Thursday, May 15, 2008

Day 14 Fort Wiliam to Glasgow, Farewell

The last day of our tour we headed south from Fort William through the stunning scenery of Glencoe glen. A number of movies, including the 3rd Harry Potter, have used this area as a set. The tragic massacre of the MacDonalds of 1692 continues to give this area of natural beauty a tragic air. Richard played a recording of "Glencoe Massacre" sung by Alasdair Macdonald which made us all quietly contemplate. Much of the land in the glen is now owned and protected by the National Trust of Scotland. We stopped at the view point of "The Three Sisters" mountains. Margaret's finally agreed to pose for my camera.

Our last bit of nature before heading back to Glasgow was a stop on the shores of Loch Lomand where sang “The Bonnie Banks o Loch Lomond” It was penned by a prisoner of the Jacobite campaigns before he was executed. He believed that his spirit, upon execution, would travel back the spirit world via the “low road” to the place of his birth, Loch Lomond, while his prison mate, who was to be set free, would have to walk back home to Loch Lomond. So this gives new light to these words: “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye. But me and my true love will never meet again on the Bonny bonny Banks of Loch Lomond.”

Upon returning full circle to Glasgow we visited the Burrell Collection, housed in a museum in Pollok Park. Sir William Burrell amassed great wealth in the shipping business and spent his money on collecting artwork from all over the world. There are many tapestries in the collection. Helen Hughs, the textile conservator, allowed us a veiw of the conservation room where the work of studying and preserving the embroideries and tapestries take place. She feels "textiles are at the heart of Glasgow's history. The raw materials, like Turkey red dye, and cotton, came here because of the shipping industry. The Textile Department at the Glasgow School of Art continues to train designers who go into the interior fabrics trade."

Dina Ward, guided us through the tapestries on display. The collection includes large and small tapestries from Flanders, Brussels, and France. I really enjoyed Dina's insights on "The Dishonest Miller" tapestry, made between 1300 to early 1500's. I have seen this tapestry many time, but when she told us about the reputation of millers, pointed out the dress of the two couples depicting different social status, the story began to reveal itself to me. Entry to the museum is free and walking around the park which has a large herd of Highland cattle, flowers, and trees, is a green peaceful retreat in the middle of the city.

I want to thank Richard, our coach driver/guide from Rabbies Trail Burners once again for driving us 1692 miles around the country. He was still smiling at the end. He is always off scoping out good scenes as soon as he drops us off and cleans up the coach. He sells photographs of scenic Scotland on his website.
How do I summarize 2 weeks on the road in search of threads, ruins, and tunes? We had no major illness or mishaps, and so much sunshine that some pale skinned northerners got sunsburned. It was wonderful to share the best of the sites, places, and people I had met on 5 previous trips to Scotland with the 15 travelers on this tour. Some were seasoned travelers, having been to Scotland numerous times. For others this was their first venture out of the U.S. You may enjoy reading newbie traveler, Bob's take on the trip at his blog site

Travel is a wonderful teacher. We leave our framework of our normal, everyday lives, and are thrust into a culture, which may not seem so different from our own. But as we talk, eat, ride on ferries, visit museums, breath in deeply, we learn in subtle and sometimes not so sublte ways, that every culture has unique things they offer to the world.

Scotland has always offered her friendly people and welcoming nature to me and I believe my travelers felt this too. We fly back home and leap back into our lives, but we are not the same. Our being has been touched and changed. I always come home so thankful for the affordable food, fuel and energy we are privileged to have in North America . And I’m reminded to give back the hospitality to visitors in our communities and homes that we received in Scotland. Thank you for blogging along on this journey. If your interest has been peaked, I invite you to come along in person next year. I'm taking reservations now!

Day 13 Leverburgh to Fort William

I always think a fine way to leave a place that has had a profound affect on you is to walk. So as I walked from Rodel Hotel to the Leverburgh ferry dock, the photos opening this day's blog bid me farewell to the Isle of Harris for another year. The hub bub over Sunday ferries to and from the Outer Hebridean isles has dissipated now two years after this service started.

And we were blessed with smooth water on our Sunday morning crossing from Lewis to North Uist to Skye. You really have to hustle on the drive between ferries from Berneray on North Uist, to Lochmaddy. Our driver showed off his expert driving skills and we made it 3 minutes before the ferry started loading.
Skye welcomed us with typical style and rained but still the green rolling hills and lush vegetation greeted us to this peaceful island. As we left the outer Hebridian’s behind, we all sang "Waulking Song from the Misty Isle of Skye" and "Skye Boat Song." With the only oil refinery in northern Scotland on strike, signs like this were common at fuel stations. The price you see in the pump is the cost per liter.

Eilean Donan Castle at Dornie was our destination. The castle sits on a small little island, making a picturesque view from every angle. Pat stands at the entrance gate. Castles have stood on this site for 800 years. The site was a monestary until the 8th century. Vikings ruled here for 450 years. Alexander the 3rd evicted the Vikings and the MacRaes owned this castle from the 1300’s until today. In 1719 the building was destroyed as the castle was a stronghold of support for the Jacobites. The castle stood in ruins for 200 years. In 1912 they started rebuilding the castle and completed the present building in 1932. The renovation was based on the 16th century version of the castle.

As we continued into the heart of the highlands, the clouds dissipated, the sun came out and the veiws beckoned us to stop. Here is a shrine of cairns, right along the roadway, no double added to by each traveler who stops. We also saw Ben Nevis. At 4480 feet, it is the tallest mountain in Scotland. Typically, only 52 days of the year is Ben Nevis visable.

We lodged in Fort William and enjoyed a fine meal at The Lime Tree restaurant. This B&B has an unusal feature in that as a former church, one part has been converted to a private gallery space that has exhibitions of highland artists and also shows work from the National Art Collections.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Day 12 Isle of Harris

At an unlikey gallery, the upstairs of the An Clachan grocery store in Leverburgh on the southern tip of Harris, is displayed a wonderful labour of love. Gillian Scott-Forrest instigated the Millenium Project. A series of hangings was designed, one for each part of the island. The tweed fabric and the wool yarn used for the pictorial embroidery was hand dyed using plant dyes. Of the 1600 people living on Harris, 90 were involved in the project. The images on each hanging depict both history and current events from each area of the island. Each of the 8 panels are 5 fett by 2 1/2 feet. Until the project, called the Harris Tapestry, finds a permanent home, you can get your gas, buy your groceries, have breakfast, and learn of the rich history of the people and the island all in one stop.

From Harris we drove up to Tarbert and over the bridge to the island of Scalpay to visit Sheila Roderick and John Finlay Feguson at croft #37. Scalpay island has 40 crofts in all. Sheila and John have been farming here for 30 years. The farm goes back in their family to 1890. To make a living, the industrious couple have 100 lobster creels, 40 Hebredian black sheep, a flock of ducks, guineas, chickens and raise turkeys for the Christmas market. The photos show a Hebredian lamb and ram and also the end result of the spun fleece. On of the travelers, Doreen, purchased some of the fleece and was clever enough to have brought along a drop spindle. She started spinning that this very afternoon!

The couple still harvest their own peat and grow potatoes in lazy beds. On their Hattersly loom, they weave linen cloth and linsey-woolsey. Some of their fabric ends up in costumes for movies and the theater in London and NY. Success does not come without long hours and hard work but you can hear the love of this rural life in Sheila’s voice.

We all enjoyed sitting around refurbished sewing machine tables to eat lunch at First Fruits Tea Room in Tarbert. Most of us didn't have room, but if you visit, be sure to leave room for their home baked desserts.
Tel: 01859 502 439

Just down the road in Tarbert we visited Terry, a current Harris Tweed weaver. Today, weavers have to complete a weaving course to prove their skill and competancy before going to work for the industry. There are 150-200 weavers on the island that supply the industry weaving on Bonas Griffeth double wide looms that are driven with a pedals like a bicycle. Due to some politics with the newish owners of the mill in Stornoway, there has not been any warps given out to tweed weavers for several months now. And then there is the issue of how to keep tweed fabric in the eyes of the fashion industry. Read more about the history of the industry at

Winding our way back to Leverburgh via the Golden Road, we happened upon Katie Campbell's studio and shop in Plochropol, Harris Tweed and Knitwear. Katie has been weaving tweed for over 40 years. She and her sister grew up at the foot of their father who was also a tweed weaver. "Grannie had 11 girls who all spun. My mom died young. There were 4 of us girls and Dad bought a Hattersly Loom. We went to sleep to the click clack of the loom. It was lovely. It was safe." Katie and her daughter keep two Hattersly looms humming along turning out colorful contemporary and traditionl tweed cloth. Besides yardage for sale, they have their fabric sewn into caps, backpacks, handbags, jackets, teddy bears, etc.

We capped off our 2 days on the islands with a celebration at Rodel Hotel. Donnie and Dena MacDonald have converted a former school into a hotel and restaurant where fresh and simply prepared local fare is served. The seafood, some hand dived for just down the road, was the best we have eaten on the trip, as Jan's face concurs.

Bill Lawson, local history, genealogy expert and author of many books, joined us and told us about the history of the tweed industry and the island. is wife Chris, and the rest of the "Luadh" group did a wualking for us. They thumped, rubbed and passed a length of tweed around a table while singing waulking songs in Gaelic. Waulking was the process used to full and finish the cloth once it came off the loom. All was very orderly and efficient until they asked for volunteers from our group. After that not much waulking but a lot of laughter was acheived!

Day 11 Ullapool, Lewis, Harris

The ferry took us to the Outer Hebridean islands of Lewis & Harris today. But before leaving Ullapool, some of the group checked out Strandlines and The Unlimitied Colour Company, two shops that carry handknits, and other textiles from the UK and around the world.

We journey the 2:45 minutes by ferry because this is the land of Harris tweed. Some of the group productively knit away with yarn they purchased on the trip. Others used the time and comfortable reclining ferry chairs to catch up on sleep!

The definition of Harris tweed: made from the wool of Scottish sheep, spun in the Outer Hebrides, woven by hand, and finished in the Outer Hebrides. When the potato famine hit Scotland 1845-47, Lady Dunmore took the tweed the islanders were weaving, traveled the world, marked up the price 20x and came back and gave the weaver all the profit. Harris tweed became famous worldwide and the demand kept growing. Originally the tweed was naturally dyed. Crotal, a lichen, gave light to dark rusty color. Spinning mills came in 1907 and all the yarn was then aniline dyed.
In 1926, the Hattersley Loom greated increased the productivity of the weavers. The looms had hands free flying shuttle mechanisms and were powered by stepping alternately on two pedals.

This is the loom you see Donald Macarthur, weaver at Gearranen Blackhouse Village weaving on as we stepped into the past to All the handweavers in our group marveled at the wonderful hands free, shuttle mechanism sends up to 6 different shuttles flying across the warp. The warp Donald was working on was 33" wide set 18 EPI with 18 PPI. In one and a half days, 100 yards could be woven on a Hattersly loom.

Most of the 9 houses at Gearannen were built in the 1850’s. In 1989 a trust was formed to restore the houses and the village opened in 2000. When the blackhouses were built, they were long structures with an open plan. Animals lived and one end and people lived at the other. The roof was thatched. Blackhouses were very similar to the much earlier Viking long houses. Most had open fires in the middle of the living area. Medical officers required that dividing walls and windows be put into the houses by the turn of the century. Some also put in chimney’s. 50% of the rurual population on the island still lived in blackhouses up to 1939. Mary, our guide, taught us some Gaelic words and offered us these thoughts. “The people who lived in these houses were penniless. But they had a lot of thing we need here now…community spirit and tolerance. We are losing the richness of simplicity.”

Dun Carloway Broch rises up on hill in the midst of current modern day farms. Perhaps ¼ of the original broch still stands. But the impressive stonework remaining gives a good idea of what life in this multi-storied landowner’s home from the Iron age was like.

The sky clouded over by the time we reached the Callenish Standing Stones, but I think that light makes them all the more impressive. A small visitors center tells the history of the area and surmises about the why and how of the circle. The cross formation of stones intersecting this circle sets it apart from stone circles we saw on Orkney. Many other smaller standing stones line the west coast of Lewis.

Harris lies south of Lewis. The islands are actually connected by the road, but as you reach Harris, the hills rise up and the landscape becomes much more rocky. Harris also has brilliant sandy beaches. We stayed in the vicinity of Leverburgh tonight and the next to get a better feeling for this island where farm animals far outnumber the people

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Day 10 St. Margaret's Hope to Ullapool

Nature provided our venue of the day. We departed St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay Orkney on the 8:00 a.m. ferry and pulled into Ullapool just before dinner. This drive across the North and Northwest of Scotland was no ordinary journey. This is the least populated, most remote and rugged and least visited area on the mainland…my favorite landscape in all of Scotland. Once past Thurso, it is mile after mile of rocks, beach, hills, water, heather, birds and grazing sheep. The road often goes to one lane. At Dunnet Head, the North Sea meets the Atlantic Sea. We were blessed with sunshine that added to the richness of the color of the sea and stone. Uarda, dressed in her handwoven suit, chose the right outfit for this breezy day.

Just outside of Durness, we stopped at Balnakeil Craft Village. Once a military base, it was taken over by hippies when the military left and now is inhabited by small shops and craft studios. I told the group that the reward for all this sitting and riding today was dessert at Cocoa Mountain, the gourmet Aardvark shop at Balnakeil. They specialize in truffles with unique flavours like strawberry pepper, and hot chocolate. You can't miss this heavenly stop if you like chocolate.

Finally some rain by the time we passed Ardvreck Castle ruins. I keep telling the travelers that the these views are even better in the rain! We stopped at Highland Stoneware Pottery shop in Lochinever. The driveway and garden of the shop proved very entertaining with large stones, an automobile, a gigantic concrete sofa, all covered with broken pottery. Before heading on, make sure to drive into town and get a homemade pie from the Lochinever Larder. Their savory or sweet pies are in such demand, they post them around the country.
Once we reached Ullapool we settled into our B&B's. You see the view here from my room. No one ever wants to leave this idyllic spot. A hearty thank you to Charlotte at Dromnan Guest House
who always goes out of her way with hospitality, this time offering to run a load of wash for us. A fine reprieve from handwashing those socks one more time.
Just down the road from our B&B’s at Ullapool, we enjoyed a delicious meal at the Royal Hotel restaurant. Here you can see the entire group relaxing. You may have noticed that I talked a lot of about food today. I think travelers are happiest when not only their eyes are delighted by scenery, their minds are expanded by history, but when their stomachs are satisfied. However, after 10 days of travel, we have eaten every kind of potato and have started pleading with the servers, "please don't bring so many!"

Day 9 Mainland, Orkney

The big island, or as Orcadians call “mainland” is home to numerous stone circles and structures dating back as far as 5000 years. Nowdays, the 17 or the 65 islands that are populated are home to 20,000 people, 100,000 beef cattle, 68,000 sheep and one fishing fleet, on Westray.

Maeshowe, a grass covered burial mound in the middle of a farmer’s field, is that old. You stoop low to walk through the 10 meter entrance tunnel before standing up inside a tall rounded chamber. As in all the sites, some of what the archeologists have found is known fact, other is speculation. Was it in fact a burial mound for the first peoples who build it, or a place of healing and rituals connected to the astrological cycle? In fact, each December the mound is equipped with 3 webcams where you can watch the light in the mound as winter solstice approaches. Vikings raided the mound in the 12th century and left many runic inscriptions. No great mysteries were revealed however once these inscriptions were translated as they say things such as “Ingibjorg is a beautiful woman.” The lion carving illuminated by our guide, some say is the most stunning carving in the mound.

From Maeshowe you look across a loch and see both the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar in the distance. Modern technology has shown that the stone monuments above ground are just the tip of the iceberg of all the ancient stone sites under the earth in this heart of the island. There is currently a new archeological dig exploring a newly found site not far from the Standing Stones.

Michael, our local guide while Richard had a day off, told us tales and speculations about these sites. Stenness means “stone point” and indeed the tall stones still standing are pointed on top, but just 3100 years old. Also known as the Temple of Moon, couples came to perform a marriage ritual which would bind them together for one year and one day. After that period, they would have to come back to the stones to renew that ritual or to break the contract. Thus was their system of “marriage in installments.”

The Ring of Brodgar once had 60 stones standing. Brodgar means “farm by the bridge.” This 2500 year old ring is said to grant the gift of fertilitiy to anyone who runs around it counter clockwise 3x without stopping. Considering the large circumference, this running ritual also meant you were in shape! As we walked the ring, many of us touching each stone, the wind blew us along, urging us to consider what ancient wisdom moved the people to build such impressive sites. What did they know, that we have long forgotten?

Skara Brae was uncovered when a storm hit William Watt’s farm in 1850 and eroded the beach front. The settlement wasn’t excavated however until 1928. This fine example of a stone age community was quite advanced as they even had a sewage sytem and a stone trough area they filled with water and hot rocks to steam the sea life they ate.

Stromness is the 2nd largest town on mainland Orkney with a population of 2000+. Tait and Style studio sits above the harbour. For 16 years Ingrid Tait has run this company that creates knitted and felted scarves, throws, pillows, and accessories for the high fashion market in London and New York. She discovered a needle punching machine in Yorkshire that was used to make industrial materials. Sensing it could be retooled to work with wool fabric, she acquired the machine and has been punching or felting her marks with fleece or yarn onto commercially woven wool.

As the fashion industry constantly changes, Ingrid is flexible, open to taking commissions from both home furnishing and clothing fashion design houses to create new lines for each season. She is a sought after lecturer and also ofters workshops at the studio. Tait and Style's retail shop is now at The Longship Complex on Broad Street in Kirkwall. Ingrid also runs the jewelry company founded by her mother, Ole Gorie. Here is a fabulous hand knit sweater that had Piper's name on it.
The Pier Arts Centre sits unassuming on Victoria Street just off the water front in Stromness. Inside, the centre houses a fine collection of contemporary art. I was delighted to find a number of pieces by British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth.

Corrigall Farm Museum in Harray is a wonderful example of rural agricultural life on the island. Implements, tools and household furnishings from the 18th-20th century fill the buildings. Inside the buildings are all kinds of fascinating things like a simmon, rope that was made from twising grass, a spoon kaise, for holding cutlery and some North Ronaldsay sheep, the breed that eats seaweed!

Each Wednesday night, the Orkney Accordian and Fiddle Club practices at the Ayre Hotel in Kirkwall. They welcome listeners and players alike. The night I joined in, they were practicing for their performance at the Orkney Folk Festival. The accordians outnumbered the fiddles, but thankfully some of the fiddlers read music and had notation I played from. The stamina of the players is mighty. After 3 hours I was ready to go to bed, and they kept playing!

The 26th Orkney Folk Festival, is May 22-25 with most concert venues in Stromness.