After a layover in Dublin where I slept in a cell for children, we flew to Inverness on a very small propeller-powered plane. On the way, we chatted with a man originally from Inverness who was traveling back with his mate. In many ways, our early plans were shaped around his advice - don't let yourself stay in the car all day, and don't get too attached to the map. We checked out our rental car, a very small and lovable Vauxhall. In order to save $80 on the second-driver fee, we had to chose one of us to drive. The thought of the opposite lane thing making my driving even worse prompted my wife to volunteer.
In planning our trip, we arranged much of it around distilleries and castles. We visited our first, Cawdor Castle, before even checking in at our hotel. I'm glad we did, though we were too late to catch the guided tour. The crest on the main archway has become my current motto:
The castle itself and surrounding woods and garden are pretty stunning as well:
My wife also found another, at-least-as-interesting set of old stones near Inverness before we checked in, the Clava Cairns (nearly everything one might visit in Scotland involves collections of old stones in one way or another). The stones and their possible function are the subject of endless speculation, but it's generally agreed that they're roughly 4,000 years, or two A.D.'s, old.
After one castle and one mysterious ruins, we decided to check into our hotel in Inverness. We soon enough found the Columba Hotel's name portentous - nearly every major town we visited had something named after Saint Columba, the first Irish evangelist to bring Christianity to Scotland in the 6th Century. But more on that soon.
That night we had our first pub meal at Hootananny in downtown Inverness. The name itself gave me an initial twinge, as I've always spelled it hootenanny. After a quick online search, I found that apparently a few other UK randoms use the a instead of e; I'll chalk it up to to-mah-to.
We started with breakfast at Columba, the first of many traditional Scottish breakfasts I enjoyed. Allow me to summarize here, even while recounting the first day, from a whole trip of traditional Scottish breakfasts served at many different places and accommodations. A traditional Scottish breakfast consists of eggs (most likely poached), bacon that any American (myself included for the first two days) will call ham, a pretty large sausage link, one pan-fried tomato, sauteed mushrooms, haggis (for the brave), and black pudding (for the masochistic), all arranged neatly on one plate. You'll also probably have toast (white and/or brown [don't call it wheat]), and possibly a bowl of porridge, yogurt, juice, and tea or coffee. I don't tend to be much of a breakfast eater (which the New York Times says is ok) but a week of Scottish breakfasts might have changed my morning appetite entirely.
This seems as good a time as any to admit that I have no idea whether the adjective for that breakfast or anything else in Scotland is "Scottish" or "Scotch." (Apparently "Scots" can also be used as an adjective. Not helping, Scotland.) I tend to trust word maven Patricia T. O'Connor, so here's what she has to say.
Back to Inverness, and driving. Even from the limited amount we’d done so far (and by “we” I of course mean my wife), I came to my first Things Are Different Here realization: Scotland is pedestrian- rather than traffic-friendly, even—or especially—in the cities. Unlike most American cities, the courtesy of not making someone feel in danger walking, or even standing, in the street always trumps the impatience to get where one is going.
We noticed this as we drove out of Inverness on our first excursion, around Loch Ness. Once we got out of town, we discovered another, much more innervating element of driving in Scotland: one-lane highways. I don’t mean one lane in either direction—one lane, shared by vehicles moving up to 50mph in both directions, with periodic “passing places,” extended shoulders in the road to pass, every couple hundred meters. This also, while perhaps sending me home with another ulcer or two after a week of it, has the probably-systemic effect of encouraging friendliness and consideration while driving. When drivers see each other coming, the one closest to a passing place pulls off, perhaps flashes the headlights, and allows the other driver to pass, to which the passing driver nearly always gives a friendly wave. This system works pretty well, except for two quirks: 1) Nearly all the roads in Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands, are terribly curvy, incurring many blind spots in a trip where drivers hope and pray no one is speeding toward them, and 2) The roads are travelled not just by compact vehicles like our little Vauxhall but by service trucks and even in some cases by tour buses, nearly all of whom barrel through on the correct assumption that in the event of an accident the other guy’s going to get the worst of it.
This is especially pronounced along the southeast shore of the pencil-like Loch Ness, which has no castles lining it and is relatively undeveloped. There is some wonderful sheep-watching to be had, though; in fact, at one point we found ourselves sharing the road with some of them. One notable stop on the southeast shore is the Falls of Foyers. It seems to have once been a raging falls that inspired awe and fear, but damming for electricity over a hundred years ago has made it more of a pleasant trickle. The walk to it is well-groomed and easy, and the local café at the parking spot was a good place to get a tea for the walk down.
I was rather stunned at how abruptly the character of Loch Ness changed when we crossed Fort Augustus to the northwest shore. The highway up the northwest side of Loch Ness is far more developed, for better and for worse. It's nearly all two-lane (better), but it’s thoroughly built up and branded around Nessie in a way I can only describe as Branson-esque. Not that I have anything against Branson - the centerpiece of most summers in my childhood was the annual visit to Lake Taneycomo, Silver Dollar City, and the Shepherd of the Hills - it's just that, well, this is the LNfnM we're talking about here. Like Sasquatch in North America, she represents a modern duality between fascination with the yet-unmapped and the desire to capitalize on it through cartoonish caricature. Being a North American native I was born burnt out on Bigfoot (which to me is as much a monster truck as it is a monster), though my friend Matthew Goodman, a narrative historian, recently pleaded the case for a mutual friend of ours who has devoted his life to searching for Sasquatch, losing a fulltime teaching job and a marriage in favor of a solitary life squatting in the wilds of Vermont and southeast Canada for hours on end waiting for Godot, I mean a hairy ape-like being. Matthew says this friend is actually more in touch with himself and the natural world than I or Matthew could ever hope to be, because he still looks at it with the wonder of the mysterious, the undiscovered, the unknowable. The "museums," Nessie gear, and assorted tourist traps are the flipside of that impulse, taking the legend and bowdlerizing it, bastardizing it into merch logo. I feel very lucky to have a wife who didn't once ask if I wanted to stop at a gift shop to buy something to take home to our kids.
On this day I was glad to have four of my layers: t-shirt, long sleeve, sweater, windbreaker. The weather was cloudy and in the lower 50s, just like expected. Little did I know this would be the last day of the Scottish weather for which we'd planned. This is not a complaint.
After whizzing by the Nessie nonsense, we stopped off near Drumnadrochit, at Urquhart Castle. This was our first guided tour. We started with an 8-minute movie about the history of the castle, which began with the deathbed conversion of one of the castle's first noblemen by St. Columba, the famous Johnny Appleseed for Scottish Catholicism who had come upon the castle while traveling up the ness. While the rest of the movie played, I pointed out to my wife that the film was playing against the backdrop of what looked like a retractable wall, and speculated that maybe when the movie was over it would open to a panoramic view of the castle. Then what to our wondering eyes did appear as the film ended and the walls retracted:
O lovely bones, beauteous ruins! Thou art lovelier after thine own fashion than thy reshapen, rebuilt brethren we would soon enough see.
Omnipresent at the castles and the battlefields and the mountainsides and just about everywhere on the Scottish landscape this time of year are craggly bushes with deep, canary-yellow flowers. The closest approximation I can analogize is the purple heather that dots U.S. roadsides, and I noticed in fact that some people, when asked, actually referred to it as yellow heather. Its correct name is gorse, a wonderfully harsh Scottish nomer for this rough-hewn, prickly, brightly plumed new friend of mine that bridged the scope between giant volcanic stone and just-unfurling fiddleheads.
After a late lunch at its visitor center, we walked the Culloden battlefield outside Inverness. Even on our first full day in Scotland I found myself decrying the mediated nature of many Scottish places, their history acted out in short films and multitudinous maps and synopses, as if brooding on the appeal of the ruinous aesthetics weren't enough. And to be honest, it isn't enough. I know so little of the history of Scotland that even these little teasers were frequently illuminating. And in the case of the battlefield of Culloden, it isn't enough for the simple reason that the monument is, well, a pretty big field. Without the sense of historical weight, it would be very easy to just walk your Scotties through the field as if it were a giant dog run (which I did observe). The monument's curators are obviously aware of this, because the mediated leadup to the battlefield itself, which visitors are not to my knowledge allowed to skip, includes a zigzag hallway with decades leading up to the battle, told from the doomed Jacobites' point of view on the right and the English throne's on the left, leading into a four-walled room with a film reenactment of the battle projected on a four walls, attacking the viewer with the sights and sounds of the massacre. It has a historical significance and a narrative tension that almost made me weep by the time I walked through the doorway at the end of it to the battlefield itself.
And we still somehow had time to drive to our first distillery before dinner. I was glad Glen Ord was our first, as the tour guide was knowledgeable and personable, and also frank with us that we could expect roughly the same tour at most any distillery. And the process and equipment were pretty much the same as a walk I took through the Van Brunt Stillhouse in Brooklyn a couple of years ago, except that the gigantic vats were made of wood instead of stainless steel, and the aging cellar for the casks was centuries old and hadn't been used to sort fish just a generation ago. That aging cellar (I'm forgetting the proper term for it) is made of stone and naturally refrigerated, making it an emergency go-to for some of the larger (for Scotland) distilleries on the occasion of warmer weather.
Speaking of warmer weather. During the short drive to the distillery, the clouds parted for the first and last time on our trip; for the final eight days of our trip, not a drop of rain fell. We did not visit one stop without at least one local telling us how egregiously and abnormally well the weather was treating us. For the first of many times over the ensuing week, we looked out on water that was not grey but blue. This first time, as we were crossing the Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth, was a moment that I immediately and unconsciously knew I'd been within before, despite the fact that I'd never been near here. It wasn't until a week or two later that I remembered dreams I'd had as a child after visiting the Ozark Mountains. In the dreams I flew over a wide expanse of blue that extended into the horizon behind the mountains, an endless expanse that was both water and sky. I probably still have that dream now, but I no longer remember it when I wake. I remembered the dream only on remembering that moment. I now remember that moment as the first time I felt at home in Scotland.