Saturday, 13 September
We got to London around 12:30pm after an overnight flight from DFW. Getting through British customs was fairly straightforward, and since our bags were checked all the way to Aberdeen, all we had to do was get from Terminal 3 over to Terminal 5 by 2:30 to catch our BA flight to Scotland. That's when the fun with British security started. Like here in the States, over in the UK, you have to take your laptops out of your carry-on, and put them in their own little bin to go through the x-ray. What they don't tell you is that this also applies to tablets. Well, my wife has a Samsung Galaxy tablet, so her bags got pushed off to a special area with a whole bunch of other bags were in. Apparently our security line was the contraband line! About 30 minutes later, they finally got to her bag, searched it thoroughly, and we were on our way. An oddity of Heathrow is that they don't actually post which gate a flight is at until about 30 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave. Unfortunately, the posted estimated time to where our gate ended up being located was 20 minutes. Oh well, we made it and were on our way to Scotland!
We got to Aberdeen, collected our bags, and then our rental car. We ended up with a little 4-door Vauxhall Astra. Not a bad little car. I managed to get out of the parking lot without hitting anything (barely missed the parking barrier on the left side of the car, though...it's different when you're driving from the right side of the car!) and then we were off on the 2.5 hour drive to Aviemore. The drive was pretty uneventful. I was able to get the hang of driving on the left without ever trying to drive on the right. I did nick a few curbs on my first few roundabouts, and got a little close to the edge of the road (and once a stone wall) on some of the narrower roads. No harm done, though.
Once in Aviemore, we made our way to the Scandinavian Village condos. We booked it thour RCI using our Wyndham timeshare points. Nice place, far enough off the main road through the village that there's not alot of traffic, but close enough to walk to everything in town. We got checked in and to our room. Unfortunately, we got an apartment that had two twin beds and a pair of bunkbeds in the bedroom. As a couple traveling, that was a little strange for us, sleeping in seperate twin beds, when we're used to a very big king bed at home. I asked about possibly changing to a unit with at least a double, but they didn't have anything available. So, we made do.
We headed on down into town, and on the advice of the girl at reception, had dinner at a little pub/diner called Ben McDui's. We didn't have a reservation (they call them bookings in Scotland), so we waited for about 15 minutes at the bar and had a pint while we waited. The food turned out being excellent, and so were the beers. We hopped around to a few more pubs around town before calling it a night.
Sunday, 14 September
We didn't want to have to do too much driving on our first day 6 times zones removed from home, so we drove up to the Inverness area (less than an hour) and toured the Culloden Battlefield. The Battle of Culloden was fought in 1746 as part of the Jacobite Uprising under Prince Charles Edward Stuart (later known as Bonnie Prince Charlie). The Jacobite forces under his command were opposed by the British Government soldiers led by Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. The Jacobites were annihilated, and Charles Stuart's attempts to regain his father's throne were ended. As it turned out, this is also the last major battle fought on British soil.
The visitors center at the battlefield is very new, opened in 2007, and is exceptional. We started the day with a demonstration by a gentleman named John of Highland dress, weapons, and tactics. John was dressed as a typical Highlander would have been dressed, and selected two people from the audience to also be demonstrators. I was picked as the lowly clansman farmer, who would do most of the fighting. The other gentleman who was picked was my clan chief. He got a flintlock musket. I got a small wooden shield (targe), a dagger, and a sword. Yay me! We demonstrated a highland charge, which normally would have been very intimidating to an opposing army. In this case, though, the British were too well-disciplined, and didn't run in the face of the charge, so many of the Highlanders ran, which I apparently demonstrated very well!
|Here is John|
|And here we are, ready to make our Highland charge toward the enemy|
After the demonstration, we were free to look over the exhibits that told the story of the history of the Jacobite Uprising, and then told the story of the battle and it's aftermath. The presentations were all very well done, with the British side told on one side of the hallway, and the Jacobite on the other. At the end of this, we were back in the room where the demonstration was, where they had a large collection of weapons from the time, including a couple of cannons, which I enjoyed, of course! There was also a large table where a projection of how the battle unfolding looked from above. It was a good way to get a sense of things before going out onto the battlefield.
At this point, we had a choice of going and exploring the battlefield, or being led on a tour with a guide, which would take about an hour. We chose to do the tour, since it was included in the admission price, and joined the group. Our guide was none other than John, now dressed more appropriately for modern times, though. He led us out onto the battlefield, and showed us where varying parts of the battle took place, and where the graves of the Highlanders are thought to be. There is also a stone marking the grave of the few Government troops who were killed, but it's thought that they were actually buried elsewhere on the field. All in all, it was a very cool experience, and somewhere I'd recommend any history buff go!
|The battlefield. The red flag in the foreground marks the approximate position of the Government lines, while the blue flag in the background marks the Jacobite lines.|
|Another shot of the battlefield and positions of the lines.|
|The burial mound and marker of one of the clans supporting the Jacobites. The cairn in the background was built in the 1800s.|
|The Flower Garden at Cawdor Castle|
Construction on Fort George was started not very long after the Battle of Culloden as a way to prevent the Jacobites from rising up against the throne again. It is currently also an active army barracks, and home to the "Black Watch," the 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland. The fort was originally built as a massive artillery fortification, and was later adapted to guard the narrow part of the Moray Firth where the fort lies. The admission fee included an audiotour, so we took advantage of that. We walked all around the fort, with the help of a map, finding different point where the audio described what we were looking at, and what life was like for 18th Century soldiers of the British Army. The fort was never attacked, and is in very good condition, and you could easily spend several hours just looking around. Another place highly recommended for any history buffs. By the time we finished touring the fort, it was about time for dinner, so we headed back to Aviemore for dinner. We had an early start the next morning, so we tried not to stay up too late!
|The principal bridge and entrance to Fort George|
|This is what Fort George looks like from above|
|The interior of Fort George from the principal entrance|
|King of Battle!|
|Looking across the Moray Firth to Chanonry Point on the Black Isle|
Monday, 15 September
This was our big driving day. We headed out around 8:00am for the 2+ hour drive to St. Andrews. This is a trip I had made sure to include, as a golfer. I'm really not any good at golf, but I enjoy playing and watching, so I decided against trying to play the Old Course, but I would have been remiss if I had gone all the way to Scotland, and not at least paid a visit to the Home of Golf. It was a cold, wet, and dreary day, but I didn't care much, and Erin gladly came along with me. Got to walk down the side of The Road Hole (#17) and look up #18 and it's iconic view. Of course, I had Erin take a picture of me on the famous Swilcan Bridge. We stopped in the Aggie-owned Dunvegan hotel for lunch and a pint, then explored the town for a couple of hours. There's an old, ruined castle in the town that was the site of the first Protestant congregation in Scotland, and there is also a ruined cathedral and cemetery. Very cool stuff.
|The view from #17 tee at The Old Course at St. Andrews|
|Me on the famous bridge at The Old Course|
|A plaque telling the story of the St. Andrews Castle|
|The ruins of St. Andrews Castle|
|The ruins and cemetery of St. Andrews Cathedral. The oldest grave marker we found was from 1661!|
After leaving St. Andrews, it was on towards Glen Coe. Glen Coe is a glen (valley) in the southern part of the Highlands which I have seen written about as one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. There's a road off the main road through the glen that was part of a scene in the most recent Bond film, Skyfall, that I also wanted to see. So, we were off. Following the A85 out of Perth, we headed west toward the A82, which is the road that runs through Glen Coe. We stopped a few times on the way at laybys to take pictures, including a stop along the side of Loch Earn, where we were accosted by ducks looking for food! The couple that were there when we got there started feeding them soon, so they left us alone. We got up to the village of Tyndrum, where the A82 splits off to the north, but unfortunately it was closed. We asked the construction worker how to get to Glen Coe, since the way we were going to take was blocked. I guess he had just given directions to the car in front of us, so he simply said, "follow that car!" and that was it. Luckily, I was using my phone as a GPS (thanks T-Mobile, for having free unlimited international data roaming!). We didn't have to try to keep up with the car in front, and were able to take our time and stop off along the way. Google Maps navigation took us a few miles further west on the A85 before directing us to turn onto the B8074, which turned out to be a 17-mile long single-track road. A single-track road is a two-way road that's only wide enough for one car to fit at a time. Every 100-200 yards or so, the road widens at a "passing place" which allows for cars to pass one another. While I had been expecting to drive on one eventually, it was unexpected here. We only came across a few other cars on the road, though, and made it through fine. It ended up being a pretty good detour, as the glen it ran through, Glen Orchy, was very pretty, and it only cost us about 30 minutes.
|The ducks that nearly attacked us|
|Loch Earn from the south|
|Glen Orchy and the single track B8074|
|Erin at a layby right before we started across the Rannoch Moor|
|The Rannoch Moor|
|The Rannoch Moor|
|Part of the view after climbing the small mound|
|Me with the Rannoch Moor in the background|
|Erin in front of the Rannoch Moor|
|A still from Skyfall with Bond and M looking down Glen Etive|
|Same spot where Bond and M stopped|
Glen Coe was another great sight. Again, words fail me here, and I am unable to describe how it looked with any degree of accuracy. Between the Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe, I'm not sure I've ever seen two more beautiful places back to back that are that different. I'll try to let the pictures do my talking for me, but again, I'm they don't come close, either. Eventually, we came on the turn off for the Claichaig Inn, which comes very highly recommended by TripAdvisor, and I've also seen it called the best pub in the Highlands. It did not disappoint. I can see it being a great base for climbing and hiking in Glen Coe!
|The Eastern edge of Glen Coe|
|Erin and I at Glen Coe|
|A waterfall in Glen Coe|
|More Glen Coe|
By the time we were done with dinner and a pint (only one, sadly, since we still had a nearly 2 hour drive back to Aviemore in the dark), it was pretty dark, so we headed back toward Aviemore. The A82 goes north from the village of Glencoe to Fort William, then on to Spean Bridge, where it connected with the A86. From Spean Bridge to just outside of Aviemore, the A86 is not a single-track road, but is about as close as you can get without becoming one. It was very narrow and windy for that just under 30 mile stretch. Driving that at night, on the wrong side of the road, from the wrong side of the car, shifting with the wrong hand, was a bit nerve-wracking! The next morning, Erin asked why her legs were so sore, since we didn't do much walking. I told her it was probably from sitting in the passenger seat tensed up for 45 minutes as we went down that road! In the end, we made it back to Aviemore without any problems, though.
Tuesday, 16 September
This was whisky day. I'm not a huge scotch drinker, but I do like an occasional wee dram! Plus, like St. Andrews, you can't go to Scotland and not sample the scotch whisky! We had booked tours at a couple of distilleries in advance, The Macallan and Aberlour, with lunch at the Mash Tun in the village of Aberlour in between. The tour at Macallan was great, really learned alot about the shisky making process, and what goes into making scotch different from other types of whisk(e)y, like bourbon. The tour at Aberlour was similar, but they do their aging in casks at a bonded warehouse, so we didn't actually get to see that part. The tastings at both were great. One of the funny parts about the Aberlour tour is that there was another American couple on the tour who wound up also being from Texas (San Antonio) and who were also both Aggies. To complete the coincidence, they were class of 1998 and 1999, same as us! Crazy! Since Erin foresaw that she wouldn't enjoy the whisky, so this was her driving day. She did taste each one, and found a couple that were "less offensive" than the rest. We bought some whisky to bring home, two bottles for me (one from each distillery) and one for my dad and one for Erin's dad. The Macallan I got for myself isn't available in the US, and neither are the ones I got the dads. The Aberlour is, I believe, but it's very tasty, so I don't care!
|Me at The Macallen Distillery|
|The Aberlour distillery, with the pagoda from the old malting building on the left|
|Tasting at Aberlour|
Originally, we had planned on going to the Glenfiddich distillery after getting done at Aberlour, but Erin found a flyer at Macallan for a Dufftown Distillery Walking Tour. It is a walking tour of the distilleries in Dufftown, including a couple of closed ones, that starts at 5pm. I called the number on the flyer from the Aberlour parking lot around 4pm, asking if she had any spots open for tonight. She said she already had a large group, but Friday would work. Since we were only planning on being in the Dufftown area (it's about 12 minutes from Aberlour to Dufftown), she agreed to fit us in with her group. Man, I'm glad she did. Starting at 5pm, we walked all over Dufftown to the area's 9 distilleries (Pittyvaich, Dufftown, Mortlach, Glendullan, Parkmore, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie and Convalmore), having a taste at each one. Since the distilleries were all closed at the time, sometimes we'd get a look inside (if Michelle-the guide-was able to talk our way in), but most of the time not. If not, we found a nice spot just outside and had a taste. In the case of the closed ones we sampled some whisky that was bottle from casks that were filled from before they closed (Pittyvaich and Convalmore). At Glenfiddich, we tasted three, a Glenfiddich, a Balvenie (they're right next door, and owned by the same company), and Money Shoulder, which is a blend of Glenfiddich, Balvnie, and Kininvie. The tour was probably the highlight of the day, and a must-do for any scotch lovers who find themselves in Speyside. We met a very nice couple from Seattle (Tim and Nancy) on the tour, as well, and had dinner in Dufftown with them after the tour (more on them later). After dinner, we headed back to Aviemore, arriving much later than we had originally anticipated. The next day was planned for a drive to the Isle of Skye.
|The Dufftown Distillery|
|Erin with one of the single malts we sampled, Singleton of Dufftown 12 year|
Wednesday, 17 September
We woke up around 7:00am, planning to try to get on the road for Skye by 8:00am. Both of us were dragging and exhausted from the two days before, so we decided to scrap the trip to Skye, and go back to bed. We got up, had lunch in Aviemore, and got on the road to see Inverness. We found a pub that we had heard about on the Internet somewhere, the Phoenix Ale House, and grabbed a pint. The bartender was a young man who was very friendly, and we talked to him for a bit about the big vote that was coming up tomorrow on Scottish Independence. He was a big Yes supported, and invited us back to the bar on Friday for their big party to celebrate "Scotland joining the US in independence from Britain!" Unfortunately for him and his fellow Yes supporters, the referendum failed, though. I wonder if they still had a party. We left there and walked around the city for a bit, looked at the castle (actually built in the mid-1800s as an administrative center, and now houses a court...though there has been a castle or defensive structure on the sight since 1057), and then found our way to the Castle Tavern. I ordered a couple of pints as Erin went in search of a restroom. We agreed to sit outside, since it was a very nice day, and so while Erin was in the restroom, I searched for a table. As I was sitting down at an empty table, I looked up and saw our friends from the tour the night before, Tim and Nancy, sitting at the next table enjoying a couple of pints. So, of course, I went over and said something clever, like, "hey! I know you guys!" And we all marveled about the small world and such. Erin came out and couldn't figure out why I was sitting at a table with two other people, but quickly realized who they were. We had a couple of pints there, before heading off to find dinner. We ended up going to one more pub before dinner. The pub had a sign on the outside that clearly marked them as Yes supporters. They also would be having a Independence Day party on Friday, and pints were £3 each for Yes voters and £30 for No voters. Everyone was welcome, the sign proclaimed, "except Cameron!" After a pint there, we headed off to a place called Hootanannay's for dinner. Apparently, they have the best live Scottish music show in Scotland. Unfortunately, there were no tables, so we headed to a promising-looking restaurant down the road. Strike two. Something had happened in the kitchen, so they had to close. The guy at the door called another restaurant down the street for us, though, and they held a table for us, but asked that we be the last people that he sent over to them! The food here ended up being fantastic, so I'm glad we ended up there. After a wee dram for dessert, we parted ways with our new friends (after trading contact info) and headed back in Aviemore.
|Inverness and the River Ness, with Inverness Castle on top of the hill in the background|
|Independence Day party sign|
Thursday, 18 September
Thursday morning we got up and headed out toward Inverness. We were going on a cruise of Loch Ness with Jacobite Cruises on their Sensation tour. Our meeting point was a bridge over the River Ness at 10:35am. We overestimated Thursday morning traffic, and got there 45 minutes early. Oh well, better early than late, right? The bus would pick up people from Inverness city center at 11:15, then swing by and pick us up, then we'd head down to Clansman Harbor to get on the boat. In theory, anyway. Apparently, after I showed my confirmation email and got our tickets, the lady at the desk forgot to tell the bus driver that we were there, and drove on past us. She remembered we were there right after the bus drove past, but they didn't have any luck getting the driver on the radio. The company's marketing director volunteered to take us down in her car, though, so we wouldn't miss the boat. Just another example of the friendliness of the Scots, great people! We made it to the harbor in plenty of time, and joined the line of people getting on the boat. There were 8 others on the same tour as us, but they combine several different tours onto one boat, so there were 80-something on the boat. Loch Ness is a beautiful and dramatic lake, even without all the monster stuff. The cruise down to Urquart Castle was 30 minutes. During that time, we went to get a couple of beers (why not, right) from the on-board bar, and were offered free soft drinks for our trouble earlier. We thanked them, but declined, saying we'd rather have a beer. They graciously bought our beers for us. Once we got to the castle, which sits right on the banks of the loch, we got off and had an hour to explore before our bus driver, Sue, would take us to the next part of our journey. The castle is pretty cool, even though it's mostly ruined. It took every bit of that hour to explore, and we didn't have time for the 10-minute video in the visitor center. Oh well, next time maybe. The next stop on the tour was the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Center in Drumnadrochit. It was as cheesy as it sounds, but it was still fun. Instead of building up the myth of the Loch Ness Monster, they talk about the science involved in the search, and in using science to debunk the myth. Not really what I expected.
|Erin and I on the boat on Loch Ness|
|Urquart Castle from Loch Ness|
|Urquart Castle with Loch Ness in the background|
|The Black Isle Brewery|
|Fort George from Chanonry Point|
|A dolphin in the Moray Firth|
Friday, 19 September
This was our relaxing day in and around Aviemore. We started by driving a few miles out to Loch en Eilean, a small lake in the Caringorm National Park with about a 3-mile trail around it. We walked around the lake, taking pictures of the small ruined castle on an island in the loch. We ran into a closed gate at one point, so we didn't get all the way around, but still walked just over two miles. Then we headed just down the road to the Caringorm Reindeer Center. Every day at 11:00am and 2:00pm they have a guided hike up the mountain to visit a reindeer herd, where you can feed and pet the reindeer while walking among the herd. As corny as it sounds, it was alot of fun. They are beautiful creatures, and there were well over 100 in the herd we visited. They weren't shy about coming right up to you if you have a handful of food, either! If you didn't have food, though, they were pretty aloof.
After leaving the reindeer herd after about 30 minutes, we hiked the 20 or so minutes back to the car and drove back into Aviemore for lunch and (surprise surprise) a pint at the Skiing Doo Inn. In the winter, Aviemore is a big ski resort village, which explains the name. After lunch, we did some shopping in the village, then walked down to the Cairngorm Brewery, which is on the north side of the village. For £3 each, we got a tour of the brewery and a tasting after. I use the word tour pretty lightly here, as our tour guide, Bruce, showed some hops, some malted barley, and the fermentation tanks, and that's about it. While that sounds like a crappy tour, I have to say that it was probably the best brewery tour I've ever been on, and I've been on a few. The greatness has nothing to do with the tour itself, but with the guide, Bruce, and the tasting. Bruce is a gentleman in his 70's who is retired and works part-time at the brewery as a guide because he loved beer, he loves people, and he loves telling stories. And man, could he tell a story! We sampled 11 of Caringorm's beers (all of their bottled beers), and in between his very generous sample pours, he'd tell all kinds of stories. Stories about Scotland, about the brewery, about each beer and where the name came from, about Aviemore, and about himself. He was so entertaining, everyone on the tour was laughing hysterically almost the whole time! He claims to have been an extra on The Highlander. I'm not sure if he's full of it or not, but I really don't care. The stories he told about being on set had me dying laughing. And the beer was pretty damn good, as well. I brought home 4 500ml bottles, and Erin picked up a couple of bottles of cider from a local cidery that they sold in the store. It was a great way to wrap up our Scotland vacation!
We had dinner in a local restaurant that night, and packed up for the trip back home on Saturday.
|Loch an Eilean|
|Erin getting mobbed by reindeer|
|Erin and I on the hike back from the reindeer herd|
Saturday, 20 September
Our flight from Aberdeen to London was scheduled for 2:30pm, but since we were staying overnight in London, we wanted to try to get there earlier than that, so we could get our bags, check into the hotel, and get down to central London with enough time to make it worth it. We left the condo shortly after 8:00am after checking out and paying for the electricity we used (a very reasonable £12 or so) and got on the road to Aberdeen. After filling up and returning the car, it was about 10:30am when we walked into the terminal. There was a huge line for the Air France counter (we found out later that AF's pilots were striking), but the British Airways line was very short. We had to wait for the customer service desk to try to change our flight, but the wait wasn't long. We could change to an 11:20 flight or a 12:50 flight. The 11:20 was borderline at that point, with the long security line that we could see, so we opted for the 12:50 flight. Apparently, you can't check in more than 2 hours early for a BA flight, so we grabbed a pint (of course!) while we waited, then checked in and headed through security. Although the line was long, it went fairly quickly, and after the fiasco in London, we knew what to do, and got through without any problems. Grabbed a quick lunch (and another pint!) and boarded the plane.
Our bags were a little delayed being delivered, and we just missed the public bus for the hotel, so it was just after 4:00 when we got to the hotel. After talking to the concierge and doing some quick Googling, we figured the best way to get into London without spending an arm and a leg (the Heathrow Express train takes 15 minutes from Terminal 5 to Piccadilly Circus, but a round trip for both of us would be £68, or about $100. No thanks! We ended up spending just under £20 for London Underground passes. It took just under an hour to get to Westminster from Terminal 5. We looked around at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then walked around Westminster Abbey. After that, we had dinner at the Silver Cross pub in Westminster and started moving from pub to pub. We started at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which was rebuilt in 1667, and counted Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens as patrons. From there it was on the the Blackfriar Pub and a couple more before it was time to catch the tube to head back to Heathrow and the hotel, since it was going to be an early morning.
So, that's our Scotland vacation. Hope you all enjoyed reading this almost as much as we had fun living it! I'm thinking about brewing up a Russian Imperial Stout this weekend, so we should get back to the homebrewing blogging here soon!