03 October 2009

Nana and the Giant Hedge

This was supposed to go up a while ago, as part of our post on the Royal Botanical Gardens, but I forgot. So here you have it, without further ado: Nana and the GIANT HEDGE.


Truly one of the world's great hedges.

01 October 2009

The Field of Storms and The Black Isle

At last, the final installment of our Highland adventures! You can find the other posts here:
This post is in two parts: the first covers the tiny Highland hamlets of Ledgowan and Achnasheen, which we visited on our way to Skye; the second covers our day trip around the Black Isle, which is actually a peninsula just northeast of Inverness.

Ledgowan and Achnasheen

Our first stop on the Skye day trip was here, in the aptly-named Field of Storms (Gaelic: achnasheen), at the foot of one of the few passes over the spine of the Highlands south of the northern coast and north of Loch Ness.

Seriously, check out the satellite view on Google Maps: nothing but miles and miles of heather. Achnasheen and Ledgowan are where the little orange road at the bottom forks.

View Larger Map

The prevailing westerly winds howl down through said pass and over Achnasheen fast enough to make a grown man unsteady on his feet. Hence all those trees you see aren't just for decoration: they're there to make it possible to hear yourself think on the way from your door to your car.

Now, having, like most American young men, seen Braveheart about a billion times, I was interested to see how different the Scottish Highlands look from how they're depicted in the film. The Highlands are not actually green--they just filmed mostly in the green bits, and in Ireland.

No, in reality, the highlands are brown and purple (yes, purple, thanks to the heather).

The Highlands (or at least the parts that are actually high) are also remarkably barren, something more like what you'd expect from the American West. There's simply a lot more space than you'd expect to find anywhere in such a small country.

It's worth noting, however, that the Highlands aren't quite a wilderness, in that the Highlands as they are today are largely man-made: the slopes above used to be covered about halfway up with forests of Scots pine, but the earliest settlers (we're talking prehistoric here) clear-cut the place even before Scotland passed into the historical record.

In many of the more sheltered glens, there has been an effort to replant, both for environmental and commercial reasons, but the Field of Storms is largely out of luck thanks to the wind.

The Black Isle

The Black Isle isn't an island: it's actually a peninsula between the Cromarty Firth and the Moray Firth, just north of Inverness. No one is sure how it got its name--some say it was a late stronghold of witchcraft, some say the forests along its coasts made it look black--but my money's on the place being named after the extremely dark, extremely fertile soil, which made the Black Isle one of the breadbaskets of the Highlands.

We toured the Black Isle for a morning in the open top of a double-decker bus, which was terrible for the body temperature, but absolutely perfect for grooving to the Highland tunes they piped in on our audio tour headsets.

Wait, is that . . . ? Yes, it is! The Schecky dance (sp?) in the Highlands!

Our first stop of the morning was at the ruined priory of Beauly (from the French beau lieu), established by Norman monks around 1230.

Beauly Priory is built of the same Old Red Sandstone prominent throughout the Eastern half of the highlands, giving it a distinctly pink hue.

From Beauly, we continued on to Cromarty, an old fishing village at the tip of the Black Isle, where the Cromarty Firth branches off from the Moray Firth. In the background of the picture below are the Sutors of Cromarty, two high bluffs marking the entrance to the Cromarty Firth. Today, the Firth is actually used to store and repair North Sea oil rigs; the narrows by the Sutors keep the waters of the Firth calm year-round.

Cromarty's restored courthouse is also home to an excellent local history museum.
Cromarty spent most of its history as a royal burgh, which means it had a measure of urban independence from the feudal system, and that it was a designated port for overseas trade, mostly with France and the Low Countries. Unfortunately for her, Nana found all this history altogether too exciting, and had to be chained up in the refurbished jail for creating a public disturbance.

Our final stop of the morning was at Chanonry Point, on the southern coast of the Black Isle. The Moray Firth is home to a large colony of bottlenose dolphins, and the crisscrossing currents between Chanonry Point and Fort George are the colony's favorite feeding grounds. It's supposed to be one of the best spots for viewing wild dolphins in the whole of Europe, and given the show they put on for us, I can't disagree!

The little buggers are pretty hard to photograph, though, so you'll have to take my word for it. We did get to see them up close--no more than fifty yards away--and we even caught a glimpse of one of the local seals.

Chanonry Point is also the site of a very pretty--and still privately owned and operated--lighthouse, which you can see below.

A final word about the Black Isle: it's also home to one of Scotland's foremost microbreweries, the Black Isle Brewery, which produces a line of very tasty organic beers.

27 September 2009

Over the Sea to Skye

A much-belated revisitation of our trip to the Highlands, also discussed here, here and here.

The Isle of Skye is a much-romanticized part of the Highlands due to its role in the '45 uprising (what, weren't you paying attention to Justin's post? He worked hard on that!). Flora Macdonald, a Highland Jacobite lady, was engaged to help Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from Scotland by taking him in a boat "over the sea to Skye," as described in the famous Skye Boat Song.

(You can get more insight into the romanticism of the '45 if you click on the video, which is "dedicated to Jacobites everywhere." What does that even mean? How can you be a Jacobite these days? Are you going to go get Franz, Duke of Bavaria and try to put him on the throne - over his own indifference? I get that in many cases, Jacobitism is conflated with Scottish nationalism or Scottish patriotism, but it's just not correct. As Justin pointed out in his post, more Scots fought against Charlie than for him. Anyway, if, like me, you're not a fan of historical whitewashing, just try to concentrate on the fact that Charlie made his escape in drag, as Flora's Irish maid Betty Burke. Surely one of the great examples of monarchical transvestitism.)

Ahem. Focus.

Skye is a four-hour round-trip day-trip from Inverness and allowed us to see some beautiful scenery on the way. It was also a day in which the winds were so heavy that the ferries to Skye were cancelled (we took the bridge, fortunately) which explains our hair in this, and subsequent, pictures:

Once on the island, we visited the Clan Macdonald center, the Armadale Castle Gardens and Museum of the Isles. My only complaint about this day trip was that with Justin and my penchant for nerding, we spent so much time in the museum that we didn't actually have time to eat any lunch on Skye. Fortunately, we brought granola. We're like hardcore hikers, but for museums.

Armadale Castle ruins (that's me in the pink hat)

I strongly recommend the museum. It had very interesting regional history exhibits, often in both Scottish Gaelic and English. Gaelic (pronounced "Gallic" for the Scottish version; same root as "Gaul" for France) was the indigenous Celtic language of Scotland. It's closely related to Irish Gaelic and more distantly related to Welsh, which is the only Celtic language to be very widely spoken. There are 50,000-odd speakers of Scots Gaelic today, contrasted with about 1/2 million for Welsh. These speakers are disproportionately concentrated in the northwest of Scotland and the islands, where their isolation has helped shield them from English. Skye is the island about 1/3 of the way down that map, with a bright purple top tip. The Scottish Gaelic Language College is on Skye, as is a new Gaelic elementary school. Another new one just opened in Inverness. Since regaining some parliamentary powers in 1999, Scotland has been able to leverage some protection for Scots Gaelic, including a broadcast channel in Gaelic on the BBC; however, 50,000 speakers is right on the cusp of the number needed to prevent language extinction. Nobody can say for sure if Gaelic will survive.

Educational trivia about Skye: There is only one high school, Portree High School. It can be so far from students' homes that the students commute to school on Monday and stay in a hostel for the rest of the week.

Pet peeve rant: I have been endlessly amused by the usage across Scotland of what I perceive as schlocky faux-Celtic fonts like the ones on the Portree web site. In the US, it's the sort of thing you'd see at cheesy Irish pubs like Molly Brannigan's. I have NOT been amused by the omnipresence of the font Papyrus. I see it probably every other block. There is not, nor has there ever been, widespread use of papyrus to make paper anywhere in the British Isles. Get a new font.

Skye has some typical Highland scenery, down to the little white dots of sheep:

But it also has massively damp, lush areas straight out of Jurassic Park:

Other events of the afternoon involved whisky tasting. The MacNamaras are from Skye; Justin is part MacNamara.


We also visited a beach....

... the ruined castle shown the TV series Highlander...

... and a lovely scenic bridge. Justin looks odd because he's trying to talk the photographer into stepping out of traffic. But wait! What's that in the background? Click to zoom!

The photographer said, "I hope that's your wife." Some days, Justin probably hopes it's not!