Monday, July 24, 2017

Adventures in the Highlands

     Since the first time I saw the movie Highlander I was mesmerized by the wild, untamed, beauty of the highlands of Scotland. The Highlands are now one of my favorite places on earth and going on this trip was a life-changing achievement that literally opened up the world to me. That being said, it is the absolute worst place on earth to be if you are allergic to wool.
     My brave friend Ann agreed to fly overseas with me on my first transatlantic flight in almost 40 years and only the second flight period in almost 30. She laughs when she tells the story about that flight. I had a minor freak-out when we realized that there was a mix-up and we were not sitting together. I practically jumped over some man trying to reach the flight attendant so that she could do something about this earth-shattering crisis, which she did admirably. The gentleman sitting next to me moved to the aisle seat behind me, and Ann was now safely ensconced next to me. Disaster averted.
     There were no cheap flights directly into Edinburgh from Chicago, so instead we used our miles for a round trip flight into London. We landed at Heathrow airport to discover my wonderful luck has struck again. We were there the morning of the Tube strike. This was bad for 2 reasons, we needed a way into London and we had tickets to board a train at Kings Cross station to get to Edinburgh.
     The dry air on the nine-hour flight had done a number on my throat and I couldn’t get rid of the tickle. I was coughing constantly. Ann and I headed to the bank of computer pads to see what we could do about getting to London and to find out how bad the picketers were outside the stations. Of course we encountered a crazy lady. She was following us around and telling us about the strike and how we shouldn’t even try to get to London. She kept trying to get us to go with her, to where I don’t know. Everywhere we walked, there she was saying, “Come with me.” We couldn’t shake her. The woman creeped Ann out so badly, she ran for the restroom, leaving me to deal with the crazy.
     “You are not going to believe this is coming out of my mouth,” I said to Ann upon her return.
     “What?” she asked.
     “Why don’t we just fly?”
     So off we went to the Virgin “Little Red Jet” counter to buy ourselves tickets to Scotland. The only problem was by this time my little cough had turned into a full-blown attack. I coughed through standing in line.  Ann purchased the tickets because I was coughing too hard to fish out my credit card. She looked at me, and I guess I didn’t look too panicked even though it was bad enough for people to stop and stare at me. The women at the ticket counter didn’t know whether to weigh our bags or call an ambulance. Since Ann didn’t look that concerned, later she told me she was, she weighed our bags and sent us on our way.
     Going through security from arrivals to departures Ann realized she left her iPad on the plane. Nothing we could do at that point so we went through security and headed straight for the United counter. The good news was by this time my cough had settled back down to just an annoying hack.
I was expecting the United personnel to be as overworked and overstressed and therefore unhelpful as their American counterparts. To our pleasant surprise they were amazingly helpful. They called the gate and found the lost iPad. We just had to wait until there was someone from arrivals that could bring it to departures. After much anxious waiting to see if we would get it before our flight left, it was delivered safe and sound to Ann.
     We landed in Edinburgh two hours before we were supposed to get on the train in London, so we decided to take a “Big Red Bus” hop-on, hop-off, tour around the city. This was a great idea except for the fact that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I had been awake for 30 plus hours and taken some Xanax for the plane ride. Ann had to pretty much wake me every ten-minutes for the next two-hours. We tried going to the top of the double decker, hoping the sun and fresh air would keep me awake. Unfortunately, there was nothing that was going to keep me awake.

                                            A shot of our hotel from the hop-on hop-off bus

     The rest of our time in Edinburgh went along swimmingly. It’s a beautiful city with the nicest people anywhere. After taking a wonderful tour of the royal ship Britannia, we boarded another train headed for Inverness. For 3 hours we road through countryside so neon green, it looked more like a painting then real hills.
     The cab driver from the Inverness train station had a very hard time finding our AirBNB. It turns out it was a tiny house in someone’s driveway. Using the very nice and helpful cab driver’s phone, like I said the Scots are the nicest people I’ve ever met, we call our hosts. David, the owner of the tiny house answered the phone very confused. It seems my booking the house, calling and emailing to confirm was not enough and he had double booked it for the first night. Our cab driver sat with us while David, who was a frail elderly man, wandered VERY slowly down the street to meet us. He then wandered VERY slowly to his neighbors who were all B&Bs to try and find us an alternative place to stay. He found one 3 doors down at Thomas’ B&B.  We gave our cab driver a £20 tip and sent him on his way.

     Thomas, it typical Scottish fashion, was exceptionally nice. A man in his seventies, we were very worried as he climbed the three-flights of stairs with our very heavy suitcases. We could tell by his demeanor that, as much as we wanted to, there was no way he was letting us help.
The room was a tiny little attic room. We had to duck to walk around. The ceiling was a pyramid.  The only place we could fully stand up was between the two tiny twin beds, and that was just because we are both under 5’5”.  The bathroom was just as small. The ceiling was so low over the bathtub that you could barely sit up in it, let alone stand and shower.

     After a wonderful breakfast of homemade eggs, toast, sausages, oatmeal, we watched in terror as Thomas, again resisting all attempts to help, carried our luggage back down the 3 stories. Wandering back down the block, we found our little house in the driveway, which was now vacated and ready for us.

     This was my first encounter with the “cover everything in wool” phenomenon. The couch and chairs were filled with wool pillows and covered with wool throws. In the bedroom the headboard and footboard of the bed were wool as was the blanket and the runner and of course some more wool pillows. The itching started immediately upon entering the house as did the red and swollen hands. Ann was kind enough to remove all the wool from the couch so that I could sit down, though there was still enough wool in the air to cause itching.

     Very excited about the washer/dryer in our little house, we decided to do some laundry before heading out to explore the beautiful town of Inverness and take our boat ride on Loch Ness. You would think 2 smart, educated women would be able to figure out how to work the combination washer dryer. We opened the instruction and started reading. Finally we thought we had it and threw our clothes in, shut the door and pushed the button. There was a click and the door locked. Nothing happed for the longest time and just as the water began flowing, we realized that we didn’t put the soap in. A half-hour went by and we gave up trying to get the thing open again and went out to explore.

     We came back, and it was finished washing. After consulting the instructions again, we got it open and put in the dryer sheet and programmed it for what we thought was the dryer. To our dismay, the water started running again and there was no way to open it. After dinner the washer had stopped again. We had now been washing clothes for close to 8 hours. Giving up, we unloaded the washer and hung our clothes all over the living room trying to get them to dry for our trip across the Highlands the next day.
     I covered the wool footboard with a towel, removed all the wool from on top of the bed and tried to go to sleep at the foot of the bed with just a sheet. The itching was so bad I went out to the couch to try and not wake up Ann. It was a long, itchy, sleepless night.
The next morning, with exhaustion and excitement, I climbed into my still damp jeans and waited for David our driver to arrive. This was the day I was looking forward to. Twenty-five years of saying I was going to go to the Highlands for my thirtieth birthday, then my fortieth and now on my fiftieth I finally made it. This was a triumphant day!
     David showed up right on time in his silver Mercedes sedan. (David looking "Manly")

We got in and there was fresh baked shortbread and cold bottled waters waiting for us. He asked what we wanted to see today and I blurted out, “Isle of Sky, Harry Potter bridge, Glencoe, St. Andrews golf course …” He pulled over.
“This is only a one day trip right?”
     I nodded.
     “Okay, let’s make a plan.”
     So it was decided that we would drive across the Highlands, stopping at some of his favorite scenic places, see Eilean Donan castle and then head over the Skye for lunch.
Ten minutes after we left Ann pointed out some hairy coos, the longhaired cows the highlands are famous for. I said I had not seen any coos yet. Before I could say another word the car took a U-turn and we pulled into this driveway to purchase food to feed the coos and a moment later I was feeding the coos. Someone probably should have told me not to turn my back on the coos with a bag of food in my hand, because when I turned to talk to Ann, I felt a long pointy horn graze my stomach.  One more inch closer to the fence and it might have gored me, though I think it was going for more of a nudge.

     Our next stop was a hilltop overlooking the valley and the Five Sisters mountain range. The sight was breathtaking, not in the clichéd way, I literally stopped breathing for a moment. I don’t think I understood that word until I stood looking at the deepest green and bluest waters that made even the landscapes in Alaska pale. This is the spot I did my victory dance. I had overcome all my fears and ended up in this amazing place. The world was now mine to explore.

     We left there and went to Eilean Donan castle. Known for it’s beauty and completely intact, its the most photographed castle in the world.

 Of course the shop in the castle was lined with wool and I had to skip it.
From the castle we crossed the long bridge that led to The Isle of Skye. The island was, as it is most days, shrouded in fog. Since there was no point touring the island in the fog, we ate lunch and then stopped at a small candle shop next door.  Surprise, not only did they sell candles, but a variety of wool scarves, hats, etc. The itching started almost immediately. I hurriedly bought my lavender soap and cinnamon candle and rushed outside to wait for Ann.  This was becoming a theme where I waited outside while Ann purchased woolen items. In the stores in Inverness where I needed to buy wool tartan gifts for my friends, after I paid and left while Ann tied the dangerous textiles up in a plastic back, carried them back to our room and buried them in her suitcase. My hero.
     We had told David of our love of the books and the show Outlander, so he did an impromptu Outlander tour on the way back. We stopped at what was the inspiration for Castle Leoch and Clava Cave, the druid cemetery where the split-stone Claire fell through was. Finally we ended in Culloden battlefield where in 1746 three thousand men died a horrible bloody death and the clan way of life ended in Scotland.  I’m not usually sensitive to places, so you know the vibrations of that day must be extraordinary. I could feel the energy and the sadness. I had goose bumps almost the entire time we walked around there.

     David dropped us back at our little house in the driveway and I thanked him for one of the most wonderful days of my life. The next day, I got on yet another flight to London to start the second half of my adventure. I was sad to see Scotland in the rearview mirror, at least I was no longer scratching.

Extra Photos

More Coos

Loch Ness (Nessy was hiding that day)