Spring Tour 2008 SCOTLAND!

On Monday March 31st John and I hopped on an airplane to Glasgow, to begin a 3-week tour of Scotland. We had planned a tour/vacation, and it was jam-packed and wonderful.

We recovered from our jet lag at the home of John's cousin Fedor just north of Oban, on the west coast. Oban is a major ferry port for the western isles and also boasts a scotch distillery, and of course a tour of the distillery (and tastings) are VERY good to help recover from jet lag!

A distillery tour in Scotland typically consists of a description of how scotch is made (malting of barley -- with various strengths of peatiness -- making the wort -- no hops, but otherwise very similar to beer making, distilling twice and then ageing in oak barrels for 10 years minimum), an inspection of the facilities, followed by some tasting. The Oban distillery is fairly small, but quite active, and their product is a lovely blend of smoke, citrus, honey and sea salt flavours. We learned a great "party trick", should the need arise: a good many single malt scotch drinkers in North America eschew adding any water to the drink, including ice cubes, thinking it waters it down. But the manager in Oban showed us an amazing way to "open up" the flavours: from a height of about three feet, add ONE DROP of water to the glass of scotch. Drink immediately. It's amazing how the flavours explode in your mouth!

The next day we took a ferry to the Isle of Mull, a bus ride across Mull from Craignure to Finnphort and another ferry to the Isle of Iona. This is the place where St. Columba landed from Ireland in the 800s, and bringing Christianity to Scotland. In the 1300s an abbey was built there, and so began many centuries of retreats and religious study on the island. They say it is where the Book of Kells was written, and for that alone, it would be significant. It is a small island, perhaps 4 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. It is famous for the Celtic crosses (crosses with a circle to support the arms), which can be found at various points throughout the island. There is a tiny village, a church, a few tourist shops, and 25 crofts that were divided up from common lands owned by the Duke of Argyll in the early 1800s. In 1809 my great great grandmother was born on a croft on the island.  I was interested in finding out more about her.

We stopped into the Heritage Centre after touring the Abbey. There, Mary helped me find the family tree for Catherine MacKillop, with her four sisters and two more previous generations.  If you are interested in family history, you will understand how exciting this was for me. The MacKillops were farmers on the Common lands of Iona before the Duke divided up the island into crofts. The MacKillops leased the croft called "Lagandorain" (the "Hollow of the Otter"), and we walked up to the north end of the island to see their property.  It is still called Lagandorain, and overlooks the sea toward the Isle of Mull.


Our first performance was a return visit to Selkirk, just south of Edinburgh in the Borders area of Scotland. We performed there two years ago, and were looking forward to seeing some familiar faces.  It was truly an international evening, with Kay from Australia, Kathy from New Zealand, and a couple of Canadians in the audience. Great fun and a lovely evening.

From Selkirk we drove down to Eskdalemuir to visit a friend from my old folk music days in Ontario. Brian and Susie live there beside the largest Tibetan monastery in Europe. Through snow flurries, we took a tour with them to this extraordinary place. It is very active and beautiful. On the site, there is a tree with strips of fabric tied to its branches. This is an old Celtic tradition: if someone is ill, you take a piece of cloth that has been near them and tie it on the tree. With its deterioration, also goes the illness.  We found another instance of this tradition a couple of weeks later - read on!

Wishing tree at Eskdalemuir

Through the snow we drove up to the Edinburgh airport, where we met my brother who had flown up from London to join us for a few days. Our great grandfather (married to Catherine from Iona) came from a farm on the border of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, and we organized a B&B in nearby Strathaven (pronounced "Straven") to pursue some research. We visited the farm, climbed Loudoun Hill, combed through cemeteries and spent some time in libraries in the area. Lovely to spend time with Doug, and walk on the land of our forefathers. Strathaven is a charming town with some excellent restaurants. The Scottish accent there is a lovely rich burr - I was already starting to lilt like them, say "Aye" instead of "Yes" and roll the occasional "r"!

From there we drove back to Edinburgh and stayed in the Grassmarket area. Just outside our hotel was the place where Covenanters (supporters of the Church of Scotland) were executed with a Scottish version of the guillotine. "X" marks the spot.

Site of the "Iron Maiden" at Grassmarket, Edinburgh

We had been in touch with Janet Rae before we arrived to meet for coffee at the Balmoral Hotel. Jan was the author of "Quilts of the British Isles", and was the quilt historian who "found" the Rajah quilt (which she calls the Convict quilt). We first met last year in Yorkshire at the Quilt Guild of the British Isles annual meeting. These days Jan is deeply involved in the relocation and opening of the new QGBI home and exhibition space in York, which will open in June.

I spent part of the next day at the Edinburgh Archives, the mecca for family historians in Scotland, and found it very useful.

Our next performance was in Aberlady, just east of Edinburgh.  Sheila  Baird is a cousin of John's cousin, and organized a very successful evening in the Aberlady community hall. She also brought a quilt that had been made by John's great grandmother! Anne Frost owns a small art quilting shop in town, and she was kind enough to house us that night in her holiday flat, overlooking the Firth of Forth.

Singing at Aberlady Village Hall, April 11

We had some time off after our performance in Aberlady, so we decided to visit some friends in Inverness (you know we love driving!). It was also an opportunity to re-visit Scotland's Smallest Distillery - Edradour in Pitlochry and replenish our supply. We didn't take the tour this time, but we did have a lovely hike up from the town through forest and fields to get there. Our luck with weather continued and there were only a few drops falling on us.

The drive to Inverness took us along Loch Ness. It's a beautiful long narrow (and deep) lake. We didn't see anything unusual in the way of fauna (Nessie must've been sleeping), but we thoroughly enjoyed the drive through the area. The Caledonian canal, which connects the east and west coasts of Scotland from the Firth of Lorn to Moray Firth, includes Loch Ness. Partway along Loch Ness on the northwest side is Urquhart Castle, now ruined. We spent part of the afternoon there, enjoying another brush with history. The castle had changed hands many times during its useful life. The last bunch decided it was better to destroy the castle rather than give the Jacobites a fortification, so they blew it up!

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

We had a couple of days in Inverness with our friends. On the first day we visited Culloden Battlefield where the deciding battle between Bonny Prince Charlie and the English occurred. It was an unadvised battle, from Charlie's side, and they were roundly defeated. There is an excellent new visitor's centre, which includes a 4-screen re-enactment of the battle, filmed as if the audience is in the middle of the action. We walked around the site, imagining the events of that day. There are many fallen soldiers lying beneath that grass; 1500 Jacobites were slain as traitors to the English king. It was after this battle in 1746 that the wearing of the tartan and the playing of the bagpipes was declared illegal in Scotland.

The next day we ventured out with our friend Ann, and visited the Black Isle, on the north side of the Moray Firth. There Sir Alexander MacKenzie was born and buried in Avoch (pronounced "Och"). The Canadian government has placed several plaques and rocks in honour of this famous explorer who discovered the MacKenzie River, and first traveled to the Pacific Ocean by land. Here's a picture of John standing beside the replica of the stone Sir Alex carved when he arrived in Bella Coola, BC. We hope to see the original stone when we visit Bella Coola later this year.

The inscription says: "Alex MacKenzie from Canada by land 22d July 1793"
Bella Coola British Columbia

On the same afternoon, we found another "Wishing Tree" - this one at a spring on a hill (how does that water come out of the top of a small hill?) It's called "Clootie Well", and is said to have healing properties.  Many many people must think this is true, because it was a real mess of bits of fabric - quite a bit messier than the one at the Buddhist monastery! I don't think man-made fibres will decompose like natural ones, yet there were whole polyester jackets hanging in the trees!

What a mess!




We drove back south from Inverness through Aberdeen and Perth, and spent the next night in Stirling. Since we had prepared for this visit to Scotland by watching the Mel Gibson epic "Braveheart", we had to pay a visit to the Wallace Monument. Built in Victorian times, it was a wonderful climb to spectacular views of the Stirling area. There were very complete and interesting displays on the way up of the Battle of Stirling, and how Wallace used his knowledge of the area to defeat the British troops. His sword was on display too. He must have been a giant, to use that in battle; it was huge! 

I was amazed when we parked the car to see a statue of William Wallace at the foot of the monument - it looked just like Mel Gibson! Clearly, that was why he got the part!  But no - it was a recent sculpture, made by a local stone mason, rehabilitating after heart surgery. He decided to carve a monument to his favourite screen hero, and the Wallace monument people agreed to place it on their site.




Stirling Castle was wonderful to visit too. Sitting atop the next hill from the Wallace Monument, it is in the midst of being restored to its former glory. The restoration is very extensive, and includes the reproduction of 7 huge tapestries that were woven for the castle. The originals reside in New York City, and the weavers of the reproduction tapestries have visited them there to do the research required to produce a perfect replica of each. It takes 4 years to make one. One of two locations where they are being made is at Stirling Castle. We met one of the tapestry artists outside on a break, from Japan. She signed up for a two-year stint, and had recently agreed to work for another two years.  She said she was very honoured to work on such an important piece. Three of the tapestries have been completed - all in the series the Hunting of the Unicorn - and are now on display in the restored Royal Chapel. They were incredibly rich and beautiful.

Three completed tapestries on display.                                                                        A Closeup of one tapestry.

There are quilters everywhere, of course. When we had checked into our B&B in Stirling for the night, the landlady mentioned there was a fellow at the B&B next door who quilted. After dinner, I knocked on his door and introduced myself. He and his wife had moved from Livingston the year before and opened their B&B. He had finally finished building a shed at the back of his house to house his long-arm machine, and was hoping to open up his studio to quilters in the area who wished to learn how to use it to complete their quilts. It was an enjoyable evening.

Interesting, too, because we were heading to Livingston the next day to sing for the Regional Day for Scotland of the Quilter's Guild of the British Isles.  I passed along his good wishes to everyone there, and we had a great day.  We saw quite a few people at the Regional Day whom we had met before in our travels too, which was great.

On our way to Livingston we stopped in Falkirk to see a Millennium project. Before the Falkirk Wheel was built, it used to take the better part of a day for boats to descend from the Union canal to the Forth-Clyde canal through a series of 15 locks. Now, in about 15 minutes, the job is done. Here's how:

Boats go in, top and bottom ...... then the whole thing rotates ..... until ...... the bottom boat is on top, and the top boat is on the bottom, and they sail out.

This is a most efficient process, using about 10 per day of energy. Not only that, but it is beautiful. A lovely gift for the Millennium!

Our visit to Scotland was drawing to a close. We had one more stop back at Oban with John's cousin, and then a day in Glasgow before we flew home. We took the opportunity to tour the Glasgow School of Art, the masterpiece of Charles Rennie MacIntosh.

We are hoping to return to Scotland later in the year when we are back in the British Isles. It will be difficult to top this trip, though. The weather was wonderful, with lots of sunshine (and a few showers - and a bit of snow.....), and the people we met were fantastic. Next year (2009) is the official year of return for all of us whose ancestors came from Scotland. I hope we can plan another visit so soon.