Five Go on an Island Adventure

We arrived in the dark. On a boat. It missed the pier and had to spin round and go back out to sea before trying again. It was all very exciting.

Port Askaig, Islay:

ferry arrival

So, the five of us – four humans, 1 canine – went to bed in a lovely old house and awoke to sunshine and a eucalyptus tree.

window view

We ate breakfast. We unpacked. We ran about on golden beaches…

Kilchoman

and had our cares blasted away by the wind on rocky shores.

Salago

There was much fireside sitting and eating and laughing and talk.

jam tarts

History was explored. The Kildalton High Cross and church:

Kildalton Cross snowdrops

The Seat of the Lordship of the Isles at Finlaggan in the soft island rain:

standing stone at Finlaggan

grave 16595908336_d7f677c656_z

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Then, refreshed and de-stressed, it was back on the ferry to the mainland, though the view there is of Jura:view of Islay

We passed Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe:

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And walked between weather-battered oak trees on our way home.

Strone Hill

There’s more (oh, so many more!) photos on Twitter and Instagram.

drained

snow and ice on the loch

Beautiful isn’t it? Yet, I felt panicked when I saw the loch was being drained. I stood like an angry lorax at the side, pointing at trees that had been felled to carve an ugly canal in the bank, asking irate questions: Why? When will it be fixed? Why?

It didn’t look quite like that then.

mud banks

The freshness of the change was jarring. A conversation made things better. It wasn’t mindless destruction. There was talk of a loch-improving grant. There will be an island to encourage wildlife. There are to be oxidising plants to improve the water quality.

Swans started spending the night in the new shallows of the loch:

whooper swans over the loch

They left a feathery tide:

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Sunrise still happens.

sunrise on the shore of the loch

Clouds still gather in dramatic formations.

clouds

I walk out onto the frozen floor of the loch and examine long-hidden tree branches, pine cones, old boat jetties and numerous wine bottles (who?). I like getting to know the space in this new way, looking back at the shore, seeing it from a different angle. Nature doesn’t take long to smooth over the tracks of human intervention. There’s been mist, there’s been ice and now there’s snow.

What will Spring look like? I’m not sure, but there’s going to be beauty. There always is.

snow on the loch at sunrsie

shadows and light at the beach

st combs beach

We know extremes of light and dark in Scotland. At the height of summer it never gets properly dark; around the time of the winter solstice it barely gets light. But just now, in Autumn, the low sun illuminates spaces and objects from an angle that highlights both shadows and glorious brightness. Oh, the photo-taking opportunities!

River running into the sea at St. Combs:

river

White frothy waves crash against grey rocks:

waves

More rocks and sand and sky and a bonfire all ready to burn:

rocks

The break in the clouds is brief, the sand darkens under a blue and white patchwork sky:

clouds

Culloden and Clava

Macduff, anchor and church

A bright blue sky day. Good for a journey up the coast and into the past. Above: I stopped to take a picture of the anchor on the hill in Macduff.

A couple of hours and many miles later, the skies had clouded. Culloden Moor:

Culloden Battlefield

The visitor centre at Culloden is high-tech, swish, clean and pristine, all the things the bloody battle of the past was not. The contrast always gets me. I sit on a soft red sofa looking out at the battlefield, eating my delicious lentil soup and enjoying decadent chocolate cake in comfort and warmth. Compare that to being one of the Jacobite clansmen, having marched across boggy rough terrain in the dark all night, exhausted, starving, about to be slaughtered in a fight so unfairly matched that it was all over in one hour. What would he think of Culloden Moor today and the nice day out it provides for families and tourists?

Out on the battlefield, things feel more authentic, more memorial. Red flags mark the government line:

flag

Stones are placed over mass graves:

clans stone field of the English

Old Leanach Cottage is dated about 1760, several years after the battle, but is said to stand on the site of an earlier cottage that was used as a field hospital for government troops:

cottage

People leave offerings:

tartan offering

After a little look at the peaceful, cud-chewing, Highland cattle, it’s off to the nearby Clava Cairns:

Victorian Grove

Here ancient burial cairns (estimated at about 4000 years old) are surrounded by circles of stone and trees. It’s the perfect peaceful place to visit after Culloden.

Clava Cairns

You can walk right into two of the three cairns, though the entrance tunnel would have been covered in the past: you would have had to crawl.

into the cairn

Some of the standing stones are high and shaped, rather like enormous graves:

standing stone rectangular

Let’s finish with one of the aforementioned Highland Coos. There’s four of them in a field next to Culloden.

Highland Cow

serendipity and stones and a little dance

seagull

The first serendipitous happening of the day was the haar (Scottish word for mist that rolls in off the sea) and its silvery filtering of the sunlight. Then there was the seagull that flew by as I took the photo.

Inland we travelled, to bright sunshine and summer colours and the stones of Castle Fraser. I’ve made the picture below clickable to a larger version; to the left are two standing stones and to the right, in the distance by the trees, is Balgorkar stone circle.

standing stones and a circle

I thought we’d have to just view it from the side of the field, but no, some naughty person had trampled a pathway through the crop, so we did no further damage by walking it:

illicit path

Recumbent and flankers:

stones

On to Castle Fraser itself, where I was meant to be doing research for writing on heraldry, historic dates and architecture. This took the form of running about taking photos:

Castle Fraser

Love the rooftop:

turrets

Then, after picnicking, with only half the day gone, we decided to head to ruinous Kildrummy Castle a few miles further on.

Kildrummy

In the reception was an old friend who I hadn’t seen for years. There was hugging and much talking. Other people got fed up waiting… but it was good. We kept saying it was amazing. My friend is currently doing a PhD in history, some of our conversation became spontaneous research. We finally moved to look round:

great hall

I do appreciate the use of the adverb ‘treacherously’ there; without it we might think Osbourne the Blacksmith to have merely made a mistake or had an unfortunate accident such as tripping with a pot of molten metal or dropping a freshly forged sword…

window

The day ended with a visit to Broomend of Crichie stone circle, Pictish stone in the middle:

Broomend of Crichie

This blogpost is ending in a rather unrelated way, with some ballet. It’s beautiful and romantic; only two minutes long. Scottish Ballet performing at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow earlier this week:

You can watch the entire ceremony here on the BBC iplayer, ballet is 1 hour and 27 minutes in.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

first pioneers to Scotland

The Great Tapestry of Scotland is a beautiful trail through history and, at 143 metres long, the longest tapestry in the world. Its soft sewn artworks filled three large rooms of Aberdeen Art Gallery and photography was allowed. Yes. I was happy. May you be too.

Despite the earliness of my visit, the gallery was crowded; I was not quite so happy about the angle of this next pic. Lovely, lovely stone circles though:

stone circles

Some of Scotland’s past is sad and terrible:

witches

Glencoe

war

Happier happenings:

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‘Fiction is to grown men what play is to the child.’ RLS

Robert Louis Stevenson

and strange ones…

Dolly the Sheep

There was something calm and nourishing about walking round this exhibition. Whether it was the gentle and warm art of needlework that hung everywhere in the rooms – there was also a lady demonstrating sewing techniques – or the many different styles from the 1000+ stitchers marking the constant change of the world, I don’t know. The overall feeling was reflective yet hopeful: happy.

The Tapestry is touring , mainly in Scotland at the moment but other UK and overseas venues are planned, see the website for details.

Great Tapestry

London, baby!

Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Lion

My daughter and I took a little trip. It was a heady mix of excitement, fun, sore feet, poignant memories, ballet and food. This post is a veritable photo bomb, so continue reading only if you posses extreme picture viewing fortitude.

Continue reading

I love the beach

view out to sea

I nearly blew over taking this photo, a high speed wind was hurtling through the sea cave, but it was worth it to capture that combination of dark and light and blue.

New Aberdour beach is never busy, being a bit far from main roads and civilisation, but I recommend seeking it out if you are in the area. It has sandy bits for summer picnics and sunbathing, stony bits that noisily orchestrate the retreat of the waves and then the magnificent caves. The almost hidden entrance to the one above:

entrance to the cave above

This next one I always avoid; I once overheard a highly respected educational psychologist, who I knew from my time working in schools, emotionally blackmailing a small child to defecate in there. Such knowledge is off-putting, plus, the roof is rather head-bangingly low…

the pooping cave

But the beach as a whole is lovely. Apart from the car park, there is no sign of the modern day, you could be meandering through any time, any era.

rock pools

Some specific points in history and local folklore are marked. St. Drostan is said to have landed at New Aberdour in 580AD. His well:

St Drostan's Well

And the heroic actions of one Jane Whyte, who rescued fifteen men from a shipwreck in 1886, are commemorated in the remains of her little cottage:

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When the tide is out there are exceptional rockpools displaying all manner of sea life from minnows to sea slugs, starfish, pipefish and anemones. Tide allowing again, you can walk for miles round bay after bay. Do watch the sea though, there’s no mobile phone reception down there if you get stranded. Sometimes you catch sight of dolphins and whales…

I sound like a guidebook, a representative of Scottish tourism… but I’m not. I’ve visited this place at times of trauma and felt negativity drain away into the pink rocks. I’ve lain on the sand reading books during hot relaxing summers while my children explored the pools and searched for cowrie shells. I’ve introduced all my friends to the beach, so memories of New Aberdour are mixed up with those of my favourite people.

I love the beach.

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If Candlemas Day is clear and bright…

I just sat in the hot place. It was good, it was sunny and bright, though it offered only a vague warmth today.

The ‘hot place’ is a point on our property that is sheltered from both North and East winds by walls and situated next to large windows that reflect the sunlight and bestow a sort of ‘double sunning’. It is rather like a portal to another country, a warmer clime or different season. In summer it can reach unbearable temperatures. In the deepest months of winter the sun doesn’t touch it at all. This was the first time it lit up this year, fitting then that it’s Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc.

Feeling the sun on my face, without the usual buffeting wind, was a good reminder that the Earth is turning and Spring is on its way. More good reminders, brave little snowdrops:

snowdrops

It’s been an odd winter, very dark but with none of the usual bright and dramatic snow of Scotland. The continual rain, mud and roof leakages have made the season seem long and arduous. Grey. Dull. No enchanted snowy moonlit walks where surprised owls fly low overhead, no snow angels or sledging. I almost miss having to dig my way into the woodshed (almost, not really, it was fairly tortuous, nasty when ice dripped down your neck too). Solstice 2010:

wood shed in the snow

The wind has been notably fierce, bringing an ancient beech tree crashing to the ground one night. I heard it from my bed half a mile away, three loud cracks as its branches broke. How disorienting to stand among high boughs and look through to what was the ground, upended like the tree:

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The world on its side. An oliphaunt fallen.

So winter: snow properly, or let Spring through. The sun is nice today; I’d like more of that please, I’m ready to laze in the hot place with a book. But if this saying be true, so be it:

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and won’t come again.

snowdrops

The Castles of My Life

Brodie Castle and fire engines

I took that picture standing in my bunny pyjamas on the castle lawn with three kids, three dogs and a budgie. There was no fire or disaster, just a malfunctioning alarm, or maybe it was the ghost. Yes, let’s blame it on ghosts, ghouls and phantoms; I’m sure they were responsible for continually setting off the motion sensors in the middle of the night during my winter sojourn. But that was summer, Brodie Castle was busy with visitors and altogether less creepy. I stayed in the property manager’s flat several times that year, looking after things for her, most efficiently as you can see.

I am fortunate to live in a place that has so many of these large historic buildings dotted about the countryside. They take us out of where we are; some transport us into the decadent, usually bygone, lives of rich families, while others encourage imagination to run amok in the ruins.

My earliest castle related memory is of ruinous, rambling Tolquhon:

tolquhon

For me it is synonymous with life getting a little bit better. Childhood took an upturn after the birth of my brother; gone were the silent Sundays when my parents read the papers and my sister and I had to be very, very quiet in our room. We went places. Fun things happened, and Tolquhon was one of them.

I do like the bee boles or ‘skeps’:

bee boles

Later, with my own children, just about every castle in Northern Scotland was explored. We ran around the roof of the medieval tower of Drum (safer than it looks):

drum castle

Watched Shakespeare at Fyvie:

fyvie castle

Attended educational events at Huntly:

huntly castle

Admired the gardens at Ballindalloch, before being greeted by Lady Macpherson-Grant and her extended family, including a new grandchild in a pram, in the entrance hall.

ballindalloch castle

The scariest has to be Slains Castle, not actually very old, built to look Gothic, now ruined. It’s very dangerous out there on the cliffs, someone once fell to their death, so I don’t advise visiting. It inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, there are plans to turn it into a theme hotel, and umm, I don’t always heed my own advice:

slains1

Great sea views:

slains2

In summary: castles, they’re great. Get out there. Visit them (the safe ones). They’re so very different from our homes (unless you live in a castle), entirely dissimilar to modern office buildings, television screens and city streets. They can be cold and damp and ancient. Sometimes they’re lavish and royal. They smell of the past. They hold stories in their old walls and can unlock them in us.

Eile an Donnan:

eil ean donnan