Blue mountains and monster lakes

Where else could it be but Scotland? Land of castles, misty lochs, fierce clans and relentless fighters for freedom. The land of Mary Stuart and William Wallace, of Robert the Bruce and Rob Roy…of the Loch Ness Monster and bagpipes and ghost stories…

All of this and much more had made this trip one much desired, much planned for. Miguel and I had wished to go there for years and, as I read more about Scottish history, I was more and more drawn to this mysterious land of the North, home to a people so savage that the “invincible” Romans built a wall – Hadrian’s wall it was called – on the frontier to keep them from invading the Southern lands.

In a time before Google and Booking.com I asked my friend Jorge, who was in Wales doing his doctorate, to send me information on “Bed & breakfast” hotels in Scotland, so that we might find the most enchanting places to stay. Our plan was to fly to Edinburgh and get a car there – and drive to the Highlands. From so many books I had read about Scotland I knew exactly where I wanted to go and we booked the hotels according to that. We would be going in early July and celebrate our wedding anniversary there. We would stay for a couple of weeks and begin our tour in Fife (one of the homes of the heroine of one of my favourite books “Child of the Phoenix”), then proceed to Loch Lomond, then up to Inverness and finally spend a few days in Edinburgh.

A few weeks before our departure we were surprised by the most wonderful news that I was pregnant, so after my doctor gave us his blessing to travel we finally stepped on Scottish soil. We took our rented car and up we went to our first stop, a charming castle turned into a hotel in Fife, near St. Andrews. It was really lovely, in a sort of beige colour and with two charming turrets. St. Andrews had a beautiful beach, very cold of course – in July – and I remember looking at it and thinking what a waste for the poor Scots, having such a beautiful sandy beach and not being able to enjoy it – at least our way, as we could see riders in the distance, enjoying the calm and solitude of the beach – something they would never find on a Portuguese beach in July!

Soon we were leaving for the Loch Lomond area, where again we would stay at a medieval castle in the middle of a beautiful park – Culcreuch castle. We had chosen it because it dated back to the 13th century and looked so well kept, but also because the rooms were very well decorated with wallpaper and flower patterns, something that naturally appealed to me. Moreover, all advertisements of the castle featured its very own ghost (something the Scottish people are actually proud of), a “musical ghost” that, so the story goes, would only be heard, and never seen, from one of the castle rooms, actually located in its the oldest area – it was called the “Chinese Bird room” because of the wallpaper, that had been brought from China in the 17th century. Strangely enough, this story appeared in all information booklets about Culcreuch castle then, but some time ago as I visited the hotel’s site I found absolutely nothing about the musical ghost (it was actually a bagpipe sound). I wonder if it has disappeared…

For my comfort we stayed in another, lovely and ghost-free room, but in daylight I felt brave enough to have a look at the Chinese bird room but of course heard nothing. The dubious privilege of listening to the ghostly music was not for all and only happened during the night – as any such manifestation should!

Much more than ghosts I was troubled by early pregnancy nausea. We were so happy about expecting a baby that we didn’t pay much attention to it and tried to lead our life as normally as possible, but this was rendered almost impossible by the fact that my sickness mostly appeared in the early evening at dinner time (and not in the morning as usually happens), so poor Miguel never managed to have a decent dinner. Many times as we were driving to a restaurant he would have to stop the car so that I might vomit, and I’m certain more than one Scot who saw our predicament must have thought I had already drunk a few glasses of whisky…still, as I said, it was all worthwhile and we adapted, always in a good mood. I don’t remember a happy time such as that one!

While in the area we visited Stirling and the Wallace tower – this was before “Braveheart” so it was the first time I learned about William Wallace’s story (and I promptly bought a novel about him) and we also went to see the ruins of Inchmahome Priory where Queen Mary had spent some time in her childhood. As it was in the middle of a loch we had taken a small rowing boat there, and it was all very misty and mysterious – and I was thrilled to be able to visit places I had read so much about. It’s an incredible sensation – first you imagine a place, and then to see it…as we visited each place I would tell Miguel its story and the historical characters it was connected to. I felt a strange sensation of belonging there, somehow.

The weather was very “Scottish”: some days it was like winter in Portugal, but then it would turn sunny and warm. We were prepared for everything, of course. Not that it mattered too much, when you go to Scotland you know what to expect in this area…as we went up North we stopped by a distillery called “Glengoyne” and I found myself tasting whisky at 10 am…I who never drink it – I’m not a fan – and, besides, who was feeling nauseated most of the time even if it got worse before dinner…then we stopped in Fort William where we found the most amazing sales of lambswool jerseys “Pringle of Scotland” – we bought quite a few and as they were very good quality they lasted for years. And they were incredibly cheap, we just couldn’t believe it!

And then we arrived at Inverness, where we stayed at a charming hotel facing the canal. Being so far up North and in July, the days were incredibly long and, in fact, I don’t really remember seeing a dark night – as I was also very sleepy I turned in quite early and slept later than usual so for me it was daylight all the time…I just loved it.

On the first day there we took a boat on the canal that took us to the most famous lake in the world: the Loch Ness! Of course we didn’t get to see any monster – not that we expected it either – but I understood the reason why the lake is such a mysterious place: being very deep (the guide told us the entire population of the world could drown in the lake) its waters are very dark, black in fact – something I had never seen. From the boat we’d look at the waters and see nothing but darkness, and I must confess it was awe-inspiring. Not for anything in the world would I swim in those waters and we fact we saw no one doing that. Not very inviting, really.

While in Scotland I learned the story – rather a legend – of the first appearance of the monster. In the year 500 St. Columba (a very famous saint in Scotland), was passing by lake shore when he heard screams. As he looked he saw this terrible monster holding a man in its jaws. At this moment the saint talked to the monster and ordered it to leave the man in peace and go away, which the beast obediently did. After that there have been many reported appearances of the monster and even some images in photos and pictures, but no definite proof of its existence has ever been put forward…

One of the most beautiful moments was lived when we were coming out of the canal and into the lake; when we looked ahead we could see the blue mountains in the distance as if they were opening up – as we came into the lake they opened more and more and finally we were sailing through those black waters with mountains all around us. It was simply breathtaking. Then we sailed through part of the lake – not all, as it is huge – and we came out at the ruins of Urquhart castle while a bagpipe player saluted us with this most Scottish of all sounds (not a ghost this time).

There was a funny moment, as the tour guide took us to a place called Drumnadrochit to what was called “The Loch Ness Monster exhibition”, a sort of museum where we could see photos and even movies about the monster, as well as buy cuddly toy monsters – I must confess I bought a small green monster for my future baby as a souvenir, his first toy ever!

A few days and many miles along the northern coast after we returned to Edinburgh. On the way we passed by another place I very much wanted to see: Lochleven castle, also located on an island in a loch, where Mary Stuart had been imprisoned during one of her many misadventures. And then we came to Edinburgh: unfortunately the hotel was not only away from the centre (and we no longer had the car) but it was not good as well. It was in an old residential building and the adaptation to a hotel was much too obvious – but we decided not to let this spoil our good mood, and spent a few pleasant days in the beautiful city, walking around the streets – that bore testimony of the dark events they had witnessed, such as “in this street lived Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, or, in Princes Street gardens “in the old days there was a lake here where witches were drowned”, and others as such. The eerie atmosphere is so strong that there were two “ghost tours”: one in the early evening for the “weak” and one at midnight for the stronger spirited. I went to none – I preferred to be cautious due to my pregnancy – but I confess I would have loved to see what it was all about – even if I’d have stuck to the program for the “weak”!

We visited the monumental castle, on the top of the hill, and we came down the Royal Mile to Holyrood palace, and again I was reminded of the tragic story of Mary Stuart, a queen whose passionate nature lost her her throne.

We also observed some rituals that seemed very strange to us: one Friday evening as we were sitting on a terrace just before dinner we noticed a queue outside the door of a liquor store. There was an incredible movement of people going in and coming out with plastic bags full of bottles. When we asked the waiter we were surprised to find out shops were forbidden to sell alcoholic beverages during the weekend, so everybody went to get them on Friday! During weekends one could only buy drinks at the pubs and of course they were much more expensive…we were amazed at this strange law and asked ourselves what the purpose was?! In Portugal there was no such restriction.

Soon our holidays came to an end. I remember them as among the best I’ve had in my life. The moment was perfect: we were so happy about our coming baby, we had dreamed of this trip and Scotland was definitely so much more than we had expected.

…..

Many years later, after my divorce, I went back to Scotland with Nuno, on an organised trip that included one night at probably the best hotel in Edinburgh, The Balmoral, and two days and nights on a train, the Scottish equivalent of Orient express: “The Royal Scotsman”. It was so good to be back and tell Nuno about the places I already knew and to discover some new ones. Being on the train was so much fun and we were a big group; sitting in the living room of the train watching the beautiful scenery while sipping a glass of champagne was incredible, as was dressing up for dinner and enjoying the delicious food and magnificent wines (there for the first time we drank one from New Zealand that I’ve never forgotten) and sleeping in our bunks (a bit too small for Nuno!) rocked by the train’s soft movement…it was unforgettable.

But what struck me the most was that, back in the home of Mary Stuart, Robert the Bruce and Braveheart, the land of blue mountains and monster lakes, the land of bagpipes and a very “strrrrong” accent, a land of Celts and ghosts of long ago knights and ladies, home to the indomitable Scots, a country of freedom fighters if ever was one, I again had that odd feeling I had felt all those years before – that I too had come home.

 

 

 

 

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