Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Scotland Memoirs (Part I)

All three of our checked bags arrived safely. We bustled about Glasgow airport and eventually picked up a bus to the Glasgow station, and then another on to Edinburgh. At the Glasgow station, I refused to pay to use the public restroom... er... I mean toilets. Eric seemed to find it amusing that I would rather hold it than pay to heed the call of nature. The bus ride to Edinburgh wasn't very long and we enjoyed the scenery, such as it was. It was, well, just a bit different. Nothing spectacular at that point. Most intriguing was getting a feel for being on the left side of the road.

Riding in to Edinburgh we began to get a feel for what a beautiful city we'd be spending the next two days in. Eric pointed out the Castle through the opposite side of the bus, and we saw our first glimpses of Arthur's Seat rising at the other end of the Royal Mile.

When we finally arrived at the bus station, we stood with our three large bags and two heavy carry-ons and marvelled at the absence of any meaningful signage. We did see signs saying "St. Andrew Square" and "To Princes St.", so we wandered out into the open, and looked about. The plan was to walk to our hotel on Princes St. if it was a reasonable distance (reasonable distance being mighty short with all that baggage). But once we got out there, we had no idea which way it was. Noticing a long row of those really cool, cute taxi cabs, I suggest we just go the easy way.

Good idea. It wasn't far to the hotel at all, but it was mostly uphill. And I was feeling a bit needy, having held it for a while. So we arrived at the Royal British Hotel on Princes St.

The Royal British had a comfortable lived-in feel to it. Our room consisted of two small rooms plus the bath, one room containing just the bed and vanity table, the other containing a desk, a saggy loveseat and TV. All the rooms were thoroughly windowed, revealing the gloomy overcast day. Sounds of distant music --- usually bagpipes --- drifted in, and a cool breeze was moving the wispy white curtains.

We freshened up and readied ourselves to go out exploring. We had two immediate needs: food and snooze. Food came first.

Right across the street from the hotel was an information center where we cashed traveller's checks and bought our first few postcards, and next to that was the Waverly Shopping center. Beyond that the whole of the Royal Mile (strip of road from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace) stretched across our view. We trudged through the now rather brisk, damp wind into the shopping center. The food court was like any typical mall food court, and we noshed down some fast fish and chips (i.e. fish sticks and french fries). Then we went shopping. All that luggage and we had no idea it would be so cool. Eric purchased a jacket for himself, and I bought a warm sweater, since my lightweight sweater with anorak on top seemed insufficient.

While browsing through this mall, we came across what turned out to be a chain store, The Whisky Shop. Yes, a chain store devoted mostly to Scotch whisky. Eric was in heaven, and even found a bottle of last year's Longrow, apparently hard to get stuff. Well, he passed that up thinking we'd find it at some of the other shops we were planning to visit (my brilliant suggestion).

Eric says this seemed quite reasonable at the time. We were after all in a chain store in a mall full of tourists. It seemed quite likely that a rare scotch would be more available and perhaps priced better elsewhere. He found out quite differently while searching for Longrow along the Royal Mile. The two whiskey vendors he spoke to seemed surprised that any Longrow would be left anywhere. They had both been sold out for months. It seems the local scotch consumers hadn't even bothered to pursue it to a small shop in the mall.

We headed back to the hotel for aforementioned nap. We called and were able to make Sunday evening reservations at The Witchery, an interesting sounding restaurant I was keen on trying. I also reserved us some spots on the Witchery Murder & Mystery Tour Sunday evening. That evening we'd try Singapura. Eric set the alarm on the Newton and we settled in for our nap.

Using the Newton alarm clock is a habit he's fallen into over the past few years of business travel. He's found hotel alarm clocks to be somewhat unreliable. You can't always easily discern the AM/PM setting (especially if your brain is on low power from a long day). Plus he's noticed that waking up to a strange alarm clock is more mentally disruptive than a familiar one. The newton Alarm Clock from Foundation Systems is loud enough to bring you out of a stupor and the interface is very good.

There are times when sleep and the process of getting there are unparalleled pleasures. Mix general sleeplessness with the tedium of various forms of transport, a belly full of fatty fish and chips, a cool breeze gently billowing the curtains, surreal music floating up to our fifth floor windows, and a sweetheart to cuddle. We were out cold until the Newton started in chirping at us. We awoke refreshed and both marvelled at how lovely a rest it was. Then we were off to Singapura.

Our first real interaction with other tourists occurred as we found our way to the Singapura. We were being very obvious tourists by consulting our map frequently to discern what we were looking at. A group of three or four tourists (English I think) politely asked if they could check our map (from the back of the Festival Fringe brochure) to make sure they were on the right course. They were quite friendly, but as we were both in a hurry, we didn't take much time out for chatting.

Singapura is a Malaysian/Singaporean restaurant located at Queen and North Castle. It was a chilly but not unpleasant walk from our hotel. The food was very good (I had some sort of spicy chicken dish) and they had a nice selection of wine that went well with the food. During dinner, we mused over the Fringe festival programme, trying to find something that looked interesting. As it turns out we were too early for the International Festival, which didn't really kick off until Monday, and the Film festival. There were far too many fringe events to page through, and nothing really thrilled us to rush off. We really wanted to go to the Military Tattoo, but alas, there were no tickets available. So we left the restaurant and went on a stroll instead.

One thing I must mention: everywhere we looked, we saw flowers. Hanging baskets, window boxes, radiant flowers everywhere. Not just in Edinburgh, but throughout Scotland, most houses had at least a pot or two or a window box of flowers, if not a full garden of them. There were gardens everywhere, and everything was thriving in that climate. We saw a petrol station(!) somewhere near Elgin with a vast rose garden of the reddest, hugest, most numerous roses I've ever seen.

Back to Edinburgh. We walked back down to Princes St. and over the North Bridge and along the Royal Mile towards the castle. We stopped in a packed cafe for tea and some tasty treats. On our way back we enjoyed many street performers --- bagpipers and various other musical groups, comedic stuntmen, fire jugglers --- until we finally yawned our way back to the hotel for a much needed night's sleep.

This seemed to be one of the best aspects of the Festival Fringe. The street performers can be quite astonishingly good. We never made it to any scheduled Fringe events because generally our timing was way off and we didn't know enough about it to pick out which events would be worth attending.

Our preferred method of bathing is normally a nice hot shower, but for various reasons we would have to take numerous baths on this trip. This morning, there was no hot water coming from the shower, so after much grumbling, and explaining to Eric how one can indeed get clean by taking a bath, we were ready to go to breakfast.

We were to discover that arranging for a hot shower could require a bit of investigative work. The usual plumbing in Scottish hotels seems to be one tap for hot and one tap for cold. Rather than a separate control for the temperature from a joined tap. Many hotels also had a shower arrangement quite distinct from the usual bath plumbing.

This often took the form of a plastic unit with its own temperature controls. Another important subtlety is that this external unit only functions if it has power. This may seem innocuous enough, but in Scotland many hotel rooms have a separate switch (looking like a light switch that controls no lights) controlling whether the outlets in the bathroom are powered. We sometimes got all the necessary controls correct by accident early in the trip. The first day we didn't.

As an aside. The separate tap arrangement makes it extremely annoying to wash your hands. You can't just run them under the tap because the hot tap will be too hot and cold too cold. You really have mix the taps in the basin to get a good temperature. Not a great difficulty, but certainly not very convenient.

Today we experienced our first Scottish breakfast. Such breakfasts were included in the cost of our room, in every place we stayed. Started with juices and fruits and cereals, then whatever we wanted cooked. Eric had eggs and sausage, and I just stuck to cereal, fruit and yoghurt. I would come to need the heartier breakfasts later on.

That was the last time Eric ordered eggs sunny side up. The Scottish seem to like their sunny side up a lot runnier than he does. After that he generally went for over easy or scrambled. One thing he found extremely nifty was that they serve toast simply toasted in a toast rack (or express toast cooler as I call it -- I didn't find it all that nifty). As opposed to prebuttered and mounded on a plate (since I prefer my toast hot, so that the butter melts on it, this seems mighty attractive to me...).

We headed out towards the Royal Mile, much of which was closed to traffic presumably because of the festivals. We followed the street, buzzing with activity, up to Edinburgh Castle, where we purchased tickets and entered. We waited for a tour to depart while looking over all of a grey, misty Edinburgh. The tour was led by a very proud old Scotsman who included a number of sly jibes about "our friends to the south". Very impressive, very beautiful, but I found the pet cemetery, a well kept little ledge of that radiant green Scottish turf, tiny tombstones, and many flowers, to be almost as moving as the war memorial. This was an impressive stone building containing the coats of arms of various British military organizations and books containing the names of all who died in battle.

One regret we have is that we didn't get in to see the Stone and Sceptre of Scotland. We could have done so by waiting in a long line in the rain, but it just wasn't quite that compelling. The Stone had only just been returned to Scotland the year before after having been in captivity in England for hundreds of years. Our tour guide noted that this was somewhat ironic since legend has it that the Scottish originally stole it from Ireland.

Our tour over, we walked around some more on our own, and then went back down to the giftshop where we made a profusion of purchases of gifts and postcards.

Leaving the castle, we came upon our next destination almost immediately: the Scotch Whisky Heritage Center. Our visit started with a short film, and then went on to a presentation of a model of a distillery and a description of the process and the various regions and types of whiskies available. We see our first fermentation container, looking like a giant wooden barrel, and actually walk through it, and we also see a copper pot still. Then an amusing show where the "ghost" of an old Master Blender talks about his life and the history and expertise behind the blending process. Next we go on a barrel ride that takes us on a tour through 300 years of Scotch whisky history. Finally, we get our much needed dram in the tasting bar. Unfortunately they chose something widely available in the states, Cutty Sark. I was not very fond of it. The tasting bar had good whiskey selection. But no Longrow (which Eric had fixated on as his first acquisition) or a number of other rare malts.

A short way up the street we found another whisky shop, Royal Mile Whiskies, wherein we tasted double-matured Lagavulin. It was quite tasty and Eric resolved to purchase some before we left Edinburgh.

It was here that we first learned how difficult it is to get Longrow. It is only produced once a year in a limited run at the Springbank Distillery. Generally released around October.

We continued up the Royal Mile toward Holyrood Palace. I was feeling a bit peckish and we were looking for a place to eat when we finally came across Cadenhead's, an excellent whisky shop. Eric spent some time chatting with the fellow, and finally purchased a bottle of single cask, cask-strength Macallan, and a bottle of Lagavulin. We discover they have no Longrow, and I sense I may be in trouble. We find ourselves a pub to take a rest in and seat ourselves at a table in a corner. I go off to the ladies room and find something quite amusing there. The not-at-all out-of-place condom dispenser has a plaid label on it that reads "MacCondom Finest Scotch Whisky flavoured condoms". This sent me into fits of laughter and to my dismay I had no non-US coinage on me to get Eric this priceless little souvenir. I return to our table brimming with impatience to tell my little story, but Eric is now surrounded by: an elderly gent, an elderly lady, a middle-aged woman and her child. None of whom are with the others. I have to crawl over the elderly lady to take my seat next to Eric to tell him my little tale. The gent next to him is looking on with much amusement on his face. Eric plans to go to the toilets and pick up a couple packs of the condoms as souvenirs, yeah, that's it. Meanwhile, I am elected to get us drinks since I have fewer people to crawl over. I get some bitters and some McEwans lager (or ale?). The McEwans is great and becomes an excellent fallback on our future pub trips.

Eric comments: It seems quite common for people to share tables in Scotland. Terry had disappeared for quite some while before this family group wandered in and asked if they could sit there. Since I was already sharing the corner with two old gents, and I could keep a spot free for Terry, I had no objection. The custom seems to be to mostly ignore each other's existence unless you are keen on conversation.

Much refreshed, we look around at the pub crowd. It was extremely pleasant to see people from all walks of life there, families and friends of all ages, out for a bit of social drinking. Nothing like you could ever see in a bar in the US.

Eric adds: It should be noted that this was indeed pretty much a pure tavern. Not a bar restaurant of some kind. At one table you'd see a few blue haired little old ladies merrily chatting and sipping their brews. Whereas in the corner a group of young men with orange or green hair were playing pool. Not a mix I've seen elsewhere.

Back out on the street again, our appetites are stronger. We reach Holyrood only to discover that it is closed on Sundays. But round about the back of the palace is a large open field in which a bit of a festival is going on. Thus we found rows of fast food stands. Eric was in a mood for Indian food and surprisingly we found an Indian stand, and had some chicken tikka and veggie samosas. It was not great, but it filled the void.

Says Eric, I'm not sure if it was closed on Sundays, or closed because Royals were staying there. But it was certainly closed. We had been deceived by the crowds apparently heading to or from the Palace. When they were in fact going to and from the festival grounds behind the palace. (It is indeed closed on Sundays according to one of our tour books.)

At this point we decided to head back to the hotel and rest a bit and freshen up before our evening of food and fun. Eric suggested a shortcut, and we got lost. We soon found that neither of us had decent intuition for navigation in the streets of Edinburgh. My suggestion led us to a dead end, with buildings on three sides so there was no way through. We eventually made it back to the hotel and took a short siesta.

On our way down to the Witchery restaurant, we stopped at the Whisky Shop in the Waverly Shopping Center, and Eric purchased the Longrow (saved!) and some of that excellent double-matured Lagavulin. We took a shortcut to get to the Witchery that brought us through some picturesque parts of the city. The Witchery has an interesting ambience: old antiques, mystical figures, and candles everywhere. My only regret is that we didn't get to dine there after dark when all of that would have had a more significant effect. The food was superb. I had an herb-crusted salmon that was excellent, and an appetizer of lamb's liver. After dinner, we strolled back to the hotel through the same shortcut, enjoying the architecture of the various buildings in our sight.

Towards 10pm we went back down to the Witchery for the Murder and Mystery tour. We arrived early and were entertained by three young women singing French folk tunes across the street. It was another cool misty night, and several people were already assembled waiting for the tour to begin.

The tour consisted of being led around the town by an Irishman known as Adam Lyal, Deceased, dressed up as a vampire. He talked about much nastiness in Edinburgh's history ranging from the witch trials to the plague to unusual grotesque criminals, and was periodically interrupted by an accomplice who was dressed up in various strange costumes that related to his banter. At one point I was targeted as a witch and put on trial. He said to me "Can I ask you your name?" and I replied "Yes." and he mumbled something about how he was supposed to be the one making the jokes. He asked if I was a witch and I said "Yes." and so he mumbled "Come on, play along, you're not a witch." So he asked again and I denied being a witch, and he asked the crowd, "Do you believe her?" and everyone (*everyone*) shouted "No!" So then he took out the thumbscrews, and asked again and I denied it again, then he tightened them, and whispered "Ok say your a witch!" "I'm a witch!" and he said "And what should we do with her?" and they all shouted out "Burn her!"... even Eric. Hmmm...

Eric says in his own defense, "Well, how often does a man get a chance to see his woman put on trial for witchcraft? She's certainly guilty of enchanting me, so I certainly couldn't pass up the opportunity."

After the tour, I got Adam Lyal, Deceased, to autograph my copy of his Witchery Tales book, and we were off. We took the long way back, down Castlehill along the Royal Mile to the North Bridge. On our way we came across an excellent pipe and drum group. Several people on drums and a single piper and some dancers, all dressed in ancient highland peasant clothing. We stayed for their entire show then made our way across the North Bridge. We found a bench to sit on across Princes street from our hotel and sat looking at the beautifully lit city, letting all the day's events and the sights sink in. It still seemed a bit unreal at that point. We sat there sipping Scotch from Eric's flask for quite a while. I attempted to take some night pictures with my cheap camera knowing they wouldn't come out very good.

Miraculously we turned on the shower and there was hot water today. Go figure. We had our breakfast and this time I added sausage, poached egg, and grilled tomato. We packed up and checked out and called for a taxi to take us to EuroCar. Our rental was a little Seat Ibiza. We could just fit the two large suitcases in the trunk, and everything else in the back seat. This little car served us well and took a lot of abuse in the process. Highly maneuverable, and not overpowered.

So, Eric is behind the wheel and we have some sketchy directions for getting out of Edinburgh. Let me elaborate. Eric is sitting behind the wheel on the *right* side of the car, with the gear shift to his left, and has to drive on the left. So we're off. Eric soon discovers the car has almost no first gear, and very little second at that.

He says, "It took a day before I'd figured out where it liked doing gear changes. The major problem seems to be its strong tendency to go into third gear when you're trying for first. Its first gear was actually not bad. As long as you were really in first. If you happened to get dropped into third when you expected first, results tended to be quite unimpressive."

It becomes almost instantly apparent that the given directions and the map have no relationship to reality.

Says Eric, "Well, they did have a relationship, but it was 180 from what the man behind the rental counter indicated. This went undiscovered until we had become thoroughly disoriented."

Eric is quietly going insane while I'm frantically trying to find just one of those itty bitty street signs so that I can quickly invent a new route out of the city. I finally recognize a name that gets us to Ferry Road, and Eric manages to take us out of the city, folding back the passenger side mirror on a delivery truck only once. We make it to the A90.

Eric says, "My driving skills were already quite overtaxed by dealing with the new driving conditions. Attempting to navigate at the same time was quite a challenge. But I kept calm and quietly insistent that Terry find a way to match the map to the roads so we could get out of town. She did indeed manage this after realizing the original directions were off."

Then came the roundabouts. Going *clockwise*. After a few times of telling Eric the "nth exit" going counterclockwise, he very calmly reminded me we'd be going the other way. Well, without any major calamities we made it over the Firth of Forth to the M90, and finally to the A9, which was soon to become our intimate friend.

We stopped at Pitlochry for lunch. Pitlochry is a bustling, pleasant little town that seems to attract a number of tourists. Probably because it occurs on the A9 at lunchtime between Edinburgh and Inverness. Very flowery and sunny when we stopped, and full of shops. We did a little browsing and bought a few things (I found a lovely wool sweater), and then wandered about looking for a place to eat. We found a pub/restaurant type place and were served diner-style food by a curious teen. He asked us where we were from, and wanted to know why on earth we'd want to come to Scotland. He said he'd rather be where we were coming from.

After that we hopped back on the A9 and were off to Blair Castle, the traditional home of the Dukes of Atholl, Clan Murray. The castle dates from 1269, and is still in use. Although its rooms were beautiful and it was fascinating to see some of the items in there, Eric and I both left feeling that we needn't see any more such castles. We both seem to prefer the ruined castles. Blair Castle is reputed to be the last castle in Britain to have been besieged, during the Jacobite Rising in 1745-46. Queen Victoria stayed there in 1844. The Duke's men, the Atholl Highlanders, are still in existence today, forming the only remaining private army in Europe.

Says Eric, "Blair Castle is worth seeing in that its a nice way to arrange a museum. Its also old enough to have been a proper scottish castle rather than one of the later toy castles built entirely by those who profited from the clearances."

Back on the road, the countryside starts to get mountainous and beautiful. We stop to take some pictures. This is our first real view of the purplish heathery hillsides. I wander over a little bank and on the other side, in a radiant green field fluffy white sheep are grazing, a sparkling river is flowing, and a purple hill is rising above the sun-drenched scene.

We drive on, getting our first views of the Grampians. The views are breathtaking. Most of the hills are bare of trees, but where there are deep green pine forests, I notice that the trees have a regularity to them, as if they were planted in rows. After awhile it becomes apparent that they must have been planted, and I comment on this to Eric, who tells me about the highland clearances to turn the land into sheep pastures. Apparently there is a massive reforestation project going on, because most of the forests we saw consisted of these rows. We pass signs for Dalwhinnie entertaining the possibility of stopping for a wee dram, but drive on. Shortly after that, the A9 joins up with the Spey, and follows it along the Cairngorm Mountains before turning northwest towards Inverness.

Eric elaborates on the history of the highland forests: "The highlands of today are quite different from before the clearances. English law forbade the use of British wood for anything other than shipbuilding. That law did not apply to Scotland. When the destruction of the clans after Culloden made it possible to exploit the forests of Scotland, they were logged without regard for renewable resources. Thus creating the current highlands which are often referred to as a "wet desert". The ecology is really quite limited in most places to grass, heather, sheep, and small creatures compatible with those three lifeforms. Extensive reforestation projects are underway. Many are the work of lumber companies who are much more interested in producing a renewable resource than a diverse ecology. Hence the extremely artificial arrangements. Notable exceptions would be the wilderness preserves."

Reaching Inverness, we follow our directions much more successfully this time, and arrive at the Kingsmills Hotel. This hotel is a planned extravagance -- our room is huge and very comfortable, with a patio that opens into a beautiful flower garden. We drag our bags in, freshen up and fill out a few postcards as we have a bit of time before our dinner reservations. We dress a bit nicely and go to enjoy the most exquisite dinner. I had venison and Eric had lamb, and both dishes were amazing. After dinner, we retreated to the lounge for a quiet cup of tea, away from a table of, you guessed it, loud Americans. I must say, I really love being in a place (as in the entire country) where they *know* tea.

Eric comments, "It was the best dinner I've ever had. Exceptional in every regard except for the loud conversation at the next table. It is only against the background of quiet polite people that you truly understand how loud and obnoxious most of our fellow Americans are."

After dinner we changed and sat out on our patio in the garden sipping some of Eric's Edinburgh Scotch purchases. The day had clouded over as we reached Inverness, and it had apparently rained here. Everything was damp, misty, fresh and fragrant. Now though, a cloudy moon was occasionally visible. We finished our first batch of postcards and slept soundly.

After a most delightful breakfast, we head east on the A96 through somewhat flatter countryside along Moray Firth. It's a damp misty day with some sunlight peeking through, but the quaint little towns we pass through are brilliant with flowers -- reds and blues seem to be very popular. In Elgin our destination lies south along the A941, so we stop for gas (Eric remarks with great amusement that they sell single malt at the gas station) and then my faulty directions get us back on the A941 going north instead of south, which landed us in Lossiemouth. The view of the sea was quite breathtaking, but we had a 1:00 appointment we definitely did not want to miss. The drive southward took us through beautiful countryside, and we reached Craigellachie with a good hour to kill before our appointment. We find our destination, the Macallan distillery, marked by a quiet unassuming sign by a drive. Eric drives in and we check it out. Beautiful grounds. But first, lunch, or some other detour. Well, Cardhu is just up the road. We arrived at Cardhu, paid our 2 pound admission fee, and received the quick tour, and the token wee dram. I think I liked Cardhu a bit more than Eric, but then I haven't been drinking the stuff for as long... So then we were off back to Macallan with not a minute to spare.

Eric comments: "Cardhu is a fine, but unremarkable single malt in my opinion. Their distillery tour served as a nice baseline. Our tour guide led us around the distillery and discussed the whiskey making process in a pleasant manner. However she seemed to be pretty much a professional tour guide and not a distiller. She was quite good at her job, even able to answer the questions of German tourists in their own language. I found it quite amusing to follow the conversation of someone speaking German with a Scottish accent."

The tour was lead by a dashing gent wearing the coolest Wallace and Gromit tie. There were a few others on the tour, mostly German and Italian tourists I think. Our guide attempted to strike up a conversation with Eric about the recent admission by Clinton of hanky-panky with Lewinsky. We had no idea what was going on since we hadn't watched TV or had access to news (or wanted it!) for quite a while, so he came up dry on that attempt. The tour was incredible. It lasted for approximately two hours, and at the end we were back at Easter Elgies, our starting point. We were then led into a room that was elaborately decorated with Macallan displays, and this large contraption with a keyboard and drums and glass bells (shaped like Macallan bottles and lit up inside) from which issued forth very loud circus-like music. When it finished, a screen came down in front of us and we were then entertained by a humorous, animated Terry Gilliamesque film, which answered the age-old question, "What *does* the Scotsman wear under his kilt?" I'm not telling...

Eric says, "Our tour guide was quite a character. My impression is that he was an employee of the Macallan Distillery who also acted as tour guide on some days. Macallan only takes tours by appointment, so this might be easier for them to schedule than Cardhu."

While enjoying this we were sipping our second wee dram of the day, this time 10 year old Macallan. I found it a bit harsh but then Eric has spoiled me with a bottle of 18, and repeated samplings of the 25 (ooh la la). On our way out, Eric purchased a collector bottle of specially issued Macallan (alas the oddest purchase became the only shipping casualty). The Macallan marmalade and Macallan mustard made it back safely in our luggage.
Says Eric of the collector bottle of Macallan, "It was a special release done for a British magazine containing a blend of Macallan malts. Some extending up to 30 years old. The rest quite a bit younger. It was the only bottle of scotch I've ever purchased as a collector item. More as a work of art than anything else. Strangely enough, it was the one bottle to be destroyed during shipping.

At this point, food was foremost in our thoughts. We are quite spoiled by being able to eat wherever and whenever in the US. We had no luck on our way up to Elgin, and not much luck in Elgin either, but we stopped somewhere near Forres at a hotel pub and asked about where we could get a bite to eat. The young man in charge said they weren't serving food right then, but then quickly deduced that we were clueless Americans and offered to whip us up some sandwiches. Ham & cheese and cheese & onion were our choices. Perhaps it was the intense hunger I was feeling, but I do not recall when a grilled cheese sandwich ever tasted so incredibly good. Eric also had no idea a grilled cheese and onion sandwich would be so tasty.

Next stop, Culloden battlefield. We walked the entire perimeter, past all the Jacobite memorials. Quite a somber place, especially since now the field is covered with the lushest and most radiant growth of heather and other wild flowers I'd seen anywhere in Scotland. Purple blossoms and grey sky.
A nice thing to see, but generally depressing. It didn't take much strategic insight to see why the Jacobites were destroyed there. Bonnie Prince Charlie committed a legendary strategic and tactical blunder when he ordered them to stand and fight at Culloden against the advice of his officers. There was absolutely nothing good about setting a battle there from a Jacobite perspective. The English could have fought it by the book and still had an amazing victory. A few extra insights rolled this over into the greatest defeat in Highland history.

With no more stops planned, we began the most thrilling drive we would take on our journey. Back at Inverness, we took the A9 north all the way to Thurso, near the northernmost tip of mainland Scotland. Imagine if you will, a very narrow highway, no passing lanes other than the oncoming traffic lane, hugging the cliffs overlooking the ocean, treacherous curves and switchbacks every few miles, throw in numerous signs reading "ONCOMING TRAFFIC IN MIDDLE OF ROAD" and you almost get the picture. Don't forget about driving on the left in a car where the driver sits on the right with the stick shift to his left. Add a touchy second gear. And finally... random bicycle tourists! Hmm... didn't I see this is in a Bond movie once?

A rant from the driver, "An aside about bicycle tourists in Scotland. The roads make NO allowances for bicyclists or pedestrians. The roads are barely wide enough in most places for a tiny Seat to safely share the road with an oncoming tour bus. Especially if the Bus driver fails to keep all the way left. Add the slow pedestrians walking in the road, bicyclists with overloaded backpacks, and a lot of twisty roads with cliff faces to either side, and you have a recipe for disaster.

"Now, one might say that the more rigorous road tests in England and Europe deploy a more skilled driver. True or not, any US driver's license is accepted without further testing. So these bicyclists are not merely putting their lives in the hands of better trained drivers, they are putting them in the hands of badly trained drivers from the States who are used to wider roads, driving on the right, and treating bicyclists badly.

"It takes a special form of insanity to do a bicycle tour of the Highlands."

Checked into our hotel in Thurso, the Pentland Hotel. The rooms were a bit grungey, no shower -- just bath, but it turned out to be perfect for our needs. We checked out as soon as we checked in, asked for a 4:00am wakeup call, and had breakfast set to be brought to our room at 4:25. They cater nicely to people who are there to catch the 6:00am ferry to Orkney. Grabbed some dinner of dinerish food and a few brews and called it a night.

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