Friday, October 28, 2011

Lovely sojourns…

A friend from the States came to visit this past week and it was so enjoyable having her here. Not only was her company most welcomed, but it gave us an excuse to show her some of the incredible sights here on our Highlands doorstep.

Light on the hills
at Assynt
We were lucky to have the weather cooperate beyond what had been forecast. Our first trip was up to Lochinver. What a joy to see the twin peaks of Suiliven rise out of the landscape before us. The hills were flooded with diffused sunlight and the variation in the heights of the hills gave them such dimension. We stopped in Inchnadamph so that Chris and Salle could get some photos of the hills. I love the way the light hits the hill behind and not the one in front. As we watched the hills, we heard strange bellowing sounds. It is the rutting season, and no doubt these were the sounds of lonely stags trying to entice does to join them.

We traveled on to Lochinver and had a lovely lunch at the Lochinver Larder. Sounds much less appetising than it is. The food and atmosphere were terrific and we enjoyed speaking with our waiter, who has always lived in Lochinver. He told us of the morning his then 7-year old son came running into the bedroom shouting that Suilven was on fire. Apparently the morning light was hitting the “hill” in such a way that it was bathed in purple and red light. How I would love to see that. I am sorry I have no photograph of Suilven, but despite the sunshine, there were no good views of it as the sky at the top was quite hazy.

Tree island on Assynt
We drove back along Loch Assynt and Chris captured this image of one of the tree islands on the upper end of the loch. Here the loch spreads out across the landscape, with the hills of Sutherland offering the perfect backdrop. Just as the loch itself seems larger here than at the lower end, so the tree islands are larger and taller. This one is far larger than the one that was photographed before. While many of Scotland's lochs feature these tree islands, for some reason, the islands here on Loch Assynt touch me more than any others. They are so filled with a sense of earthly spirituality and ancient wisdom.

We continued down from Loch Assynt, along the road to Ullapool just as the sun was setting. Chris captured this incredible image from along the A82. It is here that the views are so incredible, with the munros in the distance. To the south is lovely Ardmair Bay. Chris has THE photograph of Ardmair Bay on his website. It was too dark now to even try to get a photograph. But, as my friend said, it was a picture that will live in our minds' eyes always. To Ullapool and back to Inverness and home. I was so excited, because I knew that we would be visiting Skye the next day.

Eilean Donan at low tide
We awoke to grey skies, with occasional patches of blue, but were happy to see the skies clearing as we traveled west. We first headed south to Eilean Donan Castle. This iconic castle that stands on its own little island was not standing alone – for the tide was out and the vegetation that usually sits beneath the waters was visible – with golds and browns that complemented the colours of the trees. Eliean Donan may be one of the most photographed castles in Scotland and we watched as cars pulled into the parking lot, the occupants getting out to capture and image and move on. Chris came back from taking pictures chuckling at a phone conversation he heard while walking back to the car. An elderly gentleman, no doubt from Yorkshire, was on the phone muttering, "This isn't a castle. You call this a castle? Pshaw, this isn't a castle." Made me laugh. If ever there was a castle, Eilean Donan is it. (He also complained of a poor mobile signal because of all the "bloody" hills. You're in the highlands, sir, what do you expect?)

The ruined church on
the road to Elgol
We left Eilean Donan and, as we approached the Skye Bridge, we could see the sun hitting the sides of the Cuillens. We headed to Portree first, to have lunch at the Aros Centre. Then we took the road south again until we reached Broadford and the road to Elgol. How I had missed this drive. The old church, standing in ruins, where sheep often graze amongst the headstones was our first stop on the road. Such a peaceful place – I have dreamed of being here for the past three years and here we were again. Nothing had changed, but it was as if I were seeing it with new eyes. I think I just appreciate it so much more having been away. As I watched the sheep grazing on the hills across from the ruined church, a hooded crow touched down on the top of a farm gate just feet from our car. Of course, by the time Chris returned from photographing this gnarled tree growing by and into the church walls, the crow had flown away. One day I will get a photograph of one to post here. I love to watch them. Their plummage of black and pewter is enchanting.

The Black Cuillens across
Loch Scavaig
We drove the long, single-track road slowly, taking in the sights, until we reached Elgol and the peerless view it offers of the Black Cuillens across Loch Scavaig.  The autumn sky was pink in places and the sun was starting its decline, so we made the journey back along the narrow road and took the turn down to the south  so as to drive by the Five Sisters of Kintail. We could see the peaks this time, and the setting sun would hit in patches here and there. In the fading light of dusk, we caught sight of several stags grazing in the fields that appear beside the road, with small lochs, or lochans, appearing dark and deep. The darkness fell quite quickly and we made our way home, having had a lovely day of sharing our favourite places.

On Wednesday, we took our friend to Glasgow so that she could see Glencoe and Rannoch Moor. She was impressed by Ossian’s Cave and all the other glories of this melancholy place. I told her the story of the massacre and the Campbells and MacDonalds. Once more the weather complemented the landscapes, with just plumes of clouds at the top of the hills. It was, as always, so very beautiful.

I don’t think I will ever grow bored with this beautiful country. Each trip out and about is such a joy for me. I love this country more and more each day and it was with great happiness that we told our friend that our ashes would be scattered in the Lost Valley of Glencoe and that we would live out the rest of our days in this country that touches our souls.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Musings on an October afternoon...

The one comment I hear more than any other, since we moved here, is that I should be hailed as some sort of positive example because I did what I had to do to get us to where we wanted to be. Don’t think so. I’m just a dreamer who knows that dreams only come true if you make them come true.

This afternoon we had a drive out. Not a huge drive – we had some things that needed to be mailed and we needed to get some stuff from the grocery store. As I sat in the car waiting for Chris to come back, I had the radio tuned to BBC Scotland. I sat there, listening to the voices, looking at the sky full of autumn afternoon sunlight, taking in the colours of the leaves and the white clouds mixed with grey and all I do could was smile. Sometimes, because being here feels so right, so natural, I find myself slipping into that mindset of everything becoming just part of everyday life. And that is what I must never allow myself to do. Being here is a blessing, finding the way to get here was and is a blessing, living the life we dreamed of is a blessing.

I sat there and reflected on our present, but also thought about my past. I am a great believer that everything that happens to us happens for a reason – either to teach us something we need to know or to place us one step closer to where we should be. I look back and see that even the worst negatives ended up leading to something positive. My first very unfortunate marriage gave me my daughter, my disastrous second (I blush that I’ve been married three times, I really do) brought me to the UK, a brief relationship after that marriage introduced the adult me to Scotland. The single life that followed allowed me to discover the great joy of learning to love myself, thereby giving me the self-confidence that allowed me to follow my heart to find Chris, who is the greatest love I’ve ever known. My increasingly crippling arthritis gave me the option of semi-retirement after so many years of hard work. My 23 months back in the States gave me a wonderful new friend and a change of view with which I could look and see and know that it is here in Scotland that I need to be. And along the story that is my life, there have been great wells of sadness along with the peaks of delight. But it has been a road that has brought me here – the place where I find the greatest joy and where I feel a sense of belonging that I never felt before.

This afternoon, after the post office and grocery store, we took the short drive to Bonar Bridge – up by way of the northeastern shore of the Dornoch Firth and back by way of the southwestern shore. The light on the hills was amazing and in the far distance we could see very high hills with a touch of white snow at the top. There is such a sense of open space here. The hills that are covered with trees are wearing their autumn colours; the hills that are covered with bracken and heather have that deep rusty bronze colour. They take my breath away. I think they always will. And then, driving back, I noticed great flashes of white in one of the little inlets of the firth. With trees between the road and the water, I had to wait until there was a clearing. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw that these numerous lumps of pristine white were swans. A flock of wild hooper swans had come in to settle in this area for the winter. Throughout the winter, they will be here until they go back to Iceland and areas farther north in the spring. It was magical to see so many in one place.  (Of course, Chris didn’t have his camera – he really needs to remember to take it out every time we leave the house – there is never any way to tell what the day may bring!)

We have a friend coming from the States on Sunday evening, staying with us until Wednesday. We are saving our petrol for her visit. Our plans are to visit Skye for a day (yes!) and then, the next day, take her to Ullapool and north to Lochinver and Assynt. I can’t wait to show her these beautiful places. I am quite sure they will enchant her as they have enchanted us.  I long to see Suilven’s majestic silhouette against the wide highland skies, the munros that populate the northwest and the beautiful hills and waters of Skye. It will probably be our last trip to these places until after the first of the year. If we get the weather predicted, we may find it hard to get to these out of the way places.  Our two occasions for travel will be those for Christmas fairs so I can show my jewellery. But our little adventures may have to stop for the season. We shall see. But no matter the weather, I sleep at night with a smile on my face because I know that outside my front door is the land I have longed to inhabit for a long time. Longer, I think, than even I have known. My soul is happy here, at peace, where it should be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An Incredible Journey...

Today we decided to take another drive. The day, while starting out damp and overcast, had turned into one of those gorgeous autumn days of blue skies and soft sunlight. While there were, and always are, grey skies in one direction or the other, it felt as if the afternoon might be best spent in the car, exploring more of the beautiful country around us. We had already been to Bonar Bridge, following the route south of the Dornock Firth, but we had not yet traveled the road north of the firth. So, that, we decided, would be today’s route of exploration.

As we left the dappled sunlight of our driveway and made our way out to the main road and then to the A9, we could look around us and see that rain was falling here and there. Little cloudbursts were everywhere. A moment in the rain and then we would emerge back into the autumn sunshine. We crossed the Dornock Firth and took the road leading to Bonar Bridge, to find what sights might be found on the way. 

There were very few places to stop along the way, and there was little reason to stop. The road was narrow, sometimes an ancient stone wall would appear beside us, only to return back to ferns growing golden in the cooler temperatures. It was very bucolic along this road – farms and old farms houses, rolled bales of hay and sheep and cows in fields, pleasantly munching away the time. As we rounded one corner at Spinningdale, I could see just the other side of the roadside and down a gentle grade was a ruin of some kind; research once I returned home revealed that the ruins are those of an old mill. The ruins were very tall, ancient grey stone upon ancient grey stone, with a tumbled down pile here and there. Once we got to the first left turn, we drove down a narrow lane, only to find a sign that said all access to this particular site was through private land. Alas, there would be no photograph to accompany my words. But, we drove on. As we drove, I consulted our very worn atlas and discovered an unnamed and unnumbered road that rose up from Bonar Bridge and would take us on a circular route, depositing us back at Loch Fleet. And so, when we arrived at Bonar Bridge, we took the turn. What a fortuitous decision it was. What isolated and barren beauty awaited us.

Loch an Lagain
The drive took us by old farms and fields of sheep and cows and then suddenly opened up into moorlands. The colour of the vast openness was one of deep golden yellows and bronze-like browns – the colours of old grass and heather no longer in bloom. The sky was so blue, but the constant drizzles made for rainbows – so bright and colourful. We climbed higher and higher until we leveled off, only to find a beautiful loch within view. This was Loch an Lagain. You can see the deep blueness of the water and the brown and gold of the hill behind it.  The loch is fed by the River Evelix, a river we pass over when driving from Dornoch back to Tain. It was bitterly cold, but the sun was shining brightly and the only sounds were those of the wind and water.

Rainbow on Loch Buidhe
We continued on, spying another rainbow before us. As we turned yet another bend in the narrow road, we came to the next loch – Loch Buidhe. The wind was whipping up the water into waves and, again, the air was bitterly cold. The rainbow ahead began to lose its colour, but as Chris stepped out of the car to capture this scene, it brightened up again, as if putting on its best colours for the photographer. The rain was spitting down here and there and the road, while paved, was damp. The road is so little traveled upon that the centre of the road is clump after clump of grass. In other words, just the sort of road we enjoy traveling. The rainbow, now having been caught by the camera, continued to shimmer, as if beckoning us further and further along the road. As we traveled on, a river wound its way along the road with us – the Abhainn an t’Sratha Charnaig. I’ve looked up the words and all I can get is Abhainn is river, an is the, t’sratha is wide. Charnaig doesn’t appear to have a translation. Name or not, it was so wild and wonderful – deep blue almost black water, winding and curling around the landscape.

Brae Cottage
As we moved along, with the Abhainn an t’Sratha Charnaig and several sheep as traveling companions, we came upon an isolated little cottage. It appeared to be uninhabited, but I am unsure of this. It may serve as a bothy for walkers. While there were no signs, research revealed that is called Brae Cottage – brae meaning steep bank or hillside. As you can see from this beautiful image Chris captured, while its human occupants may or may not exist, it is certainly not without the four-footed, wooly inhabitants. I was so glad Chris captured the sheep in the photograph.

Abhainn an t'Sratha Charnaig
Still the rainbow beckoned us forward, and soon we saw the hill, appropriately named “The Mound”, that sits on the banks of Loch Fleet. We were nearing the end of our drive. But we would continue to enjoy the babbling of Abhainn an t’Sratha Charnaig for several miles still. The river ran deeper and deeper into the earth as the road rose higher and higher, until the river was at the bottom of a deep gorge beside the road. Ancient trees, some moss covered and all reaching amongst themselves like the gnarled fingers of an ancient sage, grew wildly on the banks of the river. There was such a strong sense of the earth’s spirit here. I feel such a connection to the earth in these places – as if my very existence is just like that of a small insect in the great scheme of things. These old trees stood long before I existed and will stand long after I am gone. How many generations have these trees witnessed, walking and driving through this incredibly unspoilt wilderness?

We drove on and began to notice the widening of the road and the occasional house here and there and then, before we knew it, we were at the side of the A9, ready to turn back to the bridge over the Dornock and back home again. But what a stunning landscape we had seen – what an incredibly wild and uplifting environment we had become part of, even if just for a moment in time. This is why I love Scotland and why I love the Highlands so much – because they put everything into perspective for me. It is here that I can appreciate and understand how little significance there is to my life or anyone else’s when you look at the big picture. We are guests in this world – we are visitors who must regard and revere the beauty that has nothing at all to do with us. The beauty we cannot create and should not destroy.

Ancient moss-covered branches over the Abhainn an t'Sratha Charnaig

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Another Friday, another road*

Friday was a fairly nice day – soft sunlight sparkling through the clouds (and the occasional rainfall). We thought it might be nice to get out on the road and head in yet another direction. Chris wanted to head southwest of Inverness, to drool over some camera lens at a shop called Ffordes just outside Beauly and I knew that on the first floor of the small building is a café and gallery.  So, we got on the road about 1ish and headed south.

We passed by the span of beach where the seals usually congregate and we were not disappointed to see a large group on the beach. Unfortunately, they congregate too far from a parking area so we weren’t able to get any photos. We also saw several herons on the beach – beautiful birds standing on long thin legs above the gathered seaweed, stone and driftwood. (Chris has since been informed by the salesman at Ffordes that there is a place from which the seals are very visible and photograph-able, so we will try that another time).  We looked at the hills and saw that the tallest were wearing a layer of snow on their peaks. Winter is coming and this early snowfall on the hills was both predicted and expected.

We continued on our way, through Dingwall, Maryburgh and Muir of Ord. The areas are very green and leafy – lots of trees lining the roads and some remarkable old Victorian buildings scattered among the new builds that have popped up as Inverness has grown. We soon found ourselves on that familiar stretch of tree-lined road and saw the houses of Beauly ahead. Ffordes is located on the other side of Beauly, towards Cannick, and so we slowly drove through the town, admiring, as always, the quaint buildings and the large centre called House of Beauly. While we didn’t stop there this time, we have in the past and it is wonderful place full of little shops that offer everything from kilts to whisky glasses. While somewhat aimed at the tourist, it is high-end merchandise and very nice.

As we drove out of Beauly, we soon came to the old church that houses Ffordes and the gallery/café. Called the Kirk, it is a charming place and we have been there many times before for Chris’ fix of what I laughingly refer to as “camera porn.” He went upstairs and I settled into a comfortable sofa downstairs after attempting to walk around and see the offerings in the gallery. Chris appeared, eyes glazed with that look of having seen lovely camera bits and pieces, and we had a cream tea and a chat with the waitress.

We returned to our car to check the maps and decided to continue south to Cannick. This route took us along a beautiful narrow road, canopied by ancient trees. While some of the trees are wearing their autumn colours, many remain green as the weather has been completely unpredictable and the leaves are not changing as much as might be expected by this time of year. A river running by the road bubbled over stones from time to time, creating that gentle sound, so audible in the quiet stillness of the countryside. When we arrived at Cannick, we took the high road back to Beauly – climbing higher and higher until we could see the hills of the Great Glen in the distance. The sun was beginning its afternoon descent and the colour of the sky and the light on the hills were stunning.

Our trip ended with the necessary stop at the grocery store and petrol station and then home again. (I apologise for the lack of photographs, but Chris discovered that he had not reset his camera after a photo shoot of my jewellery. But I promise more photographs next week.)

So, another Friday of exploring our surroundings, discovering new places, reacquainting ourselves with places we know. When I spoke to my dear mother-in-law this morning, she was relieved when I said that this would probably be it as far as addresses go. No more wandering from place to place. We have found our home.

*With apologies to Cole Porter – now I have that song “Another Opening, Another Show” from "Kiss Me Kate" stuck in my head!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Friday outing...

Moss-covered walls in the woods
On Friday afternoon, we decided to take advantage of the relatively fine weather (some sun and little rain) and go for a drive north. (A friend commented, "How much farther north can you go?" Answer: 90 miles to John O' Groats.) So we got on the A9, after checking out the local petrol station, and headed north. We crossed the bridge at the Dornoch Firth (lovely view normally, but a bit bland on Friday) and headed up towards the town of Golspie. That was going to be the point at which we would turn around, but I found a lovely little backroad circuit we could drive that would put us back on the A9 just about 5 miles or so north of Golspie. The drive from the Dornoch Firth to Golspie was lovely - leafy and green, for the most part, but with some of the trees beginning to show their autumn colours. Once we were beyond Dornoch, Loch Fleet appeared to the east. It is lovely tidal loch with active estuaries during low tide - we often see seals or herons in the muddy flats left behind by the receding sea. (And I promise we will get a photo of the seals on one of our next ventures out.) As we approached Golspie, we saw the usual mix of stone buldings and Victorian architecture. A huge building on the west side of the A9 was signposted as a Highland Council office - we were no longer in our country of Ross-shire or Ross and Cromarty and had now passed into Sutherland.

The woods and green fields opened to a wide glen

As we passed through the northern part of Golspie, I saw a sign that directed us to "Backies" - this would be the road we would take us around the back of the A9 for what appeared on the map as about 9 miles. The first part of the road was bordered by trees - thick green, aged. The road was lined by a moss-covered stone wall. There is something about woods that moves me. I feel that trees are living, breathing spirits and no one convince me otherwise. Chris stopped the car to get some photographs and I enjoyed sitting in the car with the window open so I could hear the sounds of the woods - the birds, the insects, the breeze rustling through the trees. The leaves, some falling to the ground, made that lovely autumnal sound of dying leaves caught up on the breeze. And there was that wonderful smell of leaves, lying in the road, colourful and crisp.  When Chris returned, we went forward to see a fairly green and wooded area, dotted here and there by cottages. But as we progressed, the road opened up to more hilly landscapes, covered with bracken and heather. The sheep were grazing in the fields as the sky, cloudy and deep, began to send down gentle drops of rain. Chris was able to get this lovely shot as we entered the barren area. Slowly, we drove along the single-track road, wary of sheep and other cars. It seemed as if we were driving forever. The turbines of wind farm appeared to our right and as we rounded a bend in the road, we were greeted with the vision of a small loch just catching the sun as it set lower in the early evening sky. The water of the little stream leading to the loch seemed to be liquid sunlight and tender green reeds peeked through the surface of the loch. The loch was called Farlory and the area has many hut circles and mounds from the ancient peoples who lived there. The gentle drizzle continued, but could not affect our delight at the landscapes before us. Driving farther still, we came to a bend in the road where our view looking north west was stunning. A line of trees in autumnal dress opened up to a glen that reached forever - hills upon hills rising up from the centre and the sun showing low in the sky. There were no sounds and no people to be seen. Just this beautiful, very Scottish scene.

Liquid sunshine at Loch Farlory
Still we drove on, thinking the map to be misleading or the roads to have changed since the map was published. Soon, beside the road, the River Brora appeared, snaking through the countryside, through glens and along hillsides, opening up into wide areas of even terrain, with stream-smoothed stones on the banks. The River Brora gave way to Loch Brora and we saw many anglers on its banks and in small canoes in the midst of the loch bordered on one side by a high hill with a rockface. The light was so beautiful, but we saw that the time was marching on and we didn't want to be in such unfamiliar surroundings if the night fell. Onward to Brora and back onto the A9 for the return journey home. From Brora to Golspie, our route took us along the coast of the North Sea, hazy and blue grey. As we approached Golspie once more, we saw the spires and turrets of Dunrobin Castle on the sea's banks. Once more the land became more agricultural - fields of hay and sheep and cows. Back across the Dornoch Firth and down the road to Tain and then home. As Chris said, this may be our new "recharge" route - the drive we like to take when it is time to get away from people and buildings and just commune with the wild and barren countryside. It was magical and I know we will drive this way again and again.

Beautiful glen looking north on the final leg of our journey