Scotland Adventures 9

Good news: the worry shell is working nicely! I worry about it almost constantly unless I have it in my hand. More germanely, we all liked today’s hostel much more than the Portree hostel. It has a relaxed, friendly atmosphere; is bright and colorful; is clearly run by people who love running a hostel; encourages guests to help out, including making their own (very cheap) breakfast and washing their own dishes; and has fine plumbing, which has been of great concern. We scrounged some free coffee and tea, and then went down the road to get pasties “handmade in Cornwall,” leading me to conclude that the pasty shop is, in fact, a Cornish embassy.

Our pre-lunch target was another little cemetery on Friars Street, and on the way we visited an exchange business. We also stumbled on an apparently magical book shop with no name, where the book my brother was looking for was on the first bookshelf inside the door–one of two books from a series of fourteen in stock–and the one I’d been wanting was directly under it, with three copies of that and one of another by the same author (Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, for the curious). Pretty mystical, huh?

Well, the cemetery was nice, although we were a bit rushed as we had a lunch engagement directly afterward. The food was okay, I suppose, although everyone else enjoyed it much more because I didn’t have room for any food due to the enormous vegetable pasty from a few hours ago. Afterward we went to buy some more whisky, as my father is some kind of whisky maniac, and headed for the train station. It’s quite as nice as the Glasgow station, and using the toilet only costs 20p.

The train ride wasn’t so interesting or pretty, since we didn’t go through the highlands, but I had a good time reading. We arrived in Glasgow around six, spent about an hour kicking around in a Wetherspoons, and met Dave and Rosie at a pizzeria a block away. We had a great good time chatting up our Estonian waitress, who was so very excited about America until she heard that we don’t have deep fried pizza–she looked heartbroken on receiving this news. We also discussed tablets, a horrible butter and sugar brick that the Brits take with tea. Not in tea–it’s almost completely insoluble in water. They just… take a bite of this awful thing and then have some coffee. Rosie was nonsensically offended when I started experimenting on mine to see if I could dissolve it.

After dinner we got a taxi back to Kenny’s guest house and I, relieved, got to go to sleep. Good afternoon, Americans, and good whatever-time-it-is to you non-Americans!

Scotland Adventures 8

We rushed to a little café to take away scones and coffee, then drove off north to Quiraing, a geologic area of craggy black rock rising out of mounded ground and valleys. We stopped at the top of a pass to hike along the side of a ridge. The grass in Quiraing is strange, looking like rippling ocean water. We think it’s because occasionally the ground gets oversaturated with water and slumps downward, resulting in bizarre wrinkles. Also, there was a frankly astonishing amount of sheep and cow poop. It must never disappear.

We drove around the peninsula on the northern tip of Skye, passing many crumbling hill forts and cottages, sheds with thatched rooves and flapping tin rooves weighed down with large rocks. As we passed through Uig on the Little Minch (which separates Skye from the Outer Hebrides) my brother turned on the radio and we got to hear some spoken Gaelic. It sounds an awful lot like someone speaking in a Scottish accent, but every other word is backward because of the profusion of glottal stops. Then there was the way that the host kept… buzzing. Maybe it was laughter? Every once in a while he stopped saying words and emitting a long string of Zs.

We passed through Portree briefly, happy to avoid the traffic coming in from the south for the Highland Games, and lunched in Broadford. I thought it was a bit expensive, but I did get to try a godawful orange drink called Irn Bru (they weren’t allowed to put the word ‘iron’ in the name) that tastes like Pixie Stix and Circus Peanuts, and the best sticky toffee pudding I’ve ever had. Oh, it was so molassessy. In a caramel cream sauce. Apparently Scotland is one of the very few places where Coca Cola is not the best selling drink–outsold, somehow, by Irn Bru.

After lunch we found our way to the bridge that crosses to Kyle of Lochalsh and went to visit Eilean Donan Castle, which we didn’t have time to tour but we did photograph. Luckily, tide was out so I got to walk out to the little humps of rock filled surrounded by kelp and tide pools. I picked up a very pretty green and yellow spiral shell that turned out to be colored by green algae; now I have a little worry shell for my pocket.

I cleaned it up on the train ride from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness, about two and a half hours and quite pretty. We also got a deck of playing cards each featuring a different Scottish king or queen, which we carefully ordered by date (using quicksort). Inverness is a pretty cute town, though the buildings are a bit dingy. I was disappointed to see that the castle is not, in fact, high on a mountain-top above the bay, surrounded by lonely pines and howling wolves, as I had been lead to believe (please check out “The Fourth Tower of Inverness,” my very first and very favorite radio play, by ZBS Media; there’s an entire series starring Jack Flanders and including all sorts of exciting mystical and weird adventures). In fact, I am given to understand that the castle contains the city chambers, and is a reddish sandstone building with lovely sharp corners and a pristine, efficient look.

Just up the street, overlooking several gothic-ish churches, is our hostel, a charming little place with currency from all the homes of the guests taped to the walls. My father went on a walk while the rest of us sat in the lobby, revelling in the first wifi we’d seen for several days. The hostel seems to own a guitar, so my brother played The Rake’s Song while I sang. We had a good time watching him pick out Los Angeles I’m Yours as well, and now it is thoroughly stuck in my head.

We walked in a leisurely way through the streets, into a craftsmen’s/Frasers’ cemetery, and over the River Ness on a swaying footbridge that my brother insisted on jumping on, to our restaurant. It’s right on the river, and the food was quite good if a bit overcomplicated. Now we are back at the hostel and I’m about to go to bed and read in the dark for a while. Lit screens are such a beautiful phenomenon.

Scotland Adventures 7

The full British breakfast without any kind of meat is mushrooms and tomato on tattie scones. I ordered some toast to go with it, and apparently it was quintessentially British toast because it was cold and dry and came in a toastrack.

Our first action of the day was to tour Talisker Distillery, also in Carbost. A fluffy little black and white cat lives in the parking lot, and the history of Talisker House is interesting and somewhat bloodthirsty. I learned a lot about how whisky is made (malting! peat smoke! wort! head, heart, and tail!), and also some things whisky sellers do not like to tell buyers, like the fact that they have to distill quite a lot of times to get rid of methanol, AKA the stuff you have always been told will make you go blind. Also propanol, isopropanol, butanol, and other fun yeasty biproducts. We got to taste their ten year whisky, which was okay by my standards and by my father’s, although for very different reasons.

Then we visited the Fairy Pools, a lovely series of cascades over wonderful climbing rocks. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, my brother and I went down to the river for my favorite sport, rock-hopping logistics. We hopped all the way up to the bottom falls and did some excellent rock climbing, collecting scrapes, wet patches, and spider web all the way (yes, I stuck my head directly into a spider web and apologized to the spider as I pulled it out of my hair) and now I have quite damp boots. It was definitely worth it, even if I can’t take off my boots until they dry because they’re leather.

For lunch we drove to Portree, whose population is about one quarter of Skye’s total, and a quite pleasant little town. It is a seaside town, like all towns on Skye (counting towns on sea lochs) so we went to a seafood restaurant on the harbor. I had a toastie with soup, which I only mention because I love to say the word toastie. Scottish food nicknames are really charming.

After this, we went to check in at the hostel where we’re staying–whose lobby is the exact awful shade of chartreuse the toilets at the last one were; whose beds are all sheeted in pink and purple; and in whose lobby a group of college-age adults were watching the Disney animated Robin Hood with rapt expressions–and I finally got to do some laundry. I had thought we were staying away from home for a little less than a week, and it turned out to be a little bit more, so I was quite relieved. Meanwhile, tired from hopping all morning, my brother slept on his very pink bed.

We got extremely lost on the way to dinner, due to Portree’s terrible signage, but we made it there eventually: another seafood restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Seafood is popular on Skye, seeing as it is an island and everywhere worth going is on the coast. I’m used to it by now (my main course was cheese. Just cheese.) but the dessert was wonderful. Fruit Charlotte, vanilla/passionfruit parfait, and clootie dumplings. Think of them as a steamed bread pudding-fruitcake cross held together with animal fat. So delicious. Well, it’s time to sleep now–early start tomorrow and the other hostelry are winding down. I say good night with midge-bitten head and damp, clammy feet.

P.S. Deepest regrets for not posting sooner, but wifi has been scarce. In the lodging of day 6 it was absent in all but name, The hostel in Portree charged three pounds for each hour of internet, if you can believe it!

Scotland Adventures 6

First thing in the morning we taxi’d ourselves to Glasgow Queen Street Station to get the train to Mallaig. The ride took five hours, which were beautiful, green, and very damp-looking. We saw many tiny cascades and many miles of grass that could have been moss. Northern Scotland is so lovely.

Mallaig is by the sea, and when we arrived it was idyllically sunny (what a disappointment!). We went to a chippy (what some Scots call fish-and-chip shops, hilariously) and I ate more potatoey chips and more chickeny chicken than I had ever had before. Very fresh stuff! After we had tea for some reason, and then got on the ferry to Skye. The ride over was lovely, but extremely windy and my ears started to ache after a while.

We landed in Armadale to the sound of bagpipes, which we thought had been hired by a tour bus but was in fact produced by a ten-year-old boy in a football jersey surrounded by dogs with his case out for money. We rented a car (with a warning about clingy hitchhikers who will use the unwary Samaritan as an alternative to Skye’s terrible public transportation) and set off along the coast. Signs in the northern section of the mainland are subtitled in Gaelic, but every sign on Skye is in Gaelic first and then English. We enjoyed looking at how different the spellings were.

Eventually, after a bit of napping on my part and a lot of gorgeous scenery and sheep, we arrived in Carbost, where we’re staying at a bunkhouse. We haven’t yet figured out what local tradition prompts residents to put scarecrows not only in the fields, but also on their front lawns in deck chairs with sharpied-on faces. Pretty sure there are no crows to scare on the entire island.

Well, we checked in and immediately found that it was time to go for dinner, so we began the tortuous drive to Elgol. Let me explain, in my mother’s words: the Brits drive tiny cars on tiny roads, and they go super fast. The default speed limit on Skye is 60 mph, for whenever you don’t have a good reason to go slow. Also, nearly all the roads on the island are narrow one-lane affairs with barely room for a motorcycle to pass a car, so the roads are littered with passing points every fifty meters or so. Add to this the windiness of all mountain paths and one begins to see why driving on Skye is such a pain.

Anyway, we managed to get to Elgol an hour early for dinner, so we drove into town and inspected the delightfully boggy little stream, whose banks were populated by many species of moss, grass, oaks, and what we think was heather. We followed it down to the harbor, whose beach is covered with quite large rounded rocks, and walked along it a little way to a truly magnificent cliff with Swiss-cheese holes worn into it by wind and water. Sadly we didn’t get to see much more because it was time to eat.

The Coruisk House has lovely food and a lovely owner (who kind of looks like Joyce Summers from Buffy) who told us some interesting things about local geography and had an extremely detailed survey map of the area. Incidentally, Coruisk House is named after a loch nearby surrounded entirely by mountains, and was also the name of the ferry. Ah, anyway, at this moment we are driving home in the cloudy drizzling dark, and my father the designated driver is looking forward to getting sloshed at the Old Inn’s associated pub. Cheers!

Scotland Adventures 5 and supermarket miscellany

Today we took the train into Glasgow center and walked around aimlessly for a while until my mother felt like having a coffee: we stopped at Caffé Nero, a popular chain with decent coffee and several quite silly very sweet drinks. After this, emerging from an alley containing a melancholy street clarinetist and a clothing store whose window displayed hundreds of old sweatshop sewing machines, we found ourselves conveniently located by the Gallery of Modern Art. I quite enjoyed myself, but I don’t think the rest of my family likes modern art as much as I do. There was a lovely black-acrylic-as-lineart-over-watercolor arist; a colorful-powerful-ladies-and-lively-sculpture artist; and a man who was obsessed with the French Revolution and did very nice slick graphics and wordplay. Those were my favorites, anyway.

We lunched at an Andalusian tapas restaurant (the food was so very good) and then took the metro to Kelvinhall and immediately ran into a marching band with drums and fife, which we followed into Kelvingrove Park, and walked along the Kelvin to Kelvingrove Museum of Art and Other Stuff. On the lawn in the sunshine a lot of people were playing some kind of bocce-like bowling game that my brother said might be called blackbowl? Well, we went in and it was a super excellent museum! I was expecting a boring classical sort of collection, but it had all kinds of art from different parts of the world and–o wonder of wonders–an exhibit on the history of violence against women. It was the emptiest exhibit in the entire museum, but it’s certainly not their fault.

After this we went back to downtown to visit the necropolis at the cathedral, which stands on an impressive hill overlooking the city, bristling with obelisks and clusters of mausolea and statues. At the very top stands a monument, possibly to all Protestant reformers. It was a bit unclear. The entire day it was sunny, and the sunlight was beginning to turn red at this point, painting the tombstones, columns, and little bushes growing out of them in lovely vivid color.

We walked back to the center of downtown with sore feet to a little Indian restaurant with stunning chicken tikka, and here I sit with leftover biryani comfortably reclining in the refrigerator for tomorrow’s breakfast.

A few days ago Dave took us to the grocery store and I noted some differences. The most ridiculous thing is how much meat the Brits eat: there was easily three or four times as much meat in the frozen section–in the form of sausage rolls, meat pies, et c–as in the States. And then there was another aisle lined on one side entirely with refrigerated meat. I was never able to figure out why it’s so ubiquitous, since at least in Scotland there are many kinds of wonderful vegetables, but Dave and his family become strangely fanatical about meat whenever it is [erroneously] mentioned that I am vegetarian.

My father was more surprised than I to find out that ‘biscuit’ does not translate literally as ‘cookie’ when we got some biscuits for appetizery cheesy purposes. They were the most biscuity cracker’s I’ve ever eaten, and I wish they made more like them in the US. Biscuits are delicious. Oatcakes, however, are terrible in the UK because they are not sweet. Just vaguely salty, dry, and extremely bland, and I’m not entirely sure under what circumstances one is supposed to eat them. There was also some debate on why Mars Bars do not exist in the US, since Mars Corp is clearly alive and well (what do you think those Ms stand for?). I was disappointed to find that they’re essentially 3 Musketeers with caramel in. No word as of yet on how they get the surprise into Kinder Eggs.

Essentially they have a lot of the same things in different brands, but there’s an entire aisle for alcoholic drinks. And then another one. Huzzah for a low drinking age! The last thing I’d like to say here is that the United States really needs to get on selling bags of chewy toffee in convenience stores. Toffee is delicious and I never get to eat it.

Scotland Adventures 4 and a brief discussion of accents

Today was a castle day! In the morning we visited Stirling Castle, which is very tourist trappy but also very large and well preserved. It has been continuously inhabited more or less since James VI made it his seat. Really it wouldn’t be all that interesting to describe, except the tapestry reconstruction project they’re working on. A group of expert weavers is replicating a series of seven tapestries about a unicorn hunt, with all kinds of delightful religious and romantic symbolism, and in the case of one tapestry that was only found in fragments they took the rest from a different tapestry of a maiden petting a unicorn. It seems that they’re quite common. Anyway, that is the one we saw them working on today, and it was wonderful.

After, we went down to a pub in Stirling, which was the first one I’ve seen to have macaroni and cheese. And terrible service. This is irrelevant, because it was a very nice day, if a bit windy (EXTREMELY WINDY) and the sun came out for a lot of good photographs.

With fuller stomachs we went to Doune Castle, which I liked much better. It hasn’t any food vendors or massive throngs of people. It is much smaller, and more like a ruin because it hasn’t been used for one or two hundred years. I had a good time getting a bit lost going up and up and up the extremely steep and narrow spiral staircase to the outer wall, and humming in the halls with the most delightful acoustic properties. The grass was wonderful, the air cool and damp, and the sun out in full force. The weather has been almost perfect, at least by my definition, the entire time we’ve been here, except the awfully hot second day. I was expecting more rain.

We went back to Dave’s house, and since we didn’t feel like going all the way into Glasgow for dinner he made chili and we had burritos. Very good. 

One of the most edifying and occasionally amusing things about being in a foreign country is listening to the language. I was delighted on the first day to realize that actual Scottish people sound like they do on television, which I had always figured must be a bit of an exaggeration. The real fun starts, though, when I began to be able to distinguish between different Scottish accents. I couldn’t tell you exactly how, Best Beloved, but there are differences in strength, inflection, vowels, et c.

Our innkeeper, Kenny, was quite amused to find out that we would be spending time with Dave and Rosie, who are from Yorkshire and Ireland respectively. I was surprised to find out how similar Rosie’s accent is to the Scottish (and also how inexplicably angry it makes her sound–I derived great amusement from hearing her shout repeatedly “IT’S A SHITE CAR AND I DON’T WANT TO DRIVE IT!”), but their accents are more obviously distinct from their son’s–pure Scot. He says that a lot of the farm kids he can’t even understand, and that they use words he’s never heard before. It’s encouraging to know that homogeneity in language still hasn’t progressed too far. 

More notes on cultural lessons learned at the supermarket later, perhaps!

Scotland Adventures 3

We spent nearly the entire morning on whisky (the ‘e’ is for American and Irish liquor, apparently); we walked to Cadenheads on the Royal Mile and then got a recommendation for a pub, with which Cadenheads was obviously in league. Their food was decent, for pub food, and they had two vegetarian dishes entire–needless to say I ordered the one that was not vegetarian haggis with neeps and tatties.

In the afternoon we fetched my mother from the conference center and took a train to Glasgow, passing through some truly lovely countryside: pastures, tame woods, and thousands upon thousands of tiny pink flowers lining the tracks. At Glasgow we had a bit of confusion over the fact that each platform had two trains on it at all times, but soon arrived in Paisley.

We are staying in a bed and breakfast in Paisley, in what according to the innkeeper is a slum filled with delinquent foxes and drugged criminals. He is a very friendly man, though, like so many Scots, and interesting to listen to. It was quite funny how excited he got about seeing deer on the road, considering that in Salt Lake City we saw half a dozen deer in the road or people’s yards every week.

Immediately after putting our bags down, my mother’s friend Dave (who absolutely agrees, at great length, about the drugged criminals in Paisley) was there to pick us up, and so we found ourselves in his house in Lochwinnoch. The loch itself is pretty, absolutely full of water birds, and profuse with kayakers. We also went shopping for tea things–Dave refuses to call it supper because supper is had at midnight–and I bought some British sweets. Mars Bars are underwhelming but ridiculously sweet, and the biscuits for cheese are magnificent. I write this from his sofa, where I am listening to adults talking in the kitchen. Then I will sign off the internet and say good afternoon.