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.)

 

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Belated post!

Apologies for the lack of posting! I am going to attempt to report on everything we have done in the last 48 hours, but I don’t know how much I’ll remember, so here goes:

We had a rocking time at the ceilidh pub – it looked pretty much like a normal bar, with a big dancefloor, and this huge Scottish guy played accordion and took us through the steps for all these different traditional dances. It was so lively and fun and really hard work! We were all completely knackered by the end of the night. A lot of the steps were really bouncy which wasn’t great for my back, so I ended up just stepping them instead of bouncing them, but it worked and it didn’t deter my enjoyment at all. I got some great photos of Sean dancing too 😀 We ended up back at the hostel at about 12.30 and were all up and breakfasted and on the bus by 9am the next morning. There was an awful lot of sleeping on the bus that morning. First stop was Glencoe, scene of the infamous Glencoe massacre. We were in a deep valley, also known as ‘The Weeping Glen’ because of the huge amount of tiny rivers and waterfalls that come down the slopes into the valley. It was stunningly beautiful in the misty morning. I have noticed with so many photos, but particularly today, that the quality of the picture just can never, ever replicate what I am seeing. A 2D print can’t possibly convey the scope of the landscape and its a real shame because I want to preserve my memories as best I can.

We drove down through the Highlands along a road that the drovers used to use. We stopped at a small inn, really far away from many other things, and got to HANDFEED CARROTS TO WILD DEER. Ugh. Amazing. There was this enormous stag, and it was totally Harry Potter’s dad, I could see it in it’s eyes, and a smaller female deer, who the stag was kind of bullying, just taking all the carrots for himself. I kept surreptiously chucking carrots and the lady deer so she could have a bit. We actually didn’t get close enough to hand feed them, but they stood right in front of us and ate the carrots we put on the ground. Our guide, however, was familiar enough with them to feed them. It was one of the coolest wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. We went inside the inn, which was really cosy and adorable and had tea and coffee. I started reading one of the second-hand books on their bookshelf and was enjoying it so I asked if I could buy it from them. The lady told me just to take it, which was really sweet of her.

As we drove back to Edinburgh, we saw a lot of beautiful scenery, as is quite common in Scotland of course, and we heard about a walk called the West Highland Walk. It’s 96 miles and stretches from just above Glasgow to Fort William, and if I am one day lucky enough to be that fit, I am most definitely giving that a go. It usually takes 5-10 days, depending on your pace, so its something to aspire to once my back has sorted itself out. We also listened to some amazing music. Our playlist has varied widely over the last week, but today Dan played us some really stirring and patriotic Scottish music that almost brings a tear to your eye. (It certainly brought a tear to the eye of one Haggis tour guide who we were told about and who shall remain nameless because he is a big, tough man). The songs were ‘Caledonia’ by Dougie MacLean and a traditional folk ballad called ‘The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond’ (I THINK the version we listened to was by Runrig). The story behind ‘Loch Lomond’ and the different interpretation of the lyrics are really interesting. You should look it up! They are both really lovely, emotive songs.

We also spent a large portion of the bus ride watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which remains as hilarious as it ever was. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. We stopped at Duone Castle, which was used for various parts of the film and every year holds a ‘Monty Python Day’. It was shut unfortunately, but we got some good snaps. We also stopped at Callandar for a quick lunch and Dan took us off the beaten track to a place he personally loves – a beautiful loch called Loch Katrine. We went for a long walk up one side of the loch and took more photos and read about the faeries that live there. Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’ was inspired by Loch Katrine, in particular a fugitive woman named Ellen (Helen) Stewart, who hid on an island in the middle of the loch, now known as ‘Ellen’s Isle’. Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ also draws from this story.

Our last stop was in the town of Stirling, where we saw the beautiful Stirling Castle atop it’s hill and the river that runs through the town. This was the scene of William Wallace’s epic defeat of the English and there is an absolutely huge monument dedicated to him. It’s quite a trek up to the monument and my legs were definitely feeling the strain. The views of Stirling when you get to the top are just stunning and you can see the entire town. We didn’t go in the monument because it was closed but I got some good pics. We arrived back in Edinburgh about 6.30pm and checked into the High Street Hostel. We got into our room – ‘The Lord of the Rings’. My bed is called ‘Frodo’, Sean is in ‘Samwise’. Upon arrival, our ears were assaulted by the most bloodcurdling screams from the room next door. We listened for a bit, trying to describe if the screams were those of frivolity, passion or genuine terror. We couldn’t really decide, but I was way too nervous that someone was actually having the stuffing kicked out of them, so we went down to reception and let them know. When we got back upstairs, there was actually bashing on the walls accompanying the screams, so we then asked to move rooms for the night. Reception went up to check later and apparently the screams were of an overly enthusiastic amorous nature, but I still think it sounded like someone was being slowly tortured. So we were in a much less ear-splitting dorm for the night, with some lovely people including an Aussie guy and an American who had been on exchange in Stirling. We had a burger at the hostel with a lovely woman, Janet, who had been on the tour with us, and she showed us a lovely quiet pub where we had a pint before bed. Janet has been travelling on her own for 9 months, really without any kind of plan, just going through Europe and Asia, and my goodness she had some great stories.

This morning we woke up and moved rooms, did washing (yessssss, clean clothes) and attempted some organisational emails etc. We were in St Giles Cathedral by 12noon for a daily service in which they read some passages from the Bible and say prayers for 15 minutes. It was so good to finally be at a church service again, and it was really peaceful sitting in this enormous, ancient cathedral, surrounded by so much beauty. Janet joined us for the service too, which was nice. Then we ran to Tesco’s for some groceries before realising we were actually quite tired, and crashing in the hostel common room for an hour or so. Janet went off to meet her couch surfing host eventually and Sean and I walked to the train station to get our seat reservations for the train to Cardiff tomorrow. Dad also called to say hi and it was so good to hear his voice! Made my day 🙂 I quickly ducked into the Writer’s Museum, which is free, and in a gorgeous old house in Lady Stair’s Close (it was actually Lady Stair’s house). It focuses on the work of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I decided not to go through it the whole way until I actually had proper time – next time I am in Edinburgh, whenever that may be. I washed my hair for the first time in 3 or 4 days and my goodness, that felt good, then my wonderful and talented man cooked an amazing chicken and rice dish for dinner. That was also a great feeling – eating food we had cooked ourselves, with a few vegetables chucked in. Then we hightailed it down to Greyfriars Kirkyard to meet our tour group for the Potter Trail, which is, you guessed it, a Harry Potter tour through Edinburgh! Our guide was extremely enthusiastic and gave us all wands to carry with us for the night. He took us through Greyfriars, as we had already done with the Sandemans tour, but we saw one gravestone we hadn’t noticed before – that of Elizabeth Moodie…perhaps an inspiration for the name Alastor Moody? Then we walked down to McEwan Hall, where the students of Edinburgh Uni (including JK Rowling) graduate. Throughout the tour, our guide gave us some great information about JK Rowling and the development of the series. Being an uber-geek, I pretty much knew all of it, but it was nice to hear it in context. He also gave us some history of witchcraft in Edinburgh and some figures that may have inspired certain characters, such as Miss Jean Brodie (she is fictional, but could have inspired McGonagall) and a creepy schoolteacher whose name escapes me who used love potions to woo his beloved (Snape). We saw JK Rowlings handprints outside City Chambers to commemorate her Edinburgh Award and we saw the Elephant House Cafe and the Spoon Cafe Bistro (formally Nicholson’s Cafe) where JK Rowling wrote the books. We also went to Edinburgh Castle, where JK Rowling hosted a party to launch Half Blood Prince and learned more about witchcraft at the Witches Well, which was created by the painter John Duncan in honour of all the innocents who were falsely accused of witchcraft and executed over the centuries. We also saw Victoria Street, a twisty little road, thought to be an inspiration for Diagon Alley. It was a fun tour, and not too long – an hour and a half – and it was tips-based. After the tour finished we toyed with the idea of going to see a movie, but ended up just coming back to the hostel to chill. Tomorrow we have a long train ride to Cardiff!

Phew!

HARRY POTTER BRIDGE

After a dreadful night’s sleep (I’ve had some sort of terrible reaction to my anti-inflammatories and my back is doubly sore) we hopped back onto the bus and went to Eilean Donan Castle to actually look inside. I was feeling so rotten I actually gave it a pass to sit on the bus instead, but it saved me 4 quid so it wasn’t all bad. After this we drove a long way to Fort William, but I slept for most of it which was better. Fort William is Britain’s wettest city because it’s right under Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, which really draws in the clouds. And it was perfectly demonstrating it today. It bucketed down for most of today. It didn’t stop us getting a nice lunch in Fort William and when we got back on the bus we braved the weather and went to THE HARRY POTTER BRIDGE!!! It’s a viaduct, the oldest in Britain (I think…) and the Hogwarts Express crosses it!! I had to walk up a muddy, rocky path in the rain, but I would do it again dammit! It was amazing 🙂 After this we stopped at Inverlochy Castle, which are just ruins which are free to walk around. Again, it was rainy and muddy, but it didn’t stop us and it was really cool to see. Then we drove to Oban Backpackers where will be spending the night. Oban is a little fishing village and we had some of the best fish and chips I have ever tasted tonight for dinner. Tonight we are going to a traditional Ceilidh pub for traditional dancing and music. I am so tired, but I don’t want to miss this, so I am going for a bit.