Isle of Harris

The “Isle of Harris” is a misnomer; it’s not really its own island.  This largest of the Outer Hebrides Islands is actually called Lewis and Harris, one island, Harris being the southern part.  But what the hey, let’s go with convention and call it the Isle of Harris.  We’re going there in part for the scenery and in part because that’s where they weave the famous Harris Tweed – we’re hoping to buy some.  Sports coats and hoodies, here we come!

We mentioned the Lewis part of the island previously – remember the Lewis Chessmen (post of Edinburgh I)?

Coming from the mountains of the Isle of Skye, we were unprepared for the Isle of Harris.  It is so different!  Below are pictures of the coastline as we approached the city of Harris.

The mountains are anything but craggy; they’re weathered, with a very speckled appearance.  It does not look like good farm land!  As we travel inland, it’s all the same; mostly rock, with a little bit of heather and grass thrown in for contrast.

Layers of peat under that grassActually, at least in spots it’s not all solid rock underfoot.  Some exposed areas show deep layers of peat.

This southern part of Harris has a number of gorgeous unspoiled beaches, one of them shown below.  I think it’s pretty cool to see beach, sea and mountains all in the same view!  The beach goes on forever, and we practically have it all to ourselves.

Also in southern Harris is the medieval church Tur Chliamain (St. Clements Church).  The

church was built around 1520 by the MacLeod clan chiefs of Dunvegan and Harris as their future burial place.  Like most things that old, it’s not exactly the original structure.  The church fell into ruin after the Protestant Reformation of 1560; it was rebuilt 200 years later by a MacLeod, and restored again in 1873.  Still, it’s believably old, and beautiful in its simplicity, as shown in the first two figures below.

The church contains a number of tombs of important MacLeod chiefs outfitted in their battle armor.  The bottom left picture (above) shows the tomb of Alasdair MacLeod, 8th Chief of the MacLeods, who personally commissioned his tomb and its carvings and was buried here around 1545.  The last picture above shows 4 stones with sword carvings dating from the 1400’s and 1500’s that once marked the burial places for members of Clan MacLeod.  The swords represented strength and power.

In the pictures below you can see how picturesque this place can be, as well as to show that there are a few areas that aren’t covered by stones.

The northern part of Harris is more mountainous, as shown below.

The (very) small village of Arnol on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis used to be a thriving township with 40 crofts; now there are far fewer.  Crofts were plots of land rented to tenant farmers in the early 1700’s; rents were high, tenant rights were non-existent, and most were barely making it.  More than a century later their land was given to them via special legislation.  Here on Lewis the houses on a croft are called blackhouses, and Arnol has a lot of them – but most are deserted ruins.  One that has been preserved is now a state-owned Blackhouse Museum, shown below.  Alas it’s closed, but it is still interesting!  It’s huge!  But the doors are small – even Ginger would have to stoop to enter.

There’s an interesting attached circular “beehive” structure in the back; maybe a kitchen?  The next-to-last picture shows how small the beehive door is.  That hole in the roof just above Ginger’s head must be some sort of exhaust, unusual in these structures.  Finally, in the back there is a decent supply of drying peat logs.  A historical sign says that the peat fire was the center of family life in a croft and was never allowed to go out.  The smoke rising into and through the roof had benefits: it killed bugs, and when the roof was replaced, the smoke-ladened thatch made excellent fertilizer for the fields.

A coo, working hard to keep the grass lowNearby we spot another coo.  Isn’t she cute??

Further down the road we encounter the larger Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, consisting of 9 restored traditional thatched cottages.  The good news is that they’re open!  The bad news is that most of them are self-catered apartments for rent, not for sight-seeing.  However, the oldest blackhouse is a museum, and a chance to learn

more.  The low profile and insulating thatch of these houses were designed for the Hebrides weather, and for 300 years people eked out a living here; they paid their rent or were quickly evicted if they didn’t.  When the crofters were given their land in 1886, their approach to the houses – now theirs! – changed.  The blackhouses in this village date back only to those late 1800s (they seem much older).  Of note, these particular cottages were continuously lived in until 1974, when the last few elderly residents decided they no longer wanted to put up with the annual maintenance of thatch and stonework.Model of blackhouse interior

In earlier years the blackhouse  accommodated livestock as well as people.  People lived at one end and the animals lived at the other with a partition between them (the livestock would also add to the warmth of the house).  A model of such a blackhouse was in the museum and was pretty cool.  The central room contained the kitchen.

On to something different!  For those who do not know about the famous Harris tweed, here’s a little history.  For centuries the islanders of the Outer Hebrides wove cloth by hand, and by the late 1700’s cloth production was a stable industry for crofters.  With the industrial revolution, mainland manufacturers turned to mechanization, but not the Outer Hebrides, where the high-quality handmade fabric was ideal for protection from their cold, wet climate.  Because the cloth was hard-wearing and water resistant, a Countess of a north Harris estate had clothes made in the family tartan for her staff.  She was quick to see that the jackets would be ideal attire for the pursuit of country sports and the outdoor lifestyle that was prevalent among the landed gentry and aristocracy.  With promotion, it soon became the fabric of choice for the wealthy, and the rest is history.  Today, to be called Harris Tweed, the cloth must be made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides, hand woven on a treadle loom by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, and finished in the Outer Hebrides.  Every 50 yards of Harris Tweed are checked by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority before being stamped for approval.  As we drive around Harris and Lewis, we spot a sign from a weaver welcoming guests.  He’s in a small shed adjacent to his house.  Heating is by peat fire.  The encounter

was fascinating.  The treadle loom looks its age, with gears and many moving parts working in the best Rube Goldberg fashion, spinning and turning and clattering away.  The work seems slow and tedious; no wonder the weaver wanted company.  Alas, the particular cloth he was weaving was a single (vibrant!) color, and not our taste.

Those familiar with Harris Tweed know that one of their distinguishing characteristics is the use of a complex blend of colors.  What looks like a gray or brown jacket could easily have 20 or so colors in it, including deep red, purple, rusty orange, green, etc.  Clothes from Harris Tweed are amazing.  Take a look at that brown sport coat I bought.

On closer inspection, the cloth seems to have every color in it except brown!  Isn’t that cool?  We will be sooooo stylish in our dotage.

Callanish StonesOur last topic is the amazing Callanish (Gaelic: Calanais) Stones on the west coast of Lewis.  That aerial view to the left is a picture I took of a postcard.  I would describe the site as a low ridge on which there is an arrangement of standing stones placed in a pattern of a cross, with the long arms oriented north-south, encompassing a central stone circle.  Yeah, but that kinda misses the fact that they are 5000 years old and likely a focus for prehistoric religious activity for at least 1500 years (!).   The ritual landscape was wider than this site; within a radius of 3 miles are 12 other standing-stone sites, a couple of them just visible from here.  The stones were erected in the late Neolithic era, starting around

2900 BC (just for perspective, the earliest known Egyptian pyramids were started about 300 years later, around 2630 BC).  Up close, these silent vigil stones are impressive in

their massive size, ethereal beauty and mysterious function.  The purpose of the site is not known, although there are a number of folklore, religious and astronomical theories (petrified giants who would not convert to Christianity, a prehistoric lunar observatory …).  Note in the next-to-last picture how big those suckers are compared to Ginger!  That largest central monolith weighs about 7 tons (requiring a Herculean effort to transport, position and erect) and has an almost perfect north-south alignment.  The chambered tomb, or what’s left of it as shown in the last picture, was built somewhat later than the stone circle and contained ceramic pots holding cremated bodies dating between 2000 and 1700 BC.  Somewhere between 1500-1000 BC the complex fell out of use and was despoiled by later Bronze Age farmers.

Although the stones are stunning – almost haunting – it is not clear to me why our Neolithic people chose this particular site; the area is pretty, as shown below, but nothing

extraordinary.  Of course this is 5000 years later …..  I have to think these remarkable monuments from our ancient European ancestors attest to their – and humankind’s – need to better understand the world and their place in it.  We’re still asking those questions, aren’t we.

The Isle of HarrisThis is a last shot of the Isle of Harris.  It is a pretty place.  The next set of posts, and the last from bonny Scotland, will be from Glasgow with its fabulous Mackintoshes.







Isle of Skye IV – Strathaird and Sleat Peninsulas

This post is a brief tour of the southern part of the Isle of Skye. I don’t have any stories to tell about the area, so I’ll just show you some pretty “drive-by” pictures. We’ll first make a quick visit to the Sleat Peninsula, then drive to Elgol (at the end of the Straithaird Peninsula) to view the Cuillin Hills from the other (east) side.  Previously we had visited these hills from the west (Isle of Skye II – Fairy Glen, Dunvegan, and the Cuillin Hills).

View of the mainland from the Sleat PeninsulaSleat is mostly flat, but it has great views across the water to the mainland (picture on the left). The series of pictures below capture Sleat nicely. They were taken from a single location, although the first picture was taken on a different day than the rest.


The pictures below are of the Cuillin Hills again, but this time from the eastern side.

On our way back we come across “Cill Chriosd” (Christ’s Church), a ruined parish church.

It’s small and simple, but the ruins are old.  Written records announcing the replacement of a chaplain for the church date back to 1505.  It’s interesting to compare these simple rural structures with the overwhelming, grand cathedrals of the cities, many of them built even before this parish church.  The impressive cathedrals are a testament to what humankind can achieve, given a purpose; these parish churches, like the beautiful Gallarus Oratory in Ireland (Southwest Ireland Tour III – Ancient Christianity), to me question what that purpose was.  Really, they’re both beautiful in their own way.

Have I mentioned that it rains a lot in Scotland? But there is an upside, as you’ll see in the pictures below, taken on this rainy day – the hills come alive with waterfalls!

Below are two final pictures as we leave the Isle of Skye.  I hope you enjoyed this beautiful island as much as we did!

Next post – the Isle of Harris (and Harris Tweed).

Isle of Skye III – Return to the Quiraing

Because that bit of the Quiraing hike we took in the Skye I post was pretty fabulous (Isle of Skye I – The Trotternish Peninsula), I’m off to do the entire loop hike, expecting great things.  However, the trail has some pretty tough parts as we discovered in Round I, so Ginger is having none of this adventure and is opting for R&R.

Sgùrr nan Gillean in the morningThis morning I’m greeted by the Sgùrr nan Gillean peak looking quite spiffy.  It would be fun to climb that beast, but not this trip; I kinda doubt it’s a day hike, plus there would be mutiny.

The trip back to the Trotternish Peninsula is picturesque, with views of Raasay Island and behind it the mainland (below).

Here we are, and off I go.  You’ll perhaps recall this stunning scenery that one sees immediately at the trail start.  No long walk to the pretty parts here!

I want you to remember that long wall of cliff-face rock off to the left in the images above.  It’s impressive, but there is more to the story that I’ll come back to later.  The view ahead is gorgeous, but the view to the right is dazzling, as you may recall.

Those mountains are the Trotternish Ridge, receding into the distance.  OK, time for new territory!  I’m now where no Warner has gone before, making it to The Prison (many of the

rock formations have names).  Now over the ridge – and it’s beautiful.  That’s probably the

Outer Hebrides (islands) there in the distance, which we will be visiting.  The view on the left is all rock cliff, imposingly close, as shown below.  That thin vertical rock formation in

Narrow trail with crumbled edgethe first picture above is called “The Needle”.  As you can see in the other two pictures, we’re following the cliff wall to new mini-mountains up ahead.  The trail is easy enough but it’s narrow, and occasionally when the hillside is quite steep, the downhill edges of the trail become a bit unstable.  The trail shown in the left picture is less than a foot wide; walking across it is not unlike walking a gymnast’s balance beam, with consequences for slipping off.

The trail continues counter-clockwise around the rock cliff, and I’m in the shadow of that cliff surrounded by a jumbled but interesting terrain – and a nice spot for a lunch break.

The trial rounds the bend and starts steeply up – below is rock cliff, above is grassy slope.  Then, Voila! – I’m through a notch, and turning left I’m at the base of a huge ridge.

Really it’s more like a very long sloping plateau; this is where the trail starts to loop back.  The trail heads to the top of the cliff and continues along the cliff edge.  Before long I reach a spot where I can look down and see where I ate lunch.  From here, the combination of mountain, lake, sea, island and rock create views that are amazing, as shown in the first two pictures below.  They were taken while standing in the same spot, the second one

turned 90°.  Wish I had taken the 360!  Even better, the higher you hike up that sloping plateau, the more awesome the views become (last picture above).

Near the top of the sloping plateau, looking back downI love this picture!  The view is fabulous, but it also helps you appreciate the huge “sloping plateau” I’m on, which is very much like one to the far right in this picture, but much bigger.

A surprising observation is that, in spite of the plateau’s steep slope and the lack of rain today, the ground is a marsh, even near the top!  I’m trying to walk on clumps of grass to keep my feet dry.  If the ground is usually that wet, it might help explain the relatively low diversity of plant life.

View from the topI’ve finally reached the top; this high up, there’s a commanding view, shown on the left.

There’s not much of a trail anymore.  As I continue along the edge of the cliff, I’m surprised to discover that I’m not on the cliff I thought I was on.  In front of and some distance below me is a secluded green plateau that’s hidden from the first part of the trail by vertical rocky projections.  Those projections are the back side of the long rock cliff the trail followed at the beginning of this hike – it’s a cliff in front of the cliff I’m on!  The secluded plateau is called “The Table”, and I discover later that

“Quiraing” is from Gaelic (“cuith raing”) meaning “a pillared enclosure”.  It is that!  I’d like a better picture of the Table, but the ground slopes down ever more steeply toward the cliff edge.  So, discretion being the better part of valor, I’ll have to be satisfied with the pictures above.  Besides, Ginger would kill me if I slipped over the edge!

It’s pretty up here, as shown below.  The two hikers in the first picture below should

provide some perspective.  Distance and height are greater than they seem.

Finally, a last view from on high, looking down the Trotternish Ridge.  Impressive, isn’t it?  A spectacular finish to a spectacular hike.  That last picture shows the trailhead parking

lot at the far right.  Still a ways to go, bushwhacking down the mountainside.

Hope you enjoyed this long description of the Quiraing Loop.  As you can tell, I certainly did.

Next post: Isle of Skye IV, Strath and the Sleat Peninsula


Isle of Skye II – Fairy Glen, Dunvegan, and the Cuillin Hills


We’re off to explore some of the Dunvegan Peninsula, but first we’ll detour to the Fairy Glen that we’ve heard about.  As we find out, it’s not so easy to find those fairies!  We’ve driven Waterfall on adjacent hills near Fairy Glento a rural setting, and after traveling back and forth on a narrow winding road devoid of signs or parking lots, we decide that two cars parked at the edge of the road must mark the spot, and off we hike up some hills.  Behind us in the distance is a pretty impressive waterfall!

Scrambling up through ferns The Fairy Glen coming into sightand scrub trees, we begin to see a unique landscape of furrowed conical hills.  The glen itself is a small secluded area – fitting for small fairies, right?  It has a rocky pinnacle that will provide an overview, so up I go.  The scramble is a bit precarious, with edges on both sides, and Ginger decides to explore from below.

Well, climbing the pinnacle was fun, and the textured hills are interesting, but I don’t

see any fairies, alas.  Ginger is in the glen below, still looking for fairies while waiting for me to come down.

Based on what we saw in New Zealand, I believe the interesting texture on the hills is nothing more than years of sheep walking more or less horizontally across the hills.


Share the roadNow on to the Dunvegan Peninsula!  The roads here – like many of those on Skye – are one lane, making driving more interesting.  Usually the roads are paved, but not always.  And as shown in this image, I think “traffic jam” on this island means nose to butt sheep on the road.

The Dunvegan Peninsula doesn’t have the bigger hills, but it’s pretty enough, as shown below.  We’re off to hike to the Coral

Beaches.  That’s the name, but in reality this is just UK wistful thinking; coral isn’t quite right (have you heard of the coral reefs of Scotland?  No?  Truly, their closest thing here to a tropical fish is called a “herring”).  As you can see below, the beach is distinctively white,

and indeed attractive, but it’s actually composed of white shell and calcified seaweed.  We hike further to an overview of Lovaig Bay, but the most interesting thing is simply the abandoned wall shown below.  Whatever it contained is no longer there, but the wall itself

is beautifully constructed.  Returning home, we pass Dunvegan Castle, home of the MacLeod clan, and continuously occupied by them for 800 years.


On the road to the Cuillin HillsWe’ve relocated further south to be near the Cuillin Hills, shown here off in the distance.  Notice that these “hills” are on the big side.  They’re only about 3000 ft high, but they’re as craggy and jagged as any alpine range.  They dominate the skyline of most of Skye.  I’d say they’re at least mini-mountains, yes?  Can’t wait to go climb one.

We’re staying at the Sligachan Hotel, a 100-yr old hotel that is a haven for hikers.  Other than a very impressive view of some of the hills, there’s not much here – it’s pretty isolated.  Below are two views from outside the hotel – not too shabby.

Other views below.

Today we’re off to climb Coire Lagan, a hike from the south side of the Cuillin Hills.  Another view of Cuillin Hills“Coire” is a Scottish (Gaelic) name for a cirque, an amphitheater-like basin gouged from a mountain by glaciers – see the first picture of the Cuillins a couple pictures above – the Sgùrr nan Gillean peak.  To get to Coire Lagan we have to circle around the Cuillins, enjoying the views of the mini-mountains such as those shown here.

Our hike starts at a pretty point on a beach, the first picture below.  Actually, we’ve already

hiked up a pretty steep hill to get to this vantage point.  Where we’re going is Coire Lagan, the right picture (above); notice in that picture that the trail is tough – it’s uneven and laced with protruding rocks; you really have to watch where you put your feet.  Below are

looks back out to sea, one with Ginger chugging along.  The only sign of life, other than us, is a single sheep in this wide expanse.  The views keep getting better as the trail goes

unrelentingly up.  The hike approaching Coire Lagan is shown below.  Notice how quickly the sky changes from overcast to sunny!  This is Scotland, and the weather can turn on a

dime.  Also note there is a rock wall up ahead that’s going to have to be climbed!  The last picture above shows another sign of life, a deer.  Unlike the US, they are not prevalent here.

The trail has been a lot steeper than it looks in the images above; perhaps the first picture below gives a better perspective.  Now we have to scramble up that rock wall, and it too is

going to be a lot harder than it looks from that last picture above.  Ginger decides she will wait at the base and let me tell her about what I see (it hasn’t been an easy hike!).  I’m hoping there will be a small but beautiful lake at the cirque base, which is usually the case.  Water sluicing down says there should be.  And there is, although it’s quite small and a bit

disappointing.  Still, it’s pretty enough.  The view from up here is quite a window on the world.  It feels like being half-way up to the space station, even though I know I’m just a

few thousand feet high.  One last look, and then back we go.  Ginger is really tired, but is

still enjoying the view back down, with a setting sun.

The Cuillin Hills, driving home, are pretty in this light, as shown below.

This last shot is of Sgùrr nan Gillean back at our Sligachan Hotel.

Our next post will feature a return visit to the beautiful Quirang.  The little piece of it that we saw in the last post was just too outrageously gorgeous not to revisit for the full loop hike.




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!


The Highlands II – Glencoe Valley

Having traveled across Scotland through the Highlands to Oban on the west coast (Oban and the Highlands I), we now turn around and hightail it back to the Lowlands and the east coast, to Edinburgh.  Why do that, you ask?  Well, we do want to see more of the Highlands, for sure, but we also want to catch the Scottish Ballet, which, like us, travels around.  We’re feeling a bit culture deprived here on the road, and getting the Ballet and us in the same city at the same time is a challenge.  So we book ballet tickets and head off to the big city, deciding to backtrack by a different Highland road that goes through Glencoe Valley.  Edinburgh is far south of us, but to get there via Glencoe Valley we have to go north.  It’s not too bad, though, because it takes us Stalker Castle, with a view of Loch Linnhepast pretty Lochs Creran and Linnhe.  As an example of the surprises that Scotland has to offer, we stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch in the middle of nowhere and discover, off to the side, this unanticipated view!  It’s a tower house; no sign, no path, just part of the Scottish scenery.  Wouldn’t it be cool to wake up to that view?  And wouldn’t it be a great fixer-upper?  Your very own castle?  I just had to go looking for this castle on the internet – it’s called the Stalker Castle, built around 1446, and now in private hands.  When the tide is in, it’s totally surrounded by water, making pictures of it even more evocative.  The castle and this area have a long history of wars between the clans Stewart, MacDougall, MacLaren and MacDonald, mostly precipitated by murders or raids.  Later, King James IV often stayed at this castle on hunting and hawking trips.  It seems everything in Scotland has an interesting history, though you might have to dig a bit for it.  Scotland and England do not allow billboards along the roads, unlike the US where it’s hard to see the scenery for the flashing roadsigns saying “George Washington Slept Here”!

Below are some other gorgeous views as we head north along the Lochs.

Glencoe ValleyAt last we turn south and head inland into Glencoe Valley and the Highland moors with their craggy hills and heather.  The nearly complete lack of trees on the hills is remarkable; consequently, people burn peat here, not wood.  As you can see, the view is on a grand scale, quite striking in its austere way.  Hopefully you’re as impressed as we were.  It’s beautiful!

Part way through Glencoe Valley, we decide to do what’s billed as a 3-hr hike to the Lost Valley of Clan MacDonald.  The View of area to be hikedtrailhead is poorly marked on a gravel pull-out directly off the main road, and there are not many hikers in sight.  It looks more like a spot for gawking than for hiking as we start up the trail.

We were hoping to see the mountainsides covered with heather, but we’re here at the tail-end of its season.  The extensive heather patches – they’re everywhere – are mostly covered with dead flowers and seed heads, as shown in the first picture below.  There are occasional patches still blooming here and there, and it is pretty, but clearly we have missed the “Wow!” time.

The trail goes down to a beautiful stream,

then starts seriously up.  Pretty, though!

At this point the trail alternates between being reasonable (first picture below) to being uneven and dicey (sometimes very dicey!) as indicated by the two vertical pictures both above and below; actually, there’s more of the dicey than the reasonable.  Scotland’s

trails are far removed from the highly engineered, trenched and staired trails we found in New Zealand!  These Scots are tough!  Like their whiskey, their trails are not for wimps!

We find occasional unexpected flowers along the trail – not many though, since it’s early October and a bit late for blooms.

A look back at the trailheadThe trail is steep and we’re going up fast.  This is a look back at the trailhead.  The trail there at the lower right snakes back to those parked cars on the road.  We’re already pretty high up!

As we enter the notch between the mountains, the trail stops being just “up” and now becomes up and down.  Oh joy.  Going down can be quite tricky, as Ginger demonstrates.

The trail follows a very pretty and a very happy stream as it bounces and burbles down the mountain that we are struggling up.

There are numerous small waterfalls coming off the mountain that add to our stream in picturesque ways.

Unfortunately, the clouds overhead are now dark gray and moving fast, and Ginger is concerned about rain.  The Eternal Optimist doubts it, but if it does rain, the steep parts of the trail will be really tricky to negotiate as we head back down, and remaining daylight is getting short.  Surely, though, we’re near the “Hidden Valley”?  We’ll go just a little further.  Soon the trail arrives at a spot where we need to ford the fast-moving stream – and for

sure we’ll get our feet wet since the few stepping stones are too far apart (and there’s not a friendly log in sight).  Getting across isn’t that bad at the moment, mind you – probably just a single foot kerplunk, maybe two – but if we get some rainfall it will be a lot trickier coming back.  Witness what’s feeding this flat spot, just 2 feet upstream, shown in the right picture above.  So discretion wins over valor, and we decide to turn back.  We meet a couple coming down from a higher, diverging  trail (1 of only 2 couples we meet the whole trip), who describe our intended destination as simply a level meadow nestled between the mountain peaks.  So the “Hidden Valley” doesn’t sound hugely exciting (and the grapes were probably sour anyway).  Really, the hike has been pretty enough to keep us happy.

The bank is made of peat, many feet thickAs we hike back, we note this bank of solid peat on the left.  The stuff is many feet thick!  It fascinates me that one can burn what looks like dirt for fuel here, but as noted earlier, with few trees, there’s not much alternative.

As we retrace our steps, note the dwindling light, shown below!  Hmmm.  With the mountains in the way, twilight comes pretty early here.  Glad we turned back.  I suspect there are times when optimists should be shot on sight.

As we drive further through the Highland moors, the landscape becomes increasingly stark and desolate, but still awe-inspiring.  This is Rannoch Moor, a large expanse of boggy land

that is unrelentingly bleak, almost hostile.  For long distances the only man-made thing is the road;Beginning to leave the Rannoch Moor apparently just building a road across this stuff was really difficult.  The scenery only begins to look a bit more friendly when we enter Trossachs National Park again.

That’s it for this part of the Highlands.  Hope you enjoyed it.  We’ll see the Highlands one more time, when we traverse a different part later in our travels.

Our next post will be a visit to one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Scotland.  Doune Castle, near Stirling Castle and Edinburgh, is our favorite so far.

Oban, and the Highlands I

We’re  off to tiny Oban for several reasons:

  • it’s in the Scottish Highlands
  • it’s a resort town on the ocean
  • it has a ceilidh house (pronounced KAY-lee, for you non-Scottish speakers) where they perform Highland music, song and dance (and they also teach visitors a basic ceilidh dance)
  • and, most important, it has a Scotch whiskey distillery to tour

If you remember from a previous post (Melrose Abbey, Scotland (and Greenknowe Tower), February 25, 2015), one of my goals on this tour of Scotland is to become knowledgeable of one of mankind’s more famous drinks, the single malt Scotch (Ginger gamely joins in, but is not a big fan).  Oban was on the whiskey map in that previous post (“Oban 14 yr old”); good enough reason to visit.  So off we go!

The southern end of Loch LomondThere are a number of different roads that go through the southern/central Highlands, heading northwest.  We choose the route that goes past Loch Lomond, the largest inland stretch of water in Great Britain and the centerpiece of Scotland’s Trossachs National Park.  You’ll recall that traditional Scottish song “Loch Lomond”:

By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes,
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond,
Me and my true love were ever wont to gae,
On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

Ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

It’s a familiar old song, but I never knew it’s history or meaning.  There are several slightly different interpretations, but most are connected to the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie [discussed in the last post (Stirling Castle, August 4, 2015)].  Two Jacobite soldiers, captured by the English, have different fates: one is condemned to death while the other, his friend, will be set free.  The song by the condemned man is based on the old Celtic myth that the soul of a Scot who dies outside his homeland will find it’s way home by the spiritual, or “low” road.  Doesn’t that make the song so much sadder?

It’s a long lake, 24 miles, and there are many opportunities to take a picture.  It’s a cloudy

day (of course; this is Scotland) and the lake itself seems sad.  Soon we climb into more

rugged and wildly beautiful territory.  And it just gets better, as shown below.

The Highland country sceneMy favorite view of this part of the Highlands is the bucolic scene to the left, with looming mountains, a picturesque small lake, and busy, contented sheep.  Lucky sheep, with such a view!
Aren’t the Highlands beautiful?  Wait ’til you see more of them, in subsequent posts!
After all that stark beauty, the ocean town of Oban was disappointing.  It’s a small (and low key) resort with gravel beaches and a winding promenade lined by small hotels.  Here

Scotland’s train system meets the ferry system to the Hebrides Islands; Oban’s center is a harbor, with huge boats.  Still, it’s pleasant enough, and it does have some great seafood restaurants!  Oh my gosh, if I’d been able to get a picture of one of the restaurant’s seafood platters, you’d be booking a plane ticket now.  Below are some views of the harbor.

Oban really has no important sights (other than a distillery!), but a short walk away it does have the ruins of a small castle (Dunollie) on a commanding spot overlooking the harbor.

It was the home of kings (Clan Chiefs, really) in the kingdom of Lorn for a thousand years, and the seat of Clan MacDougall from the 12th century (the clan held 7 other castles and a fleet of galleys).  Dunollie Castle was captured by Cromwell, who garrisoned troops there; during the first Jacobite wars, it was besieged; and it was finally abandoned for good in 1746.  Today it just adds historic atmosphere – Wind-swept trees near Dunollie Castle something that Scotland (and England!) are very good at. And, speaking of atmosphere, there is an area near the castle called “The Witches” because it is forested with twisted old trees, some as old as 400 years, that show the effects of the high winds here.

OK!  Time for the whiskey tour!  The Oban distillery is a Yep, it's old!block off the harbor in the middle of town, which is very unusual; most distilleries are off in the country.  In this case, Oban itself grew up around the 200-year old distillery.  That’s a small problem for the distillery – it can’t easily expand!  The Oban Whiskey Distillery produces a West Highland malt scotch.  In the map of Scotland below, different colors denote regions of Scotland making distinctive flavors of Scotch – there Regions of distinctive Scotch single malt whiskeysare about 5 of them.  Oban is near the middle of the various flavor profiles, with a touch of peat, a touch of salt, and a touch of honey in taste.  They make 4,000 gallons of Scotch a week (a lot of which goes to the US).  The process for making a single malt Scotch is pretty much the same throughout Scotland, and quite interesting!  Single malt Scotch is made from barley, water and yeast.  Sometimes peat smoke.  That’s it.  The diversity of flavors comes from the locally sourced ingredients, the skill of the master distiller, and subtleties in the production process.  All true, but the real revelation to me was that the real flavor of Scotch whiskey comes from America!  Fascinating!  Don’t tell a Scotsman that, but you’ll see.  Alas, most distilleries seem to think they have secrets, and photos are not allowed!  So I’ll just give an overview of the process.  Water is added to the barley to start germination (starch release), and then the barley is dried by heating in a kiln (in some distilleries, with smoking peat).  This is “malting”.  The malted grain is milled to a defined mix of powder-to-piece, hot water is added in a big stainless steel (or wood) vat, and the starch is converted to sugar (the wort), a process called “mashing”.  The wort is cooled, yeast is added, and fermentation occurs for 2-4 days (the time has a big effect on flavor), producing the “wash” – approximating a strong beer.  The "Candy Kiss" shape of the copper stillsThe wash is then distilled in two sequential copper stills that look like those on the left side of this picture – they look something like Hershey Kisses, only about 15 or 20 feet high.  The size and shape of the stills have a big effect on taste due to the liquid interacting with copper – the more the interaction, the lighter the Scotch (the liquid extracts copper).  The final distillation “cut” is about 68% alcohol, and goes to oak barrels to age – a minimum of 3 years to call it “Scotch”, but usually for a decade or more.  And this is where America comes in!  Those oak barrels remove harsher tastes and add flavors; and where do those oak barrels and flavors come from?  Why, 1-year-old used American bourbon barrels!  By (American) law our bourbon has to go into new oak barrels, so what to do with those used bourbon barrels?  The Scots buy them, knock them down, ship ’em to Scotland, rebuild the barrels, and add their Scotch to take on those yummy tastes!

Finally, our visit to a ceilidh.  This is the tail end of the tourist season, and we’re at the last show of the year, with just one other small group in attendance.  It’s probably a tailored-down show, but fun nonetheless!  After the band (2 people) plays Highland tunes, a singer sings Highland songs, and a young lady does very graceful, ballet-like

Highland dances, the audience gets to participate – both in song and in something like a line dance.  Some in the audience seem to know the steps; we do not.  The brief instruction was a little helpful, and the ensuing chaos was a lot of fun.  Although it seemed touristy, apparently people in Scotland grow up doing the ceilidh, and locals enjoy going.

Next stop – the Highlands II, Glencoe Valley.