North, today. To the Highlands, and then west, to the coast.
In the old days there was but one way to get from the lowlands to the highlands, and that was to cross the river Forth at the one spot one could easily build a bridge across it: Stirling. As with Edinburgh, Stirling is built on and around a massive hill, though by the time one reaches it it’s clearly just one hill among many – and as with Edinburgh, the city is crowned by a great castle, ancient seat of the Stuart kings.
Stirling is an interesting contrast with Edinburgh, too: where the latter is all stone that looks gray in some light and golden in others, the buildings here are a humbler gray stucco that might, in winter, seem positively soul-crushing. The castle itself, however, was once a literal bright spot in the landscape: a great deal of the thing was, back in the Renaissance, plastered over in a warm honey yellow they called “The King’s Gold.” Today, only the Great Hall at Stirling is done up in this fashion, but even with twenty years’ fading after the restoration it’s plain just how vivid it must once have been. (I hear there was some pushback about the color when the restoration happened. Everyone forgets just how bloody gaudy the Renaissance actually was; how vivid and sometimes clashing the colors actually were.). It is also incredibly windy, or was today.
As seems increasingly likely to be the case everywhere we go, there wasn’t really enough time to see all of Stirling, though we covered a lot of ground, I think. It’s a popular spot with…well…everyone, it seems. Kids in princess clothes running around underfoot. A high school band in full Scottish regalia, kilts and all. And of course the requisite squads of tourists, including ourselves, with all our many languages. Some of us, as we did, wander the grounds with audio guides, listening to a really rather spiffy retelling of the tale of the ill-fated James V and his succession of French wives, the uncommon canniness of Mary of Guise, and the early life of Mary Queen of Scots.
We also got to hear of the Battle of Bannockburn, wherein Robert the Bruce was on the point of surrendering to the English – greatly outmatched – when one of the Englishmen, doubtless thinking this was his shot at fame, tried to cut him down. This seemed to remind Robert the Bruce that this is Scotland…the land whose motto is literally Latin for “Nobody fucks with me and gets away with it”…and he chopped the guy’s head just about in half before letting loose his Highlanders on the English in maybe the most iconic ever Highlander charge. It, uh, didn’t go well for the English.
The restored castle has a number of nifty features. Costumed actors hang about being people from the Renaissance; we were particularly impressed by a young noblewoman doing embroidery and sharing with us – and everyone else – all the court gossip. Chambers have been fitted out with furnishings appropriate to the time – in all their gaudy color. Even the light fixtures, now fitted with electric faux-candles, have some sort of trick to them wherein the fake “flames” quiver as if in a breeze.
One room is hung with massive tapestry recreations of the famous unicorn hunt tapestries; these did not hang here at Stirling originally, but A set of unicorn tapestries did, and since nobody knows what the originals looked like, these were used as a basis for the reproductions. There’s a whole exhibit devoted to the tapestries, showing weaving and dyeing techniques used, samples of the wool colors, explanations of the iconography – the works.
Another room – intended for the use of James V, who died before he could really settle in – has a crazily-elaborate ceiling set with medallions depicting all sorts of people, from the king himself to the Nine Worthies to fashionable court ladies to Julius Caesar. These were carved in oak, which had to be imported from Eastern Europe; a previous King had cut down all the mature oaks in Scotland to build a ship. Oops.
We also heard the amusing story of an alchemist who resided at the castle for several years, attempting to turn lead into gold via various means with about as much success as you’d expect. In a bid to restore his flagging reputation, he announced he would leap off the battlements and fly to France – and made ready to do so, appearing on the big day fully kitted out in…well, a chicken suit. Let us call a spade a spade.
At the appointed moment, he leapt off the battlements as planned…and plummeted promptly into a bog. This likely saved his life; he escaped with only a broken leg. Afterward, he realized his big mistake: chickens are ground-loving birds. If only he’d used eagle feathers!
Still, it seems that with this stunt he earned himself the right to hang around for a while. As publicity stunts go it can likely be called a success in that sense.
Anyway, our time at the castle concluded, it was time to make our way cross-country. This got off to a rough start right away when the GPS accidentally got us pointed toward Glasgow, entirely the wrong way. However, we reasoned, there was nothing stopping us from just cutting straight across country to Loch Lomond and driving up it to our eventual destination, the seaside town of Oban.
(Yes, THAT Loch Lomond. And yes, we made the requisite road jokes.)
In all, I’m not sorry we made this little unplanned jaunt; it let us have a good look at what seems to be the Scottish equivalent of the Midlands. Gentle, rolling hills, winding roads, and lots and lots of those little gray stucco houses. Still, we were all curious as to what the famous loch would look like, and eventually the trees lining the roadside opened up to reveal…
…something that looked rather a lot like it might belong in the Bracebridge area, to be honest. Oh, the hills were rather steeper, yes, but still, not entirely unfamiliar to the Canadian contingent.
At one point we hopped out of the car to snap a photo and ended up talking to some Australians who ran some sort of metal detector business; as the conversation went on I drifted away from the group and found myself looking at some little pink wild flowers. Primroses or something, perhaps? Something that unfurled, slowly, from tight pink bud to paler-pink five-petaled blossom; it seemed poetic to think of, somehow, these little flowers unfolding quiet and unnoticed by the roadside.
We also had our first encounter with a particularly infamous denizen of Scotland: midges. I miraculously didn’t get bitten, though Mark was less lucky.
From there we took a long, scenic drive through rolling hills along the sea coast. Spotted no less than two pheasants (one male, one female), two deer, and a number of interesting birds, from mallards to something that might have been an egret.
Scotland’s west coast is dotted as heavily as the rest of it with castles; we drove past Clan Campbell’s seat, which is surprisingly fairytale-style, though we were too late to go in. This seems to be a bit of a trend; nearly everything of tourist interest in Scotland shuts down no later than six pm, usually by five, meaning that you often find yourself with only twenty minutes or so to see a place. Ah, well. It was still cool, even if the Campbells were apparently backstabbing assholes, according to legend. They reputedly set the MacDonalds up to get slaughtered en masse at Glencoe.
We also stopped briefly at Inverary, a town that was very obviously laid out in the Georgian era: the entire Main Street is composed of solid, white-plastered buildings with black-painted trim. There’s a historic jail, a pub older than Canada, and one of those sweet shops that seem to be everywhere in Scotland so far, catering to nostalgia for sweets I’ve never heard of, or have only read about in books. There’s also a bell tower which apparently has some of the most splendid bells in Scotland, though sadly we didn’t get to hear them ring.
From there the road turned north, leading us past many, many small villages, the names of which weren’t always evident. This is another thing I’ve noticed about Scotland: they do not seem to give a damn either about road signs or about signposting the names of villages. I suppose if you don’t already know where you are, the general reasoning is you don’t need to; Karen hypothesized that many of these signs may have been taken down to stump the Nazis and then just never put back up again.
We did stop in one called Kilmartin, though: this tiny little village is home to a charming church with bright-purple doors; a terraced cemetery spirals away from it down the hill. As we hopped out for a look we noticed that apparently the village is also home to some carved stones dating back to the medieval era; a fortuitous find, and one that made for an interesting addition to our photo collections as we made our final descent into Oban.
Oban is known as “the seafood capital of Scotland,” and is a quaint little seaside town that, like many spots we’ve visited so far, seems heavily slanted toward tourism for its livelihood. It’s also somewhat baffling to navigate by car, as our GPS kept directing us to roads that had no signage. Eventually we made our way up a very steep hill to our local lodgings, where we were greeted by our very affable new hosts and shown to our surprisingly spacious rooms.
The landlords were even kind enough to book us a spot at a local seafood place called Ee-usk (the phonetic pronunciation of the Gaelic “iasg,” or “fish”), and so after dropping off our bags we set off down the hill to eat. Walking the hill really drove home just how steep it truly was; anyone living here must surely have powerful legs.
The tide was out when we arrived in the harbour, but the restaurant was cute; an airy green space and a surprising if intriguing section of the menu where they specified the sources of their fish. As in, “Our mussels come from Nigel on the Isle of Mull; he grows them on ropes and we don’t know what he does to them, but they’re sweet and tender!” (Loosely paraphrasing there, but only loosely.)
Well, the only thing to do seemed to be to order the sampler plates, then; Mark ordered the fish sampler and I ordered something called the “seafood platter” that offered up a mix of oysters, langoustines (think tiny lobsters), mussels, and a massive crab claw. It was…seriously delicious; kind of a foodgasm, especially after a convenience-store lunch and on an empty stomach. Afterward we hauled ourselves all the way back up the cliff and into our B&B, where we crashed into bed. A rough night as it turned out, but there is always another day, no?