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Friday, April 14, 2017

Visiting Nessy

I found the ever elusive Nessy - in a manner of speaking. Today we left Fort Williams and headed north to Fort Augustus, located on the very edge of Loch Ness. Fort Augustus is quite a small town, with little shops located at the edges of the town's main asset - the tail end of the 60 mile long Caladonian Canal.
View of Loch Ness & the Caladonian Canal 
The canal works just like its bigger cousin, the Panama Canal. It has gates with water that runs in or out as it eases small pleasure craft from one

Spent an hour or so lollygagging on the canal itself, crossing from one side to the other on its retractable bridges.

View from the middle of the canal, taken from a retractable bridge
A crowd gathered to watch this sailboat work its way down the canal
We had a photo opp: Ila petting baby Nessy as its Mama watches
This is the coolest butcher shop

I was sooo sorry I wasn't staying someplace in Ft. Augustus with an oven so I could give boiling one of these haggis balls a go. They're pretty safe eating these days - as they no longer contain offal, i.e., lungs and such.

I mean... look at these baked beauties, I had to look at but pass on. I'd eaten so much breakfast there wasn't any room left for a Scotch or a steak pie.

And there were antlers for sale... tough to pass up but where is there that much room in the luggage?
Bloody hell. Who am I kidding. I bought a wee one.
Leaving Fort Augustus we continued on our highlands drive, first north along Fort Ness.
NESSY! You out there Lassie?
We stopped briefly at Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness. Beautiful, but we didn't take the time to hike down to the actual castle what with a long day of driving ahead.

Urquhart Castle dates back to the 1200s.  
We hit Inverness up north, some time around noon and went shopping for a bit at two different Tescos. I love foreign food markets. For me it's like entering a museum with edible exhibits. There was lots of interesting eats but here're the ones that left me gap-jawed.

Ila loves chips and she bought some Thai Pepper Chips, or 'crisps' as Brits call 'em. She offered me some when we were on the road and I about Died at the wheel, they were so good.

Here's the thing. When we stopped down the road for a bit, I read the label. My reasoning is when I've read the unpronounceable chemical soup that is the processed food I'm about to eat, I am put off my feed and I do not eat as much, or I don't eat any to begin with. So... I read the label so as to gross myself out. Here's the what's in the Spicy Thai crisps.

Holy crap. The worse thing on that label is the Fructose and if you want to be fussy, the Hydrolyzed soy stuff, whatever that is. Note, the rest of the ingredients are... well, they're pretty much food - real food. I ate my damned chips with about only .0001 gm of  guilt.  I bought the chips below, and may I assure you, they. were. Awesome!
And what do they taste like? Just what the label says. Really. Exactly.
If those chips were available in the states, I'd need a crow bar to get through my garage door. Dear me... was I just rabbiting on about crisps? Uh... let's get my mind out of the food trough and continue. 

Where was I, or rather, where were we? Toodling from Inverness south. I was tickled silly as I could often spot BIRDS in the fields. You know me and the birdies.

These are Ring-necked Pheasant which I can seen near my home but still, these are Scottish Ring-necked Pheasants. They aren't wearing ordinary feathers, those are tartan feathers - or maybe not.

And so that means the Cocks are called Laddies and the Hens are called Lassies. Ok, in my head that's how it goes.

Now, the most exciting birds I saw all day were in Glenvivet, which is famous not for its birds, but is
famous for its single malt whiskey.

Sweet auld hoose 
Nevertheless, we were leaving Glenlivet, driving past old farm fields and I about had a heart atttack. Northern Lapwings! Yay! I blocked the entire road to take as many shots as I could manage of the shorebirds that don't stay at the shore. The flock probably were numbered around a hundred birds, but they were fairly far off .

On the photo below there is actually wire that I 'focused through' to get the bird. You can sort of see a gray band across the center of the photo. Have no clue how I got the bird and the wire. It's MAGIC!

That lovely long crest and iridescent feathers are amazing
I saw a car at the crossroads with a driver politely waiting until I was done getting my shots. No horn honking, no dirty looks, just quite politely waiting for the nutcase to get her photos and leave so he could go have a go on using the road. Whomever it was in that car, I totally adore them.

The next few hours were a peaceful drive with scenery that looked like backdrops for a Disney movie.
I think the brown-ish looking  patches are Heathers
Closer look at the Heather
The views considerably lengthened the drive. HAD to stop and stare.

And it kept getting better. We got onto yet another one way road with fun stuff along its way.

Wee Heilan Coos
A darlin' little farmhouse with field full of fun
  European Bunnies! Similar but different from American Cottontails 

Wonder how the farmer feels about them

And fat, red partridges

And wee triplet lambs

A little more over hill, over dale and finally...
We arrived at Crawford Grange BnB in Stonehaven

The room we booked was adorable & all you could want in a BnB.

Wish I'd taken a picture of our room key which was 18th century and too me, too freakn' adorable, though Ila wasn't having none of it. I see her point, but I was tickled silly by it.

When we'd made our selves at home, we went right back out again for dinner at a restaurant our hostess Wilma recommended. All is well.

And now yee wee bairns, no good reason, and no great payoff, here's a Hooded Crow feeding its overgrown brat of a chick. Filmed earlier in the day, on the banks of Loch Ness.

Skye is for Skylarking

Looking over the Scotch Broom toward the bridge
from Kyle Lochalsh on the right to the isle of Skye to the left
Today started out as a pretty ordinary vacation day, with no 'adventure' on our horizons. Our plan was driving & sight-seeing from our Fort William BnB to as far north on the Isle of Skye as possible. Off we went, stopping occasionally to take pictures of anything that held still long for a shot.
V. scenic, surprisingly more brown than green
There was snow on distant peaks
The countryside, slopping over with scenic views
Rapidly changing weather at Glen Shiel
Loads of 'designer' stone bridges 
Stopped for a peek at Eilean Donan Castle
After a couple of hours we made our way to the busy town of Kyle Lochalsh, where despite our rental's GPS, I managed to get us all twisted around on the local roads, 'till we had to ask a local, 'how do we get to the bridge?'  We did get back on track, but not before I wound us up a road at a dead end by a water tower. There were little birdies there so I had a quick photo shoot. The 'best' bird was Common Greenfinch. Yay!

Common Greenfinch

Bathing Eurasian Starlings... which are nice to see, where they belong.

Following my bird shoot, we crossed over the Kyle of Lochalsh bridge. We drove along roads so narrow our relatively oversized, diesel burning car spanned the entire width of the road. Barely enough room for us and the pretty Black-faced Sheep that seem to be everywhere.

Old Byre Skye Restaurant

Soon our bellies rummbled with hunger and we bee-lined to the cute & teeny BnB and its restaurant, the Old Byre Skye.

Yes, yes, it's annoying to see pix of other people's food, but sorry, I must. We shared a lunch of bean salad covered over with stunningly tasty legume tendrils, two kinds of smoked venison, smoked chicken, and hearty highland cheese all eaten with a homemade roll for us each.

Sticky cake laiden with candied & grated ginger

You may ask, "So, pray tell Ms. 'look at my food', why did you share the meal if it was so wonderful?" How clever of you to ask. So we could each enjoy our very own slab of sticky ginger cake for dessert, without exploding.
The farthest north we got on Skye was the town of Portree. To stretch our legs and shrink our wallets, we took a walk and stopped in several shops.

This town had lots of cute shops but mostly I just took pictures.

Wee Chocolates

Nattily dressed lads doing the Highland Fling

Were had I seen these these faces before?
But the best thing Portree - for me anyway - was country corvids.

Rooks - that look like grumpy old men
A Western Jackdaw  - gotta love that white-eyed glare
Up to now, our day was as ordinary as if we'd been bopping about the back roads home in Sacramento County. That is if one ignored that the roads were somewhat narrow, largely lacking in  road shoulders. It hurts my pride to admit, I was crap at staying centered on the left-handed roads. I'd have my nose pointed at the road's center, but one second of mind drifting and BOOM! I'd hit the left-hand roadside, mostly edged by rough rocks and/or concrete curbs. Over and over again Ila would leap half out of her seat as I hit the curb on her side. Poor woman! That brings me to the day's erm... mishap.

We were well on our way back south to Fort William, stopping to re-photograph the Eilean Donan Castle at day's end... then continuing on our way.

Eilean Donan Castle near onto Sunset
For the umpteenth time that day, I hit the curb. WHAM! Ila leapt up in her seat. The dashboard screen went flashed a series of destressing messages: TIRE PRESSURE 27.... TIRE PRESSURE 20... TIRE PRESSURE 5!!!!


Miraculously, and I do mean there was a miracle at work, there was a wide shoulder up just ahead. Do you get how MIRACULOUS it is to find a road shoulder in Scotland? Were there some benevolent angels hoovering somewhere overhead or was I, yet again, just one lucky bitch? If not for the 'miracle of the road shoulder' we'd have been stopped in the middle of road and ripe for a fatal accident.

So... safely on relative safety of the shoulder, Ila and I sat mute for a bit. Then Ila asked, "So... could you change a tire?"

"Yes," I replied, while inwardly dying of embarrassment because I was the one who got us into this little predicament."

We both got out of the car, peered into the trunk and came to a startling realization - NO SPARE TIRE.

That's right. No spare.

By now two cars has voluntarily stopped to offer assistance and offer to change our flat. We checked the pamphlets that came with the rental car, and concluded that rental cars in the U.K. don't bother with spare tires. You're expected to phone the rental company for roadside assistance. So, I called. Soon a rescue tow truck was on the way, and we sat, ate crisps and waited.

I must say the only upside was we got to see the 'mountain goats'. Early this morning at breakfast, our BnB host told us there were Mountain Goats we might see on the road to Skye. I had thought, you mean like Rocky Mountain type Mountain Goats?

A nanny and her kid

But what he meant was goats, of the farm yard variety lived in what I see as being more like mole hills than mountains. And just as warned, there were lots of 'mountain goats that browsed nearby as we waited for the tow truck.

Eventually, a v. friendly tow truck driver and his massive tow vehicle arrived, hauled our rental onto his trailer, and drove us, lock, stock and barrel, in the opposite direction of Fort Williams. The drive felt like hours, but was more like 20 minutes. There, both shredded left side tires were changed out and we dutifully paid 250, which was, miraculously precisely the same amount as our rental car insurance deductible fee. Imagine that. OK, that is stupid quibbling, as we were thrilled to have our transportation was returned to full serviceability. Oh, and not to mention, I'd been driving and was relieved that Ila - with not a word on the matter from meself - volunteered to foot half the bill. I mean really, a less sweet co-traveler might have pleaded 'don't look at me, I didn't tear up those tires!". Thank you Ila. I am sure the angels that guarded us the road shoulder and arranged the goats for my entertainment have taken notice.
Ila inspecting our brand new passenger side tires
So that was how we Skylarked in Skye, and survived 'Trial by Claire's crap driving' on the back roads of Scotland. Whew!

[UPDATE: I continued to do 100% of our driving in both Scotland and Iceland. That may seem unfair at cursory glance, but I was down with it. After all, it was far easier for me to drive, so I could whip off road as needed so I could photography birds and wildlife. On numerous former travels with Ila I was always shouting 'STOP THE CAR' and would become frustrated if Ila didn't immediately know where & why the hell her crazy passenger (i.e., me) was screaming at the top of her lungs. With me doing all the driving, Ila's ear drums were spared and there were no missed photo opts for the unique little snowflake that is me. 

Oh! And I am proud to announce, there were no more flat tires on the trip. In fact, for the remainder of our time in Scotland, there were no more than 3 - you read right - no more than 3 additional tire curb slammings, I mean 4 at most, 5 tops, for the remainder of our driving in Scotland. You see, Ila and I had agreed, her job was to speak up if I started drifting left. She did so, and by golly our four tires were not ground into Scottish shredded biscuits.]