We visited here on a very brisk and windy day in November but wind and cold are expected so far north.
We spent a fair bit of time in the Highlands of Scotland so we thought we should visit at least one distillery even though we are not whisky drinkers. The Glenmorangie Distillery was close to where we were staying and recommended by a good friend who is a whisky drinker so we spent an afternoon there on a private tour.
The tour was private because we were there in November so there were no other visitors. It was a great tour of a beautiful distillery but they did not allow photographs inside which is too bad because they had these super tall stills.
You can check them out on their website and learn more of Glenmorangie’s story as well.
We found Scotland and Ireland to have a number of similarities, and of course a number of differences as well. Both are primarily rural countries with a lot of livestock. Both have their own Gaelic language and are known for their hardworking, down-to-earth friendly people who are proud of their heritage. And both love their whisky (Scotland) or whiskey (Ireland), depending on which country you are in.
While, the Scottish are quite friendly, its in a bit more reserved way than the Irish. Although not as gregarious as the Irish, the Scottish are every bit as hospitable and friendly once you get to know them. And even though there may be several pubs and a whisky distillery in just about every town, the drinking culture in Scotland seems to be a bit more refined. The Scots we met sipped whiskey in the evening, while the Irish we met were likely to take a swig from the bottle in their pocket. I’m sure this isn’t always true, but was our observation. Also, Irish whiskey seems to be of just a few varieties (primarily Jameson), while Scotland has an endless number of high quality choices. Both countries produce several tasty nitrogen beers, but beer seemed to be a bigger deal in Ireland.
As we rode the train north from Edinburgh to Inverness, the last of the leaves we’re changing and beginning to fall. The hillsides were red with heather and we saw our first snow of the trip in the Cairngorms. They say northern Scotland has more sheep than people. Whoever “they”are, seem to be correct. There are a lot of sheep and up north, even the large towns, aren’t all that large.
There are a number of charismatic domesticated animals that you see as you drive around the Highlands. There are Shetland ponies, long-maned fuzzy horses (which I’m sure have a specific name as well) and of course the Highland cattle.
You’ll notice, they all seem built for rough winters. And it definitely gets rough here in the winter, cold and dark. the sun was setting at about 4pm when we were there in November.
The countryside is picturesque – sheep, haybales covering fields that stretch to the sea, rugged coastlines dotted with stone castles, churches and towers in varying stages of use and repair.
Also out there but less obvious are Pictish standing stones, some small and simple and some large and impressive, like the Hilton of Cadbol carved around 800AD and now housed at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Another unique landscape feature is the firths. As you drive near the coast, you are constantly crossing large inlets, called firths. These are what gives northern Scotland that fringy look on the map.
The weather can change 180 in about 30 seconds, so you better leave the house ready for anything, every time. The further north we went, the fewer the trees, until there are just rolling hills and peat bogs as far as the eye can see. Usually dotted with sheep… There can be some pretty amazing winds up here as we experienced. This photo is blurry because it wasn’t even possible to hold the camera steady. It took two of us to open the car door to get out and walk around.
There are a good number of wind farms in the area capitalizing on that natural resource.
We did really enjoy Scotland and the people we met there, although, we’d like to return in the summer for the longer days and warmer weather. Up north the tourism slacks off in the winter and they take a break from mid-October through March, so a lot of the castles and museums were closed when we were there. Edinburgh however, remains fully open and I had the sense it would be a wonderful place to celebrate Christmas.
We first heard the story of Greyfriars Bobby on a visit to the Edinburgh Museum on our first pass through the city. When we passed through again, our host pointed out the statue and related the story again. I suspect it’s hard to visit Edinburgh without being introduced to this little dog.
It’s one of those stories partly true, partly uncertain that has grown into a sort of legend that transcends nationality and connects with the human part of us all. I heard several groups of non-English speaking tourists huddled around the statue talking excitedly. All I could make out was “Bobby”, every few sentences.
The story is pretty simple. There was a man named John Grey, maybe he was a night watchman for the city police, maybe he was a shepherd. At any rate, he passed away in Edinburgh in 1858 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Mr. Grey had a Skye Terrier named Bobby and being an obedient companion, Bobby spent the remaining 14 years of his life guarding his masters grave.
The dedication of this dog so touched the hearts of the people of Edinburgh that residents would feed him and offer shelter in bad weather. In fact, when when a new law went into effect requiring dogs to have a license or risk being destroyed, a resident paid the fee and bought Bobby a collar. The collar is still displayed in the Edinburgh Museum.
Bobby died himself in 1872 and was also buried at the cemetery at Greyfriars.
A statue was commissioned by a townsperson and erected a year later on the street corner of a prominent intersection outside the cemetery.
The story of Greyfriars Bobby has attracted quote a lot of attention over the years, not just from visitors to Edinburgh, but from writers and filmmakers, particularly in America. Disney even produced a movie telling the story back in 1961.
On a side note – Most people just stop at the cemetery to see Bobby’s grave which is at the entrance, but it’s really a fabulous cemetery. The kind you’d film a scary movie in. It’s worth a wander-through. We were there just at twilight, which felt especially perfect.
I’ve always wanted to visit the Highlands of Scotland. Already being so close and having family in the region, we figured the time was right, even if the weather most likely wouldn’t be.
My aunt is from Wales and while she moved to the US years ago, her sister has migrated north to Helmsdale, a tiny town on the east coast in the far north of Scotland. It is way up there.
On November 9th, we headed north from Edinburgh on a beautiful train ride. Turns out we were just in time to catch the changing leaves still.
In Inverness, we were met by Ian and after a quick detour to Loch Ness, we made the 2 hour drive north to Helmsdale. No sighting of Nessie, but the loch was beautiful.
On our first day in town, Chris and Ian were showing us around the Helmsdale harbor when the local rowing team started hauling their boat into the water for a Sunday afternoon practice session. After a chat, they offered us the opportunity for a quick spin and Chris & I jumped in.
Rowing is big in the UK and I had been hoping for a chance to give it a go. No time like the present. We spent a lot of our time in the Highlands taking walks in beautiful countryside and beaches with Chris, Ian and Sky.
And sometimes these walks even ended in views of fairytale castles.
Being November, quite a lot of tourist destinations were closed, but we were still able to visit a whisky distillery
and to make a trip even further north to the northernmost point in the mainland UK – Dunnet Head, to John O’Groats and to catch a glimpse of the Duncansby Stacks even though it was too windy to hike closer.