Isle of Skye I – The Trotternish Peninsula


The word “skye” means “cloudy” in Old Norse, and for those not familiar with Old Norse, this island is also fondly known as “The Misty Isle”.  We did experience its namesake conditions, but we were lucky; the weather was good most of the time.  The island is gorgeous, atmospheric and dramatic, with stark mini-mountains dotting the landscape.  Although the island is large, the shoreline has many lobes that jut out into the sea; no spot is more than 5 miles from a beach.  Even better, with the mountainous mainland nearby (previous post), and a number of small islands scattered offshore, views off to sea are pretty awesome.  Below are pictures from our drive into Skye.

That last picture is the view from our B&B; off in the distance is the Old Man of Storr; we’ll visit it tomorrow.


We’re going to do a circuit around one of the island’s loops, the Trotternish Peninsula, which sports a rugged, unique landscape formed by massive landslides thousands of years ago.  Our first stop is The Storr, the highest Storr, and the Old Man - on a sunny day(2400 ft) mini-mountain on this peninsula, anchoring the southern end of the Trotternish Ridge.  In particular we’re visiting the Old Man of Storr, that little spike of rock on the right side of this picture.  During the landslides, the Old Man landed on its end; after much weathering it’s still a 160 ft high vertical chunk of stone.  This picture of the Storr, by the way, is from a different day that was sunny.  Today it’s overcast and gloomy, as you can see in the pictures below.  However, even in these misty

clouds The Storr is a strikingly beautiful sight – and The Old Man is pretty impressive.

Traveling further, we are treated to beautiful views that combine the sea, off-shore islands and mainland.  The mountains behind us aren’t bad either.

A bit further we come to ruins of an old tannery (below), abandoned during the Highland Clearances that began in the 1800’s; many residents were forced off the island by aristocratic landowners who wanted more room for their livestock.  Nearby is Kilt Rock, a 200 ft cliff; its vertical lava columns look like pleats on a skirt, and paired with those horizontal striations, it resembles a kilt.  There’s also the spectacular Mealt Waterfall doing its lemming thing off the cliff.  The views are awesome.

For a change of pace, we dip down to stroll on the beach at Staffin Bay.  It’s a pretty place.

Next we take an inland road to Quirang, a name from the Gaelic for “pillared enclosure”.  The road rises steeply, and we’re now at the upper end of the Trotternish Ridge.  The view is stunning, and we decide to investigate further by hiking the trail that starts from the road.  The trail is a loop, about 6 miles long but with 1400 feet of climb, and we’re not

at all sure we’ll do it all, since time (sunlight) and effort are an issue.  We think we’ll go at least to that center rock formation in the right image (above), called “The Prison”, and look over the edge to see what we can see.  As we walk, the views to our right become

increasingly stunning, as shown above.  Alas, we will not make it to The Prison.  It’s not an easy trail.  From the first and last pictures just above, you will note that we’re on a really, really steep hillside – sometimes disconcertingly steep.  Worse, parts of the trail are quite difficult to navigate, particularly where the water flowing from those waterfalls cuts though the trail, requiring a transition from hiking to (wet) rock climbing over a crevice.

Those traverses are tough, and after doing the first one, Ginger decides she has had enough and heads back.  I decide to push on to The Prison, but after awhile I realize it’s further than it looks, and I too turn back.  The view going back is just spectacular, as you can see below.  Note to self – do this loop hike another day!   It’s too pretty to miss!

Near the tip of the peninsula are the crumbling remains of Duntulm Castle (below), built in the 1300’s and 1400’s when the area was subject to feuds between rival MacLeod and

MacDonald clans.  In the 1600’s the castle was the seat of the chiefs of Clan MacDonald.  It was abandoned in 1732 when the MacDonalds built a new castle further south on Skye (taking much of this castle’s stone for the new one).  As shown below, the mountains are still gorgeous even way out here near the peninsula tip.

A bit further on, we encounter the Skye Museum of Island Life consisting of several thatched stone huts, some of them original (200+ yrs old), illustrating how a typical Skye family lived back then.  Alas, the museum was just closing as we arrived.  The largest hut, The Old Croft House shown below, consists of 3 rooms: a kitchen, also serving as the main

living area (where a peat fire would be lit every minute of the year); the parents’ bedroom off the kitchen; and beyond that the children’s bedroom (for as many as 12 kids).  Note the clever design; the stones that hang from the roof keep the thatch from blowing away, and the edges of the buildings are curved to redirect the wind.

Crofts in the village of UigWe’re nearing the end of the loop, here looking back at the village of Uig.  Note, near the center of the image, the parallel strips of land with a house at the top.  In the old days the land was owned by Scottish clans or English aristocrats who divided it into these crofts and rented it to tenant farmers who eked out a bare living.  Today they’re privately owned plots, but their history is still visible.

Back at our B&B, I take a few final shots of The Storr as evening sets in, and then a couple of night shots of the nearby city of Portree and its Loch.


Next post: Isle of Skye II – Fairy Glen, Dunvegan, and The Cuillin Hills.


Highlands III – Scotch Whiskey & Eilean Donan Castle


We’re off to see Scotland’s Isle of Skye – taking yet another path through the Highlands – and whiskey distilleries are on the way!  I’m excited: I love learning experiences.  First stop is for whiskey, in the small town of Pitlochry.  Just outside the town is Blair Athol Distillery, which makes a 12-yr old single malt – but in very limited quantities.  Almost

all of the production of this smooth and mellow scotch is used in their Bell’s Blend whiskey, probably the most popular blend in the UK – it’s prominently featured in all the bars.  Like almost all Scotch distilleries, pictures of their internal processes are forbidden, but I’ve included a picture of two of their stills (above ) from their website.  I’ve described the process of making Scotch in an earlier post (“Oban, and the Highlands I“, Aug 31, 2015).

But wait!  There’s another distillery nearby, the Edradour Distillery, the smallest in Scotland.  It’s maybe an hour walk uphill, through woods, and off I go (Ginger opts out since the skies are threatening).  It’s a great walk through pretty woods and includes a side

trail to the “Black Spout”, a nice waterfall (shown above).  The fields here are beautifully pastoral, and in this gloomy light are not just green but impossibly green.

Edradour Distillery is as charming as a distillery can be, nestled in a picturesque setting in The Edradour Distillerythe middle of nowhere.  It’s one of the few independently owned distilleries left in Scotland, and prides itself on using a minimum of machinery.  Unlike other distilleries, this one allows photos!  So now I can show you the interior!  The first two pictures below show the two-story vats where mashing and fermentation occur.  The vats are wood!  I’ve only seen stainless before.   Fermentation goes to about 8% alcohol (and has a strong beer aroma).  The fermented “wash” then undergoes double distillation.  The two

stills in the following pictures (stills for the 1st and 2nd distillations) have noticeably different shapes.  The first distillation produces a “low wine” condensate, alcohol content around 20%.  That picture of glass chambers shows where the condensate from the second still is separated into “cuts” – the stillman physically throws a lever to direct the flowing distillate to different places.  The lower alcohol 1st cut (the “head” and the higher alcohol 3rd cut (the “tail”) are returned to the still for further distillation; the middle “heart” cut is the good stuff, which goes to American bourbon barrels to age for about a decade.  One of the distillery’s clever use of resources is the creek that zooms through their property.  It’s the source of their water, of course, but it’s also used to form the still’s condensate; the cooling pipes from the still are looped into the steam’s running water.  Now, with yummy

Scotch in my tummy, there is a nice downhill walk home through that luscious green landscape.

The edge of Cairngorms National ParkWe travel onward, and we’re back in the Highlands for sure, at the base of Cairngorms National Park.  It’s beautiful, but also stark, treeless, barren, empty.  Further on, still at the edge of Cairngorms, what do we find?   Whoppeee, Dalwhinne Distillery!  It’s one of the highest in Scotland (at 1200 ft above the sea, Scotland thinks it’s high.  But let’s be clear; it’s not much higher than Cleveland).  Another whiskey tour, another tasting,

another great learning experience!  Good stuff.


On! On!  We’re now on a  Mountains in the distancebroad plain, but mountains beckon in the distance.  As we enter a hilly region, we encounter our first coo, a hardy breed of shaggy, red-coated cattle that survives well in these hostile Highlands.  With their long hair and rakish look they’re adorable!  Not often one can say that about a cow.

We’ve left the national park, but the landscape keeps getting more beautiful, with lakes and rivers everywhere.

We come to a long lake (Loch Laggan? Lochy?) and decide to take a short hike.  It’s pretty, with birch trees, ferns, moss and even a small waterfall.

As we travel further there are even more lakes, but in the distance we begin to see the bare, spare hills of the Highlands.

And then we’re in a Highland moor, defined by its openness, poor drainage, and

ubiquitous heather.  It has a rugged, other-worldly beauty.  Have you noticed that the skies are threatening in all of the pictures in this post?  Apparently that’s the norm; the inn shown above has a brochure that reads “And when you’ve had a long day on the hills, you can relax in warmth and comfort in our lounge and whisky bar … and get a refreshing night’s sleep while your equipment dries off, ready for the next day’s activities.”   My italics.

More Highland scenery.


In the early 1200’s the Eilean Donan Castle was built on a small island at the strategic junction where 3 sea lochs meet, likely as a defense against Viking raids.  It became a stronghold of the MacKenzie Clan and their allies the MacRae Clan.  Today it’s one of Scotland’s more beautiful castles due to it’s picturesque location; indeed, it has become

an iconic image of Scotland.  It comes with some history (of course; this is Europe).  When James IV of Scotland tried to exert his authority over outlying clans in early 1500, sending an Earl and garrison to take Eilean Donan, they were defeated by the Mackenzies (10 years later son James V was peacefully hosted at the castle).  In 1539 Clan MacDonald sent 50 ships against Eilean Donan, attempting to claim “King of the Isles”, but just 3 men within the castle repelled the attack (two surviving).  In 1719 Eilean Donan was used as a supply base for the Jacobite army and a garrison for its Spanish allies, but government frigates (48-gun and 44-gun) bombarded it, captured it, took the castle’s own gunpowder and blew it up; a month later the Jacobite army was defeated just a few miles away.  200 years later a MacRae descendant restored the castle to its present state.  The pictures below show a peek inside.

These last pictures show Loch Alsh and the mountains (big hills, really) of the Isle of Skye in the distance.

Next post – the beautiful Isle of Skye!


Edinburgh II – the castle, St. Giles’ Cathedral, and the Hogmanay

Edinburgh Castle (and Ginger posing)We’re off to tour Edinburgh Castle.  From the craggy heights of Castle Rock, this mighty fortress dominates Edinburgh’s skyline.  It is believed that a stronghold existed atop this volcanic rock since 600 AD; there has been a royal castle on the site since at least 1100.  As one of the more important strongholds in Scotland, Edinburgh Castle was involved in numerous historical conflicts, suffering through 26 known sieges in its long history.  It claims to be the most besieged place in Great Britain (and one of the most attacked in the world).  I’ll illustrate by covering just 45 years.  In 1296 English King Edward I invaded Scotland during the First War of Scottish Independence, capturing the castle when it surrendered after 3 days of bombardment.  Nearly two decades later in 1314 it was recaptured in a surprise night attack by the Scots, who scaled the near-vertical north cliff face; the castle’s defenses were destroyed to prevent re-occupation by the English.  Twenty years later in 1333 the English King Edward III occupied and refortified the castle during the Second War of Scottish Independence.  In 1341 the Scots, disguised as merchants bringing in supplies, retook the castle and killed the garrison of 100.  And so it went.

The castle was both royal residence and fortress, but beginning in the 1400’s it was increasingly used as an arsenal and armaments factory.  The The monster cannon, Mons Megmonster cannon Mons Meg was delivered to Edinburgh in 1457, and by 1541 the castle had a stock of 413 guns.  Increasingly the royal family stayed not at the Castle but at the Holyrood Abbey. In 1501 King James IV built the Holyroodhouse palace by the abbey at the end of the Royal Mile (see the previous post Edinburgh I) and made it his principal Edinburgh residence.  Edinburgh Castle was then used by royalty only for safety or state functions.  Pertinent to what the Castle looks like today was the Lang (long) Siege of 1571, precipitated by the reign of Catholic Queen Mary – a reign opposed by many of the Protestant Scottish nobility.  A year after giving birth to King James VI at Edinburgh Castle, Mary was forced to abdicate and fled to England (well, not only was she a Catholic, but soon after her husband’s murder she did marry the chief murder suspect …).  Her infant son was now King, but Scottish loyalties were divided; some supported the Catholic Queen, others the Protestant Regency that ruled for the infant King James.  The Keeper of the Castle, Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, switched sides to support Mary and occupied the Castle and the town for the Queen.  The town was put under siege by forces loyal to the King over the course of a year (for a month here and there), with occasional skirmishes; the castle was blockaded, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse was garrisoned by the King’s men.  Grange destroyed homes outside the castle to create a “killing ground”.  The King’s supporters, lacking resources and fearing that Grange would get help from the French, petitioned English Queen Elizabeth I for aid (Queen Elizabeth I ultimately had Mary Queen of Scots executed).  A truce was negotiated that lifted the blockade, gave Edinburgh to King James and confined Grange to the castle.  However, when the truce expired the following year, Grange began bombarding the town.  The King’s men responded by laying siege to the castle.  Grange’s  supplies of powder and shot were running low, there were only seven gunners available to man the 40 cannon, and the castle’s well had been poisoned.  All other supporters of Queen Mary had surrendered, yet Grange continued to resist and the garrison continued to bombard the town, killing a number of citizens.  Sorties were made from the castle to set fires, 100 houses were burned, and anyone attempting to put out the flames was fired on.  Finally 1,000 English troops arrived with 27 cannon and, over a 12 day period, 3000 rounds hit the Castle.  Walls and towers collapsed.  Grange finally sued for peace, but when informed he would not be freed, he resolved to continue resistance; the garrison had other ideas, and threatened mutiny unless he surrendered.  He and several others were subsequently hanged (at the Mercat Cross described in the Edinburgh I post).  The Castle suffered considerable damage; only a few buildings remain from the period before the Lang Siege, the most notable being St. Margaret’s Chapel from the early 1100’s (the oldest building in Edinburgh), the Royal Palace, and the Great Hall from the early 1500’s.  From the 1600’s on the Castle was principally used as military barracks with a large garrison.

OK!  Into the Castle!  In typical castle fashion, once you get past the gate, there is a long,

walled, and exposed corridor to another gate, in this case the Portcullis Gate built in 1574 as the main entrance to the castle after the Lang Siege (that different-colored top Heading up to the buildingsstory added later).  And then of course there’s another gate, Foog’s Gate from the 1600’s.  It leads to the highest point and heart of the old castle, Crown Square, laid out in the 1400’s (James III) and formed by Scotland’s National War Memorial, the Royal Palace, Great Hall, and Queen Anne Building (previously the site of kitchens for the Great Hall, now a 1700’s building, extensively remodeled).  They’re shown below.

Below is a peek at the Royal Palace interior.  Scottish royalty lived here until James IV built the Palace of Holyroodhouse – and thereafter whenever safety or protocol was

required.  That last room is Laich Hall, created in its present form in 1617 to serve as an outer reception room and dining chamber for James VI.  Also at the Royal Palace were Scotland’s crown jewels consisting of crown, scepter and sword.  Joining a long line, we weaved past replicas (poorly made) where we could take pictures, and then (keep walking) zipped past the originals, no pictures allowed.  I should note that Scotland’s crown, scepter and sword of antiquity were taken by England and melted down when Edward I captured Scotland in 1296 (noted above); the current crown jewels are from two centuries later, and only survive because they were hidden from Oliver Cromwell when he defeated Scotland in 1652.

Below are pictures of the replicas.  The first is a silver-gilt scepter; the original was given to

King James IV by the pope in 1494; it was refashioned for James V in 1536.  The sword is also a papal gift, presented to James IV in 1507; the handle is silver gilt.  The origin of the crown is uncertain; it was refashioned for James V in 1540.  It’s made of Scottish gold, engraved and enameled, and ornamented with diamonds, garnets, amethysts, quartz and  pearls.  The bonnet is velvet and ermine.

The Great Hall was the castle’s ceremonial meeting place, built by James IV beginning in 1503.  Following Cromwell’s seizure of the castle in 1650, the Great Hall was converted into a barracks for his troops, and after more conversions it became a military hospital. Restored in 1897 as medieval (with Victorian sensibilities), it nevertheless has it’s original

hammerbeam roof, one of only two in a medieval hall in Scotland.

St. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest building not only in the castle but in all of Edinburgh.  It was built in 1130 by King David I as a private chapel for the royal family, dedicated to his mother, Saint Margaret of Scotland, who died in the castle.  It is wonderfully simple, in

classic Norman style such as the zigzags decorating the arch between nave and sacristy.  The chapel was used as a gunpowder store from the 1500’s – it is well positioned near the cannon batteries.  The small windows feature St. Margaret and St. Columba who brought Christianity to Scotland from Iona.

In order to build the Crown Square in the 1400’s, a foundation had to be laid that took the form of vaults.  These vaults were used to hold prisoners of war during a number of conflicts from the mid 1700’s through WWII.  They have been re-created to look as they

would have in 1781.  Objects made by prisoners at that time were also on display.

Finally, a look over Edinburgh from the castle heights, and a look back at the castle.

St. Giles’ Cathedral

St. Giles CathedralSt. Giles’ Cathedral is Scotland’s most important church, functioning similar to that of England’s Westminster Abbey.  Its oldest part dates from 1124; much of the current interior was built in the very late 1300’s after the English set it on fire in 1385.  Subsequently many chapels were added, enlarging the church but giving it an irregular plan.  The Scottish crown steeple, a proud part of Edinburgh’s skyline, was added in 1495.

In 1559 at the height of the Scottish Reformation, the firebrand John Knox was chosen to be minister at St Giles.  In addition to founding an austere Scottish Presbyterianism, Knox was also a great reformer.  His insistence that every person should be able to read the Bible forced Scotland’s education system to be 3 centuries ahead of Europe (Subsequently Scotland led the way in math, science, engineering and medicine).   Under Knox the

church was simplified, with an emphasis on sermons rather than rituals.  He replaced the medieval stained glass with clear glass windows (darn it!) – to allow people outside the packed church to participate in the service.  The last picture above, a new window from the 1800’s, shows Knox preaching to a standing-room-only congregation.

In subsequent centuries St Giles Cathedral was subdivided into as many as 4 separate churches, and by the 1800’s it was in poor condition.  Extensive renovation in the 1800’s, including installing its beautiful stained glass windows, gave us the church we see today.  Pictures of the impressive interior are shown below.

In the center of the nave are 4 massive pillars from 1124, shown below.

Stained glass windows are everywhere, and gorgeous.  Beginning with the restoration in the 1800’s, the clear windows of the Reformation were replaced by what we see today – involving considerable controversy.  Stained glass was a radical move for a Presbyterian church abhorring flippant decoration; they were finally allowed if they illustrated Bible stories.  You know that I love stained glass windows, so I’m going to show off a bunch (there are many many more I’m not showing!).  So feel free to skip forward if you – ah –

don’t do windows.  Above are three examples, along with a panel detail from the 2nd and 3rd windows.  The gorgeous window below is from the end of the nave.

Really, almost all of them are pretty spectacular, another example shown below.

There are just an amazing number of beautiful windows here.  I’m going to simply dump a bunch of pictures into one large grouping showing windows with their panel details.  I hope you’ll agree they’re fabulous.

Finally, the Thistle Chapel within St. Giles is relatively new (1911), built for Scotland’s “Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle” (the order founded by King James VII in 1687).  The chapel is exquisite, as shown below.

We’ll end this looooooong post with the finale, the Hogmanay.  This is Scotland’s celebration of the New Year that lasts until the morning of Jan 1, and in some cases Jan 2 (grin).  It goes back to the celebration of the winter solstice among the Norse, along with Gaelic celebrations.  Hogmanay is more traditional than Christmas, which was not celebrated here as a festival – likely for being “too Papist” during the Protestant People on a bridge, waiting to join the paradeRevolution.  The Edinburgh Hogmanay is BIG – its celebrations are among the largest in the world; the Guinness Book lists it as the world’s largest New Year’s party in ’96-’97 (approx. 400,000 people).  That picture on the left shows people on a bridge (center of picture), waiting for the line to move in a parade that has been going on for some time by now.  We’ve left that parade for the comfort of our hotel’s roof.  So here we go, back to the start.  It all begins with bands and a Viking parade – torches are always a part – and

continues with a lot (LOT) of Vikings.  You can get a better experience of this parade from the following link – Hogmanay Parade (son Brian showed me how to do this; we have a lot to learn from our kids!).  And then come the people.  LOTS of people.  The river of people is hard to capture from our vantage points.  Most of the people are going up to Calton Hill (previous post) for the overview of fireworks both at the castle across the

city and at this hill (overhead).  And here we go!  Happy 2015!  (Note that I am a year

behind in writing these blogs!  Hey, quit your bitchin’.  I’m still doing it, right?).  And then the fireworks start.  They are spectacular, and we’re between the two sites; the castle in the distance, and Calton hill nearby on our other side.  Below are some shots, both directions.

So we’re off by a year, but it’s almost timely!  Happy 2016, everybody!

Next post – back to the Highlands!