My image of the passage from the West Coast to the interior was one primarily of shrinkage, like going from the edge of the world to its warm, pulsing center. While speeding down the relatively wide highway A82, we watched the sun slowly set over the stone-flecked hills, then drove through darkness into and out of numerous tiny stone-built hamlets - Benmore, Comrie, finally Dunkeld - mostly via one-lane highways made more navigable by their simple fact of their almost complete desolation. The only life we saw were the frequent animals - deer, sheep, hedgehogs - crossing the roads in front of us as we passed further and further into a part of Scotland that felt somehow both manicured and wild. We arrived at Kinloch House after 1 a.m. Not wanting to wake hotel visitors who were staying in rooms overlooking the entrance, we parked in the far lot. Out ran a man in the most well-pressed suit, with the most perfectly trimmed beard and the most well-enunciated English, who seemed a bit put out that we didn't invite him to carry our luggage but invited us once we were settled to come out to the fire with him and have a drink. "After a long journey," he said, "everyone deserves a seat by the fire." My most pressing thought was an intense, almost shameful self-awareness that we have the money to be rewarded for our mistakes by drinks at the fire with well-dressed men with perfectly trimmed beards who speak perfect English.
We woke up as if from a nightmare into the most wonderful dream. After bathing in a tub with a golden faucet shaped like an old-time telephone, we had breakfast seemingly with a server for every meal item. I don't watch Downton Abbey, but my wife kept invoking it. After breakfast, our host encouraged us to take a stroll through the grounds before departing. Walking through the perfectly manicured walled garden, I thought to myself, My god, our little garden at home is so small-time. Every color on the spectrum seemed to be represented in the flowers and leaves and buds, and the birdsong seemed to include every note on the high end. Everything was just so well-cultivated, and this place is in the middle of nowhere. It is meant to be experienced by few, the few. I didn't want to leave, but neither did I want to get used to it.
We decided to spend the day in Pitlochry, a small township that boasts an inordinate number of distilleries even for Scotland (my favorite was Blair Athol, though we didn't get to try Ebradour because it's closed on Sundays), a relatively hidden waterfall called the Black Spout, a hydroelectric dam with a salmon ladder, and a wonderful restaurant called the Old Mill Inn that serves a special Sunday meal of sliced beef covered with gravy and puff pastry the size of an infant's head, all of which can be experienced on foot over the course of a longish afternoon. After mistaking Pitlochny for Loch Lory, I realized that almost everything in Scotland has loch, noch, or ness in its title.
My favorite part of Pitlochry, successfully predicted by my wife, was the salmon ladder, a strange and wonderful part of the hydroelectric dam that simulates an upriver migration for the native salmon at the Pass of Killiecrankie. I'm not entirely sure how it works, but it seemed to stimulate the salmon in the river itself enough to take periodic leaps into the air above the current. I became temporarily obsessed with trying to catch a salmon in flight, sitting at the bank with my iPhone steadied on a section of the rapids that seemed to have the most fish-flight activity for a good fifteen minutes. After a number of misses - fish out of frame, too slow at the trigger, etc. etc. - I finally caught, or thought I caught, one in the air. Alas, I visited the salmon ladder at Pitlochry, and all I got was this lousy splash.
On the road to Perthshire in the middle of the previous night, I’d gone ahead and found a place to stay on this night, even though the bank holiday was technically over. I’d found what looked like an old Victorian plantation on the outskirts of the small township of Alyth that had been converted into a hotel and restaurant, interestingly named Lands of Loyal. Similarly to Kinloch House, the place was situated outside any town proper, and surrounded by a garden. It was older than Kinloch house, more ramshackle, with a skeleton key to our room door and a giant main hall with deep-cushioned couches, a whiskey menu on every coffee table, and an elk head above the fireplace. The owner, a soft-spoken middle-aged woman who made the immense space of the main hall feel warmer when she entered it, told us about the yaks—I mean cows—that grazed in the lawn next to the fountain outside the dining room, about the twins cats that looked like small leopards prowling the estate’s perimeter, about the history and community of Alyth, a township composed almost entirely of stone. She reminded me of the man at Kinloch House the night before, only she, like Lands of Loyal, felt less formal, more organic, like she and her hotel had grown out of the culture here rather than being planted into it fully formed.
After traveling back to the coast for two days in and around Oban, we traveled quickly through Stirling on our way to Edinburgh. Our first stop was Doune Castle, the main draw of which I freely admit was the fact that a certain scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed there, and I felt a distinct air of whimsy around the place. I took a quick photo of its front, imagining a crazy Frenchman farting in my general direction, while a couple of women arranged miniature gnomes on the lawn to photograph in front of the castle.
Stirling Castle, a few miles down the road, was a significantly more immersive experience. Second only to Edinburgh Castle in immensity among the castles we saw, it feels not just like a home or a stronghold, but like a metropolis. Like Edinburgh, it sits atop a bluff surveying the land in every direction. Inside its walls are many alley-like corridors, a number of booming-ceilinged auditoriums, a public square, shops and reliquaries, prison cells, immense kitchens and dining halls, and purple flowers growing directly out of the stone constructions everywhere. These tiny purple flowers, which I’d by then seen growing out of the stone coast of the Isle of Mull and the base of the Old Man of Storr, had come to represent Scotland itself to me: flourishing from antiquity in places they don’t seem to belong, stubbornly syncopating its landscape by making their homes in the least habitable places. I now understand why those rascally Scottish twins dedicated their 2001 album Persevere to this ravaged archipelago.