Scottish Adventure: A Day Trip to Ullapool

The marvelous thing about staying in Inverness and renting a car is that so much of the north of Scotland is within an hour or so’s drive. So one day, we decided to drive up the coast and visit the fishing and tourism village of Ullapool. Ullapool is about an hour-to-and-hour-and-a-half drive from Inverness, through some beautiful scenery in the north of Scotland. It is one of the easiest places to get a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, although we didn’t plan ahead quite well enough to manage that. But we did enjoy our leisurely drive. One of the most striking things about Scotland is that, even though things are comparatively close together to things in the States (Inverness to Ullapool is about the same distance from Washington, D.C. to just north of Baltimore, for reference), things are quite spread out and that hour-long-drive felt remarkably rural. And the landscape went through so many changes, that it really did feel like a trip-within-a-trip.

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As we pulled into Ullapool, it was obvious that we had managed to show up just before peak tourist season. Also, since we’d just missed the morning ferry to the Outer Hebrides, the streets were even quieter. We found a place to park along the main street in town and went looking for tourism information. Of course, a Visit Scotland bureau turned out to be the place to go, where we had a lovely chat with one of the people behind the desk, and procured a map of the Ullapool Hill Walk, which is a hike up the local hill, starting just outside of town. We applied sunscreen, bought a large piece of flapjack to sustain us on the walk, and set out on our way.

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It was a hot day that day in Scotland — record heat, we discovered upon returning home and watching the news that evening — and we certainly felt it on our walk. I was very glad Mr. Tweed had convinced me to bring twice as much water as I thought we needed, and we both reapplied sunscreen a couple of times on the trail. We both noticed that walking excursions seem to be consistently underestimated in Scotland. This “hill walk” was more of a semi-strenuous hike up a fairly steep grade with loose rock and plenty of uneven terrain. But of course we made it and enjoyed it very much.

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About halfway up the hill, there was a metal disk on a stone platform, which looked somewhat like a sun dial. It was actually a map of the surrounding area, meant to label the different landmarks you could see from that spot on the hill. Very fun to check out. Continuing on, we did eventually make it to the top of the hill, where we ate our flapjack and enjoyed the scenery. And then we went back down. On our walk, we encountered a couple who were obviously on a casual date and several people walking their dogs. It seems that walking on rugged terrain is no big deal to the Scots. Perhaps I need to improve my stamina on my own excursions back home.

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Upon returning to the base of the hill, we found a place for lunch. Ullapool is a fishing town, so seafood seemed the way to go. Mr. Tweed had fish and chips and I had a beautiful fisherman’s pie, washed down with plenty of local lager. From there, we explored the town, even visiting the small local museum, where we learned more about the history of Ullapool. The town was originally made up of sheep crofters and fishermen, but added tourism to its economy in the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria brought Highland tourism into vogue.

Thoroughly explored, exercised, and fed, we bid Ullapool farewell and made our way back to Inverness, just in time for a shower and a trip out for dinner. I would definitely recommend Ullapool as a Highland day trip, and Mr. Tweed even mentioned that he’d like to come back to stay for a while, so we could explore more of the hiking and the trips out to the islands.

Scottish Adventure: An Afternoon of Ruins!

From Cawdor, Mr. Tweed and I decided to drive out to Elgin to see Elgin Cathedral, a ruined cathedral dating from the 13th century. Once again, we enjoyed a drive in the Scottish countryside, driving through a few small towns (including one we would visit again under less happy circumstances – foreshadowing!). Elgin reminded me a little bit of Rome in a way, because it was sometimes hard to tell where monuments ended and the businesses and homes began. A community of garden-style houses would be punctuated with dramatically crumbling bit of the original city gates. We found Elgin Cathedral situated at a place where a few of the larger roads met, surrounded by a high iron fence.

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As we bought our tickets for the site, the guides told us about a deal they had where for 1,20 GBP more each, we could get a dual ticket that was also good at their sister site, Spynie Palace. It was still fairly early in the day and I’m a sucker for a ruined palace, so we agreed. You see, Elgin Cathedral was the seat of the diocese of the bishops of Moray, and for centuries, Spynie Palace was the bishop’s home, just three miles away. So it does seem fitting to see both at one go. I will say, the guides at the Cathedral and Palace were among my favorite people we encountered in Scotland. At the Cathedral, the guides seemed to be enjoying their job very much as they pointed out all the various places we should make sure to visit at the Cathedral site.

The Cathedral itself is almost surreal. Not only is it in the midst of a well-traveled section of the city, but it it so similar to other Gothic-style cathedrals I’ve visited, just not entirely there. The main towers were open, and we did take the opportunity to walk up. As you make your way up, they have exhibits of various examples of art and stonework from the cathedral, in various stages of restoration. They even have pieces of the supports for the massive rose window. I will say, the guide made a point to tell us that the staircases are not nearly as steep and narrow as those at Urquhart Castle, and he was absolutely right. We made it to the top of the tower with the observation deck, and took in the view, which is stunning.

From there, we explored the rest of the cathedral and the churchyard. There are many gravestones from all periods of time, including the tallest gravestone in Scotland, and a gravestone with the profound poem: “The world is a city full of streets and death is the market that all men meets. If life were a thing that money could buy, the poor could not life and the rich would not die.” Despite the noise of the street around us, the churchyard still felt rather peaceful, in the way that churchyards always feel peaceful.

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We pressed onward to Spynie Palace. As we made our way out of town, and up the drive of the site, the first thing we noticed was that there was not a single other car there. We parked and walked up an eerily quiet dirt path to the welcome cottage, where we saw the caretaker walking in from the ruins. He greeted us and checked out tickets and then asked if we’d like a little history of the site. We said of course. I think he might have been a bit bored, because we were treated to a 20-minute discussion of the history of the palace (really a castle, but the bishops wanted to make it sound grander), its place in the unfortunate history of Queen Mary of Scotland, and the Scottish Reformation. Apparently, Mary’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell fled to the palace after being charged with the murder of her second husband, and tried to overtake the castle. But things did not end well for him.

The palace itself began to fall into decay by the end of the 17th century and not much of it remains today. But the main gate still stands, and it is through that gate that we entered the site. It was an interesting exercise to walk around and enter the palace where visitors would have entered. From there, we explored David’s Tower, taking in the view, and even ventured into the basement. The grounds were almost preternaturally quiet, as we were the only tourists there for most of the time. We were joined maybe fifteen minutes into our explorations by another two guys and a dog, but for the most part, it felt almost like a private showing. The peacefulness was lovely, but the site is so striking, that I almost wish it would become more crowded. Perhaps they do a brisker business on other days.

From there, we ventured back to Elgin for tea and cake, and onward home after a long day of history and castles in all states of repair!

Scottish Adventure: Cawdor Castle and Gardens

I’ve returned to continue my Scottish adventures! One of the reasons I was excited to visit Scotland was because I love history and touring historical sites. And, as my readers may know, I’m also a bit of an actor, and one of my favorite playwrights is the immortal Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. With that in mind, how could I pass up a visit to the castle that bears the name of one of his most infamous characters, the Thane of Cawdor, also known as the Scottish King, Macbeth?

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Of course, the real King Macbeth lived centuries before Cawdor Castle was built, but the seed was planted in my mind. Imagine my delight when I found out that Cawdor is not just an historical site, but also a working residence for the Dowager Countess Cawdor. So we got to see a castle that has both preserved its history and maintained its functionality. The castle was begun in the fifteenth century and passed from the Calder family to the Campbells in the 16th century. The current Earl of Cawdor is the Dowager Countess’ stepson and their feud over the family home is something of a tabloid sensation at times. But the castle itself and the grounds are lovely, showing the marks of both the history of the place and the personal style of the current Lady in residence.

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We went through the castle tour first, as we’d arrived just as they’d opened and wanted to avoid any crowds. Then, we took advantage of a sunny late morning and thoroughly explored the gardens and nature trails. The castle itself is stunning. Each room is not only impeccably decorated, but also has a sign that shows some mark of personality and wit in the description of each room. As we walked through the rooms, I noticed a particular theme of gemstone orbs as part of the decor. One in particular was set up in a bedroom on a stand, almost like a crystal ball. I was curious about it, since it almost seemed like a tongue-in-cheek reference to the witches of the Scottish play, so I asked a docent. Apparently, the Lady in residence has a particular interest in New Age philosophies and has heard that the orbs contain healing powers, which can help calm those who touch them. I remarked that I thought if I had visitors touring my home every day for the summer, I might want every option available to calm me down!

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After finishing the tour of the castle, we wandered to the gardens. They are beautiful and well-maintained, but have enough roughness around the edges to feel like a real person’s gardens, and not a professional display. I overheard one of the gardeners talking and it seems we did not choose the absolute best time to visit, but there were plenty of beautiful flowers, as well as some hidden treasures. A large circular bush had a slit in one side, which kept the secret of a small courtyard with a fountain. The theme of orbs continued throughout the garden decor. And the walls of the garden crawled with sprawling, romantic vines.

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After a morning of exploring, we chose to have a bite to eat in the cafe, which offered up the standard fare we’d found at other attractions: homemade sandwiches, soup, cakes, and tea or coffee. After a sandwich and some tea (for me) and coffee (for Mr. Tweed), we bid goodbye to the lovely place.

Scottish Adventure: A Tour of Cardhu Distillery and a Wee Dram

Of course, we couldn’t visit Scotland, particularly the Highlands, and not tour at least one whisky distillery. We chose to drive through Speyside and explore the Cardhu Distillery. We chose Cardhu because it has the distinction of being the only distillery in Scotland founded by a woman, which I found intriguing. When we got to the distillery, we were told that the type of tour we were interested in (a tour with a blind whisky tasting at the end) would leave in just over an hour and the woman at the distillery shop suggested we get a bite to eat at the restored wool mill a few miles down the road.

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The wool mill was fun, and I went a little crazy in the shop, buying some wool for myself and a friend, as well as a lovely tartan shawl, but the highlight was lunch. This was our first introduction to something that we ended up loving about Scotland — no matter how small or touristy, the cafes at attractions always seemed to have delicious, homemade, fresh-tasting food. We got some sandwiches and Mr. Tweed got a bowl of soup, and it was the perfect interlude before our whisky tasting.

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Arriving back at the distillery, I took some time to take photos of their cows, one of which had just had a baby! The area around the distillery, like the drive there, was beautiful, and it was not difficult to spend an hour exploring before our tour. Once it was close to time, we went back inside and were led to the waiting room.

In the waiting room were displays about the process of making whisky, as well as information about Speyside, whisky country, and the flavors and aromas common in different kinds of whiskies. This served two purposes: it both provided a visual aid for the tour’s introduction, as well as gave us something to photograph before being taken into the distillery proper, where photographs are not allowed.

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The tour of the distillery itself was fascinating. I knew a little about the process of making spirits, especially after my tour of Republic Restoratives, but I had never seen a larger-scale operation like I saw at Cardhu. The copper stills were particularly impressive. And it was a multi-sensory experience, from the changes in room temperature as we went through the different rooms, to the smells of the wort in different stages.

After touring the distillery, we were taken to an old storage area to learn more about the history of the distillery. It was here that we learned that when Helen Cumming first started distilling, her husband had to hold the license because it was illegal for women to hold distilling licenses. While her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, was eventually able to take over the license, she chose, shortly before her death, to sell her distillery to one of her best customers: John Walker. This is why Cardhu is also called the home of Johnnie Walker, and supposedly there is at least a little Cardhu whisky in every bottle of Johnnie Walker.

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The finale of the tour was the blind tasting. This was a true blind tasting, as we not only had to taste the whiskies without even looking at the color (they used cobalt blue tasting glasses to obscure the color!), but we even did our taste-test without having tasted any of the whiskies first. We were given a description of each potential whisky and then had to taste three samples and pick them out from a possible lineup of about ten bottles. I managed to guess all three whiskies that were included, but got two of them mixed up. Supposedly, they’ve only had two people ever guess correctly, since they started doing the tours!

After our tour and tasting, Mr. Tweed and I browsed the gift shop. He did not need to sober up much because he was allowed to take his samples home in test tubes after just tasting enough to guess. But I wanted to look around. I also decided to taste a bit of the Cardhu 12-year-old single malt, which is commonly available outside of Scotland. After all that, I decided to purchase my very first Glencairn glass. That, along with our commemorative glasses from the tasting (not blue!) are a lovely reminder of such a unique outing.

Scottish Adventure: Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

The first full day of our Highlands adventure, we decided to drive down to Drumnadrochit to see Loch Ness and the sites around there. While we were not in the market for a river cruise to find the elusive monster, we were interested in seeing the ruined castle that graced its shores.

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Urquhart Castle dates back more than a thousand years and has been a rich part of local history for centuries. The castle itself is ruined, but has been restored to the point where guests can explore the various rooms and see the view from the tower. We were wise to get to the castle right as it opened to the public, as we managed to see most of the ruins before most of the other groups came through. It was a dramatically cloudy day, with winds coming up from the glen through which Loch Ness cuts. It made for a brilliant introduction to Scotland and I got several fun photographs as well!

Up the hill from the castle ruins themselves is the visitor center, where they have a small exhibit about the history and significance of the castle, as well as some information about life in a castle in the Middle Ages in Scotland. We had come from seeing the same rooms in the ruins itself, and it gave a nice glimpse into how the castle might have operated. For now, the castle is home to a plethora of swallows, who zipped in and out of holes in the walls and flew out over the loch.

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After visiting Urquhart, we stopped by the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, where we learned all about the history of the monster legend, the reasons it probably was not true, and how the loch has become important for other reasons. These prehistorically-created lochs have become important sites for conservation research and research into climate change.

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After that, we finished our morning in Drumnadrochit with lunch at the Fiddler’s Highland Restaurant, which boasts a library of whiskies. Of course I had to take the opportunity to sample three of the local whiskies at the end of our meal of local venison. It made for a delicious and relaxing interlude in the day.

Next time, stay tuned for our trip to the Black Isle Brewing Company!

Scottish Adventure: The Beginning

Welcome to my series on our Scottish honeymoon! We spent nine days in the Scottish Highlands for our honeymoon and had a blast exploring the historical sites, as well as the local culture, food, and drink. Stay tuned for the next few weeks as I share our adventures.

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We arrived in Inverness on an overcast Sunday. We picked up our rental car, dropped our bags off at our guest house for storage, and then walked into town to explore. There was a bit of light rain at times, which I hear is rather usual for Scotland, but it was a lovely contrast to the growing spring heat in D.C. We found ourselves a lovely little cafe to grab a bite to eat, where Mr. Tweed had a steak sandwich and I got a full Scottish breakfast plate. Plus coffee (for him) and tea (for me).

Duly nourished, we set out to walk around the town. Inverness is sometimes called the gateway to the highlands and it was apparent that a lot of tour groups make their base in Inverness, as we had chosen to do. We did walk up to Inverness Castle, which offers a stunning view of the city. After browsing the city, we went back to the guest house.

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Ballifeary Guest House was the perfect “home base” for all our adventures. Bill and Morag were kind and hospitable and made our stay very comfortable. Morag served the breakfast every day while Bill stayed in the kitchen, and the spread was glorious. Every morning, we were offered cereal or fruit, coffee or tea, and a choice of hot entree. The first morning, we both tried the full Scottish breakfast, including black pudding, but as the week went on, we tried some of the other choices, including smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and smoked herring with poached eggs.

Everything was delicious and left us with very full bellies for a morning of site-seeing. In fact, it wasn’t until halfway through the week that I managed to learn how to tackle breakfast without coming away stuffed. Morag and I finally convinced Bill to serve me a “baby bear” portion of porridge, and then I had back bacon and two beautifully poached eggs. It was a perfect breakfast. And of course, I drank copious amounts of tea while Mr. Tweed had his own pot of coffee.

The room itself was small, but not cramped, with a lovely bathroom, and a tray of tea, coffee, and biscuits to accompany the electric kettle. I had tea in the room more often than we had tea out. It made a nice place to come back to after a day of wandering about the outer villages and countryside, and offered a ten-minute walk into town for dinner.

Friday, I’ll start in on our site-seeing, starting with Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness!

Scottish Honeymoon Adventure: An Introduction and Things to Come

Hello! Those who follow me on Instagram may have noticed that I spent the last week and a half in Scotland on a honeymoon with Mr. Tweed. Starting at the end a bit, we managed to get tangled in the unpleasantness resulting from the British Airways computer outage and got home two days later than expected. This has impeded my ability and willingness to sort through all the photos I took on my main camera, in order to report back about our lovely excursions.

Our plan for the honeymoon was to stay in a guest house in Inverness and then rent a car and drive out for day trips out of town. We visited a distillery in Speyside, many castles and ruins, and a small fishing town in the north of Scotland. And through it all, we took photos and just enjoyed the experience of being in a different place. Scotland was truly wonderful to visit and I do hope to return and continue exploring.

I hope you’ll stay tuned for more details from our travels, hopefully later this week and next.

(The image is the view from the top of the Ullapool hill, which is not a trivial hike, but well worth it.)