Ancient Stones and Aged Whiskey on the Way to Meet a Monster

Maiden Stone
Maiden Stone

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.

Glenfiddich distillery
Glenfiddich distillery

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.

Whiskey in the making
Whiskey in the making

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.

One of the Cairns at Clava Cairns
One of the Cairns at Clava Cairns

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.

First sight of Loch Ness
First sight of Loch Ness
Taking a boat across - on the lookout for Nessie
Taking a boat across – on the lookout for Nessie

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.

Urquhart Castle ruins on Loch Ness
Urquhart Castle ruins on Loch Ness
Grant Tower and chapel foundation of Urquhart Castle
Grant Tower and chapel foundation of Urquhart Castle

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.

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Grays, Gusts, and Ghosts: The Start of a Long Weekend in Aberdeen, Scotland

Downtown Aberdeen
Downtown Aberdeen

And with a raincoat and some carry-on bags, so begins a new adventure over President’s Day weekend.  James, Steve, and I flew out to Aberdeen, Scotland on Friday night and filled our first day with a van tour in search of three local castles.  The town, as well as the winter weather, in northeastern Scotland is completely gray and dreary.  Mica in the granite, though, makes the buildings sparkle in the summer sun and for this Aberdeen is poetically known as “The Silver City Beside the Sea.”  We started out along the coast of the North Sea (on the wrong side of the road, of course), only a few miles across from Norway.

Our guide was full of not only history but many, many stories and I’ll attempt to condense the day into the most interesting highlights.  He hails from a family of fishermen, appropriately named Fisher, and told us that traditionally fishermen here do not learn to swim.  It’s thought to be less cruel to be overcome by the cold North Sea in the event of a mishap than to try to struggle against it.

North Sea from Stonehaven
North Sea from Stonehaven

Our first stop was to the ruins of Dunnottar Castle in Stonehaven, near where William Wallace infamously burned a church full of English soldiers.  The fishing town of Stonehaven celebrates New Year’s Eve with a procession of pagan origins called the Fireball Festival.  People swing baskets of fire on long chains and ultimately throw them into the sea.  Due to extremely high winds we were only able to see the outside of the castle, which was fortunate because I think we or the castle might have blown away!  The ruins sit atop a large tuft of land right on the sea next to a waterfall, so between the rush of water and raucous gusts of wind it was difficult to hear anything here.

Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle
Scenery looking back from Dunnottar
Scenery looking back from Dunnottar
Dunnottar Castle and waterfall
Dunnottar Castle and waterfall

Back in the van we were able to warm up with a “wee dram” of cask strength single malt Scotch whiskey.  Then we were off and made our next quick stop for pictures at the bridge over the Falls of Feugh.  We not only saw our first rainbow of the day but also our first glimpse of slushy snow.  The bridge over the wide, rushing waterfall had many engraved locks (particularly new Valentine’s Day-inspired locks) along the netted wall.  A drop of a sweet ginger liqueur and a drive through the town of Banchory led us to our second castle of the day, Crathes (Cră-thus) Castle.

Bridge with locks over the Falls of Feugh
Bridge with locks over the Falls of Feugh
Falls of Feugh
Falls of Feugh

A crass, witty castle tour guide led us on a fantastic and equally story-filled hour or so long group tour of this 16th century castle.  Among the most interesting features was the horn of Leys, a hunting horn gifted from King Robert the Bruce to the Burnett family that owned the castle following the Battle of Bannockburn, a rare and famous Scottish victory against the English.  In addition, we saw three rooms painted with colorful figures on the ceilings and inspirational or informative texts on the ceiling beams.  The guide explained that the painted ceilings are typical of northern European countries, with which Scotland has historically had more contact and more in common with than the rest of the European continent.  This distinction, he claimed, makes it more similar to Scandinavian and other northern European countries than England, whose trade has been more with France and the remaining EU countries.  The ceiling in the guest room consisted of many historical heroes intended to inspire guests both before and after they slept.

Crathes Castle
Crathes Castle
Crathes Castle gardens
Crathes Castle gardens

Probably most intriguing were the ghost stories surrounding the castle.  The Green Lady is the most frequently observed spirit, sometimes even felt and heard.  Legend has it that she is the ghost of an unmarried, pregnant servant who mysteriously disappeared and was rumored to have been murdered.  The bones of a woman and child were eventually found under the hearthstone of a nursery room fireplace, and the Green Lady is sometimes sensed by visitors in this room.  The guide had us feel around the room for an area that felt colder than the rest, and sure enough, an odd cold spot in the room is where most people have experienced this apparition.  The ghost of a young boy has also been seen by visitors near both entrances to a servant’s staircase, one end of which is now closed off and serves as a vacuum closet.

After a short lunch on the castle grounds, we drove off for the final destination of Drum Castle.  Originally constructed in the 12th century and added to and renovated over time, this castle like many others in Scotland is currently often used as a wedding venue.  The castle’s main tower is currently temporarily undergoing repairs.  Off to the side, we were able to see the Irwin family’s chapel, cemetery, and pet cemetery (including a pet that lived to be 149 years old – we assume a turtle, but the gravestone doesn’t say!).

Drum Castle

Drum chapel
Drum chapel
Drum Castle cemetary
Drum Castle cemetary
Pet cemetery
Pet cemetery

The tour concluded with a few more tastes of drinks and Scottish shortbread in the tour van:  a twelve-year-old local whiskey, heather cream (whiskey, cream, and chocolate), and a Bowmore whiskey.  Like most west coast island whiskeys, Bowmore is made with barley smoked with peat, giving it an unusual smoked meat smell and taste.

I feel like I left a lot of little stories out of this, but I’ll try to fill in the gaps in the next few posts.  Tomorrow:  Loch Ness!

Last rainbow of the day
Last rainbow of the day