It had been ten years since we were last in Scotland. With our tween sons in tow, we had rented a house in Duns for a week as we toured the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. But it was to the Highlands that I really wanted to return and so when an opportunity arose for us to do such, we hesitated for a wee bit and then embraced the invite.
After landing in Edinburgh quite early on September 1, we walked to the car rental, debated size, upgraded our choice, and in true Hyacinth and Richard style (BBC’s “Keeping Up Appearances”), drove off on the wrong side of the road—that being to the left of the center line.
Our first destination was Loch Lomond. Upon reaching the loch and locating our weekend stay, we were several hours too early and so decided to drive north—oh my.
An exhausted driver in a rental car, and a tight squeeze between a retaining wall and lorries aren’t necessarily a good mix. Especially if you are Hyacinth. I constantly encouraged Richard to slow down with a flap of my hand while I muttered under my breath. Lucky for me, he didn’t come completely to a halt and make me walk. What surprised us both was that we were on the A82, a main road between Tarbet and Crianlarich. It hardly felt like a main road. With no other option for our return, we squeezed our way south as we finally headed to our place of rest.
Through Airbnb, we’d rented the Wee Wing at Castle Steadings in Arden, a most delightful spot.
I knew we’d chosen correctly when I spied the star lilies in bloom by the front door, for my wedding bouquet 27 years ago had included these beauties.
A mini-suite it was, with a large foyer, bathroom, bedroom with sitting area and private outdoor patio.
After a shower, which woke us up (sort of), we again hopped into the van and drove five minutes down the road to Balloch, a small tourist town at the River Leven outlet of Loch Lomond. It was there that we first walked along some trails beside the loch and then made our way to the pub at The Balloch House (a recommendation of our hostess, Amanda). Hans Christian Anderson had visited the hotel in 1847. What impressed us most about the cozy pub was the fact that dogs were welcome—and well behaved. We chatted with a couple at the next table, ate an early dinner of fish and chips for my guy and a burger for me, and then our heads began to bob and we knew we needed to return to the Wee Wing.
Sleep greeted us quickly and in a flash morning dawned. My guy headed off for a run beside the loch, while I walked. The mountains were obscured by the clouds, but slowly they lifted.
Back at the Wee Wing, we again knew we were in the right place when each morning breakfast mysteriously appeared behind a curtain in the foyer. Fresh strawberries, yoghurt, croissants and muffins—we filled our bellies, skipped lunch and didn’t need to dine again until later. Blueberry muffins the first morning and chocolate the second, both fresh and delicious.
Our plan for Saturday was to hike in the Trossachs National Park and so off we went in search of a trail. Much to our surprise, the park office in Balloch was closed, but we ventured into Tesco, where a young man suggested we drive toward Balhama.
At last we found what we were looking for and began our ascent up Conic Hill.
It was a pilgrimage of sorts for so many were the people. All ages, all abilities, and all nationalities shared the trail.
Conic Hill features a sharp summit along the Highland Boundary Fault, a division between the Lowlands and the Highlands as demonstrated by this model. The fault traverses from Helensburgh on the Southwest coast to Stonehaven in the Northeast. To the north, the stone is hard, impervious schist, while to the south it is permeable sandstone, which is softer and offers good drainage.
The last leg of the journey was a bit of a scramble, but everyone offered suggestions and we agreed that staying close to the edge was the right choice. The view was well worth the effort. We’d learned from a park ranger that it was from this summit that postcard photos are taken—no wonder.
Once we’d climbed down, we made our way to the small boat yard where we looked up to the summit.
And then we boarded the SS Margaret for a five minute journey to Inchcailloch, also part of the national park. There are twenty-two islands on the loch and their names were all coined originally in Gaelic. “Innis,” now anglicized to “inch,” means island. The name, Inchcailloch, can be defined as Island of the Cowled Woman for Saint Kentigerna supposedly set up a nunnery here and was buried on the island in 734 AD.
In an hour and a half, we took the high road first and climbed to the summit trail to take in another view of the bonny loch from Tom na Nigheanan or Hill of the Daughter.
And then we followed the low road, stopping at the foundation of the parish’s first stone church built in the 13th century and its adjacent cemetery. Apparently, folks were lucky to be buried for we read that in “a late 18th century account of a burial on Inchcailloch, the Highlanders are reported as having drunk so much whisky that they nearly forgot to bury the body.”
Back on the mainland, our hiking continued and we explored one more trail before finishing up for the day. Then we paid homage to the man responsible for all the trails we’d traveled—Tom Weir. He was quoted in 1976 as saying, “We revel in the totality of the natural world as we dump our bag and fairly dance up the airy ridge.” To Mr. Weir we gave thanks—for our chance to dance up the airy ridge . . . indeed.
Sunday dawned a bit on the gray side, but once again breakfast mysteriously appeared behind the curtain at the designated time and we sat on the patio to enjoy it. And then we took off, again heading north but rather than following the road beside the loch, we turned left at Tarbet, a village where my sister and I once spent a long Easter Saturday in 1979 when I was a student at the College of York and Ripon St. John (now it’s just St John College) in York, England.
She and I took the train to Tarbet, walked to Arrochar and waited for what seemed like hours to catch a bus to Adraishaig. The most wonderful part is that except for the updated bus, everything looked the same as I recalled.
The view my guy and I shared of Loch Long was the same that she and I had had so long ago. Memories flashed through my brain of our ride to Adraishaig, where at the bus driver’s recommendation we walked uphill and knocked on Mrs. Hastie’s door to ask for a room. A view of Loch Gilp, some little cheese sandwiches, a long chat with Mrs. Hastie, and hot water bottles in our bed—it was all quite perfect and when our mother learned of her hospitality, she wrote Mrs. H a thank you note. For years they corresponded.
As was our intention back then, our destination was Castle Sween. The approach was the same, but the journey different, for in 1979 at Mrs. Hastie’s suggestion, we hitchhiked.
Perhaps the sheep that traveled our route this past week were descendants of those we’d encountered in the past.
At the red telephone booth, we parked and then walked down the road to the right.
Our first view was of a deer and since another favorite British show is “Monarch of the Glen,” we wondered if perhaps we’d found Big Eric.
And then we saw the castle overlooking Loch Sween and my excitement increased.
It was the 15th century Macmillan tower we came to see and I’d donned my flannel tartan (thanks for LL Bean for creating these two years ago) for the occasion.
We poked around inside the castle remains and with ghosts of the past viewed the tower through a window. I suspected it was my long lost relatives who made their presence known in the stone, so many familiar faces did I see.
Our tour wasn’t long, but I gave thanks to Alexander MacMillan, keeper of the castle in the 1470s. On a plaque we read the following: “With its towering curtain wall, Castle Sween is the most impressive of the early stone castles on Scotland’s west coast. Originally, the mighty walls enclosed several light wooden and stone buildings, serving as storage and accommodation . . . The MacMillan Tower had a kitchen in the basement with two storeys of private accommodation above.”
When I had traveled this way with my sister, we were able to hitch another ride from about a mile north of the castle back to Lochgilphead, where we caught a bus to Tarbet. Once there, we waited and waited for a train as the ticket man sat in his little building and sang to his heart’s content. Our journey this time was much faster and more convenient.
The weather had turned from gray to drizzle and so as we drove back toward the Wee Wing, we decided to take a tour of Inveraray Castle, the setting of “Downton Abbey.” It was also a place I’d visited previously, but only to the outside for I was with my college flatmates on a grand tour of Scotland. If any of you are reading, I hope you’ll recall that this is where we met Herman the Vurm.
Though a castle has stood at this spot since the 1400s, the Palladian and Gothic-style building that we toured was built in the 1700s and still serves as the monarchial home for Clan Campbell.
Despite all its pomp and circumstance and colossal displays,
it was the wee things that appealed to me most.
At last, we made our way back to the pub in Balloch to enjoy a pint before heading to bed; our departure would be too early for the mysterious visitor who left breakfast each morning, but since we were in Scotland, I trust it was a fairy who placed the covered tray on the wee stool behind the curtain.
Our early morning departure meant a drive to Edinburgh airport where we were to gather with the real reasons for our visit. Our oldest son’s girlfriend’s mother had rented a castle in the Highlands and invited us to join her family and friends for a four-night stay. Because our group was again too early for arrival, we decided to tour Glamis Castle on the way. But . . . the second vehicle for our eleven-member group had a bit of a problem at a roundabout just beyond the airport—a burned-out clutch. Apparently, smoke filled the car and they quickly excited. Then one brave soul went back to gather their luggage—all in fear that the car might catch on fire. Miles away, we wondered where they were and finally learned of their adventure as they stood on the grassy island and awaited help. And so, we detoured.
With a little bit of time to spare, we drove to St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, and walked along the greens of The Old Course,
where our awe included the beauty that surrounded us,
as we marveled at the five courses that sit between the North Sea and town center.
And my guy reflected upon legendary American amateur golfer Bobby Jones and his Grand Slam season in 1930. He mentioned a ball that bounced off a building and into the hole. But which building?
Before leaving, we paused by The Kelpie maquettes, handcrafted by renowned Scottish sculptor Andy Scott to honor the iconic Clydesdales, working horses vital to the industries of Scotland for providing both power and grace.
Soon we tucked back into the van, stuffed as it was with seven of us and our luggage overflowing the boot and packed all around.
Glamis Castle, setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Queen Mum’s childhood home, was our next stop and the point at which we finally reconnected with the second vehicle carrying five members of our group. A delightful woman named Pat gave us a tour full of stories filled with fact and fiction. We couldn’t take photos inside and it was pouring out, so we were limited in that department.
One of the things I found fascinating, besides the ghost who sometimes sits in the chapel, was the rose and thistle theme evident throughout and even on the roof railing—to represent the joining of Scotland and England. Of course, most of the Scots we spoke with hope the two will soon separate, but that’s politics.
At last it was time for our own castle adventure to begin. On to Glen Isla we drove, passing around many a tight bend until at last it came into sight . . . Forter Castle and our own little kingdom. The castle was originally built in 1560 by James Ogilvy, Fifth Lord of Airlie, but was burned by Archibald Campell, the Eighth Earl of Argyll in 1640. From that time until the early 1990s, it was a ruin. That is until the Pooley family purchased and transformed it into our fantasy retreat.
For the next four days, we photographed it . . .
from the trail above,
and finally darkness.
On our first evening as residents a rainbow marked the way.
We noted our tower on the far left . . .
with the upper window housing the writing desk . . .
in our posh room.
The bathroom was equally eloquent and the view from the throne worth every minute spent sitting.
Just in case we had unwanted visitors pillaging our fortress, we could sit on said throne and take aim.
On a regular basis, we gave thanks for the rope in the spiral staircase as it guided us down and saved us from slipping.
On the second level, we all frequently gathered in the Great Hall for conversation, fellowship, and . . .
warmth from the largest fireplace we’d ever sat by.
And on the first floor, a well-equipped kitchen,
Even doing laundry was a treat, for we had to enter the piggery for that task.
Daily we walked or ran along the lanes outside the castle, but on our second day, our hostess, Lady Anne, hired a local guide to lead the way up the Cateran Trail.
Bob Ellis is a recently retired counselor and also designer of the trail, so we were in the best of hands as we followed a six-mile section of this 64-mile circular route.
Along the way, we stopped constantly to admire the heather and the loch below.
Over stiles we climbed periodically,
and at one the two youngest in our group (and reason my guy and I were on this trip) showed off their happy faces.
We spied grouse blinds,
and crow catchers (structure just left of center) used to capture crows that harass lambs.
And we paused by a large boulder topped by another, though of smaller scale. Bob shared with us the legend of the trail, which goes something like this: At one time, two giants, a husband and wife, lived in the area. Colly Camb, the husband, was supposedly the last descendant of the giant Fingal, who was renowned for building Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway (we’d walked along the Giant’s Causeway almost a year ago when we visited Ireland). According to this legend, Colly lived in a cave on Mount Blair, which towered behind our castle and we could see across the way. Colly had a habit of throwing stones from the top and so the locals feared him greatly. One day, in a rage, he threw a massive boulder intending to demolish a homestead. Thankfully, he missed, but the boulder still stands where it landed in the glen.
For us it became lunch rock.
Our journey was almost done as we circled around and came upon a boathouse by the small loch. As is typical in Scotland, we had sun and rain and a few drops fell before our tramp was completed, but that was OK for we were prepared and the colors around us enhanced.
Another day was spent with Charles, our sports director. Under his supervision, we learned the fine arts of axe throwing, archery, crossbows, and air rifles.
With apparent ease and masterful form, Charles sent an axe flying toward the target.
And met instant success.
After demonstrating all, it was our turn to give each activity a whirl.
M’lady Anne practiced her crossbow prowess,
while Laird John and my guy took up the air rifles.
Charles coached us for a couple of hours and then it was time for a competition between the men and the women.
As we practiced, I discovered I could occasionally hit the axe target, as well as the crossbow and air rifle targets. The bow and arrow were definitely not my thing. When it was my turn to throw, however, and I went first, I missed each time, not exactly getting our team off to a good start. The women lost, but we all had a lot of fun and talked of creating our own axe targets. I know where I can find all the materials needed.
On the day my guy and I intended to bag a couple of Munros, it poured as we passed through Cairnwell Pass.
Our intention had been to begin from the Glenshee Ski Area, but much to our disappointment, it wasn’t going to happen. Instead, we drove on.
At Balmoral, we stopped into a small gift shop, where a delightful tour guide and shop keeper told us that Queen Elizabeth was in residence so we couldn’t visit the castle, but we could walk up the hill to the local parish. And so we did.
Craithie Kirk is the Queen’s place of worship when she and the rest of the Royal Family are on holiday nearby. We learned from another guide that the family sits in pews in the south transept, which they enter from a private doorway. Apparently, the count of parishioners increases dramatically from the regular twenty or so when Queen Elizabeth is in town.
Queen Victoria had worshipped at the former kirk that stood on this site and laid the corner stone for the current building in 1893.
In the west gable, the rose window added a dash of color and life to the dark interior.
Our adventures about the region included a shopping trip and lunch in Pitlochry, where of course, my guy needed to visit The Hardware Centre.
He also found one in Blairgowrie, where his comrades joined him for an exploration of goods.
It was in Blairgowrie that the ladies of the castle discovered the works of master weaver and craftsman, Ashleigh Slater and his Warpweftweave Studio. He’s famous for his Blairgowrie Berries and Cherries tartan that honors the fruits grown locally.
What they were really interested in, however, was his latest work–created in honor of the Cateran Trail. While they placed orders, I chatted with Slater’s mother and learned a wee bit about the town of Blairgowrie. We talked about the fruits grown there and subsequent festival, weather of the region, tourism, or lack thereof, mills of yore that once dotted the town and Ashleigh’s work.
Several times as we were out and about we passed by iconic red telephone booths repurposed as libraries.
A few of us needed to . . .
take a closer look, where . . .
we were impressed with the variety of offerings.
When not shopping or participating in an event, we walked. A lot. And saw so much more, including wood ferns,
and maidenhead ferns.
Everywhere, the rosebay willow herb grew like weeds. I so love the common Scottish name for it over the American name of fireweed.
And besides carpets of heather, thistle also grew abundantly,
showing variation in color,
from smooth to . . .
Some was still being pollinated,
while others had already set seed.
Much to my surprise, on a few occasions I spotted digitalis,
and one morning found a single plant of Jacob’s ladder.
Lichens were also in full view everywhere we looked–I could have spent the entire week examining the crustose, foliose and fruticose forms.
And then there were other forms of life to admire, from thick black slugs to . . .
and more rams,
and everyone’s favorite, the hairy coo.
Because we were at the castle located across the street from Forter Farm, we got to see some action, including sheep being returned to pasture,
and cattle driven past our gate.
But . . . all great things must come to an end, and Friday afternoon found us driving south to the Queensferry Crossing, a just opened cable-stayed bridge across the Firth of Forth. Just after we’d headed north on Monday by crossing the Forth Road Bridge, Queen Elizabeth II had officially opened the new one fifty-three years to the day after she opened the adjacent former. Wow. Since we’d crossed both it felt like we’d come full circle on our Highland adventure. At the airport, my guy and I hugged goodbye to our lady and laird of Forter Castle, as well as our son, his girlfriend, and her family and their friends. They were returning their vehicle and heading into Edinburgh for the weekend. We drove back to Queensferry for our last evening.
And fell in love with one more town in Scotland, where we could view the two road bridges to the left and rail bridge I once crossed many moons ago to the right.
We were thrilled to discover this quaint village by the river,
and enjoyed exploring its main street . . .
where the Scottish lions flew.
In hopes of finding a drink and something to eat, we stepped into The Ferry Tap, a pub where locals gather. Of course, we were too late for any vittles, so tied ourselves over with a bag of crisps each.
But . . . we made some new friends for as we’ve always noticed, the Scots are among the friendliest. While one Sandra took our photo through laughter, Segna, Sandra (II), and Malcolm posed with us. We chatted for a couple of hours before climbing the hill to our last bed in Scotland.
From the Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond to the Scottish Highlands, we’d enjoyed a delightful nine days and only wish it could have lasted longer.
Until we meet again, mòran taing.