Monday, October 10, 2016

Scotland 2016

Ten Years.  It’s a milestone, and after ten years of blissful marriage, a travel-loving couple ought to celebrate with a trip worthy of the event.

Scotland and Iceland have always been on our wish list, and although the original plan included visits to both, my “European Work” event of 2016 and all the additional travel that created for everyone meant that scaling back to “just Scotland” was the smart thing to do.  Kelly set out planning our next trip of a lifetime, and left me in the dark – just as I requested.  “I don’t want to know what’s happening until we pull into the parking lot,” I said quite bravely.  

Our flight out from Chicago was a bit delayed in departing, but it’s funny how that’s not really a big deal when sitting in International First Class – HA!  We enjoyed the fine dining, cocktails, and cushy lie-flat reclining seats for the nine hours to Dublin.  Then reality slapped us around a bit on our propeller powered puddle hopper (we got bumped due to the plane being above weight). We arrived a few hours late, unscathed and welcomed by unseasonably dry and warm weather in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle
Friday: Day one started with a short nap in the swanky Old Town apartment that Kelly booked – a veritable stone’s throw from Edinburgh Castle.  Jet lag induced Zombie-ness  subdued, we went out for a walk through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival followed by dinner at a proper pub.  That night we could hear the bagpipes and drums from the Castle just up the hill.  

Saturday: Day two in Edinburgh, we visited the excellent National Museum of Scotland listened to a few street buskers, and caught a decent comedian putting on a free show.  After dinner we enjoyed premium seats at the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo, which showcased bands, pipes and drums, drill teams and dancers from all over the world, capped off with fireworks and more perfect weather.
Glengoyne Distillery
Sunday: The next morning we drove north – out of the hectic city and quickly into the countryside. First stop was the Glengoyne distillery where Kelly had arranged a private Malt Master class for us to tour the facility and try our luck at mixing our own whisky from cask samples.   The results were…interesting…?  We managed to swill our own very booze throughout trip (and also used a bit of it to clean cuts and scrapes acquired during later hikes, but never mind if it served better as an antiseptic). Yeah, it was a wee bit strong. 

Finnich Glen
On our way north to the Highlands we found a hidden place called Finnich Glen.  We hiked down a muddy gorge to a spot called the Devil’s Pulpit, located in an 80-100 foot ravine, cut by a copper colored river.  There are mysterious light shafts and features in the rock walls that seem to form faces that follow your movements.  We were a bit apprehensive about the approach (known as “The Devil’s Steps”), a steep, slick, muddy descent with nothing stopping a potential fall - until we saw a couple kids and a Shih Tzu come bounding up the gully.  So um, yeah, guess we’re goin’ in, damn the consequences and white fluffy dogs be damned too.  Safely at the bottom and only slightly butt muddied, we wade in the frigid waters and were surprised to find that we could see our breath in the cool air. Properly wet and dirty, we left there and started our real journey – to Glencoe. 

You know, I’ve heard people talk about how beautiful the Scottish Highlands are.  We’ve been around the world a bit, and seen some pretty cool places, natural wonders, etc. so like, how “beautiful” could the Highlands possibly be…honestly?

Holy.  Fu&k!ng.  Sh/tB@lls.

I don’t think there has been anywhere as stunning as the landscape we’ve enjoyed as much as the Highland mountains and hills around Glencoe.  We can’t take a picture or describe in words how remarkable it is.  Driving around windy roads, hiking on trails, and saying to each other, “oh look over to the left, the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.  And to the right, the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.  And straight ahead oh DAMMIT IT’S THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEW I HAVE EVER SEEN. Just knock it off already OMG…SERIOUSLY?!?!?  WITH THE RAINBOWS???!!!”
We stayed at a lovely Bed and Breakfast, and had dinner that night at the famed  Clachaig Inn, sharing a table with a honeymooning Dutch couple (seriously…who do I need to pay off for these people to leave me alone?) while listening to live Scottish music. Monday We hiked the Devil’s Staircase – a wee hill trail that’s included as part of the West Highland Way (think Appalachian Trail but shorter, and with a Scottish accent). Upon advice of our B&B host, we went off trail the extra 150 meters up to the top of Stob Mhic Mhartuin for fantastic views down the glens. Later that day, thoroughly exhausted and blistered and windblown , we drove the road to James Bonds Skyfall house – in Glen Etive. 
Munro - Stob Mhic Mhartuin

Tuesday: Next day was spent on a quest for a mysterious art gallery somewhere on the road to the Isle of Mull, and another in Oban…which involved 3 increasingly larger ferry rides and a glimpse of the outer highlands before the Western Isles and the Hebrides rise from the sea– definitely places on our itinerary for the next visit. 
Somewhere on Mull

 Wednesday: Sad to leave Glencoe, we took a drizzly drive east to Cairngorms National Park, making a stop at the Highland Folk Museum to check out how folks in the 1700’s lived in the mud and thatched roofs and stuff. And some crazy talk about it being an “Outlander” film location. Not necessarily “riveting,” but interesting, and enough of a time killer until Kelly’s next surprise...

Highland Folk Museum
Kelly navigates us to our next stop - rather sheepishly...(ha!) a working sheep farm with BORDER COLLIES!!!   I try to contain all the feels and watch the black-and-whites at work during a herding demonstration.  And I really had held it all together quite well…Until… 

They unleashed.  The PUPPIES.  And I seriously considered the ramifications of sneaking one lovely little lady out in my jacket.  No, I’m NOT CRYING.  I just have a little dust or something.  In both of my eyes…

We expected the Cairngorms to be of “lesser” grandeur than Glencoe, but honestly they did not disappoint at all.  We enjoyed driving on steep and windy roads past rivers and castles, in and out of little towns and villages, past rolling hills of heather, arriving at a cabin in the woods that Kelly had booked for 3 relaxing nights.  

After using the first day to stock the kitchen and catch our breath a bit from all the week’s activities, Thursday finds us just chilling out around the property, walking among the forests of the estate, which whets our appetite for something “bigger.”  So Friday we went to the Linn o’ Dee (such funny names around these parts) for a seven mile hike towards An Sgarsoch (we stopped at the White Bridge). The delightfully flat path took us through a winding heather covered valley next to the River Dee. 
Linn O'Dee
Luckily we picked a nice breezy day in an open locale to avoid the midges (nasty, bitey, little nosee-em bugs…way worse than any mosquito swarm…) and for mile after mile enjoy sun and clouds, wind and a misty rain, bikers and hikers, and saw stone settlements along the river valley that were abandoned long ago.  We said a cheery hello to several packs of unsupervised teens on scout camping trips – after all, with basically zero crime and benign wildlife, how much danger could they possibly get into?

Saturday was our drive from the Cairngorms back to Edinburgh, with a stop off at Kelly’s final surprise destination – the Braemar Gathering – for a day of Highland Games. 

Once again we’re flooded with the sounds of bagpipes and drums and thick Scottish brogues as we watch foot races, dance-offs, high jumpers, tug-o-war contests, and big stout men in kilts throwing unreasonable large objects.  There’s whisky and food, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.  No, really!  The spry 90 year old monarch, being the patron of the games, attends them almost every year, so we chummed up, shared some grub, whisky toasts, and talked about the whole Brexit nonsense.  She liked my ideas, totally has a plan now.

From Braemar, we drove all the way back to Edinburgh, with a quick stop in Perth.  It took some mental adjusting as we got closer and closer to the capital city as the roads got busier and busier.  We returned the car and made our way to the hotel for our flight to Amsterdam the following day.  Don’t worry, we only spent about 24 frantic hours in The Netherlands to gather up my things from the work assignment which is now ended.  The following day we caught a flight with Iceland Air back to Chicago, which is cool because it means a quick layover in (duh…) ICELAND!  Although we didn’t leave the airport, we did get our passports stamped, and got a chance to speak to some other travelers about their visit and are certain that we’ll make it there for a proper vacation in the future.  Until then, we’re both back in the US for the foreseeable future.

A map of our travels: