Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Living the dream - two weeks to go

We find ourselves at that strange limbo place regarding our move to the highlands. We have packed all we can (fortunately, we don't have that much to pack), have arranged for the telephone and broadband to be in place on the day, have ordered our bed to be delivered on the day, have picked up most of the new bed linens, lamps from Ikea, dishes and cutlery from Asda. We have moved so frequently that we are quite the pros at this. No one moves as well as we do. But, they say practice makes perfect and we've had lots of practice.

My sister, mother, and most of my friends have filled in complete address books with my changes of address. From the time I left home after college until this move to the highlands, the number of times my address has changed numbers an astonishing 27! When I think back, I am quite sure each move was because I was in search of my home. Even moving back to my hometown of Staunton didn't fill some empty space within me that was looking for home. The cottage in Moffat (Scotland) came close. But the dream was always someplace up north, someplace that would have character and a sense of cosiness. Our new place has all the things we have searched for. I have let my family and friends know that they can write the address down in pen. I think this move will be the last.

We are so looking forward to settling into our new place. The view from the living room looks out on our small garden, where I will put a bird feeder, and beyond to the ancient trees that have stood there for hundreds of years. Chris will have the forest path nearby. I can see us now, on winter evenings, snuggled up in our living room or in our little office - each of us working away at the art we love so much. I sense that our creativity will grow. We will be happy there...

I am not sure there will be much else to post until we have made the move.  After that, I am sure the posts will be frequent and accompanied by photographs of our new surroundings. We can't wait.  And so we will find ways to keep ourselves occupied over the next two weeks.  Chris has surgery tomorrow to remove some impacted wisdom teeth and one tooth that is irreparably damaged. That will take us through the weekend and then the next to last week here.

We have always found something about our last home that we have missed. That will not be case this time. We have not felt "at home" since returning to the UK. We enjoyed our time with my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, but it wasn't our home. It was a place to stop and live for a while. It was a place to be so that we could grow close to our granddaughter and establish our relationship with her. For that I am so grateful. But I am even more grateful that life has handed us this lovely gift. Our dream of life in the highlands will become our reality. Lovely how it works out...

Friday, August 19, 2011

Counting down the days...

It was in August 2004 that I visited Scotland for the first time as an adult. I fell in love with the place. Around every corner and with every new view of its varied landscapes, I would feel my heart beat faster and my whole body would tingle. This is, I assure you, quite literal. I learned to have tissues around me the whole time, ready to catch my cascading tears as my heart and soul were lifted by my surroundings. Two years later, with Chris, I returned. We made our way up to the far northwest corner and were transported to another place and another time. Just as I had, Chris reacted with extreme emotion. There is just something about the place.

Now, we find ourselves in the enviable position of making our home not far from this sort of scenery. For practical reasons, we would never be able to live in the remote areas of the northwest. Some very lucky people do, but, because of health concerns, we simply can’t afford to be that far away from a hospital. We will be close to the main hospital of the highlands in Inverness. However, having to compromise does not take away from the sheer joy we feel in being so close.

When we visit the northwest now, it will a far shorter drive. We will leave our home and within 5 miles find the turn off to Bonar Bridge and beyond. The A836 will lead to the A837 at Ledmore. There we will have the option of traveling south to Ullapool or north to Assynt. I can’t imagine having anything more wonderful than these options so close to home.

Ullapool stands on Loch Broom, a sea loch that leads out to The Minch and the Outer Hebrides. Ullapool has a lovely harbour where it isn’t unusual to spot little grey heads popping up from time to time – the grey seals are very common in the seas around the west, and I suppose east, coast of Scotland.  The road that leads from Ullapool north winds around the coast initially, including a lovely pass along Ardmair Bay, before it comes inland again. The views are breath-taking, offering views of many of the Munros (“hills” measuring over 3000 ft).  Suilven and Stac Pollaidh are two of the more recognisable. There are parts of this road where you are entirely unaware of man being part of the landscape at all. Desolate yet beautiful, this is a lovely part of the highlands.
Castle Ardvreck
on Loch Assynt

Were you to turn toward Assynt, you would be greeted by stunning “hills”, lochs and ancient ruins. One of our favourite spots along this road is Castle Ardvreck on Loch Assynt. I adore this spot, and on gloomy days it is at its best. Sunrises and sunsets here are equally jaw-dropping. The loch boasts lovely little tree islands, forlorn with tall, thin trees, it is an incomparable sight. Should you continue on the road more traveled, you will find yourself in the small harbour of Lochinver. Perhaps the greatest vista is looking south from Lochinver, where the double peaks of Suilven dominate the horizon. This is an area of such unspoiled beauty, it is truly hard to even begin to write how it feels to be there, the sensations, the emotions, the incredibly spiritual sense that the area evokes. I can't wait to go back.

Suilven from the
outlook on the B869
But, if at Loch Assynt, you choose the A894, you enter even more surreal landscapes  - miles and miles of peaks in the distance, hillsides of heather, herds of deer, and very little evidence of mankind. And if, from the A894, you choose to go off on the B869 (a single-track road), you will be treated to wonderful views as you find yourself going up and down and winding around.  There is a point where you can pull off to see six of the Munros across the horizon. 

There are so many more roads to travel, and we have travelled and will travel them all.  From the road that leads to Kinlochbervie on to Oldshoremore or the road that leads east to Durness, we are anxious to reacquaint ourselves with these places we grew to adore. I know our love for them will not have diminished in the time we were away, but will have grown more dear in their absence. The knowledge that these drives will be available to us without having to think of B&Bs in which to stay or the time that it will take to get there is more wonderful than we can imagine.

There is one thing of which I am sure – that this blog is going to get better as we are able to travel once more to Scotland’s true highlands of the northwest.  The photos will be updated and there will be so many more to share with you. And don’t doubt for one moment that we are not aware of the blessing we have been given.

Twenty-nine days and counting…

Friday, August 12, 2011

Back where we belong. Part II

The view to Loch Snizort

We awakened to a morning that was still without bright sunshine, but the clouds had lifted and our views were clearer. From the bedroom window, we enjoyed a view across Loch Snizort to the hills beyond.  It is an area of little population and so you can look for miles without seeing more than a dozen houses.  We dressed and went to the breakfast room where we were greeted by Peter, husband of Marina, the owners of the B&B.  Sitting at one of the tables were the occupants of one of the other two rooms.  They were two gentlemen and we guessed from their appearance that they may possibly be bikers, traveling by car (perhaps having outgrown their bikes). They hailed from Corby, in Northamptonshire. They had been traveling through Scotland and were heading back south and would break their journey before the trip home today. They were friendly and chatty. Soon, we were joined by a nice young couple from Italy. They were in extremely good spirits and told us of their trip so far and what they hoped to see before they would return to Italy in a week’s time.

My daughter has always been a bit embarrassed by my “never met a stranger” attitude, but I do love to meet and chat with people when traveling, and B&Bs are the best for meeting fellow travelers. You often find out something you didn’t know about an area, while imparting your knowledge. It was lovely and Peter and Marina put the music of a local group, Runrigg, on the CD player for us to listen to as we ate.

We checked out, having complimented our hosts, and headed to Portree. An appointment was yet to be confirmed, so we availed ourselves of the somewhat early hours and visited one of our favourite shops – Skye Batiks. We bought a celtic wall hanging for ourselves and a cute little cuddly toy representation of the despised midge for Catherine and returned to see if our appointment would be kept. With an affirmation, we made our way north to Staffin and having done what we needed to do, we stopped at Skyelight Candles to visit our old friend, Kevin, who runs the place with his partner Nick. It was good to see them again and we left with some scented tealights and a smile.

View of mainland from Skye

Our trip back down the island to the bridge was lovely. I adore the view from this road across to the mainland. The hills of Scotland’s true highlands. In this photograph, you can see the "hills" of the Applecross Peninsula. (For a hair-raising drive, we recommend the Bealach Na Ba - or Pass of the Cattle. This is the highest road in Scotland and includes several hairpin turns - all on a single-track road!) One can get lost in trying to truly appreciate the scale of things up here. As many times as we have been, we still find ourselves noticing some sheep on a hillside and suddenly appreciating how huge the hill is.

The Old Man of Storr
One of the treats of the road from Staffin to Portree is the Old Man of Storr. The old man is an upright stone pillar at the top of one of the many hills on Skye. Behind him stands a great face of stone. Beside him is a much smaller upright. Legend is that long before history was written, the Old Man of Storr and his wife were fleeing from a giant.  As they came to the hillside, they turned around and the giant turned them to stone. And there they stand today. I hope they never fall. The profile of the hill can be seen from miles away. I’ve included a photo Chris took. The small dots of white in the lower left-hand corner are sheep. Their presence gives you a sense of how enormous the stones are.

From Skye, we traveled the road up the Wester Ross Coastal Trail to Lochcarron and then beyond to the junction at Achnasheen. It is there that I will be attending a Christmas Craft Fair at Ledgowan Lodge Hotel. An imposing building the colour of brownish red clay, it stands in a grove of trees all by itself. We look forward to the fair and to returning to this area of Scotland’s northwest.

As we arrived in Dornoch, where we spent Thursday night, we were impressed with the charm of the town. We followed the signs to the Royal Dornoch Golf Hotel (remember, the national game of Scotland), and settled in for an afternoon tea, complete with warm scones and cream and strawberry jam. It was sublime.  We then traveled the additional seven or so miles to our B&B of the night – The Strathview B&B outside Dornoch at the road to Thurso and John ‘o Groats. We settled in and prepared ourselves for the very important appointment we had a 7pm.

At 5:30 we left the B&B and traveled the 15 or so miles to the small village of Milton near Kildary. Milton, which was called Milntown until the early 1970s, was an 18th-century centre for the milling of oats and later flax. The area has a rich history with a nearby castle and aristocratic house. We arrived early, so we were able to explore the surrounding areas. It is located within a short distance of Tain, the home of the Glenmorangie whisky distillery. We drove to Invergordon and then made our way back to Milton, arriving around 6:45. The gentleman we were meeting was already there, so we made our way into the place we were visiting to see what was what.

And this is the news:

Our new home
As of 15 September, Chris and I will be moving into a wonderful 3-bedroom ground floor apartment in a converted 18th century mill. It is perfect for us - with room for an office and a guestroom. It is lovely and we feel so lucky to have found it. It has a terrific quirky feel to it and we look forward to making it our own. The bathroom was adapted and comes complete with disabled shower. The property faces a wood that contains a Forest Trust path that leads to the Balnagown River. Not only all of that, but our new landlord has even allowed us to acquire a feline friend to make our home complete.

We ARE back where we belong. Ullapool and the far northwest are about 60 miles away, Skye is easily reachable in a couple of hours. We already feel the creative juices flowing. It will provide us with so much. Dornoch (which is only 15 miles from the apartment) holds weekly craft fairs and I have been informed that there is a great big empty hole where jewellery should be! Chris will have the beauty of Scotland within an hour’s drive. 

So, the lesson from this wise old woman: Never, ever give up on your dream. Follow it and make it real. As a very insightful woman once said to me, turn your dreams into goals, because goals are a dream with a deadline.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Back where we belong? Part I

Today we headed northwest. Through the rain and fog and mist, we followed the familiar roads. The grey skies did not spoil our drive. If anything, they enhanced it. The great thing about Scotland is that it looks wonderful, no matter the weather. For us, we think that those parts of the country that touch us most look wonderful in rain and mist and fog. The wisps of low-lying cloud curl around the peaks and settle into the glens. As we drove through Glencoe, we were incredibly choked up by the vision before us. Magical, mystical...and while the mist hid the tops of the hills, it highlighted the rough landscape, not softening it, but making it more dimensional, as each bump and peak, waterfall and valley was accentuated by the veil of cloud. It was lovely and peaceful.

The peaks of Glencoe
shrouded in mist.

But this is summer, and we have never traveled these roads at this time of year. We have avoided them because of tourists and midges, but our need to travel north is an important one and one which I hope I can reveal by Sunday. As we sat in our car, with the drizzle outside and tour busses crowding onto the small carpark overlooking Glencoe, we watched, almost with resentment, as tourist after tourist piled out slowly, assembling at the edge overlooking the glen. We felt as if their presence somehow cheapened this sacred place, the way one might feel when crowds of tourists enter an ancient abbey or cathedral and speak loudly and laugh and play about. For me, Glencoe is my church, my cathedral.

We drove on, heading to the Isle of Skye, driving behind camper vans and people carriers with European tags. We did feel a bit sorry for them. This weather is not what one would wish for a holiday. For those who were camping, we can only salute their resolve.

As we passed through the Five Sister of Kintail, we were unable to see their peaks, but we saw the water cascading down the sides, forming waterfall after waterfall. We once tried to count the waterfalls while traveling this road in similar drizzle. The waterfalls are so many, you lose your count. Once again, wisps of white cloud and drizzling fog swirled in and out of the hills. Rivers which had been low and quiet were suddenly full and strong, coursing over rocks and fallen trees.

Soon, the beautiful silhouette of Eilean Donan came into view.  Eilean Donan, the iconic castle that sits on its own little peninsula, jutting out into Loch Duich. The fading light prevented a photograph, but the picture in our minds will be added to all the others we have of this incomparable place. We continued until we saw the Skye Bridge in the distance. It all seemed so strange. We had not made this trip since 2007, but it was as if we were here yesterday. We crossed the bridge, arriving on Skye, where English is the second language on the signs, beneath the Scottish Gaelic. We made our way along the road that would lead us to our B&B. Familiar places, like old friends, appeared and disappeared as we made our way north towards the island’s capital, Portree. We continued until we reached our B&B in Kensaleyre, overlooking Loch Snizort. Of all the names of all the lochs in Scotland, this is our favourite.

Tonight, as we returned to our B&B after dinner in Portree, in the distance, to the northwest, the clouds lying low on the sea seemed to glow. We realised that, despite the late hour (just after 10pm) and the overcast weather, the clouds were glowing with the last light of the day. Despite it being August, the daylight still lasts until late in the evening. I wish that sight could have been photographed – but it was simply too dark.

Tomorrow morning we have some errands to run and then we will make our way back onto the mainland and up to the area just northwest of Inverness. We hope to find what we have been looking for.

Stay tuned…

Monday, August 1, 2011

Our Sunday drive and the legend of heather...

Back to what this blog is really about…the beauty that is Scotland.

Yesterday, Chris and I had one of our Sunday drives. Now, please understand that, for us, a Sunday drive must not measure fewer than a couple of hundred miles. Yes, we are gas guzzlers. (Apparently, however, our car is not.  The Honda was averaging 53mpg yesterday – British gallons.) I’ve always said that we only abuse one substance, and that substance is petrol. So, our drive…

We traveled north (where else) until we reached Pitlochry. Pitlochry, for those unfamiliar with Scotland, is a lovely artsy town in Perth and Kinross. It has one main street, on which you can find all manner of shops. It has a very respected theatre and is considered a bit of a cultural Mecca. As I am not in the position of being able to casually walk around, Pitlochry was a pit stop (couldn’t resist) and we stopped at the always crowded Co-Op, where Chris picked up some nibbles for our “linner”. You see, we didn’t leave the house until after 2.  Of course, it would make sense to leave earlier in the day, but we are night owls – serious night owls. We rarely get to bed before 2am, so an early start, unless we are well prepared beforehand, rarely happens. So, having left at 2, we arrived in Pitlochry around 4ish. We discussed Pitlochry as an alternative place to seek domicile, but decided that it would probably be a very expensive place to live, albeit a perfect town for our artistic pursuits.

Looking west along Loch Tummel
We traveled west from Pitlochry. On the way, we passed the picturesque Loch Tummel. The photograph was taken from the place we stopped to eat the aforementioned “linner.” Stunning play of greys and greens, trees and loch. It was lovely. This was a road we had not yet traveled, so it was all new to us. We left the picnic area after about ½ hour and continued west. The landscape became less leafy and green and the hills rose higher beside us. The roads were literally lined with willowherb and meadowsweet, mixed in amongst the tall shoots of Queen Anne’s Lace. The farther west we went, the more the road narrowed, until its width barely accommodated two cars. Loch Rannoch came into view and with it the camp sites set up on its shores. We both envied and pitied these campers. The thought of being out in that natural beauty is enviable. However, providing the midges with their own little picnic is not. We traveled on, climbing now as the road meandered alongside the loch. The landscape now began to resemble the landscapes we know in the area. Hills covered with only the tuffs of rusted green – the foliage of the heather, just beginning to open its tiny purple flowers. The grey sky began to weep and, as we entered more and more desolate landscapes, we watched as the sheep grazed on barren hills and hares could be seen running in the undergrowth. Finally, we came to Rannoch Station, a remote train station at the end of a dead end road. The rain was falling quite heavily now and we sat, looking out of the car windows at the landscape before us. Grey skies over barren hills, the ground broken by gurgling streams and small lochans. In other words, heaven. There were few people at Rannoch Station. A small chaffinch, who appeared to like to have his photograph taken, took his position on a large boulder beside the car. We opened the car windows ever so slightly to enjoy the sounds of nature and the rain.

We drove away from Rannoch Station and chose a new route for our leisurely drive home. We turned at Tummel Bridge toward Aberfeldry. The barren landscape around Rannoch gave way to leafy green lanes, with what I like to call “tree tunnels.” We slowed for the animals crossing the road – rabbits and one lone elusive red squirrel. The trees began to diminish once more and as we made our way from Aberfeldy to Dunkeld along another largely deserted road, the barren fields and hills became more and more dotted with purple as the time of blooming heather draws near.

I love heather. I love the way the foliage sits in deep clumps upon the hillsides. In the winter, spring and early summer, the foliage is like rusty deep green tufts, appearing soft but actually quite tough, with woody stems. In the late summer and early autumn, the heather blooms and fills the hills with colour and sweet perfume.

Years ago, I read the legend of heather and was as enchanted by the story as I am by the flower.

When the world was young,  God looked upon the barren hillsides and hoped that he could find a tree or flower to grow upon them. He turned first to the mighty oak and asked if it might crown the hillsides with its strength and canopies of green. But the oak responded that he could not grow on such rocky soil, that he needed good soil in which to place his roots. Sadly, God turned from the oak.

Next, God turned to the honeysuckle. What would be more lovely on the hillsides than the pretty flower and sweet perfume of the honeysuckle. But the honeysuckle refused, explaining that she must have a fence or wall upon which to climb and the hills did not provide a place for her to thrive.

Saddened by the refusal of the honeysuckle, God turned next to the rose. Surely the rose would agree to cover the hills with her colourful blooms. But the rose sadly told God that she could not live in such conditions. Surely the rain and wind would destroy her delicate petals.

In the silence that came after the three refusals, God heard a small voice speaking to him. It was the heather. “I will be proud to serve you and to decorate the hills so that your creation is no longer barren and without colour.”

And so it came to pass that the barren hillsides became the home to the humble heather. And from that day forward, God blessed the heather with the strength of the oak, the perfume of the honeysuckle and the beauty of the rose.

Until next time, sith agus sunnd (peace and happiness).