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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Scotland

The first real experience Annie and I had with Scottish people came in of all places, the Canary Islands.  In 1997, to celebrate Annie getting her MBA at Xavier, we took a trip to the islands that belong to Spain but are closer to Morocco.  (Good deal for me I must admit, she studies her butt off for 18 months, I get a nice trip!  I'm boss that way.)  We were there in May, and the Memorial Golf Tournament outside Columbus was going on at that time.  I was hoping to catch some of the action and a Scottish pub ran an ad in a local paper saying they had Sky Sports-PGA golf.

We made our way to the pub and inquired about the golf coverage and the woman working there had no idea what I was talking about.  Annie and I were the only people in the place in the early evening hours, so she patiently tried to find the PGA golf coverage on TV, but came up empty.  Slowly, but steadily the pace began to fill with Scots and before long, we were playing card games and singing songs, including for some reason, the theme to the Monkees.  When the time came for us to leave, the Scots said farewell to "Bill and Annie, our American friends!"  Some of them had even scribbled their home addresses on pieces of paper and offered to put us up in their places if we ever made it to Scotland.  It was a stunning displaying of friendliness and one we remembered for a long, long time.

Those memories stayed with us as we planned our visit to Scotland after our month-long stay in Garches, just outside Paris.  It was good to get back into our on-the-move-groove again after being settled in the townhouse in Garches for 30 days.  That was exactly double the longest time we had stayed anywhere previously on the trip.  Our first stop in Scotland was Edinburgh.

The friendliness that we remembered from our time with the Scots in the Canary Islands continued seamlessly when we arrived in Edinburgh and checked into the apartment we had booked.  The owner of the flat we booked, Alan, could not have been nicer.  He gave us some suggestions for places to eat and spots to get the most out of the Fringe Fest.

In another instance of right place/right time timing on our trip, Fringe Fest happened to be going on when we arrived in Edinburgh.  It's a major event that lasts for almost the entire month of August, and features performers of all types, some doing free shows on the street, while others perform for anywhere from 7 to 20 pounds typically at a wide variety of venues around Edinburgh.

With the weather being good our first day there, we decided to check out some of the street performers.  The first one was a woman dressed in a gaudy red outfit who had enlisted the assistance of a "volunteer" from the audience, (he didn't seem to be very enthusiastic about his duties) to help her get on a ladder and juggle some flaming torches.

As we learned over the next few days, this was a pretty common theme among the performers at this particular spot in Edinburgh.  The street performers would attempt to get upright on a ladder or step stool or in one case a unicycle, engage the audience by enlisting some of its members as assistants and then try to juggle torches or knives or even a chain saw.
We were very entertained and impressed by all of the performers we watched.  They were very funny and great at getting the crowd involved, even if it took stripping down to their underwear.
The streets were filled with people everywhere you looked, with a great vibe buzzing in each and every block.
Our most enjoyable time at Fringe Fest came when we finally took the plunge and bought tickets for an indoor performance.  Lights, Camera, Improvise! is a troupe made up of a half-dozen performers and they focus on movies.  The director comes out, chats up the crowd and with input from the audience, comes up with the premise for a movie.

The performers were hilarious, and Marley and Ben enjoyed it as much as we did, if not more.  We were very glad we checked them out.

Checking out Fringe Fest was one of the many suggestions we got from people who had been to Edinburgh when we put out the call on Facebook about what to do in this great Scottish city.  Another frequent recommendation was to go to the Military Tattoo.

I had never heard of such a thing, but it turns out the displays of military marching bands are held in cities all around the world.  Arguably the most famous is the one held in Edinburgh.  It dates back to 1950 and is staged at a stadium built next to the Castle.

We bought our tickets online while we were staying in Paris and hoped the unpredictable and ever-changing Scottish weather would be good the night we went.

The weather had been a bit dodgy from time to time during our stay in Edinburgh, in other words a typical Scottish summer.  Fortunately, despite some ominous looking clouds earlier in the day, the rain stayed away as we were wowed by the performance.

Marching bands from all across the globe, including the United States,  performed during the concert.  The best part was when the floor of the stadium was filled with bagpipers, who filled the air with a dramatic and emotional sound.

After a few days in Edinburgh, we were ready to hit the road and head north to explore the Highlands.  Our destination was Dornoch, a village on the northeastern coast of Scotland that is home to Royal Dornoch Golf Club, which was the main reason we were heading there.  More on that in a bit.

Renting a car in Scotland meant driving on the left side of the road, something I had done in New Zealand and Australia so I was fairly familiar with the process.   As I maneuvered the car from the rental car parking garage out onto the streets of Edinburgh, I realized I was familiar with driving on the left side of the road but I was not familiar with shifting with my left hand.  It's not the position of the car on the road that makes driving a stick-shift challenging, it's having to change gears with your left hand. 

To get out of Edinburgh heading to the north, we had to drive right through the heart of town.  Due in part to my unfamiliarity with using a stick-shift with my left hand, I managed to stall out our Skoda sedan on Waverly Street, which is in the heart of the tourist district, right by the train station.  After a few menacing honks from the horn of the taxi on my rear bumper, I managed to get the car fired back up again and safely guided us out of town.

We were not heading straight to Dornoch, which was about 5 hours to the north.  Instead, we took a slight detour to the north and west to stop at the William Wallace Monument.  It's in the village of Stirling, and focuses on the famous exploits of William Wallace.
This stop was another one that qualified as personal for Annie. She's a descendant of Wallace, who was a Scottish knight and landowner who led the fight in the wars of Scottish independence against the British.  The movie Braveheart was loosely based on his life. 

The William Wallace Monument looks out over the town of Stirling, one of the main focal points of a key battle against the Brits.  The monument has several displays about the life and times of William Wallace, including (spoiler alert!) his execution.  Executions were pretty popular back in the day.  One of the main squares in Edinburgh was a popular spot for executions, which drew big crowds.  Good thing the internet came along and gave people things to do so we stopped killing each other.  Good job humanity!  Oh, and Al Gore, too!

Dornoch was about three hours away, so we got back in our Skoda and enjoyed the ride through the Scottish countryside to the quaint seaside town.  Just north of Dornoch is the Dunrobin Castle.  It was the not so modest home for the Sutherland clan, dating back to the 1300s.
It towers impressively over large gardens that sprawl out to the sea.

Most afternoons, including the one we choose to visit Dunrobin, a falconry display is put on.  The falcon handler was great, running several birds through a variety of flights, typically flying the birds right over the heads of the crowd that had gathered to watch.

Toward the end of the performance, the falconer designated Ben as his young volunteer for the day.  He had an owl land on Ben's head, bringing a huge smile to Ben's face.
He also gave Ben a chance to feed the owl, wearing the proper protective glove of course.


It was great to have Ben be the co-star of the show, and a bonus not to have his face clawed off.

Our main reason for visiting Dornoch was the golf course there.  It's over 100 years old and was laid out by Old Tom Morris, the first great golf champion.  It's better known for being the training ground for Donald Ross.  He's a native of Scotland who served his apprenticeship as a golf-course architect at Royal Dornoch before moving to the United States in 1899.   Ross became the head pro at Pinehurst and wound up designing several courses there, including the famed Pinehurst #2.

I became familiar with his work when I lived in the Carolinas and loved his natural use of the land he was working with.  This came at a time in the late 80s when people like Jack Nicklaus designed courses that had huge contrived mounds and required a lot of forced-carry shots.  Ross designs are about subtlety which I really grew to appreciate and as I learned more about him, I dreamed of someday going to Dornoch to see where his inspiration came from.  Sometimes dreams come true.

Tee times online for Royal Dornoch were hard to come by, but we managed to get one at three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon.  The weather during our time thus far in Scotland had been a bit dicey, but we started our round under brilliant blue skies and got paired up with a guy from just north of London and his friend from Sydney, Australia. 

We also enjoyed the services of the first caddy that Annie has ever had, other than me of course.  Harry showed up when we were half-way through the first hole, and was an instant help.  He told us over the course of our round that he had played the course for 50 years and had been a member there for 20 some years, and a caddy for about ten.  On a course such as Royal Dornoch, you need all the local knowledge you can get, and he was our own Google machine.

At first he focused on just helping Annie, but as the holes went by, he would give us all advice.  He was a HUGE help as we tried to navigate the mysteries of Royal Dornoch.

The golf course itself was the kind I just love.  It looks like it just oozed out of the sand dunes and took shape over the centuries.  It's the most natural-looking course I've ever played, and it's certainly the most beautiful.

It's also a unique course among links courses in that it has elevation changes.  Most links courses are very flat, but Dornoch is situated on a ridge that overlooks the ocean that has several holes running along it.  The setting provides gorgeous views of the ocean and the holes that run along it.

Royal Dornoch certainly lived up to very high expectations.  I was in heaven strolling the fairways and admiring the bunkering and picturing Donald Ross courses that I had played and seeing the influence that RD had on him.  It was truly magical, even if I wasn't playing that well.

From the very start of the trip, I had been carrying with me a personalized Titleist golf ball.  Starting in Fiji, then in New Zealand and Australia and again in Singapore and then in Spain, I had managed to keep the ball with BANGERT printed in blue letters from finding a watery grave or getting lost in dense undergrowth.  The original plan was for me to try to take the ball all the way around the world and bring it back home with me.  But as we got close to the end of the round, I told Annie I had a change of plans.  I wanted to leave a piece of me there at Royal Dornoch.

So, as we walked off the 18th green in the fading daylight, (the round took over 5 hours!), I noticed some deep rough and decided that looked like a place where a golf ball could remain untouched for quite some time.  I turned and gave the ball my best Jay Bruce throw and watched it sail into the tall grass.  Someday, someone will find it and wonder what BANGERT is or signifies.

We exchanged pleasantries with our playing partners, knowing (thankfully) that we would never see them again. (The guy from Australia was an annoyingly slow player who wasn't good enough to take as much time lining up his shots as he did.)  Our parting with Harry included some genuine heartfelt feelings, we really enjoyed having him as a caddy.  He made a wonderful golf experience even better for Annie and me.

Dornoch is perfectly situated for exploration of the Scottish Highlands.  And that's what we did after our time there.

Our goal was to get to the northwestern coast of Scotland, and have lunch in the town of Lochinver.  The drive there was fascinating.  The landscape was much hillier than I imagined and was very barren.  It was a reminder of just how far north we were.
Lochinver was the farthest north any of us had ever been.  The roads getting there were basically one-and-a half lane roads that would have frequent spots to pull off to the side to let cars coming the other way pass by.  That set-up led to the occasional situation where two cars would be heading into a one-lane stretch with no passing bays between them.  One of the cars would stop, put it in reverse and back up to the nearest passing bay, hoping no one was coming up quickly behind them.  Surprisingly enough, the system worked well.

Lochinver proved to be worth the effort it took to get there.  It's a quaint little village on the banks of Loch Inver with a few restaurants along the waterfront.

There was also a playground that the kids enjoyed checking out, it's always great to see them get off their devices (laptops, iPads) and just be children for a while.  The drive out of Lochinver continued to expose us to some beautiful landscape as well as the occasional rainbow.

The frequency with which we saw rainbows triggered a family concept based on the Discovery Channel show, Storm Chasers.  That's where teams of meteorologists chase down tornadoes each spring in a show that's very interesting.  We decided that we were Rainbow Chasers, and I was the head-strong emotionally driven leader of the team named Beau Hunter.  It was fun to drive along, pretending to be the Rainbow Chasers.

Marley recorded some videos of our team in action and we had a great time as a family chasing rainbows.  It was a pursuit that would continue into our time in Ireland.

Our final stop in Scotland was just outside of Glasgow.  The best part of our stay there was that the apartment we found, which had three bedrooms so the kids didn't have to share a room, was that it was a short walk to the train station at Bishopton.  One of my favorite parts of the trip has been traveling by train whether it's an overnight train from Hanoi to Sa Pa in Vietnam, or traveling through Italy or Spain on the rails or just taking the local tram system like we did in Melbourne Australia.

The train into Glasgow was one of our favorites of the trip, in part because the main train station in town was beautiful.


It was clean and busy and filled with people going to a wide variety of destinations and really everything we were looking for when we decided to take this trip.

Glasgow is, like many European cities, very walkable.  There is a pedestrian walkway through the heart of the central city area, with shops and restaurants and cafes.

It's also the home to Charles Mackintosh, an influential designer in the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. We really like his style and it was great to see elements of his influence in several parts of town.
After ten days in Scotland, we were happy to find that our initial experience with Scottish people 15 years earlier was a true indication of what we would encounter in 2012.  They were definitely the most friendly people we met during our nearly 9 months on the road.  Now it was time to compare the Scots and their land with the people and places in our next destination:  Ireland.













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