Visions of Scotland 5 – Stirling

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Stirling Station

Visions of Scotland 4 – Inverness

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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