Tuesday, July 5, 2011

a journey of a lifetime. [day one]

I'll admit I had pretty normal expectations for this trip. It was with a touristy tour company called Macbackpackers and while I was looking forward to seeing all the of the things listed on the website's description of the tour, I knew I wouldn't get to see everything I wanted to and have to put up with around twenty other people vying for the best photo op and just generally around to get on my nerves. While, yes, there were a few people on the tour who bugged me, it was enormously outweighed by the genuinely likable other people on the tour, the quirky fount-of-knowledge that was our tour guide, Ewan MacLeod, and the splendor of the landscape and scenery that constantly surrounded us. And also while, no, I didn't necessarily get to see all that I wanted (that's most likely an impossibility at this point) we got to see and experience things that were way above and beyond the things I was expecting--which was pretty amazing.
Let me start at the beginning. We left Edinburgh around 9AM on Monday morning and headed north, over the Forth Bridge and into the Kingdom of Fife, all the while hearing stories about the places we were going through, Edinburgh, over the Firth of Forth and the bridge, talking about the origins of 'a botched job' and the unfairness of the moniker. The land surrounding us was already beautiful and just kept on being gorgeous as we passed small towns and large towns, stone house ruins, and little wooden bridges. Our first stop was Dunkeld, a small town on the edge of the Highlands perched on the powerful River Tay with an ancient stone cathedral and narrow village roads. We stopped shortly to see the cathedral and get some lunch--and both were lovely. The Church has been around in Dunkeld for over 1400 years when Celtic monks used it as a base for mission work, it's location at the edge of the Highlands and Lowlands being ideal.

We piled back onto the bus with a whetted appetite for what was to come, yet I know for Jeremy and I, we would have liked to spend a little more time at the cathedral--we only had about a half an hour to see it, get our lunch, and be back on the bus. But a little time is better than no time.
The next stop was Ruthven Barracks ruins, but on the way we went through the pass of Killiecrankie and heard the story of the Jacobite rebel, Bonnie Dundee, who in 1689 routed the English government with only 3500-5000 men and three guns. Dundee used guerilla tactics and the knowledge and familiarity he and his men had of the land and, far outnumbered and up against new warfare technology--grenades among other things, defeated the English gloriously.
Ruthven Barracks were built by the English in 1719 after the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715 in an attempt to get a better rein on the Highlands. The Jacobites set fire to the barracks to rile the English, and what stands today is for the most part what was left by the departing Jacobites after the Rising of 1745.

We then took an unscheduled stop, as our guide called it, at Tomatin Distillery, where we took a tour of the distillery and store house and then sampled it's 'water of life' or uisge beatha as it's called in Gaelic. I'm not a huge whisky fan, but it's growing on me. I can definitely appreciate a hot totty on a frigid Scottish winter night, and it does set a small warming fire in the pit of your stomach that warms you long after you've stopped drinking it. Jeremy, however, is definitely a fan of whisky and thoroughly enjoyed the tour and the taste we got afterwards. We also procured ourselves some whisky fudge, which I for one can most assuredly get on board with.

Checkin' out those legs on the 12 year old. Whisky, of course. Hah.

After the whisky tour we continued on our way up into the Highlands, passing gorgeous scenery after more breath-taking hills and lochs. After a little while, Ewan decided to take us on a couple detours near Inverness, telling us that'd we be a little late into Kyleakin that night, but it'd be worth it. And goodness, was it! Firstly, just outside of Inverness we stopped at Clava Cairns, ancient stone memorials of stacked rocks as well as standing stones in the midst of an old moss-covered forest. It was incredible to behold. I wished it could have been just Jeremy and me there, so other people wouldn't spoil the solemnity and grandeur of the place, but it was amazing enough even with them there. The cairns date back nearly four thousand years and are a Bronze Age prehistoric site of a cemetery. The entire area comprises passage graves, ring cairns, kerb cairns, and standing stones which together make for a beautiful setting and mystical atmosphere with the surrounding forest and rolling hills in the distance. 

Too soon we had to be off again, and this time we were headed for another solemn but infinitely more somber stop: Culloden Battlefield. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite men took one last stand here, just outside of Inverness on 16 April 1746. Tired and hungry from their long march from England, Charles Stuart's army fought bravely. The battle took place in less than an hour, but the repercussions from this battle can still be felt to this day. Nearly 2000 Jacobites were killed or wounded in the battle while the English Government's losses were substantially smaller. The aftermath of the battle and subsequent crackdown on Jacobitism was brutal and violent, earning the Duke of Cumberland--who saw the deeds done and no quarter given--the moniker of "Butcher". Following this harrowing loss, steps were taken to further integrate Scotland into the Kingdom of Britain; civil penalties were introduced to weaken Gaelic culture, outlawing the speaking of the Gaelic language and the wearing of traditional Highland dress, as well as an attack the Scottish clan system. The short time we had to walk around the seemingly now peaceful battlefield were sobering, and as we neared the large stone cairn towards the center of the field built in memorial to the sacrifice of the brave dead we also passed large stones on either side of the path marking the mass graves of the clans who fought there. It was hard to hold back the tears that sprung to my eyes as I passed the stones and felt the ghosts of men whose lives were cut far too short fighting for their country and their families, fighting for something they loved and believed in whole-heartedly.

We had some time on the bus to regain our composure as we drove through Inverness and toward the western coast toward the Isle of Skye. We had few short stops at Loch Ness then Urquhart Castle, then we drove through the area called Kintail, through some of the most breath-taking mountains I've ever seen--and coming from Western North Carolina, that's saying something. I kept wanting to stop and take photos, but we didn't so the only shots I got were out of the dirty bus window.

Lovely, but the stains on the window really don't do it justice. Anyway, we didn't stop until we reached Eilean Donan castle which is one of the most recognized and photographed castles in Scotland being in such movies as 'Highlander', 'Entrapment', and 'Made of Honor'. Just look at the photos I managed to get and you'll see why.

It was only a little further after this that we were in Skye. After a quick stop at the store for some neccesities, we crossed the bridge to Skye, the Cuillin hills in the distance across the water on our right and the little sea town of Kyleakin, where we were staying, on our left. This was the view we had from our room at the hostel.

We got situated in our cute little house that the hostel was in, and we had the rest of the evening to do what we liked. We got dinner at the local pub, Saucy Mary's, then went walked along the coast. We went towards the castle ruins, which was used by the Vikings in ages past to control the narrow strait between mainland Scotland and that coastline of Skye. 

After meandering towards the castle, we thought we might miss the sunset, so we turned back to walk over the bridge and get some shots of the sun going down behind the Cuillins. There really aren't any words I could use to describe the beauty and peace of that sunset, and I really don't want to even try, because I know that I'll fall far, far short of what we really experienced. Even the photographs don't do it complete justice. 

We walked back into town still awed at what we had just beheld. By the time the sun was completely down, though it wasn't really completely dark, it was around midnight or later. The summer dim was in full effect the nights we were there, it never got fully dark, the light always kept a hold, if tenuous, on nightfall. It was lovely.
We stayed up in the hostel talking and carousing with the friends we had made on the tour, and finally went to bed, in anticipation of what the next day held.

I think I'm going to post this as 'day one' and do day by day posts, because with working on my dissertation and other things I really don't know how often I'll get to work on this. So here you go, day one of our adventure in the Highlands and the Isle of Skye. Hopefully days two and three will be able to be written and enjoyed within the next few weeks.


Amethyst said...

Absolutely breathtaking. I've seen many of the pictures already off Facebook, but with your words to accompany them, I found them far more potent. I was there with you, a little bit :) I can't wait to hear the rest of the story of the jaunt! Well done!

Faith said...

Every time I start to envy your pictures and life, I just remind myself... 63 degrees and rainy in July. and all is cured. :)

Caitlin said...

To be fair, it hasn't rained like this the whole time, and I quite enjoy not being blasted with balmy humidity when I walk out the door. But yes, you're right, you take some and you give some for experiences like these.
But I can't wait to be home.