Scotland #07 – Isle of Skye
Scotland July 2022 - #07 – Isle of Skye
This travel-blog is for a trip we took to Scotland in July of 2022. Other than a few days on our own in Edinburgh at the beginning this was on a formal tour of the Scottish Highlands operated by RS (Road Scholar, www.roadscholar.org).
In this installment we talk about Isle of Sky, Dunvegan Castle, Flora MacDonald, Armadale Castle, Eilean Donan Castle, Sterling Castle, and our travel woes getting home.
Entire Trip map
Detail of our route on the Isle of Skye (2 days)
The 639 square mile Isle of Skye sits along the Northwest coast of Scotland and is known for its rugged landscapes, picturesque fishing villages and medieval castles. It is the largest island in the Inner Hebrides archipelago with a coastline of peninsulas and narrow lochs radiating out from a mountainous interior. We spent 2 days touring the island from our base at the Tingle Creek Inn Mom and Pop hotel located a few miles north of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland.
Homeward Bound, Part 1
On our tour of Scotland we were blessed with pretty good weather with little or no rain which is quite uncommon for the area. We had a few sprinkles from time to time, and plenty of overcast but no real rain storms and it was also pleasantly warm. But, as we approached the end of our trip, the news had started talking about a heat wave coming to the UK with predicted record setting temperatures coinciding with our departure day. In the weeks prior to our trip, airports around the world had experienced utter chaos when they were surprised by the sheer number of people who hit the skies after staying near home for 2 years due to Covid-19. And none was worse than the nightmare at Heathrow. Of course all those people had purchased tickets in advance of their flights so it is a mystery why the volume of travelers came as that big of a surprise. But a complete mess it was with last minute cancellations or delays and the ensuing storerooms and baggage pick up areas crammed to the ceiling with lost or misdirected luggage.
But as Heathrow took center stage in world news coverage of this catastrophe, the government was determined not to have an encore. They also knew that the last time England had a significant heat wave, it greatly slowed down the pace of take offs and landings at the airports and required rail traffic be slowed way down due to buckled tracks. So, as a preventative measure, several days before the anticipated heat wave they imposed a requirement on the airlines to pre-cancel roughly 50% of all flights into and out of all UK airports when the heat wave was expected to hit – especially Heathrow.
And then came the first ominous email from our airline echoing the government mandate that some of their flights would need to be canceled right around when we were scheduled to fly home (a few days from now). Ok, but what is one supposed to do with that information other than lose sleep? Then the morning of our first Isle of Sky tour day, another email was waiting when we awoke saying that due to the impending heat wave, our Edinburgh to London flight was cancelled and to please go to this link to re-book. But, at least our departure wasn’t for another 2 days. So, I got on the computer and went to the web site and logged into my airline account. After scrolling down to where alternative flights are listed, I was quite disturbed to find that there were no alternative flights listed - none. In their place was a curt note saying “No alternatives available, call our customer services department”. So, I started calling. Busy signal. Call again, busy signal. And on and on all through breakfast. Finally, just before we had to board the bus I got through that first barrier and the phone actually rang at the other end. But, rather than a cherry “hello, how can I help you” I was greeted with “All our agents are busy helping other customers, please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order of arrival”. No option for a call back – just wait. By now we were on the road in the bus on our way to Isle of Skye which is a sparsely populated mountainous land mass. In other words continuous cell service was highly unlikely.
Even though the likelihood of actually talking to someone when half the flights in the country had been cancelled overnight was exceedingly small, I persisted and kept listening to the bad music on hold and missing the commentary from our guide, as I watched my battery level go down. About 45 minutes later, a live person came on the line. Amazing. By this time we were already climbing into the mountains so I quickly identified myself, the date and flight number that was cancelled and a request to be re-booked so as to arrive in London in time to make our connection to San Francisco (which had not been cancelled) – even if we had to go to London the day prior to our San Francisco flight or leave from Inverness rather than Edinburgh. I also quickly gave the agent my phone number and told him that our tour bus was in the mountains and if we got cut off to please call me back which he said he would (not that I believed a word of it).
While still on the line the agent informed me that there were no flights from any Scotland airport to any London airport leaving at any time that we could get on. “But not to worry…..” , and that’s when I lost cell service. Now what? I tried calling back a few times when my phone showed any bars but usually the service cut out before the call went through. So, you can imagine my surprise when my phone rang several hours later. It was the same agent who actually did call me back. I couldn’t believe it! But, as all the airlines were in the same pickle, the best he could do was offer me a flight to SFO (with several connections) 3 days after our original departure date. Well, that wasn’t going to work as we had our son and his family (including 3 young kids) arriving from Japan just a few days later. I told the agent not to book that flight and also not to cancel our booking on the original cancelled flight.
To be continued……..
Skye Bridge & Glen Sligachan
Even though I missed most of it, our first day on the Isle of Skye was circumnavigating the northern half of the island on a ring road. After crossing the Skye Bridge which connects Kyle of Lochalsh to the Isle of Skye, we headed north up the east side of the island toward our first stop at Glen Sligachan. Even though I was on the phone (mostly on hold) during this time I did manage to fire off a few shots through the bus window as we went.
Loch Sligachan marsh
Why there was no cell service as we climbed into the mountains
We stopped briefly at the Glen Sligachan trail head and looked at a few of the posted signs. At first I was a bit startled to see on the first sign that the Glen was part of the John MuirTrust. We all know that John was instrumental in the American west and in making the US National Parks system a reality, but then I remembered that he actually came from Scotland. So, now it made sense.
Glen Sligachan is said be one of the most popular hiking spots in Scotland with some of the most peaceful spots on the island. It is a deep gash between Skye's two great ranges that runs from coast to coast all the way across the island and is the dividing line between the Black and the Red Cuillin Mountains. As you walk along it, you get close-up views to your west of the cliffs and summits and great jagged ridge of the Black Cuillin, which are famed as Britain's most exciting ridge walk, with superb views of their Red counterparts on the other side. Apparently this glen was fought over many times as different clans tried to rest control of this passageway from some other clan.
We didn’t get out and hike this glen but after this short stop we drove through some of it as we continued across the island to the west side of Skye then headed north up the western side.
Dunvegan Castle is the seat of the MacLeod Clan. It was probably a fortified site from the earliest times. The castle was first built in the 13th century and developed piecemeal over the centuries. In the 19th century the whole castle was remodeled in a mock-medieval style. The castle is built on an elevated rock overlooking an inlet on the eastern shore of Loch Dunvegan, a sea loch.
This castle is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland and has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of clan MacLeod for 800 years. It is still occupied and enjoyed by the MacLeod family. While most of the apartments are open to the public, some rooms on the top floor are kept private. However, unlike most castles open to tourists, pretty much all the furniture and knickknacks are still in place in the rooms open to tourists. It really does look lived in.
Chair turns into a step ladder to reach high books in the library
Along the Road
As we made our way around the island we passed sea lochs, quaint villages, picturesque farms with old houses – some of which are in ruins and some that have been updated and are still in use -- and dramatic landscapes. Even though the road more or less circles the perimeter of the northern part of the island, it usually does not run right along the shore. The reason is that the coast is quite rugged with many inlets, coves and bays which would make for quite a zig zaging road if it followed the undulating coastline So, the road tends stay a bit inland from the water, many times part way up the hillside making for wonderful views down to the coast.
As with most of the UK and Ireland, one finds a mix of the ruins of old stone houses, some houses being resurrected and modern buildings. The Isle of Skye is no exception. As we meandered up the A855 we passed examples of all three
As every farmer knows, rocks are not welcome where one needs to plow. And, as any geologist knows, the British Isles have more than their fair share of rocks. So, the obvious answer is to use those rocks as building material. Of course, as we’ve seen, many houses have been made form these stones over the centuries and when clearing stones form fields the easiest thing to do with them is build walls. These walls separate different fields on the farm, form a barrier along roads, and are used to make corrals or pens for livestock.
As we meandered along we went through the little village of Idrigil where we were escorted into town by a flock of goats who decided to go into town for lunch. But we didn’t mind the goats and they seemed to not care at all about the massive bus following them into town.
Goats heading into Idrigil
Really? I guess with little or no Cell Service, one has to use other means.
In the township of Kilmuir there is a cemetery with the grave of one Flora MacDonald. Now, don’t go looking for Kilmuir on a map; you won't find it, yet this scattered area of hamlets and crofts has a long and rich history. This cemetery is up a narrow one lane road – more like a driveway - and sits on a hillside. There was once a 16th-century church here as well but it is long gone leaving just the historic cemetery containing many historic graves and monuments but the main one of interest is the striking memorial to the Jacobite heroine, Flora MacDonald.
Flora Macdonald grew up in the household of the chief of the MacDonalds of Clanranald, who firmly supported the Jacobite cause. Remember the Jacobites from our previous installments of this travel series? As you recall (or maybe not) the Jacoites were doing quite well fighting for independence until they were soundly defeated in the Battle of Culloden in 1746. This battle pitted Bonnie Prince Charlie commanding the Jacobite side against the Duke of Cumberland commanding the English side.
After the battle, Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped and went into hiding depending on supporters to shelter him and hide him from his pursuers. After several close calls, he eventually arrived on the island of Benbecula, where it was decided that he should move on to Skye. Benbecula is an island in the outer Hebridies 70 miles west of Skye. But the Isle of Sky was under strict travel restrictions, and the prince could not take the risk of being spotted.
A Jacobite supporter and distant kinsman named Captain Conn O'Neill asked Flora to help Charles escape. Flora herself did not support the Jacobite cause, but she was moved by the plight of the Jacobites after the Battle of Culloden, and at length, she agreed. She later said that she acted from charity and would have helped the Duke of Cumberland had she found him in a similar situation.
Anyway, following the rules of the times she obtained permission from, Hugh Macdonald. Hugh was clan chief and commander of the local militia as well as being her stepfather. She was granted permission to leave her home in Benbecula with Charles and take him to Skye. She was allowed to take two servants, and a crew of six sailors. Bonnie Prince Charlie was dressed as an Irish spinning maid named Betty Burke, and in that guise he sailed with Flora to Skye on June 27th, 1746. From Skye, he made his way at length to Moidart, where he boarded a French ship and escaped to Europe.
When Flora Macdonald's role in the escape came to light she was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Though she had committed treason by helping Charlie, the public, even staunch supporters of the English, regarded her as a heroic figure, primarily because she was a woman. She was released from the Tower in 1747 and went on with her life. She got married, moved with her husband and 7 kids to North Carolina where the husband joined the US Revolutionary war (on the British side of course). After being captured and later released in a prisoner of war exchange they all moved to Nova Scotia, Canada. In 1779 the whole family moved back Scotland and took up residence in Skye where she died in 1790. It is said that she had 3,000 mourners attend her funeral and that she was buried in a shroud made from a bed-sheet used by Bonnie Prince Charlie.
At the cemetery we were met with a mighty wind. I mean it was hard to stand up against the blow. I suspect it is usually quite windy up here as Flora’s monument had iron braces at various levels of the tall structure anchored to the ground to keep it from blowing over. I wouldn’t be surprised if the missing church had actually just blown away.
Flora MacDonald Grave
From Kilmuir we headed north for a bit but then the road circled to the east coast where we turned south and started our way back stopping at the Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls viewpoint. When we arrived there was a kilted musician standing at attention playing the pipes for donations which was quite nice.
Playing for Donations
But why the geologic feature is called Kilt rock escaped me. When I got back home I had to look it up and discovered that the basalt columns over a sandstone base reminded them of a pleated kilt. Well, I guess you need more of an imagination than I have.
Homeward Bound, Part 2
As we were driving along, someone suggested that since we’d be arriving at a hotel near Edinburg in the late afternoon the day before our flights that we could take an overnight train from Edinburgh to London with enough time to take the “tube” or a taxi to Heathrow and still make our San Francisco flight and I should look up the times of the LNER (the main train company in the area). The person who mentioned this also said that they had sleeper cabins. So, onto the internet again with a low battery along with in and out cell service. I did find the LNER website and indeed they had a train leaving Edinburgh in the evening and arriving in Heathrow with ample time to get to the airport 2-3 hours ahead of our flight. So, I booked a couple of tickets while ignoring the pop up warnings that rail traffic might be slowed down due to the impending heat wave. But what I couldn’t find was how to reserve one of those sleeper cabins I was told about. And when I got my confirmation email I was surprised to see that we had a 4 hour lay over in some town about halfway to London and to add insult to injury we’d also have to change trains – at three o’clock in the morning – with all our luggage – and sitting up all night in a seat. What a nightmare that was going to be.
By this time we had arrived back at our hotel to freshen up and had gotten back on the bus to go to dinner. At dinner though I found out some more info. First of all the UK Government was broadcasting that people should not travel by rail during the heat wave and that the speed of trains would be reduced by 50% once the ambient temperature got over about 85F degrees (they were predicting temps above 112F). The second thing I found out was that it wasn’t LNER that had the sleeper cars, it was another line called the Caledonia Sleeper.
So, once back to the hotel after dinner where I could use my laptop rather than a phone, I got back online. I did find the website for the Caledonia Sleeper which also had a train leaving just before midnight and they had 4 tickets left. They were in first class but just in regular seats, not cabins with a beds. Damn! But, it was direct from Edinburgh to London with no lay over and no train swap. So, I grabbed 2 of the last 4 seats. I then started checking the website to see how to get on the waiting list for a sleeper cabin. As I was doing so, I noticed that the entire train had now been sold out. But I could find nothing about a wait list.
Seeing as how it was around 10:30 pm and this company’s main thing was overnight trains leaving late at night, someone might be around to answer the phone. But, that was not the case. So, we went to sleep happy that we at least had a way to get to Heathrow in time for our flight (assuming the train arrived on time) without a layover or train swap in the middle of the night, but not thrilled about spending the night sitting in a coach seat with a hundred unmasked COVID 19 carrying strangers.
The next morning, I got back online and found that LNER was now telling people that the UK government required them to ask people not to travel during the impending heat wave and that anyone with a ticket during that time who cancelled could get a full refund, no questions asked. So, I cancelled my LNER tickets (which I was going to do anyway) but happy that there would be one less hassle that I’d have to navigate later.
But, my main goal at this point was to score a cabin with a bed. After many attempts, I did finally get someone on the phone from Caledonia Sleeper. They informed me that there was no such thing as a waiting list for a cabin but I could speak to the gate agent that evening to see if there were any last minute cancellations. Oh well, at least it was a chance. So, I ordered “assistance” (wheel chair) to get us from the taxi to the train.
To be continued……
On our second day touring the Isle of Sky, after crossing the cleverly named “Skye Bridge” onto the island once more we headed south this time rather than north. Today though, now that we had a way to get home, I was more able to pay attention to our guide which is the main source of much of the information I share in these blogs.
Our first stop was somewhere on the coast near Armadale Castle. I can’t find a town name where we stopped and to be honest the only thing there was a ferry terminal, a coffee bar and a couple of gift shops. This didn’t even seem to be a fishing village even though it was on a lovely bay with a hand full of private boats anchored quietly out in the water.
Boats floating in Armadale Bay
As this was the last day on the tour prior to a day driving back to Edinburgh I think the main reason for stopping in this town was to satisfy the urgent need for gifts to bring home. One of the shops was an authentic clothing shop, and the other two sold local handmade handicrafts.
But instead of shopping, we had a wander up a pier next to the one where a ferry was loading up cars and people for a trip across to the mainland (I presume). So, while most of the people on our tour shopped, I watched the crew get the ferry on its way.
Ferry loading cars at Armadale Bay
From there it was only a couple of minute drive over to Armadale Castle. Armadale is the spiritual home of the MacDonald Clan going back many centuries. The clan chiefs called this home all they back to the mid 17th century.
What’s interesting about this castle is that it clearly shows 3 major phases of construction side by side. The MacDonald Clan established itself on Skye in the 15th century. They originally occupied castles at Dunscaith and Knock, both within a few miles of Armadale, and Duntulm Castle at the north end of the island. The Macdonald chiefs began to stay at Armadale around 1650 in a house sited further west than the present Castle. Around 1790 a new mansion house was built called Armadale House. The only remaining part of this a section of the old house is called the White Wing. It is the two story white section in my photos and is currently used for offices.
In 1815 they extend the mansion with a more traditional “castle” motif which was rechristened Armadale Castle. The Castle included lavish interiors with arcaded public halls and a great marble staircase. A fire in 1855 destroyed the Castle’s central section but it was replaced using a new design. The right half of this new reconstruction is shown to the left of the white buildings in my photo above.
In 1925 the Macdonald family moved out of the castle and into a smaller house, leaving the castle to the wind and rain. The deteriorating Castle was put on the market in 1972 and purchased by the Clan Donald Lands Trust. By this time the west (left) part of the Castle, which had been the main entrance and housed the big halls, had become unstable, and in 1981 the Trust decided to demolish the building while saving as many remnants as possible. What’s left of this section is the grand entrance with the main staircase oddly leading into the treetops where the rest of the building used to be.
The eastern (right) half of the castle is more intact but is still quite unstable and as such is off limits. This side contained more of the living quarters – bedrooms and such. There is hope that one day it can be shored up and opened to visitors.
Demolished portion of the Castle
Staircase into the forest
Even though the Trust could not save the castle, they did put in significant effort to restore the gardens and they built a lovely museum off to the side.
Kyleakin and Princess Mary
On our way back to the hotel on the mainland, we stopped at a town just before the Skye Bridge called Kyleakin. This town is positioned on a straight called Kyle Akin which connects the north end Loch Alish to the North Sea. There is another straight at the south end of Loch Alish which also connects to the North Sea and combined they are what makes the Isle of Skye an island. The town of Kyleakin along with its mate, the town of Kyle of Lochalsh, on the other side of the straight were quite important as ferry terminals prior to the construction of the bridge which opened to traffic in 1995. But now it’s a much quieter place than when ferries were coming and going.
The strait (Kyle Akin) takes its name from Acain, which derives from the name Haakon after King Haakon IV of Norway. It was here that King Haakon IV of Norway, supported by Gaelic forces from the Western Isles, anchored his fleet prior to engaging in battle with the Scottish King Alexander III in 1263.
Legend tells that the castle was built here by a Norwegian woman named Mary who was married to a Mackinnon Clan chief. It is interesting that they say “she” had the castle built rather than attributing it to her husband. I assume that was quite unusual for the times, but does speak to the character of Mary. It is said that she derived an income by stretching a large chain across the Kyle (straight) and would exact tolls from all ships passing through the narrows except those from her own native Norway.
But Princess Mary is better known as ‘Saucy Mary’. The story behind this moniker relates to her toll collecting business. It is said that after a ship stopped and paid Mary the required exorbitant toll and was again on its way, that Mary would reward the captain by climbing to the top of one of the turrets of her castle and as the ship passed would disrobe and present her naked body for all on the ship to see. This of course made the sailors quite happy with their captain for graciously paying the toll resulting in this display and also made Mary quite a name for herself. Sorry, no photo of this activity but I do have one of a hotel-restaurant-bar that is taking advantage of this legend
Saucy Mary’s Inn
Remains of Mary’s Castle (without Saucy Mary)
Eilean Donan Castle
Moving back to the Scottish Mainland over the Skye Bridge we backtracked a bit to a castle we had passed a couple of days earlier while driving from Strathpfeffe to our current hotel. This is the Eilean Donan Castle. It is right along a main road and as such has become quite a popular tourist attraction.
Eilean Donan is actually a small tidal island situated at the confluence of three sea lochs (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh) near the village of Dornie. It is connected to the mainland by a footbridge that was installed early in the 20th century and is dominated by a picturesque castle that frequently appears in photographs, film and television. Some of the films shot here include Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948), The Master of Ballantree (1953), The New Avengers (1976), Highlander (1986), Loch Ness (1996), Entrapment (1999) and James Bond - The World is Not Enough (1999).
The island's original castle was built in the thirteenth century and became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies, the Clan MacRae. However, in response to the Mackenzies' involvement in the Jacobite rebellions (remember them?) early in the 18th century, government ships destroyed the castle in 1719. And they must have been really pissed as they knocked the hell out of it. Even well into the 20th century it was still no more than a pile of rubble left over from the 1719 attack.
Circa 1911 (image from Wikipedia)
But the little island has history that goes back way farther than the Jacobite Rebellion. It is thought there may have been a monastic cell there in the 6th or 7th century although there are no remnants left. In the early thirteenth century, during the reign of Alexander II (ruled 1214–1249), a large wall was constructed enclosing most of the island. At that time, the area around the island was at the boundary of the Norse-Celtic Lordship of the Isles and the Earldom of Ross making the spot a good defensive position against the Norse.
Later on, the island became a stronghold of the Mackenzies of Kintail and included fighters from the Macraes and Maclennans who were closely associated with the Mackenzies. Other than a rumor that Robert the Bruce sheltered here during the winter of 1306-07, the castle escaped other involvement in the Wars of Scottish Independence.
In 1331 Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, sent an officer to Eilean Donan to let them know that the Earl himself would be visiting. In celebration of this visit they rounded up 50 wrongdoers, chopped off their heads and decorated castle walls with the detached heads. When Moray arrived he thought that this was a fitting tribute and was quite pleased. Those folks really knew how to have a celebration.
Over the ensuing years clan warfare was more or less a continuous affair with various sections of land going back and forth between clans as they won or lost battles. Each time one clan prevailed over another, of course, the clan chief on the losing side was executed as they went along. But, as mentioned. this all came to an end in 1719 with the destruction of the castle by the English.
Nothing more happened for the next 193 years. The ruins of Eilean Donan castle were forgotten and just crumbled and decayed until 1912 when Major John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island for £2,500 with dreams of building a castle worthy of his status. And perhaps, owning a castle would help him claim the ancestral title of Constable of Eilean Donan.
After drawing up all sorts of fantastic plans, they started to build the castle after World War I. The idea was not so much to build a replica of what had been there, but rather to build an idealized version of Eilean Donan castle, loosely based upon the decaying ruins. It is said that the chief of works based the designs upon a dream he had of what the restored castle might look like. Although the new construction used the same footprint as the medieval castle, they added and exaggerated lots of features to make it more cosmetically appealing.
What is interesting is that even though they used modern heavy machinery to build it, they used design principles and materials from authentic medieval castles. The walls are just as thick, made of the same types of stones, with similar room layouts.
It took 20 years, until 1932 for the castle to be completed which included the addition of a bridge to give easier access to the island. The island and castle became a tourist site in 1955 and is now the third-most-visited castle in Scotland. Now that it’s done, Eilean Donan Castle is described as "a romantic reincarnation in the tradition of early 20th-century castle revivals."
Eilean Donan Castle
Return to Edinburgh
As the next day would be mostly a driving day as we returned to Edinburgh for a farewell dinner and our journey home the next day, and in anticipation of the impending heat wave, the clouds started to break up and we were treated to a beautiful sunset from our hotel window that evening.
Sunset from hotel window
Homeward Bound Part 3
The next morning before breakfast I jumped on the internet just to check on things again. The first thing that popped up was news that indeed, they would be cutting train speeds by 50% when it got too warm (over 85f) and strongly suggested that people cancel or delay any travel plans starting the next day (the day of our flight back to California). Wait a minute. I’ve seen hundreds of trains zooming along at full speed through the deserts of the American southwest when it was well over 110f, so what’s with this 85f threshold? I would think that this part of the world would be much better at this sort of thing than the train phobic US. But, apparently not.
The news also mentioned that all trains on the LNER line (that’s the outfit we had our first reservation on) starting that night were just plain cancelled. I sure was glad we had switched to the other line. Our Caledonia Sleeper reservation was still intact with no notices of impending delays or cancellations, so all was good. It was also comforting to know that we’d be traveling tonight and the probability of it getting too hot during the night for full speed travel would be much less – especially as the heat wave was not expected to hit till the wee hours of the morning. But, nonetheless I checked 3 or 4 more times during the day.
To be continued……
Back down the rift Valley
On our way to the Isle of Skye we traversed the Northeast portion of the long rift valley where we saw Lock Ness. Now, we would be traveling the Southwest portion of the same rift valley. If you go back to episode 1 of this Scotland series there is a map of the entire trip. But first we had to backtrack a bit to get to the rift valley. Along the way we once again passed by pretty Loch Duich, and then turned south into the mountains.
The area we were traveling through is pretty rugged terrain and is very popular with hikers and mountain climbers with many of the most famous Scottish treks and trails heading off into the mountains from either side of the road. One of our guides was an avid trekker and pointed out various trails as we went along. Of course they meant nothing to me but he was quite excited to tell us about some of his hiking adventures as well as plans for future hikes.
One of many Trails heading up into the mountains
As one can see in the photos I’ve been sharing, even though the landscape is lush and green with plenty of rainfall most of the natural areas, like in the photo above, are grass and shrub rather than forest covered. This was not a natural occurrence. I talked a bit about this in episode 4 (Black Isle). Scotland’s ancient Caledonian forests grew at the end of the last Ice Age. Anywhere that wasn’t too rocky or wet was once part of a massive forest consisting of oak, birch, rowans, scots pine, elm, juniper and native yew among others.
If you were a squirrel at that time you could travel from Glasgow to Aberdeen and beyond without coming down to the ground. But wherever humans go, forests vanish. Even after the human inhabitants cleared areas for farmland, towns and roads and ship building, some survived. In 82 AD, when Romans invaded Scotland, there were still many large forests between the farms. But this was not to last due to another force that is responsible for the loss of Scotland’s forests – sheep. As you recall, a prime motivating factor for “the clearances” was to turn the land into massive sheep operations, and that was the end of Scotland’s forests.
But, even though most of the sheep farms are now gone, the forests have not returned. Once the trees are gone and their roots die, the soil falls apart. Then the rain erodes the earth and the nutrients wash away. Where forests once grew there is now peat. Today, much of the land that was once forested is so poor in nutrients and lacking in soil that trees cannot grow.
But there is a strong “re-wilding” movement taking place where hundreds of groups are actively seeking out places where forests could take root and are planting patches of native trees. This is forming a patchwork of mini forests. It is thought that these patches will start rebuilding the soil and as they do will tend to expand outward eventually meeting up with other expanding patches. As you drive along you can see some of these efforts.
Patches of re-forested land
After descending out of the Highlands we came to our last destination of the tour which is Stirling Castle. It is located in the town of Stirling which is close to the boundary between the Highlands and the Lowlands. In addition it guards what was, until the 1890s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth. These factors made it one of the most important fortifications in the region from earliest times. Fitting its strategic location and royal use it is one of the largest and most important castles in Scotland.
Before the union with England, Stirling Castle was one of the most used of the many Scottish royal residences. Several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary Queen of Scots (1542), and many others were born or died there.
Even though it was used as a royal palace, it was designed as a fortress, As is the case with many Scottish castles, including the one in Edinburgh, it sits atop hill surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs making it hard to attack. As one might expect, the castle has been involved in many battles over the centuries. There have been at least eight sieges, including several during the Wars of Scottish Independence, with the last being in 1746, when Bonnie Prince Charlie unsuccessfully tried to take the castle. During the Wars of Independence, which were a combined civil war and a war for independence from England, the castle changed hands eight times in a 50 year span.
Most of the principal buildings date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but a few structures remain from the fourteenth century. And, of course any castle of this importance comes with some interesting stories.
It is said that James V would dress down into peasant attire and sneak out of the castle to the old town of Stirling where he would mingle with his subjects posing as the Guid Man of Ballengeigh. Another story is not about the actual castle but rather a feature on the flat land just below the castle called the “Kings knot”. This is a set of raised concentric circles in a field. Research carried out in 2011 revealed that King Arthur’s round table may well have been hidden beneath this feature.
Ornate ceiling in one of the Royal Palace rooms in the castle. Note the unicorns on the walls
The Great Hall is the largest of its kind ever built in Scotland measuring 138ft by 47ft. It was built for James IV in 1503 and has five large fireplaces to keep guests warm on those cold Scottish nights as well as galleries for minstrels and trumpeters. After all, every gala banquet has to announce the arrival of the king and queen with a fanfare of trumpets.
Perhaps the most spectacular event held in the Great Hall was the banquet following the christening of Prince Henry in 1594. The highlight of the banquet was a wooden ship, 18ft long with masts 40ft high. From it seafood was served to the guests. The ship came complete with 36 brass cannons that fired a salute to the Prince.
The Great Hall at Stirling Castle
Scotland is famous for its love for and long history of myths and legends. Therefore it is no surprise that a fabled creature such as the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal. Unicorns have been linked to Scotland for centuries. While the animal is mythological, the ideals it represents are what make it a perfect fit as the national animal. Like this proud beast Scots would fight to remain unconquered.
The unicorn was first used on the Scottish royal coat of arms by William I in the 12th century. In the 15th century, when King James III was in power, gold coins even appeared with the unicorn on them. When Scotland and England unified under the reign of James VI of Scotland in 1603, the Scottish Royal Arms had two unicorns supporting a shield. When James VI became James I of England and Ireland, he replaced the unicorn on the left of the shield with the national animal of England, the lion, to show that the countries were indeed united.
The unicorn representing Scotland in the coat of arms is always depicted bounded by a golden chain, which is often seen passing around its neck and wrapping all around its body. The unicorn was believed to be the strongest of all animals – wild and untamed, and that it could only be humbled by a virgin maiden. It is possible that the entrapment symbolizes the power of the Scottish kings – they were strong enough to tame even a unicorn.
Unicorn on top of one of the buildings of Stirling Castle.
Homeward Bound Part 4
And this brings us to the end of our journey. The official tour booked us into a modern hotel near the Edinburgh airport for a farewell dinner and so that folks could be taken to the nearby airport the next morning for their flights back to North America. As it turned out this was the most spacious room we had on the entire trip and the best shower. Too bad we couldn’t make much use of it as we had to grab a taxi to the train station in Edinburgh around 10:20 pm for our rail bound trip to London.
Still checking the internet and the website for the rail line, there was no indication that the train wouldn’t leave (and hopefully arrive) on time. So, off we went hoping for the best but dreading having to sit in a train seat all night. As has been our regular practice in airports in recent years we asked for “Assistance” at the train station due to mobility issues. Upon arriving we sent the cab driver off to find the “assistance” after a bit of a wait, he came back with a wheel chair and attendant who took us down to platform level. On the way we asked about the odds of getting a sleeper cabin but other than saying everything was chaos due to the travel restrictions and cancelled flights with every train sold out for the next few days he had no other info.
We were still about 40 minutes before boarding time so figured we’d just hang around till they opened the gate to the platform. But, there was an agent from the Caledonia Sleeper company near the gate attending to some paperwork and he signaled to let the folks with the wheel chair onto the platform. At this point a nice young lady in a train sort of uniform came over and said we were too early to board but could just hang around by the train till we could board. I think she was the lead conductor. I asked her about getting on a wait list for a sleeper cabin and she said there was no waiting list but she’d let us know if anything developed. She also then changed her mind and said we could board the train and go to our seats as the attendant need to take his wheelchair back with him.
We stowed our luggage at one end of the car and found our seats. Much better than airline seats with way more leg room, and more of a reclining angle but still just a seat. But we got as comfortable as we could and settled in for a long night.
But then the conductor came back and informed us that they had a cancellation and a sleeper cabin had become available if we wanted it. Are you kidding me? Of course we wanted it! I’m wondering if the wheelchair had any influence in this? So she brought over the credit card machine, we paid the difference and were escorted to a nice cabin (actually it was a handicap cabin with extra wide door). I then went back and brought our luggage to the cabin. It had a little desk, space under the bed for luggage and a double bed with sheets, blankets, and real pillows – just like a hotel. What a fortunate turn of events. So, we went to bed.
During the night, being the engineer type, I was so interested in the whole train experience that I kept waking up each time we slowed down, sped up, switched tracks, or stopped (apparently waiting for a green signal). Each time we stopped I worried that the powers that be might have curtailed rail traffic. But, it was the middle of the night and the real heat was not expected till after day break.
We arrived on time, found a taxi for the 40 minute ride to Heathrow where we arrived in plenty of time to check in, have some breakfast and get to the gate. Even though by our flight time Heathrow was operating at 50% capacity due to the heat wave that had arrived, our flight was not affected other than a 30 minute delay. And, as it was a direct flight we didn’t have to worry about making a connection in some far flung airport.
And that’s the end of our Scotland journey and this series of travel logs for Scotland.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
This blog is posted at:
Or, the whole Scotland 2022 series (as I write them) here”
Photographs from Scotland can be found on my website here:
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the Road Scholar Guides)
Keywords: Armadale Castle, blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogscotland2022, Dunvegan Castle, Eilean Donan Castle, Flora MacDonald, Isle of Skye, Kilt Rock, Mealt Falls, Sterling Castle, Suacy Mary, Travel Woes
What an inspiring trip. The photos are exceptional. Of course the details of your travels filled out the narrative. I’m traveling to Sicily next month. Hope to take some interesting photos. But am unsure about photographing in color or monochrome. Your color images are unbeatable! Which camera did you use. Thanks for any tips. Lenore
Great stories and history, loved the one about Saucy Mary. You really have to like stone houses to be continuously amused. Your train and flight issues just make me wince - wonderful that it all worked out in the end, but you are more gray than before! thanks again for all the great photos!
Dennis Hogan (from Road Scholar)(non-registered)
You should make this whole chapter into an episodic film. The twists and turns of your journey home were epic.
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