Its Friday September 21st, and including today, we only have five more days left in our Scottish adventure. After the better part of a week where the weather was as much a part of the adventure as anything else, it was with a sigh of relief that we awoke to patches of blue sky this morning. The weather forecast is calling for intermittent rain throughout the day but we have seen the last of Storm Ali and her hurricane-strength winds.
Our day began with an excellent breakfast supplemented with wonderful views of the area around Blairdu House, our B&B on the Isle of Skye.
Our plan today is to tour Skye at a leisurely pace and with the help of our host, we’ve plotted a circuitous and efficient route that will allow us to see the Isle’s main attractions, two of which are of particular interest to us – Armadale Castle and Dunvegan Castle.
We did have a brief delay to the start of our day when our hosts’ IT connection acted up and she couldn’t process our payment electronically. We didn’t have enough cash to pay her, so we had to head back across the Skye bridge to an ATM in Kyle of Lochalsh, then loop back to Blairdu House to drop off the money. By the time we were finished with “business”, it was already 10 AM, and that is a later start to the day than is usual for us.
Our first destination took us to the south end of Skye to the town of Armadale, roughly a 30-minute drive from our B&B. Armadale is not only home to Armadale Castle, it is also where the Museum of the Isles is located, and that is something we wanted to explore.
Wouldn’t you know it? Just as we began walking to the museum from the Armadale Castle Visitor Centre, it started to rain. Fortunately it was only a light mist and nothing compared to what we experienced yesterday on our drive through the Highlands.
The Museum of the Isles is actually right on the grounds of Armadale Castle and when it was first established in 1975, it was housed inside the only inhabitable portion of the castle. It moved into its own purpose-built museum in 2002, and that is where we started our visit today.
Just outside the entrance to the museum, we came upon the “Raven’s Rock Memorial”. It is dedicated to Air Commodore Donald MacDonnell, a distinguished Battle of Britain pilot and founder of the Clan Donald Lands Trust. This memorial is relevant to Armadale Castle since the estate was formerly part of the traditional lands of Clan Donald, and much of the museum’s focus is on that historic clan.
The story that is told in the Museum of the Isles is a fascinating one. It starts with the ancient settlers, before moving on to the time of Dàl Riata, to the Celtic Church, to the Norse, and finally to Somerled. Somerled was the man who displaced Norse power in western Scotland and the islands, and who, through one of his grandsons, started a dynasty that went on to become the Clan Donald.
Upon entering the museum, we were met with a sign that stated “the story of Clan Donald is at the heart of the history of Galedom. For over 400 years, political and cultural harmony flourished in the sea kingdom of the west. This kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, encompassed the western mainland and the Hebrides. Clan Donald was at its head.”
In the picture below, Mary is standing in the room that tells of Scotland’s first settlers, and recounts the Gaelic tradition that the first “Scots” came from the north of Ireland in about 500 AD. They conquered the Picts and named the new kingdom Dàl Riata after their home in Ulster.
Archaeological evidence in this room suggests that people had been moving back and forth between Scotland and Ireland for many centuries before the arrival of the “Scots” who drove the Picts out of the country.
In the next room, the story of the Scots unfolds through a timeline that spans 1500 years of history and culture of the area known as the Kingdom of the Isles. It comprised the Hebrides (Skye is part of the Hebrides), the islands of the Firth of Clyde, and the Isle of Man. The story is told through the eyes of Clan Donald (there are numerous branches to Clan Donald including Clan MacDonald, Clan MacDonell, and Clan MacAlister, just to name a few).
Much of the story in the “timeline” room and beyond, focused on the period after the collapse of the Kingdom in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s – a time described as “one of lawlessness and violence”. The more bloodthirsty episodes of Scottish history date from this time.
The power of Clan Donald waned, and clan turned against clan. The Campbells came from the south, the Mackenzies from the north, and the Gordons from the east. These clans co-operated with the government and they were rewarded with the Campbells emerging as the main beneficiaries. Clan Donald land on what is now known as Skye, along with lands on the Isles of Kintyre and Islay were lost to the Campbells, and along with it went the heart of the Lordship.
As has been the case with virtually every museum and castle we have visited, there was considerable time and space devoted to the Jacobite Rebellion. The war between the Highlanders and the English King James VII and II reached its peak around 1689-90, ending in a nasty defeat for the Highland Chiefs and their clans. The government went on the offensive against those who had opposed them, and in 1690, the English navy bombed Armadale. Coming ashore, the navy soldiers burned Sir Donald MacDonald’s house to the ground, and hung all those who surrendered.
When visiting museums in Scotland, one hears a lot about the “Massacre of Glencoe”, in which the Campbells were ordered by the government to kill every male MacDonald under the age of 70. Maclain, the aged chief of the Glencoe MacDonald clan and more than thirty others were taken from their beds and butchered. This museum was no exception in talking about the massacre, given its attachment and association with Clan Donald (MacDonald),
The swords in the showcase (below) are from various Jacobean battles that involved Clan Donald and its affiliates.
Moving on from the Jacobite period, there is a room in the museum devoted to Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell, the 15th Chief of Glengarry. To put it mildly this guy was a loose cannon as evidenced by his nickname – “The Untamed One”. He traveled with a “tail of clansmen”, much like a modern-day entourage, partying and feuding his way across the Highlands. Sir Walter Scott modeled the hero of his first novel Waverley on Glengarry, but ultimately MacDonnell’s exuberant lifestyle caught up with him, and most of the family estates were sold on his death to pay off his massive debts. The meagre amount of remaining family treasures are on display in the case at the base of his portrait (below).
Not everything in the museum was related to Clan Donald. We were pleasantly surprised to come upon the original plaster-cast model of “Greyfriars Bobby”, a 19th century Skye Terrier who became known for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he died himself in 1872. The statue made from the plaster-cast sits atop a drinking fountain at the corner of Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh, not far from the cafe where J.K. Rowling sat and developed some of her earliest ideas for Harry Potter.
The picture on the left is of the statue in Edinburgh, taken when Mary and I visited Edinburgh on our 30th anniversary to trip to the U.K. in 2008. The picture on the right is the one I took today at the Museum of The Isles on Skye.
In 1800. the 2nd Lord MacDonald embarked on an ambitious building programme on his estates, including the one on Skye. During the next 25 years, every type of building was erected – churches and manses, mills and farmhouses, schools, smithies, inns and the jail at Portree (the capital of Skye). The culmination of all this work was the addition of a Gothic Castle on the grounds at Armadale. The sculptured ruins that we visited today are all that remain of the castle.
Before walking you over to the castle ruins with us, I’ll share a “Canadian” moment that happened as we were finishing our walk-through of the museum. We entered a brightly lit room identified as “Clan Donald around the World”. In it, one entire wall is dedicated to the MacDonalds who began emigrating to Canada around 1770.
Two counties in Nova Scotia, Pictou and Antigonish have particularly strong Highland roots, while the Glengarry settlement in Ontario (just west of modern-day Ottawa) was founded by loyalist soldiers. By 1815, over 2500 people had emigrated to that area of Ontario from the western Highlands of Scotland. The first priest in the Catholic church built in Antigonish was Father James MacDonald of Skye.
Now, if you’ll join me on a walk from the museum over to the castle ruins, I will tell you a rather sad story about a castle-home that was built for show rather than defense.
Here we are, and we’re looking at the back of what remains of Armadale Castle (below). As I had noted earlier, in 1800, the 2nd Lord MacDonald had embarked on a building spree with the culmination of his work, a castle attached to a mansion house that was built in 1790. Castle construction was completed in 1815, but in 1855, part of it was destroyed by a fire.
After 1855 the part of the house destroyed by fire was replaced by a central wing, and the area in front of the new building was leveled to enhance the fine views across to the mainland.
Unfortunately, the rebuild was seriously flawed and by 1925, the castle had been abandoned by the MacDonald family. It fell into a state of ruin and by 1981, the western part of the castle was demolished. Other parts have since been removed to preserve the core of the castle with an eye to future restoration.
The picture below is of the original main entrance to the Gothic Wing that was built back in 1815. It looks more like the ruins of an abbey than a castle, and according to an on-site sign, there was once a massive window in the stonework above the doorway. You can still see the remains of part of the staircase that led upstairs to the first floor.
I bought the postcard below to show what the castle looked like back in 1908, just a few years before being abandoned by the MacDonald family.
In a rare moment of planning ahead, I decided it might be a good idea to book our hotel room for next Tuesday night – something near Glasgow Airport given that we’d have to be out the door before 7 AM. At first I thought about re-booking the Glasgow Marriott where we had spent our first night upon arrival, but then I thought about morning rush hour. I then remembered our visit to Paisley and recalling how close it was to the airport, looked into accommodations there. I ended up booking a room at the Courtyard Marriott and I’m not exaggerating (much) when I say it was no further than a well-hit 3-wood from the car rental return and the airport itself. Not bad, I’d say!
The next stop for us was Dunvegan Castle and you can see from the map below it was a “fair” distance away – 60 miles and a 90-minute drive to be more precise.
We encountered some of the intermittent rain that had been in the forecast this morning but were once again amazed how quickly the weather would change. We could see a “curtain” of rain cross in front of us while we were driving with vertical strips of blue sky on either side of it. Fascinating!
Our drive took us along the shoreline of Loch Na Cairidh and Loch Ainort, and once again we were treated to some stunning scenery.
About two-thirds of the way to Dunvegan Castle, I saw a sign pointing to the Talisker Distillery. We wouldn’t have driven way out of our way to see it, but since it was just a few miles off the main highway, we decided to check it out.
One of my favorite images of this little side-trip to Talisker is the one below which really shows how unique driving in Scotland can be. The road has been built around the back of a church and the rear wall butts right up against the road. There is no shoulder whatsoever. We saw scenes like this everywhere we went.
The Talisker Distillery is located in the town of Carbost, and despite it’s relatively small size, the distillery is owned and operated by the second largest distiller in the world, Diageo (their line-up includes such heavy-hitters as Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Baileys, and Guinness).
Talisker is the oldest Single Malt Whisky produced in Scotland, and I just love their description of what makes their product so unique.
Intense and powerful, the Talisker family all have a peated, smoky flavour. This flavour comes from the peat burned during the malting process, and carries on it the salted smoke of an island battered by wind and waves. Beneath the smoke you’ll find soft fruits and cereal notes, and in the older expressions a rich vanilla imbued by the aging process”.
Mary added one more dram glass to her collection, while I purchased a “golf shirt” which I look forward to wearing next spring when I’m cleared to “start swinging the sticks” again.
The other neat thing about the Talisker Distillery is its picture-postcard setting. Check out these images below.
As we drove back to the main highway to resume our journey to Dunvegan, I asked Mary to pull over to the side of the road so I could capture some of the beauty on this part of Skye. In the first of the two pictures below, you can see the shadowy effects of the clouds as they were moving across the landscape around us.
We also encountered a lot of “wooly spectators” on this part of the journey and often had to slow down as one or two sauntered across the narrow road in front of us. They were completely unaffected by the presence of cars (moving or otherwise), and just went about their business as people (like us) stopped to take their pictures.
We finally completed the drive to Dunvegan, and were greeted with some clear skies and gentle breezes as we covered the short distance to the entrance to Dunvegan Castle.
Dunvegan Castle is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in all of Scotland and has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan Macleod for over 800 years.
As you can imagine, with an ancestry dating back to the 13th century, Dunvegan Castle is steeped with history, and there were some fascinating relics and clan treasures on display. For example, the letter below is from March 3rd, 1815, and it is from Sir Walter Scott. It is a thank you note to Lady MacLeod, accompanied by a signed first edition of his novel “The Lord of the Isles”, which had been inspired by his visit to Skye and Dunvegan Castle.
The castle itself covers ten different building periods starting in the 1200’s through 1850, and while the outside gives the appearance of a unified design, there are actually five different buildings incorporated into its totality.
The first structure on the site was a fort and on our tour, we saw sections of rough stonework that revealed what remains of the original 13th-century foundations. Next to be added (circa 1340) was the Keep, a large tower that was a fortified residence built within the walls of the fort itself.
The next section added in 1500 was called the Fairy Tower, and its four floors are connected by the medieval staircase seen in the picture below. The staircase is still in use, and it is how we moved from one floor to another on parts of our tour.
Later additions included a central block which now houses the main dining room (seen below), the library, a Piper’s Gallery, and a Billiard Room.
I’ve mentioned before how much I’ve enjoyed the music rooms and libraries of the various castle homes we’ve visited, and the library at Dunvegan was no exception. There were complete collections of early editions of Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens and others. I’ve also been intrigued by the level of interest in Napoleon throughout our travels, and to the left you can see that the MacLeod library had several volumes pertaining to his life. There was an historic agreement between the French and Scottish monarchs called the “Auld Alliance”, dating back to 1295. It was formed for the purpose of controlling and defending against England’s numerous invasions. It was in place until 1560 when it was replaced by the Treaty of Edinburgh – a new Anglo-Scottish accord. This does not however explain the fascination with Napoleon whose reign as Emperor of France did not occur for almost 250 years after this. I asked guides at various different castles, and the consensus seems to be that these people liked to accumulate the trappings of wealth, and the bigger the library, the more impressive you were seen to be.
Earlier, I noted that there were a number of fascinating relics and clan treasures on display, and among them was the “Fairy Flag of Dunvegan” – the most treasured possession of clan MacLeod. It is woven in silk that dates back to the 4th century AD, and legend has it that it has miraculous powers – when unfurled in battle, the clan MacLeod will defeat their enemies.
Another of the castle’s great treasures is the Dunvegan Cup. a unique “mazer” (a wooden drinking bowl), dating back to the middle ages. It was gifted to the MacLeods as a token of thanks for their support of the Ulster uprising against the marauding forces of Queen Elizabeth I in 1596.
On our way to the gift shop near the end of our tour, we were directed down a flight of stairs that led to the servant’s quarters, the butler’s pantry, the wine cellar and the larder. In the third picture from the left (below), you can see the “bells”. As a call button was pressed in one of the rooms upstairs, a striped flag would flutter and the bell would ring alerting the staff downstairs to attend. Each room is named after a place on Skye that used to form part of the vast MacLeod holdings.
Entering the tiny (compared to most others) gift shop, Mary’s eye was immediately drawn to a single ladies Harris Tweed blazer hanging in a window that overlooked the grounds. A smile emerged on her face as she checked the label to find that it was the perfect size for her. I encouraged her to try it on, and she looked fabulous in it. I can’t believe that I failed to take a picture of her trying it on (and it is now nicely wrapped up for the trip home), but at the very least I was able to fulfill my promise of buying her a Harris Tweed blazer in a special place.
The picture below is taken from the gun court that is located at the back of the castle. Pretty imposing and quite visually stunning against the backdrop of blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Parts of the original fort walls and the Keep (the residence tower) are to the left of the picture.
Very nice, however, it is the view looking out from this vantage point that took my breath away.
Rising sheer from its perpendicular edges of rock, the location of the castle affords visitors an unrivaled backdrop of sky, mountain, and seas.
As I stood on the stone balcony (the gun court) that overlooked the water below, I couldn’t help being envious of the MacLeods who live here and have the opportunity to inhale this view whenever they want.
In the ten minutes it took us to re-enter the castle at the back, and emerge from the main entrance at the front, the skies had clouded over. As we walked back to the car, there was a furious burst of rain that lasted no more than six or seven minutes, but once again we were stunned by the suddenness in which the weather would change, not once but twice in such a short period of time.
Sitting in the car we discussed our options for the rest of the day. We had the option to drive around the top half of the island, but our sense was that we would be seeing scenery similar to what we’ve already seen. We mutually agreed to “pass” on doing the drive. At that moment, I think we were also dealing with leftover fatigue from yesterday’s adventure, and the notion of “driving for the sake of driving” would have scored low on any questionnaire we were asked to complete today.
We did note that we were only half an hour from Portree, the capital of Skye, and since it would take is in the direction we ultimately wanted to go (toward Kyle of Lochalsh), we asked Sid (our GPS) to take us there.
The drive along the A87 offered up more beautiful island scenery so we certainly didn’t feel like we were losing out by skipping out on the northern part of Skye.
You can see from the picture above that we were in and out of rain squalls again, but the great thing about this kind of weather is that once these bursts of rain pass by, they often leave gifts behind like the rainbow below.
Do you remember when you were a kid, and you got taken somewhere that you really wanted to go, but you were tired (and didn’t want to admit it), so nothing anyone did or said could make you happy? That’s pretty much what it felt like today when we got to Portree.
It is a pretty place (see below), and we had no problem finding a parking spot despite the fact that the streets were packed with people wandering around – and maybe that was the problem. We just didn’t want to deal with people. We were tired and in no mood to be shoulder-checked by a back-pack, hit with a swinging camera or purse, or walked into by someone on their phone. Ya, I sound like a grumpy old man. Next thing you know I’ll be hauling my pants up under my armpits and yelling at the schoolkids bouncing a basketball in front of our house.
In any event, we sat in the car for a few minutes before we both sighed and said “you want to move on, I’m kinda tired”. So we did.
The 50-minute drive back to the Skye bridge was uneventful though very scenic and beautiful. We were graced with a delightful burst of colour, as yet another rainbow appeared.
The picture below is taken from the Skye Bridge as we were leaving the Isle to cross over to Kyle of Lochalsh where I’d booked our hotel room room for the night. The tones and textures in the sky are really dramatic and I’m particularly grateful to Mary for doing all the driving so I could capture scenes like this one. You can see the rain showers sliding across the water as they move from west to east (left to right).
Our room for the night was in an older hotel, the Lochalsh Hotel, which was showing it’s age (that’s not a criticism as I’m certainly showing mine). There were aspects of the hotel that were pretty neat, and with a bit of TLC this could be a really great property again. The staff were wonderful and the food was really good. The rooms needed a makeover though.
One thing I really liked about our experience here was the presence of a mid-1960’s Citroen DS in the parking lot. When I was kid I thought it looked like an armadillo with wheels, but what I remember most is that I was given a Corgi toy model of it when I was 8 or 9. It was really cool because if you pressed down on the roof (with pressure on one side or another), the front wheels turned to the left or to the right. It was one of the very first model cars to offer anything other than straight line driving. It also had a trunk that opened (another first) with a spare tire.
I sat in the restaurant looking at it, and it brought back warm memories of laying all of my cars out on the living room carpet and building a Lego city around them ( I had one of the very first “major” sets of Lego, a wonderful hand-me-down present from a Dutch woman my mom worked with at the old Simpsons store at Queen and Yonge).
Another enjoyable moment came when a German couple arrived in the restaurant with two English Sheepdogs.
They (the couple not the dogs) were wearing motorcycle wet-weather gear, and when I asked them if they travel with their dogs, they pointed out the window to the bright yellow motorcycle with the side-car attached. The dogs ride in the side-car!
After dinner, we retired to our room and relaxed. We are tired. Happy-tired, but none-the-less tired. The last couple of days have taken a lot out of us, and our pace today and a mid-afternoon spate of grumpiness reflected it. Somewhat thankfully, we are now only 200 miles from Glasgow, and with four days remaining, we can and will dial it back.
I will leave you with one final image from today – a slightly watery moon reflecting on the water outside our hotel. A lovely shimmery end-of-day view that gave us yet another “awe” moment.
The adventure just keeps on giving.