March 29, 2007

How I long for the bonnie banks...

It's been thirteen years now since I first read The Electric Brae by Andrew Greig, a book subtitled A modern romance and one that spoke to me during that summer after my sophomore year at Wabash and just before I headed to Scotland for a year of study at the University of Aberdeen. The book is still one of my favorites, and I now own that library copy in which I found my then ex-girlfriend's (now wife's) bookmark just a year later. I've probably read the book a half dozen times, and I still pick it up every couple of years for a read through.

The Electric Brae itself is little more than a hillside in the county of Ayr in southwest Scotland where the landscape provides the illusion that anything allowed to roll freely down the road is actually rolling uphill.

The landmark may have disappointed me if I'd ever made it to that part of the Ayrshire countryside, but my year spent in Scotland certainly didn't come even remotely close to disappointing me. I learned more about myself in that year - a year that I spent in the company of people who had no idea who I was and where I was entirely free to define myself as I chose - and I thought I'd take a post to point out some of the wonderful places that I was lucky enough to see in that year.

From my reading of the Brae, I had one item on my list of sites that I had to see, and that was the Old Man of Hoy, a stone formation that stands on the coast of the Orkney Islands, a long ferry ride from the north coast of Scotland. I finally made it to the Old Man - or at least the ferry I was on made it past the Old Man on its way to Stromness, home of the Piers Arts Centre that I absolutely fell in love with. The Orkneys also hold the wonders of Skara Brae, a 5000-year-old archeological site, and the beautiful and simple Italian Chapel.

The Orkney Island weren't the only bits of Scotland not attached to the mainland to which I bumbled. There was the Isle of Skye, the gorgeous island to the west of Scotland. I spent a few days there with Kristen, but that was in the spring of 1995, before the Skye Bridge opened up, connectin Kyle of Localsh and Kyleakin. It may be more convenient to get to Skye now, but I'm happy that I got to kill a Sunday morn with Kristen killing time in a pub 'til the first ferry of the morning headed across the Kyle.

There was also the Isle of Arran where Luke, Kristen, and I bumbled around from the adventure playground past beautiful waterfalls and toward a gap that we never quite made it to - never really knowing whether it was just 'round the next curve or twenty miles down the path. I also got my only chance to play miniature golf in all of Scotland while we were on Arran.

The island were gorgeous, but I actually spent a lot more time in the cities of Scotland:
  • The city that I got to know best was, of course, Aberdeen. I walked from my flat in Hillhead Hall through gorgeous Seaton Park past the Machar on the way to the old University. Hillhead was only a ten or so minute walk from the North Sea, and I spent many an afternoon or morning walking the beach, and one amazing morning watching the sun rise (at 4:00 in the morning) over the ocean on my last day in Abdereen.
  • There were a couple of visits to Edinburgh with its Royal Mile dominated by the imposing Castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other. Princes Gardens parallel that Royal Mile and are an amazing example of metroscaping - having originally been a loch that the city filled in to make a wonderful park.
  • As the industrial mirror image to Edinburgh's seat of culture, Glasgow. The sandstone city still reflects its industrial roots but does have some wonderful museums: the Burrell Collection, Kelvingrove art gallery, and the amazing Botanic Gardens. I spent a couple of lonely days in Glasgow between travelling partners - having left Luke after seeing Stonehenge (England's sites will come another day) and before I met up with Kristen in...
  • Ayr - home to the aforementioned and illusory Brae. There wasn't much to see in Ayr, but nearby Culzean Castle (more on that in a few lines) was worth the trip.
  • I took two trips to Inverness - the largest city near Loch Ness, so the city most well known as part of the Highlands. In all honesty, Inverness didn't make much of an impression on me. Sorry for even mentioning it, folks.
  • St. Andrews, on the other hand, was gorgeous and beautiful right on the Firth of Fourth. The Royal and Ancient was beautiful, even for somebody who isn't all that into golf, and across the way is a beautiful ruined abby.
And Scotland just wouldn't be Scotland without some castles:
  • My absolute favorite - and one I got to visit probably four times - was Dunnottar Castle overlooking the lovely town of Stonehaven. Dunnottar is stunning on the coast, overlooking the sea, looking entirely impenetrable. Dunnottar was an hour bus ride from Hillhead, and I took the ride a number of times, sometimes enjoying the cliff walk back into Stonehaven.
  • I also visited the two most well-known (or at least most oft seen) castles of Scotland - Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness, many of the pictures of which contain some American pointing out into the inky depths of the Loch and looking foolishly amazed - and Eilean Donnan out on its island, something that most photographers seem to have never stepped foot on. I made it onto the island, however, and was lucky enough to be greeted by a lovely dead sheep just over the railing of the bridge as it opened onto the island. Good times, folks
  • There were also a number of much more well-appointed castles such as Glamis Castle - home to the Hamlet-imortalized Thane of Glamis - and Culzean Castle complete with its room still reserved for President Eisenhower in honor of everything that he did for the world in leading the allied forces in WWII.
  • And finally there was the most ruined of all the castles - Slains Castle - must more well knows for the Bullers of Buchan that it overlooks. The Bullers are a gorgeous cliff that has been undercut by the sea and hosting some amazing cliff scenery and - weirdly enough - puffins.
I feel as though I've slighted the nation of Scotland, but this is what I've got to offer today.

Oh, that and one of the rockin'est versions of "Loch Lomond":

1 comment:

JanetElaineSmith said...

I found your delightful blog on Google. I long to walk in your footsteps, through the delightful trails of Scotland, but alas, I have had to let my fingers roam through history books and my eyes through onlite images and tales of the enchanted castles of both my husband's and my ancestry.

That fascination led me to write "The Keith Trilogy." You can find them on,, or many other online bookstores or at many regular bookstores across the US. The books are Dunnottar, Marylebone and Par for the Course. I would love to share my take on the Keith clan and Dunnottar Castle as you have shared your take on Dunnottar and the other castles you picture here.

Thank you.
Janet Elaine Smith, Author