We went to Scotland and Ireland in 2005, yet somehow I am just getting around to writing about it. Why Scotland and Ireland? Because my father had said he wanted to see Ireland. And while he did not live long enough to go, we felt we still should. I also had a theory of doing some genealogy, but events sort of overtook that. Judging from my photos, what we mostly did is drive around and look at rocks - rocks as nature made them, rocks piled in circles or lines, rocks that used to amount to a castle, and rocks that pretty much still made up a castle. We also ate, but I am not generally one to photograph my meals.
So anyway "we" were the four of us left in our nuclear family: Myself, my mother, my brother, and, for about half the time, my sister. We travel fairly well together. It may not, however, have been the perfect group for travel in Ireland, or even in Scotland, for the simple reason that two diabetics and a pregnant woman don't really have much interest in pubs. So, to the extent that Ireland is all about the pubs, I am simply going to have to go back.
The first thing to talk about is driving on the wrong side of the road. It is not all that important, but it is the first thing that you notice. And it is as weird as you would think it is. Weirder because the pedals are still in the same order as home, but the shifter is on the wrong side of your body. But the weirdest part is the things your brain keeps track of without your thinking about them. In the States I am not aware that I ever think much about who is driving. Or if I do, it is in an extremely conscious way. In Ireland and Scotland I sat in the back seat and every once in a while it would pop into my head that mom was driving - and that she really was not paying enough attention to the road. This would cause a panic, followed by my realization that mom was in the passenger seat, and I would relax, until the next time my brain freaked out because the person in the left front seat was not paying attention to the road.
Both Ireland and Scotland are beautiful. Green and mostly rural. The towns are quaint. And pretty much everywhere is clean and neat. Our cabin in Dailly in Scotland was cozy yet had plenty of room. The cabins were a bit crowded together though, so while the View out the back windows was of rolling hills, from the front, it was positively suburban.
Scotland was rather expensive. The prices look about right, until you remember that each pound is about $2, making the price about twice what you were thinking. In addition, we were there right after Katrina so gas was running about $11 a gallon. More on that later.
On our first full day in Scotland we went to Galloway Park. In the evening we went to the Clubhouse at the resort for "authentic Scottish music." It is not often I leave my house to see an accordian duet (accordian and fiddle in the second half) but they were quite good.
We ate many of our meals in Scotland in the cabin, and bought our food at the coop in Dailly, which had lots of fair trade stuff and might otherwise not have been representative. When we did eat in restaurants it was not bad. Not remarkable, but not bad. It was a bit hard to order a meal that did not come with potatoes, but there is generally more variety than I had feared. There was some food I feared, like haggis and steak and kidney pie, but no one made me eat it. And if all else fails, you can always put curry sauce on whatever it is you get as many places serve little pots of curry. I doubt that it lowers the fat content of the meal much, but it is tasty. So all in all the food is not bad. But one cannot be too careful in a country where one can buy haggis, neaps and tatties flavored parsnip chips.
We definitely had some real Scottish weather - mist and rain. I think that the rain is the reason that Scotland, like Seattle, has such incredible flowers, especially the roses.
On another day we went to Edinburgh. Edinburgh itself is very cool, even the 'tourist" mecca of the royal mile is lined with very cool old buildings and you can see many more from the castle grounds. Heard lots of different languages, saw quite the variety of people, and was never crowded or annoyed. Best yet, I never felt like I was in tourist world.
Edinburgh Castle, though, was a bit of a disappointment. Much of it has been built and rebuilt, to the point that the old has been lost. Worse yet, virtually none of it has been left as it was to show you what it was like. There are the royal apartments, a small, very old chapel, and a couple of great halls, one of which was from 1887 - not exactly ancient. As for the rest, it was converted into museum space. One museum on war that mashed all times and events together to the point where is was all a muddle - perhaps to cover up the focus on post 1707 history. One on a specific group of cavalry. One, for some unknown reason, on the post V-E period of World War II. The only one of interest, oddly enough, was the one on the crown jewels. Got more history in Mary King's Close, a tour through old buildings that remain after being cut off at three stories and the County offices built on top of them. What is left is basement dwellings, the bottoms of houses. A window on the physical spaces of people in the 1500's through the 1800's. It wasn't pretty. I wish it had been more furnished, but it was still pretty cool. Exactly the sort of thing that I had wanted out of the castle.
Another thing about Edinburgh, is that while it is usually possible to get around Scotland simply by following the signs, that system breaks down in Edinburgh - a fact that lead to us driving straight up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. Quite the feat since it is closed to cars for a significant stretch before that. Still it was not difficult.
Another day we Went to Kircudbright (Church of Cuthbert), which is sort of a seaside artists town. Or is theoretically one, one supposes from the galleries and the art center, but somehow we missed those parts. The first thing we did was go to the Stewartry Museum. We did this because we parked next to it, but it was a good move for a few reasons. First, it was free. Second, it was very cool: it was on the old 1800's (founded 1892) museum model of lots of stuff in cases, but much of the stuff was very cool and most of it had interpretation that told you what it was. Third, it had a classic people in this area timeline, but this one did not start with Florida Indians like the museums we used to go to while visting my grandparents, and then my parents, in Florida for all those years. Instead, it started about 5000 BC with folks coming into the area. One of the archaelogical sites for that period, Cairn Holy, was nearby, and we had passed a sign for it on the way down, so on the way back we went.
Next thing on the agenda for the day in Kirkcudbright was a walk down High Street - a very picturesque one - and after a brief stop at the library, Broughton House, which had belonged to an extremely popular impressionist artist I had never heard of named AE Hormel. I liked his art, and the house had its moments, but the real thing was the gardens in back, which were phenomenal. From there we eventually found somewhere that would feed us lunch at 3 (a more time consuming process than you would want to think as the Scottish simply do not eat at 3, while it is about the time we seemed to get hungry while there).
Next was McClellan's Castle, really a palatial home rather than a defensive structure, but he bought the property in 1540 and probably never got it finished. It has been roofless and in ruins since about 1752, so what is there, walls, floors, stairs, basement and rooms, is the original. Very cool.
After that, we headed to Cairn Holy, which is a place where people were buried 4 to 6 thousand years ago. There are two cairns, both used over time, and both marked with stones set up as markers, though one is fancier than the other. Surroundings were very rural - field after field of sheep and cows, with mountains visible in the distance.
Another day, one with rather Scottish weather, we went to Ayr. Ayr is a seaside resort, but not a very picturesque one. Found decent food, though, a baby bottle store (drams), and a bank, so all was good.
From Ayr, we drove down the shore route to Culzean (Cullane). the castle looks neat from a distance, and it is cool inside. It was fully furnished as a palatial residence, and there was a papal indulgence hanging on one of the walls. Nevertheless too new (into the 19th century) and too rich to really be my cup of tea. The best parts were the armory - in which the decor was pistols and swords on the wall - lots of them - artistically arranged. And the kitchen, which was huge and full of copper clad cookware and the standard amount of fake food. I finally asked, and yes, there is a company that specializes in historic fake food.
While we were in Scotland, the lead news story in every paper, and every news show, was New Orleans. It was not as intense as being in Morocco for 9/11, but not dissimilar either. Anyone you talked to for any amount of time would bring it up. Americans would try to find out if your news was more up to date than theirs. From the rest, the question was how this could happen in the US? How could there still be dead bodies in the street? Are people really shooting at rescuers? Whatever it was they thought of the US before, this mess is a new and different piece that they did not know what to do with.
Another day, we went to the Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle. The monument is on a tall hill. The displays are spread through the tower and one gets to them via spiral staircase. 246 steps of it. The meat of it -- about Wallace's life -- is at the first level. General famous Scots are at the second level, the building of the monument on the third level, and the top level opens up to an incredible view. The only thing one can see without stairs is the gift shop. It was fairly interesting, and the view alone was worth the price of admission, but I am afraid that mom did not get past the life of Wallace.
Stirling castle was very cool. The displays were interesting, but the only museum was closed. The parts of the castle left were older than those at Edinburgh, though nothing as old as Margaret's Chapel.
The palace, which dates from the 1500's, was intensely cool as they were in the midst of stripping it down to the original and had not closed it off but instead placed interpretive signs to explain the ongoing work and the findings. Obviously, I loved it. Also there was lots of freedom to wander around, though McCallan's it was not.
Grass. It is no wonder that they invented golf in Scotland. The grass was born for it. Everywhere you step, the grass is lush and green and you think that it must be long, but it is green length, and invariably less cushion than you expect. It apparently thrives at that length. Probably also the reason that lawn bowling seems to be so popular. Would love to have this grass at home, but would probably have to put up with Scottish weather to have it.
On another fine day of Scottish weather we took the ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick on the Isle of Arran. The ferry left late and landed late, adding angst to my bus calculations. The bus runs to towns, not to much of the stuff I wanted to see. It loops the island, which would cover the scenery, but 2 1/2 hours on a bus brings visions of DeNali, and the buses don't run often, so each time you get off sets you back about 2 hours. So, when you stop, you are there for two hours whether you need it or not. And if the boat being late made us miss the first bus (which was set to run from the correct time) we would lose even more flexibility. So I started thinking about renting a car on the island. It was possible, but of course, it was the sort of thing that you were supposed to do in advance. So we got the last car, which we called Jean -- an ancient (for a rental car) Renault Megane with 85,000 miles -- for L24, only L8 more than four all day passes for the bus would have cost. He was a rare rental car, in that I remember him fondly, but if we had had to drive him anywhere other than a very small rural island, I think I would have less fond memories.
We drove Jean straight to the stone circles at Machrie Moor. Or straight to the parking for them. Getting to them took a long walk in sideways rain and cold. And it was well worth it. From there we went along a beautiful sea line to Lochranza. The castle there was along the lines of McCallan, but free and not so much of the second floor was left. It was built in the 13th century, and adjusted significantly in the 16th.
The rest of the drive also amazing. Unforunately we missed the distillery tour, though they had fine bathrooms. Also missed a few other spots of interest and landed back in Brodick about 5:20. 40 minutes too early for dinner. Got the classiest place in town to let us out of the cold until 6 when they opened, then had the best food we had while in Scotland. Complete with fresh vegetables. Their specialty was local food, produce, dairy and seafood all from Arran or nearby. Of course, we paid for this.
We got back to the ferry just in time, or it should have been just in time. But this mornings lateness just expanded through the day it was nearly 8 and there was no boat in sight. Lots of time to write though.
After our week in Scotland we headed back to Ireland, starting in the north. I had not heard good things about Irish food, but our first meal was quite good and had properly cooked vegetables, though it also had about pound of butter and a field of potatoes. In fact, I generally enjoyed the food, and really did not run into the steamed celery or other horrors of which I had been told.
The grass in Ireland is longer than that in Scotland, though I would have found it short had I experienced it first.
The police cars look the same as in Scotland, but the police stations did not. They are surrounded by big fences with barbed wire on the top. In Belfast, the police stations are even more fortified. The fences are higher, and the trucks are armored. One sees them with lights and sirens on.
We drove initially to Port Stewart, which is a waterfront town, and has been one since at least 1842 when Thackeray was there. It's good at it. Quaint, with just a touch of beach trashiness. I generally liked it, but we ended up staying in a really loud part of it. While there, we tried to get to the Bushmills distillery, but I had the end time wrong and we missed it. No big deal. Bushmills itself a drab little town, but we caught Dunluce castle on the way back. Another essentially ruined castle. Apparently it started to fall into the sea while they still lived in it. During a dinner party as it were, and took 7 members of the staff with it. A social disaster of mammoth proportions. I concluded that piling rocks on one another is not a sound construction method.
A big difference from Scotland, and one I really was not expecting, was that there were riots in Belfast on the day we arrived in Port Steward that went on into that night. Of course, Belfast was exactly where we were headed on our second day. Everyone had told us that the troubles were over and that there had not been riots for years, that we could get a taxi to take us right down Shankill Road, which was sort of the center The Troubles. The people who told me this were right of course, but that was not much help once the riots started.
We decided to stick with our plans and see how it went. So we had a heavy breakfast in Port Stewart and left for Giant's Causeway. Giant's Causeway is a natural formation of basalt columns formed by lava flows into mostly hexagonal tubes. There are cliff high ones, broken off ones of varying heights to climb on. And so on. It is incredibly cool - and the whole place is beautiful, as is everything around it.
We then went to Dunseverick Castle. Dunseverick is really ruined -- a few walls standing. Not surprising, as it was initially built in the fifth century.
After that we went to Carrick-A-Rede Rope bridge. There is a tiny little rope bridge over to a little island with great views. But again it involves a fair length walk through beautiful country along the ocean. Mom was having nothing to do with the rope bridge, but my sister managed to get across, though she turned rather green. I, as usual, did not see the problem.
We then took the Torr Head Scenic Road, which is the first turn off at Murrough Bay. At first just winding and narrow, but eventually more narrow, more winding, roads. We stopped before the end. The road along the beach went past an old lime kiln, a couple of current cottage type houses, a ruined miner's cabin or two, and a dead sheep. Not to mention phemomenal scenery. Coming back, I realized there is a grass path going the other way. No one else was interested and I walked along it around the next point and back. A very cool space. When we get back up the hill and read the interpretive sign we learned that the ruin of Drumnakill Church was on my left for the first part of the walk. Failed to notice it, but it was built on what Fodors called a "reknowned pagan site."
After that we took a cut through one of the glens of Antrim. Not sure what made it a glen, as opposed to just being as beautiful as everything else. The latter it was. And it had a fine view of the extinct volcano that St. Patrick worked on as a slave and had his first visions. After that we went down to Carrick Fergus, which was closed by the time we got there, but it was a place to stare at the maps and try to figure out how to get ourselves into Belfast without getting killed. I had hoped that the main roads would be fairly safe, but there was a burned car in the middle of the road on the way into Belfast.
We did ultimately arrive safely at our hotel. I must say however, that finding the hotel turned out to be harder than it ought to have been. But we did find it, overlooking a wall that declares the area behind it the home of Loyalist Sandy Row, that is, as I understood it, the folks who were rioting. The desk staff explained that the problems had been in the north and west and not there, which actually appeared to be true. BBC news reported that skirmishes continued into that day, though not as bad as the day before. All in loyalist neighborhoods, all skirmishes between loyalists and the police. Catholics involved only the extent that the riots were apparently set off by the refusal of the police to allow the loyalists to march in a Catholic neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the riots affected real things. We got in to the hotel after its restaurants had closed and called out for pizza. The pizza man said that if he could get there at all it would be in a half hour, but he was not sure he could because there were roadblocks. Fortunately he did. The next day road blocks made it very difficult to get around the city, and pretty much impossible to get to the neighborhood where my grandfather grew up or to the church where his family went. Mom and I took a taxi to GRONI to look at family records, with some success, though their record keeping system at that time was archaic, slow, and difficult to navigate. And we were then supposed to meet the others at PRONI. By the time we got to PRONI by cab (20 minutes to go three miles) it was an hour to close, and by the time that we got checked in, issued our photo IDs, and put our stuff in lockers, they had decided to close early and let their employees go home and mom and I sat for hours - not only to the appointed meeting time, but for the extra time it took Mike and Diane to get through traffic to meet us.
On the news the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that what was happening was not loyalism, but gangsterism, while others said that there were issues that must be addressed, though no one said what they were. We decided to leave Belfast and go south. We saw lines of tanks on the way into Belfast as we left it. And on the news it said that the loyalists were closing roads in City Centre and police had imposed a curfew on businesses. It was good to be out. It occurred to us then that it was really all over for the loyalists. You bomb your own neighborhood, people just think that you are an idiot, but you make them sit in traffic, they will bother to hate you. On the bright side, Belfast and the fact that there had finally been some progress in New Orleans, had knocked Katrina way down the list on the news, though gas prices were still through the roof.
We spent the next night in Bettystown, a garish little beach town in Meath below Drogheda. The area is heavily booked, which the travel agent thought was odd. Perhaps just folks avoiding Belfast. Or not.
In Meath we went to Bru Na Boinne, and to the visitors center, where we were greeted personally by chipper people asking us if we wanted to do both sites (New Grange and Knowth). Of course. Both were way cool. Knowth was lived in over the years, but had many mounds, and the additional humor of seeing them being mowed with Flymo mowers while we were there. New Grange had just the one, and was oddly interpreted in reconstruction - but the inside was the original -- 5,000 years old and looks just as it did. Outside maybe not. Apparently there was a debate about whether the quartz found at the site had orignially been a part of the wall - as decoration - or an outside plaza for rituals. At Knowth it was interpreted as the latter. A Newgrange it was decided that the quartz had fallen off the wall. Not illogical perhaps, but his interpretation led to the construction of a perfectly straight up wall, curved along the mound but not shaped to it at all. I might have believed the quartz pressed into the mound shape, but as this edifice, not at all.
Next we went to the Hill of Slane. It is known as the place St. Patrick had an Easter fire that ticked off the king of the time in 433. It has the ruins of a church and a school. The weird thing is, there was a modern graveyard around the church and in it. Graves were literally within the walls of the ruins.
After that we went to the Hill of Tara. Pretty interesting once I realized that Lonely Planet covered this one well enough to substitute for interpretive signs, which it lacked. (Scotland wins the interpretive sign battle hands down). One thing I should mention that each of these sights had, and was presumably chosen for, incredible views of the surroundings. You could see for miles in any direction from any of them.
After that we headed back. We found a dining guide for the area that had good things to say about a 'modern Irish' restaurant, Bacchus, that was across the street, right on the ocean. The absolute closest place. And it was marvelous. And, while expensive, not outrageous. I had monk fish, wrapped in bacon, on a bed of spinach, with nutmeg cream, and vegetables. Oh, and I split an appetizer with Mike. Prawns, it said. Only, they were not big shrimp, but more like miniature lobsters. The had bodies like them, claws like them, and tails like them, only they were smaller.
We then dropped Diane at the airport and drove cross country to Killarney. A beautiful drive for large parts of it. The hotel turned out to be a Best Western smack in the middle of town and had live music, but we were well-sheltered from both. The downside was that being sheltered gave us a lovely view of the room across the way and nothing else. The room, as usual in Ireland, was too hot, at least when we got there, but eventually cooled down. We had dinner at an "Irish Chop House" and the food was good. The wild boar redeemed the entire species in my eyes, though the venison was best. The vegetables had been frozen though, which is a down point. I also drank a Guiness, thus fulfilling my duty. It really is much better in Ireland than at home, though, horrors, it was served cold.
We went out next day and drove around the Ring of Kerry, which was phenomenally beautiful. It had cool ring forts. And we actually got back in time to have a normal dinner. Ate at Brici, which was really good, though they put too many mushrooms in their food.
The exception to the generally great food, of course, was breakfast. In Ireland the breakfasts in the hotels and B&B's are everything that I hate about breakfast. And since I hate almost everything about breakfast it really isn't good.
The next day we drove the Ring of Beara. It was at least as beautiful or more than the Ring of Kerry, but had less to do. Especially since my centerpiece, the cable car to Dursey Island, was pre-empted when the cars were all booked for cows. I really wanted to see a cable car full of cows, but the next one was too long to wait for. Still, we found ways to amuse ourselves. Actually, the place is overrun with archealogical sites, but would take more walking than we would ever do to reach even a modest fraction of them.
The road on Ring of Beara is a lot rougher than on Ring of Kerry, especially on the north side. And much less populated. Unlike on Kerry we were virtually always alone when we stopped on Beara. Even when we went to larger things like the gardens at Derreen. We finished earlier than I would have expected, largely because of the cows. Also skipped an early garden because we missed it, and the "world's tallest Ogham stone" because the property owner had decided that they want 2 pounds a person, which seemed like kind of a lot for a large rock.
Ireland had better plumbing than Scotland. Both had the silly two faucet sinks, one for hot, one for cold, but at least in Ireland the toilets usually flushed the first time you asked them to. The Irish had also mastered heat, which was often a problem. In Scotland, we controlled the heat in the cabin, but hotel rooms in Ireland are uniformly baking. In Port Stewart, the hotel was heated by coils in the floor. They claimed to have turned it off in the afternoon since it was unseasonably warm, but the floor was still actively hot in the morning. Every hotel room since was too hot as well, hot enough that my first move in each is to assure that the heat is off and open the windows. The room in Dublin, our last stop, was the worst. Opened the windows as far as I could when I got there, but I couldn't get the heat off. I called and they said that they would turn it off, but whatever they did made no difference. At least Mike got the windows all the way open.
In Dublin, we wandered around city center and Temple Bar for a while, had dinner at a Nepalese restaurant called Monty's, which was excellent, and generally gave ourselves the right to claim that we had been in Dublin. We were able to get around it fairly well only thanks to a city map with an excellent street index. The street index is key because street names do not usually cover the entire street, but only a few blocks of it. Sometimes only a single block of it. So you can drive without turning at all for six blocks and have been on three different streets. It is worse than the double faucets, but probably not all that easy to fix.
All in all it was a great trip.