In September of 2003, I spent a week in a cottage on the west coast of Scotland with four friends and a digital camera. I kept a journal while I was there, and I decided that rather than using the journal to write an article about my trip after the fact, I would just post the journal in its entirety, interspersed with pictures I took during the week. The pictures don’t do it justice, of course, but I hope they give you some idea of the beauty of the place.
Just to clarify the journal a bit, here’s a brief rundown of the dramatis personae (Jeremy is, sadly, missing from this list, because he had to stay in Brighton and work while I gallivanted around the Highlands with my pals):
Chris and Karin are my upstairs neighbors. We’ve been friends since Germany, and when they moved to Brighton, we moved too.
Bob and Jane are friends of Catherine’s and very nice people indeed. Bob makes a mean roast chicken.
So here we go…
Day 1, 12:40 AM
So I’m sitting here in Glenelg, Scotland, and I can say my trip has been great so far. As stupid as it sounds, it fascinated me that I could get on a plane in London and, just an hour and a half later, land in Glasgow and be confronted with a utterly different type of landscape. That’s completely normal, I know, and I experience it every time I go to Ireland as well - but I guess because this was actually an internal flight, and yet the change in scenery was completely radical, it seemed especially remarkable to me today.
Right from the start, after getting away from Glasgow, the landscape was breathtaking. We stopped along Loch Lomond, and as we carried on northwards, the landscape just got more and more fantastic. It was like the Lake District, I guess, only much, much bigger: higher peaks, deeper lakes (sorry, lochs), wider spaces. I truly don’t have the words to describe the beauty of this place. It’s just the kind of scenery I love: big, barren hillsides, deep valleys and misty mountain peaks, sunlight and clouds casting ever-changing shadows on the lakes and glens. The colors were spectacular - gorgeous purple heather, russet browns, bright granites, tough greens, and brilliant yellow and pinky-purple wildflowers along the roads.
I couldn’t stop looking out the windows at everything, despite the fact that I was miserably, horribly carsick from Glasgow to Glenelg (the only relief came between Tyndrum and Fort William, when we stopped at a lovely roadside hotel for delicious, comforting mushroom soup and lovely leek and mustard mashed potatoes).
I tried to take pictures along the way, but it was hard when the road twisted and turned and bumped as much as it did. Anyway, the pictures I did manage to take don’t even begin to do this landscape justice. Nothing could really capture the overwhelming majesty of these mountain peaks and enormous, scrubby hillsides that loom over you as you weave your way past glittering lochs and through narrow glens. It has to be seen to be believed. I’m glad I’ll get to see it all again when we drive back to Glasgow in 5 days’ time, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the local sights in the next few days.
The cottage we’re staying at is great, too. It’s much bigger and comfier than I had expected - and it was great to be met with a plateful of piping hot cottage pie when we arrived. The view from the house alone is worth the trip here. And tonight, as I sat in the kitchen sipping the last of my tea before bed, I could hear the mournful lowing of a foghorn or a ship out on the Sound of Sleat.
Day 2, 2:30 AM
Holy cow, I just about walked my feet off today. All total, I probably walked at least 8 miles around Glenelg and the surrounding area. The day started at a leisurely enough pace - I woke up around nine and had a quiet breakfast with Chris and Karin. After everyone else had gotten up and gotten themselves together, we actually wound up kicking a soccer ball around outside for a while, which was good fun, despite the fact that I was totally winded and a bit sweaty by the end of it.
Eventually, we headed out en masse to have a look at the shop in town. It’s a very compact, but very well-stocked, shop; you can get all your basic necessities there, as well as quite a few things that probably aren’t that necessary at all (like, say, baseball caps that have GLENELG written on the front of them).
I followed Karin’s lead and bought some shortbread and oatcakes, and then we all moved on towards Bernera Barracks, a big, hulking mass of old grey stone that was built back in the 1700s as a barracks to house soldiers who were quashing the Jacobites (I believe).
You can’t actually go into the ruins because they’re too dangerous, so we walked around the and then continued on to the beach. I headed off on my own bit and clambered over numerous big rocks to check out the little rock pools and get a better view of the cold, clear water and the looming, purple mountains of Skye (which is a heck of a lot closer than I realized).
We eventually wound our way back to the house, where I had an absolutely lovely Scottish-y lunch of Scottish cheese, oatcakes, apples, shortbread and piping hot tea. It was just the ticket. Refueled as we were, Chris, Karin, Catherine and I made the rather ambitious decision to head off on foot to some Iron Age forts (brochs) about three miles away. It was drizzling when we left, and it stayed drizzly the whole time we were away, but it was mild and not windy, so I didn’t mind the rain. The good thing about the rain, as we found out later, was that it kept the midges at bay; whenever the rain stopped, the terrible, horrible, awful midges came out in force (and, of course, I didn’t even have my stupid midge repellent with me - I’ll know better next time).
It wound up being a very long three miles out to this fort, but it was worth it in the end. There were two nearly identical forts, actually, and they were amazingly well-preserved. We were all astonished that something so old could have lasted intact for so long, and I found myself expounding upon the wonders of Ireland and the beehive huts and Gallarus Oratory-type buildings that are still watertight to this day, despite being ancient and completely devoid of mortar. Anyway, these brochs were pretty impressive, but we didn’t linger around them long because the midges seemed to have made their home there, and they were pretty unbearable. So we clambered quickly around the forts, took in the view, pet a very friendly dog, and then started the long slog back to the house.
It was a much, much longer three miles back, and by the end I knew that if I stopped walking, I wouldn’t get started up again - so I just trudged on, despite an aching foot, aching knees and aching hip. I’m so unfit.
It was a pleasure to get back to the cozy, heated house, put on dry jeans and slippers and have a cup of coffee. We (well, Karin) whipped up a tasty veggie lasagna for dinner, and we retired to the dining room to eat supper, chat over bottles of wine, and play Balderdash till the wee hours of the morning.
And now here it is, 2:30 AM, and I’m back in my cozy room. I think we’re heading off to Skye tomorrow, so I’d better get some shuteye. Night-night.
Day 3, 1:45 AM
Well, what a weird, wet, wacky day it’s been. There was quite a bit of indecision this morning as to what to do during the day. The weather was gorgeous but set to change, so the neighbor, Tosh, called up and said that if we wanted to go out in the boat, we should probably do it today. Cath and I were the only ones who really wanted to go in the boat, so Chris and Karin decided to hop on bicycles and meet us around the coast at Sandaig, where we would hang out for a while before all walking back together.
The boat was great. We putted out of the loch with brilliant sunshine to the left of us and gloomy fog and rain to the right. A rainbow hovered over the seashore on the gloomy side of the loch for the entire time that we were in the boat; it was stunningly beautiful, like something on a postcard of the Scottish highlands, and I took about a million pictures of it, none of which - of course - really turned out. Still, it was a fun, invigorating trip. Tosh rowed us into shore at Sandaig in a tiny, tiny dinghy (it was only after we had climbed into the dinghy that he mentioned to us he couldn’t swim), and then we clambered up rocks and over heather and through bracken until we found a nice spot to sit and eat some sandwiches and wait for Chris and Karin to show up.
They showed up remarkably quickly, considering the distance they had to go (5 kilometers or so), and we all headed to a sheltered beach on a little spit of land as the clouds moved in. The rain eventually started started to come down, and I wound up sitting huddled under my umbrella with Cath, eating shortbread and drinking tea from a flask and thinking how typical of the British Isles it all was. The rain did let up, so we clambered over some more rocks, and I collected pretty little seashells and took pictures of the water and the mountains, and we skipped stones and explored the area for a good while.
Just as we decided it was time to head back, the rain returned - but seriously this time. It wasn’t raining hard, it was just raining persistently and very, very wetly. The road back to Glenelg was kind of up a mountain and then down again, and it was a very hard slog up a muddy track through dripping pine trees - and up, and up, pushing the bikes and getting absolutely soaked to the bone.
At about the halfway point, Cath and Chris took off on the bikes to get back home and get the car to pick Karin and me up. It wasn’t long after they took off, though, that the rain disappeared, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, the road started to go downhill, and we started to have a grand old time. When Cath did turn up with the car, we were half-tempted to tell her to leave again so we could keep walking. Once I actually sat down in the car, though, I realized just how wet and tired I was. Getting back to the house and changing into warm, dry clothes was a blessing. The steaming pot of tea that Chris had waiting for us was like heaven.
The early evening was spent chiseling cork tiles up off the kitchen floor - there are lovely wooden boards underneath, and the stipulation for staying in the house was that each of us had to pull up one tile. Chris, Karin, Catherine and I got a bit carried away and probably wound up pulling up 12 tiles between us, so we figure we have credit saved up for staying here again. After all the tile-removing, we supped on leftover lasagna and finally headed to the pub - the one pub in town, the Glenelg Inn.
What to say about the Glenelg Inn? Well, they were playing mellow Scottish folk music on the stereo when we walked in, which won me over immediately. They do get “outsiders” around here - there are quite a few B&B’s, so nobody seriously stared at us when we walked in. We just found ourselves a quiet corner, and as the Scottish folk continued, I sipped Talisker whisky from Skye and thought about how much Scotland reminded me of Ireland, and how Jeremy would probably really enjoy it here. As the evening wore on, more and more locals showed up, and eventually things started to get a bit wacky.
First of all, the Scottish folk came to an end about 11:00 and the music switched to some dreadful, and very, very loud, country-and-western-ish Shania Twain sort of thing. Interestingly, the Glenelg-ites all seemed to love this, and a group of them began dancing in a most inebriated fashion. There was a lot of spinning around going on, and unfortunately this led to an entire table full of glasses being knocked over. Nobody, least of all the owner of the pub, seemed to mind, so the glasses were cleaned up and the revelry continued.
Just as Chris and Karin and I were ready to leave, the music changed back to Scottish folk and we perked up again. We stuck around long enough for two of the dancers from earlier to come over to our table and urge Catherine and I (we were sitting at the end of the table) to do the spinning dance with them. Because we wanted to be polite (and because everyone else at our table was chanting, “Do it! Do it! Go on, do it!”) we wound up doing just that - so I found myself spinning and spinning around in this pub in Glenelg, trying desperately not to careen into people or tables, while my very, very drunk dancing partner kept saying politely, “Just let me know if you get dizzy and we can stop, just let me know…”
I did indeed get dizzy and completely winded, but it was a complete laugh and I think we won them over by participating in their dancing, because not too long after that, someone else came over holding a silver chalice-like bowl filled with an amber liquid and said, “We’d like you to partake of our drink” (seriously, that’s exactly what he said) - “Go on, drink it” - and with that, I was handed the bowl.
Now, I am very leery of people handing me unidentified liquids and urging me to drink them, so I balked and wasn’t sure what to do, but it quickly became clear that this was a genuine offer to share in their drinking-whisky-from-a-silver-chalice tradition (the chalice actually turned out to be a Glenelg fishing competition trophy - the fishing competition was held yesterday and today), so I took the bowl, sipped from it, and passed it around. It eventually went around the whole pub, and we were all genuinely touched that these kind people had reached out to us - the obvious out-of-towners - to include us in their lives. It could have all been a “you’re not from ‘round these parts, are you” sort of situation - I mean, this is a tiny, tiny, tiny town truly in the middle of nowhere - but it wound up being the exact opposite. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and when we left, the bar owner urged us to take a bottle of vodka and then stood around joking with us for ten minutes before we finally got out of the bar - at about 1 AM.
The sky was crystal clear, and Mars was a giant orange orb hanging low in the sky. I stood around outside the house with Cath for a while, looking up at the Milky Way stretching across the velvety sky, and I showed her where Cassiopeia and the North Star are. We also spotted a satellite and, to my utter delight, an absolutely fabulous shooting star - it was a fireball that plunged straight towards the horizon, growing brighter and brighter until it fizzled into nothing. It was fantastic, and I thought of it as a lovely counterpoint to the shooting star that Jeremy and I saw walking back from the Roaring Donkey in Cobh last winter.
And now it’s late, and the battery is almost out on my laptop, and I feel like I’m coming down with something, so I’m going to say goodnight. Goodnight.
Day 4, midnight
Today was a slow-starting, slow-moving day for everyone involved. I woke up at 10 (the latest I’ve woken up since I’ve been here) with a sore throat and a feeling of utter exhaustion. I was sure that I was going to be the only one who didn’t feel like climbing a mountain or crossing a river or something today, but as it turned out, everyone was feeling just as tired and run down as I was. It was clear, cool and windy out, so we had a leisurely breakfast and then strolled down into town a bit. We went to the church where Catherine’s great-grandfather was a minister (and where he’s buried), and we saw the war memorial for the local men (and boys) who died in the two world wars; considering the size of the communities here, there were an enormous number of people killed, which must have been absolutely devastating.
We didn’t get very far before deciding that perhaps today was a day to go somewhere in the car and do something un-strenuous, so we piled into our lovely rented Rover MG and headed out to Arnisdale, which is an even tinier “town” 9 miles down the coast, and then to Corran, just past Arnisdale. Corran is, literally, the end of the road; there’s only one way in and one way out. Corran consists of spectacular green mountains, the crystalline waters of Loch Hourn, a few houses, a few chickens, and Sheena’s Tea Hut, which was the whole reason for our journey. At Sheena’s Tea Hut you can, as Cath’s mom put it, “get a cup of tea if Sheena’s in a good mood.” Well, Sheena didn’t appear to be in a particularly brilliant mood, but we were still able to get a cup of tea and have a good chuckle about the fact that Sheena’s Tea Hut is just that - a hut at the very end of Corran.
Corran actually had more going for it than just the hut: when we first pulled up, there were about 5 huge stags grazing on the hillside just off the road. They were magnificent to see and I thought once again that I could never bring myself to shoot something so proud and beautiful. Corran was also very peaceful, and we sat on the beach for a long time, watching the sun come out of the clouds and start to set. The short walk back to the car was just the right level of exertion for the day.
Now, I failed to mention that when I dragged myself downstairs for breakfast this morning, I discovered that Tosh had been by and, as promised yesterday, had left a bucket of four huge, live crabs for us to cook. The rub was that 1) only Catherine, Jane and I actually eat crab, and 2) none of us had ever so much as witnessed a crab being cooked. We knew what we had to do, but we put off doing it until after dinner, when Catherine got an enormous pot of water boiling on the stove and we all stood around staring at it in dread, knowing that we were going to have to throw live crabs into it. I’m a strong proponent of knowing where your food comes from and facing the fact that, if you eat meat of any sort, an animal has died to feed you. The problem is that, despite the fact that I love the taste of seafood and of shellfish in particular, I am a bit squeamish about some of it, and I was absolutely terrified to cook these crabs.
I just had no idea what to expect when they were thrown in the water. They weren’t terribly active in the bucket, but they would move around and snap their claws aimlessly if you poked at them, and they made a soft, incessant clicking sound all day long. I seemed to remember hearing that they actually just go to sleep or something when you put them in the water, though that sounds a bit like a lame, made-up consolation for people who balk at boiling things alive. Basically, my nightmare scenario was that we would put them in the water and they would start desperately trying to claw their way out again, claws clacking against the sides of pot as they climbed over each other to escape the boiling liquid.
When the time finally came, Cath took the lead, grabbed one out of the bucket and slipped it into the water - where it simply sank to the bottom of the pot and remained completely still. There was nothing from it - no clawing, no bubbling, no movement at all (and he was moving around before he went in, so it wasn’t that he was already dead before being cooked). It was the same with all four crabs. It was remarkable, really. I was completely surprised that it was so…peaceful. There wasn’t even any of that screaming sound you apparently get with lobster. I’m not saying that it was entirely pleasant to throw a living creature into a pot of boiling water, but it wasn’t nearly as traumatic as I expected it to be.
And I think the end result isn’t too shabby either. Some of the claws had fallen off in the pot. so Cath and I cracked them open and tested them, despite the fact that neither of us particularly felt like eating crab by the time they were done (at, like, 11:30 at night). But it actually tasted lovely and saltwatery and crabby and very, very rich. I hope we’re all more enthusiastic about eating the crabs tomorrow, or else they might wind up being chucked out, which would be a shame.
Anyway, it was very, very nice of Tosh to bring them over. From Tosh taking us out in the boat and bringing us fresh crab, to the drunken pub-goers last night who shared their whisky and their dancing with us, I’ve gotten a wonderful impression of the Glenelg locals. I don’t know what it would be like to live here, but as a visitor, everyone seems to make you feel very welcome and very at ease. It’s lovely and relaxing, and I’m really, really glad I came and got the chance to experience all of this.
Day 5, 12:05 AM
Hooray! Today we tackled those crabs, and we conquered them! As I was saying yesterday, I was having my doubts about whether the crab was going to be eaten or not. We had left the cooked crabs in a pot of cold water overnight (they wouldn’t fit in the fridge), and this morning before leaving the house, I decided to take them out of the water and at least put the legs and claws into the fridge. I did actually open up one of the bodies to see what the situation was (I put my crab-cracking skills learned in Maryland to the test), but I think they had gotten a bit waterlogged, because it was just a gooey mess in there, so I made the executive decision to just chuck the bodies out and stick with the appendages.
Before dinner tonight, then, Catherine and I cracked all the legs and claws to get the meat out, and I was able to wow everyone with my seafood sauce-making skills; no one realized that seafood sauce is essentially just ketchup and mayo. We did a “clean out the refrigerator” kind of meal, and Jane and Cath and I partook of our hard-earned crab, which turned out to be delicious. We agreed that in hindsight, it was really easy to cook crabs; if you let everyone crack their own at the table, then it would be a very simple meal to prepare. Anyway, we were all really “chuffed”, and I’m delighted that we actually got to eat and enjoy the crab.
The whole day was very enjoyable. Bob and Jane went off to eat at the Three Chimneys on Skye (“Ooh, that’ll cost you an arm and a leg!” said Tosh apparently), and we were torn as to whether to just drive around Skye, or to go to Eilean Donan castle, or what. Eventually we did take the ferry to Skye (a 5 minute ferry ride), and we drove to the Talisker distillery in Carbost. Cath took the tour of the distillery while Chris and Karin and I went to the “Old Inn” for lunch. It turned out to be absolutely fantastic: the weather was beautiful when we showed up, so we sat outside and looked over the gorgeous Cuillin Hills and the clear waters of the loch and ate a tasty, tasty lunch. My lunch consisted of hot smoked mackerel, prawn salad and chips, and it was absolutely brilliant.
Catherine showed up after her tour, and we headed off to the bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh and then on to Eilean Donan castle, “the most romantic castle in Scotland”. I had really wanted to see the castle, and it was indeed spectacular from the outside, but… well, first of all, I didn’t realize it was mostly reconstructed, as it was still a ruin at the start of the 1900s. Inside the castle, it’s actually more like a stately home from about two hundred years ago - and oddly enough, there were even recent pictures of what I took to be the MacRae family scattered throughout the rooms of the castle.
It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was still interesting, and the recreated kitchen made it all worthwhile. I can’t even really describe the recreated kitchen except to say that we were all convinced that the mannequin-like figures they had posing in the room must have contained actual human skeletons or something inside, because they were all so creepily lifelike that it was actually hard to stand near them without feeling as though you were invading someone’s personal space. I took a picture (even though I wasn’t supposed to), and it makes me alternately laugh and shudder. To add to the surreal atmosphere, there was a recording of dishes being washed that played incessantly through the room. On a positive note, there was incredibly realistic fake food scattered throughout the room. But still, taken as a whole, it was deeply, deeply disturbing to me. “Uncanny valley” indeed.
So, that was the castle. I took a million pictures of it, most of which are too backlit to be of any use (still, it’s great to have all this extra memory on the camera - I can take twenty pictures of the same thing and not have to worry about it). After the castle, we drove back to Glenelg (we drove through a rainbow!) and admired the spectacular scenery: the looming, misty peaks of the Five Sisters, the setting sun shining through the valley, the landscape opening up to reveal the Sound of Sleat and the tiny little white houses of Glenelg perched on the edge of the water. It was beautiful and humbling, and as we drove and took in all this beauty, we agreed that it was going to be very, very hard to leave this place.
I can’t wait to see Jeremy again - but if Jeremy were here with me instead of down in Brighton, I would be tempted to whisk him off to a little whitewashed cottage on the Scottish coast and set up house with him there. I love it here - I love it for all the same reasons I love Ireland, and it all makes me think that someday I’m really going to have to live in a “Celtic” country, where they play folk music on the radio all the time and where the light is forever changing and the shadows are always racing across the water and the hills. It’s simply magnificent here. It’s the type of place that makes my heart absolutely sing and though I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I’m really happy I came.