Last month I flew with friends to Scotland. Again.
This time eight ladies traveled instead of 10, half of them recruited by me.
Like before, after leaving the Inverness airport, we drove to two castles. The first was Urquhart Castle at Loch Ness. The ruins—remains of a wall and stone turrets on a patch of lush green grass at the edge of a navy blue ness—were just as beautiful as last year. Alas, we did not spot Nessie.
Our next stop was Eilean Donan Castle, a gorgeous restored citadel on a finger of land that points into a lake.
In the great room, one of the docents pointed out slender gaps in the stone walls. Centuries ago, soldiers hid in small rooms behind the walls, listening via the fissures for trouble. Thus the saying, “the walls have ears.”
Another docent, Jim, allowed me to quiz him on his favorite whiskeys, for Tony Bear’s sake. As we were leaving, he offered to snap our picture at the castle gate.
“Do you know of the ‘Highland Zoom?’” Jim asked with a grin.
When we shook our heads, aiming someone’s IPhone, he took several steps closer to us. “There it be—the ‘Highland Zoom.’”
After touring Eilean Donan, we made our way to the remote Applecross Peninsula. Prior to the trip, my friend Cathy had bravely volunteered to drive the second rental car. “I drove in Italy earlier this summer,” she said. “How much harder can Scottish roads be?”
The Bealach na Ba, the perilous single-track mountain road that drops down into Applecross Village, is known to driving aficionados all over the world.
After Cathy traversed the “Pass of the Cattle,” knuckles white, she confessed that donating a kidney to her diabetic daughter was actually easier than driving the Bealach.
Once we arrived at Eagle Rock, our accomodation for the week, we dropped our luggage in the mudroom and hurried, famished, to Applecross Inn where I immediately provided Cathy with a wee dram of Scotch.
My adventurous eater friend Dana ordered haggis, a prune-colored Scottish dish consisting of sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lungs). Everyone except me and Karen, our fearless leader, waxed enthusiastic about the savory pudding. The taste wasn’t horrible. In fact, it reminded me of pate, another dish a foodie should adore, and yet…
Monday’s activities were quiet, literally. We enjoyed a silent meal, passing food items one at a time. We chewed each mouthful 20 times or more in order to fully appreciate the taste, smell, and feel of our food. In the process, I developed an affinity for dried cherries smeared with goat cheese.
Later, when the rain paused, we set out on a silent hike. For a good 30 minutes, we climbed a rocky and wooded hillside without speaking or stopping to take pictures. Our final destination was a long abandoned tiny community. In the quiet forest, emerald moss covered the few remaining stone walls. When you pressed on the plush moss, your hand sunk in two to three inches.
(See the tiny glowing orb in the photo? Supposedly that’s a fairy!)
Rain sleeted down all of Tuesday. So much so that we stayed inside and covered several of Karen’s Libera retreat sessions.
That day the conversation was so transparent and real no one cared to leave. Instead, we cared for one another.
That night my roommate Dana and I stayed up until 3 am whispering and giggling like teenage girls. It wouldn’t be the only time we indulged in “pillow talk.” We chattered about food and family. And what trips we wanted to take next. Over and over we voweded to hush so we could sleep, but then…
On Wednesday we squeezed in multiple adventures. First was a foraging hike with a local flora-expert. Then we enjoyed a foraging lunch featuring a creamy nettle soup as well as risotto made with wild mushrooms. Dessert was a Scottish pancake topped with a compote of local berries. Everything we ate at Applecross’s Walled Garden tasted wonderful!
After lunch we drove the coast road in the opposite direction of Eagle Rock. The landscape was stony and sparsely populated. At one point a driver coming at us slowed and lowered his window.
“You should know, up ahead, there be coos on the road.”
Sure enough, as we drove over the ridge, a small herd of Highland Cows moseyed on and beside the road. Our cars crept through them, windows down as we snapped pictures and attempted to pet the massive beasts.
Next we visited Thomas and Lesley—an older couple who ran an all-things-wool cooperative. They told stories of living for years in the Highlands without utilities. With dozens of sheep. And six children. The woven, knitted, and felted goods they sold were gorgeous, fuzzy soft and in brilliant colors.
Afterward, the sun still shone so we drove back to and through Applecross Village in order to hike to the Coral Beach. There we walked beside a ruined cottage, collected wads of wool caught in rock crags, climbed the cliffs and scooped up the “sand” at the water’s edge. If you examined the grains closely, you noticed they were actually minuscule coral fragments.
One of the best parts of this trip was spending time with Eagle Rock’s fabulous owner, Catherine Stewart.
Cath was absent the first half of our stay as she was on holiday in Venice with friends. She arrived Wednesday night, though, in a cloud of perfume and clad head to heel in black: a fur-trimmed cape, a knit wrap top and slacks, boots with twinkling rhinestone-covered heels.
She appeared as we ate our supper that night. With a bakery box held high, she announced she was providing dessert: Apple tarts with French vanilla creme fraiche. I will never forget the creme fraiche. Never.
On Thursday we departed Eagle Rock at 7:30 a.m. for the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye. I almost stayed home that day. Because the trip involved a lot of driving. Because the Quiraing’s hiking path terrified me.
I’m glad I decided to go on the daytrip to the Quiraing. If I’d stayed behind, I would’ve missed this bagpipe performance on a rock outcropping.
As we waited for the rest of the group to hike the steep path (with no railing) out and back (Here’s a video of part of that hike.), another gal and I wondered if fear of heights is a nature or nurture issue. Perhaps my father loving to fling me up in the air despite my protests caused my terror.
Friday morning Cath joined us for a walk-and-talk through Applecross Village. She showed us the ruins of an ancient roundhouse as well as a recently reconstructed version. She explained how 30 people and their animals lived inside these dwellings, the society a matriarchal one.
On the hillside we knelt to taste “holy water” that bubbled up from a cleft in the earth. We sang hymns in the village church and strolled through the centuries-old cemetery.
Since we were a bit spent, hungry too, Cath waved to a man in the distance, beckoning him, his truck, and trailer. She introduced us to yet another Jim, who shyly accepted our hugs and handshakes, before helping each of us into the truck’s trailer.
Once the truck began moving, we began singing. First we belted out, “The Hokey Pokey,” then “Country Roads,” and finally, “She’ll Be Coming ’round the Mountain.” At the pub that night, many a local recounted the day’s village gossip. About the women from West Virginia and their raucous revelry. Before we left, someone behind the bar cranked “Country Roads” as loud as the stereo would go.
Saturday we drove to Inverness and shopped for whiskey and wool items. In the excellent hotel restaurant, we enjoyed excellent fish and chips washed down with pints of Scottish beer before collapsing into our beds for the night.
Our hiking boots would only be needed one more day. At least on this trip.
The next day British Airways flew us home. Back to life. Back to reality.
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