Friday, October 7, 2011

Scotland's Northwestern Highlands

Where the Veil Is Thin

Eilean Donan Castle near Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland
Shelley and I spent the first half of September in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland.  She is a descendant of the clan McEntire and of course feels quite at home walking the glens and lochsides of that enchanted land.  

I now find that I am apt to overuse the diminutive wee to describe every other item, and I have become accustomed to eating Scottish oats and black tea with milk for breakfast, shortbread and tea in the afternoon, and a wee dram of Scotch whisky before dinner.  In fact, our souvenirs consisted solely of oatmeal, shortbread, strawberry preserves, and a bottle or two of Tallisker and Oban whiskies.  

The Abbey at Iona, Scotland
They say the "veil is thin" in this area of the world. We sensed that thinness as soon as we landed on the wee island of Iona, birthplace of Celtic Christianity and the origin of The Book of Kells. The accumulated spirits of the centuries can be felt there — both in the ancient abbey or the hidden coves of its dramatic shoreline. Two nights there away from cars, telephones, and street lights goes a long way in detoxifying a noisy soul. It's no wonder that pilgrims return to this retreat again and again in search of serenity.

View from our window at Craggan Cottage, Balmacara Estate
Another highlight was a week in a National Trust cottage looking out at the Isle of Skye. We didn't visit restaurants for seven days as we procured our daily bread, seafood, vegetables, and cheeses from area producers. We cooked all of our meals in our cottage kitchen that overlooked a quiet loch and unending vistas of green mountains, blooming shrubbery, and dramatic blue-gray skies. We even had fresh blackberries ripening in our garden.  

We took short excursions to the nearby Gavin Maxell home (author of Ring of Bright Water), the Tallisker Distillery, Dunvegan Castle and the studios of potters and painters. We found a 140-year-old bakery that made incredible scones, whole wheat bread and honest-to-goodness Eccles Cakes, read books, listened to the BBC radio, and got up with the sun.  Our days were simple, and rich.

Anne Mulhern with Kate Cranston's dress.
Our journey came to a delicious ending with a Sunday afternoon visit to The Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow as guests of the manager Anne Mulhern. This is one of my favorite tea rooms in the world because it was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh over a century ago. Anne gave us a rare tour of the fourth floor, which was originally a billiard room and now houses several bits of memorabilia, including a dress once owned by the original owner Kate Cranston. No trip to Glasgow is complete without a visit to this historic setting.

Should you ever want to take your own wee journey into the Highlands, you can see our route on Google Maps. Maybe you too will find the veil is thin in this magical land far from the madding crowd.