Scotland shined its favor on us Sunday with clear blue skies and a van tour all to ourselves. Another day of touring the further reaches from Aberdeen hit all of the highlights James, Steve, and I were hoping to see and more on this trip. Sundays with Karl Fisher is the “Mystery Tour” (meaning the destinations are unknown) but since we were the only three, our input determined the course of the day with many other hidden treasures sprinkled throughout.
As we headed northwest and further inland, our first stop was to visit the Maiden Stone, a ninth century stone slab carved with a Celtic cross and other designs by the ancient Pictish people. The pink granite would have had to have been transported at that time over 30 miles to where it still stands. As the story of the stone goes, a young maiden made a deal with the devil and when he touched her shoulder she turned to stone. A chip in the stone serves as proof of the spot where she was touched. Later in the day we passed another Pictish stone fabled to contain the three witches from the story of Macbeth. If the stone is ever broken, the witches will be released.
We had continued on to Moray, a region of “whiskey country” containing the largest concentration of malt whiskey in the world. We toured the only distillery on the so-called Whiskey Trail that was open on a Sunday in winter: Glenfiddich. The Grant family who built the distillery in 1886 still own the business today, which is extremely rare, and many of the current employees have been there over 30, 40, or 50 years. On the tour we were able to learn about the whiskey-making process, including the barrel-making and burning that allows barrels to be used two to three times instead of the required one-time use in the U.S. We also (of course) sampled 12-year, 15-year, and 18-year-old whiskey before leaving the gift shop with a few samples and some whiskey fudge.
From present-day whiskey drinking, we stepped back into the past at our next sight: Clava Cairns. As we had learned the day before, a Cairn is a pile of stones used to mark a path or a burial ground. Here the remains of three burial Cairns from about 1000 B.C. stand surrounded by flat standing slabs that align to a lunar calendar. Originally the Cairns would have contained pots of ashes and been covered by more stones forming a roof, with only the narrow walkway that remains to let light in. The ancient builders of the Cairns even designed them so that the sun fills them with daylight on the winter solstice. Before leaving we had a taste of sweet, honey-tasting mead to fortify ourselves for meeting the monster of the nearby Loch Ness.
Located in the town of Inverness, Loch Ness (“Loch” meaning “lake”) was filled with rippling waves on its murky waters. We took a small cruise ship across it and heard a little of the lake’s history along the way. I hadn’t realized that the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie as she is affectionately known, has long been a part of the Loch’s history. She was first seen and ordered back into the depths by St. Columba, an Irish saint who had also lived in Scotland, around the year 570. While taking pictures on the ship’s deck, Steve was splashed from head to foot by what I can only assume was the mysterious monster herself. But we caught no glimpse of Nessie so her secrets remain at large for other tourists to discover.
The ship approached and docked at the sprawling ruins of Loch-side Urquhart (“Okurt”) Castle. We walked through the crumbling Grant Tower and various outbuildings with many detailed plaques describing the history and structure of the castle along the way. The foundation of a doocot, or pigeon house, still remains. This was used for raising pigeons to provide a reliable source of meat during the winter months when food was scarce.
We took a slightly more southern route back east from this area of the Scottish Highlands, stopping for pictures a couple of times until it grew too dark to see anything but an occasional hare or Highland “coo” (cow) popping out along the side of the unlit roads. An unusually large yellow moon appeared as we left the forested hills and re-entered Aberdeen.