Thursday, August 30, 2007

Aug 24-27 2007 - Four days in the Scottish Highlands

And not a photograph to show for it. All entirely my fault for forgetting, at the last minute, to take the camera. In my defence, though, it got left behind only because I had (thoughtfully) remembered to put the battery to charge. Look at it this way - had I forgotten to charge the battery, I would most likely have packed the camera in the morning. But then I would have been unable to take photos anyway as the battery would have run out of juice. Two scenarios, same result. I regret the result even more as, this time, Sudha came with us to the Highlands and it would have been nice for both of us to have some photos to share with friends and family. Especially as it took a lot of guilt-tripping, pleading and threatening to get her to agree to come with us in the first place.

It was all quite last-minute (more defence for forgetting to take the camera) - I got back from work around 5.20pm on Thursday, and did some last-minute washing-up while waiting for Sudha's phone call announcing her arrival in Shrewsbury. (Yes, I admit I could have remembered the camera at this time - but I didnt because I was doing my last-minute packing as well.) When she finally called, I zoomed off to the railway station to pick her up - only to find that she was nowhere in the vicinity. One frantic phone call to her later, I realised she was waiting at the bus station. Duh! She'd travelled by bus - something that should not have surprised me, knowing Sudha.

Anyway, by the time we negotiated the rush hour traffic (made worse by road works) and got home, Pete was home and ready to leave. Very soon thereafter, we were off on the 7-hour drive to Glentruim in the Highlands. The drive was pretty much without incident and we reached Glentruim at 1am. Our friend Ian, despite the fact that he had had a very busy day with another equally packed day to follow, had stayed up to welcome us. We got an even more lavish welcome from his two dogs, Poppy (a 2 year old retriever) and Dylan (a 14-year-old border collie).

The next day, the first thing on our agenda was a visit to the distillery at
Dalwhinnie, which is famous for its single malt whisky. We were too late for the noon tour and too early for the next one, so after buying tickets, Pete took us for a drive up to the mountains, right to the point where vehicles are not encouraged to go any further because of the terrain, the flora/fauna and the vagaries of the weather at high altitudes. Only the completely foolhardy would proceed beyond that point in an unsuitable vehicle - plus, we had a whisky tour booked!

The Dalwhinnie distillery is a fairly small one (or so it seemed to me) and the tour short but informative. We also saw peat for the first time - dried out completely, and looking like large balls of cowdung. (Wonder what peat looks like when it is freshly dug out from the ground.) And one of these days I'd like to see a proper Irish peat bog!

Anyway... the distillery is the highest in Scotland. It has only 6 or 7 employees, (much reduced from the years gone by) but from what I gathered, they're the fourth generation of workers at the distillery. It is also a meteorological station, with data recorded daily by the manager, no matter what the weather. And not the least, Dalwhinnie (pronounced "Dullweeny", by the way - heheh, that's a phonetic spelling!) means "meeting place". There are some photos of the distillery
here. Photography isnt allowed within the distillery in any case.

We had a "free" taster of the single malt whisky at the end of the tour. Pete hates whisky, so I had his as well - even though I dont like whisky really. Free or not, why waste it, right?

After the distillery tour, the next stop was the little village shop in Laggan (pronounced "Laagun") to pick up supplies for the night's dinner, which Sudha and I were cooking as a gesture of thanks to Jo and Ian, saving them the trouble of catering for us after a long, busy day at the shop. It looked like being an interesting time, as the kitchen had only a
2-oven Aga range cooker, not a gas-hob. Aficionados of Aga range cookers will probably gasp in horror that I mentioned "only" and "2-oven Aga range cooker" in the same breath. But since Sudha and I were not used to such luxuries as an Aga, we were slightly doubtful about cooking on it. It's basically two large hot plates - one for high heat, the other for simmering - and two ovens, for quick cooking and for slow-cooking (or warming). The advantage is that the Aga is always on, the disadvantage is that you cant turn down the heat instantly like with a gas-hob.

Our menu was going to be
onion bhajis as a starter, with lemon rice, alu-chole, phulkas and marinated pan-fried salmon (Sudha's solo input, as I've never cooked fish) for the main. Basically we were left to it, as Pete was in the shop upgrading their software and Ian and Jo were away doing other things. As it turned out, we did a pretty decent job considering that we had never used an Aga before. We did start quite early for fear of being caught short - or duffing up and then not having enough time to rectify any disasters! It didnt matter that we finished cooking well before dinner time, as the Aga could keep food warm indefinitely without drying it out too much. Jo and Ian were very pleased not to have to do the cooking, and we were pleased that we didnt embarrass ourselves with a culinary disaster!

Saturday's outing was to Aviemore, the ski resort in the Cairngorms. Obviously there wasnt any snow there, but the
Cairngorm Mountain Railway funicular was still taking people to the top. It was a beautiful day for it, sunny and clear. No matter how good the weather is down below, though, there's no saying what it will be like at the top. When we got there, the clouds had descended and there was nothing to be seen of the view. Plus, it was extremely windy and very cold. However, by the time we had a hot chocolate at the Ptarmigan Restaurant, the clouds had disappeared and the glorious view of the mountain tops and the valley below was all ours to marvel at.

Marvelling turned out to be a very cold affair after a while, making our exposed ears ache and noses run, so we went back inside to look at the exhibition of local flora and fauna, and from there into the shop. Oddly, there were beaded purses and bags as well as leather craftwork on sale, made by artisans in Kolkata, India... at wildly inflated prices, but of course. As if that wasnt strange enough, Sudha actually met two of her professors from Oxford in the shop - talk about serendipity. On that day, at that time, in a little shop on top of one of the tallest mountains in Scotland! What are the odds? (Actually, on reflection, pretty good!)

From Aviemore, we went off towards Inverness. Dozens of bikers had congregated there for the "Thunder in the Glens" event. Huge, gleaming Harley Davidsons and Yamahas and other bikes roared past us time after time - they were impressive, allright. So were the bikers themselves. I cant help thinking that if you want to be a biker, you've to be BIG and balding, and if you can manage scary looking, that's a bonus. And we're talking about the women bikers here. (Only kidding! Heh)

Pete needed to buy a component for his computer, so the next stop was a shopping centre. Sudha and I wandered around Borders while we waited for him, me all the while resisting the temptation to max out my credit card on all sorts of yummy-sounding books. I have to say I resisted successfully, but Pete bought a computer book of some sort! And because there was a Starbucks in Borders, of course he had to stop for his favourite mocha frappuccino with hazelnut syrup. (I had a somewhat mouth-puckering peach-pomegranate slushie, if anybody wants to know. Sudha didnt have anything.)

Then, although it was getting towards 6pm, Pete drove up to Loch Ness. We didnt go the whole way around the lake (it's 22 miles long) as we were running out of time and had to get back to Glentruim. I'd warned Sudha right at the start of the trip of the dire consequences of cribbing about her thesis - basically, that I would throw her to Nessie - so she was probably on her best behaviour. I'm happy to say that at no time was there an opportunity to carry out my threat. Glad tidings all round!

The reason we had to get back to Glentruim was that we were meant to be going out for dinner. Unfortunately, we had neglected to book ahead and all the restaurants/pubs for miles around were jam-packed - something we discovered only at 9pm, when most restaurants and pubs stop taking food orders in any case. In the end, Jo cooked us a wonderful dinner with what seemed like the least effort (on my part, anyway - Sudha is always ready with a helping hand and lived up to her reputation!).

Sunday we went to a pretty little village - or town? - called
Grantown on Spey as Ian had informed us that the Highland Games were taking place there. We got to Grantown at 1 pm - perfect timing as the pipe band was just about to make its way to Heathfield Park where the games were being held. We simply followed the band there. I just love the bagpipes - some people dont like the sound, likening it to squealing cats... but I think they sound fantastic, especially in a band with the drums and other instruments providing the background.

The atmosphere at the park was that of a fairground - and indeed there were the ubiquitous fairground rides and games with the usual garishly coloured and scantily clad women painted on the sides. I've always wondered whom they were meant to attract - men, to go on the rides? Really? Do orange faces and green hair really do it for them? I dont see women - even those "that way" inclined - being attracted to these pathetic and sometimes scary paintings!

In any case, we ignored the rides (I've been on similar ones before, anyway) in favour of gawking at the people around us. Most of the men wore kilts. There's something really impressive about large Scottish men clad formally in kilts - any predisposition towards giggling at "men in skirts" is neatly cut off at the pass. They look fierce and really impressive. (Yes, that was worth repeating.)

We mainly watched the shot-putters - you had to give it to them, they were mostly men of the extra-large economy-size variety. You simply didnt want to laugh at them because one thump from their extra-large economy-sized fist could sink you knee-deep into the ground! One of them, a good-looking red-haired giant (whose name, I found out eventually, was Bruce Robb), 6'5" tall if he was an inch, was just majestic. Despite his size, he was strangely graceful as he "twirled" with the shotput held just by his ear, before letting it fly. And BOY, did it fly! He was easily the best shotputter in the bunch, his throws being feet ahead of his closest rival.

The Highland Games were not of the local variety. The world record holder for the hammer throw (cant remember his name because I never knew it in the first place!) was in the competition - and true to his reputation, he was by far the best. Mr Robb, surprisingly, was not as good at the hammer throw as he was with the shotput. Not that it stopped me watching him... the man was poetry in motion. AND wearing a red kilt. Sudha and I both agreed that the Games would have been made far more interesting had the men stayed true to tradition and not worn anything beneath their kilts! (They mostly wore baggy shorts - bah.)

When I could drag myself away from the shotputters, the other event which drew my attention was the Highland dancing. It was quite strange to my eyes - graceful and yet sort of awkward at the same time. The kilts the dancers wore were lovely, as were the dancers themselves. Of course, since I know nothing of the background or history of these dances, or what they represent, the dances seemed almost monotonous after a bit because the steps didnt seem to vary all that much. But I suppose Bharatanatyam would be as strange to Scottish eyes, unless the moves/intentions are explained...

What we really wanted to see was the caber tossing, but it was not scheduled till late in the evening, and we couldnt spare that much time as we had a meal booked at a restaurant in Newtonmore (yes, we learned from the previous day's mistake and reserved our places!). Plus, it was getting really cold with the nippy north wind - summer, huh! - and we werent warmly enough clad. Comfort beats curiosity any day. So we went home and from there to dinner.

Newsflash: Sudha tried haggis. And liked it! Unless you know beforehand what a
haggis is, and how it is cooked, I guess it's not a problem. It's also not a problem if you're a fairly adventurous omnivore, which Sudha is. I had the vegetarian version of it, and that was pretty good. Lentils, barley, oatmeal and spices. Kind of like a chewy upma, to put it in Indian terms. It was served with a mountain of mashed-potato-and-turnip (tatties and neeps, as they're known in Scotland). Yum.

While on the topic of haggis, I'm also disappointed not have seen the "haggis hurling" at the games. The haggis seems to be a versatile thing - you can eat it, hunt it, play with it, grow it... the possibilities are endless, apparently! I found it really cute that a lot of restaurants advertise their haggis as "homegrown" or "home reared" - as if it's a living thing... just tickles me funny bone for some reason!

Early Monday morning Pete went off to the shop because he had to tinker with his software. That left me and Sudha free to do as we liked. There are some lovely woods behind Jo and Ian's house, leading down to the river. Ian was kind enough to take us for a walk down to the river, along with the dogs. Poppy was especially thrilled with this trip because there's nothing she loves better than leaping into the river to retrieve a stick. The downside to that was that she insisted on shaking off the excess water from her fur while standing lovingly close to you. Luckily Ian bore the brunt of this ersatz shower - just as well, because the water was c-c-cold!

Later he drove Sudha and me to a little village called Kingussie (pronounced "kinyoussie". Well, kin you? *heehee*) where there was a small exhibition of paintings, sculpture, embroidery, weaving and photographs, all done by a local lady (now no more, I suspect, although I'm not sure). Some of her work was remarkable, although both Sudha and I were uncharitable enough to think that she could have done a lot more and a lot better - considering the number of art courses she had done in her lifetime!

Or maybe it's just sour grapes on my part and a balanced evaluation on Sudha's. :)

We left the Highlands at about 2pm, which put paid to my plan of spending a few hours in Edinburgh on the way back. The drive back home wasnt without incident. As Pete pulled into a service station to get a coffee, we heard a loud bang from the back. It was a burst tyre. We couldnt find anything sharp enough and heavy enough that could have made a Range Rover tyre go pop... so perhaps it was a spontaneous affair. Or maybe we just missed whatever it was. Just as well that we were on the slip road off the motorway when it happened, rather than on the motorway itself.

We stood around while Pete changed the tyre - it's massively heavy and Sudha and I together could barely move it. It seemed best to observe as we certainly couldnt help Pete. The changing of the tyre delayed us by an hour or thereabouts and we were soon back on the road. I took over driving for a short while, to let Pete relax a little. I'm not sure how much he relaxed with me driving on the motorway, but all hail to him for not flinching at any time! Despite everything we were back in Shrewsbury by 10.30pm, finally ending the last bank holiday long weekend for 2007!

And this - finally - is the end of the last bank holiday weekend travelogue too.