Hogwarts Express

Fort William, Scotland, United Kingdom
Thursday, May 12, 2016

We planned to leave Pitlochry early anyway in order to be sure we would make it to Fort William in time to catch The Jacobite train, but based on my average driving speed, being unfamiliar with the road we would be taking, and googlemaps 1.75 hour estimated driving time, we thought it best to put a good 45-minute buffer into the drive and left Pitlochry around 7:15 a.m.

Our stay at Rosehill Guest House, while short was lovely, even with the train tracks in our back yard. Our host was kind enough to provide us with toast, since we were leaving well before breakfast was scheduled.

The first half of the drive was a breeze, being on a decently wide stretch of highway with plenty of room for two lanes, akin to the Mackenzie Highway although with trees close in. Ha, just noticed our NWT Highway No. 1 has a Scottish name. I must be tired. The second half of the drive was the part I was a little more concerned about, and it did in fact become narrower and windier, but not at all as bad as the stretch going down to Glasgow previously. It turns out googlemaps was right. Just slightly more than 1.75 hours after we left Pitlochry we parked at the train station in Fort William. A truly pleasant surprise. We even had time to have a bite to eat before boarding the Hogwart’s Express.

Yes, you read that correctly. The very train they used in Harry Potter is the train we took for a return trip to Mallaig. I surprised Dan (again) with first class seating in “cars recently refurbished in the Harry Potter style.” It was very cool, if I do say so myself.

The engine is a coal burning steam engine, upon which it is best to leave the car windows closed regardless of the heat due to the smoke and soot that was spewed by the engine and blown by the passing wind. And yes, we were very lucky again today to have remarkably warm weather and sunny skies

We sat with two very nice older couples, one from nearby Oban, the other from south England, and had wonderful conversations with them. The scenery was again spectacular. We went over the Glenfinnan Viaduct with its 21 stone arches — a truly spectacular feat of engineering built in 1898 — and stopped in Glenfinnan for a short visit. For those Immortal buffs, this is where Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod was born. The nearby monument to the Jacobite Battle of Culloden — currently under repairs for a foundation problem — is called the Unknown Highlander and, no, it is not referring to the Immortal. The monument stands on the site where Bonnie Prince Charlie placed his standard, calling the clans to arms against England.

Moving along, we passed the silver beaches of Loch Morar, where scenes of the Highlander movie were filmed, and a few more bridges and tunnels. In Mallaig we had an hour and a half to kill before returning to Fort William, so we had a seafood lunch at the harbour of this working fishing village and then watched a large car ferry depart from the port.

Our return trip was uneventful but enjoyable and, for us, was entirely worth it.

We checked into our hotel (the one and only time we are not staying in a B&B), and then took a drive to see Inverlochy Castle. It is a ruins of a castle which sat at the southern point of the waterways connecting to Inverness. It used to have a deep moat. It was owned by the Comyn family, who were very powerful in the region a few hundred years ago, until they stood against Robert the Bruce who effectively wiped them out in retaliation for their disloyalty. This is my spin on the story, so I might not have it entirely right. Did I mention I must be tired? The ruins were quite interesting to look around at and try to figure how it must have looked back in the day. It’s in a good state of disrepair, but Historic Scotland is working on it to preserve it. It sits on a very lovely area on the shore of a river. We also managed to get another geocache while here before heading back into town for supper.

We had reservations at The Tavern before which we took a stroll along High Street. The cobblestone street is primarily for pedestrians, containing hiking stores, sweet shops, and other touristy retailers, as well as several eateries and bars. The Tavern was a small, busy restaurant where we met Brian William Patrick Xavier Stewart (the second). Could there be anyone else with a name so associated with both Star Trek TNG and X-Men? He was a very nice, outgoing young man working at The Tavern.

Having been a very long day, I ended it with a bath before writing here, while Dan promptly fell asleep after having his shower. Tomorrow: Inverness.


Inverness, Scotland, United Kingdom
Friday, May 13, 2016

Today we experienced a rather lovely drive to Inverness broken into three parts with two stops at castles: Eilean Donan and Urquhart.

Eilean Donan is an old castle built on a tidal island at Dornie. It is located where three large lochs meet: Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long (ha – that’s Long Lake; a heck of a lot longer than our Long Lake).

Urquhart is an old castle built on a promontory on the shores of Loch Ness, at the northern end of the Great Glen.

Both pieces of land were first inhabited by about the sixth century AD: Eilean Donan by a Christian bishop probably from Ireland who established a cell there; Urquhart by a Pictish tribe that was visited by St. Columba and converted to Christianity.

Scottish King Alexander II granted the lands to two different noblemen in the early 1200s, tasking them with building the castles and governing the people. Both did what was required of them, and both suffered raids and various attacks over the centuries that eventually led to both castles being abandoned and left to ruin.

In 1911 Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap regained possession of Eilean Donan for his family and began rebuilding the castle to what it is today, with the significant help of Farquhar MacRae. Unfortunately, while the Colonel came to realize his dream, he did not survive to witness it, passing away a mere six months before its completion.

Urquhart Castle, on the other hand, had been purposely and spectacularly destroyed by the occupying Grant family when they realized they were about to lose it to the Jacobites. It remained empty and left to ruin. Historic Scotland came into possession and preserved the ruins and established them as a significant tourist facility, preserving the history not only of the castle and nobility, but also of the household hierarchy of its staff and tenants.

Dan and I found both visits very informative, and the respective architecture and engineering interesting. The two sites provided a juxtaposition between restoring a site to a ruin and restoring a site to a functional contemporary residence. Eilean Donan continues to be used by the MacRae family as a temporary residence on occasion.

On a side note, you can check Eilean Donan in the Highlander movie with Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, and you can check out Urquhart Castle in the PBS-NOVA special on trebuchets.

All in all, an interesting day. Our host at Inverglen Guest House seems very nice, our room is very bright and lovely, and we had a truly fantastic Italian dinner at a place called Little Italy.

Failed Castles and Rebellions

Inverness, Scotland, United Kingdom
Saturday, May 14, 2016

After yet another fabulous B&B breakfast, Dan and I drove to Duffus Castle in Duffus. Duffus Castle is a stonewall castle built on an earth and mound foundation of an old motte and bailey fortification. This turned out to be a bad idea, because before long the shitter fell out… No, really, the north wall of the tower, which contained the latrine, slid down the embankment. A castle’s no good without a shitter, so of course they had to abandon it. (Can you hear Dan in this writing?)

We found it curious that the castle, let alone the motte and bailey fortification, was out in the middle of nowhere. It literally now sits in the midst of a field, with no apparent water source for the moat. We also wondered what possessed the stonework castle owners to build on an earthworks foundation. It all seemed very odd. But it now makes for some pretty good photography.

Next stop was unplanned, as we had seen a sign for it on the way to Duffus. We made our way to Burghead where the largest Iron Age Pictish Fort used to be. The community has established a small volunteer visitors centre that has some great information on the site it sits on. Again, we found ourselves standing on a promontory overlooking the North Sea. On one side, the tide was out revealing a proper sand beach, from which parasurfers were doing their thing. On the other side was the main body of the ocean, with surf crashing against the rocks. The promontory clearly showed three levels going down to the sea shore, the highest level of which presumably was occupied by the chieftains (kings).

The entire site had once been surrounded by a stone and timber wall, which was topped by a row of stones with drawings of a bull on them. The bull represented strength, and was placed on the outward facing side of the wall so as to show visitors that they were approaching a strong tribe.

There is not really any evidence of the Pictish culture today, as they did not write their histories; they were absorbed by the Gaels, who became the Albans, who are now known as the Scots. The Pictish people were warriors, farmers, fishermen, sailors, and artists, and it is their art that is now being found that speaks to who they were.

Our last stop for the day was Culloden Moor, the site of the last Battle between the Jacobites and Cumberland’s English troops in 1746. The visitor’s centre is extremely well done and contains an extraordinary amount of information from the point of view of both sides. In fact, there may have been almost too much information to absorb in one visit. You definitely need at least two hours to really take everything in. The walk among the moors itself is quite sobering, and yet remains a tranquil experience. Historic Scotland is making efforts to restore the land to the same condition it was when the battle occurred to give visitors a better understanding of the terrain the parties were dealing with. Dan and I noted that if the land is currently anywhere near what it used to be, then not only would the kilted Scots have had to run through boggy, uneven ground, but also soft heather and spiky gorse. The English pretty much stayed in one place and let the Highlanders come to them, which was smart. I came away thinking somebody should have swatted Bonnie Prince Charlie across the back of the head for making his tired, hungry men fight in terrain they were not comfortable in.

Wagons and Wheels

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada
Sunday, May 15, 2016

We said our farewells to the lovely Susan and John at Inverglen Guest House in Inverness and headed out on a longer drive today. We broke it up by stopping at the Highland Folk Museum and The Falkirk Wheel.

The museum is an open air museum exhibiting lifestyles of the highland folk from the 1700s to the 1930s. The property is about 1.6 kilometres long, and you start at one end and make your way through time to the other. We visited the 1700s village first, since that was our main reason for coming and stayed within our travel theme. This is where the scenes from Outlander were filmed when they go around with the Mackenzies collecting rent and Dougal shows Jamie’s back to solicit Jacobite support, and where Claire comes upon the women setting dye in the cloth with piss. The village is very cool to walk around, and there are interactive activities and period appropriate villagers to talk to. One villager in particular is adamant that hens be properly identified: “A chicken is what you have on a plate; those are hens. The ducks are just a pain in the arse.”

The Falkirk Wheel is an engineering marvel. It’s a modern boat lift that replaces a series of 11 conventional locks. Check out the photos to get a better idea of what I’m talking about. We didn’t spend much time there, but it is designed with activities and park trails that you could easily make your visit a day trip on its own.

We’re staying tonight at Shieldhill Castle Hotel, which is actually more like a stately manor than a castle because there are no fortifications. There is a tower, and extensions have been added on over time. The core of the building has been standing since the 1190s. Our room is opulent, and called Bonnymuir. All the rooms are named after either a historically significant battle or person. The grounds are beautiful, the dining room serves great food, and the lounges are comfortable. There is a pigeon roost (dovecote or doocot) on the grounds that is purported to be a place that William Wallace met with his chiefs to plan battles. And the cat’s name is Oscar.

“Scenic” Routes with Lady SatNav

Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom
Monday, May 16, 2016

I don’t know for sure, but our Lady SatNav sure seems intent on showing us a lot of Scotland. It hasn’t failed yet that we always end up on some narrow back road in the middle of nowhere with a ridiculous speed limit of 60 mph. I’m sure she thinks she’s sending us on the fastest route, but the significantly reduced speeds I’ve been driving those roads surely negates any possible time benefit they could possibly have provided. There was one point today when I just had to put my foot down, so to speak, and say hell no, not taking THAT road. Now, there is the benefit that we did, in fact, see a lot of Scotland’s fantastic scenery. To be more precise, Dan saw a lot of Scotland’s scenery. I was too busy keeping my eyes on the road.

Shieldhill Castle Hotel provided a very nice breakfast before our departure today. Our first stop was at Culzean Castle (pronounced kul-EEN — again with the unnecessary letters; I’m sure they do it just to mess with foreigners). The castle and grounds were truly amazing. The castle is built in a cliff side promontory (that’s beginning to look like our unintended theme) on the west coast of the island, south of Glasgow. It was built by the Kennedy family (not the US presidential one, although they are from the area), and designed by an architect by the name of Robert Adams. Adams was pretty much given free reign to do what he liked with the buildings, and it is said it was his crowning achievement. President Eisenhower stayed there often, calling it his Scottish Whitehouse. The place has been extremely well cared for, and it is now operated by the National Trust of Scotland. There are numerous artefacts throughout the building, and guided tours are available. There are even a number of suites in the uppermost floors available to stay in. When Dan and I win the lottery we’ll come back and stay there for a few days.

Next stop was Troon. It is on the beach there where Outlander filmed the scenes where Jamie, Claire, and Murdoch leave Scotland for France. It is also where Dan and I had a light lunch, at a small place called Blueberry Cafe, and where I finally found a place that had cupcakes. For whatever reason I’ve been craving a cupcake during this entire trip. The town is comfortable, the beach is huge, and the view, even on a cloudy day like today, is gorgeous.

We’re staying tonight at the Ashtree House Hotel, which is actually a little fancier than I expected. Nice, for our last night in Scotland. We had a fantastic supper at the College Bar just around the corner.

Time to Go

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada
Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Well, our Scotland trip has come to an end. If it wasn’t time to go back to work to pay for it we’d probably stay longer. Alas, real life, and our nearly grown children, beckons.

We face being awake for roughly 24-hours, roughly 14 of them in the air, with stops in Halifax, Toronto, and Calgary. A long haul, but we’ll sleep well tonight, with many wonderful memories and a desire to return to Scotland.

A few tips for next time:

– since Westjet doesn’t seem to want to fly the 737 out of Yellowknife anymore, there is no point buying Plus seating for the Yellowknife to Calgary segment. So, use Airmiles to get to Toronto and pay the upgrade to Plus for the Calgary to Toronto segment. Buy the Plus seating from Toronto to Glasgow separately, hopefully on a seatsale. That way we’ll still be getting sweet seating, but paying much less for it.

– we really don’t need to pack our GPS’s and accessories in our carry on bag (little miss paranoid here). Even if our stuff does get lost, our travel insurance and the airline replacement coverage should get us replacements. Save your back and only bring as carry on your iPhone, iPad, charging cables, your passport, and your wallet. Maybe a book, small blanket, and pillow.

– if your jumping around to different B&Bs nearly every night again, pack an overnight bag for your toiletries, pyjamas, and a change of clothes to bring to your room. Leave the big suitcase locked in the car. B&Bs tend to have numerous stairs to the rooms and no lifts, so hauling all your luggage up them gets really tiresome.

– pack more underwear and socks than you think you’ll need. The launderette will inevitably manage to lose some of them.

– make sure you are actually reserving an AUTOMATIC vehicle, not a standard or manual. Poor souls like myself, while I might be able to manage a standard in an emergency, are not remotely competent enough to drive them on high traffic areas let alone extremely narrow roads. Might be best to try and phone the car rental company directly to make sure you’re getting what you ask for.