Awakened by the sound of pelting rain, and peering out with nose against the windowpane, the soupy mix of fog and cloud obscured the view across the loch. It was our first trip to Scotland and this was what we crossed the ocean to see. Such weather is nothing new to the locals and as Tom Bryan tells us in one of his poems, it …
Gets in yer neb, lugs,
unner thi oxters tae.
Oan yer heid, in yer een
til ye’re drookit, ken?
Seeking to share with you my expectations for the day to come, the above (deciphered with aid of an online translator) warns simply … yes, the rain and fog gets into your nose and ears and even under the arms too. It gets on your head and in your eyes until you are totally drenched, you know?
Staying in the town of Oban, we found lodging at Barriemore B&B which, overlooking the seawall, offered a panoramic view of the protected sea passage with glimpse of Loch Linnhe lying beyond. From our bedroom we could lay eyes upon the waters at a point where the lake intersects the Sound of Mull. Likely the most distinguished cartographic feature of Scotland, Loch Linnhe cuts northeast across the land mass as if carved in one blow by some mystical God of yore. The lake spans north from Oban to Inverness situated on Scotland’s north coast.
Oban, the primary seaport serving the rich fishing waters surrounding the Hebrides, is home to a fleet of ferries communicating the northwest reaches of the country. And, travelling west by ferry from Oban across the Sound of Mull, one can visit the Isle of Iona, the Outer Hebrides, and of course the Isle of Mull. It is this last location that my maternal Love family claims to be their ancestral home. And, it is in that piece of information that the reader can find reasoning for why my wife and I decided to visit this distant place. Below is the itinerary for this leg of our quick trip encompassing the United Kingdom.
We had a long day ahead with our next night’s stay being in Edinburgh. Timing was crucial as for that evening, we held two expensive tickets to the year’s first showing of the annual pageant known as the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
We loaded the car aboard the Caledonian – McBrayne ferry for a short ride to the Craignure dock located close to Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull. The journey by water was vividly wonderful though the changing weather constantly threatened to chase us from the rails to safe hidings within the ferry. We passed several sailing vessels and a remote lighthouse before Duart Castle appeared from the fog. The view across the water stirred stories I had been reading, including one of the history of the Spanish Armada and of the nearby sinking of one of its ships.
Arriving at Craignure, we disembarked and drove the long and winding road (pun if you like), passing through tall ferns, towards Duart Castle. The tour was worth the effort though most important were the stories told by an animated old guide who reminded me of some character from a British TV comedy series. In full regalia including kilt and all the accoutrements, the old gentleman spoke briskly with a most interesting brogue. Of course he was interested in my good ol’ southern drawl as I asked if he knew anything of my Love family who supposedly lived nearby. He expressed in no uncertain terms that it is highly improbable that they ever set foot in the castle. Yes, he said, they may indeed have been septs of clan McLean, though that in no way means they ever lived in the same house. He encouraged me to visit a bookstore and museum in Oban specializing on clan histories. To that directive I would have obliged though the seaport town was now a place in my past …at least for now because we hope to pass through Scotland again on some trip in the future.
Leaving Duart, it would have been wonderful to drive the several hour trip along the loop road around the Isle of Mull. And better yet, it would have been amazing to explore the rugged beauty of Iona which is reachable by way of another ferry from the south of Mull. So many great choices and it always comes down to a matter of time …and money!! So, instead, and realizing the need to push forward, we drove a few miles to the Fishnish Ferry which allowed us to cross the Sound of Mull back onto the mainland of Scotland.
Earlier, at home and with the aid of mouse and computer, I guided my little yellow Google Man along every possible route leading to Edinburgh. I knew we would want to traverse the Scottish Highlands by way of the famed region of Glen Coe. But now, being on the west side of Loch Linnhe, what route would give us the best view of the highlands? I also sought the narrowest, windiest, and most quintessentially Scottish route possible through the scarce populated area that laid before us.
My research effort paid off as I found a one-track road B8043 which crawled down the hills before reaching the waters. There, skirting the edge of a cliff, we drove the narrowest of road which ran along the shore with magnificent views towards the distant mountains. You could see the heart of the region where Scottish clans once battled. We also had the chance to drive through herds of sheep with frequent stops for plenty of photos including that of a schooner anchored offshore. For those fearful of British cars and driving on the wrong side of the road, such a route is simply magnificent, offering a safe change to build confidence behind the wheel.
We drove another 15 miles north along the west side of Loch Linnhe before crossing over another ferry at the village of Corran. From there we headed into Glen Coe, considered to be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It is also the place, where in 1692, a massacre took place in which 38 members of the McDonald Clan were slaughtered or burned to death.
There is an eerie sort of beauty one witnesses while passing through the deep glen. The almost reverent display of fog and cloud silently dances among the craggy mountain tops. Carved by an ancient glacier, this masterpiece of nature is defined by its steep valley walls which, upon reaching the top, quickly turns and rolls suddenly downward to meet the cascading river below. The vision recalls the goings-on of those rugged people who once lived in this desolate region. One can imagine muddy legs and bodies wrapped in woolen kilts tending livestock on the landscape where grass is plentiful. It is so beautiful! Yet, deeply green with dense growth of ferns and other native fauna, even the ground we walked upon purged itself of water with each step we made. Tom Bryan gets it right as you cannot visit this mystical place without expecting to get wet.
Exiting the valley to the east, the view spreads wide with your eyes being pulled slowly downward following the vanishing road where, in the distance, it crosses a contemporary arched bridge spanning the River Etive. Nearby is the King’s House, a B & B once on the military route, which was built by the English army in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rising. Though set in an utterly different context, the view is as grand as that Forest Gump witnessed at the ending of his run among the natural monuments of Arizona. You cannot drive the road without expressing awe in the presence of this display of God and nature.
At this point, the sun was running its race as did we. It would have been nice to visit the lands of Rob Roy McGregor and the Stirling home of Robert the Bruce …but time was against us.
Reaching the outskirts of Edinburgh, I felt this was a city I did not care to drive. It was full of one-way roads and we were coming in on a busy afternoon. We made it to a remote car park as a special news bulletin broke on the radio. Hurriedly preparing to board the bus for the ride into town, we missed the message though heard mention of trouble in town.
Concerning tourism, this was one of Edinburgh’s greatest weekends throughout the year. On tap was the Edinburgh Festival Fringe which “is the single biggest celebration of arts and culture on the planet. For three weeks in August, the city of Edinburgh welcomes an explosion of creative energy from around the globe.” Also, just beyond the drawbridge leading into Edinburgh Castle, a stage was set for an evening extravaganza showcasing the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Performers included the country’s top military drum and pipe band along with the royal marching band. Also, in 2013, the year we attended, a guest group from Korea was invited to perform. In addition, there was a special appearance by the puppet War Horse in celebration of that year’s well received movie of same name. Each night the show ends with an amazing fireworks display taking place above the castle walls. Below are a few pictures taken from the event along with official video showing the entire Tattoo for 2013.
With all this in mind, we rode the bus to Edinburgh old town where we were let off at the North Bridge stop. We had a room reserved at The Scotsman, a really nice hotel once the home of the Edinburgh Newspaper. Getting off the bus and crossing over the main rail station by bridge, we were a bit curious about the many emergency vehicles we saw along the side of the road. Represented were every sort of police, ambulance, and rescue unit imaginable along with vans marked Terrorist Response blah-blah-blah. They all had their lights flashing ….hmmm, not good.
The walk leading to the hotel entrance was lined with groups of emergency workers apparently wrapping up what was going on. My wife and I moved forward to the front desk where we were told that a young Russian couple had just committed suicide two floors above where we were scheduled to stay. We were told they had had made a pact and released two military grade canisters of cyanide gas in their room. Serious Stuff! And the building had been fully evacuated and returned to normal except for the floor where the couple had stayed. Folks from that floor still filled the hotel lobby.
Wow, you can imagine that with all the events scheduled for the day, the emergency response teams assumed the suicide may have been part of some opening volley or part of a massive terrorist plot.
As we checked in, sofas and furniture from the deceased couple’s room was being removed behind us. A lady from Texas was standing near us in robe, upset because she could not get back to her room to finish getting ready for the evening’s performance. As for us, my wife and I made it up to our room where we caught a thirty minute nap before having to head up the Royal Mile towards the castle. The evening went splendidly as did our three-night stay at the Scotsman. It’s sad for the deceased couple …and really for all involved. Though, the excitement will be one that I will always remember. On the next day the headlines went worldwide. Headlines included everything from “Horror on the Sixth Floor” to “Cyanide Suicide” on a copy of the Daily Record which we brought home with us from our trip.