Wednesday, September 24, 2014

More Scotland

(Entrance to Clan Donald castle - or what remains of it)
We are home now, but I still have so much to tell about our trip to Scotland and beyond.  It was the trip of a lifetime in so many ways, but we are hoping it turns out to be merely a scouting trip for many trips in our future.  We visited Inverness, the Isle of Skye, Edinburgh, Oban, Aberdeen and Stirling. We didn't quite make it to Glasgow, but that's on the wish list for next time, as are many other places.  Before that we were in Ireland and somewhere in between some of those Scottish cities, we went to the Lake District in England and then to York, England (which was so interesting we wished we had allowed more time for it.)

We learned so much on this trip.  Fresh off the plane in Dublin, we were a bit nervous about the driving situation.  Nearly all cars are standards, meaning you have to shift gears. To lease an automatic is nearly four times the amount of leasing a standard.  I drove standard cars for many, many years until we bought my current Subaru.  Mike hadn't driven a standard shift in years, nor had he ever driven on the left side of the road.  Coming out of the airport was somewhat harrowing because we were into heavy traffic and lots of round-abouts immediately.  Then before we reached Nicola's house, we were on some tiny roads with tall hedgerows on each side and barely enough room to pass another small oncoming car without scrapping the side view mirrors off.  Mike became a pro pretty quickly.  He did an amazing job of getting us around without any mishaps.  Believe me when I say we were all around Scotland and a little of Ireland and England, too.  By the end, we'd driven about 2000 miles.  All I can say is thank goodness for Siri on our iPhones giving us directions!  We would have had a lot more trouble negotiating all those round-abouts without her voice telling us which was the appropriate exit.  (All those "we's" are actually what we call the "Royal We".  Mike did all the driving.  I was merely moral support!)

(Dunnottar Castle)

 We visited lots of castles (and castle ruins) and cathedrals, which beforehand was exactly what we'd proclaimed we were not going to do.  Once we were there, we just couldn't help ourselves.  There is so much history everywhere it is mind boggling.  It did occur to me pretty quickly that America is a baby in terms of how much history we have.  We spent our last morning touring Stirling Castle and found it just as fascinating as the castles we'd visited earlier. While I don't pretend to know much about Scottish history, I do find it really interesting.  Obviously, with a name like MacDonald, Mike has very clear ties to Scotland.  I know that my own family has Scotch-Irish and English roots, but know only a little about the particulars and now am motivated to find out more.

We stayed in a lot of bed and breakfasts and found all of them to be quite nice.  You really don't find chain hotels like we have here in the States,  nor do you find chain fast-food restaurants.  A pleasant change, if I do say so. (We'd read somewhere that Rick Steves recommends staying at B and B's in order to get to know local people.)  Everywhere we went in Scotland,  people were friendly and kind and seemed more than willing to help with directions and advice.  We stayed at a lovely B and B on the Isle of Skye and met a family from Germany, who were also staying there.  We really enjoyed talking with them two mornings over breakfast and wished we'd had more time to get to know them.  I think one thing that was pleasantly surprising to both of us was how comfortable we felt.  We expected to have difficulty understanding people and finding our way around, but honestly it was much easier than we anticipated.  Mike was often outside his comfort zone because our trip was so loosely planned.  We had no reservations anywhere when we began the trip and spent some time each day consulting Tripadvisor to find our next place to stay.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend this method, but it was mostly successful for us.  Next time we'll do more pre-planning because we know enough now about where we might want to go.  Mike has promised me that next time we will stay in one place for at least 3 or 4 nights in a row, rather than someplace different nearly every night.  You are my witnesses!

I have too many pictures of castles and don't want to be a bore about it.  So, I will just say Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, Stirling Castle, Dunvegan Castle and many others are well worth visiting.  Just don't spend all your time touring the inside of castles.  The scenery out of doors is too beautiful to miss.  Mike has been watching the Outlander series on television with me and after we returned from Scotland, he admitted that before our trip he'd thought they had made up the outdoor scenery for the program!  It really is as dramatic and beautiful as the pictures you see.

Next up:  a quick trip to the Lake District of England to see the home of a favorite of mine.  Meanwhile, here are a few more livestock on the road pictures, all taken on the Isle of Skye.

(Those colored marks identify which farm the sheep belongs to.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

On the road

(The view from Nicola's front door)
Well, my plan to blog every few days hasn't exactly worked out.  We seem to have chosen places with the worst Internet service possible.  (It's almost like being at home, where our service is less than dependable.)  We've stayed in lots of inns and bed and breakfasts, who all say they have wifi, yet we have been unable to use it for more than a few minutes.  I've done a few Instagrams,  using my phone (and I'll be afraid to look at the data roaming charges when the bill comes!)

We've dubbed this trip our second honeymoon because we had talked about coming to Scotland for our first honeymoon.  We didn't get around to planning it then, so here we are celebrating our 16th anniversary (September 5th).  I say better late than never.  There have been some similarities between our original honeymoon in the Northwest because Mike is the kind of traveler who wants to cram as much as he possibly can into the available time.  On that trip we drove about 3000 miles in two weeks (and that was after we flew out there). I really like to go somewhere and just relax, rest, read and knit.  We've already driven some 1200 miles and still have several days to go.  Good thing I can knit in the car.

Our days in Ireland with Nicola Brown went by much too quickly.  We visited with Suzanna and the lovely Zwartbles,  the Cushendale Woollen Mill, in the town of Craig-na-Managh, and a beach on the Irish sea.  The weather was comfortably cool and Nicola fed us well.  She even prepared lamb for us that we really enjoyed!  (we are not lamb eaters, so this surprised both of us!)

(Nicola and me - watching for seals at Curracloe)  Photo by Mike MacDonald
 On Friday we flew from Dublin to Edinburgh and drove up to Inverness for our first night.  On Saturday we visited Culloden, the site of the battle that broke the spirit of the Rising of 1745 and many, many Scottish men died at the hands of English soldiers.  Because of reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, I have been particularly interested in visiting the battlefield.  I expected to feel somewhat as I did on visiting the battlefield at Gettysburg, but there were so many people around and so much activity, I didn't feel that aura that I experienced at the site of the Gettysburg battle.  It was sobering to think about the events that took place there and how it affected Highland families for years to come.  We walked around the battlefield until we found the marker stone for the Clan MacDonald.  Each clan who fought there has a stone marking the spot where their men were supposedly buried.  The day we visited there was a special homecoming celebration and there were bagpipes being played at the entrance and musicians playing Scottish music elsewhere.  Ironically, the Hellcats from West Point Military Academy played while we were there.  Not exactly sure what that was about!

(the Isle of Skye is full of dramatic scenery)  Photo by Mike MacDonald
 Next we spent two days on the Isle of Skye.  These signs are all over the place in Scotland, but on the Isle of Skye we actually did see lots of sheep right on the road.

(Photo by Mike MacDonald)
This little guy (girl?) went right on by us, as if we were invisible.  I guess they are used to having cars get in their way.

Mainly, we've been seeing Scottish Blackface sheep and those perpetually surprised looking Cheviots.  This one looks to be a crossbred.  There are sheep all over the place here - literally everywhere and they are fat and happy looking, grazing amongst the gorse and heather.

While we were on the Isle of Skye, we went to the castle of Clan Donald.  Even though the castle itself is a ruin, it is pretty impressive.  It's certainly a far cry from our own humble abode!

(Ruins of the castle of Clan Donald)
The owner of our bed and breakfast is a knitter and she recommended a local yarn shop, so we checked it out before we left the island.  The Skye Shilasdair Shop is a small, but beautiful little shop specializing in yarns from local sheep and naturally dyed (on the premises) yarn.  Needless to say, I didn't leave empty-handed.  In fact, some of my knitting in the car has been a couple of hats made from yarn purchased there.

(Skye Shilasdair Yarn Shop)  Photo by Mike MacDonald

We took the car ferry from the Isle of Skye back to the mainland and drove to Oban for the night.  The next day we drove into Edinburgh to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland, which was on display at the Scottish Parliament building.  I can't even describe how impressive it was.  It isn't a woven tapestry, but rather panels that have been embroidered by many loving hands, each depicting a scene from the history of Scotland.  Naturally, I was most drawn to the ones about the Rising of 1745 and any depicting fiber and textile activities.

(the detail is astounding-just look at her shawl!)
(Imagine how many French knots that might be)
So, that's it for this installment.  Our time here is running out, but we are on the move again.   I have more pictures to show in the next post.  Until next time .......

Thursday, September 4, 2014


(The orchard at Maidenhall Farm)
 Where to begin?  We are just barely beginning our adventure and are already so in love with this place, we don't want to leave!  We're in Ireland, spending a few days with our friend, the fabulous Nicola Brown.  It's so beautiful and green here and deliciously cooler.  Then,  there's the sheep.  The sheep are every where you look.

(Suzanna - the wall surrounds a beautiful garden)
Yesterday we visited Suzanna Crampton's Maidenhall Farm, home to the beautiful Zwartbles sheep.  Suzanna was incredibly gracious and welcoming and spent several hours with us, allowing us time to really observe her adult Zwartbles ewes and the current crop of lambs.  We spent quite a lot of time walking around her beautiful farm, visiting with her Irish draft horses, the farm dogs and while we were having a cup of tea in the kitchen, Bodacious, the famous sheep herding cat, deigned to make an appearance.  It's probably a good thing I've decide I have to reduce my flock and that it is impossible to import sheep from Ireland to the United States.  I'd have been very happy to bring home a few of these beautiful animals. Their temperament is so calm that even as strangers, we were able to walk among them and most didn't hesitate to come in close for scritches.

(Zwartbles are Dutch sheep, originally bred for milking)
Suzanna's farm has been in her family for many generations and the gardens and orchard are so beautifully maintained and yet are so appropriately informal for a country estate.  The stone walls and hedgerows define the pastures, the gardens around the house and the lanes that lead from one part of the farm to another.  I'm having to stop myself from writing beautiful, wonderful, amazing over and over again.

Suzanna's Irish Draft horses were even friendlier than the Zwartables.  They were gentle giants.  I also wanted to bring them home with us.  I tend to think I'm over my horse obsession, until I have the opportunity to be around a particularly nice one and then that pleasant horsey smell brings it all back.

I have an obscene amount of pictures taken at Suzanna's but they will need to wait for another post. It's very late right now and we have an early morning leave-taking.  Both of us are regretting not allowing ourselves more time here in Ireland, but we're already telling ourselves that we have to come back.