Bonny Scotland certainly lived up to its name during the four weeks we spent touring this fascinating country.
Here’s a quick recap of our agenda: We began our visit in London on the first of May, and then headed to Danesfield House Hotel one hour west of the city, where I spoke at a special Victory in Europe Anniversary Event. See more photos here: Danesfield Dream Come True.
Then we flew from London City Airport (small and quiet compared to Heathrow) to Glasgow, where we spent a few days before taking the train to Edinburgh. There we rented a car and headed up the east coast toward Aberdeen and beyond.
Several people told us that the west coast is more rugged and beautiful, but because we did not plan far enough ahead, accommodation on the western side was limited. So we travelled to the Orkney Islands and back down the eastern side, visiting the places we had missed the first time around. We flew from Edinburgh to London and then home.
It’s difficult to imagine that the west could have been more fascinating than the eastern side, since we found SO many lovely things to admire.
Here are the best things we found in travels around bonny Scotland.
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: The People
Surely the Scots must be the friendliest and most hospitable in the world. Several years ago, I stumbled across an author named Liz Treacher (do yourself a favour and read her books). After we communicated online, she invited us for tea at her home in the tiny community of Skelbo near Dornoch, where she lives with her husband Martin, a professional entertainer.
Coincidentally, we arrived on my birthday, May 23! While we were polishing off Liz’s delicious homemade scones with clotted cream and jam, Martin emerged from the kitchen and played Happy Birthday on his bagpipes! It made my birthday so very special.
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: The Seashore
We were delighted to find these astonishing stone cliffs lining the eastern shore. While staying at the wonderful Brucefield Boutique B&B in the town of Arbroath, we walked along this PAVED cliff path seven kilometres to the next village of Auchmithie, where we enjoyed a fantastic lunch at the ButNBen. This shoreline is a haven for bird watchers, and the puffins were nesting while we were there.
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: The Museums
Every one of the wonderful museums and art galleries we visited in Scotland was FREE! We love history, so we enjoyed reading about Scotland’s rich history and admiring many lovely displays. This powerful evocative portrait by the famous John Singer Sargent is Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, painted in 1892, hanging in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.
The museums and galleries were often filled with school classes and young families, since learning about their own art and history is an important part of Scottish life. (And many of them had red hair — did you know Scotland has the highest percentage of redheads in the world?)
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: The Villages
The eastern coast is dotted with lovely villages, often just two or three kilometres apart, like this one called Cullen. Our white hotel, The Royal Oak, is on the corner.
You can also see our red car parked beside it. My husband manfully handled a stick shift with his left hand and maneuvered through about one million roundabouts. Unfortunately that meant he was unable to spend much time admiring the scenery, but there really is no better way to get around. And since everything is so close together, we only drove two or three hours each day. We marvelled at the fact that even on the most narrow, twisting secondary roads the speed limit is sixty MILES per hour.
We took the above photo while standing on an old railway trestle above the town.
There were stunning PAVED cliff paths that led to villages in both directions.
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: The Bookstores
Do people in Scotland read more, or is it my imagination that there seemed to be a bookshop on every corner? Waterstones and W.H. Smith are big chains, similar to Chapters in Canada, but there are lots of smaller indie bookstores as well.
Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness is the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland.
I restricted myself to just ONE book, a copy of Geordie, written by the Scottish-born Canadian David Walker. I remember reading it in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books years ago, and now I have my own copy, published in 1950.
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: Culloden Battlefield
There’s nothing bonny about this battlefield, unless you count the brave hearts of the Scottish Highlanders who made their last desperate stand against the English in 1745. On this gloomy, blood-soaked field, fifteen hundred Scots died in one brutal, forty-minute struggle — many of them only wounded, but stabbed to death by the English where they lay helpless on the ground after the battle. By contrast, only fifty English soldiers were killed. It was an eerie experience to walk around and picture the gruesome scene.
This was such a historic event because it was the last gasp for Scottish independence. The Highlanders wanted the Roman Catholic King James line of monarchs to return to the throne — specifically his son Charles (Bonny Prince Charlie). His supporters were called Jacobites, because James is translated as Jacob in Latin. The English wanted the Protestant Stuart line to take power, and they were successful. The Culloden Interpretive Centre, operated by the National Trust of Scotland, explains the battle and its significance.
Bonny Prince Charlie escaped to France and never returned to Scotland. Over the years there have been sporadic attempts to restore Scottish independence, including a 2014 referendum which was narrowly defeated. Now the Scottish prince minister Nicola Sturgeon is lobbying for another referendum.
We met many Scots who wish to separate and join the European Union. (I noticed there were very few souvenirs in Scotland celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee.)
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: The Orkney Islands
We reached John O’Groats, famous because it is one end of the longest distance between two inhabited points on the British mainland, with Land’s End in Cornwall lying 876 miles (1,410 kilometres) to the southwest.
We drove along the northern coast and boarded a ferry at Scrabster, where we took a very rough ninety-minute ferry ride to Stromness on the Orkney Islands. Believe me, everyone was sticking to their seats when we hit the open water. We rode on The Hamnavoe, the original Norse word for the town of Stromness, which was first inhabited by the Vikings. The Orkneys have seventy islands, twenty of which are inhabited.
This was our first glimpse of the town of Stromness. (Throughout Scotland at that time of the year, there were occasional clouds and showers, but the skies were mostly clear. We usually wore sweaters under light rain jackets. The daytime temperatures hovered around 15 Celsius or 60 Fahrenheit. We were having so much fun we didn’t pay much attention to the weather!)
This was the somewhat quirky old Stromness Hotel, overlooking the harbour where we could watch The Hamnavoe ferry going back and forth to the mainland.
You can imagine our delight when the Stromness Pipe Band marched right down the main street, past our hotel!
These ancient islands have some fascinating remnants of prehistoric civilizations, including this ring of standing stones called Ring of Brodgar, just a few kilometres from Stromness. It is five thousand years old, even older than Stonehenge. Nobody knows why these “Dancing Giants” were erected. There are other standing stones in the Orkneys and even a prehistoric village called Skara Brae.
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: Family Roots
There are so many people searching for their roots that it cuts no ice whatsoever with the Scots when you proudly claim Scottish ancestry (their eyes glaze over, although they are unfailingly courteous). Currently five million people live in Scotland, and fifty million people worldwide claim Scottish heritage. However, I found the origins of all THREE Scottish branches of my family!
THE TAITS: I visited the island, although not the actual graves, of my Orkney ancestors. John Tait signed on with the Hudson Bay Company in 1821 and left his home on an island called South Ronaldsay. He married an indigenous woman at Moose Factory, Ontario and eventually settled in St. Andrews, Manitoba, now considered the homeland of the Métis Nation in Canada.
The landscape he left behind is beautiful, although it must look quite different in winter — with short days (farther north than Peace River, Alberta), and so windy that if you don’t park your car facing into the wind, it can tear the doors off!
THE FLORENCES: My great-grandparents came from the village of Fyvie in Aberdeenshire. With difficulty, I located the gravestone for my great-great-grandparents John Florence (1816-1863) and Isabella Cran (1816-1898) buried in the Fyvie Churchyard, along with their four-year-old daughter Christine. Their son Peter Cran Florence left Scotland and homesteaded at Balmoral, Manitoba in 1874, founding the Canadian branch of the Florences.
THE MCDONALDS: This was by far the most exciting discovery. My McDonalds came from rural Brora in Sutherlandshire on the northeast coast. Thanks to the extensive records still in existence, I learned to my horror that they had been “cleared” by the Countess of Sutherland during the famous “Highland Clearances” during which more than 170,000 Highlanders were kicked off their tenant farms (some of whom had farmed the same land since the 1400s) in order that their wealthy landlords might graze sheep instead.
My ancestor Donald McDonald left in 1821, signed on with the Hudson Bay Company, spent most of his career based at Fort Edmonton (except for three years living with the Blackfoot Tribe), married an indigenous woman, and also settled in St. Andrews, Manitoba.
The genealogist Dr. Nick Lindsay at the Brora Heritage Centre, displaying the usual helpful kindness of all Scots, drove us to the remains of the tiny village of Ascoilemore and showed me where the McDonalds once lived! Those lumps of turf and stone on the hillside are remnants of their homes.
It was an incredible experience to stand there and gaze out at the same mountains they would have seen every day of their lives. Deprived of their homes and their livelihoods, my family, like thousands of others, sailed for Canada. Their tiny village, before it was burned to the ground by the Sutherlands, was composed of longhouses like this one located farther up the coast, made from stone and earth with thatched roofs.
Nothing could have brought home the contrast between where my ancestors lived, and the landlords who sent them packing, than visiting Dunrobin Castle just a few kilometres down the road where the Sutherland family lives to this day! Yes, they still own the land that was “cleared” and their castle, filled with priceless paintings and antiques, is open to visitors.
I walked through the castle gritting my teeth with rage, especially when I came across this 1786 portrait by the famous Sir Joshua Reynolds. He painted Elizabeth, the Countess of Sutherland and engineer of my family’s misfortunes! (On the other hand, their descendants were probably far better off in Canada.)
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: The Whisky
I must be a traitor to my Scottish blood since I have never developed (and not for lack of trying), a taste for whisky. However, my husband pronounced Scottish whisky the best he has ever savoured. Almost every town has its own distillery, but we explored just one: the famed Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain, Scotland.
Glenmorangie dates back to 1843, and many of its stone buildings are still in place.
Photos were not allowed inside, but here’s my husband enjoying a dram in the tasting room. (If you are driving, the distillery provides tiny bottles so you can take your whisky with you.)
That concludes my wee tour! As they say in Scotland, Slainte Mhath! (It’s the Gaelic toast to your good health, pronounced Slan-ja-va!)
* * * * *
Bonny Scotland: My Travel Tips
- If you pretend to yourself that one pound equals one Canadian dollar (rather than the current $1.55), the listed prices are about the same.
- Rental vehicles are in short supply and thus very expensive.
- We never paid less than $200 Canadian for a hotel room, although this usually included an enormous breakfast for two.
- We often shared an entree since the portions are huge. To see my previous photos of some delicious meals: Scottish Scran.
- We packed two unbreakable plates, plastic cutlery, and salt and pepper so that we could dine on leftovers or grocery items instead of eating out.
- Bring your own facecloths in a ziplock bag since Scottish hotels don’t provide them.
- Book your accommodation well in advance. It was starting to get busy in May, although July and August are the peak months.
- Every business is short-staffed, so don’t expect fast service in restaurants or daily housekeeping in hotels.
- One less expensive item (aside from free museums) was the air fare from London to Glasgow — $145 per person including taxes and one suitcase. It was cheaper than taking the train!
- When entering and leaving the country, allow one day between connecting flights if possible. Our return flight from Heathrow to Vancouver was delayed by seven hours, but aside from the boredom of a long wait, we had no other travel issues.
* * * * *
Friends, I am still living on the memories of our incredible trip and hope to return to Scotland to see the west coast, and revisit some of the places we enjoyed so much. Next month I will take you back to a little-known incident in the First World War that has personal significance for my family.
I hope you are having a wonderful, healthy, happy summer.
Slainte Mhath, Elinor