On the Road – 2 – The M50

 

IMG_1787

The M50 near Sandyford (acrylic on canvas)

The M50 loops around Dublin city’s western perimeter. Technically, it starts at the River Liffey, heading north as the Port Tunnel before doubling back along the western arc near the Airport, crossing the Liffey at Chapelizod and finally merging with the southern bound N11 at the Dargle River, near Bray. This is EuroRoute 1, heading to Wexford and thence the Continent, bound for Gibraltar.

The construction of the motorway began thirty years ago. The first section, the Western Parkway joined Blanchardstown and Tallaght, crossing the Liffey at the West-Link bridge. The West-Link floats above the Strawberry Beds, a stretch of deep river valley between Chapelizod and Lucan. The area is famed in song and story.

Where the Strawberry Beds sweep down to the Liffey,

You’ll kiss away the worries from my brow.

This well known refrain is from the song The Ferryman, written by Pete St. John. It has been covered by the Dubliners and the Dublin City Ramblers. The Strawberry Beds itself sustains the folk and ballad tradition with pubs such as The Anglers’ Rest, The Wren’s Nest and Strawberry Hall.

Strawb 2

Angler’s Rest

The area was a popular spot for Dublin daytrippers and courting couples. A century or more ago it was sufficiently remote and romantic to be a popular honeymoon destination. James Joyce is associated with it, of course. From Chapppelizod he liked to contemplate the Liffey. Finnegans Wake focusses on the rivers gathering flow hereabouts, its principal characters living in the Mullingar House. Plain structure that it is, it has been a long-time sentinel above the river, founded as a coach house back in 1694.

Chapelizod 1

The Mullingar House

Sheridan Le Fanu lived here, merging the parkland and built environment with the gothic of his ghostly tails. The House by the Churchyard where he lived, his father was a vicar, still remains. It provides the title and central focus of one of his most celebrated novels. 

By the eighteenth century there were suggestions of suburbia here on the fringe of Dublin. Heading westward along the Liffey’s banks, they are still only suggestions.The area is a rare slice of unspoilt rural scenery close to Dublin. The Phoenix Park is to the North. Beyond the south bank the twentieth century suburban sprawl of Ballyfermot and Palmerstown is hidden in the folds and forests of topography.

W-link

The West Link bridge

There are a number of boatclubs along the way, taking advantage of the ninterrupted stretch of river. The area is not much commercialised, emphasising the impression that time has passed it by. The contemporary world does provide an exclamation mark with the intrusion of the West-Link bridge. Soaring above the quiet valley, far enough above to be of little disturbance, no more than a distant aircraft. Originally a slim, single span on completion in 1990, such was the volume of traffic that a second span was added in 2003.

weir

The weir at Lucan

Beyond the bridge, the valley snakes towards Lucan. This far west, we’re nearly in Kildare. Though Lucan may be regarded as a Dublin suburb, it is sufficiently old and remote to be viewed as a town in its own right. Some old industrial sites emerge from the parkland before the river vista expands at the bridge. A huge weir provides the spectacle upriver, and there is a small park giving better access to the river. Much of the town’s structure dates to the early nineteenth century. It was once a spa town and despite the heavy human and vehicular traffic, the population is around thirty thousand, it retains a certain olde world charm replete with village green and thatched pub.

Looping back to the M50, the Dublin Mountains edge closer. The Red Cow junction was once called the Mad Cow such was the traffic chaos. Brian Boru, High King and attempted nemesis of the Danes parked nearby in his eleventh century campaigns agains Leinster and Dublin. The arc of the M50 still provides a notional border between the realms of Dublin and Ancient Hibernia. Of course, urban sprawl crosses the divide. Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght all lie to the west.

The Southern Cross section reached Dundrum in 2002, while the final South Eastern section linked up with Bray three years later. The whole shebang was upgraded to six lanes in 2010, as it was in danger of becoming a linear carpark. You’ll still encounter jams at morning and evening rush hour but for the most part journey times have been slashed and the route is visually attractive, especially towards the south.

M50 Bray

the M11 near Bray

Crossing the Dargle River it merges with the M11 and enters County Wicklow. The Dargle is referred to in another well-known balled, The Waxies‘ Dargle. This alludes to Bray’s position as a resort for the well-to-do in Victorian days. The railway from the 1850s provided access for the quality to Bray’s renowned sea and riverside amenities. Meanwhile, the Waxies‘ Dargle was the poorman’s equivalent. The waxies were cobblers, and these and other tradesmen could hardly aspire to such exotic locale as Bray. A jaunting car or charabanc to Irishtown, where a fairgreen faced the bay, was as much as they could hope for.

Says my aul wan to your aul wan,

will you come to the wakies dargle.

Says your aul wan to my aul wan,

sure I haven’t got a farthing.

These days, the M50 will take you around the western periphery by private car. You can trace the eastern edge of the city, along Dublin Bay by DART. You can stop for refreshments, for ceol and craic, wherever you desire.   

Advertisements

On the Road – The Curragh

IMG_1789

The N7 near Naas. Acrylic on canvas

The film Being There carried the tag line: Getting there is half the fun, being there is all of it. In terms of holiday travel, most would agree with that, up to a point. Being there is all of it, getting there is a drag. A friend of mine is loathe to prolong his holiday enjoyment beyond the wake up call on the last day. Like many, he would sooner beam to and from his holidays in the manner of Star Trek’s transporter. Beam me up, Scotty! It all depends on the nature of the holiday. I enjoy driving for leisure and many holidays I’ve taken, to America, Canada, Britain and Europe have been as much about the road as the destinations it connects. The road is constantly fascinating, forever changing, a thread connected to all destinations and to home. In a manner of speaking. Planes and boats and trains all have their own unique charm, each contributing to the adventure you started with the wake up call on day one.

The winter it has passed

and the summer’s come at last,

the small birds are singing in the trees.

I’ve been in travel limbo since mid Autumn but am currently making plans. In the meantime there are places to visit nearer home. Wicklow and Dublin offer delights of city, mountain and sea. I can step out the front door and put my foot on the road. A pen, a notebook and a camera are good companions. When I return I can write about it, paint it or picture it in the mind’s eye. Being home is part of it too.

IMG_1796

Leaving the Curragh Camp

Over the last few months, my most significant excursions have been to Kildare, by way of the M50 and the Naas Road. Kildare borders Dublin and Wicklow but resembles neither. Flat and landlocked, it is the marchland of the Pale. Most of our youthful motoring excursions passed along the Naas Road. This was Ireland’s first dual carriageway, the key connector between the Capital and Limerick, traversing the southern midlands. It originates at the junction of the Grand Canal and Tyrconnel Road in Inchicore, southwest Dublin. As the N7 it travels via Newlands Cross past the western border of Dublin to Naas in County Kildare. Although a dual carriageway since the sixties, and becoming a six-lane highway at the turn of the century, it only acquires motorway status passing Naas. The stretch of road to Newbridge was Irelands first motorway in the early eighties. It was around then that bypasses were built along the main national routes. Before that, motor travel was something of a chore, short bursts of highways alternating with long queues through middling Midland towns and villages. The development of motorways was mutually beneficial, most towns have blossomed in being taken off the main highway. Most towns now are twice the size they were thirty and more years ago.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear.

The Curragh, in the centre of Kildare, is a unique landscape. A huge expanse, five thousand acres, of common land. Unfenced, it harks back to an ancient uncultivated landscape. On the other hand, its herd of sheep keeps the grassland beautifully manicured. Kildare is thus known as the Short Grass County. The Curragh’s location just beyond the Pale made it an ideal point of muster for Gaelic chieftains in opposition to the invading Anglo-Normans. This was the fulchrum between the new world and the old. There remains the sensation of passing from the urbane world to a wilder, untamed one.

IMG_1798

Looking south over the Curragh

After 1798, when the United Irishmen’s Rebellion ran aground, the British began to use the Curragh as a fortification against further uprising. By 1880, the Curragh Camp was taking its permanent form. A collection of redbrick barracks buildings commanding the eastern portion of the Central Plain and the approaches to Dublin. Following the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1914, the officer corps at the Curragh defied Parliament and refused to move against armed Unionist belligerents in Ulster. Although this contributed to British annexation of part of Ulster, Ireland strove for full independence. When Irish Independence was achieved in 1921, the Camp was taken over by the Irish army and became their principal training base.

A livery I’ll wear

and I’ll comb back my hair,

and in velvet so green i will appear.

The song, the Curragh of Kildare was popularised by the Johnstons and later Christy Moore. The original verse is attributed to Robbie Burns. Subsequent additions established the Curragh as its location. As a female voice it is said to concern a young woman searching for her lover who has enlisted in the Crown forces at the Curragh Camp. The male vocal would seem to imply a connection with the nearby racecourse, long the centre for the Irish racing Classics. Either way, it is a song of yearning for person and place. This evocative place can be experienced in passing or by walking its unfenced and undelineated expanse.

IMG_1788

The Curragh Camp. Acrylic on canvas.

Passing through the Camp recently, a flock of sheep crowded around a stand of pines. Looking slightly left, this bucolic tableau was replaced by the urban environment of the barracks buildings and squares. The giant fire station tower dominates the scattered buildings spread across woodland and heath. The area is prone to fog, adding another surreal layer, as veils conceal and reveal a shifting and often illogical landscape.

And straight I will repair

to the curragh of Kildare,

for it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear

Visions of Scotland 5 – Stirling

img_1358

Looking north from the Castle battlements

Heading down south to Stirling, we fall slowly out of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a shift in time and space, in terms of both physical and spiritual reorientation. On each journey there is the first step of the journey home. This is it. Thus, we find the most appropriate point of departure at the portal offered by Cava Cairns. This Bronze Age burial complex is a few miles east of the city. Perched above the river Nairn, the site nestles in a homely pastoral landscape. Timeless, in its own sweet way, but hosting the weird construct of ancient days.

cava-1

The portal is here, somewhere.

It was here that Clare (Catriona Balfe) passed back in time from postwar Britain to revolutionary Jacobite Scotland in Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander. The stones will take you a lot further back than that. Four thousand years at least. It looks quite different from the telly, mind. Claire isn’t there in her nightdress, which is a pity, if not a surprise. The absence of any televisual drama is more than compensated by the presence of … What, I can’t be sure. But Presence it is. Stark, beautiful and quite moving.

  Nearby is the field of Culloden, where Stuart hopes were dashed in a final, fatal confrontation with the Hanoverians in 1746. At least, that’s how it stands in this universe.

   There are other worlds to inhabit. Ringed by mad mountains, stalked by sentient woodland, permeated by a migrating fog of fantastical beings. Southbound again, the road rises intermittently yet falls consistently towards the centre.

The Cairngorms dream under a blanket of clouds away to the east. The road snakes its way to Blair Atholl. The House of Bruar offers a break for coffee and shopping. Here we bag our proud deer trophy. Flatback wood if you must know, but handsome nonetheless. A short hike will take you to a renowned beauty spot of Blair Falls. Macbeth’s vision of doom, Birnam Wood is further on. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, is it?

img_1321

Stirling from the schoolhouse window

Stirling straddles that notional focus of Highland and Lowland Scotland. Near the mouth of the River Forth, it enjoys a commanding location in matters of war and trade. The approaches are suitably epic. The William Wallace Monument is a gothic tower on a volcanic crag east of the town. It is located overlooking the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where Wallace helped kickstart the cause of Scottish nationalism. More breathtaking still, Stirling Castle crowns a granite crag rising precipitously from flat marshland. The city of Stirling, with a population of nearly fifty thousand, flows down from this spectacle.

The higher part of the town is medieval and known as, logically enough, the Top o’ the Town. Here the streets are cobbled, steep and sinuous, houses piled one on the other to the giddy environs of the Castle. We put into the Stirling Highland Hotel, a converted schoolhouse of the Victorian era. There’s an astronomical observatory on the roof, so there must have been something of a Hogwarts thing going on back in the day.

Drop down to the bustling town centre for refreshment before our assault on the Castle. We have Panini on the sidewalk near where yobos loudly play. The large shopping centre takes an unsympathetic lump out of town. Still, pleasant environs heading back up the hill with pink gable front houses in that atmospheric Scots Gothic style.

img_1329

Stirling Castle

Haul ourselves onward to the Castle. Just outside is the Church of the Holy Rude, site of Christenings and coronations. Founded in the twelfth century, the present structure dates from the fifteenth. Wander through the tombs and trees, floating through time and above vast panorama of central Scotland. Talking of ancient things, for the first time I find myself characterised as such. Over sixties get discount on entry here. Hey, I’ll do it! We take the guided tour which is a good way of putting structure on the castle complex, and to assimilate the wealth of history and personality encompassed there.

img_1339

Castle tour guide

The fortress dates back to the days of Alexander I, Scotland’s royal founder in the early twelfth century. Its oldest buildings date from the fourteenth century. It was destined to develop way beyond the parameters of the typical Norman fortress. James IV (1473 – 1513) determined to establish Scotland on a par with Europe’s leading kingdoms. Stirling Castle became the leading showhouse for the project. Influenced by German and French design, the castle was reimagined as a Renaissance palace. James enlisted artists and scientists for the prestige of his court. Alchemists toiled to unlock the secrets of the fifth element. The challenge of flight was addressed, unsuccessfully. An Italian alchemist, John Damian, threw himself from the ramparts, clad only in feathers and bare hubris. Plummeting, not unexpectedly, to the ground, his life, if not his blushes, was saved by a convenient copse of trees. Unabashed, he assured the king that failure was a result of using chicken feathers, not the best choice, being a flightless fowl. Quite.

img_1353

Mary Queen of Scots, herself.

In our wanderings we meet Mary Queen of Scots, who springs to life from a painted, stilted half-myth to something close to the spirited woman she was. We gaze at rich unicorn tapestries, mingle with kitchen waxworks, whisper assignations by the postern door.

Out on the battlements, alone in a turret, this is the eyrie of the world, atop its dizzy cliff, ringed by rank marshes, a further distant circle of blue peaks ringing the horizon. It’s the real gothic fantasy. You can stand sentinel on the parapet of Dredgemarsh, imagine all the Games of Thrones that haunt the stones here. It is the best castle ever.

img_1393Time to close our evening in more mundane pursuits. Stirling is lively at night, without much by way of airs and graces, but plenty of good places to eat and drink. All you can eat at Chung’s Chinese is enough by way of temptation – the one thing I can’t resist. Return to the Hotel for a quiet beer in the bar. High windows here as in room. Schoolhouse rules apply. The ambience is pleasant and in solitude we can savour all we’ve experienced on this Scottish tour. It seems like and age, and a wee spark of time. The last day dawns damp and grey. We finish as we started on our first in Glasgow, in Wetherspoons for the best Scottish breakfast in, well, in Scotland.

img_stirling-sta

Stirling Station

Vienna

v4

Stephens Dom

Vienna can seem like being lost in heaven. So much perfection, art and architecture at its most opulent and grand. There are times though, when you need an angel. I’m prone to cutting corners, just that bit off kilter. On such occasions the city orbits with bewildering intensity, an electron cloud of people, trams and buildings without horizon. I should have come for longer. I should have brought an angel.

I arrive in a heatwave in September. I am carrying Boris (my leather jacket) because my apartment is not secure and Boris holds my passport and camera, my pens and stuff. And besides, I’m weird like that. It insults cities such as Vienna to swan around in shorts and vests. Find a beach! One must look one’s best.

Vienna hugs a bend in the Danube river. The mighty Danube, famously un-blue, is generated by a leak from a faulty faucet in Bavaria, before meandering through mountains and past cartoon palaces to become the highway of central Europe. The river does not actually flow through the centre of the city. A slender offshoot, the Danube Canal, outlines the northern arc of the city centre. Historically, Europe’s super-highway, you can float downstream to Bratislava, Budapest and the ocean.

v3

The Opera House on the Ringstrasse

Vienna finds itself at the focus of Europe. Its old city walls converted into the Ringstrasse, a grandiose avenue that delineates the city centre south of the Danube Canal. Freud’s morning constitutional was taken along the throbbing thoroughfare. Grand public buildings and palatial houses line its extent. As the Main Street of empire the imperial buildings are emphasised , arrayed in formal parkland on the south-western radial.

Amongst the many jewels in this crown is the Kunsthistorische museum. The spectacular entrance staircase leads the eyes up to The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, a Belle Epoque imagining by Hungarian artist Munkacsy. The spheres of art history and the heavenly realm merge in a celestial depiction of the glories of the Renaissance. Gustav Klimt peeps mischievously out, supplying Egyptian and Greek goddesses for support.

   

img_1437

Breughel’s Hunters 

I cool my heels in front of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow. We had a small copy of this painting in my childhood home. It is astonishing how an almost trivial ornament can evoke such a profound attachment with the real thing. Herself was overcome by Monet’s Impression Sunrise in the Thyssen Bornemisza (Madrid), as if the gallery knew she was coming and prepared a special gift. I knew Breughel’s masterpiece would be here, and more besides, but was not prepared for the shock of seeing it. I sat a long time before the real thing. I was in the landscape whereas, as a boy, I had only a postcard of it. The static, permanent power of the composition enthralls. It is a story of human endeavour and disappointment; keep on keeping on is its constant thread. With its bold line and vivid contrasts the painting looks modern. Perhaps timeless is the word.

There’s so much more. Vienna was the centre of Europe’s cultural web. Dutch masters with their fragile hues and robust folk, Italians with burning colour and burnished souls. Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Velazquez line the corridors and rooms, all hawking their wares for our attention. Such wonders under one roof. I could stay forever and feel as if I was never indoors.

Leaving the giddy globe for the pale imitation of life without, there are still more options to consider. The Museum Quarter is nearby, and all the pleasures it implies. Still, why wallow in excess? A feast is enough for know and I seek shelter from the heat in a sidewalk bar. I am sweating again. I occupy a high table and wrap myself slowly around a tall glass. Enough art for a day, I tell myself. I need to assimilate it all.

img_1460

Schmetterling Haus

Offbeat, and off kilter, I head back across the Ringstrasse. Passing through the Burggarten  I am taken by the elegance of the glasshouse and the words of a friend brush my cheek. Of all the must-dos of Vienna this was the most idiosyncratic. Visit the Schmetterling Haus, stand in the shimmering heat of a greenhouse and let giant insects land on you. It is weird that this oasis, out of the sun, is actually hotter. Yet, I had hardly taken two steps in than I was filled with elation. The glass confines form a bubble in infinity, illuminating one manifestation of flora and fauna at this intersection in space time. Butterflies in their team colours flutter unconcerned past us brief escapees from the physical dimension. Oh, if you want a touch of heaven, visit the butterfly house, angels supplied.    

From my base at the Kunsthaus, it’s a pleasant walk of urban variety by way of Unterviaductgasse, or Oberviaductgasse even, through my local square, Radetzkyplatz, and on to Wien Mitte, with its thronged shopping centre, its convenience bars and cafes, the tabac shop with its spectacularly rude service. Across the Wien River lies the actual city centre, the Inner Stadt, the old city within the Ringstrasse. This is the place for aimless meandering through medievel streets, being pleasantly lost in a strange place. The spire of Stephens Dom is at its centre. Exuberantly gothic, the church bears the marks of centuries of adjustment. Age radiates from it, modernity encroaches. There isn’t really a good point to sit and take it in. The square is cramped and crammed, the few outdoor bars crummy.  You can go up the spire to see all of Vienna, and maybe heaven too. I’m only going to see so much in three days on the ground.

  

v1

Stadpark, along the Wien River

Along the linear Stadtpark, I set out on a quiet morning all the way to the Belvedere. Clipped and coiffured gardens slope upwards in the shimmering heat, the Upper Belvedere a toy palace in the distance. The main attraction is Klimt’s golden girls, seductive capsules of beauty and love. The Kiss grows more iconic by the day. It is the canvas where we want to be, loving and loved, flushed in the afterglow of it all, naked and golden. In a way that is both sensible and comic, the museum, while prohibiting photographs, has provided a selfie station where tourists can immortalise themselves before a life-size print. Better, I think, to put yourself within the painting.

   

vbel1

Vienna from the Upper Belvedere

I am much taken too with David’s depiction of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. A vivid flash of a personal force of history if ever there was. Less impressive is the baleful manifestation of the curse of the curator. If you must push inept contemporary work, best keep it amongst its own. The view from the chapel balcony at the end of my visit would have been better left unseen. This crucifixion is a dismal work. It compares unfavourably with Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove which exhalted the spirit. Whereas this does not.

  

v2

and now for a pint

Beyond the gardens, Vienna beckons, a burnished mirage of domes and spires. The journey downhill is less arduous, though shade still eludes me. The clipped flora is so weird I feel I have been spirited, Alice like, to some imaginary world. Perhaps I am hallucinating in the heat, the surplus of art in my blood. Trams pass on the street where afternoon shade begins to creep from the buildings. There is a gap I noticed earlier. Time for a welcome beer in a shaded courtyard. Dappled shadows dance beneath the trees, brown timbered seating awaits, metal fittings of the bar glow and beckon. A traditionally clad dame welcomes me. Blond and tanned, clad in green, she smiles and takes my order. The feeling of fantasy persists. But then, where else would you find an angel, but in heaven?

Visions of Scotland 4 – Inverness

img_1261

East out of Kyle we retrace the road to Invergarry where we pick up the rift valley route. As in Ireland, the east of the country is more gently scenic than the wild west. This is the Highlands still, though. Inverness, our destination, is the capital of the region.  Along the shores of Lough Ness, we are unmolested by the mythical beastie. In truth, there is no chance of dinosaurs surviving anywhere, let alone a busy narrow waterway. They were here once, as Dughal Ros told us yesterday, but only their fossils remain. Still, it’s good to have fantasy.

  Inverness has grown to city status with a population of fifty thousand. It’s centered on a low rise above the eastern bank of the Ness river where it flows into the Moray Firth, heading towards the North Sea. We stay at Carrig Eden on the western approach. The area is attractive, typically Caledonian in characteristic honey coloured stone with gable fronts. Our genial hosts, Caroline and Donald, have polished their home to a welcoming jewel. We are warned of two things. One, Daniel O’Donnell is playing that night in the Eden Court theatre nearby. Two, there is a bagpipes festival in town. Looks like it’s the bagpipes so.

img_1267   The Eden Court is a modern complex by the banks of the river. From the banks we catch our first glimpse of the city. Inverness Castle is the dominant feature. Built in red sandstone it tops a steep escarpment rising from the Ness. It is not, strictly speaking, a castle. The present structure dates from 1836. It  functions as a courthouse. The first castle to stand on the site was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in 1307. The next castle stood here until sacked by the Jacobites in the rebellion of 1746. A statue of Flora MacDonald stands at the entrance park, shielding her eyes to gaze meaningfully westward. Having aided the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and doing time for it, she headed out west herself, living in America before returning to die on the isle of Skye.

  Both sides of the river are pleasant. We pass the nineteenth century gothic Cathedral on the west bank before stopping for coffee in an Italian place with outdoor seating. We are entertained by a young woman making a major production number tying up her bike. Man, you must have to mind your bike real careful in these parts.

 shane3

The strains of the pipes beckon us east across the bridge. Before that, we take a look at the House of Fraser. I reckon I’ll need to kit up, the whole nine yards, on the off-chance of running into Claire from Outlander (as portrayed by Caitriona Balfe) somewhere about town. A convincing impersonation of Jamie is quickly conjured. You can go for a variety of rental of traditional outfits here. Full dress for that formal night, half-dress for the more casual, a dashing Jacobite attire for the full blooded Scot.

  High Street slopes uphill from the bridge. It’s busy and sporadically loud with the great yarp of the bagpipes. Something stirring about them, to be sure, if not quite the first music for the car stereo. Here, in this special place, I’d opt for the Waterboys. The attractive main street jolts to an unlovely close at the harshly modern Eastgate Centre. Still, probably better to have it in town rather than dragging people out to the periphery.

img_1277 

After extensive shopping, time for a quick snack. Hoping to sidestep the inertia that can pass for service in the Highlands, we opt for McDonald’s – an ominously local name now that I think of it. Inverness McDonald’s is the worst McDonald’s ever. The till is abandoned just as we reach the head of the queue. After a couple of minutes we call the attendant from the next till. He says he’ll get the manager, who is standing conveniently nearby with other staff leaning on the furniture, chatting. She informs us, cheerfully enough, that the attendant will return soon, and rejoins her discussion group. A few more minutes and we give up.

  img_1298

We attempt a trip down memory lane to find the lost hostel of our youth. Still lost to us, sadly. Having followed the signs through winding residential roads we eventually lose the trail. But it’s a pleasant walk in glorious sunshine. We’ve booked dinner at the Castle Inn and, hungry and thirsty, head for it early. Nicely situated, clinging to the cliff overlooking the river, the Castle visible to the north. Rustically traditional, the place is crammed, as any good place should be. We take our drinking and dining pleasures al fresco. Good food, service and company, perfectly passing the sunny afternoon into early evening.

img_1287 

Afterwards, we potter around the Castle grounds. The place itself is not open to visitors but there are plans to remedy that. We follow Flora’s gaze up towards Loch Ness, back to the wild, wild west. We head down to the nearby bank as evening falls. This is a pedestrianised river walk leading to a footbridge that will take us back to Eden Court. There’s plenty of time to stop for drinks on the lawns of the Waterside Rest, busy now as the city nightlfe clicks into gear. The sky seeps slowly to velvet blue as the first stars peep out. A stillness settles in the air. We could sit here forever, relaxing by the riverside in the chill of the endless Highland evening.img_1307

Visions of Scotland 3 – Skye

Skye 1

Kyle’s main purpose is its link with the Isle of Skye. The mainland railhead here connected by ferry with the island. This was superseded by the creation of the Skye bridge, an impressive arch just north of the town. Early morning we’re across, ready to spend the day in exploration.

Skye 2

It’s a large island and we’ve picked the northern portion, including the main town of Portree. Crossing the bridge is itself akin to flying, but without the anticlimax of landing. In Skye the heart soars with each vista, heaven reflected in its lakes and mountains, God’s breath in its firmament. From Kyleakin on, the scenery never dips, each corner anticipated to trump what’s gone before.

Portree

Portree

Portree is pleasant to potter around. Coming in from the empty hinterland, there’s plenty of life and commerce. The high town has a square and a couple of lively streets. There is, inevitably, a Bank Street. Plenty of shops, too, and a few decent pubs. There’s a drop down to a colourful dockside. The town curves around the bay, the housing arrayed attractively in terraces above. I’d reckon this is a good haven for sketching, although we don’t have time to indulge.

It’s a sunny day and we stop for attempted refreshments in the square where a coffee shop, or so it says, has outside seating. Sadly, we must endure another bout of Scottish service. Try to place the order inside and are told we’ll be attended on. But as regards waiting, we’re the ones doing it. Repeat process and finally give up. What is that all about? I bring money which presumably pays the wages of employees. Yet too often in Scotland there’s little interest in this transaction. Shades of Yugoslavia. Though at least the Scots are pleasant.

Old Man of Storr

Old Man of Storr

We head up the coast to the Old Man of Storr. This is a startling formation, not unlike a raised and weathered Giant’s Causeway. The geological formation is similar, being made of basalt, resulting from the rapid cooling of ancient submarine lava. There’s a well worn path snaking upwards. The destination is a bit further than we’d bargained so thirty minutes in we get to a good vantage point about halfway up and enjoy the view. Much debate on the exact configuration of the Old Man himself, but while we differ on details, I figure it’s pretty convincing.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

There was a time when Dinosaurs strode the land about here. Staffin is Scotland’s Jurassic park. The name is Viking for Land of the Pillars, as evident in the alternatively descriptive Kilt Cliff. Where Mealt waterfall plunges over nearby cliffs into the sea there’s a graphic giving more details concerning the terrible lizards. Talking to a fellow traveller, we’re directed to a crofter’s cottage which local scientist, Dughall Ros has turned into a museum. You can buy ancient artifacts, large and small here. Dughall was bitten by the dino bug when just a kid and devotes his career to mining the benefits of the area. Even more precious, he’s willing and able to pass on his knowledge to the interested traveller. Time well spent talking to him, purchasing some interesting goods while we’re at it.

Further on, there’s a slightly more successful coffee stop. Strangely though, the proprietor greets us with “we’re closing in half an hour.” It’s only three o’clock! Oh well, who wants to eat anyway? Perhaps the hitchers who depart hungry and perplexed. We do manage to wolf down a tasty slice of cake.

img_1247

We continue on through the majestic and desolate landscape of Quirang at the top of the island. Returning to the mainland we continue past Kyle to Plockton, which a fellow guest has recommended for its drinking and dining pleasures. This was more how I imagined Hamish MacBeth’s stomping ground. Picturesquely situated around a secluded, wooded loch there are a number of attractive eateries. Plockton Hotel has a cozy bar in deeply gleaming wood and brass. I have an excellent local brew which may be called Schiehallion – try saying that after a few! The restaurant’s popular and we find out why. Good food and friendly service. Worth waiting for. If I ever get back to these parts, and I hope to, I think I’ll stay here.

Plockton

Plockton

Visions of Scotland – 2

Fort William to Kyle of Localsh

 

Glen Nevis

Glen Nevis

Before leaving Fort William, we must first set foot on Ben Nevis, mightiest mountain in the Celtic Isles. The mountains are obscured by clouds, but that’s just Scotland’s version of the dance of seven veils; the veils being various forms of mist and rain and translucent light. Glen Nevis is only yards from the town, but plunges immediately into giddy wilderness. We could be singing ‘I saw the rain-dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon’, indeed we probably did.

Climbing Ben Nevis

Climbing Ben Nevis

We make an assault from base camp, knowing that we lack the time to summit. Estimates of four hours up and a little less down are probably a tad conservative. Our calculations put us half way there in ninety minutes, reaching two thousand feet where a wooden bridge spans spectacular falls. And we were dawdling. Another time we’ll make it to the top. It’s a pleasant, well worn path with plenty of friendly banter from fellow travellers. The zig-zag climb is moderate, the views, slowly revealed in the waxing day, uplifting, heartstopping.

Big Ben himself

Big Ben himself

At last we hit the road, travelling up the rift valley parallel to the Caledonian Canal. At Invergarry we turn into the Highlands proper. Habitation recedes into heathland and scattered forest. We find a roadhouse at Cluanie. As we pull in, a convoy of trucks passes us uphill, each bearing a windmill propellor. What an odd juxtaposition out here! The roadhouse is sufficient for coffee and chowder, the service sporadic and homely.

Eiiean Donan

Eilean Donan

Evening approaches as we descend Glen Shiel. The castle at Oilean Donan stands proud at a craggy confluence of lochs. It’s crowded but worth the visit. The castle is well preserved and fitted, still functioning as a residence. Displays include lifesize tableaus from history creating an illusion of all time seeping through these walls. Real life folk are dotted around too, willing to converse on all aspects of the castle’s past and present. A whiskey fragrant guide in full highland garb leans casually on a waxen laird as he imparts words of wisdom. Good luck to him, he’s jovial and true. Scotland’s history is beginning to seep into me too. Half familiar but in a way that’s more storied, and sung, than factually held. So close to us also, it’s surprising it’s not more familiar back home. Only a visit can put that right. Places themselves are the living book.

Nightlife in Kyle

Nightlife in Kyle

Our destination, Kyle of Lochalsh is a couple of miles further on. I’d picked it without reference to Google Earth. I’d remembered the series, Hamish MacBeth which I thought was set here. Memory deceives, I’m afraid. Kyle’s a bit of a dump, a main road bisecting a scattered settlement, a rail terminal and a functional dockside. The Main Street is mundane, dominated by two banks with our hotel the most pleasant point at its summit. Something of a stereotype to report that while Irish main streets are lined with pubs, Scottish main streets are lined with banks. Perhaps here, men are really born to pray and save.

Still, the hotel is fine and we wave a decent meal of fish and chips in the bar. Our room is cosy old style, with a view down Main Street to the water. Raindrops mottle the window pane as the streetlights come on. Tomorrow, it’s on to Skye which is visible just across the water. We will discover too that nearby Plockton was the village I had imagined, a picture book perfect collage of mountain, woodland and water with atmospheric eateries and hotels. Look forward to telling you more.

Plockton

Plockton