Part 4: I Will Return

I should really wrap up my Scotland posts, shouldn’t I? After all, this is a blog about chickens, and I miss writing about ’em! This will be the last post involving my travels.

We attended the Highland Games the next Saturday- A big, green field with an amusement park on one side and a large arena with the actual events on the other. There were large men in kilts throwing hammers, scrawny farmers carrying 300 kg worth of stones, beautiful sounding pipe bands, young women hopping from foot to foot in the Highland Dancing competition, and lots and lots of food (including  a very special creation: “haggis on a stick”).

The next day we left for Puffin Rock. After parking our car on the side of the road, we took a thirty minute hike through sheep pastures and a gorge (where we found an adder, eek!). We reached a cliff, at which point my aunt said,

“Okay, let’s go down.” And I looked at her blankly and pointed to the vertical grassy slope that ended in a fifty foot drop into the Atlantic and said

“Um, what?” Her friends (all pretty much in their fifties) were already climbing down the slippery grass as if there wasn’t a possibility that you could accidentally step on a loose rock and go tumbling to your doom. I looked down at my flat-footed rain boots, thought about my great hiking boots she had told me to leave in the car, and then looked at her friends, already perched at the bottom of the cliff. Dammit I muttered as I started downward, my knees already shaking.

I’m not great with high risk situations.

scotland cliff

See, in this photo I am attempting to get back onto solid ground. My body is vertical, and the only place I can hold onto to support my weight is wet grass. Below my giant rain boots is rocks and ocean and death. Pretty darn scary.

Okay, so I’ve made my point. But the peril was worth it, because when I got down there I had a direct view of hundreds of puffins and puffin burroughs. It was simply amazing to see the little guys soaring around, their bright orange beaks in stark contrast with the temperamental gray sky.

We then hiked through the marshy pasture back to the car, and drove West, to Tongue where I witnessed white sand beaches, clear waters, Highland “Coos” (cows), and dramatic mountain ranges. It was Scotland in a nutshell.

That Monday my aunt and I took a ferry to Orkney Islands for a day-long bus tour. We saw ancient stone hedges, Skara Brae- The remains of a 5,000 year old community, explored a cathedral, and visited the Italian Chapel.

The Italian Chapel was built by Italian POWs, when they were forced to build a defense mechanism for the British naval base located in a sheltered Orkney harbor. They took one of their housing facilities, and utilized bits and pieces of old buildings and sunken ships to create a masterpiece dedicated to their faith (even diving under water to retrieve bathroom tile for the flooring of the chapel). Using paints, they painted the plaster ceiling, walls, floor, and picture of Mary. One particular Italian, named Pulombi, created a stunning gate out of melted down nails and bits of metal. This man fell in love with a local girl, Barbara, despite his wife and children back home. When the war ended, he decided to go back to Italy and his wife, letting the Barbara know that she shared his heart with another woman. He left a small iron heart at the foot of the chapel, saying that “he left all of his heart here” for the girl. Pulombi never returned to her, but she visited the chapel every day. On one of these particular days, after the man had long since died, his daughter came to view his works. It was there that his daughter, named Barbara, discovered the existence of her namesake.

And that, my friends, was the last big event on my adventure.

The only thing that consoles me about not being in that lovely green country is the knowledge that I. will. return. Photo Jul 29, 3 06 45 AM

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Part 3: My Life in Scotland

My first day in Thurso was a day of rest and recuperation. After sleeping in for the first time in months, my aunt and I walked into town with a trolley. We spent thirty minutes browsing in charity shops, made a quick run to the post office to retrieve a package, and shopped at the local grocery store. We finished off our outing by walking a short distance to the ocean. It was simply a cement side walk: on one side was a desolate looking parking lot, and on the other a gorgeous river spilling out into the Atlantic ocean. Lining the walls were rusty ladders that led down to small fishing boats floating in the current. We walked down to the boat ramp, and listened to the waves crash against the rocks, while looking on at the silhouette of Thurso castle in the partly cloudy sky. A tiny building with a cheap looking sign reading “Café” sat in the parking lot, catering to the surfing crowd that arrives every fall to try their hand in Thurso’s renowned large waves.

What struck me most about this town, was its sheer… ordinariness. These people do not ride horses to work, cannot travel back in time. They have real grocery stores, real jobs, real problems. I needed to see that, because a small, very childish part of me had this idea that across the ocean everything is different. My first reaction? Disappointment. But after strolling through the streets, talking with the kind locals, I began to realize that there is so much beauty in the ordinary places.

Photo Jul 18, 7 25 28 AM

“As I looked on at this unfamiliar place, I felt an inexplicable sense of belonging”

On Thursday, my second day in Scotland, my aunt brought me on a thirty minute drive to Castle Mey. Previously owned and visited by the late Queen Mother, Castle Mey is an adorable dwelling overlooking the ocean and presiding over vigilantly kept gardens. I was grateful for the opportunity to volunteer within the walled gardens, as my aunt does every week. The head gardener, Andrew, was kind enough to take me on a small tour through the blooming rose bushes, alliums, and a multitude of other flora. Nestled in the middle was a large vegetable patch, where produce is then used in the adjacent café for delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches.

After weeding, my aunt and I dined on a vegetable stew and cheese scone (topped with butter, of course), and then ventured onward toward the castle itself. Our tour was both amusing and interesting as we walked through the same walls that the Queen Mother had not too long ago. We then ventured down to the small livestock area, where cows, a donkey, goats, sheep, and chickens roamed. Seeing the gorgeous chickens gave me much needed comfort, as I missed my trio dreadfully.

The next day, Friday, I kept mostly to the house, curled up in the Conservatory reading a book on the War of the Roses and periodically snacking on tea and Jaffa cakes. When the rain let up, I ventured out into the back garden (yard=garden) and started walking down the sidewalk that accompanies a length of the river. The sun was still high in the sky even though it was around 7:30 pm (it doesn’t set until around 10:30 or 11pm that far North at this time of year) and I walked along the quiet pathway. I paused on the little foot bridge to take this photo- the clouds and blue sky shimmered in the quiet river waters giving me an immense sense of peace, and that curious sense of belonging. Photo Jul 17, 3 34 30 PM

Saturday marked the day where my aunt, uncle and I would finally see some of the sights in the Highlands. Our first stop was Duncansby Head, impressive cliffs where hundreds of sea birds dwell. Their songs echoed off of the stone, where water had gradually carved out sea stacks.

The waves would flow in between the rock, and swirl in a gorgeous shade of teal and foam. The driving rain and biting wind made everything seem so much more vibrant and full of life. Everywhere you looked in the rocks was a crevice sheltering a bird nest, whether a common sea gull or parrot-like puffin. The rolling ocean made me wonder what it might be like here in a few thousand years.

We located a small pub/bar attached to a hotel on the side of the road. It smelled a bit like a pool, and the restaurant snob in me started to question our choice in location when out came the most satisfying cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And then a few minutes later, the tastiest burger made from local Aengus beef and topped with home made cole slaw appeared in front of me. I immediately reevaluated my snobbery. After lunch we went to Dunnet Head, the northern most point on the mainland of Scotland.

On Monday my aunt and I ventured down to Dunrobin Castle, about forty five minutes of gorgeous coast and dramatic mountain tops. Dunrobin castle is an extremely large establishment dating all the way back to the early 14th century. It was the seat of the Earl of Sutherland, and used as a very lavish hunting lodge. The gardens are extensive, and overlook the ocean. Within the gardens is a still functioning falconry, where birds are taken in and rehabilitated. We were able to witness a falconry display, which was just incredible. The falcons, eagles, and owls all have the ability to leave if they wish- but they choose not to. In fact the owl that was shown takes a hunting trip by himself every morning, but always returns.

Tuesday we traveled through a mile or so of sheep pasture to get to a beach literally covered in shells (aptly named Shell Beach). We spent two hours hunting for “groatie buckies”, which is a type of small shell that supposedly brings good luck to its discoverers. The sign outside the beach warns newcomers though, that if you take too many you could bring upon yourself bad luck. I found about forty of the little pearly shells (the size of my pinky nail) but made sure to bury three or four to preserve my good fortunes. We then ate lunch at Castle Mey, and browsed through local craft market. For dinner, we went to a local restaurant: “Le Bistro” where I tried haggis! I would tell you what it is, but I’m still pretending it was hamburger.

Part 2: Welcome to Thurso

It was early morning when my alarm rang, signaling the start to a day full of travel. We got on a train in London that took us to Luton Airport, and then boarded a bus to the correct terminal. After checking in at the Easy Jet Airline desk and watching our luggage slowly edge away on the conveyor belt, we departed in search of breakfast. I dined on a latté and Pain Au Chocolat (or something…) before walking to the busy security check point. My heart was racing, as it always does when going through security, and it didn’t help matters when, as I stepped through the metal detector threshold, alarm bells started singing. They pointed to the side, and there I stood, my entire body visibly shaking until they found the time to do a body search. All I had on my person was a pair of leggings (without pockets), underclothes, and a shirt. There was literally no where that I could possibly conceal anything. Of course they had to choose me though.

I survived, and after an hour of waiting we climbed up the stairs to the plane and took our seats. It was about forty minutes of flying through white clouds until we landed in Inverness. I was struck by the large expanse of blue waters, the emerald green landscape, the mountains still capped with snow. As we grew closer to the ground

I saw the small city of Inverness, pastures with sheep and cows, patches of gorse and heather. The sun was out in Scotland. We climbed down the metal staircase onto the runway, grabbed our luggage from the first room we walked into, and stumbled out into the sun with feet weary from a day’s traveling. It was a long stroll through a large long-term parking lot but eventually we reached my uncle’s car. The two hour drive up to Thurso was beyond words. The landscape outside my window shifted from rolling hills to jagged mountains dotted with spongy heather and flocks of sheep. Every few minutes was a ruin of an old stone barn. The coastline revealed white sand beaches, dramatic cliffs, clear blue water. The sky changed about five times on that drive- from sunny, to partial clouds, to rain, to sun, to clouds again. We stopped for a late lunch at a small café overlooking the ocean. They were serving hot tea, hearty stew and warm cheese scones with butter. The atmosphere was so warm, the people welcoming. I just sat there and enjoyed the sound of lilting Scottish accents.

Thurso, the northernmost town on mainland Scotland, is within the county Caithness. It lies beside the River Thurso, right where its mouth meets the Atlantic Ocean. At its center are a few charity shops, a clothing store or two, a museum, hotel, and some lovely restaurants. The road leads right to the ocean, where a fishmonger thrives on the sale of fresh seafood, and a café serves delicious lunches. The summer temperature gets up to a blistering 60 degrees Fahrenheit, while the winter has been known to cause wind so severe that everyone is advised to stay at home. It’s a hearty place, with hearty food, and hearty people.

As I looked on at this unfamiliar place, I felt an inexplicable sense of belonging.

To be continued…