In Search of Monsters and Fairies

It is a sunny day as we drive down the side of Loch Ness, with not a monster in sight. We pass on the opportunity to visit ‘Nessieland’ and wonder how many tourists have been fooled into thinki358 Loch Ness 23 May 2016ng that they might see bears at ‘Highland Bear Lodge’. Maybe highland bears are akin to yellow tits and indeed the Loch Ness monster. We drive through pretty birch woods to Glen Affric. There are more sheep in the road; these are sitting down contentedly as if they were in a field. There are deer relaxing nearby, maybe they have evicted the sheep. We pass the Fasnabyle HEP plant, reminding us how important the energy business is to Scotland. We head back towards Inverness by a different route, with the River Glass on the right and a bluebell wood on the left to enter the Black Isle, between the Moray Forth and Cromarty Firth. This peninsula, previously named Ardmeanach, was given to Lord Darnley by Mary Queen of Scots. The views are glorious. I find this one of the most attractive parts of Scotland, yet I was expecting to prefer the west coast.

We head to Rosemarkie, which was notorious as a spot for burning witches. I seem to escape unscathed. We are now in the land of the Picts, who inhabited Rosshire until they were overrun by the Scots in the ninth century. Picts or ‘painted people’ are believed to have arrived in Scotland from northern Europe during the Bronze Age. No signs of houses remain, so it is assumed that they were wooden but hill forts survive. In 563 St Columba left Iona to begin the Christianisation of the Picts. We are able to see Pictish carved stones at the tiny Groam House Museum, most of these date from the eighth and ninth centuries. There are debates about the purpose of these large, carved stone slabs. It is thought that they are unlikely to be grave markers as they don’t record names but they may be indicative of alliances between groups. The designs include representations of animals, hunting and biblical scenes and geometric patterns. The carvings known as cross slabs depict crosses but the arms do not protrude beyond the sides of the slabs. The volume of carvings found in the immediate area lead historians to presume that there must have been a monastery here, although no remains have been found. The Museum also celebrates the work of George Bain ‘the Master of Celtic Art’.

A little way up the road is the RSPB reserve known as Fairy Glen. It isn’t the easiest to find but having located it we take a lovely stroll through the wooded reserve. There is a notable lack of birds and fairies but it is pretty boggy so any self respecting fairies are probably residing elsewhere.

In the Steps of the Bonnie Prince

Time to retrace our steps southwards down the A9 alongside the beautiful, sunny east coastline and across Black Isle, through Inverness and on to Culloden Moor. We are the second of four vans who arrive on site at the same time. It is then a race to see who can get set up first, a race that we win hands down. Today we have passed the 1000 mile mark on this trip

As we have arrived in good time, we are able to visit the site of the Battle of Culloden or Cùil Lodair this afternoon. This battle marked the end of the Jacobite cause and we have just missed the 270th anniversary on 16 April. I am please to see that signage is in Gaelic first, with English underneath. We have free entry courtesy of the reciprocal arrangement between the English and Scottish National Trusts but we need a car sticker to confirm our membership status and thus avoid having to pay for parking. We do not have a current car sticker in this car. We enquire at the pay desk and put Chris’ National Trust ‘I am a volunteer therefore very important’ card in the window instead as suggested. We later realise that this expired at the end of March and he hasn’t yet collected a replacement but it seemed to do the trick.

Typically of Scotland, this is a very high quality attraction with plenty of interactive aspects and interpretation boards. I take a look at a book describing families who were involved at Culloden but none of the names I am interested in feature. I did have some knowledge of Culloden and the Jacobites but I hadn’t really appreciated the extent to which this was part of a wider European conflict. Scots who fought for the Jacobite cause did so out of loyalty to the Stuart line but also because they wanted a return of the Episcopalian Church. We enjoy looking at the weaponry, which is similar to what we are used to in the seventeenth century. An historical interpreter is on duty to exchange ideas.

356 Clan Marker Culloden Moor 22 May 2016It is interesting to fully appreciate that Cumberland’s government red-coat army of 10,000 men would need 10,000lb meat and 10,000lb bread each day to sustain them. The lack of supplies for the Jacobite forces was a significant feature at Culloden, along with the boggy terrain which led to the failure of their previously successful charging technique. The battle lasted less than an hour and nearly half the 1500 Jacobite casualties fell in the few minutes of this failed charge. The government troops lost only 50 men, although some of the 250 wounded died later. The Irish and French, who were fighting for the Jacobites, shielded Bonnie Prince Charlie’s retreating army, who headed for Inverness after the battle. These Irish and French were subsequently treated as prisoners of war not rebels. The Jacobites did regroup at Ruthven and were prepared to fight on but Bonnie Prince Charlie sent orders to disperse and the cause was lost, leaving Charlie to escape ‘over the sea to Skye’ with the aid of Flora MacDonald.

We move outside for a battle field walk, complete with slightly temperamental audio guides. The sun is shining and we are in lovely surroundings but we are mindful of looming black clouds. The Jacobite casualties were buried in mass graves and in 1881 the land owner had a memorial cairn built, along with markers for each clan that participated and another marker for the fallen government troops. Wounded Jacobites were bayoneted and the high ranking officers were taken prisoner. The wounded government troops were probably cared for in farm buildings that were commandeered as a field hospital. All in all another excellent day.

Orcadian Adventures

An early start and back to John O’Groats to catch the ferry for our ‘Maxi Tour’ of the Orkneys. We pass the entrance to the Castle of Mey, which, until 1996, belonged to the Queen mother. Three ewes and five lambs are running loose in the road. We do need to be in time for the ferry but we look to see if there is a handy farmhouse where we can report the escaped sheep. The only nearby buildings seem to be derelict so we have to hope the sheep will find their own way home.

We board the Pentland Venture to cross the eight miles of the Pentland Firth that separate mainland Scotland from South Ronaldsay, the most southerly Orkney Island that we will visit. We rashly decide that we are hardy enough to sit outside. I have listened to Jay Wynne who has told me it will rain, so when he is proved correct, I can wear my rain poncho, which today is a delicate shade of blue. It does turn out that I was confusing an arm hole with the gap for my head (I thought it was a bit small) but it did keep me dry and helped to keep out the piercing wind. I am a bit disappointed that there is no commentary. The vessel begins rolling interestingly and there is a penetrating smell of diesel. I begin to mentally assess if I have a suitable receptacle about my person should I be unpleasantly unwell. I don’t. Fortunately this is not required. We see gannets and guillimots before arriving at Burwick on South Ronaldsay.

We are collected by our guide, Stuart and set off on our coach for an eighty mile trip round five islands (South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimpse Holm, Lamb Holm and Mainland). I am not disappointed about the commentary on this part of our trip. So today’s information is courtesy of Stuart, if he was stringing a line for gullible tourists then you may as well ignore what follows. Stuart tells us that a highest temperature of 12 degrees is forecast and there is a 50% chance of a hurricane. That last bit might be a joke, of which he has a repertoire. Orkney is on the same latitude (59 degrees north) as St. Petersburg and Churchill in Canada, the latter being famous for its polar bears. Today is apparently ‘quite mild’, I’m so glad he mentioned that. There is actually very little snow or frost on Orkney, with average temperatures ranging from 5 degrees in winter to 15 degrees in summer. The average sea temperature is 11 degrees. There is plenty of rain and we are experiencing some of it. There are frequent high winds, with 137 mph being the highest wind speed recorded. Day length is 21 hours in summer and 5½ hours in mid-winter and I have noticed at Dunnet Bay that it is getting light by 4am and not getting dark until 10.30pm. There are very few trees on Orkney, thanks to the twin forces of man and the weather. Primary school children are taken on trips to walk in a small copse that has been conserved, as it is such an unusual experience.

Until 1468 Orkney belonged to Norway and came under the rule of the King of Demark. When Margaret, Princess of Denmark, was to marry James III of Scotland, she was meant to have a dowry of 60,000 florins. 50,000 of these remained unpaid and the Orkneys were ‘loaned’ to Scotland as security until the remainder was handed over. Later Shetland was added to this ‘mortgage’. When the money was not forthcoming, the islands were forfeited to Scotland. Orkney is now one of Scotland’s counties. The politics here are Liberal Democrat, a legacy from the time when Liberal leader, Joe Grimond was the MP and lived on Orkney. There is only a 2% unemployment rate on Orkney. The islands boast the shortest charter flight in the world, of two minutes between two of the islands. Kirwall’s airport is classed as an international airport, as summer flights go to Bergen.

We drive alongside Scapa Flow, 120 square metres of natural harbour, which measures 65 metres at its deepest point. In the world wars it housed the entire British home fleet. During World War I, the four channels between Scapa Flow and the North Sea were blocked by sinking ‘block ships’ in the gaps, to prevent the intrusion of U-boats. These ships gradually shifted, allowing, in World War II, a U-boat to enter and sink the Royal Oak. The majority of the fleet had already left Scapa Flow, or the damage would have been much worse. Churchill ordered that more permanent barricades should be constructed and what are now known as the Churchill Barriers were constructed by Italian prisoners of war. Prisoners of war were not supposed to work on anything that would help the war effort, so these barriers were billed as causeways to help the residents. After the war, local fisherman wanted them removed as they stopped their access to the North Sea but they remained, to the detriment of the fishing industry. Signs of the old blockships are still visible. The new barricades consist of 60,000 concrete blocks resting on top of gabions. Most of the 1200 POWs who built them were former construction workers. The now redundant fishermen took up chicken farming, which worked well until 1952, when a hurricane literally blew most of the free range chickens away. Present day farming is predominantly animal husbandry, Aberdeen Angus beef cattle, there are 140,000 head of cattle on the islands, sheep and pigs. Barley is grown for animal feed and there are three grass crops a year for silage to use as winter feed. Scapa Flow is noted for being the site of the scuppering of the German fleet of 74 battleships in 1919, on the orders of the German Admiral, who did not want the interned ships to fall into the hands of the British. Most of the vessels were later re-floated and sent for scrap.

The current population of Orkney’s seventy islands, many of which are uninhabited, is 21,000. To put this into perspective, Stuart tells us that the area of Orkney, 370 square miles, is similar to that enclosed by the M25, where nine million people live. During the war approximately 60,000 servicemen descended Orkney. Not only was the home fleet in Scapa Flow but there were also army camps and four airfields. The main road was built by the Royal Engineers, replacing the former single track road. Now tourists swell the population and a new pier at Kirkwall enables 150 cruise liners a year to disgorge their passengers.

315 St Magnus Cathedral and poppies 21 May 2016Our first stop is the capital, Kirkwall. I am very excited to learn that St Magnus’ Cathedral is currently the site of the first Scottish exhibition of the ceramic poppies, that I narrowly missed at the Tower of London. The weeping wall of poppies is here to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland on 31 May. Aptly, two doves have nested in the poppies. The red sandstone cathedral was founded by Rognvald, nephew of Magnus Erlendsson in 1137. Magnus, Earl of Orkney, had been killed on the orders of his cousin and fellow earl, Hakon. In 1468 James III gave the cathedral to the people of Kirkwall. Post reformation the cathedral was used for Protestant worship and can now be used by any denomination. We also see the nearby Bishop’s and Earl’s palaces.

Next, we take a swift look round the museum. A plaque tells us that the museum is housed in Tankerness House, which was the manse for the archdeacon and choirmaster of St Magnus’. After the Reformation it was acquired by Kirkwall’s first Protestant priest, Gilbert Foulzie. It was for three hundred years the town home of the Baikies of Tankerness. I make a fruitless foray to shops in search of an Orkney sew-on badge that I like to collect from places I visit. Instead, I invest in a Christmas decoration that is inscribed ‘Orkney’, as I also like to bring these back as souvenirs.

We drive across the RSPB Hobbister conservation area. About 180 species of bird can be seen on Orkney at different times of year. There are many raptors including sea eagles that have recently returned after long absence. We see curlew and eider ducks. Our second stop is a rainy Stromness, home of William Rae, who discovered the north-west passage. A group of goldwing bikes drive past and there are fishing boats to examine but there is not a great deal of potential in Stromness so we take Stuart’s advice and eat in the Ferry Inn.

328 Skara Brae 21 May 2016I have been really looking forward to visiting the Neolithic village at Skara Brae, especially after our own foray into the Neolithic era. The stone dwellings here are very different from our constructions at Old Sarum – different landscape, different building material available. The settlement is 5000 years old, older than the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Parthenon and the Great Wall of China. It was hidden for centuries and rediscovered after a fierce storm in 1850. The life expectancy of those who lived here from c3100-2500 BC was thought to have been about 20. The trouble with this kind of trip is that three coach loads of tourists are deposited at attractions at the same time making photography difficult but we do our best. At least our party are prompt at returning to the coach at the designated time, perhaps persuaded by the rain.

As we move outside to Skara Brae there are stepping stones taking us back in time from the first man on the moon, through the Inca civilisation, to the time of the Pyramids. This is a great idea but it could do with a few more stones. Work is ongoing to try to discover more about the inhabitants of Skara Brae. It is thought that their roofs might have been made from seaweed. The stone dressers and bed boxes are fascinating. Interestingly, they couldn’t use peat as fuel as the peat here is only 3000 years old. Nearby is Skaill House, built for bishop of Orkney on top of a Pictish graveyard. We don’t have time to look at this and the rain is getting heavy so we return to the coach.

By the time we reach the Ring of Brodgar it is very wet and the impact of the concentration of tourists is at its greatest here. The ring is 104 metres in diameter and originally contained 60 stones, of which 27 remain. Like Skara Brae, it was erected about 5000 years ago. The stone for this, the third largest stone circle in Britain, came from a site nine miles away. We pass other prehistoric sites including the Ness of Brodgar, a 5300 year old burial mound and the oldest standing stones in Britain, the Standing Stones of Stenness. In the same area is Maeshowe, a large tomb of the same era, which is aligned so that the setting sun on the shortest day, illuminates the chamber.

Our final stop is at the Italian Church, constructed on Camp 60 from two plaster board lined Nissan huts by the Italian POWs. The beautiful internal decoration include tromp d’oile brickwork. Stuart tells us more of island life on our return to the ferry, through a sea ha. On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day the streets of Kirkwall become the pitch for ‘The Ba’, a massive game of football that might last up to five hours. I know this as Crampball. Orcadians, a little like the Cornish at the opposite British extremity, consider themselves to be a separate race. Don’t call an Orcadian a Scot any more than you’d call the Cornish English.

As we drive toward Burwick we are hatching plans to secure seats on the lower deck of the ferry but yet again the weather changes and the harbour is bathed in sunlight. On the strength of this we once again sit outside. The wind is biting but we persevere for the forty minute journey.

As the sun is shining and we have eaten a meal, we decide that this evening is the best time for our foray to the most northerly point of Britain, Dunnet Head. We brave the gales to take rather windswept looking photographs and then return to the van by which time it is raining again.

Ornithological and other Adventures – John O’Groats and Beyond

There is lovely sunshine to enhance the beautiful views as we enter Inverness for a fuel and food shop stop. Being Scotland, this is soon replaced by black clouds and showers. A first at the Morrison’s garage, we are there as a drive off takes place and CCTV is being examined to track down the miscreant who has left without paying. Do people really think they are going to get away with this? We are now in Ross and Cromarty and will be on the A9 all the way north. We cross Black Isle and Cromarty Firth. The golden gorse is on fire over acres of hillside and the lemon yellow oil seed rape in full flower acts as a counterpoint. The signs of the oil industry remind us of the boost that this gave to the Scottish economy in the 1980s. As we enter Sutherland we are overtaken by a series of racing cars. As the Lotuses and Aston Martins stream past we wonder if there is a rally nearby or if this is to be part of an episode of what whatever Clarkson, May and Hammond’s new programme is called.

We turn right for the last twenty miles and the countryside is notably bleaker with deserted crofts. There are unusual walls made up of tombstone-like slabs overlapping each other. Thurso’s sign tells us that it is the birthplace of William Smith, founder of the Boys’ Brigade. I am sure he was a jolly good chap and all that but if that’s the most significant thing you can think of to say about your town then it is probably not worth saying anything.

308 Razorbill 20 May 2016Our site at Dunnet Bay is exposed but right by the sea and we have a pitch that has what might be classed as ‘sea glimpses’. After setting up the van we depart for John O’Groats, well you have to don’t you? It isn’t quite as commercialised as Land’s End or Gretna Green and it seemed important to visit what claims to be the most north-easterly settlement in Britain. There are some weird multi-coloured wooden buildings, which are apparently extensions to a hotel. If they were trying to look like Balamorey they’ve failed. A little like Land’s End it isn’t actually the extremity that people would have you believe. Dunnet Head is the most northerly point and we plan to visit there before we leave. We are primarily in John O’Groats to pick up our tickets for tomorrow’s trip to Orkney and to see where we need to be first thing in the morning. That accomplished, we move on to Duncansby Head. We arrive in a fierce hail storm and decide to sit it out, hoping for a gap in the precipitation so we can visit the fulmar colonies that nest on the cliffs here. Yes, Scotland’s weather does it again and within ten minutes it is dry and we decide to risk it. The ground however is anything but dry and is best described as spongy. Chris has his walking boots; mine are in the van so I paddle along in trainers as far as Duncansby Stacks.

It does start to rain a little and Chris generously allows me to wear the one plastic poncho that we have between us. We do have another one but that is keeping my walking boots company in the van. This is apparently an ‘arctic’ poncho, which means I can give up any hope of blending in to the landscape as I look like an abominable snowman. The cliffs are full of nesting seabirds, primarily fulmars. I am secretly hoping for puffins but no such luck. Today’s ornithological haul includes: fulmars, razorbills, oyster-catchers and an as yet unidentified owl – possibly an unusually coloured short-eared owl.

The sky is looking threatening again so we set off for home, or as it turns out not. One bit of bleak Scottish landscape does look very much like another. I am just thinking that the turning for Dunnet Head seems rather a long time coming, when we realise that we are bowling down the east coast and are rapidly approaching Wick. This is not quite what we had intended, we should be heading in a westerly direction towards Thurso. Not to worry, we do get to see another bit of the countryside. It is raining again by this time so we decide to leave Dunnet Head for another day.

This evening’s entertainment consists of the Manchester street games on television, which we have lacked for four days and watching our on-site neighbours attempting to erect their camper van awning.

To View or not to View – the Cairngorms and more Ospreys

It is overcast as we set off for our Cairngorms Railway journey. We are obviously doing better for wildlife on this trip as a red deer runs across our path en route. I say en route but the whereabouts of the beginning of our railway journey is a well kept secret. We do have a post code, which turns out to be correct but I lack confidence so we stop by the tourist information centre in Aviemore to check. I am shown the not actually a view from the top on a surveillance camera – pretty grey.

On arrival there is a slight issue with the not actually a ticket that has been emailed to me (well it goes with the not actually a view). Problem solved. I was so jolly organised and booked so long ago that I was buried under hordes of later bookings. We are in time for the first ride of the day (of course) although only just as, when calculating our leaving time, I hadn’t realised that the station was ten mile outside Aviemore. We are welcomed to the coldest, windiest, snowiest mountain in the UK. There is supposed to be an on board video in the railway car but I cannot work out where we are supposed to be looking, so I listen to the commentary instead. Not much of the eight minute journey has passed before we are lost in thick cloud. We had hoped for a guided walk at the top but these do not start until next week. We are able to look at information about the mountain and watch explanatory films, which none of our fellow travellers seem interested in. There is a video with scrolling text that tells us about the longest Cairngorm winter on record, which lasted from 28 November 2009 until 21 June 2010. The text consistently misspells January. Long winters are great for the winter sports season and the emphasis is very much on sustainable tourism. Natural Retreats, who seem to run the mountain, clearly know on what side their bread is buttered.

Cairngorm means Blue Mountain and this is the only true mountain range in the UK, dividing, as it does, the two very different regions of Highland and Lowland Scotland. The mountain has been inhabited for 4000 years although the skiing for which it is now renowned began as recently as 1904. 4000 year old skis have been found in Scandinavia however and anything the Scandinavians can do ……. So maybe Cairngorm skiing goes back further than we think. We don’t see any of the iconic wildlife, mountain hares, osprey, pine marten, snow buntings, ptarmigan, capercaillie or dotterels. We don’t see any wolves or brown bears either as these are now extinct in the region, although there is some debate about the possible reintroduction of wolves. Wildlife are not the only things we don’t see. We do briefly go out on the mis-named viewing platform, where we are told 100mph winds are not uncommon. That I can believe, I can barely stand up. A woman has optimistically set up her camera and tripod. Visibility is about a hundred yards, unless she has thermal imaging she has no chance.

We repair to the Ptarmigan restaurant, billed as the highest in Scotland and therefore presumably Britain; we are at 1097 metres above sea level. Chris has a cup of tea and I wait the required ten minutes until the bar opens so I can consume hot spiced wine – well I am on holiday and red wine is supposed to be good for me. It really is too cold for anything much so we make our way back down and I struggle across the car park through hail, sleet and wind to take a photograph of what I can see of the view at this lower level.

We head for the car. Oh, I should report that today there has been no sign of the red warning light on the dashboard. We have done nothing to effect this, so hopefully it is not just a temporary reprieve; we have a long, uphill drive tomorrow. A decision is made to go home via Boat of Garten, primarily because it has a cool name. Chris is hoping for boats (well there is a river). I wonder if Garten is a corruption of Garden, which makes no sense at all. Apparently it is the anglicised version of the Gaelic Coit a’ Ghartain. I never place much reliance on Google translate but in the absence of anything else I give it a go. When you put the whole phrase in you get Boat of Garten – no help at all. Trying the words individually you get ‘boat of ticks’ – really? I know Scotland is known for its midges but……. Gaelic speakers to the rescue please.

296 Osprey Cam Boat of Garten reserve 19 May 2016Anyway not boats, gardens or ticks but an RSPB reserve. I don’t get much opportunity to utilise my RSPB life membership so I am not going to miss this one. Like Loch of Lowes there are nest cams on an Ospreys’ nest that has been in the same location for decades. The female, EJ, unimaginatively named for the letters on her leg ring, has been using it since 2003 and has gone through three partners in that time, producing twenty five chicks. The current male is Odin and both adults are on the nest most of the time we are there. This year’s brood have hatched, one five days ago and one at 4.30am this morning. The egg laying and therefore the hatching, is staggered to give at least one chick a chance of survival. Today’s chick still has its head in the egg shell. The staff continually monitor the nest to guard against vandals, poachers and egg collectors. There is great excitement as a third osprey flys overhead and Odin’s alarm calls are clearly heard. This reserve gets full marks for its nest cam, as the screen allows you to take clear photographs, although the nest itself is too far away for my camera. Their viewing window is in rather a dark corner, so my attempts at photographing siskins and greenfinches through glass are less successful than those through the viewing window at Loch of the Lowes.

As the weather is still not waking up to the fact that it should perhaps be pleasantly balmy, we decide that we have had enough for today and return to relax in the van. It is called pacing ourselves. It seems there are folk worse off than we are as a motor home arrives on site on the back of a tow truck, we’ve got that tee-shirt.

The Internal Combustion Engine and other Mishaps – The Cairngorms

This post nearly started like one of those spam emails – we are marooned in somewhere many miles from anywhere, please send shed loads of cash. Well do feel free to send cash if you like but – everything crossed – we may not be marooned. After overnight rain, today we moved north eastwards from Killin, retracing our route from yesterday, past a mist-shrouded Loch Tay, looking beautiful in the morning sunshine. The clouds grow increasingly darker as we approach Aviemore on the A9 but we have arrived in the Cairngorms and the smell of resin from the pine forests is noticeable. Our destination is Grantown-on-Spey. This is the point at which our plans were abandoned in 2014, following the grinding almost to a halt of our car. The gory details are preserved online. This time however we reach the site without mishap. Here we do not get to choose our own pitch and are directed to ‘red1’. Red1 it seems lacks the advertised television signal and wi-fi. It isn’t that I mind being without these things (some would dispute that when they see my wi-fi withdrawal symptoms) but when you pay extra for a site because they advertise these amenities, it is a little galling. Tackling one at a time we try retuning our television, more than once, quite a lot more than once, to no avail. Our neighbour comes to help. It seems he can’t bear the thought that we might have to miss Coronation Street. He fiddles with our aerial, tries his aerial on our television, proving that it is our aerial that is at fault. To be honest we aren’t much bothered about the television and were about to head out but we wait whilst he fiddles with our aerial again and we do have television of a highly pixilated, frequently freezing sort.

Leaving the lack of internet for a while, we leap in the car for an afternoon excursion, pleased that we were allowed on site early and thus have gained an extra half an hour; although most of that has been lost with the endeavours of our helpful television not-quite-fixing neighbour. Chris turns the ignition, the car revs alarmingly and an ominous red light appears on the dashboard. What have we ever done to Grantown-on-Spey that it should be the scene of our holiday dilemmas? We set off slowly in search of a garage. At least this time we are not four islands and nearly a hundred miles from the van and we are within walking distance of a shop. The man at the garage seems bemused but says he can ‘run it through the computer’ in two hours time. We return to the van with heavy hearts. If I am going to be marooned I need internet and after a certain amount of tweaking, the site warden manages to connect me to the outside world. Two hours later Chris returns to the garage and to my surprise is back again very quickly. It is a something or other and we may need diesel cleaner but we can carry on driving. I am not sure the mechanic realises quite how far we intend to carry on driving before we reach the civilisation that is a Landrover garage but we decide not to waste the day.

By this time it is gone 3.00pm but we go back past Aviemore to Ruthven Barracks, designated as a ‘must see’ attraction. The nearby town of Kingussie is a centre for shinty, a Gaelic form of hockey. We park alongside the two other people that have read the same guidebook that I have and ascend the hill in a decidedly bracing wind to the ruined barracks. It was built on the site of a castle after the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. In 1745, Sergeant Molloy and twelve redcoats held out against Bonnie Prince Charlie, with a force of 200, with only one casualty. They surrendered the following year when the barracks were burnt. Even allowing for the theory that people were shorter in times gone by, some of the doorways seem more suited to hobbits but I guess the floor levels have risen with accumulated mud. The barracks are quite impressive but I am not sure I would rate them quite so highly as the guidebook suggests.

286 Loch an Eilean 16 May 2016As we have come quite a distance to spend not very long looking at the barracks we decide to stop off at Loch an Eilean on the Rothiemurchus Estate on the way back. The original plan was to walk four miles or so round the loch. By this time it is not only 5.00pm but very cold and drizzling so, despite having made a financial investment for car parking, we just take a very short walk along the loch side to see the castle in the middle of loch. We try and fail to find the monument to Major General Brook Rice who drowned in the loch whilst skating. This is allegedly the number one picnic place in the UK. I debate whether this is a self-styled title. I am sure it would be very lovely if the temperature were fifteen degrees higher. Having satisfied ourselves that we have actually done something today, we head for home. The weather forecast for our booked trip on the funicular railway tomorrow is not encouraging, ah well, this is Scotland and rain it must.

Wildlife Abounds – Loch of the Lowes Osprey Haven

When we came to Scotland two years ago we visited Osprey Haven at Loch of the Lowes in Dunkeld. Haven, yes. Osprey, no. We were three days too late. This time I am hoping that the jinx that we seem to have on local wildlife might have been left at home. We drive along the edge of Loch Tay and are now in Perth and Kinross; one of the many whisky distilling areas of Scotland. We take a slightly different route from the one recommended by the sat-nav with no ill effects and arrive at Loch of the Lowes Wildlife Reserve. If you decide to come here don’t expect extensive public areas. There are a couple of hides and a viewing window overlooking multiple bird feeders but it is well worth the journey. We begin with a visit to the ‘rest room’ where a notice instructs users not to put ANYTHING apart from toilet paper down the toilet. Ummm, how is that going to work then?

273 Red Squirrel Osprey Haven, Dunkeld 17 May 2016This year more than makes up for the disappointments of our previous visit. The adult ospreys arrived in March from their winter home; they spend the season in places such as Senegal and Gambia. They are taking it in turns to sit on three eggs and ‘nest cam’ provides a great view. The eggs are due to hatch tomorrow. I take a rather grainy photograph of the nest cam screen and one on full zoom (which on my camera isn’t very full) of the nest itself from the hide. I am almost as excited to see reed buntings as I am the ospreys.

271 Ospreys on the nest Osprey Haven, Dunkeld 17 May 2016We return to the viewing window where a gala performance is in progress. Two red squirrels who stay around long enough for a photo call and numerous birds including yellowhammers and a greater spotted woodpecker. I get some photographs that, considering I have a pretty basic camera and am taking them through glass from a fair distance, come out quite well; some are even in focus. I was somewhat disconcerted to overhear one of the volunteers telling a group of secondary school pupils that they were looking at a ‘yellow tit’ but maybe she was taking the proverbial. Note to overseas readers – there are no yellow tits – blue tits are predominantly yellow (confusing I know) but definitely no such thing as a yellow tit.

279 Bluebells, Dunkeld 17 May 2016.JPGWe walk for a mile or so along Fungarth Path towards Dunkeld. The ‘fun’ is provided by ‘talking posts’, which play recorded information when you press a foot pedal. The instruction is to ‘keep pumping’, so I pump continuously and rapidly for a few minutes before realising  that I have heard the same thing three times. It is jolly hard work all this vigorous pumping so I am please to work out, by post three, that it is, in fact, possible to pump half a dozen times and then stop, whilst the voice keeps going.

We are rewarded on this walk by vast, wooded hillsides misted in bluebells. The Scottish ones seem darker than ours and we learned on our previous visit that there is a move to get these recognised as a separate variety. Framed as they are by birch trees and beeches with their newly unfurled and unspoilt waxy lime green leaves, it was truly magical. No hardship on this walk to have to retrace our steps back to the car.

We take a slightly longer route home, via Perth, in order to buy fuel at a sensible price. Then it is along the A85 through Crieff and back to the van just in time to stop our laundry getting re-washed by the rain. There follows and evening of limbo dancing under wet washing in order to reach our on-board toilet.