Thursday, 6 August 2009

Day 25 - Scotland East Coast - From Thurso to Inverness - Dunrobin Castle - Hundreds of dead African animals, and some fantastic live ones

The weather continues to hold. And I got sunburnt today (the weather gods' revenge on my previous complaints), while watching a falconry display at Dunrobin Castle, between Thurso and Inverness. The 13th century castle has been amended and extended, so that today it is more of a very large, grand and ornate manor house.But the spirit of the castle still persists, given it's imposing height and architecture, position on a steep hill, and fantastic gardens. It was one of the highlights of my trip. Do yourself a favour, and go see it.

But the undoubted highlight is the display of falconer Andy Hughes and his birds of prey on the lower lawns of the castle. He gives a superb exhibition with his hawk, falcon and barn owl. Displayed in succession, each bird's characteristics and behaviour comes to the fore. Andy moves between the audience, and the birds fly low over their heads, and sometimes - in the owl's case - land on someone's head.

But the birds are wild. They simply allow Andy to feed them on an ask-and-reward system. So each time they fly back to Andy's hand, he gives them a piece of raw chicken. However, if he stopped feeding them, they'd happily fly off and find their own food.

You get to see the birds right up close, and Andy's knowledge is extensive, and he puts on a great show as well. You will be thoroughly entertained and educated. A must-do. Please don't miss it, so find out more at the Dunrobin Castle website. Also in his ranks, but not displayed to our audience today, are other birds such as the golden eagle, which can be viewed in the garden as well on their open-air perches.

Also at Dunrobin Castle is the museum of the Earl of Sutherland's hunting exploits in the 19th century in Africa. Be prepared for some disturbing viewing. There are hundreds of stuffed heads of once proud and beautiful African animals...from giraffe, to elephants, to buffalo, to the smallest animal and the largest. It's not for everyone, but it is a shocking reminder of how precious the remaining populations of wild animals are.

I then moved on to Inverness, and couldn't find any accommodation (it was the first night I hadn't planned in advance). During peak holiday season, make sure you don't make the same mistake. I eventually looked up on, and found a spot overlooking Loch Ness, about 20 minutes inland from Inverness. Craigdarroch has great views of the loch - rooms are very spacious and comfortable. The food needs some attentions (my Thai Curry was rice and sauce - for £13!), but it may have been a one-off mishap. But it's a very relaxed atmosphere for such a grand building and location, and the South African owners keep a convivial bar where guests can carouse until the late hours.

Dunrobin Castle on the way from Thurso to Inverness. Click for a full screen version.

Dunrobin's museum of dead African animals, shot by the Earl of Sutherland during the 19th Century. If you're an animal lover, this might be too much for you.

Andy Hughes gives a superb "falconry" display at Dunrobin, which shouldn't be missed. He demonstrates various birds' (including the above barn owl) behaviourial characteristics, in a highly entertaining and educating display. Don't miss it!

Day 24 - Scotland North Coast - Thurso & Mey - People at the end of the island

Have you ever been somewhere remote? (I hope so!). Now think of someone who lives there. What do you think of them?

My experience is that some of the nicest people live the furthest from cities and towns. Funny how we spend our whole lives working busily to earn the right to slow down and live a simple life. Some folk get straight to the good stuff, and forego the ratrace.

Chris and Karen van Rooyen run a small B&B called Creag-na-Mara, within stone's throw (okay, probably a superhero's javelin throw) of Dunnet Head. According to the map, they live in the village of East Mey, to the east of Thurso. But that's just the map. In reality, the village doesn't exist (at least not in the way we think of a village), and their views extend over wheat fields and the north sea. To the left is Dunnet Head, and up ahead are the Orkney Islands.

Karen taught me a new word today: "Haar". It's the Scottish word for "thick, misty haze that is blown in strongly from the sea and stops you from seeing anything further than a few hundred metres away." I experienced "haar" in it's full glory when I visited Dunnet Head that evening. The wind was pumping, the sky so hazy I couldn't see the Island of Stroma (click to see on Google Map), hardly two kilometres off-shore.

Dunnet Head on the evening I visited. The above belies the howling wind and thick haze...the sun is almost blotted out. Despite being perched on the cliffs, about 100 metres above sea level, the lighthouse's windows have been broken by rocks flung up by waves and wind during storms. Click for full screen version.

Anyway, the Van Rooyens are proof that you don't need to have high-speed broadband to be happy. So for once, I couldn't upload any content to my blog, and probably better off for it. Instead, Chris and Karen got chatting to me, and we chatted some more...and then we stared out the windows, and stared some more. They've got 270 degree views of the farm fields, and in the distance, Dunnet Head.

Chris is a former traffic warden who loves laughing, and Karen used to work as a commercial property lawyer who swapped the courts for the cows of the north coast of Scotland. "We thought we could live a better life up here...more simply," said Chris.

The next morning there wasn't a sniff of "haar". So I headed back to Dunnet Head to see if it could show a softer side. Well, it did, and here's the proof below. The distant island to the right of the photo is Stroma Island, which I couldn't see the evening previously because of the haze...

Dunnet Head the following morning, when the sun was shining and the "haar" had disappeared. Click for full screen version.

The view from Creag-na-Mara B&B's lounge. To the right in the distance is Dunnet Head. Click for full screen versioin.

Cameron Clan Gathering in Achnacarry - videos

I've finally managed to find a decent Internet connection in northern Scotland! I'm staying at Craigdarroch House, which looks out over Loch Ness. I made the mistake of not booking any accommodation in advance in Inverness - during peak holiday season. Bad idea. I spent three hours knocking on B&B doors, and got into a hostel, only to find that I was going to share a dorm with six teenage Slovakian guys, who - the receptionist told me - had a knack of going crazy at 3 in the morning.

So, with plenty of Megabytes flowing here, I've uploaded one of the music videos from the Cameron Clan Gathering, which I attended when I stayed at Corriegour Lodge Hotel. Give it a listen, but it's a big file, so make sure you've got high-speed Internet access. I'll upload some more in the coming days.