on her honey-moon and at other times traipsing across the hills and through the glens, wind, rain and all. I hope that we get opportunity for the guests to write a fuller impression of their experiences for the blog as their expressions regarding the beauty of the remote glens cannot be captured by my good self.
Debbie writes: “Our pony trek began at the [Highland] home of Ian and Sasha. Let's just point out here that it was a pretty steady rain at this point, the rain falling somewhat horizontally due to the brisk winds. Denise and I had wondered, on waking that morning to find it raining, if we would still be doing the pony trek. Denise had said 'It's one thing to get caught in the rain, but entirely another to set off in the rain!' On asking Scot if we would still ride, he replied 'The horses are waterproof!' Hmm....that's not exactly what we had been worried about. As I was saying, our trek actually began in the home of Ian and Sasha, a delightful couple with four children, who live a very simple life in the Scottish Highlands. He provides for his family by working the land, she by running the pony trek business. Ian kept us entertained in the house (they don't bother closing the windows or doors in the rain, it all dries out later) with stories of his children riding around the kitchen table on their scooters, and by showing us the enormous mushroom he had found the day before. At one point, Ian was asked the ages of his children, to which he replied 'Oh, somewhere around 14 or 15, something like that....' (etc.) and then, 'Sasha could tell you how old they are exactly.' We also enjoyed his use of the purely Scottish noise 'Och!' While we were inside talking to Ian, Sasha chased down the horses in the rain. That accomplished, we helmeted up and set off, in the driving rain. [Pic of a Scottish Eskimo, by Denise] We quickly discovered that the horses pretty much knew the way, and really weren't going to go faster than a slow walk, so it was a very mellow ride, punctuated here and there with Sasha riding up behind us and yelling (bellowing is perhaps a more appropriate word) 'WALK ON PONIES!!' while slapping the rump of the horses with a riding crop. That would speed the horses up for about two strides, after which they would slow back down again. What the horses lacked in spunk though, was made up for by the scenery. It was breathtaking and I don't think we could have seen anything like it without having gone on the trek. We eventually rode up to the top of a high ridge, at which point we could look down over the glens and lochs and see for what must have been miles. I hope we will get some pictures of the view posted, although they can't possibly do it justice. By the time we reached the top of the ridge, the wind had picked up considerably. Glenn, ever the sailor, estimated that the winds were coming in at about 40 knots. Personally, I felt like we had been washed by the rain, and then stuck in a hand dryer. Like one of those dryers that blows so hard, it makes the skin on your hands move around. The up side of this was that we were no longer soaking wet, in fact we were dry at this point, but I was actually worried that one of us might get blown from our horse. As it turns out, Scot did take a tumble while dismounting his horse on the ridge. I believe his foot had gotten caught in the stirrup. It took a little doing, but he was eventually righted and all was well. We stayed at the top for a while and took in the scenery, and then we turned the horses around and headed back. In all, we were gone about two hours, and it was a very enjoyable ride. We were all a little sore on dismounting (some of us more than others!) but within a few minutes of walking around the property (getting to see the future site of Ian's barn, and his deer carcases hanging in the back of the yard) we were well enough for the hikes we would be going on a little later. Jeana and Samantha had opted out of the trek, and so got to spend some quality time together in the house and later, when it had stopped raining, taking pictures of the scenery. We left the Highland homestead, and headed into town for American cheeseburgers and fries at the local cafe. Delicious!”
Samantha Writes: Yes, the rain in Scotland comes and goes with the wind. Ian knew it wouldn't last and besides, as he put it, if you wait for the weather to get better in Scotland, you would either never go anywhere or you'd be running in and out all day long. As Ian predicted, the rain stopped and only about 15 minutes after our Highland Cowboys and girls set off. Part of being a highlander is 'just getting on with it'. So I'd have to say that our pony trekkers passed a kind of initiation and can now be considered Honorary Highlanders. Good on ya, ladds and lassies!
Scot writes: Our evening meal was awash in Scottish Ales and Uisge Beatha. Fraoch seems to be a hit with the ladies. Amongst the very fine single malts we tried were two oddities. One would have classed as a James Fraser special reserve. It was the spirit straight from the still, never having seen an oak cask. Raw is not the word. “Well, I guess I had to try it,” concedes Glenn. The 25 year old, rare, Port Ellen hit the mark though. Glenn has been in a daze, trying to make his choices. There are so many Malts that he can't get in New England.
Cò-dhùi, anyway, dragging our attention and heads out of the cask, back at the lodgings, another dram in the low light (for some) and the harp comes out: Tales of the Each Uisge agus Tairbh Uisge, the water horse and the water bull; tales of Big Malcolm MacGilvain courting his unworthy sweetheart; Tales of Oban and it's whisky (do I always come back to that? I do when Glenn is around).
A visit to Leoch. This morning Lord John MacKenzie of Leod is showing our Outlandish Spirits around his castle home. Sam and I are catching up on tour matters elsewhere, so it will be good to hear from the guests in their own words how they felt about the castle. For those who are less obsessed about Diana's novels than some of us, a few words about this castle and it's inclusion in the tour are given. Remember that Diana had not visited Scotland when she wrote the first two books. While her research on Scotland is impeccable, she had neither desire nor ability to match the fiction to the reality of Scotland exactly. It is interesting therefore that often she has placed a fictitious location where there is actually a real facsimile, without intending to perhaps. So it is with castle Leoch. There is a real castle, pretty much exactly where she describes Leoch as being. It is castle Leod, owned by the chief of MacKenzie to boot.
Having learned this several years later, Diana suggests that the castle is also like the one in the book. On that point we diverge. The real Leod of today is much smaller than Dougal and Colum's castle. Also, the fictitious castle is actually quite a-typical of Highland castles, to wit, “The Hall” that Jamie avoids pledging fealty in, and later takes blows for Loaghaire. Such a large hall with a gallery is not common in Scottish castles. This is why, depending on our mood and whether Leod is open, we sometimes take guests to another castle not far away which has many more of the required features for Leoch (like the hall, the gardens and so on). It's a coin toss: go to the castle Diana likes, of MacKenzie, in the right location; or go to the castle most like Leoch in body and feel. Which would you choose, given that your short week allows perhaps only one? Your comments below are welcome.
Glenn writes, “It's going to be hard to beat a visit to a 15th century castle, led by the Laird of Clan Mackenzie, Lord Cromarty himself. Our tour began as the castle's heavy door closed behind us, bolted and latched with a 16th century key (that one won't fit in a Sporan). The laird led us up the stairs and into the drawing room encircled with centuries-old family paintings (layered with Victorian varnish), the swan card table (designed by the laird's grandmother), and an impressive array of 18th and 19th century furnishings. We enjoyed a glass of Spanish Amontillado as we chatted about the history of Clan Mackenzie. One story in particular was very entertaining – that of the capture of the future General John Mackenzie following the defeat at Culloden as he attempted to hide beneath the voluminous skirts of the countess of Sutherland (apparently he neglected to pull his feet in far enough). The lord redeemed himself by proving his skill as a general as leader of the Norwegian army. He did well enough to be invited back to Britain to re-claim Castle Leod and its lands.
“When the glasses of sherry were drained, we stepped into the dining room, lined in varnished oak. The original sash windows are apparently the earliest in Britain. After a fascinating story of lands and titles lost and won back, we stepped into the cavernous billiards room and studied one of the remarkably accurate 18th century maps drawn by Mackenzie cartographers prior to subduing the lands surrounding the castle. Lord John led us down a stone spiral to the servant's room and dungeon. The servant's call bells still hang in the corridor connected to each room of the castle by the original wires. We stepped into the tiny dungeon and heard tales of the human leg found shackled to the floor when the room was renovated in the 20th century. Lord John is puzzled by a bit written in the family history about a cow kept in the dungeon. The room is maybe 12 feet by 6 feet with a tiny doorway. Scratching his head and squinting his eyes he says “why ever someone would do that... I have no idea.” After bidding farewell to the lord and his castle, we strolled through the tree walk and took in the sights of rare and beautiful specimens planted as much as 450 years ago. So ended the visit and a perfect step back and through time with a true Scottish royal. It must be added that the lord is an extraordinarily friendly and good-humored man who speaks passionately about his family history and apparently enjoys every minute of it. Well done!”
We're running a wee photo competition / reportage on this tour. Each guest has two subjects to photo on. One is “locals / people”. I hope they captured some images of Lord John. We'll show a few of the other topics after the tour, perhaps on the tour website.
A Trip to Tarry Ile
Jeana writes of the night before: “We decided to take a wee trip around Inverness. After buying more souvenirs and adding a 5th bag to our baggage pile, we stopped at The Filling Station. Much to our surprise, our waitress did not greet us with the typical Scottish “Gud evenin' “, we were greeted with a guttural “Hi.” We learned that our waitress was Polish. Not only that, she told us that there were approximately 10,000 Polish people in Inverness, in a community of 60,000. Using our waitresses Polish math, that would be 10% of the population.
After our very fulfilling “stick to your ribs” dinner, we decided to find a working man's pub to talk to some of the local folks and maybe for a little water of life. We went into the pub and there were empty stools at the bar, but not together. There was a taken seat, but the stool was empty (my guess was the patron was in the loo) and the bartender moved her things and made room for us. We loved the place already!
After ordering a beer and a whisky (the first and only drinks we paid for in the pub), the woman next to us introduced herself and just started chatting. She wanted to know where we were from, how many kids we had and all the usual chit-chat. Her name was Rena. As it turns out, her husband (Victor) was at another pub watching the football game and soon arrived. Around about this time, I decided to have a dram and ordered a blended whiskey mixed with soda and ice. Before even the first drink, an arm reaches over my shoulder and takes the drink, hands it back to the bartender and a male voice says “She'll have a MacCallan with one lump.” He looks at me and says “No one should ever drink that garbage you had sittin' in front of ya.” This is when Glenn & I met John who bought a round of drinks for all as he happened to be a friend of Victor and Rena.
About this time Victor shows up. He has very old sailing tattoos on his arms which Glenn recognizes and talk turns to sailing. It turns out that Victor was in the Navy is whole life and has actually sailed around the world. Glenn was immediately in his element and the water talk began. Needless to say, we closed the pub, exchanged addresses with our new friends and strolled back to our lovely B&B and tucked ourselves in for a nice long night of rest.
Debbie writes: “Our trip to the other castle was a very different visit from our tour of Castle Leod, but enjoyable in its own rite. Instead of drinking sherry with the laird of the castle, we went through several rooms, unaccompanied and left to our own devices. The castle is apparently inhabited by the owner part of the year, including the rooms that we went through. There is a collection of fine prints and tapestries in each room. After we completed the tour, lunch was eaten at the café on the castle grounds. Scot had blood pudding (excuse me, “black” pudding), while the rest of us did not. After that, we toured the castle gardens. The flowering plants were a little past their prime, our visit being in September, but still beautiful. The formal gardens were very impressive. We also visited the gift shop and book store before we left.
Denise writes of the accommodation that night: “Upon arrival at our castle accommodation later in the day, the owner and hostess was warm and friendly and showed us around, relaying the history of the castle.
Dinner was to be served at 7:30 and a few minutes before that time, as we dressed in our rooms, the sound of bagpipes filled the castle—we were being summoned to dinner. Glenn donned his kilt, managing to put it together from memory and we all headed down to the dining room. We were greeted by the sight of a piper in full regalia standing just out side the dining hall. He and the waitress looked a little surprised (and pleased) to see someone in traditional dress arrive for dinner. As we sat down, the piper came into the room and played a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace. The table was set beautifully. For £45, we enjoyed a 3-course meal with a bottle of champagne in celebration of mine and Debbie's birthdays. It was delicious and the service impeccable!
We then retired to the Drawing Room where we enjoyed a wood fire, wine, whisky, and good conversation. Glenn, Jeana, Debbie, and I talked late into the evening there in that romantic room. At around midnight we decided to explore the castle! We went to every single room, with Glenn in the lead because we were scared of ghosts! Our host had explained earlier that the castle was known to be haunted and had been so for centuries! She followed up with a tale or two. Needless to say, we were sufficiently spooked by the time we went to bed, so much so that when Debbie and I were offered the option of sleeping in separate rooms, we declined and took a twin room instead!
Ghosts aside, we made it safely through the night, enjoying lovely rooms with thoughtful attention to detail in their décor and acoutrements. Our stay at the castle was a first rate experience, and a definite highlight of our trip to Scotland!”
The adventures of the castle have so impressed them that they have forgotten to write about Ardsmuir and Culloden. Ah, but there's only so much we can say in a post, so we'll leave it for our future traveling companions.
As we journey south next day, the Outlandish Spirits are still laughing about their midnight adventures running around the castle, or as we say "running amok" which they related with glee. I will refrain from adding the details here, suffice to say, no photos were provided by our company for the blog.
A tour of Edinburgh closes (an uphill journey) and some special attractions with a bit of time to duck into some shops and we finish with an evening meal OUTSIDE! It was so lovely and warm in this September day, that we sat at one of our favorite restaurants and dined in the sun. Our people were off to the airport the next day for a safe journey home.
For now, we will leave this blog post of the September tour in anticipation that our future guests will “comment” on it once they step through the stones. For our own part, we had a grand old time with our four Outlandish Spirits, forming bonds of friendship and plucking at the heart strings as we said good bye in Edinburgh. We will miss them and look forward to sharing a dram another time. I'll leave you with an image only, of the last few days, our final meal together.
And what about that photo under Sept. 9th! Well, that's a few Outlandish Spirits hiding in the heather of course; just like Jamie! Though he was not prone to sticking his 'hied' up like the rest of us and being seen.