Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snowbound and Stircrazy

Two years ago, we got snow on Thanksgiving. As a country, we don't celebrate the holiday but our family does. But that's how I remembered we had snow this time two years ago. Last year, we got the worst winter weather that this country had seen in 30 years. I hope we're not in for another record-breaking winter!

It started snowing on Friday and by Saturday, there was plenty of snow on the ground but the roads were clear enough to drive on. But Sunday, we had more snow and the boys noticed that no buses were passing through the road in front of our house - which is the main road in the village. Sure enough, school was out on Monday, the car was snowed in out back, and the buses were still not running. I'm very thankful that I went grocery shopping on Saturday!!

I missed work yesterday and spent the day putting up double-glazing film on all the windows on the bottom floor. At least I made myself useful yesterday - even if it was just for us! We had a new coating of snow last night, topped with about an inch of sleet, then more snow. I measured it this morning - nine inches in the back garden!

I woke up this morning knowing I wasn't going to be able to get into work. I called the boss's wife and she was totally understanding - told me not to put myself at risk After I had breakfast and did a load of laundry, I went for a walk to take some photos around the village. As annoyed as I am with the snow this year, its still beautiful. It blankets everything in the same bright white colour - its like all the houses have on matching hats!

Trying to work from home but waiting for the boss to send me some work to do. Its warmer in the house today after putting up the double-glazing film but its still cold. The weather isn't improving - it was actually snowing while the sun was trying to shine a little earlier! Its been snowing again and is supposed to snow and sleet again tonight. I hate being stuck without a way to get out. We're rationing the milk we have left and I'm going to make some bread tonight so we don't have to ration that too much!

I really hope this is not a precursor for what this winter holds for us. I don't want to end up with another winter like last year. I'll settle with this for the snow for the winter, thank you very much! =)

Monday, 29 November 2010

Headline: American learns to swim in Scotland!

I have had an innate fear of water since I was nine years old. My family went on our one and only family vacation then; to Branson, Missouri. This was before it became known as Little Las Vegas and it was just really a resort town. We stayed at a hotel with a swimming pool. My family was poor (to say the least) so I'd never been in anything like it in my life. We had the odd wading pool that, even laying down, you couldn't possibly drown in, so I thought, "this is cool...."

On went the swimsuit and into the water - the shallow end, since I didn't know how to swim. I remember walking around in it, up to my shoulders. It felt all right and a welcome respite from the hot weather. My mother's husband was sitting on the side of the pool next to where I was walking around. I felt safe. Mistake! I slipped and fell into the water. As naive as I was, I didn't realize all I had to do was stand up. So I fought the water, not knowing what to do. I remember fighting and splashing around. Everyone around me must have known I was in trouble. I remember a black circle closing in and the last thing I remember seeing was someone swimming toward me, underwater, from the other end of the pool.

The next thing I remember is this rushing feeling of warmth and coughing. The man had pulled me out of the pool and hit my back to make me cough up the water that had found its way into my lungs. The man wasn't my mother's husband; he was a stranger. My mother's husband was angry with me. He stood me up by one arm and beat the holy crap out of me right there at the pool in front of God and everyone, telling me how stupid I was for not knowing all I had to do is stand up.

I spent the next 33 years terrified of the water. I've never let myself go enough to trust anyone in the water. No one. Not one single person. I've been in swimming pools. I've been in the ocean. I've been deep enough that the water came up to my neck. But I've never been confident enough to not be touching something (the floor, the sand, the side of the pool, etc). If I get unsure of my footing, I can feel panic rising inside me again and all those terrifying memories of all those years ago come up to the surface again.

A few weeks ago, I just decided - its time. I was recently at a hotel with my family and the boys were swimming like fish (they taught themselves years ago) and I was sitting on the side of the pool, just wading in the water. They were having races and really enjoying themselves. I thought it was well enough time for me to learn so I could join in the fun by summertime.

I got online and looked up local swimming pools (there are community swimming pools here that are all indoor pools). I called a couple and finally found one that had ongoing adult swimming classes. I happened to call at the right moment because the instructor had just finished the class and was near the phone. We discussed the sessions and the cost and I told her I would be there the following week. I was actually growing very excited about it all.

Saturday came and I was up early. Had a good breakfast and drove (with directions from the pool) to the town and finally found the car park. I walked in and told them who I was and why I was there. The girl behind the counter showed me to the locker room and told me the class began at 12pm. I had plenty of time to change and I headed to the shower before the pool.

I was nervous but excited. I was determined I was going to do this. There were four lessons left in that block, then they were down for Christmas and then back up again 15 January. These are half-hour classes. I thought that my goal was to swim before summer - sometime in the next block. I felt I'd give it a try in these last four classes and at least lay the ground work for the next block.

I got into the water and was given a noodle (in case you don't know what that is, its a long, round floatation device), told to put it around my chest and get comfortable in the water. I walked back and forth a few times and the instructor taught me the arm movements for the breast stroke. She showed me the correct placement of my arms and how I should bring them around. So that's what I did for the next few minutes, while she tended to the others in the class. I was told to "bunny hop" and pull myself across the width of the pool with my arms, not walking on the floor of the pool. I did better than that, I held my legs up and pulled myself right across without touching the floor the whole time.

It was time for the class to end. That's the progress I made in my first lesson - bunny hopping across the pool holding a noodle. That may not sound like a lot to you, but for me, it was like walking on the moon.

I went through the week as normal. I'd told a few of my friends that I was going to learn and posted on my Facebook page, too. Lots of support from everyone. It was a good thing!

It snowed on Friday night and I called the pool to see if they were open and if the class was still going on. They were and it was so I got my stuff together and headed to the pool. The roads were all right, no big surprises and I arrived very early. I tried having a cup of tea from the machine but it was awful, so I poured it out and headed to the dressing room.

After I got my suit on, I went out to the pool. I was 20 minutes early. The instructor saw me and gave me a noodle and told me to get myself comfortable in the water again. So while she finished teaching the other class (of children, mind you), I walked across a few times. Then I held my feet up and pushed myself across with my hands. I got tired after a few widths so I pushed the noodle out in front of me and kicked my feet. I was moving! So I did that a few times before our class started.

The instructor got me comfortable with spitting water out of my mouth (which is an area of great fear for a lot of people) and then put armbands on me. These are an adult version of the floaties and are not inflatable but made out of the same stuff that the noodles are made of. She held my hands and had me kicking my feet. She told me I had a "good line" - I guess that meant that my body was flat on top of the water.

She told me I was going to push my way across and if my legs did something, then great - if not, no big deal. So off I went, sort of swimming across the width, wearing armbands, and my feet kicking (like they knew what to do!). That was a huge deal for me.

Then she took the armbands! I begged her not to take them off me but she insisted. She promised me she would not let me sink and she told me just to do it. She knew I could. (That was one of us!) After a few seconds of hideous nerves, I pushed my foot off the side of the pool and I actually swam across the width of that pool!!! I got to the other side and stopped, wiped the water off my face, and stood there in shock. I SWAM!!!! How did that happen??

It wasn't pretty ... and it was quite splashy ... but I was swimming!

She told me to take a rest and she went to the other guys in the pool. Soon enough, she came back to me and showed me a leg movement that goes with the breast stroke (I was using a different one). I put the armbands back on, practised it against the side of the pool and I made it across again, this time with the proper leg movements. Ish.

She was with the other guys in the class and it was coming to the end of our time in the water so I pulled the armbands off and headed across the water again - this time with the right leg movements. I nearly made it to the other side before I had to stop - I was getting tired. At this point, I'd been in the water nearly an hour and my body was not happy!

I sit here two days later, writing this and am still in a sort of state of shock about the whole thing. I can swim. That's something off my bucket list!! And now I get to add something else to it - scuba diving!!! I am unstoppable! =)

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Scotland vs Arkansas

Obviously, living in another country has its pluses and minuses. There are good things about Arkansas and there are good things about Scotland. Neither one is better or worse than the other. Notice I'm saying "Arkansas" instead of "America" because I've only ever really lived in Arkansas so I can't really compare the whole country!

I could probably write an entire blog on just this one subject but I'll start here with a few posts. You never know where it'll lead me!

The most obvious difference is the accent. I've travelled here for years and I was used to the accent before we moved. I was, however, concerned about the children - would they struggle in school? Well, I should really learn to give them more credit - they've gotten along very well, indeed! In fact, after their first year, they sound like locals!

I have a theory about that. I once heard someone say, "You speak to be understood." I totally agree. The first thing that changed was everyone's vocabulary. I've heard my boys say things they'd never have inserted into their vocabulary in Arkansas. Things like "trousers" or "revision" (in reference to studying) or even "trainers" instead of tennis shoes. All these things slowly leaked into their Arkansan vocabulary, which was already vast in itself. Early on, I began noticing accent changes, especially in one of the twins.

Another thing is the weather. Wow - what a difference, too! The summers are mild enough that I can get outdoors! I have more colour in my skin than I ever did in Arkansas. I get outside at every opportunity to enjoy the fresh air, the sunshine, and just being outside. We live in Fife - one of the most beautiful parts of the central belt of Scotland. Mountains, the seaside, castles, fishing villages, and open countryside - all on our doorstep. Its so easy to find something to do!

We also have the NHS. There are plenty of people who complain about it and rightly so, but we've had nothing but great experiences with it. I don't mind paying money into it each month in my pay packet (which, by the way, is much less than I'd be paying for insurance that doesn't have anywhere near the same amount of care included!).

Getting paid monthly did take some getting used to, though. I was used to getting paid every two weeks. However, once I got used to it, I enjoyed it. It meant that all the bills came out at once, no need to keep up with due dates, etc. We have most of our bills set up to come out of our bank account automatically so we don't even have to worry about having to write a check (which they spell cheque here!) or make a call to pay with a card.

We also drive on the left here. That did take some adjustment on my first trip twelve years ago. However, it didn't take long for me to get it right and I've been doing it naturally ever since. I passed my test and got my UK driving licence last September. I did study for it and did take driving lessons beforehand - which saved my bacon! I passed the written test with 100% and I only had four very minor faults (you're allowed up to 15) on the practical part of my test. Since I've been driving for 20-ish years, I thought it would be just a case of signing up and taking the test. Well, not even close to that easy and I know people who had to take their practical several times before passing it. Its not cheap but once you've done it, that's it. You don't have to renew your license every four years and only have to update your photo every ten years. It is one of the most difficult tests to pass so once you get it, you can use it anywhere in the world!

Having to pay for a license to watch television was something a little strange, as well. We pay £135 a year for a TV license. They use that to keep people from having to watch so many ads on BBC. I enjoy watching a show without commercials but I'm not sure its worth £135 a year. You might think that it would be easy just not to pay the fee but they actually have vans that go through neighborhoods checking for TV signals. They have a list of households that have not paid for a TV license and if you're caught, you get stuck with a big fine. So we pay!

Petrol (instead of gasoline) is used to fuel most cars here, although there are some that run on diesel. Its advertised per litre, not per gallon, like it is in the States. Cars here are mostly standard shift (not automatic) and if you pass your test in an automatic, you're not allowed to drive a manual transmission car at all. They tend to get better gas mileage (for instance, I'm on a consistent 53+ miles a gallon in my car). Petrol (per gallon) at the moment is running around $8.25 a gallon. Ouch!

We heat our house with radiators instead of central heating. We don't have air conditioning and no screens on the windows. They call our radiators central heating but we don't have vents. A lot of the new houses being built are using under-floor heating on the bottom floors. Its expensive to install but in the long run it 1) reduces heating bills, and 2) frees up the wall space for furniture instead of radiators! We live in a house that was built in 1624. Its full of history and its a beautiful house. However, we don't have double glazing on our windows and we nearly froze to death last winter! We walked around with the heating on all day and sweaters and layers of clothes to keep warm! We do have a plan for this winter, though. We're going to put up plastic insulation on the windows that will mimic double glazed windows. Our house is listed so we can't install double glazed windows, which is a shame! I'm hoping to put down draft reducers under the doors, too. I hope that helps and we have a warmer winter this year than we did last year! Thirteen weeks with snow!! Yuck!

All the phone calls are toll calls, with the exception of 0800 calls. Those are usually reserved for companies who use them to get your money in other ways - like catalogs, etc. If I call my next door neighbour, I pay for the call. No incoming calls are charged - even on mobile phones (or cell phones). Which is great - because even if the boys don't have credit on their phones, I can call them and they can get the call. We use pay-as-you-go for the boys and we both have contract phones. I get up to 600 minutes and unlimited texts on mine and I think Peter has a similar package.

I think that should get us started. As I think of other differences, I will post them here. And of course, if you want to know about a specific difference, please ask! I think its fun to compare! =)

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Hollywood comes to the "holly wood"

A deep rumble shook the ground on an October morning. Was it an earthquake? Nah - it was just Hollywood arriving once again in Culross (which incidentally means "the holly wood" in a combinationof Gaelic and Brittonic). A few days to set everything up; a day to test their monstrous equipment; a night to film; two days to take it all away. All that for around thirty second of a movie!

No one was "officially" talking, but rumours spread like wildfire through our little village! Even theinternet was whispering "Culross" through cyberspace with film lovers requesting photographs of the filming! If we're to believe it all - "Captain America: The First Avenger" starring well-known names such as Samuel L Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, and Stanley Tucci. We should be able to confirm our suspicions in cinemas next year, when the film is due to be released. 

Our market cross will be a beautiful stand-in for a deserted village in Norway during WWII. They were careful to remove all evidence of our modern world - satellite dishes, window decorations, lights from indoors, and all the cars usually parked in the cross. Three-hundred people from all over, working in the "industry" descended on our village to set up cranes, light boxes suspended from above, tracks and cameras, and enough cable to stretch from here to Hollywood and back!

When this old American girl stood quietly by taking a few snaps during their lighting tests, the crew revealed their true feelings about Culross. The crew and support teams loved our village. They were very happy to support the Red Lion, the shop, and couldn't say enough good things about the locals. They felt welcomed and were happy to allow onlookers to watch them work - preparing the lights, the cameras, and the sound equipment for the shoot on that cold (but clear) Tuesday night. 

The night of the filming arrived and although none of us could get very near, the market cross glowedeerily with the bright lights and man-made fog. Two soldiers dove for cover and ran from a phantom tank which crashed through the Study. The "tank" was represented by two sets of “headlights” mounted on tall poles and will be added in production by computers. Isn’t CGI a wonderful thing??

Two days after the filming, anyone passing through Culross would never have known that anything was up! Just as quickly as they came, they were away. And Culross is once again ... our peaceful little abandoned village in Norway! 

Sunday, 17 October 2010

*NEW POST* - A Lost Walk

Note: I thought I'd take a break from the first trip stuff and post something more recent. So the story of the lost walk begins ...

I needed a day out. I asked the boys and the only one that was interested in going along for a walk was Casey - and that was only because there was a fort to be seen. We loaded up on a few snacks and bottles of water and we were off. I sent a text to my facebook page (which didn't show up until after midnight, making my FB friends think I was a nutter!) and then we were off.

We did get a later start than I wanted but we left anyway, thinking we had enough information and time to get through. We arrived shortly in the place where we thought the walk began. Turned out, we were in the wrong place and wasted about a half hour in the process. Second stop, long, tree lined path that after about ten minutes, stopped dead and had to walk back to the car. Both of us were a little disgusted about this time and we nearly just left for home.

But we weren't to be defeated! If we were going to come back another time, we would need to know where to start off. We kept driving along until lo and behold, we found a sign to Loch Glow! Driving down the long dirt road, we finally came to a car park in front of an amazing loch, tucked away in the Blairadam Forrest.

Casey suggested we go backward through the route to see the fort, which is why he came along in the first place. We started along the path backwards and after about an hour, found the fort. Spectacular views from the top - we could see Edinburgh, Grangemouth (not far away from home), and Loch Leven and Kinross.

While we were on top of the iron age hill fort, we could hear the sound of a tin whistle - which was being played by someone on the path below. With the wind whistling around, the two sounds blended perfectly and soothed the soul.

It was when we headed back to the car that we realized we'd made a terrible mistake. We were following a horse track instead of a foot path. It wasn't until we found ourselves ankle deep in murky water standing on a rain-soaked field that we our mistake was obvious.

Heading for what we thought was a road, we climbed fences and scaled stone walls before finding it was another dead end. Earlier, I'd noticed that there was a road to our left. Instead of heading for the car (which was within sight!) we headed for the road. I had no idea what was between us and the car so I made an executive decision.

Finally! We made it to the road and I called home. I told them what was going on and that we were on a road, we were safe, and there was still enough daylight left for us to get back without much trouble. I knew about where we were so it was just a matter of finding the road to the car. It was so nice to know we were on solid ground once again - ground that didn't give way under our tired feet!

It felt like we walked and walked and walked for ages! But at last, Casey spied a sign - the one we'd seen hours earlier - Loch Glow! I reckon it was another mile or so down the dirt road but I finally caught sight of the camper where the caretaker resides - right in the car park!

As we approached the car, I noticed the sunset burning up the sky! Immediately taking the camera out of the bag, I headed toward the shore of the loch and got some fantastic shots! The caretaker came out of his camper and told Casey to cover his ears. Then he set off an air horn - a quick way to tell all the fishermen to come in so he didn't have to personally go out and find them all. He told me he was getting a little worried about us but was happy to see us before dark.

We drove home with wet feet and tired bones. Peter had Chinese waiting on us when we got home. Curled up on a warm sofa, we watched Saturday evening tele and enjoyed each other's company. Solid ground is a great thing, you know!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

My First Trip - The Road to Skye

Note: As I'm re-writing this, I'm realising just how much I've learned about Scotland over the last twelve years. Naive doesn't really spell the right word - I had no idea what I was doing back then. There's so many things I've experienced, so many things I've done, so many more places I've been. It most certainly is bringing back so many memories of that first trip - which we all only have just once. Good times! =)
30 July

Today was the first day that we had an opportunity to eat breakfast at Lochalsh House (no longer a B&B). We came down (first ones, for once) and sat at the table. I poured my juice and got my tea ready; Cathy poured her juice (she's not much of a tea drinker). I was a little curious to find out what differences there were going to be in the breakfast here as opposed to St Mungo's. Not much, as it turned out, except we were given a menu to pick from (got a choice of either full Scottish or full English breakfast). We ate till I thought we were going to be rolling upstairs again!

This was our last day in Inverness - Thank Goodness! I hated driving there. The other folks at the table had a much familiar accent ... they were from Michigan! They told us they were seeing "Scotland in a day" - Ha! That's not possible, you miss so much! At least they got to see some of it, right? The next couple came downstairs and they gold us they were from South Africa. They were very kind people and were in town for a wedding, which they missed because they couldn't find the church on time (there's that reference!) and barely made it to the reception before the bride and groom left for their honeymoon!

We ate and talked and ate and talked and of course the subject of Bill Clinton came up and I bypassed it like I didn't hear it. It worked and the subject changed quickly. Note: The reason was that everywhere we went, it seemed as though people wanted to talk about Clinton. Even now, many years later, when people find out I'm from Arkansas, they say "Oh, that's Bill Clinton country, isn't it?" *sigh*

We learned that Cathy's Mom had called the night before. She forgot about the time change and it wasn't until around 2am that she called and Terri wouldn't wake us. Not sure if it was because she didn't want to get out of bed or that she really didn't want to disturb us, but nevertheless, Cathy didn't get to talk to her mother while we were there.

We finished breakfast, I emailed home to tell them we were on our way to Skye. We moseyed upstairs to get our things packed and decided to leave it all there while we went to town to get money exchanged and to get another adaptor. The more I thought about the adapter, the more angry I got and now that I'm writing it all down again, my dander is up again!

The first and only time we made it to the B&B without getting lost was when we were leaving! Geez. We said our good-byes and got a photo of Bill & Terri outside the building. I wanted to do this with all our B&B folks so we'd have a record of our visit for all time.

The first stop was the Culloden Battlefield. We parked and went inside. We got in and went through the museum. The Torridon MacKenzies and the Stuarts of Appin were two clans that fought there. For some reason, I feel more drawn to the MacKenzies than any other section of the family.

For the first time, I realized what the Jacobites were actually about. They weren't following a terrible leader, who was only Scottish by blood, not by birth (Prince Charles was born in Rome). They were following the Stuart name and the idea of being free from England once again. I can understand wanting your freedom. We wandered out onto the battlefield. It was rectangular (roughly) in shape and on one side flew the English side, the other, the Scottish one. This one was the farthest away from us at the starting point.

We walked along, it was quiet and not many people were about. The clouds were threatening to open up on us but never did. It wasn't cold, it wasn't warm. There was a very sad feeling there. Feeling of death and great emotion. Only one other place would I feel this on my trip. We decided to cut across the middle of the field. We felt alone. No voiced. No cars. Nothing - just silence. About halfway across the battlefield (neither of us were talking) we both just stopped. I was a step or two ahead of Cathy and I turned to look at her. She said I was white as a ghost (pardon the pun). She asked, "Did you hear that?" Boots. Like marching. Chills ran up and down my spine and back up again. We said nothing else, we just kept walking. Absolute quiet was deafening. We made it to the other side of the battlefield (Jacobite side) and we were going to turn left up the trail to go to the clan graves. I stopped and told Cathy that I needed to go to the right. She nodded her head and she continued on to the left. I walked slowly, not sure what I'd find. The closer I got to the flag the louder my heartbeat boomed in my ears. I could hear every breath, every heartbeat as I approached the flag. I didn't know what I was going to find but it terrified me. I got closer and noticed a sign posted at the base of the flag. I got close enough to read it and it said, and I quote:

"Beyond this point fought the Torridon MacKenzies"

A single tear ran down my face as I stood there for what seemed like forever. I put my hand on the sign as if it were a gravestone. I still get quite emotional when I talk about it. I don't know how many of you can understand this feeling or this emotion.

Well, I better move on or I'll dwell on that forever.

We weren't on just a battlefield. This one had a special significance and meaning to more than just me. It does to anyone with one drop of Scottish blood (a Jacobite or not).

I caught up with Cathy in the graveyard. There were large stones everywhere with names of clans carved in them so washed by time that some you can't read any more. I searched and searched but no stone marked MacKenzie was to be found. I found several stones that simply read, "Mixed Clans" and these were mass graves of men who died in this battle for independence. This was a foreboding place. We walked along and finally left this field of war. We slowly walked back to the visitor's centre and went into the gift shop. I bought a book about the battlefield and some other treasures to take home.

Silently, we made our way back to the car. Neither of us said a word for a long time. We drove away and I turned into Cathy and asked her what she thought. She just looked at me and showed me the chills on her arm.

Our next stop along the way was Cawdor Castle. This would prove to be a little more on the light side of our travel today. This is a privately owned castle and we did pay the admission there. We ate at the restaurant inside, which was good, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone on a budget. We ate the least expensive thing we could. The food was good, but the prices were, well, pricey.

I bought a lambswool shawl - the softest thing I've ever touched! I love that thing! We took the self-guided tour and saw some really wonderful rooms. They wouldn't let me take photos (I would always ask first) so we just use the guidebook for memories on this one. I went to the gardens where I found a maze. I didn't get to go through it, though - they'd closed it down due to people messing it up so it could grow back. It was my idea of a castle and people still live there, so its very well taken care of. There were highland cattle in a fenced area (the first ones we saw and the only ones we saw in a fence!). It was very relaxing and very beautiful.

We headed back toward Inverness and stopped for petrol. We also loaded up on dairy milk bars and Pringles! Driving along Loch Ness again, we came upon the Nessie Exhibit. Although we'd seen Nessie two days before, we decided not to go through the exhibition but did hit the gift shop. I had to get some stuff for the kids there (at the time they were 9, 5, and the twins were 3).

We found the most amazing scenery on our drive. We decided to take an alternate route to Skye and go through Fort Augustus and Invergarry. In Fort Augustus, we saw that we were in a traffic jam! Oh no, not here...not in Scotland! Well, after we found out why, we didn't mind that much. We noticed the bridge in front of us went up - a little on the odd side. Then we saw what was going on. A sail boat crossed the road. All we could see was the sails and masts of the boat; it was through through a little area to bypass a longer way around. We got it on video as the second boat went through. This kind of traffic, I can handle!

We drove on to Invergarry and as we got closer we noticed we didn't know where we were going! There wasn't a map to the bridge of the seven heads we were looking for. So we turned around a couple of times and I noticed there were several cars behind me. I pulled over to let them pass. Cathy counted 25 cars behind me. I know they were cussin' me as they drove by. I didn't hear a single horn nor did I see a single "one finger wave" ... at least they're polite!

As we looked for this bridge, we went to a hotel to ask directions. There weren't any petrol stations around to stop so we opted for the hotel instead. We turned the corner to drive up to the hotel (a little dirt road) and just around this bend, out jumped a castle! It was striking and majestic. It was well ... I don't think there are any words to describe it.

Cathy's fingernails somehow ended up in my arm and she said, "Do you see that? Do you see that??" How could I not? We had to pull over. I think if I hadn't pulled over, Cathy would have jumped out of the car window! It was fenced off by two ten foot tall chain-link fences and signs were posted all around it that it was dangerous and that if you entered you did at your own peril. Peril! We wanted to get to it so badly! There wasn't much of it left standing, but enough to know that this was some castle in its day.

On the video, you can hear Cathy's voice saying, "Robin won't let me to it, I can't believe she won't let me touch it!" Well, if she felt like she could've made it over those two ten foot fences then I would've let her go. But she didn't. And neither did I. We just looked at it like a diamond behind glass that you long to lay your hands on but cannot. It was wondrous. Like something in a dream. I'm glad it wasn't.

We made it to the hotel and asked directions to the bridge and got them, we just hadn't driven far enough yet. So we drove back by the castle again - this time very, very slowly.

When we got to the bridge, we pulled the car over and saw the statue. Sometime in times long ago, a man was robbed by these seven brothers. He sent a group of his men after them and they were brought to him. He promptly removed their heads and hung them from the bridge nearby. This was a warning to others not to commit a similar thievery. There is a statue erected nearby and it depicts the seven heads and the story engraved in different languages on its base.

As we drove along we noticed there were still no billboards, power lines, phone lines, etc. We drove through Glen Moriston, Glen Clounie, and they are very beautiful indeed! The mountains, the roads, the bridges, the mountains, the waterfalls, and did I mention the mountains?? We stopped about every ten minutes to take photos. There was hardly anyone else around and very few cars on the road. Incredible, extraordinary, amazing, unique, remarkable, phenomenal, spectacular, astonishing, are all to week of words to describe the loveliness and beauty of this land. The weather was not cool, not warm, and held up well for us. The clouds rested among the mountaintops as if they were tired from holding all their rain for us. But they never let it go.

We finally made it to the Skye Bridge. We had to pay the toll to get across (£5.60 in 1998 but they scrapped the toll since then, now its free!). We got to a pub that was still open and we used the pay phone to call Tom and Marje (we'd left our directions at home) to find the B&B. Of course, my being from the USA, I was thinking that ten pence will get me a call and that's what I did. I put ten pence into the payphone, dialled the number, and Tom answered. Well, Tom has a thick accent and was a little hard to understand on the phone, so I had to ask him to repeat himself a few times. Well, like I said, the phones work differently. They go by units. The first unit is ten pence and its a minute long. Each second after that is a pence. After the first minute, I was cut off. I put in more money (a pound coin this time!) and called back. He knew what had happened and laughed but said he understood.

Cathy was writing directions on the back of a receipt as fast as I was reeling them off. Tom said we were six minutes from the B&B. That's not far, we thought. I hung up the phone and headed in the direction of the B&B. We came across the only roundabout on Skye (almost as big a controversy as the bridge!) and drove and drove .... and drove some more.

We got to the red phone box in the directions and I passed it, even though Cathy told me that was it. It was getting darker and darker and the wind was picking up and I got a little more nervous as I drove along. We made it to a petrol station (not in the directions) and picked up some sandwiches (we were starving) and we werent back the other direction. I finally gave into Cathy's directions and turned at the phone box. We made it on down the road, all the time I was thinking that we were never going to find the place. We came upon the road that we were looking for and there was Tom, standing outside with binoculars! He was laughing so hard he was crying. He'd been watching us for the better part of an hour - yes, an hour. It took us that long to make a six minute drive and we got lost. Okay, I got lost!

Tom said six minutes, I said fifteen, took us nearly an hour. Life gets us lost sometimes, doesn't it??

We made it inside with all our stuff and Marje walked in from the kitchen and said, "I was just drawing them a map to their room!" We decided that we'd never live this down! She fixed us a cup of coffee and warmed us up. It waited until we got inside and then the floodgates opened. All that patience that the clouds had that day was over and they rained like we'd never seen them rain before.

As you know, our camcorder battery ran down and we didn't have a way to charge it up. I kind of threw the camera bag down on top of some soft stuff and Tom asked me why I did that. I told him the long sad story of not having the right adaptor and that I was going to jail when I got home for the murder of the Radio Shack guy. He looked at the charger and noticed that the voltage was right level and he cut off the end of the plug and replaced it with one that would fit in their plugs. And it worked!!

We talked for at least a few hours and didn't get in bed until late. We were finally there. One of the places that we longed to be and the second we met Tom & Marje, we felt like family!

Financial run-down:

    Cawdor Castle - Quiche, salad, apple tart, coke - £5.70
    On the way to the B&B after we got lost, just about £2 for a sandwich, crisps (chips), and a coke
Culloden Battlefield:
    £3.00 (£10 now)
Cawdor Castle & Gardens:
    £5.50, free parking (£8.30 now)
Nessie's Visitor Centre (Loch Ness Experience):
    £3.50 (£5.50 now)

My First Trip - Orkney Islands

29 July

Today, we woke up early. Ew. We had to be showered and ready to be at the bus station by 7:30am. We were taking our first and only bus tour and we were going north to the Orkney Islands. 

We got no breakfast at the inn. They didn't serve breakfast that early. However, they fixed us a packed lunch. We took inventory on the bus and there was more food in that bag that we could've imagined could've possibly been packed in a bag that size!

The tour cost £40 (£75 now). Don't get shocked or anything - that's not much for all that we did! Trust me, stay tuned and you'll find out.

We made it to the bus station, parked in a parking deck and made it to the bus on time (or is that the church? Nevermind...). This was our first tour bus of the trip (which made me expressly ecstatic that we didn't use this method to see the rest of Scotland!). 

The trip, mostly along the coast, took us to John O'Groates where we caught a ferry (45 minutes) to Orkney. There were bagpipes waiting for us, playing as we got off the bus. It was raining and a bit chilly, but it was fine. We were quite enjoying the cooler weather. I was, however, very happy that I decided to take my jacket that day!

Our driver, George, and hostess, Julie, got us on our way. We had breakfast on the bus, a croissant, a buttery (roll), with juice and tea (£2.30). We could only see limited sights - the fog set in early and steam coated the inside and outside of the bus windows. We made it to John O'Groates, waited and waited for the ferry, all of us in a queue (line) that would make any kindergarten teacher proud! I could see almost nothing in front of me! The ferry was almost upon us before we even knew it was on its way! Sheesh! That one day, we got the famous fog! *sigh*

It was cold!! The wind blew briskly and the sea blew spray until it too was almost a mist. The fog teased us, acting as if it were going to either lift or burn off, but it never did. I'd talked to many, many people who'd come to Scotland, not one had come to Orkney. Finally I was going to have something to tell them about they didn't know - but through the fog. Oh well, at least it wasn't raining!

Very uneventful, we arrived in Orkney without sinking. This is always a plus when you're in a boat! I caught myself spying where all the life-vests and the lifeboats were. Don't tell anyone, but just between you and me, this was my first boat trip ever on any sort of boat of any size. Yes, I know. I was 30 years old and had never been on a boat bigger than a canoe. I told you this was an adventure!

We boarded another bus, on land, of course and our driver/host was Tom. This man carried a strong Scottish brogue - heck it was worth the £40 just to hear him speak. We asked him if he wanted to come home with us but he said his wife wouldn't much like that idea.

We drove (rode, actually), seeing what we could through the fog, as Tom voiced his apologies. We saw there were several boats or ships that had been purposefully sank, or scuttled, for sea barriers to protect the causeways that were built by Italian prisoners of war in WWII to make access between islands easier. These were incredible. I took photos through the fogged up windows and decided I would cry hard if they didn't turn out - but they did. 

We visited the northernmost distillery in the world, Highland Park Distillery. We couldn't take the tour, we didn't have enough time, but we watched a video and had a wee dram of their scotch. I bought a bottle of it before we left. 

We visited the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle about 3,000 years old, said to be older than any other on the islands. It was quite fascinating, although we didn't get to spend much time there.

(Anyone noticing a pattern yet?)

In Kirkwall, we visited St Magness Cathedral. I'm not sure how old this structure is (12th century, actually), but its just amazing. You could tell when walking in that it was as old as time. Kept up well, very beautiful, there was an old cemetery on the grounds. A stone inside the church was a skull and crossbones. We saw a lot of that in churches we visited.

We visited the Italian Church, a Catholic church built in a bunker by the POW's of WWII to have a place to worship, since most of Scotland was Protestant at the time. It was beautiful. I could tell that a lot of love went into the building of this church. It all still stands as it was, an Italian flag still flies proudly nearby. Breathtaking!

We had part (only part) of our packed lunch in Stromness (the rest we snacked on and ate for dinner on the way back). Cathy had to buy a coat there because the temps were so cool. We ate at the Visitor's Centre. It was nice and peaceful; there was a man there who lived on the islands. He talked to us while we ate lunch and he said it was nice to talk to Americans that would talk to him! How sad! Anyway, he told us that the fog visits most often in the summer, as does the rain. He told us that January is warmer! (Not sure I believed him!)

While we shopped, Cathy found a Dr Pepper. I should say that at the time, I had a serious Dr Pepper addiction. I hadn't had one since we left the USA and it had been a whole four days!! I opened it up, enjoyed the lovely aroma, and took a big drink. YUCK! It tasted like a watery mixture of Pepsi and Mr Pibb!! No thank you!! I nearly spit the stuff onto the back of the head of the man sitting in front of me!

That was a great trip but we didn't spend much time in one spot. It made me glad that we drove ourselves everywhere else. We saw Maes Howe - from the bus window. Skipped Skara Brae (who goes to Orkney without visiting Skara Brae???). That was my biggest disappointment on that trip really. I thought I was going to get to see it and I was on the island (only a couple of miles away) and didn't. 

Maes Howe is said to be a burial cairn that is over 4,000 years old. The story Tom told us was funny. Before anyone else discovered it, the Vikings raided it, taking all its contents, apparently even the bodies. They left behind only a skull and some age-old graffiti! After it was translated, it was discovered that writing on the walls hasn't changed that much over time.

"Ingrid is the fairest girl in the north," is one of the translations - he swears it was true!

Skara Brae is a prehistoric village (older than the pyramids!) that's been uncovered there by a great storm years ago. That and the dolphins have hidden from me. The dolphins again! I have been around the ocean on and off for years and have never seen a dolphin or a whale in the wild. But I digress ...

The bus trip just wasn't my cup o'tea. I felt like we parked in a parking lot and the driver said, "You have ten minutes to see the city." We only visited free sites and places where we would spend money that the coach company would get a kick-back for! The harbour in Stomness would've been great without the fog. We didn't take the video camera. Just wanted to kick myself for doing that trip on a tour bus. Lesson learned!!

Note: I did finally get back to Orkney in 2009 with Peter and the boys. I did get to see Maes Howe and Skara Brae. It was a wonderful trip - we spent a week there! I'd go back!!!

We got back on the ferry, back on the other bus, rode all the way back and got in our car and back to the B&B. Then we crashed! The trip started at 7:30am and we didn't get back until 9:30pm. Whew! What a day! We enjoyed it very much, even if there were things about it we would've changed. 

The next day, we would be on our way to the Isle of Skye. This is a leg of the trip we had looked forward to for some time. The owner's of the B&B where we stayed, Tom & Marje, had been emailing us back and forth for months. We felt like they were old friends and we'd never met. We couldn't wait to meet those two! But for tonight, sleep. Lots and lots of sleep!

Financial run-down:

    Croissant, buttery, orange juice, and tea - £2.30 (no idea)
Tour to Orkney:
     Included: bus to ferry in John O'Groats from Orkney, ferry to Orkney, bus on Orkney and back to ferry, ferry back to mainland, bus back to Inverness - £40 (£70 now)
Ring of Brodgar, St Magness Cathedral, Italian Church:
     No admission fee (which is why, I strongly suspect, we visited them on the coach trip!!)
Highland Park Distillery:
     We didn't take the 30-minute tour, but if we had it would've cost £3.00. (£6.00 now and they offer a speciality tour for £35)

We saw a lot, did a lot, but really didn't spend that much money. 

Next: On the Way to Skye

Monday, 11 October 2010

My First Trip - On the way to Inverness

First, I want to make sure that I include something I left out before. While we were at breakfast in Culross our first day, we noticed some noise outside the window. We got up to find out what it was and we saw a man, with a wheelbarrow and a shovel, cleaning up the extra dirt from the side of the road. We hadn't noticed till now that we'd not seen any litter. This was odd to us since most every place you go in the USA there is litter everywhere. Another thing we noticed was the lack of billboards. Later, this comes in handy for some awesome photographic shots of the mountains on our drive to Skye.

Now on to the story.

28 July

Today, after breakfast and rolling ourselves upstairs once again, we made our side-trip to Inverness. It would be a six-day trip, leaving most of our stuff at St Mungo's so we don't have to tote it around. The albatrosses will be fine in the tender care of Martin & Judy. We'll miss then, but we'll have fun!

Inverness ended up being the least favourite on my list because of the numerous amount of roundabouts (which I have now mastered, thank you very much). It also felt crowded and we kept getting lost.

We got the things we needed for the trip and were on our way. We noticed the gardens that were practically in every front yard we came to. The gardens at St Mungo's were extensive, in many layers on terraces up the hill. The gardens were magnificent; an aroma rose from them that you could pick up from what felt like miles away!

I try to be as observant as possible. Another thing I noticed immediately, was the road signs. Of course, since I was driving that would be a good thing, right? Sure it was. However, there were many that I'd never seen before. One that sticks in my mind is a drawing of an older couple, complete with the man holding a can that says, "Elderly People" ... it was a crossing sign! Another we saw was a sign at the harbour that was a car going off into the water. No words - just the drawing. The speed signs were circles with the numbers on the inside in tens (not fives). The roundabout signs looked like drawings of spiders!

We saw some great little houses; some looked as though they were ages old; I'm sure they were. We even saw a Blair Castle - but it was a retirement home for miners (not minors!).

On the way to the real Blair Castle, we stopped off in Pitlochry. This is a very pretty place. We were looking for some gasoline (we learned was referred to as petrol), we knew the trip was long and didn't want to run out. We took off looking for a station. We didn't find one in Pitlochry. We actually had to go outside the town a bit before we found one. while we were in town, we saw a shop called Heathergems. A visit there is a must! They take the stems from heather, dry them out, dye them and then compress them until they are all one piece.It kind of looked like cork when they slice it. Then they cut it into shapes, laminate them, and make them into jewellery. Its some of the prettiest jewellery I've seen. Its really not that expensive, either. They have lots of other things in their shop as well, some pricey, some not. We got most of our souvenirs while we were there in that one shop! We didn't spend a ton of money either (no pun intended on the "pound" thing either!).

We did find our petrol. Its kind of misleading, especially for us who are used to buying gas by the gallon. They have it posted that the petrol was like 69p (yes, I said 69p!!) but it was per litre! Ouch! I still don't know how much money we spent on petrol. I don't want to know! We survived on water, Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate bars and Pringles.

I also bought a cassette there at the visitor's centre that was called "Ceilidh at the Park" (that's a pub in Glasgow that often has live music). Well, I thought the music on there was great; we played it the whole time we were there. When I came back home, Cathy tells me she hated it. She didn't say anything while we were there, she was afraid that she would hurt my feelings! Sheesh! I didn't catch the hint when she kept turning the sound down everytime I got out of the car! Oh well, I'll know better next time.

We got to Blair Castle (£2 for parking) and the day was bright, sunny, and hardly a cloud in the sky. It was like looking at a  fairy tale standing right in front of us. There was a man all decked out in Highland dress playing the bagpipes. People were sitting all over the grounds having picnics and just enjoying the day. It was warm and beautiful. This was our second castle and we were excited about seeing it.

Inside, the panelling looked like cherry wood - there were rifles and basket hilted swords on the walls, along with shields and many paintings. The rifles and swords were arranged in stars and circles all over the castle. If we'd spoken German, we could've joined a tour group in front of us, but we didn't catch a thing he said!

The first leg of the tour was better than the second. The best room of all was the ballroom. There was a chain mail suit and stag horns all over the walls. You could imagine the gentlemen and ladies all dressed in their best like ghosts in a late night movie! It was amazing. In the centre of the ballroom was a table, covered in glass with a model of Blair Castle inside. We saw a model of a ship in the tour as well.The detail of this was incredible. It looked as if it had taken the better part of a decade to put together. Very cool.

On our way out, we got back on the motorway and saw a ruin of some kind on the side of the road. We were of course, immediately interested and got off the road to see if we could get to it. We drove around for 15 minutes before we finally gave up. I still don't know what it was but it was evasive and untouchable. I decided that wasn't going to happen again. If I saw something I wanted to get closer to, I'd find a way!

We arrived in Inverness, a little larger place than I thought it was going to be, but we found our B&B with almost no problems. We only got lost three times. We arrived and met the owners, Bill & Terri and they were quite helpful and kind. Bill even let me use his email so I could message back home that we'd made it to Inverness safe and sound. The day was getting short, so we asked how to get to Urquhart Castle and were pointed to it and were on our way.

When we got close we could see our first ruin. It was extraordinary! We made it to the car park and surprisingly there weren't that many cars there. Come to find out, we were the last group of people let in to the castle for the day. It was a little bit of a walk to the castle but every step was wonderful - the closer I got the better it looked! We got to the castle and it was like strength surrounded us. The location on Loch Ness is splendid!

We were half way looking for the monster. We stared and stared at the water, hoping she'd come up and say hello. Out of nowhere, I turned and there she was!! Nessie!! She rose out of the water and glided along with her tall white ... well ... maybe it was a sailboat instead. Dang. We never did see her - she seems to be quite elusive as well.

Loch Ness ... just a lake? No way! Its so much more than that! Its dark, almost black in places and so deep that they don't really know exactly how deep in many many areas. We stood on the side of the road (they made these little side of the road places to park so people like us wouldn't block traffic!) and just looked and gazed. I've never seen mountains like I've seen in Scotland. They are incredible! Of course, we'll see that more majestic ones and even the large ones did hide from us. On the drive, which was right by the water, we saw one of many many waterfalls that we encountered on our trip. Secretly, I think we were looking for bigger and better falls, but didn't go searching for them. If we did, we'd have seen some magnificent ones, like the ones near Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie.

We have a new word. Pachooka. What in the world would that mean, you ask? The roundabouts we came upon were a little odd for us and with Cathy as my navigator (and an excellent one at that, and no, I'm not just saying that because she'll read this) we had to find a way for her to tell me which leg of the roundabout to take. Well, we found a word - pachooka. We would come up on a roundabout and if I was supposed to take the second exit, she would tell me the second pachooka and I'd know exactly which way to go!

I found out soon how to drive on a roundabout. You pray a lot. The first thing an American has to remember (or anyone else who's used to driving on the right side of the road) is that you must always drive to the left, don't turn right on a roundabout, even if the pachooka that you need to take is on your immediate right. It looks like a short cut but it not only isn't, its also very dangerous. The locals will pick you out QUICK and I saw people doing - I never ever did! Also, if you feel as though you've made a wrong turn, go on to the next roundabout, especially if you know there's one coming up. All you have to do is go all the way around the roundabout and you'll be back on the right track. We felt as through the locals built these especially for us so if we did get lost or take a wrong turn, we could just drive around in circles till we figured out where to go!

Video hint: Don't let anything hand from your rear-view mirror. So it wouldn't get lost, we hung our money-changer from the mirror and it made its upstaging in several shots of the video. Use the ashtray.

Driving on the left wasn't as bad or as hard as I thought it would be. From the moment I got into the car, I was a little nervous about it and never did get used to seeing cars and trucks coming at me from the right side of the road on a sharp curve. However, the easiest way to remember is to remember you're sitting on the wrong side of the car so it would be easy to stay on the left! One thing that's a little awkward is that there is much more car on your left than you're used to and it may take a little while to keep from driving on the side of the road, sometimes on the verge. It didn't take me very long and I got used to it.

The motorways were great. The roads over there were very well put together. The scenery was breathtaking. Drivers were courteous but not overly patient. There aren't very many places you can be driving along and BOOM there's a castle or an old church or a ruin. I couldn't get over the fact these people were jut walking along in a town where there was a castle like it was normal! (Sure, its normal for them but not for us!)

Bad news. The batter in my camcorder ran out and the adapter the guy at Radio Shack sold me was the wrong one! I began making plans to kill the guy at the Radio Shack when we returned. This was not a good thing. Lucky we had two still cameras but we sure missed the video!

When we returned to the B&B after getting lost again, we decided to go eat dinner. The recommendation was a place called the Waterfront. It was a little bit of a walk from the B&B but we didn't mind. We finally tired haggis, not bad but not what I expected.

After dinner, we headed back to the B&B, made our plans for the following day, and got our stuff together and went to bed pretty early. We noticed that it would be almost 11pm before the sky would get dark. Dusk was a commonplace lighting from about 7pm till it got totally dark around 11. We had to rest that night because the next day was going to be a long but wonderful day!!

Financial run-down:

Blair Castle:
    £5.50 (£8.75 today)
Urquhart Castle:
    £3.50 (£7.00 today)
    The Waterfront - which is still there!
        Haggis, Haddock, veggies, potato and leek soup, and the house white - £9.17 including tip

Next: Orkney Islands

My First Trip - Our first full day

27 July

We woke up bright and early, considering we spent the last two days practically awake the entire time! I got up first (I found out early on, I'm a morning person, Cathy's a night person, so we don't mess with each other at those times) and got showered. I got dressed and made-up while Cathy had the bathroom and when she got back we went downstairs for our first full Scottish breakfast!

Judy greeted us with a smile, saying that we looked much more relaxed than we did the night before. We slept like logs and the morning welcomed us with soft light and mild weather. Remember, we left 6,000 degree weather - well, okay, only about 100 degrees, but isn't it all the same over 95?

We sat down to breakfast and before long we found out what exactly a "full Scottish breakfast" really was. Sheesh! Waddalotta food!! Whew! There wasn't any way I was going to eat all of this stuff! First course, porridge. We didn't know what that was but heck; we were trying new stuff left and right, so we were game. Come to find out, its quite like oatmeal. We ate that stuff all the time!

Then came the eggs, bacon (which is more like a slab of ham!), mushrooms, toast, tomatoes, and juice or tea (I opted for both). I fell head over heels in love with the tea in Scotland! The combination of the purest water in the world and the wonderful tea (made for hot tea, not iced tea like most of it is in the States) made for a very enjoyable (and quite inexpensive) beverage. The last course was a basket of danishes, which we never had room for! We rolled ourselves back upstairs and got our stuff for the day and headed out.

We were headed for Stirling, hitting Bannockburn first.

Before we left, we purchased a Great British Heritage Pass, which covered over 5,000 sites in all of Great Britain and Ireland. It saved us almost $50 in admissions while on our first trip. However, once we got to Scotland, we found out for about £12, we could've bought one specifically for Historic Scotland properties (which covered most of what we visited anyway) and we'd have saved even more. Live and learn.

We found the Bannockburn Museum (owned and run by the National Trust for Scotland) with no problem, the signs were very helpful, and we quickly found a parking place. We toured the museum first then went out to the battlefield. There are a lot of battlefield sites in Scotland. Most of the ones that are kept up are of great importance to the country's heritage: Flodden, Bannockburn, and Culloden are a few. This one is the battlefield where on 24 June 1314, Robert the Bruce fought along with many men of Scotland to win their freedom from England. He eventually became King of Scotland. There is a wonderfully crafted statue of King Robert on his horse, both dressed for battle; larger than life on the battlefield with a distant view of Stirling Castle in the background.

The weather was trying to rain but it just couldn't ruin our day.

We went into town to exchange currency. We didn't know much about ATM's in the UK before we left so we got cash converted as we went along. Oh how much one learns!! The rate changed every day so we only exchanged what we needed to. When we returned to the car, which was badly parallel parked, a policeman approached. "Are you new to the area?" Yes. "Don't park on a double yellow lines there, you'll get a fine." Then he let us go on our way. We had pulled in behind a truck that had just pulled out of that space, too!

We made it to Stirling Castle. The parking was £2 (and still is 12 years later!). This was the first castle we saw! We're not counting Edinburgh Castle since we were exhausted and toting those albatrosses around killed any sense of tourist attitude we had. It was stunning! It was foreboding, menacing, and looked like you didn't want to mess with it! Cobblestone paths, stone walls, a feeling of pure history! Awesome!

Stirling Castle has been around for centuries and has been the home of Kings, a barracks for troops during the war, and obviously a tourist attraction. It holds so much history for Scotland. They're in the process of updating and restoring the castle to bring it back to its former glory. I can't wait to see what they end up doing with it!

The next stop was the Wallace Monument. The monument raised to the hero of Scotland, William Wallace. We purchased our tickets and headed up the steep, steep, steep, etc hill to get to the bottom of the monument. We found out later that we could've gotten a shuttle bus to the top for 50p! It was one of the most ominous awesome sights we had the honour to enjoy. The million or so steps that takes you to the top (in a very small area, people passing on the way down had to literally squeeze by) had several stop-off points to catch your breath - er - I mean to see some of the exhibits. One of these, contained William Wallace's sword - a Claymore. On to the top, this had to be one of the most exquisite views! I could see for miles around and I almost felt like I was in a cloud! Wonderful sights from the top, the sight of Stirling Bridge, Stirling Castle, Falkirk... Cathy didn't make the climb because she didn't like small spaces. So I took tons of photos for her to see when we got back.

We tried and tried to find Falkirk battlefield (the tourist office said it was only a playground now and gave me half-hearted directions) but it alluded us as we drove all over Falkirk. We finally gave up and went back to the B&B.

The weather was cool, sometimes even chilly. It rained a bit but mostly had been a very nice day. We enjoyed the cool while people all around us were wearing sweaters and jackets, we were perfectly comfortable. It was a great change of pace from the heat of Arkansas!

On our second day there, I could say that was the best trip I'd ever taken and I had the time of my life!

In my original posts, I kept a financial run-down of our costs. Obviously, over the last 12 years, they have changed. I'll repost them in 1998 terms and whenever I can, I'll add 2010 prices.

   West End Brewery Pub (Stirling) no longer there
        Huge 1/4 roasted chicken, salad, chips, and water - £2.25 (Probably about 3 times that these days)
    Dundonald Arms Hotel (Culross) no longer there; the building has actually been demolished!
        Shepherd's Pie, salad, soup, bread, water - £7.30
Bannockburn Battlefield & Museum:
    £2.50 entry (£5.50 now)
Stirling Castle:
    £4.50 entry (£9.00 now)
Wallace Monument:
    £3.00 entry (£7.50 now) ... my have times changed!!

Definitely worth every penny we spent that day. The gift shops were awesome and the people are more than we expected. Friendly doesn't quite cover how wonderful these people were to us and we were visitors!!

Next: On the way to Inverness

My First Trip - Finally! We depart!!

We moved the dates up for the last week in July and the first week in August to bypass problems with our kids going back to school.

This is the date we left - 25 July 1998. Our (now ex)husbands took us to the airport, the required two hours before departure. It was hot and very muggy and miserable in Arkansas and we dressed in short sleeves and shorts, of course. Why, this was summer and why would one dress any other way?

Time came for us to board our plane to take us to St Louis that would connect with another flight on to London, arriving the next day. Now get this - bad planning does make a difference, so if you're planning a trip please take my advice; pack only about 10% of the stuff you think you're going to use. It'll weigh you down and when it does, you'll remember these words! We got on the plane and it didn't take us any time to get to St Louis. We walked the length of the airport and on the way, got our dinner and bought some cookies (which we didn't eat right away but stashed for a cookie emergency, which we had on the train!). We had just enough time to scoff down the tacos and our plane started boarding.

Looking out of the window (of the person behind me!) I saw what was to be my last sight of America for over two weeks. I was so excited I could've burst. Cathy (first mention of my travel companion and friend!) and I laughed a good bit of the seven and a half hour flight (much to the dismay of the folks in front of us, we later discovered). But heck. We were two girls from Arkansas who'd never seen much of anything - we deserved to have a little (okay, a lot) of fun, right?

No sleep on this flight! The seats we had were cramped (as are most coach seats) and to make it worse, we could actually see first class from where we were - they could've at least closed the curtains! I mean, seriously, can a person sincerely enjoy a paper-plate meal with cardboard cups when one can see others dining on fine china with their own little silver-plated salt & pepper shakers?? Me thinks not!!

This is what I wrote in my journal:

I'm sitting here in a window seat of a 767 aircraft that just took off from St Louis on its way to London. Looks like we'll land a bit early so we'll get to Edinburgh earlier than expected. The clouds are beautiful from this altitude. The sun should be setting soon as we approach the Atlantic Ocean. I hope I can see it from my window! We have about seven hours left to fly - they say the weather in London is clear and warm. I still don't think its all set in yet. This is such an adventure and so much is still going through my head! I just can't wait to set foot on Scottish soil!!

Someone told me back home that when I set foot on the soil of Scotland that I would feel the electricity of it bolt through my body. Geez - they should bottle that up and sell it!

We arrived in London and meandered around until we found where to check in. we did and got on the next train to get the other train that would take us to Edinburgh. Who's idea was this? Right, our "travel agent" ... thanks.

We ran into many people, all kinds, while on our 15 day trip. One of which I'm sure is still telling his story about Cathy to many of his friends. On the express train (train #1) we piled on our luggage (Note: We each took two carry-ons plus two large, heavy check-ins with us. Do not do this. It is entirely bad for the back, no matter what your age! Pack light!!) onto the floor of the train. Little did we know that no one else would be carrying on this much luggage with them on the train, surely everyone thought we must be tourists! And they would be right! Cathy sat next to an adorable young Frenchman. I only know he was French from the words I recognised.

She struck up a conversation with him and talked and talked (this poor man sitting next to her only nodded and said, "yes, yes" to everything she said).. Finally, after holding it in as long as I could, I said, "Cathy, that man doesn't speak a lick of English and he hasn't understood a word you've said to him for the last fifteen minutes!" I burst out into laughter and she rolled her eyes and laughed along. She said, "Well, at least he's polite about it."

We made several stops along the way (we were on our way to train #2, at King's Cross Station) and on one stop a little old man boarded. He was cute, with his small stature and snow white hair. He was dressed in what I called "Sound of Music" clothing. My heart ached for him a little because along with him looked like he was carrying everything he owned in the world.

One thing in his stack of belongings struck me a little funny ... an accordion. Hmm, I thought to myself, how quaint. Then, without warning or advertisement, this funny little man picked up his instrument and with not so much as a 1-2-3, he began to play and dance, right there on the train! All of us passengers thought it was cute, no one snarled at him, we mostly all smiled. It was enjoyable but you didn't quite know what to do...was he waiting for tips? Doing it as enjoyment? Being from America, one wonders about people like this funny little man. I hate that about being American. I hate that I have to doubt everyone and everything and I have absolutely no control over it. This occurred several more times over the course of the trip.

Someone tried to give him money but he wouldn't accept it. Someone else got up and started to dance right next to him. It still remains a warm memory from this first trip.

We got off this train (train #1) and thought we were about to board train #2. Ha! At least we were in London, where people are nice, right? Well, maybe. We found ourselves on the platform looking both directions for a way up to street level, obviously where train #2 was waiting for us, right?? Ha, again! We had to climb three (yes, count 'em, three) flights of very steep stairs with our huge heavy albatrosses, oops, I mean bags. A young Englishman took pity on us and helped us part way up the stairs.

We finally made it up all the stairs, out of breath (the out-of-shape southern gals that we were) and found out that the Kings Cross Station we wanted - was actually down the street! So with very bad directions and no idea where on God's earth we were going, we trekked off toting the albatrosses, oops, bags, looking for the chariot that was to take us to heaven (in case you're lost, we were trying to get on train #2 to take us to Edinburgh). Around one corner, around another, down one street, we finally came to a cross-walk. Which way to go? The man said to follow the signs. What signs? I saw absolutely no signs.

Then I spied her. A sweet kindly looking elderly lady walked towards us on the street. I'm not for approaching strangers (especially in foreign countries!) but man, I was beat and so was Cathy. We were looking for the train and this little lady looked like she knew right where she was. Sure enough, with a little Southern Charm and a desperate look in my eyes (not sure which did it, but I'm taking credit for both) she said she'd walk us over. Well, sure as I'm sitting here, the dang station was right across the street! If we'd just crossed that wee street on our own, we would've been doing well. But it was sure nice to run into that lovely lady. We thanked her over and over for getting us there safe and sound and she waved her tiny hand and walked away with a smile.

We got inside the station and dropped all said albatrosses to the ground. Cathy stood watch and I went in search of information. That was my goal - information finder. And boy did I find it! In less than 15 minutes, we were boarding a train for Edinburgh! We finally found a car that wasn't marked first class (them and their darned silver plated salt & pepper shakers!) and on we went. I got on and Cathy handed me bird after bird (see the albatross reference above) and out of nowhere came this knight in shining armour! He helped us on with our bags and asked if we wanted to have a seat at his table. We couldn't walk another step and we agreed.

For the next five hours we sat and talked with Danny (who looked an awful lot like Hugh Grant in my memory), our train #2 companion and shared our St Louis cookies with him and another passenger from Saudi Arabia. We all talked of everything we could think of, from "cabbages to kings" my Grandmother used to say. The Saudi Arabian guy got off at York, we were headed for Edinburgh, and our new friend was going to Fort William to meet friends for the week. We enjoyed each other's company and exchanged business cards at the end of our trip. As he did when we got on, he helped us with our bags to get off the train as well. He said once on our little journey, "This is very un-English of us all." I asked what he meant and he replied, "I'm supposed to be sitting here reading my paper not saying a word, but I'm sitting here talking with two girls from Arkansas. This is Scottish of us, no doubt." I agree.

When we got off the train, we noted how cool it was. Before we left, I would keep a watch on the temps in Scotland in various places trying to keep tabs on the weather. Besides the rain, it was awful cool for this time of year. Someone would later recount that it was the coolest summer in history. We made it to the summit of yet another flight of stairs - this time with the help of another young man who asked me if I was carrying a body. By this time, I was too tired to even smile. We decided to scrap the idea of getting yet another train and take a taxi to the airport to get the car. Yes, again, I confess, this was all my idea...I didn't know it was going to this difficult.

A lady who we bought some travel stuff from before we left told us the ride from the station to the airport was only six miles. NOT! If this was six miles, I'm Truman Capote!! And in traffic no less!!

We got to the airport and after yet another little misadventure, not important enough to list here, we got our car! A little silver VW Rover and it had a moon-roof that was also a sunroof and an alarm system to boot! Wow!

We called home to let everyone know we were safe and sound and that we'd soon be on our way to our B&B in Culross. We loaded our stuff in our car and made our nest (as we say). I was a little nervous about driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car and I drove for the first 100 yards a little slower than normal, but soon got the hang of it. We caught awesome traffic on our way to the B&B, but it afforded us great views of the countryside outside of the city.

I noticed right away that the colours were deeper, the greens were greener, etc. I thought it was because of an earlier rain that cleared up the air, but I was to find out this was the case no matter what the weather; its just all so much more beautiful than I had ever imagined! After about an hour in traffic (and remember, this is after eight hours on a plane, five hours on a train, and who knows how long in between) we arrived at St Mungo's Cottage in Culross.

We knocked on the door and Martin answered, immediately knowing who we were. We'd been writing back and forth to each other for a few months. We were very familiar to each other - we just hadn't met yet. We brought gifts for them - a cookbook of Arkansas recipes and a book of beautiful Arkansas scenery. we wanted to bring a little of our home to theirs. Judy was delighted and showed us to our room. Martin carried the birds to the room and we cleaned up and had our first Scottish dinner right there in Culross.

We were directed to the Red Lion Inn and I tell you what ... this place was a place we ate at more than once and was only disappointed with the service (and never the food) just once! It was awesome food, the house dressing was to die for! We had steak pie, not "meat pie" as we were informed later in our trip. We drank more water than I think I've had my whole life. But it was pure and crystal clear even out of the tap!! After dinner, we made our way back up the stairs - how, I still don't know and we fell into our twin beds. I don't remember actually laying down that night, but I know I had to because that's where I was the next morning. And what a glorious morning it was!!

Next: Stirling and Bannockburn

My First Trip - The next step

Preparation for a trip to Scotland isn't easy. Especially back in 1998! It isn't fast. It isn't cheap. But man is it fun!!

We scoured the book stores for books and books on the subject along with maps and anything I could grab off the (then infant) internet. We did much research and found what we thought at the time, was the best travel agent and got started.

Every spare dime (quarters, nickels, pennies, and dollars were also included) I would find went into my Scotland Fund. We got people at work into the saving as well - we set up a fund there, too, in the form of a piggy bank of sorts. everyone would put in a quarter here, a dime there, and even a dollar or two now and then. We decided that was our film money (way before the days of digital cameras!). We knew we were going to use a lot of film, I always overshoot. That way, I figure, I'm bound to get that photo. All in all, the work fund money ended up being over $100!!

We bought our plane tickets (non-refundable) so it was then written in stone that we were going! I made reservations at three B&B's ahead of time that I found on Milford (www.milford.com) whose details you'll get later on. So it looked like we were on our way - one way or another!

Time drew near for us to leave and family research wasn't coming up with much. The entire reason for this trip was to find family and that elusive castle. So I found someone locally who enjoyed doing genealogy research for people for fun (Barbara). She came up with this:

Mother's maiden name: Watson
    *Sept of Buchannon, Forbes
Grandmother's maiden name: Glass
    *Sept of Stuart (not the royals, of course)
Great-Grandmother's maiden name: Dixon
    *Sept of Keith
Great-Great-Grandmother's maiden name: MacKenzie
    *Yeah, sept of itself!

This last lady, the MacKenzie, as far as we know, came from Scotland with her family and I am the first to go back to Scotland since she first set foot on American soil. It stops there. So I'm stuck, with no more information, I've gone to countless churches to do research and every time its a dead end. Oh how I wish Grandma hadn't thrown that letter away...didn't she know what kind of spirit her granddaughter would posses? The kind of spirit that is down right unstoppable? Oh well, not much more I can do here, isn't there?

I do wish she were still alive to have seen me go. She'd have been so proud. This part is very hard for me, I was closer to my grandparents than my own mother and when they died, a little part of me died with them.

Okay, I gotta move on now. Anyway - the closer time came for the trip, the more and more it looked like this family hunt was going to end up a vacation instead. Darn the luck! Imagine, trading in hours in a dusty old room willed with words that wouldn't make much sense to me doing research that would make me want to bang my head on the wall - for the open fresh air of Scotland! Who could possibly be disappointed?!? Certainly not me!

Not being able to find the family roots (not counting the castle that are related to family history, of course) was a little sad. But nonetheless, I had more fun than you can shake a stick at and then some!!

Next part: Our departure day finally comes!!

My First Trip - The Beginning

(Disclaimer - I'm typing these blogs from 12 years ago verbatim so forgive the writing style as its changed a LOT since then!)

Actually, this story starts about five years ago (1993). Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with all the details, just some of them.

My family told me that in 1963 my Grandmother received a letter from "somewhere in Scotland" telling us that she had the rights to a Scottish castle. The name and whereabouts of this castle are still a mystery because being the level headed woman that she was, my Grandmother never thought she or anyone in the family would ever go to Scotland. So she threw it away. After her death in 1997, her legal papers and personal papers revealed nothing. Not a trace. So I decided to go to Scotland to find it for myself.

Well, needless to say, I actually did lead a very sheltered childhood. Naive isn't quite the word for it. I didn't get out of the state of Arkansas (Memphis didn't count since it was just across the river and was only for allergy shots in my youth) until I was in college. Only then it was Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. I didn't actually start travelling until after my first marriage. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not a nerd or a geek, although I know some and they are very nice people. I just didn't get out much so I didn't know a whole lot about anything.

Then I got my first computer. It was only in 1995 but I got one. I decided to do some research on Scotland. The first site I came across was something in Edinburgh and the college there (how amazing how the internet has changed in 12 years, eh?). I found a history professor (whose name escapes me) and we conversed back and forth about some castles there. He led me to a website that had photos of castles. I printed them all out and thought (much to my disappointment later on) that these were the only 12 castles in Scotland! Yes, I'm confessing to being a total idiot! So I decided to go to Scotland, on my own, and check them out in the library (not the actual castles, just information about them!) and figure out which was my family's castle. I got on the phone and started calling airlines. I found a fare in January for $400 only if travelling in March of that same year. I was $200 shy of the ticket on the deadline of getting it and cried for a week. (Little did I know I wasn't supposed to go then...it wasn't for me until much later.)

I got kind of discouraged at this and let much of the castle hunting go by the wayside.

Fast forward to 15 December 1997. That's when I knew I was going no matter what and that no one could stop me. Knowing that this lovely place was quite cool in the winter, I planned to go in the summer of '98. Setting the dates for the first two weeks in August, I was going go - hell or high water.

Until I found out how horribly expensive it is going on your own .... ALONE!! I then started begging my co-workers and friends to go along. My (now ex)husband cared as much about Scotland as I did about professional rasslin' (no offence Goldberg fans) so I knew he wasn't going to go even if the trip was free (which it wasn't, by any means!). I asked men, women, single, married, I didn't care as long as I had a companion to go on my trip. My ex wasn't the jealous type and needn't have been, not to worry. The last thing on my mind was anything like that  - I just wanted to go to Scotland!)

I asked well into January and finally, a lady I hardly knew walked up to me one day and asked, "Would it be okay if I went with you on your trip to Scotland?" FINALLY! Someone bit! Later I would learn she would become one of my very best friends on the face of the earth! In much shock, I yelled, "Of course!!! YES!!"

So that was that. I was on my way to Scotland. I didn't know what it was going to be like or what it was going to take to get there, but by Golly Miss Molly, I was going!

Let's Start Again ...

I have decided to start again and begin a new blog. I'm going to start from the beginning - stripping everything back. What I'll do is publish my previous trips for two reasons. For those of my friends who haven't read about my first experiences travelling to the place I eventually moved to but also for myself. I need to get back into the "habit" of writing again. So wish me luck! I'll be posting as much and as often as I can. And I will add photos whenever I can, as well.

Here's to the power of the word!! =)