If you’ve been following my daily entries, it was apparent that we had pushed the pace a bit hard in the last week, so starting yesterday, we’d begun to dial things back a bit. Our plan was to continue that reduced pace today, and it was nice to awaken to a beautiful sunny morning.
I have to start today’s post (Saturday September 22nd) with a picture of the room we slept in last night. It was taken yesterday afternoon just after we checked in and of all the accommodations we’ve had over the last 3+ weeks this one caused us the most laughs. First of all check out the sunken mattress on the bed. It had “furrows” in it on either side, but remarkably we had a great night’s sleep. On either side of the windows, you can see portable space heaters that had been brought into the room because the radiator no longer worked. Only problem? Just one of the space heaters worked. Fortunately it wasn’t too cold overnight.
Then there was the shower, and Mary is the one who usually gets in first. Today for some reason, I took the opening “face-off”, and when I say “face-off”, I’m making reference to the water temperature coming from the shower. We’ve encountered some “different” showers during our trip, and we’ve always been able to figure them out without too much trouble. This one however had me snookered. I was standing in the bathtub, one leg in and one leg out, shielding myself with the shower curtain while trying to adjust the water temperature. When Mary asked me if I needed any help, I told her it seemed to have only two settings ranging from “Steam to Scream”. That of course reduced her into hysterics and meant that any help coming my way had been temporarily sidelined. I finally conceded defeat and and settled for a sitting bath since the lower tap set seemed to be somewhat more normal.
And that is how our day began.
Our first stop today, a scant 35-minutes from Kyle of Lochalsh was Eilean Donan Castle. Viewers of Made Of Honour (starring Patrick Dempsey), The World is Not Enough (James Bond movie starring Pierce Brosnan) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, will instantly recognize this structure, as it is frequently used for movies, TV programs, and commercial shoots.
Eilean Donan Castle is described by its owners as “Scotland’s most romantic castle”. That is an interesting moniker for a building and frankly what makes it romantic is creative writing and marketing by the MacRae family who operate it, while still occasionally living there. There can be no denying that it is located in a magnificent setting and that has served it well while being presented as a “place to hold the most important event in your life – a wedding”.
Eilean Donan is both a very old castle and a very young one. It was first built in the 1200’s, but was almost completely destroyed by cannon fire in 1719. Between 1912 and 1932 it was repaired and rebuilt by Lt. Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap and his wife Ella. It is strategically located on its own little island overlooking the isle of Skye, at a point where three lochs meet – Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Alsh, and the castle is linked to the shore by its unique bridge (seen in the picture above).
The earliest years of Eilean Donan are hard to trace because few records survived, and it is believed that archaeological evidence may be hidden under the present castle. It is thought that the original castle was endorsed by King Alexander ll as a defense against Norwegian incursions, some time in the 13th century.
The castle appears to have been given to the Mackenzie clan in 1362, and in turn was awarded to the MacRae’s who are described as the “Mackenzies’ coat of mail” – loyal defenders of of the Mackenzie clan chiefs.
In 1715, during the Jacobite uprising, Eilean Donan Castle garnered great interest from military authorities. As such, it was garrisoned by the government as soon as the uprising began. In 1719, while occupied by 46 Spanish Jacobites, the castle was destroyed by cannon fire from two Government frigates, and the castle laid in ruin until 1912. In 1894, a set of drawings and written descriptions of the original castle were uncovered by local researchers, and they formed the basis for the re-build.
At first, the MacRae-Gilstraps had intended to simply maintain the castle as a picturesque ruin, and they employed local workmen to clear rubble from the site. Constructed from rubble left when the castle was destroyed in 1719, the rebuild took shape over a 20-year period from 1912 to 1932. There is a nice bit of Canadian content here as the great beams supporting the Banqueting Hall were donated by the Canadian branch of Clan MacRae.
Due to the strict desire to make money from all aspects of the rebuilt castle, no pictures are allowed inside the building. While this is often the case, during our visit to Eilean Donan, we saw guides (more like secret service) posted in every room watching people like hawks to ensure that the strict no-photo ban was enforced. This sparked the rebel in us, so at one point Mary darted up a staircase to a little alcove about the Banqueting Hall, and I discreetly took the picture to the right on my cell-phone. Na Na Na Boo Boo to the photo police. As Graham Chapman might have said in character as “the Colonel” – “that was silly, enough of that, lets get on with something more serious…”
Below are a couple of pictures taken before we entered the castle. Above the main entrance, there are a number of carved stone panels. The lowest ones show the initials of John MacRae-Gilstrap and his wife Ella and the year 1928, when this part of the re-build was completed. There is also a motto in Gaelic above those initials. The English translation is “As long as there is a MacRae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside”, which refers to the long-standing alliance between the two clans. The McRae-Gilstrap coat of arms is at the top accompanied by some family mottos and the year 1912, when the building project began.
Once through the main entrance, we found ourselves in a courtyard that was at the centre of the castle. It gives access to the main Keep, and the other buildings. Around the base of the staircase that Mary is climbing, you cans see bare bedrock, a reminder of the rugged ground on which the castle was built.
The lower door leads to what they called the Billeting Room that in medieval times was divided into a storage cellar and a kitchen. This is the only spot inside the castle where pictures were allowed. The walls on this room were as much as 14-feet thick in places. The plans for the re-build and tributes to the MacRae-Gilstraps adorn the walls of this room.
The “in-castle” pictures that follow are taken from a packet of post-cards I purchased at the gift shop at the conclusion of our tour (disclaimer in case the photo-police are reading this).
Without a doubt, the star of the show is the afore-mentioned Banqueting Hall. The paintings around the room celebrate the history of Clan MacRae as well as depicting hunting scenes reflecting events that would have taken place in the surrounding lands. This is the room where wedding ceremonies are held (after 6:30 once the grounds are closed to the public), and it has been designed to accommodate up to 75 people.
Much of the furniture in the room is by Chippendale or one his contemporaries, and the carpet was specially woven in the MacRae tartan. In addition to the setting that has been re-created, there are a number of antiques and curios belonging to the MacRae family located in this room. These include coins dating from the 1640’s, and a number of Jacobite items all displayed in glass-topped cabinets around the edges of the room.
The upper floors of the Keep were occupied by bedchambers in medieval times, and so it is in the re-built castle. I lost track of how many bedrooms and sitting rooms there were, but the picture below is of one of several of them. These rooms were in use by the MacRae family until recently, and are displayed as family bedrooms, complete with family snapshots.
There are two top floors not open to the public and they apparently contain additional bedrooms once used by family members, guests and staff.
The Kitchen of a medieval castle was often separate from the main accommodation, mainly because of the risk of fire. This is also the case at Eilean Donan where the kitchen is located across the courtyard, above the main entrance. The Kitchen and its companion room, The Scullery, have been reconstructed in great detail to represent how they may have looked in the 1930’s. The white-haired woman in the first picture below is Mrs. MacRae-Gilstrap seen offering instructions to the staff, while the butler inspects the dishes before having them delivered to the Banqueting Hall for dinner.
As Mary and I exited the castle and walked back to our car, we paused to look out toward the castle one more time. We discussed how we could understand the “romance” of getting married in this castle-setting, one made even more spectacular by it’s idyllic lakeside views – perfect for wedding photographs. It was no great stretch to imagine the lonely piper, piping guests into the castle before moving in to play an integral part in the ceremony itself. The romance was there, but it felt manufactured to us. I’m afraid we prefer our castle ruins to be authentic, and that restoration efforts be more historical than commercial in nature. That said, Eilean Castle is very well done, and a major draw as evidenced by the number of tour buses that were making their way into the parking lot as we were finishing our visit.
From Eilean Donan, we asked Sid (our GPS) to set a course for the town of Fort William about 90 minutes SE from where we were. At this point I jokingly mentioned to Mary that Sid has had quite a few name mentions during our adventure but no “screen time”, so in an effort to eliminate any hard feelings our technology may be harbouring, I present you with Sid.
The drive from Eilean Donan Castle to Fort William presented us with more scenic memories, but it was very clear that despite being surrounded by mountains on either side of the road, we were beginning to leave the rugged beauty of the Highlands behind us.
Another indicator for us that we heading back toward central Scotland was an increase in traffic in both directions.
As we got closer to Fort William, we encountered some different-looking mountains compared to that which we had seen in the northern part of the Highlands. These were the Grampians.
The star of the show as far as the Grampians are concerned is Ben Nevis which is the highest mountain in the British Isles, standing at 4,411 feet high (slightly higher than Grouse Mountain which is just over 4,000 feet high).
It absolutely dominates the landscape (see below), yet the top of it is rarely seen, as it is in the clouds for nine days out of ten on average, and today was no exception.
Ben Nevis is a major tourist attraction for the region and it is marketed for winter sports (back country skiing), mountain biking, mountain climbing and hiking. The summit is a collapsed dome of an ancient volcano and there are ruins up there of an observatory that was staffed between 1883 and 1904. The meteorological information gathered over that 20-year period is still used today to project and predict Scottish mountain weather.
We stopped for tea and a sandwich at a major coach-stop/tourist centre in Fort William and over lunch we plotted out our afternoon. It is worth noting that in addition to serving as the base for Ben Nevis-related tourism, Fort William lies at one end of a railway journey that has taken on epic proportions over the past 15-20 years. The name of it is the Jacobite Steam Train, and if that name doesn’t mean anything to you, perhaps the picture below will shed some light on why this railway journey is so significant.
It is of course the Hogwarts Express and the picture above is a stock photo from the steam train’s website.
The train goes back and forth between Fort William and the coastal town of Mallaig twice a day – a distance of 42 miles each way. (Mallaig is also the main southerly ferry terminal for crossings back and forth to the Isle of Skye). I had originally looked into booking a ride on the train and as of August 1st, the entire month of September was sold out, regardless of which end we might have embarked from!
We knew a ride on the Hogwarts Express was out of the question but that didn’t mean we couldn’t drive out to the coast and at least see the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the iconic bridge seen in the Harry Potter movies.
Our research indicated that if we drove out to the Glenfinnan Monument, 17 miles west of Fort William, we could take a 20 minute trail-walk out to a spot where we could see the viaduct, so off we went.
The Glenfinnan Monument (above) was erected in 1815, in tribute to the Jacobite clansmen who fought and died in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to claim the Scottish and English thrones in the name of his father, James Stuart.. There is a lone kilted highlander atop the monument, and this spot is considered sacred as it was here on August 19, 1745 that Prince Charles Edward Stuart first raised his standard on the shores of Loch Shiel. Of course, you’ll know from my previous blog entries, and in particular the one detailing our visit to Culloden, Charles Stuart’s claim to the thrones ended in bitter defeat just 8 months later, and he was forced to flee the country.
This site is reachable from a visitor’s centre that was absolutely packed, and it is the monument that is the main attraction. However, it is also the point in which one starts their walk if they want to see the famous viaduct. It is amazing how few people actually make the trek out once they find out how long the walk is. Really people? Twenty minutes? We did not encounter many people on our walk in either direction, and our reward was the picture below.
We could have got even closer by walking another 15-20 minutes up into the hills, but a cold wind was blowing in big drops of rain as we stood taking in this view. Already faced with a 20-minute walk back to our car, we opted to turn back in the hopes of not getting too wet.
Back in the car, we decided to drive out to the coast to Mallaig, (roughly 35 minutes), and we had the road pretty much to ourselves. We continue to marvel at a landscape that is blessed with such a great variety of shades and textures.
Arriving in Mallaig, we found it to be pretty much as advertised – an active fishing port with a good harbour and a main ferry link to Skye. It has a local population of only 800, and the atmosphere is far more commercial than leisurely, even though it is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
It is at this point, that I took the keys from Mary, and said, “I have to get behind the wheel, even if it is just for a short drive, so I can say I drove in Scotland”. That adventure lasted all of nine minutes as I’m not sure who was more anxious; me at the unfamiliarity with car and road, or Mary who had grown so comfortable with driving, and could sense my unease.
I did choose an interesting spot to pull over so we could switch back – a pull-off that had a tiny stone with a marker on it identifying it as the “Prince’s Cairn. It is said to mark the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie left for France following the failure of the Jacobite uprising in 1746. It is located on the shores of Loch nan Uamh and was erected by a historical society dedicated to the study, recording and preservation of the Jacobite period.
It also seems that I couldn’t have timed the pull-off any better, as while we were standing there, a train that shares the same route as the Jacobite Steam train, crossed the viaduct spanning the loch.
With Mary safely ensconced behind the wheel, the fifty-minute drive back to Fort William was peaceful, stress-free (for both of us), and uneventful.
Earlier in the afternoon, I had booked us into the Clan McDuff Hotel, located about 5 minutes outside of Fort William, and situated right on the shores of Loch Linnhe.
What a lovely stay this turned out to be. Our room was great, the food and service was excellent, and as Mary walked through the lobby we came upon a set of five clocks showing the time in various cities around the world. In a touch of kismet, one of the clocks showed the time in Vancouver, eight hours behind.
At dinner, Mary got a great chuckle when she opened the menu. Instead of a wine list, it contained three pages of whisky choices.
It was also over dinner that Mary was introduced to her new favorite “sipping” liqueur. Glayva” is made from a blend of Scotch whiskies, a selected range of spices, Mediterranean tangerines, cinnamon, almonds, and honey. It is a deep gold in colour. She liked it so much, by the time we finished dinner, she had already gone on-line to check if it is available for purchase in B.C. liquor stores. It is, so I think we might be paying one a visit, not long after our return home.
We enjoyed taking today at a somewhat reduced pace, and as we settled into our room for the evening, we happily reminisced about the events of 40 years ago on this day and the next – the night before we got married, and of course, the day of our wedding.