The following is a first-person account of Herald Chronicle Editorialist Alan Clark’s recent trip to Scotland. This is part two in a two-part series.
Previously in this series, in Part One I told about the “Clans and Castles” tour hosted by Chris and Denise Smith, proprietors of The Celtic Cup in Tullahoma.
My wife Shirley and I signed up for this tour of Scotland to go abroad in the United Kingdom for the first time in several years to a place we had never visited with plans of visiting the family home of the Maxwell Clan of which my wife is a descendant.
After arrival in Glasgow, we spent five days on the vacation with 34 other tour members from various states visiting Stirling Castle, Bannockburn Battlefield, the Isle of Skye, and several additional castles and locations with historical significance, some of which were featured in movie and TV series, such as “Harry Potter,” “Outlander,” and “Game of Thrones.”
We ended up en route to Inverness, one of the best-kept secrets of Scotland.
We were quartered into the Glen Mohr Hotel on the banks of the River Ness, a beautiful location with a gorgeous view of the river and the city of Inverness right out the front door. It featured a nice dining area and a lounge and bar of the highest order.
Of course, the view from our room was of a courtyard below where a small cottage could be seen, and the rooftops behind the hotel where birds frequented daily.
Still without air conditioning, at least we could crack open the windows and use the fan brought up by the staff to keep us cool. It was no big deal.
Many of our tourists loved early morning walking and hiking, arising at 5:30 a.m. or earlier and taking to the streets and countryside surrounding our hotels.
I must admit the quiet beauty of an early morning stroll, especially there along the river was refreshing, but vigorous hiking at zero dark thirty was not my thing, having done enough of that for 28 years in the military.
Day six began again with a breakfast in the dining area for all, then embarkation on a cruise of Loch Ness.
The word “Loch” in Celtic/Gaelic means “Lake,” so we quickly got used to that because of so many lochs in the country.
With our cameras handy, we boarded a vessel just large enough for our party after a visit to the picturesque ruins of Urquhart Castle, once Scotland’s largest.
Staring out over Loch Ness, it is a formidable structure requiring more staircase climbing, and featuring a rebuilt reproduction of a trebuchet, or catapult, designed for maximum power and distance, on the lawn outside the castle.
Dents in the stone walls of the castle made by a trebuchet during a siege long ago could still be seen.
Passengers inside and outside the launch traversing Loch Ness kept their eyes open for a Loch Ness Monster sighting, but she was not to be seen on this day.
This is the largest inland lake by volume in the British Isles, extending some 23 miles and standing 755 feet deep in places.
After Nessie hunting, we were taken to the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Center to discover how British forces defeated the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie on April 16, 1746. This conflict ended the clan system in Scotland.
The planned photo stop at Clava Cairns, a prehistoric burial place with a circle of standing stones that inspired the “Outlander” books and was so near the Battlefield Center, had to be cancelled because the bus with all our passengers could not traverse the bridge leading up to the site. The bus could handle it, but we were told the bridge would not.
This was a major disappointment to several on the tour who took advantage of a later opportunity to rent a car in Inverness and visit the site later on.
Upon return to Inverness and an enjoyable dinner, a tour guide, dressed in his kilt, met us outside the hotel and led us on a “gentle” walking tour of downtown Inverness, regaling us with history and the growth of the city.
Understand that it is not unusual at any time of the day or night to see people in kilts in the Western Highlands, although they appear to be worn for special occasions rather than day-to-day business.
Day seven saw several of the group take a day off, including my wife, who rested, re-arranged our luggage, did some laundry, and prepared for the next days of the tour.
This is when the aforementioned group made its way to Clava Cairns, but some just caught their breath, doing some shopping or just enjoying the scenery before we set out again.
The rest of us boarded the coach and visited distilleries based close to the pure water of the River Spey.
While interesting and a marvel of cleanliness, they had nothing on the Jack Daniel’s Tour here in nearby Lynchburg. It also was one of the very few days, maybe the only day, it rained while we were there.
Of course, it would not have been complete without another castle visit, this one to the 16th century Brodie Castle, set in spacious grounds with fairytale towers and turrets. It contained fine furnishings, a collection of paintings, and a library with more than 6,000 volumes. We returned to Inverness for the final night at the hotel.
By Day eight we could see the end coming, unfortunately, but not until we were treated to farm life and a fantastic border collie “sheepdog” demonstration, where dogs obeyed commands to round up sheep from a shepherd who inherited his role from his father in 2001 and had not had a day off in 18 years.
So devoted was the family to their dogs and sheep, and vice versa, that they all lived together on a huge farm in what seemed like total happiness.
Some of us used old-style manual sheers to strip a sheep of its wool, “worth about three pounds,” according to Neil the farmer, and held in our arms the newest of a litter only 30 days old.
More than 3,500 sheep were managed by Neil and his 30 dogs of all ages, following a two-year training program for each one of the collies. No place else we had visited up to now had elicited so many “oohs” and “ahhs” from our group as this one.
Reluctantly departing, we set our sights on Edinburgh and the excitement to come in that great city.
The Norton House Hotel and Spa was the “best for last” of the accommodations provided on the tour. It was near the airport and more up-to-date than any of the others, but still without air conditioning (there was a rumor that some guests did in fact have the convenience).
We enjoyed a festive Scottish evening with dinner and entertainment in pure Scottish fashion and retired to our rooms eager to spend the last few days touring the sights and sounds of Edinburgh. (Pronounced Edinboro)
Day nine involved an introduction to the old and new towns of Edinburgh where the medieval townhouses along the Royal Mile in the heart of Old Town are in stark contrast to the Georgian mansions of the 200-year-old New Town.
Holyroodhouse Palace, the official Scottish residence of The Queen (Elizabeth, of course, but she is known as simply “The First” in Scotland, being the first Scottish queen named Elizabeth, in contrast to England’s designation of Elizabeth II).
The majestically furnished chambers were hung with recent photos of royal visits to the palace and a special display of wedding gowns you’ve seen on TV lately. The crowd was so thick there that we were shoulder-to-shoulder most of the way through.
On the grounds, we passed by the “bath house” allegedly used by Mary, Queen of Scots for her annual bath, once a year, whether she needed it or not.
In the evening, we enjoyed reserved seats on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held only once per year at the annual Festival of Music and Art throughout the month of August.
With the castle as a backdrop, military bands from multiple countries — Scotland, England, Japan, China, France, Spain and many others — entertained with military precision, dancing, and singing.
The Tattoo began promptly at 9 p.m. with bagpipes and accoutrement of the famed Black Watch, narrated by the Scottish voice of Alasdair Hutton from a public address system booming clearly over the crowd of about 9,000.
Breathtaking is the best word to describe this event, and the crowd responded to each performance with enthusiasm as laser lights were beamed onto the face of the castle during the show, which was augmented by a vocal chorus of volunteers and a stage band.
This event deserves to be added to your bucket list if you have not seen it.
It wrapped up with a combined appearance of all bands involved, and ended promptly at 10:30 p.m.
Day 10 of the tour was the last one, and free time was the order of the day.
It was the day we had set aside to rent a car and drive to Dumfries for a visit to the Maxwell point of origin and famous Caerleverock (pronounced CARE-lever-rock) Castle of my wife’s ancestors.
Armed with directions and advice from Richard the bus driver, Tom the tour guide, and maps, we headed to the airport to pick up our rental accompanied by a couple we had met from Wisconsin who asked if they could join this journey.
Scott and Penny Bowser were not only fun to be with but came in very handy on this adventure.
Since we had added two people to the reservation, we needed to upgrade to a comfortable four-passenger conveyance, but the only vehicle available was a Mercedes sedan.
Shucks, maybe our luck was changing.
I told Scott that he had to be the navigator since I was focused on driving on the LEFT side of the roads, not the right, and the multiple roundabouts might be a challenge.
It was a two-hour drive south from Edinburgh, so Scott spread out the roadmap, referred to the written directions and fired up the onboard GPS to keep us on the right track while I kept reminding myself to “stay to the left!”
We took the so-called scenic route direct from Edinburgh, twisting and turning along the Scottish countryside through all sorts of villages and towns.
Unless you are on one of the motorways (like our interstate highways), the roads in Scotland are narrow…VERY narrow, with just barely enough room to pass.
Richard, our coach driver, somehow managed to drive us along these roads with little problem in his huge coach due to his 40 years of experience, but my perspective was different. Even though I opted for total insurance coverage, I really wanted to return this Mercedes that evening without a scratch.
Finally, we found ourselves in Dumfries on the southern coast of Scotland, and our first stop was an old bridge that joined Maxwelltown with Dumfries over the River Nith.
It was aptly named The Old Bridge, and it had a visitor’s center with a couple of very nice ladies inside who answered all of our questions and gave us more help.
One of them even sang a couple of Scottish traditional tunes in a beautiful voice before we left. We bought a copy of her CD.
Seems Maxwelltown and Dumfries joined their city’s governments several years ago right at the spot where we were standing, so there was no separate Maxwelltown per se.
However, another bridge just a short walk away displayed the city crests of both governments, so we captured a photo of that before leaving. In addition, my wife had her picture taken along Maxwell Street.
After negotiating a difficult search for the road to the village of Glencaple, we finally were on our way and in a very short time drove through the small fishing town and turned off on the road to Caerleverlock.
Now curated by the National Trust of Scotland, the castle loomed up before us just a half mile away, and I know there was a tear or two flowing by the time we parked.
More beautiful than any of the photographs we had seen of it, Caerleverlock is a unique three-sided castle with a double moat system surrounding it, only one of which was full of water on this day.
The attendants greeted my wife with “welcome home” after learning of her ancestry, and that really meant a lot to us.
The castle was built on the northern banks of the Solway Firth by the Maxwell clan around 1290, though it changed hands frequently during the Anglo-Scots wars.
In 1300, the English king, Edward I (1239–1307), laid siege to the castle with a force of 3,000 men, one of whom described it as “so strong a castle that it feared no siege before the King came there…”.
The castle’s strength lay partly in its coastal position and its double moat.
We walked the grounds and toured the remnants of the building, parts of it intact and other parts open to the surroundings having never been rebuilt, stopped at the gift shop for mementos and hopped into the Mercedes, mission accomplished.
A stop at Glencaple for dinner proved fruitless, as both local eateries had closed at around 2 p.m. and would not re-open for dinner until about 5 p.m., so we returned to Dumfries and found a nice place to relax, reminisce, eat dinner and head north.
This time, we decided to take the motorways leading from Dumfries northeast to Glasgow, then due west to Edinburgh, which took the same two hours but was less congested and easier on the driver and navigator.
The ladies in the back of course did not notice the difference due to their continual conversation, which Scott and I were happy to listen in on, with a contribution from the front every now and then.
We saw more turbine wind farms along this route than before and could not help but be impressed by the ancient beauty of the land juxtaposed with the latest in sustainable technology.
Our grand adventure ended after breakfast the next morning as we made our way to the Edinburgh airport and home, departing Scotland with newfound friends and fond memories of the auld world in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The six-hour flight into JFK in New York connected us with different final legs to the various home locations of the travelers, and we bid fond farewell and auld lang syne.