Friday, August 23, 2013

My First Cottage on Skye

Excerpted from Gimme the Song o' the Pipes.
This is from my first intended trip to Skye, Fall, 2009.
Fooh is my companion bear who hails from Salisbury.

What was it like to live on Skye?
Couldn’t say ~
the faeries threw dust in my eye.

   I am excited to see my little cottage I have rented for a week but also apprehensive. I reserved the cottage to save money, but now realize it was probably not the thing to do, as I will be alone with no human companionship. Am looking forward to pretending we live here. There are high wind warnings over the Skye Bridge: all ferries are grounded and I hold my breath, imagining my little Corsa wafting through the air and into the tossing waters as we pass Gavin Maxwell’s cottage on Eilean Ban, the little island now under the bridge.

   I find my small settlement and turn left on a tiny road next to open space and a farm. Here she is: a small, white house built in 1890. I have precise directions and park next to the cute wooden fence and gate. The back door opens to a three-foot-deep entry porch, where I can hang coats. As I open the door to the tiny kitchen, the reek of mildew hits us.

   I look around briefly, leaving the door open for Fooh, who is left on the counter, gasping for clean air; am upstairs when I hear my host. I come down the narrowest stairs I have ever encountered in a house and here she is: bigger than life. I had expected a small woman musician. She is woman-sized, big voiced and friendly. I am welcomed and off she goes, tramping out into the chilly rain wearing a long, loose dress of flowers and purple thongs. Fooh is not partial to eau de mildew and opts to sleep in the car. I bring in my gear and set to creating a home.

  Not wanting my clothes to take on the mildew effect, I limit my clothing exposure to the open air. The cottage is adorable; the sitting room has a tiny original fireplace, with stone hearth. Upstairs is a bath and small bedroom, decorated in shabby chic. There is another door with a ‘no entry’ sign—a sure way to get me to sneak in.

  Up the road is the Co-op in Broadford, which is a nice store with almost everything. I buy my week’s groceries, including dark molasses sugar for my oatmeal, a great deal on a bag of tangerines for Fooh, along with his favorite chocolate biscuits--and laundry soap. They ask me at the counter if I want a Co-op card. I say no, just here for a week. This was my mantra last time all around Britain and will be this time. Why not just get the darned card?

  At ‘home’ I have my comfort food of a large plate of spaghetti and steamed veggies. Never yet have I figured out how to work the television at B&Bs so I read instead, delicately licking my violet creams, with hot tea. It is very chilly in here--toes and nose are frozen. I find a card on the table with house information. The biggie I see is the heat, which is only on from 8-9 a.m. and 6:30-7:30 p.m. Water is heated at 7:30-8:45 a.m. and 8-9 p.m. Her webpage had never mentioned I would be responsible for buying firewood and coal, and I paid ten pounds for utilities; now I understand the several references to the ‘romantic fireplace’.

  At bedtime, I pull the pretty red floral covers back and the odor of old wet washcloths rises up to my of my least favorite odors. Immediately alerted, old dog-nose me sniffs pillow isn’t too bad, but I tear off the sheets and sleep under the duvet.

4 October:  After a hot bath and oatmeal, the stinky towels and sheets head to the launderette. Fooh says, “Better to just get on with it than complain.” I am told at the Co-op that there is no internet cafe in the area. The lady in the information shop informs me of Saucy Mary’s Hostel in Kyleakin, where I can use wifi for free. Off we go .

Mary’s sits on Loch Alsh and from here, we can see the mainland and Kyle Lochalsh. The tiny shop at the hostel carries an impressive array of merchandise and offers a computer, wifi and a small counter that seats four easily. I sit for two hours and order a latte to remain welcome. This is a popular lodging and close to the Skye Bridge, convenient for those traveling by train and bus.

  The weather is off and on drizzling as we walk through the wet grasses toward the ruins of Castle Maol, a keep built on the headland...I have forgotten to put on my rain pants. They will be a staple on this trip, I suspect. Tradition has the castle built around 900 CE, by the Norwegian princess nicknamed Saucy Mary (wife of the 4th MacKinnon chief), who stretched a gigantic chain across the Kyle to extract tolls. The chain is also attributed to the heavy-duty Celtic woman-warrior Sgathach (ska-hah). This Kyle was a shortcut, rather than using the west side Minch and Little Minch, to get back and forth around the Isles.

  The Minch (An Cuan Sgith) is believed to be the site of the largest meteorite ever to hit the British Isles. It divides Skye and the mainland from the Outer Hebrides of Lewis, Harris and Uist.

   On the way home, I tell the cashier at the Coop about my problem with the heat. He entreats me to just buy the coal and kindling and get myself warmed up. I say I’m going to freeze on principle, because my host must bank on people heating the place to keep the mildew out and I’m not spending money to take care of her house. Oh dear, Mrs. Curmudgeon is raising her ugly mug—I should be blushing but am not…yet. My friendly cashier gives me prices in case Mrs. C snaps out of it: Kindling, £4; wood, £4; and coal, £9—this, for maybe two nights! That would add about £60 to my rental, not including the £8 for laundering the smelly linens. As usual, my attempts to be frugal have bitten me on the arse.

   At the cottage, I turn on the stove to provide heat. Paper towels are not provided, nor any sponges or bathroom cleaning materials, soap, shampoo—nada. With no breakfast either, I feel like a fool. I have really had no conversation with anyone in my five nights this trip, just brief encounters; I am a shade passing through.

  Still working on another profile for the newspaper and literally chilling out! I am beginning to worry about Fooh out in the cold, but he’s covered with fur, so I decide to go to bed in my clean linens. My yogurt container/chamber pot is perfect for a situation like this, as it is close to frigid with the damp—who wants to walk half asleep to the bathroom? If needed, I will just keep my eyes closed, slide out of bed to the floor and then crawl back into my cozy covers.

5 October: A hot bath puts me right for awhile, even though the cottage is cold. As I cool off, it dawns on me that I am definitely getting the feel of Skye if I were poor and a crofter. They heated with peat; in fact, I am to discover peat is still a common fuel used in the isles - there certainly is enough of it here. The cottage is so adorable though. There are a few pale roses in the garden, still in bloom, and a low palm, along with trees. It is all picturesque, with cows and horses across the lane and the view of the Kinloch Mountains across the wet green fields. I love this isle, no matter the chill or wet—it is still mystical ~

   Just around the corner is the turn to southwest Skye and Armadale’s Castle Donald. The MacDonalds arrived from the southern Hebrides in the fifteenth century, living at Dunscaith on Loch Eishort, on the other side of this Sleat Peninsula, and also at Duntulm, on north Trotternish.
  This isle is all peninsulas, reaching out in every direction. When I look for it on the map, I always see it as the Rampant Lion of the Royal Flag of Scotland (having a penchant for Rorschach inkblots). By the way, this flag is older than the Scottish Flag that has St. Andrew’s cross. Though it is now a secondary flag, it is used by the monarch and represents loyalty to Scotland—and may be waved at football and Highlander games.

   Members of the Clan Donald were the Lords of the Isles, during medieval times. This ended in 1493, when King James IV revoked the title; thus, the clans, especially the MacLeods, no longer felt compelled to pledge allegiance to the MacDonald chief. 

  By the 1650s, the MacDonald chiefs lived at Armadale as well as the other castles, though the dower house here later became a rental. Because the Clan MacDonald of Sleat took no part in the Jacobite uprisings, their Sleat possessions remained intact. Around 1790, Lord MacDonald returned to the property to build a mansion house here. The beautiful landscaping was continued at that time, as a demonstration of landed aristocracy.
   In 1815, a mock-castle was constructed next to the mansion, but much of it was destroyed by fire in 1855. The central section was rebuilt, though the family abandoned the home in 1925, which led to its ruin. Ironically, the original house, the Somerled building, still survives intact but is neither impressive nor available to the public, as it is used for offices. Strange. And even stranger is how the ‘castle’ could fall apart so quickly—there are only walls, windows and fireplaces, along with some stairs that go nowhere. The royal ‘We’ are not impressed, but it has become a special folly for weddings.

  Fooh and I stroll through the pretty gardens then head for a walk up the Cnoc Armadail path. It’s very swampy and sloppy. We’d planned to go to the other side of the peninsula, where there are ruins of settlements, but it’s too mucky. I take my first correct panoramic photos of the hills and across the Sound of Sleat to the mainland—the changeling sky and mist, and purple heather and red bracken drying in the cool of fall, take my breath.
  Tired but happy, we make our way down the hill almost to the stables, frothing for afternoon tea and crumpets, when Fooh announces he doesn’t see my burgundy, crocheted scarf that daughter Woo gave me—my favorite. More tired and exceedingly frustrated, I make my way back almost to the top of the hill and find where the scarf had caught onto a branch when I’d picked up a bit of heather.

  The tea and carrot cake are now an anti-climax, but still good. They have a nice shop here and I get some soap for me and my kid, and some elderberry wine in honor of my coming birthday. I won’t have to drink alone—Fooh has never celebrated a birthday and looks forward to having a nip—I, on the other hand, imagine us two teetotalers having a good-ole rousing head-nod instead of a gay party bash. 

  Thinking there is a village named Aird at the end of Sleat, we drive past the isolated croft houses til I have to turn around. There is only a small church. That’s it. We could park right here and take a wonderful walk to the end of the peninsula.

  On the way back, I turn into the wrong lane...a small slip but potentially deadly! Again, I was talking to myself. Am tired of having no one to talk to. Who did I speak to today? Gas station, ticket man at castle, person I paid at tea, person I paid in shop. No more than yes, no thank you. This will not do...though Fooh says I chatter aloud so much, there is no chance of my tongue getting rusty.

  When we get home, Fooh becomes an indoor guy, now to sleep under the blanket instead of in the car. The lingerie I washed this morning is sopping, so gets hung above the hot stove burner--I will get my ten pounds worth of utilities.

~ ~ ~

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mad to get to Skye

Love is better the second time around!
Fooh, my companion from Salisbury, England.
Close on the hounds the hunter came... Sir Walter Scott
2 October, 2009: Rejoice, rejoice! We’ve made it to Scotland again. After a hackle-raising night alone in a huge Victorian B&B, with the owner up the road and a weird grocery clerk down the road who was aware of my lone night with Fooh (a 20-pound-deal sleepless night, listening for creepings up the stairs), I am a bit fuzzy.
   North of the border, past Dumfries, to Thornhill, with the idea of having lunch in town, then tea at Castle Drumlanrig. Am hoping to talk to Dorothy, the chef, who had offered a job to my chef daughter, Woo, the last time I came through. The owner of the Drumlanrig Cafe makes a deal with me for four pounds of violet creams for £18. They go in the back seat, where sugar-crazed fingers can reach them at all times.  
   Then to the bathroom by a parking lot. I just sit down, when I hear the clump-clump of boots and the sound of a zipper going down by the sinks. Oh my god. It’s the grocery clerk—he’s found me in the toilet! Fearful of encouraging the wrong sort of chap, I remain quiet til he leaves. I finish quickly and rush outside to find I have gone into the men’s room. This calls for a photo of the sign, just to remember when...

  At the castle, there are about thirty dark green Rovers parked all over by the entrance, with perhaps fifty to sixty men and a sprinkling of women, all in woolen knickers, vests and wellies. It has the definite feeling of a hunt, sans les horses, with lots of energy and activity. I keep waiting for the horn to call the hunt. They all look at me in my skirt and raincoat; I probably look preoccupied and scowling, because I am figuring the castle is closed and am not happy we will miss our tea.  

Castle Drumlanrig
   As we walk toward the stables, I meet a be-knickered and wellied man and ask him if the castle is open. "It closed yesterday for the season." Shucks, I say. He by now has deduced I am an American. I ask if they are going on a hunt and where are the horns? He chooses to be cagey and gives me some information about the use of hunting horns, which are integral to the hunt.     
   The hounds are trained for the horn and the voice. ‘Tally Ho’ is when the rider sees the fox—I actually never knew that. In a hunt, the condition of the riders can be detected by their voices, whether they are fresh or fatigued, loud or distant. The horn calls announce all activity, from moving off, drawing, bringing back the hounds, leaving cover and finding the fox.
   Gavin, my friend for the day, says a huntsman has to think like a hound. I am giving my best English interjections of ‘Fancy!’ and ‘Did you ever?’ and Fooh in the backpack giggles behind my ears. Gavin describes the sport. ‘You think of a hunt as being organized and focused, but it can become complete mayhem. The hounds get distracted and sometimes lost, riders go off course and even the hunt master can’t be found.’
Stables Shops at Drumlanrig
  I wish him good secret adventuring and go to the castle outbuildings, looking for life. Here is a lone woman cooking in a stables shop. She tells me to ignore the north part of Galloway, which is the old industrial area and not pretty. I am supposed to go over the Erskine Bridge, before Glasgow, which advice turns out to be my downfall ~  
   We go northwest toward Kilmarnock. I have begun to fill my hunger pangs with violet creams and rather enjoy the villages and housing, clearly the aftermath of the industrial era: Dark granite-looking attached houses lined along the road, all the same and not too many souls walking around. I am driving toward Glasgow and looking at my newer map, much too small to get it right and miss any suggestions of Erskine Bridge. This is where frustration begins to rumble in my brain and then, over these two and a half hours, turns into anger and panic. I cannot find the bridge and there is too much traffic everywhere in this god-forsaken city that I am stuck in again.
   We wind up in a quiet area and Fooh suggests we stop at a small store to catch a man outside his car. ‘How do I get to Erskine Bridge?’ He starts to tell me then asks, ‘Where are you going?’ I say, ‘Loch Lomond.’ He says, ‘You don’t need Erskine Bridge then—you are on the other side already!’ I argue with him (as I am wont to do when completely confused), unable to imagine how I could have gotten to the other side of the Clyde without knowing it. He tells me I didn’t use a bridge, I simply went too far and wound up in Glasgow and around the other side. I write him off as nutty and drive away, but some little voice tells me to remember his directions anyway and I find Dumbarton in spite of myself.
   Meanwhile, it has begun to rain and get dark. We see a sign for a B&B and turn up a rough, pot-holey dirt road, which goes on forever. I continue to be frustrated, with the agitation of having missed lunch and tea and being hungry and knowing if I find this place, I will have to come back down this way to find nourishment. I do find the B&B, and she wants £50. No way Jose will I go down and come back for robbery, so I inevitably, in my hunger, go down a wrong road and wind up at the woman’s lower farm. A worker says, ‘Oh aye, ye’ve just come down her other road and missed the turn—it’s funny-like.’ Two hungry bears don’t find much humor in it.
   Soon, we are back on A82, in driving rain, pitch black but for blinding headlights. The other cup holder is now filled with violet creams, which I nibble each time I stop. We are on the narrow road along the loch and it seems hours of miserable, hair-raising half-misses—either a car on the ‘opposite’ side of the road (all the same lane really) or the hill on my left; I marvel I haven’t hit one or the other...and the spreading strobe-lights in the downpour are destroying my vision. Out of the blackness, the Ardlui Hotel appears on the loch side. Grateful for my big English Glencoe umbrella, I run to the door and book a room—no matter the cost--and I devour a veggie burger in the quiet pub.  
   Good lighting is still hard to come by in the UK. Not as bad as Costa Rica, but they do try to save here. I set up my laptop, though trying to take the shade off of a lamp gets me in trouble, so I let it be. My pudding arrives and I’ve forgotten pudding in Britain means a cakey thing with Crème Anglaise or rummy sauce. Not in the mood, I don’t finish it and head to the car for more violet creams. Fooh has developed a decidedly gourmet palate, so I am surprised that he has gotten into my cheap violet chocolates himself.    
   My discontent in my room might have something to do with the noise that has started up with a rumble and now is a constant vibration and party voices coming from the walls. It seems I have been given a room above the party pub. I am moved into a twin room not nearly as well furnished, only heated by a radiator in the bath, and a high window has a broken hinge. The attendant acts like it’s okay and closes the curtain; I am freezing and the traffic from that small crazy road is loud, so I climb up and fix the darned hinge. Hardly any light again but this is the price for being a small town, small time reporter. I must get my articles done for the newspaper back home.
   3 October: I sleep and wake up smiling, thinking of Skye. Instead of the prepared corner table in the dark, I grouse--'dark, dark, dark'-- and pick a nice light table in the middle of the dining room, so I can see the loch outside. At this point, a man comes in grumpily to join some people at the large window table and says, ‘Aye, it’s pretty grim out there.’ I laugh—someone to match my own curmudgeonly mood.   
River Coe prehistoric monster!
  Rain, rain—pouring, then finely sprinkling, then wild and wooly...but all beautiful. We are in Scotland! The rain stops and starts and I splash through it at 60 mph and it doesn’t bother me at all. We turn onto the small road that goes through the forest at Glencoe, past the hostel and over the River Coe.
Little people watching us.
  On goes my poncho, so I can get out and take photos of green mossy things and a red telephone booth. It is lush, with twisting trees and rotting stumps covered with ferns; if I look carefully, I can see the little people peering out in curiosity, but I’d never take their picture...Fooh says soul stealing and all that.  
  We see a whole rainbow over Loch Linnhe on North Ballachulish by Onich. So enthralled, I take a panoramic photo and again, it is backwards. Now I realize how to do it. I make a mistake in memory and follow the turn to Glenfinnan, forgetting I had seen it last time on the way back from the Skye ferry at Mallaig.
My backwards rainbow on Loch Linnhe
Bonnnie Charlie from France met clans here, before
third Jacobite uprising and Culloden disaster.
   This time, I get shots of the ‘Hogwarts’ train trestle, sorry there is no steam train to Hogwarts. I am taking a shot of the Standard tower amid clouds and gorgeous light, when I hear the train steam-whistle blow. By the time my camera finishes its focusing and shutter movement, I spin around to get a shot of the train and there is only a long, puffy trail of smoke. So I shoot the smoke in the trees and have done with it. Am mad at myself for missing that wonderful photo op...and the magic of seeing the train travel across the trestle. Fooh, on the other hand, has been sitting in the car park, with a straight view of the train and trestle, and is in Harry Potter ecstasy.  
   Ten miles from Mallaig, I realize my mistake. I think about going ahead and taking the ferry across to Armadale, but I am driving along the Strait of Sleat and the wind is quite bad and waves are huge, so I turn back, figuring the ferry won’t be running. Good choice, it turns out.  
   A freaky thing happens. There is a sharp left turn into a one-car, low stone tunnel, and cars are warned to slow way down. I am busy loudly berating myself about the steam engine and the wrong road travelled, when I get to the tunnel and turn. A car comes through the tunnel and I slam on my brakes like mad, then swerve into the tunnel. Fooh admonishes me after we get through safely that I could have killed someone and us, had there been anyone behind that car.     My imagination has been running rampant lately and the thought crosses that perhaps I have come here to die. For me, there would be no better place and I now have visions of having my expired body chopped up and tossed to the eagles. Even though this seems a viable option to ending a meandering life, I have just escaped one opportunity to leave the planet. It is celebrated with a few violet creams ~ ~ ~ ~

Excerpted from Gimme the Song o' the Pipes! Crazy American Lady on Tour in Historical Scotland