A month with Mum, Dad, and Marnie

My parents recently came to visit with my grandmother and messaged me a few days ago to say they were safely back in Australia. To say the last six weeks have been busy is an understatement, but they have also been some of the most joyous times of my life in Scotland – I was so pleased to show them the places I loved, and to discover new favourites with them that I hadn’t seen before. I am so lucky that they are adventurous and healthy enough to be able to come and see me – I know not all expats are as lucky as me. They arrived in Edinburgh on a Thursday, and the very next day we left, up through the Cairngorms on Friday night before breakfasting in Aviemore the next morning and heading to Culloden Battlefield. Then it was back in the car to drive north, stopping at the Coffee Bothy in Golspie for lunch before heading onto Thurso where we saw the Old St Peter’s Church. That night we took the ferry from Scrabster to Mainland Orkney, before driving to our (spacious, lovely) AirBnb in Twatt. The next morning, a Sunday, Marnie and I went to a church service in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. After lunch we dropped into the Sheila Fleet Kirk Gallery and then drove across the Churchill Barriers to the Italian Chapel, and onto St Margaret’s Hope. The next day was spent in Stromness, meeting an old friend of Marnie’s and poking around the shops (including the library and an amazing bookshop) and the following day we embarked into the heart of Neolithic Orkney – Skara Brae, Skaill House, Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement, and the Ring of Brodgar. We stayed overnight on the boat back to Mainland Scotland, and waved to the Old Man of Hoy the next morning on our way.

We drove back down south via Wick (to see the shortest street in the world) and stopped off at the Whaligoe Steps (with bonus cat). After lunch in Dingwall we continued driving through the tempestuous Storm Ali to our accommodation in Kyle of Lochalsh. The next day we continued onto Skye, to see Sligachan, Talisker, the Fairy Pools (just to look, not to walk), and then to Portree for lunch and a visit to the Post Office dog. The next day we drove to BEAUTIFUL Plockton via Duirinish (we even saw a wee hedgehog while having our coffee), then down to Eilean Donan for photos. On our last day in Kyle of Lochalsh, we took a walking tour of Eilean Ban, home of the Gavin Maxwell Museum. The island has accommodation, a lighthouse, a wildlife hide, and a lovely history – but sadly we didn’t see any otters!

Then it was home to lovely Edinburgh, with a day trip to the Borders to see Melrose, the Leaderfoot Viaduct, Scott’s View, and Dryburgh Abbey. We wandered the Water of Leith (from Stockbridge to Dean Village), had dinner at Teuchtar’s Landing, met friends of mine that I wanted to introduce to Mum and Dad, and had a jaunt to Cramond Village and beach. I also took a lovely day trip to Glasgow with Marnie to see the Kelvingrove Museum and the Charles Rennie Mackintosh rooms. In the mean time, my guests got up to plenty without me while I was at work or resting, including a visit to the Japanese garden at Lauriston Castle and a trip to North Berwick, as well as various shopping trips into the city!

Then it was back to the Highlands – Mum, Dad, Marnie and I were booked on a Great Rail Journeys trip that took us via Glasgow to Ballachulish, where we stayed for three nights. We journeyed up the West Highland Line, past Corrour, the most remote station in Britain, and found ourselves in a lovely hotel just up the road from Glencoe, with idyllic views of a loch beyond our window. The next morning took us to Oban (where I visited a lovely little museum), and then on the ferry to the Isle of Mull where we visited the beautiful Duart Castle. The next day was spent admiring Neptune’s Staircase before heading to Fort William for lunch and a very rainy cruise along Loch Linnhe! We even saw a couple of seals – it made the windy and wet conditions worth it. Afterwards we drove back past the hotel and into Glencoe for some photo stops and a history lesson – Glencoe is very atmospheric in the rain. The next day – HARRY POTTER TRAIN!! We took the Jacobite Express (first class!) to Mallaig, and even the weather couldn’t dampen our spirits. The route over the viaduct is truly gorgeous – and then we took the bus back and stopped at the viaduct to get photos of the train crossing back over!

That night we transferred to Inverness where we stayed for the next three nights, and headed off to Loch Ness first thing the next morning – another cruise, in beautiful sunshine this time, and a wee stomp around Urquhart Castle, before returning to Inverness for some free time (a rest for me!). The next day was the Kyle Line – I think even more scenic than the West Highland Line – all the way to Kyle of Lochalsh, and then onto Eilean Donan Castle. We actually got to go in this time, and it was wonderful – a really interesting history to explore and such good photo opportunities. The coach back took us via Glen Sheil and the grave of Roderick Mackenzie – a completely new area of Scotland for me, and one I am desperate to return to! The next day, alas, we were nearing the end of our trip, and headed back to Edinburgh. There was one final dinner to enjoy however, to top off a week of lovely food and accommodation. We had traditional Scottish food and a piper who told us some fantastic stories about Scottish history and culture. We even had a Highland dancer to entertain us! It was a very bizarre thing to stay in the luxury hotel and get up the next morning to walk to work!

Mum and Dad headed off for a few days in the Central Belt and Marnie stayed the night at our flat. The next morning I dropped her at the bus stop and she embarked on a journey to Lewis (yes, in the Outer Hebrides), where she had a fantastic few days in Stornaway. Sean and I had a relatively normal week before they all returned to us, and we spent a lovely Sunday at the Botanic Gardens before a teary goodbye that evening! They made their way down south and flew home from Heathrow. I spoke to Dad yesterday and their jet lag has worn off, thank goodness!

(Am I the luckiest woman in the world? I think I’m the luckiest woman in the world.)


2018 has been mad and wonderful

I’m aware it’s not the end of the year yet, but I did realise how long it has been since an update, so I feel as though I should document it all before it grows even more unwieldy. I’ve thrown chronology out the window – it’s all already happened, so the order is not important (and I’m pretty sure about three people read this blog apart from myself, so it matters even less!)

New places I have seen in Scotland (and some I have revisited) include: North Berwick, Dunbar (and the fabulous CoastWord festival), my beloved Scottish Borders (especially Scott’s View and Dryburgh Abbey), my even more beloved Loch Ness and Glencoe, and the utterly fabulous Moniack Mhor writers retreat. We have also bought a CAR (huzzah!) which means we can take leisurely drives to lovely places (such as Dalgety Bay) whenever we fancy it. We have also had visitors, which has made some of this travel even better! The Moniack Mhor writers retreat has been long-awaited, and was even better than I imagined – brilliant people, feedback for my novel, interesting stories, wonderful food, and the most beautiful surroundings to write in. I must go back as soon as I am able!

Edinburgh has continued to delight us. We have moved house yet again, but hopefully for the last time in a decent while. Our new flat is gorgeous and very spacious, but I do miss living right by the Water of Leith (especially after brand new baby cygnets were born in May that we have watched grow up!). I was lucky enough to do more cat sitting, to see the beehives that my friend helps to looks after in Polwarth, and to take advantage of the enormous range of events taking place on a daily basis in Edinburgh – including a night with Caitlin Moran, the launch of my friend’s translation of German spoken word poetry, and the many glories of the Edinburgh International Book Festival! This year I saw Ruth Jones, Greg Wise, Alison Weir, the launch of the SPL’s new poetry anthology for teachers, and I was also lucky enough to run a Nothing But The Poem session on the poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Professional development has been a joy for me this year – I was accepted into the Knowledge Exchange Week 2018 run by the University of Edinburgh in June. This conference runs for a week, and I was one of two delegates from Scotland (the rest of the delegates were from Europe or Argentina). This also included my first ever conference presentation (just a wee one) and I presented on poetry indexing. I met some amazing people and saw some truly brilliant libraries in Edinburgh that I had not had the chance to see before. I have also tried to attend as many events as possible run by ELISA and CILIPS, including the Librarians Uncorked sessions, visits to local libraries and archives (again, several I have not seen before), and have enrolled in chartership. Exciting times!

Finally, I have had two brief but enjoyable jaunts down south. In June, Sean and I went down to Hampshire to meet up with some beloved colleagues (and special guests) from the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. Seeing Chawton House through the eyes of the family that once lived there was a brilliant experience, and I even got to meet Simon Langton and Susannah Harker (the director of the 1995 BBC production of Pride & Prejudice, and the brilliant actress who played Jane Bennet in said production!) It was also a pleasure to meet my fellow JALF volunteers in person – wonderful women who I have corresponded with for months, but was not able to meet until now! Can’t wait to do it all again next year.

I also had a weekend in York, though did not get to see any of the city this time – because I was in a hotel all weekend taking part in the Bronte Society’s 2018 conference celebrating Emily’s bicentenary! What a treat – to hear some brilliant academics and speakers discuss Wuthering Heights, Emily’s poetry, and the various representations of Emily herself was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it was lovely to reconnect with some delegates I had met two years previously for Charlotte’s bicentenary conference, as well as meet new people.

Well, thats’s all for now. I am currently in the midst of a fabulous holiday with my parents and grandmother which involves traipsing all about the Highlands and other places in Scotland, but I wanted that to be its own post – hence my tardy update to bring this blog up-to-date for the rest of the year so far.

Until then!

A Highland adventure

The Habitat Café and The Watermill are two of Scotland’s best treasures and they’re BOTH in Aberfeldy and we visited both on our trip away from Edinburgh! We then had a rainy drive up the A9 before arriving in gorgeous, sunny Inverness. I finally got to visit Leakey’s Bookshop, after years of being told to by many friends!

The guesthouse staff were lovely and friendly, and breakfast was delicious. We hopped in the car and nipped down to Drumnadrochit where we went on a one-hour cruise of Loch Ness with the brilliant George Edwards, who has been guiding these tours for 32 years. He also discovered the deepest point in Loch Ness while diving in 1989, and it is named after him – Edwards’ Deep.He has photographed mysterious creatures in the loch and knows more than anyone about this massive body of water. His tour was recommended to us by our Australian mates and I am so thankful – it was a true delight! We went to Urquhart Castle and wandered its ruins. The weather was perfect.

Afterward we drove to Applecross via Lochcarron and I nearly wet myself on the crazy winding road – Bealach na ba – over the mountains. But we eventually arrived and found our accommodation – a tiny cottage in a quiet bay down the road from Applecross in a place called Camusterrach. It is completely and utterly idyllic, surrounded by other wee cottages with chickens, goats, pigs, and Highland cows. We went to Applecross Inn for dinner. It was absolutely booming, the food was a delight, and I met Graeme Macrae Burnett’s parents which was an exciting diversion! After we came home, full of fish and chips and cranachan, Sean and I went for a quick walk in the sunset. Scotland is so peaceful. I love it.

The next morning we headed off for Skye, via the Wester Ross Coastal Trail, this time taking the long way round rather than the Bealach. More amazing views and spine-tingling roads! We stopped in Lochcarron for a cake and some tea at The Waterside Café, winner of the regional UK best café award, before continuing onto Skye and finally to Portree. The sun was blazing for most of the day. We had lunch and a stroll around Portree peeking at all the gift shops and collecting some bits and pieces for dinner back at our cottage. We were home by 6.30 – enough time for a walk, a shower, a load of washing, and a lovely dinner.

We took one last spin over the Bealach on the way to Fort William for lunch and a stroll. We arrived at our lovely wee B&B in the Trossachs, on the spit of land between Loch Lomond and Loch Long. Tea with our hosts, dinner at the pub, and an early night. What could be better?

Our final day was spent traversing the Central Lowlands from Tarbet to Balloch to Doune Castle, where we listened to the brilliant audio commentary from Terry Jones (Monty Python) and Sam Heughan (Outlander). We stopped for lunch in a Doune pub, a lovely place called the Woodside Hotel, and then drove back to Edinburgh!

It was a busy holiday, but an enjoyable one. Next time I need to spend more time in the isolated places. The Applecross Peninsula in particular was wonderful. Would be great to get away there for a week or more!


Inverness and everything in between

It’s 7.05pm here and it feels about 4 hours later. We have had another really full day and we’re all exhausted (in a good way). We were up and breakfasted and on the bus by 9am. We just did a day trip and are staying the night at Morag’s Lodge tonight as well. We drove up one side of Loch Ness to Inverness and back down the other side back to the hostel. Our first stop was a little town called Invermoriston (we learned today that ‘inver’ means ‘at the mouth of the river’. Hence, Invermoriston is at the mouth of the river Moriston, and Inverness is at the mouth of the river Ness). At Invermoriston we took photos with some resident hairy coos (Highland cattle, officially the greatest looking animals ever) and went for a wee walk down to some waterfalls. After this we had two short stops, one to take pics of Urquhart Castle and one a bit further down the road to go to a ‘Nessie’ gift shop, full of the cheesiest Loch Ness souvenirs you can imagine, and to see a big purple sculpture of Nessie on the bank. We also did an ancient and mystical ritual to summon the monster from the deep, that involved slapping our knees, pelvic-thrusting, and shouting stupidly. It was lots of fun. After this we drove to the Culloden Battlefield, the site of a terrible and bloody battle between the Jacobites and the English government that pretty much wiped out the Highlander clans. Despite the fact we were uncomfortably cold, this was an interesting place to walk around. It is essentially a mass grave, and monuments have been erected in the centuries since so it remains a place of solemnity. In nicer weather, I would like to walk further around here. After this, we drove to the Clava cairns, which are man-made burial chambers of stone that date back 4000 years. The architecture of these is mind-blowing; people 4000 years ago were able to make a structure that has never collapsed, perfectly in line for the winter solstice. Amazing. (Oh! Oh! And I saw a wild deer today. I also saw some on the way from Munich to Italy, but this one was much closer, bounding up a little hill.) Our final stop before Inverness was a clootie well, which is basically a well that’s been around for centuries, believed to have healing properties. They were often near a church and thought to contain holy water. People would take a piece of cloth or clothing from the sick person, dip it in the well, and tie it to a nearby tree. As the cloth disintegrated, it was believed the illness too, would fade away. As a result, the forest surrounding this clootie well was FILLED with pieces of cloth. It looked fantastic, all full of colours, but it was really freaky, standing in the middle of a forest full of sick people’s clothing. After this, we popped into Inverness for a leisurely and extremely filling lunch, before coming back down the other side of Loch Ness to the hostel. We only stopped once to take some quick photos because the wind had gotten a bit cold. We had chilli for dinner at the hostel and tonight will be treated to the smooth tunes of Donald from Skye, who is known round these parts as the human iPod. He has a harmonica, a guitar, a tambourine on one foot, and a microphone to use as a bass drum on the other foot and apparently does roaring renditions of such classics as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna, ‘Sex on Fire’ by Kings of Leon and ‘Donald, where are your Troosers?’ by Andy Stewart. Sweet!

Haggis and whiskey

This morning began early, but I was impressed at how fast Sean and I got up, dressed and ready. We met our Haggis Tour up the street, checked in and were on the road before 9am. We have one guide/driver, along with a trainee guide and two even babier trainee guides. Our first stop was the Firth of Forth near Fife, and the enormous Forth Bridge. Next was Dunkeld, with it’s beautiful cathedral and tasty bakery. We drove about a minute down the road and went ‘for a wee stomp’ down to The Hermitage walk and waterfalls, which was quite picturesque and peaceful. Next was a quick stop in the town of Pitlochry, where I got ice-cream despite the weather. And I found a Christmas shop for Mum to visit! After this we went on a 45 minute tour of the Blair Athol whiskey distillery, taken by a really friendly guy who explained to us in detail about the process of making whiskey. And we saw otter footprints in the river of spring water! Afterwards we were treated to a complimentary ‘wee dram’ of 12-year-old Blair Athol single malt whiskey and it was incredibly fiery but smooth.
Then we drove to another picturesque walking trail Strathmashie Forest. It looks like Sherwood Forest (or, how I imagine Sherwood Forest to look) and is really lovely. The whole day on the coach we either had music playing, or one of the guides telling us about some Scottish culture and history. We stopped by Loch Laggan, where they film ‘Monarch of the Glen’ and drove to the Commando Memorial for soldiers who died in the war and where you can see Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. After this we drove to Fort Augustus, our home for the next two nights on the banks of Loch Ness!! Too exciting! We were dropped at the Clansmans Centre, where our host, Ken, taught us about the history of the Scottish clans and the way they lived and battled. And dressed. We were seated in a hut (I’ve forgotten the word for it) about 7 metres by 3 metres. Often there would be around 20 people living in it, plus livestock during the night. It had a dirt floor and a roof that leaked when it rained and about a million other disgustingly unhygienic features that would have made life quite a bit more difficult than it is today. Ken took us through a detailed lesson in how to wear a kilt using my ever-patient (and de-trousered) boyfriend who modelled it for us. A girl in our group also modelled the women’s outfit and they looked extremely dashing. We were told after that the exact costumed worn by Sean and this other girl were worn by Mel Gibson, Guy Ritchie and Madonna. Wooo. Ken then gave us a particularly terrifying and gruesome lesson on weapons, using actual antiques that had been used in battle and killed people. Freaky stuff. These weapons are extremely heavy, but the people who used them would have been much fitter and stronger than us, having been used to a life of hard labour since they were children.
After our clan lesson, we walked to Morag’s Lodge, our hostel. We had Balmoral Chicken for dinner, which was Queen Victoria’s favourite dish. It is chicken stuffed with haggis in whiskey sauce with tatties (potatoes) and vegies. It was so good. I can’t believe I am saying this about haggis, but it really tasted nice. It tasted like slightly spicy mincemeat, and I would definitely have it again. After dinner there was a very long and involved pub quiz that involved lots of music and antics and Sean taking his top off, which means the tour has pretty much seen all of him before the end of the first day. We’re leaving early for Inverness tomorrow, so I’m off to bed now!