Sunday, May 11, 2008

Day 7 From Insch to St Margaret's Hope

Each day the sun shines the majority of the time , I or the group comes up with a song about sun to sing. I have already used up "You Are My Sunshine", the Sesame Street theme, "On the Sunny Side of the Street", "Good Day Sunshine", "Here Comes the Sun", "Zippety Do Dah". What sun songs can you think of? I know there was a plethora of songs penned between the late 1800's and early 1900's by the Tin Pan Alley composers. I think the next one I'll learn is Irving Berlin's "Some Sunny Day".

This, our biggest travel days so far, took us through 5 regions of Scotland. Aberdeenshire, Invernesshire, Rosshire, Southerland and Orkney. We started in Insch in the shadow of Bennachie, the tallest hill in Aberdeenshire, drove through the Speyside region to Dingwall. On the way, thanks to the urgent need for a bathroom break, we stopped at the new Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre. This famous battles lasted just 45 minutes and was the end of the Jacobite uprising. The visitor center overlooks a flat field where on April 16, 1746, the Duke of Cumberland sent Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing. Not only were the Jacobite forces massacred that day, after the battle, Cumberland, know as "The Butcher" ordered all Jacobite supporters in the Highlands hunted down and slaughtered.

For a poetic take on this site, see "Culloden Moor" by Alice Macdonnell found on and listen to the McKassons "Culloden" on their recording "Tripping Maggie"

Just several miles down the road from Culloden, lies Clava Cairns. This Bronze age burial site sits among pastures and fields. In the UK, the Bronze Age was the period from 2700 to 700 BC. The site is comprised of three stone mounds and some standing stones, trees, and a few interpretive signs. As the group strolled through the site, which isn't much larger than a football field, I think the atmosphere seeped into our beings and most talking ceased. How can we ponder something so old when we live in a time when a car is old after 3 years, a dress is out of fashion after one year, and buildings that are 80 years old are torn down to make way for modern structures?

As we headed to lunch, we drove along the Moray Firth. You are more likley to see dolphins in these waters, more than any other place in Europe. We lunched at The Storehouse at Foulis Ferry on Cromarty Firth. The storehouse is a "girnal" meaning "grain store." Girnals are unusual in the Highlands. They were built as close as possible to water transport in the 18th and 19th centuries, before there were railways in the area.

A tour of the Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain lead us through the entire process of distilling single malt whiskey from the fermentation of the grain, to the storehouse where the magic happens in the aging process. Glenmorangie single malt has a very slight peaty taste and it quite light in colour. That comes from the water and the malting process of roasting the barley with peat. Glenmorangie owns the land surrounding the spring where the water comes from . The distillery uses up to 290 tones of barley a week to make 22 mashings. The mash goes through 3 soakings. The distilling of the sugars into alcohol is a two step process. They age the whisky a minimum of 10 years in both American oak barrels that previously held bourbon, and also in French sherry barrels. Nothing like a dram of whisky to settle the stomach after lunch! We tasted their Quinta Ruban.

From there the A9 winds north along the North Sea. Numerous oil rigs are visible off shore. Along the way, just a few miles off the main road along the River Brora is the studio of Joan Baxter, tapestry artist. Joan trained in Edinburgh and Poland and has been weaving tapestry commissions for over 30 years. Joan is inspired by the land and landscape. She and her husband live on a seven acre nature preserve. One can see the influence on the land in her traditional and mixed technique tapestries. Joan loves mixing colors, "Why use one colour when two will do?" She often works from a concept and loose sketches, preferring not to use a detailed cartoon, so the work can develop as she weaves. Joan also teaches tapestry to serious students. Joan's husband is a bladesmith and musician. So between caring for the land and creating things with their hands, there is rarely a wasted moment at Ford House.

Our final destination on the mainland was the Pentland Ferry at Gills Bay. Just a short hop from John O Groats, this is the shortest ferry crossing to Orkney at this time of year. Prepared with motion sickness drugs, patches, shock watches, and pressure point bracelets, the travelers boarded the ferry for the 1 hour 15 minute crossing which proved not so rough. Some of the group found the best way to sail to St. Margaret’s Hope is with the wind in your face on the open deck.

St. Margaret’s Hope is on the island of South Ronaldsay. A quiet, sleepy little town, it is a great place to spend the first night on Orkney. Many visitors to Scotland don’t travel to Orkney, and even many mainlanders have never been here. I discovered the barren, enchanting pull of these islands on my first trip to Scotland. Orkney and the Shetland Islands lie between mainland Scotland and Norway. The islands once belonged to Denmark, and the Nordic influence in the place names (St. Ola, Stenness, Brodgar) is especially strong. Orcadians pride themselves in their heritage and not being mainlanders. Of 65 islands in Orkney, 17 are inhabited with a total of 20,000 residents. However, more and more folks are discovering this magical place. This summer over 60 cruise ships will dock in Kirkwall. One more reason I like to tour off-peak.

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