Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Wee Camping Trip In The Highlands: Part 15 - The Rarest Thing In Scotland

We were on the road by 11 am at the least and it wasn’t long before we had driven for a mile and then stopped. Yes, this was a trip with a lot of stops. It was another great cemetery, This one for the McCrae Clan of Dunvegan. These cemeteries are the most peaceful of places and beautiful locations for photos. They seem to be in high places like at the top of a hill, overlooking a large lake or valley. We spent over an hour there marveling over the size of the stones and the engravings. These visits had changed my mind about cemeteries in general, as I began to see that most of the stones were put there to celebrate the life of the person that had gone before, more than saying “here’s lies the body of somebody important”. Many of the stones even mentioned that the marker was not in the same place as the remains. However, we were frequently reminded by the locals that only the very rich got this sort of treatment. One of the things mentioned by the English who considered the Scots barbarians when they first encountered the Scottish culture, was their ritual of using a coffin with a hinged bottom,  just dumping the body into the ground at a funeral, so they could reuse the coffin for someone else.

The tour of Dunvegan castle was quite different. This castle had been continuously lived in for 800 years! This one had been remodeled several times and still was used as a summer home by the owner, in addition to being a local attraction. The exterior looked just like you would expect from a castle sitting on the edge of a lake, not as large as you would think. The inside seemed more like what you see in the show Downton Abbey. They had tour guides stationed inside and they told you all about the furniture, and the memorabilia. There were huge paintings everywhere, individual portraits of family members over the years, and my first thought, some artist made a lifetime job of painting their portraits. One of our tour guides was this tiny old lady that told us about how the whole house was run by a single maid that had been there since she was 16 years old. She was now 76 and still nobody could keep up with her. She regaled us with stories about how young people just don't have the work ethic people used to have. Then she went on to tell us it was known that the maid lived on sugar, caffeine and IRN BRU. IRN BRU is a local beverage that apparently is quite potent. It was supposed to be the equivalent of Red Bull and Pam made sure to put that on her list of things to find in Scotland...they even sold IRN BRU ice cream. Who knew the highly-caffeinated lives downstairs at the castle?

Then it was off, heading down the road to our next spot, not knowing exactly where it was. We were heading off of the Isle Of Skye and up to Lock Ness, if we made it. There was just so much beautiful scenery that we kept stopping for photos. The driving was easier as everyone had gone home from Spring Break. We stopped for a cup of coffee and a light lunch at a small tea room in the middle of nowhere. I felt that if we had gone there the day before, we would have been waiting in line at the door. This day it was mostly empty. When the food came was as if it was prepared by a chef in a fancy restaurant, and the place only had about 6 tables. Pam had sweet potato pea soup with a design of a spiderweb drizzled on top and I had the world’s fanciest salad with all kinds of cheeses. We loved it. Something to note about cultural differences in Scotland. You don't tip, or if you do, nobody could tell me how it was done. It wasn't anywhere on the bill, and I got blank looks whenever I inquired about it. We only had credit cards, so it wasn't a question of slipping a bill under the plate. The story is that companies collect a tax that is to be given to the employees as part of their wages...not everyone likes that idea, but the net effect on me was that it seemed not quite as expensive to eat out. There was also the matter of the check. You really had to ask for it. Nothing like back home, where it's "Here's your food!, Here's the check! See you next time!" On many occasions before I figured this out, I would walk to the bar and ask for my check like I was on a tab in a tavern....later I came to understand that this was how they knew I was American...

We drove on peacefully, until it started getting later in the day and I made a couple of wrong turns and suddenly it was dinner time and we were in the woods, nowhere near a town, no cellphone service and I wasn’t really sure where the campground was. We came to a small turn in the road and saw a hotel with a restaurant on the corner and stopped. This was a really old, small place that probably had 6 rooms in it. It really looked like someone's old two story house more than it looked like a hotel. The dining area could seat maybe 20 people, but once again, the food was great and the prices were something like 15 pounds a person. Pam had an exquisite whiskey-glazed salmon with sliced fresh vegetables (a rarity there) and I had fish and chips (again). While there, we looked outside and saw this beautiful bird walking around on the ground and inquired about it. The waitress shook her head and replied that it was a pheasant as if everyone in the world should know that bird. I ran outside, trying to get a photograph of this fantastic bird as the locals shook their heads. I had the good camera out and had already snapped 50 photographs trying to get a decent shot of this elusive fowl, chasing him from park bench to bush, until he flew off. I looked back in the window and saw that "yup, he's American"  and  soon saw why, as the birds seemed to be everywhere, just sauntering across the road and sitting on fenceposts. As we drove off towards the campground, I saw the males and females preening on just about any platform that rose 3 feet from the ground.  It must not have been hunting season.

The real adventure of the day was finding the campground, or should I say the attempt to find the campground. Google was not my friend that day. It took us through a tiny village and then onto a single lane road wandering through hilly pastures. Google was saying that it was 12 miles and that would take 90 minutes. We laughed until we had driven 6 miles down some of the scariest road I can remember. This was driving about 15 mph running down the center of a two lane road with potholes and drop-offs on both sides and what the Scots call “Blind Summits” which are places where you can’t see the racing sports car or truck driver that’s late for his pint at the local pub coming at you until it’s too late. My knuckles were white and Pam was unusually quiet, having gone from yelling to praying. 

Finally it was too dark to keep driving down that road that seemed to have no end and I saw a pull off that was good enough for me. “If the gypsies want us tonight, they are gonna have to drive a long way to do it!” I said.

I slept, not the great sleep I had on previous nights, but when I woke in the morning, I did get up to see a great brown hawk, working a field next to us and pausing occasionally to survey the pasture from a tall tree. It was also an opportunity to capture the rarest thing of all in Scotland, a sunrise. This was the first time on the trip that I had awoken to something besides drizzly rain, and it put me in a great mood straight off.

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