Thursday, 13 April 2017

A Highland Fling! - 1 of 2

This year the family had our summer holiday early - we went to the Scottish Highlands!  When I was young we had a holiday by Loch Ness, going as far north as Fort William, but it was long enough ago that I only remember bits and pieces of it. On my last solo trip I went to Edinburgh and Aviemore, and had wanted to explore further north again, so this was the perfect choice for a trip away together.

Day 1 - Travelling north

Travelling by RV up the coastal road, not long after crossing the Scottish border it became clear that we were entering a different kind of landscape.

Once you pass Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge, you start to leave the Lowlands and hump-backed granite hills, deep blue in the distance and the ruddy-purplish-ochre of heather branches as they draw closer, begin to loom over you.  They're moody but not oppressive, and when the sunlight hits them they glow gold.

Not that there was much light on the way up.  We drove through some heavy rain right in the middle of the Cairngorms, but did get a rainbow out of it.  Scotland was happy to see us!

Our home for the week was a cabin by Loch Achilty.  It was gloriously warm, all the time, and less than ten metres from the edge of the loch.  We walked along it almost every day, and Emma and I even jogged along it a few times.  In addition to owning the loch, our hosts also owned Toby The Dog, who appeared at our back door for cuddles.

Day 2 - Fort George

We spent most of the first morning recovering from our day of driving, exploring the loch and enjoying the 'beardy lichen'.  Then in the afternoon went to find the amenities and pick up my youngest sister who had flown up from London. It was a ridiculously sunny day, and we went for a wander round the nearby Fort George, catching up on each other's news, climbing on all the cannons, and optimistically (because it's too early in the year yet) looking for dolphins in the Moray Firth.

The fort was built shortly after the battle of Culloden, to discourage anyone from trying to come down the firth and attack Inverness, and apparently it worked because it was never even put to the test!  The fort is still used as a training barracks, and the soldiers (we saw a few, wandering through with suitcases) have to jog round the perimeter, fully kitted up, in just five minutes.  I had a go without kit and managed it in six and a half, which isn't too bad really. It's longer than it looks, because of the way the walls turn in and then back out again, trapping potential attackers beneath you were you can pick them off.  You can also see, among other things, the Dog Cemetary, where the faithful doggies of numerous officers have been laid to their furry rest!

Day 3 - Inverness

Once we'd all arrived and settled in, we went into Inverness to have a look around.  Scotland's school holidays are a little different from England's so the city was almost eerily quiet.  It's not a large place anyway, despite being one of the fastest growing populations in Scotland, but I like my cities small anyway.  At Nathan's request we checked out the botanical gardens, which turned out to be quite nice.  We especially enjoyed the wildflower garden and cactus pit!

We went up to the castle, which has a great view over the river and found that it also marks one end of the Great Glen Trail - an 80mile stretch that goes down to Fort William along Loch Ness.  Immediately Mum and I got a glint in our eyes - we're almost done with the North Norfolk Coastal Path and need to decide what to walk next!

We also popped our heads into the Victorian Market, which is distinctive for it's lovely metalwork.  The market burned down in 1889, although no one died except for a dog who refused to leave the shop he was guarding, and was rebuilt in 1891.  It now features painted wooden sign marking the occasion, which commemorates Queen Victoria as Britain's longest reigning monarch... and then an addendum mentioning that Elizabeth II recently beat the record.

Most of the shops there are modern businesses, although some do deal in tartan and heraldry, which led to a very interesting discussion of my Glasgow-born grandfather on Mum's side.  His mother, Helen Ballantine, had him out of wedlock, and due to the stigma of the time he was given to her mother to be raised as her son.  When Mrs Ballantine Sr. remarried salesman Mr Crozier of Essex and went to live with him down in the south she took baby Douglas with her and although he knew about his Scottish roots (and his claim to the Haye tartan, which we now share) and his adoption, for much of his life he was unaware that it was his own grandmother who had adopted him.

To end the day, Emma and I went for a jog along the loch.  I'm trying to get back into jogging, and she goes round Battersea Park twice a week so it seemed that we'd be a bit unevenly matched, but it turned out that a 2.1 mile round trip was a good compromise.  We stopped at the end of the loch to look at the view and take the obligatory selfie to prove we'd been done the run!

Day 4 - Loch Ness, Castle Urquhart & Glen Affric

What trip to the Highlands would be complete without a stop at Loch Ness?  The last time we were here, we visited the Loch Ness Monster museum, which I found very funny because of course it's just a big repository of conspiracy theories and fuzzy photographs, but it turns out the legend is based in something.  The missionary St Columba is supposed to have come across a serpent that ate travellers across the River Ness, but he just casually forbade it from eating any more people, banished it to the loch and went on his way!  

Castle Urquhart was held Alan Durward in around 1230, who used it to protect travellers on the loch.  However after his death it became the source of squabbling, ambushes, raids, battles and all sorts, being such a well fortified and defensible place.  Not until it's Jacobite owner blew up the gatehouse in 1690 was it overcome. We took the tour (Always take the tour!) which was led by the very knowledgeable and humourous Graham Fraser.  It  mainly featured people being bossed into various conflicts by their leige-lords, which seems to be a bit of a common theme on our holiday.  It seemed very strange to us that you would leave your livelihood to go off and fight for someone whose rule really had very little influence over your own life, but then there were no police in those days - might was right and you'd best try and be on the correct side at the end of the battle.

There was even time for a bit of drawing, although it brightened up shortly after so my painting looks positively dull by comparison!  I'm a bit obsessed by the colours here, and loved trying to capture the mix of gold-ochre, dusky purple and deep blues of the hills.

Also in the area is Glen Affric, supposedly the most beautiful Glen in the Highlands, which is quite a claim!  So we drove up to the lower car park at Dog Falls first, to play on the rocks and investigate more frogspawn than I have ever seen in my life!

We drove on, past two long silent lochs, the scenery getting more alpine by the minute, then parked at the very top car park and made the short walk to the viewpoint.  What met our eyes seemed more like a painting that real life.  We were almost up on the snowline, with the remnants of the original ancient Caledonian pine forest spread out before us...

Who lives in Strawberry Cottage, we wonder.  And more importantly, would they like a few guests?

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