Gods of Scotland: Battles, Skirmishes, and Rumbles

On my recent trip to Scotland I saw all the things a traveller ‘should’ see. I saw Edinburgh Castle and the Stone of Scone. Cool! I learned to drive on the left side of the road. Terrifying. I drove up the coast of Fife and saw the lovely old fishing village of Crail. Picturesque. I went to St. Andrews. Exquisite. And I starting counting castles in groups of five. Fascinating.

St. Andrews, from the top of St. Rule’s Tower.

But as the trip drew to a close I realized that I still had not seen a single standing stone and this was definitely on my version of a bucket list. For many years I have wanted to see standing stones,  preferably a full circle of them, and this trip to Scotland was going to be my best chance of checking those off my list. The problem was that something in me kept saying, ‘Nope. You won’t be seeing those. You can’t.’. And I didn’t know why. I’ve referred before on this blog to ‘that voice’, that inner sense of knowing that should be listened to. I do listen. But I don’t always agree with it, and this is to my peril. I’ve also referred to my ‘inner four-year-old’.  Hmmm.

It was the foolhardy four-year-old part of me that didn’t agree to being told ‘no’ that found me planning a trip with Claire to see the amazing sets of standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. Called the Callanais Stones, (or “Callanish” if you are a mere mortal who wants to pronounce the word gracefully), there are three sets and one of them is a double ring. I was delirious with desire to see them and had visions of getting out to the site in the wee hours of the morning so I could stand in the middle and bask in the rays of a late winter sunrise. I was going all pagan on myself.

The gods were seriously not pleased with this decision. They began their own plans for our trip; plans to interfere, plans to thwart. Plans that would challenge me and try to storm the castle of my happiness. This was war.

They began their attack by thwarting my attempt to find a place to stay close by the stones. Everything was booked on Lewis Island at the beginning of March. Everything said ‘no vacancy’. Really? Well, no problem, I said. I’ll just look further away from the stones. I found a great place at twice the amount I wanted to pay, and over 30 miles away, but it was on the island and was self catering. We would save money by cooking our own meals. I had trouble processing my credit card but I forced it to bend to my will and was successful. Skirmish won. Onward to the next battle

Just wandering around the countryside, somewhere.

There would be a ferry ride involved and I wanted to buy the ticket on-line since all the accommodations appeared to be booked and I was worried the ferries would be booked as well. The ferry’s website touted the virtues of buying on-line and made it sound easy. We had two choices for departure: Uig or  Ullapool. Uig would be much cheaper. Ullapool was the ferry closest to us with the most sailings per day and that would get us to the stones the fastest. We chose the Ullapool ferry. What’s 50$ when it comes to these kinds of life long desires? But when I tried to buy a ticket, there was no way to complete the transaction. The computer would not allow me to ‘choose’ a sailing from that location. There was no explanation given for this, only the directions that I couldn’t purchase that selection on-line and must call the next morning. I ignored this dire warning because computers rarely act as they should for me, so I’m accustomed to their recalcitrance

Because of the amount of time it would take to get to the ferry I needed to know which direction I was going so it was decided we would try for a ticket from Uig instead. At least we’d then have a solid itinerary. All went well and I thought we had possibly found the right set of circumstances for success until the credit card processing, which absolutely would not be happening. At all. I went to bed all stressed out because I would have to wait until the next day to call, and we’d already be on the road by 8:00 AM when the ferry customer service department opened. We checked our route and determined we could travel west for almost an hour before having to decide whether to go north or south, so we’d then stop and give a call from our cell phones. We are simple tools who underestimate the lengths the gods will go to in order to make a point.

The thing about Scotland is that everyone has his own personal ruin next to the house. My kids would have cried with joy should we have been able to offer them such a playhouse.

We left the next morning on time, amazingly. That part went smoothly but I made a wrong turn right away costing us a precious half hour getting to the M90. No worries, though, because we’d given ourselves plenty of time, right? At 8:00 I pulled off the highway and dialed the number for the ferry customer service. Rather than connecting with a nice and helpful operator I instead got a recorded message that ‘this call cannot be completed from your phone because you do not have the right service in your account’ or some kind of drivel like that. I was unable to make the call because, get this, one cannot dial an 800 number from a cell phone unless one has a certain kind of service; the kind of service we did not have. Damn it!

Blood pressure rising, I pulled over at a train station and tried to use the payphone. No luck. “This number is not in service at this time.”   So I threw myself on the mercy of the Scot behind the window and he rose to the challenge, found a different number to call,  and made the call from his phone at the desk. Sometimes it is necessary to conscript reinforcements in the service of good.  I booked the ticket from Uig (You-ig) with a return through Ullapool and we breathed a sigh of relief, used their toilet, and were off again. That’s right. I actually breathed a sigh of relief, as though this accomplishment meant anything. Anything at all. Ignorance is such bliss even while short-lived.

Soon we were in charming countryside having left the M90 behind since our destination was in the hinterlands of anywhere. The road was narrow and winding, i.e. Scottish. I had to slow down, especially as the wind had picked up smartly and we were getting sleet. Well, after all, we were in the mountains in late winter so what did we expect? But a bit of anxiety about being able to get to the ferry on time began to niggle at me. And there was a nagging in the back of my mind that things had been just a tad too difficult for my liking. I might be focused but I’m not completely dense.  I could feel the lack of groove and I knew we were forcing the issue. There was one ferry sailing that day and if we were not on it, then we were done. Channeling my inner Scot, I found myself driving possibly faster than I should have been on treacherous mountain roads. According to the Google when we left home, this was a 5 hour trip. We’d been traveling for about 2.5 hours and Uig was still 4 hours away. In Scotland, they must use the ‘new’ math.

Snowdrops grew in great swathes everywhere.

By this time Claire and I had looked at each other and both expressed that we felt this trip was ill-fated. She, too, was feeling the lack of ‘groove’ and was decidedly uneasy, waiting for the proverbial ‘other shoe’ to drop. But by that time it was pretty much too late to turn back. I had paid for both the ferry and the expensive self-catering cabin. To turn back now would be to kiss about 450$ goodbye, a high price to pay when, after all, we were halfway there. I drove faster. I worked that six speed transmission and to hell with fuel mileage.

We were just outside of Invergarry when Claire received a text. It was from the ferry. The sailing was cancelled due to Force 11 winds from the West. Ahhhhh. There it was; the thing we had been waiting for; the god’s final doozey of a play.  We breathed a collective sigh of relief. Their cunning plan had finally revealed itself. We now knew what they were about. Gods 1, Claire and Melissa 0, but it wasn’t over yet.

Pulling into the parking lot of a lovely small hotel we, once more, threw ourselves on the mercy of the attendant behind the counter. She placed a call  to the ferry and we were told we could possibly make the 5:00 sailing out of Ullapool but it was possible that one would be cancelled, too. All the sailings for that day in that area had been cancelled due to high winds and seas. The phone call turned out to be a toll-free one so we didn’t have to pay any kind of hotel rate for the call. We considered that a sign that we were back in the graces of whatever gods were in charge at this point. We therefore decided to push on to Uig and hope for the morning ferry the next day. Surely this was just a weather system that was passing through. The nice ferry lady agreed that was entirely possible. I like to include others in my little games of pretend.

The people here were helpful and let us use their interwebs. In return we bought breakfast in their dining room.

At this point we didn’t have to be in a hurry, and there is a certain grace to that. We slowed down and enjoyed our surroundings. We conversed with the nice woman working in the restaurant, who frowned when we said we were headed to the Isle of Skye and warned us that the bridge to Skye could be closed due to weather because sometimes in high winds it would shake a little. It’s not a suspension bridge. It’s cement.  Great. I had to use my finely tuned sense of denial on that one.  We had tea and a late breakfast at this sweet little hotel. Claire read her book. I explored the rooms in the hotel.

When we emerged over an hour later, refreshed and ready for the road and having made a donation to their mountain rescue squad,  the wind was howling and it had begun to snow. The verb ‘to snow’ here means tiny flakes mixed with ice going sideways through the air. None of this gentle drifting of snowflakes you might be envisioning. Let’s be clear about that. Here is a visual for you.

It’s rare to be able to see snow flying parallel to the ground.

By this time I was seriously amused. It was pretty obvious what was going on but I was determined that while the destination might be up in the air, my attitude about it was not. You know, the mountains are pretty with snow anyhow. And, after all, I was in Scotland! Land of great beauty! No matter where we went, it was going to be somewhere I had never been. It was going to be an ‘adventure’. This is called being ‘flexible’, or, as some say, ‘thumbing one’s nose at the gods’. Gods 1, Melissa and Claire 1.

The thing is, you have to stop every few miles to enjoy scenes like this.

Uig is one of those destinations that takes twice as long to get to as it looks on the map. Especially when you are relying on Google maps, which you should never, ever do when you are traveling in the hinterlands of Scotland. I like to have paper maps when doing a road trip, just like I prefer paper charts many times on the boat. I like seeing the big picture, bigger than a tiny screen can accommodate. I like plotting a course and knowing where I’m going before I set out sometimes. And I like to know when I’m going to be driving through things like big mountains with winding roads, with or without snowstorms. I did not have these things because I couldn’t find them before we left. I had bought many maps, but I was unable to find one that showed the whole of Scotland, or even the area we were driving toward. Weird, but true. It was as though that area were somehow ‘off the charts’, a land that map makers had forgotten.  Claire had a lot of faith in her Google and Google is surely a great thing, but mountains are even greater and have a tendency to block things like reception. Still, every turn is an adventure when traveling sans map and interweb, and we didn’t have to hurry, so all was well. Onward through the mountains and toward the sea! The islands were waiting to cast their spells on us! Happiness firmly intact, we trundled on through the storm toward the fabled Isle of Skye.

I will leave you with the false hope that all continued to be well during this trip because, after all, why shouldn’t you sleep tonight? Soak in the beauty of Scotland through these photos. More about this challenge of the Gods of Scotland later.

Inverness Castle, with some Scottish freedom lovers. Freedom from London rule, that is. We have family history in Inverness, apparently. Some grandfather who was a clergy to some chief of a clan or some such thing. This was hundreds of years back, so I never knew him.

A Dr. Who moment? This is supposed to be a box where one can call for assistance. But it’s seriously locked, and it has a plastic Westclock clock on the front that somehow seemed out of place. Transport to another galaxy, maybe?

This cottage is for sale somewhere in the wilds of the Highlands. I would SO live here.

Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. Best. Ruin. Ever.

Stop looking at me, Swan.

The wild coast of Fife.









4 thoughts on “Gods of Scotland: Battles, Skirmishes, and Rumbles

  1. The Isle of Skye is beautiful for sure. We spent 3 days just visiting that one island of Skye. You must not be in a hurry for sure. Amazing how fast you guys travel. 🙁 Please slow down on the wrong side.

    The “police box” picture is a roadside assistance box for registered members of the Automobile Association (AA) of Britain. Members get a key which opens the door you found locked.

    Hope you make it on ferry. We couldn’t afford it when we were there (1980s). The Inner Hebrides had to suffice. Plus the wind blows forever there. Something to do with the Gulf Stream. lol.

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