It’s a little odd to post something like this during a lull in my blogging, but I like to keep my readers informed when I will be away from the internet for a bit (as much as you can realistically be “away” these days.) Anyway, this post is to announce that this blog will be dormant—I mean even more dormant—for the next month or so. Why? Well…
Kari-Lise and I are taking our second trip to Scotland! (Our first visit was in 2017. You can read about our experience here.) This trip is long overdue. It was supposed to be for my 40th birthday, but COVID did its thing, and everything was delayed and then delayed some more. But no more. It’s happening. Finally. We’re planning to visit some favorite places (Edinburgh and Islay) and hit up some new spots (Orkney) and generally get lost in the solitude of the open country. We’re really looking forward to it and it should be a good time.
We will be gone most of April, so my current plan is to resume blogging in May. I expect to be writing quite a bit while in Scotland, so I hope to have lots to share upon our return. While away, I’ll almost certainly post to Instagram, so I recommend following me if you’re interested in my travels. And as always, expect a trip report upon my return.
If you’re looking for something to read or explore in the interim, here are a few suggestions:
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Last week, Kari-Lise and I returned from a two-week trip to Scotland. It had been over a year since our last holiday, and between work, Coal Belly, and multiple gallery openings a vacation was welcome. Once again we ended up taking a long road trip through the country. Starting and finishing in Glasgow and taking us all over Scotland. I’ve driven in Ireland and Australia, so the shift from left to right wasn’t a big deal. After a few weeks, it felt completely normal.
“See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security.”
For this post, I’m going to take a little time hitting the significant places we stayed and share a few photos from the trip. One resource I cannot praise enough is Atlas Obscura. Many of the strange places we visited were featured on their site, and I recommend checking them out anytime you travel. Proper research can make any trip significantly more enjoyable.
Okay! To the report! This is going to be a long post, so consider yourself warned.
Loch Lomond & Kintyre Peninsula
I can’t sleep on planes. Not sure why. Probably a combination of being both a big guy and a light sleeper. So we arrived in Scotland exhausted. Thankfully, we were traveling with our friends Kelcey Rushing and Jim Rushing. Since this was a road trip and I just got off from roughly 24-hours of travel, Jim volunteered to take the first shift driving. Thank goodness.
We didn’t have far to go for the first night, so we had a leisurely breakfast then made a pitstop at Buchanan Castle in Stirlingshire, just outside of Glasgow. It’s an incredible manor house that has slowly been overtaken by nature. The resulting ruins are nothing short of spectacular.
We stayed overnight and the next morning, hit up Finnich’s Glen (also known as the Devil’s Pulpit) before we headed off to the Isle of Islay. Fans of the Outlander series will recognize this deep sandstone gorge as the Liar’s Spring from Season 1. Since it was an early Monday morning in September, we had the place to ourselves.
Interior of Buchanan Castle in Stirlingshire
A fallen tree inside Buchanan Castle
Kelcey inside Buchanan Castle – Photo by Jim Rushing
The Devil’s Steps down to Finnich’s Glen were built around 1860.
Falls in Finnich’s Glen
Not sure where the moniker comes from.
The Vital Spark Moored outside Inveraray
Kari-Lise (left) and me (right) scoping out the Inveraray Bell Tower – Photo by Kelcey Rushing
I love the ritual of scotch. The sound as it hits the bottom of a glass. The scents it carries that evokes the landscape from which its made. The complex layers of flavor inherited from the barrels in which it was aged. Few foods or drinks are as reflective of their history and heritage like scotch. Islay in a way was a pilgrimage and its hills and bogs holy ground for the scotch enthusiast. It’s the home of smokey malts that taste of brine, salt, and peat. It’s my favorite region.
Jim Rushing and me walking towards Laphroaig
Hey, it’s me cutting peat. (We were told the peat we cut would go into production in the winter.)
The Adventure crew posing after a successful peat cutting session. Left to right: Me, Kari-Lise, Kelcey, and Jim
Behold, the massive stills where Laphroaig is distilled.
A tasting flight at Lagavulin – Photo by Kari-Lise Alexander
The ferry to Port Ellen was long, a few hours but we arrived and quickly established a home base in an apartment. The following day, thanks to Jim’s planning, we began our scotch experience with a peat cutting for Laphroaig (my favorite Islay malt) which we followed with a tour of their facility. I have been a Friend of Laphroaig for nine years, and I collected the rent on my 1’x1′ piece of sod, and promptly set out to plant my flag in the bog north of the distillery.
My piece of Laphroaig was past a hillock and just beyond a depression, and while much of the field was solid, hidden springs lay everywhere sometimes many feet deep. I found my ground and turned to call to Kari-Lise stepped back and sank into what looked like a bunch of grass. It wasn’t grass. The grass had abandoned me, and I tumbled backward into a deep pool of cold, muddy water—it was a memorable cap on our visit to the distillery.
A castle ruin sits on a sip, providing a great view of the Distillery. Unlike Ardbeg and Laphroaig, Lagavulin still has a working pier.
The crew overlooking Ardbeg – Left to right: Kari-lise, Kelcey, and Jim
Thankfully, it was only a mile walk back to our apartment, and I changed into drier clothes, and we continued on, visiting Lagavulin (my 2nd favorite distillery) and Ardbeg before the day was over and wrapping up our visit to Islay. (I could have spent a few more days there. But there was more of Scotland to see.)
Since I know people will ask here are the scotches I added to my collection:
Clynelish 14 yr. (Highland)
Dalmore 15 yr. (Highland)
Ardbeg Uigeadail (Islay)
Ledaig 10 yr. (Island – New favorite)
Edradour 2002 (Highland – 14 yr. Sherry Cask)
Lagavulin Fèis Ìle 2017 (Islay – My ultra-special bottle)
The trip to Skye was beautiful taking us through Glencoe and Glenfinnan. (Both would deserve their own section had we spent more time there.) But Skye itself was a wonder. Our cabin was off the beaten path far in the north, and it was here we spent time in the mountains and glens of the countryside. It also poured rain. Which was fitting for Scotland.
The Fairy Glen was stunning. The Storr was amazing. The Fairy Pools had become Fairy Torrents after all the rain. But the countryside was vast and open and made one feel small and insignificant. Skye is a draw for many reasons, and all of them are good.
Glenfinnan is the place where the Jacobite uprising began. (It’s also the location of the famous train viaduct from Harry Potter.)
Walking to dinner near Glencoe we past the spot where Hagrid’s Hut was filmed. The hut is gone, but I can see why the location was chosen. Stunning vistas, even with clouds.
The fairy glen is an enticing spot.
While we were there someone played the bagpipes to make it the most Scotland thing ever.
Jim Rushing took this photo of the Fairy Ring. It is maintained by the landowners while every year the tourist cairns are taken down.
Out little home away from home while we were on Skye – Photo by Kelcey Rusing
The mighty Storr rising above the land – Photo by Kelcey Rushing
Left to Right: Me, Kelcey, Kari-Lise, Jim, and Mr. Storr. (Photo by me using Kelcey’s phone.)
Hey, it’s me and The Storr – Photo by Kelcey Rusing
Photo by Kelcey Rushing
The Fairy Pools were more of a torrent with all the recent rain
From Skye, we drove down to Edinburgh, pausing for castles and stopping at the Edradour Distillery. It was here we eventually split from Jim and Kelcey but not before we spent some time exploring the city. Many people often say Edinburgh ranks as a favorite and I can understand why. The mixture of medieval and modern creates a fascinating place of winding alleys and layered roads. Space is at a premium and nothing goes to waste. We were there only two days and just saw a fraction of the place. We climbed the Scott Monument, visited the National Gallery, toured Edinburgh Castle, explored Old Town, played in the Camera Obscura, had tea near the University, poked around Dean Village, and late at night we located the oldest Masonic Lodge in the world. All that and I feel like we barely scratched the surface. The city is impossible to grasp in a single visit. I have unfinished business in Edinburgh.
Featured in such films as “Highlander” and “The World is Not Enough.”
Up until very recently, Edradour Distillery was the smallest distillery in Scotland. Today three men work there making scotch. So it’s still pretty tiny.
We arrived in Edinburgh late at night and wandered her closes.
Dinner at The Barony on our last night together.
The layers Edinburgh the city is incredible.
I love old architecture and Edinburgh had it in spades.
A view down the Royal Mile, featuring the steeple of Victoria Hall (right) from Edinburgh Castle.
Climbing the tower was terrifying, but the views… oh the views…
Dusk settles over the city.
The entry to the oldest Freemason Lodge in the world is down an unassuming and quiet street.
We stayed in this charming little spot just east of the Edinburgh Castle.
On our way back to our car in preparation to head North.
As the city faded behind us, we hoped we’d find something special in the far reaches of the Northern Highlands, and we were not disappointed. There is a vast wildness along the North Coast: tall mountains, twisting rivers, and expansive vistas that are difficult to capture on camera. Ancient castles perch above lochs that stretch to the horizon. Peaks and valleys fold into one another, and the roads that cross these spaces are windings and narrow. (See the video above.) We spent several days in the Northern Highlands exploring the coast, visiting castles, checking in on a few distilleries, eating cheese, seeing wonders, and experiencing much of the North Coast 500. In the end, we returned to Glasgow tired but fulfilled.
The road north from Edinburgh led to Cairngorms National Park.
Welcome to a snapshot of my world. Waiting for the artist to finish photographing reference material.
Small stopover on our way to an Air BnB in Achiltibuie.
The expanse of the Highlands is difficult to capture on cameras.
The remains of Ardvreck Castle sit far to the north outside the hamlet of Inchnadamph.
Empty expanses stretch for miles.
We made a friend at the BnB in Brora. He even took the time to give us a sheep herding demonstration.
So… what is a clootie well? Well, they tend to be found in Celtic areas around springs. In Scottish nomenclature, a “cloot” is a strip of cloth. They are dipped into the waters of the spring and then tied to a nearby tree while a prayer of supplication are said to the spirit of the well. (Or in modern times, saints.) Often this was done for healing, but some did it to honor the spirit of the well. Like most weird practices, there is a ton of variation.
The family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland. Also one of the few privately held castles in Scotland.
I cannot recommend Scotland enough, it was easily one of my favorite trips. A huge thank you to Kelcey and Jim joining us for the first week. We had an absolute blast, and it was an honor to experience Scotland alongside two of the best people I know. (Don’t be surprised if they don’t show up in photos on future trips.)
One other unexpected takeaway: outside of uploading a few pictures to Instagram I stayed off the internet for the most part, and it was grand. It really allowed me to absorb the experience and thoroughly lose myself in the rich history of the land. Standing in castles a thousand years old and seeing landscape and towns that are older than most cultures in the western hemisphere put a lot of things into perspective. It made a lot of the news happening in America (the reaction to NFL players protest in particular) look incredibly petty. I recommend taking an internet diet. The echo chamber is dumb, and the internet is not as important as we all like to pretend. Go out. Travel. Meet people. Listen to them. Get uncomfortable. (This is where I quote Mark Twain again.)
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I’m a firm believer in travel and allowing yourself to get lost in someone else’s culture. (Important aspect there, as G. K. Chesterton once said, “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”) I think travel is important for the writer as well. As I said inthe trip report from California: a cleft of rock can inspire a thousand tales, a family of marmot running across a subalpine meadow can spark ideas for plots, and meeting interesting people along the way can usher forth a whole civilization of rich characters.
So that’s our trip! Coming back to work Monday was tough, but I was excited to reestablish a routine. By now, I feel like I have conquered my jet lag and its time to dive back into work. I finished a manuscript before this trip, and I have pages to edit. Also, it’s nearly time to start writing the fourth book in the Bell Forging Cycle.
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