Editor’s note: This marks the seventh in Anne Gavin’s travelogue through Scotland. If you missed any of her other posts, you can catch up at the bottom of this one with links. Are you settled in your armchair? Let the virtual travel begin!
The journey continues along the Inner Hebrides as we make our way to Islay and some warm, whisky-filled days sprinkled with an ocean adventure. More than half way into the trip, I find myself still recovering from the trekking on Arran, but also still marveling at Scotland’s beauty and my incredible good fortune to be sharing the experience with some amazing friends. The burden of playing host to a large group of guests on our earlier trekking adventures, and yet trying to maintain my own physical and mental well-being, was slowly being lifted as I finally felt myself lighten a bit and really sink into the second half of this trip of a lifetime. Islay and fulfilling some more dreams lay ahead, not to mention precious time with Scottish friends along the west coast. All along I was thinking about how much I had learned about myself and this wild, beautiful country and how every time I travel here, the feeling is the same, yet different. Many feelings, many new experiences but always the warm, deeply satisfying sensation of being among friends and discovering hidden Scotland at every turn. It begins with yet another magnificent journey aboard the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry as we sail across the sea once again to the Whisky Isle.
We board the CalMac and bid farewell to Oban mid-afternoon, settling into our comfortable leather seats. It would be our longest crossing—nearly three hours through the Firth of Lorn and alongside the Isle of Jura and finally into the Sound of Jura to our port on Islay—Port Askaig. I’ve heard lots of complaints about the CalMac ferry from those more knowledgeable than me about these things. Our guide from Sláinte Scotland, Catriona, wrinkles her nose whenever I compliment CalMac. As a Tour Operator in Scotland, I understand her frustration. Frequent unpredictable weather and cancellations can cause great anxiety for eager tour guests nervous about getting to their next destination. And delays can be a living hell for tour guides forced to manage anxious guests due to unforeseen circumstances. However, without hesitation, I can report that every single ferry ride we took aboard the CalMac was unfailingly pleasant, comfortable, and most important—ON TIME! I guess I was lucky, but really do believe that this form of transportation in Scotland is the way to go. You can fly from island to island, but you would miss so much beautiful scenery, pleasant ferry staff and surprisingly good food from the short-order cooks who make a mean Scottish breakfast!
It was misty and overcast for most of the crossing, but as we approached Islay, we could see bits of blue sky and some rays of streaky sun. As we pulled away from the dock and started our drive to our B&B, I was surprised at the vast landscape and the sheer size of the island. The Isle of Islay is the fifth largest of the Scottish islands with a total area of 239 square miles. Clan Donald ruled Islay in the medieval period but the Highland Clearances—like on so many of the other Islands and in the Highlands—led to a dwindling population. Today, Islay has just 3,000 permanent residents that rely on agriculture, malt whisky distillation and tourism for their livelihood. Some of these permanent residents are the delightful Emma and Graeme Clark of Glenegedale Guest House.
Catriona had been so excited when she told me (almost a year previous) that she had managed to book Doreen and I into Glenegedale Guest House. Widely known as the best B&B on the island, Glenegedale has earned a Five Star Gold Award from the Scottish Tourist Board as well as the Most Hospitable Bed and Breakfast in the West of Scotland by Visit Scotland. Glenegedale is, indeed, one of the finest hotels I have ever stayed at in all of my travels abroad.
There are many reasons for this, but as with all things Scotland, it is always the people and the hospitality that surpass all other things. There are only 4 rooms at Glenegedale, but they are meticulously appointed with lovely views of the sea out the windows of the three second floor rooms. The Inn is across the street (literally) from the Islay Airport. But, no worries—traffic in and out of this tiny airfield is rare. I neither saw nor heard a plane take off or land in the three days we spent there. I did, however, hear the pleasant baaaahing of the ewes and their lambs in the fields on either side of the Inn’s driveway.
Every morning, Emma and Graeme Clark rise at 5:00 a.m. to prepare their award-winning breakfast, consisting of two entrees to choose from—including probably the very best full Scottish Breakfast I have ever had in Scotland. The morning’s fare also consists of a glorious side-board full of delicious and fresh stewed fruits. And, let’s not forget a splash of Laphroaig whisky in your porridge. Yes, you heard right. I tried it, and it is verra tasty. But, the best part of breakfast is the informative chats with Emma and Graeme as they reveal all the best “hidden-Islay” spots on the island to try and see while there. Glenegedale House is a delightful place to stay while on Islay and understandable why it continues to win awards as one of the UK’s best.
Our first morning, we woke up to a thick fog outside the hotel. It was warm and no rain, but definitely the familiar Scottish mist. We had planned a Sea Kayaking adventure with our guide, Dave of Kayak Wild Islay, and I couldn’t wait. It was too bad that the weather was a bit overcast as it would restrict our views back to shore. But, with all things Scotland, it is sometimes the misty days that bring the best atmosphere for adventure.
This day was no exception. What I don’t think that Doreen and I had counted on was that this was some serious ocean kayaking in serious ocean crafts. The kayaks themselves were razor thin slivers in which you had to delicately balance (in my case) long limbs and creaky knees inside a small opening while wearing a wet suit, life jacket, kayak “skirt” and waterproof jacket over top. We were also given some Teva sandals, so off went our trainers and socks.
As we dragged our boats down to the sea, I wasn’t thinking much about what it was going to require to paddle and avoid capsizing in such a small, delicately balanced craft. I was thinking mostly about whether, once in the kayak, I would be able to get out of it as it was pretty much flush with the sand being very long, thin, and narrow. And, for the first time this trip I started thinking about my injured rotator cuff, which had plagued me for months before I left for Scotland. It wasn’t much of a bother trekking on Arran, but this time, my arms and shoulders were going to be my mainstay—and the only thing standing between me and a dunk in the North Atlantic.
Doreen was starting to have second thoughts about the whole thing. She huddled briefly for a few minutes with Catriona (who was sitting the paddle out). I encouraged her with my familiar, “But, Doreen, YOLO!” I wasn’t sure what she was going to decide as I think after Dave’s talk about what to do if one capsized, the panic started to set in. Understandable. In my mind, though, I was pretty sure this plucky woman wasn’t going to disappoint and would end up paddling out right behind me. And, it turned out, I was right. There were a few shrieks and screams, but after only five minutes, I could hear Doreen’s familiar chatter starting up. She was off to the races and paddling strongly and surely ahead with the rest of us, including a lovely older English gentleman from the London suburbs.
It was a delightful hour and a half on the water. We paddled in and out of small outcroppings of rocks just off the shoreline. We saw many seals poking their heads up, spy-hopping just a few feet in front of us. Others we saw slip neatly below the waves from their perch on the rocks. There was even an island with a few sheep on it. How they got there, I have no idea! At one point, we paddled into a bay, hopped out of the kayak (not quite a hop for me!) and Dave somehow cleverly brewed a hot pot of coffee right there on the rocks. Still trying to figure that one out. Unfortunately, it was too misty to get my Instagram shot paddling in front of the Laphroaig Distillery sign in Lagavulin Bay. But, I thought—now there is an excellent excuse to return!
It was a brilliant morning and a first for Catriona and Sláinte Scotland taking tour guests on this particular ocean adventure. I love being a pioneer! I give Dave of Kayak Wild Islay high marks. Very professional, calm, and reassuring for beginners yet able to push our adventure buttons and get us outside our comfort zone. Ocean Kayaking is part of Hidden Islay and worth a morning or afternoon to paddle the shores of this beautiful Hebridean wonder.
We made a swing by Kildalton Parish Church and the magnificent Kildalton High Cross. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so magnificent because a crew from Historic Scotland was there with ladders and scaffolding and all sorts of other official looking gear. They were doing some sort of virtual 3D mapping of the cross and the site. I can’t tell you how annoying it was not to have unobstructed views of this amazing 1200-year-old icon of Scotland. However, the adorable “honor cart” nearby made up for it a bit. We had a delicious slice of cake and hot coffee and left a couple of pounds as payment. What a charming little way station made possible by some local baker and kind soul. We did go back later in the day and the surveying crew was just leaving, so we did get our unobstructed views after all!
And, then began our Whisky tour. Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Bruichladdich, where I discovered the fragrant The Botanist Gin. Did you know that Islay is also the home of many craft Gin distillers? So delicious! However, the distillery I had been waiting for—and dreaming of—was Laphroaig. We were so fortunate to be able to take a tour of the Laphroaig peat fields and hear from a native islander how the peat is cultivated, cut and prepared to be used in the distilling process. It was a fascinating, wild and windy—yet sunny—warm day out in the fields. I’ll never forget that day or that moment when I was able to cut the peat myself. Why was having the opportunity to slice several rectangles of dirt such a joyful moment for me? Not really sure, but you can see by the look on my face there was nowhere else I wanted to be but right there.
After returning to the main Laphroaig distillery building, we enjoyed a walking tour of the massive structure, including a very good look at the four large spirit stills, three wash stills and the malting floor. Afterwards, we retired to the brand new tasting bar at the Laphroaig Visitor Center for our sampling of some of the distillery’s more rare, hard-to-find bottles. Lastly, I was able to “visit” my plot of Laphroaig just outside the entrance to the distillery in the nearby peat fields. As a Friend of Laphroaig, you are bestowed a small, one square-foot plot. Again, I have no idea why slogging through boggy, wet fields to my tiny plot of land was such a thrill, but I could barely contain the wide smile and complete sense of happiness this brought to me! It is NO WONDER that Outlander star Sam Heughan called out recently that his “favorite tipple” was “single malt whisky from Islay.” Too right, Sam! And, we know he loves Laphroaig the best—even stopping by to celebrate the Distillery’s 200th anniversary!
We left Islay on a whisky high, but it was Hidden Islay that was on my mind. There is a lot more to this charming island than meets the eye. Our time there flew by too fast, but reminded me that if you have the time to seek out the less obvious about any place in Scotland, you will be rewarded richly for your efforts. As the ferry pulled away from its mooring, we could see the Paps of Jura to our right and some of the distinct trail lines running up the sides. We were headed back to mainland Scotland and back to Glasgow, where we’d say our goodbyes to Catriona (until next year!), and Doreen will head back to California in the morning. My plan was to head on for a stay with my dear friends, the Clarks’ in Kilmarnock. I will miss the smells of the sea, but look forward to being in a Scottish home once again and enjoying some downtime before I head home myself in less than a week’s time.
Clarks, Castles & Cavaliers
What can I say about Peter and Evelyn Clark? Peter and I had met and worked together many years ago. I had only met Evelyn recently, but they both were gracious enough to host me on a portion of my first trip to Scotland in 2016. They were also some of my rotating guests on Arran for a couple of days this year. They arrived on Arran the day of the infamous 17-mile segment of our Arran Coastal Way trek. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to sink into their warm embrace when we returned to our cottage from that exhausting day, only to have them offer to prep dinner for me and the other ladies. It was all we could do to limp in the door that day. The greeting and subsequent laughter-filled evening is something I will never forget.
But, this is who the Clarks are—endlessly optimistic, adventuresome, interesting, loving, hospitable in every sense of the word and just downright FUN to be with. They love their country, their family and their small village of Kilmarnock. Peter loves his golf and Evelyn her garden and, for whatever reason, they seem to really enjoy hosting their wayward American friend whenever she happens to pass on through. And, of course, I enjoy spending time in a Scottish home and becoming a part of the Clark Clan for those few days.
One bonus this year was the addition of the Clark’s grand-dog, Hudson, who was temporarily living with them during my visit. A gorgeous Lab/Spaniel mix and such a sweetheart. I got my dog fix on several long walks in nearby Kay Park with Hudson, not to mention tons of sloppy dog kisses. Missing my own dog at home, I also got my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel fix by attending the local Glasgow Cavalier Spaniel Group’s monthly get together that weekend in Glasgow’s Pollock Country Park. The Clarks kindly drove me into town and dropped me off where I spent the next several hours with nearly 60+ Cavalier Spaniels and their owners. I saw old friends and made some new ones and thoroughly enjoyed our trek through and around Pollock Park—site of some dramatic scenes for Outlander Episode 2.06 ,“Best Laid Schemes.”
Later that day and for the next several days, we began our quest to hit as many Castles as possible in and around Glasgow and the west coast. The previous year we had visited several and I was determined and—frankly, itching—to find more . . .and more, and MORE! Thankfully, the Clarks know and accept my proclivity with regard Scottish Castles and ruins and will amiably indulge me.
Over the next several days, we saw stunning Bothwell Castle, Dundonald Castle, home of the grandson of Robert the Bruce and birthplace of the Stewart Dynasty, and Dumfries House—although the latter not a castle per se, but a magnificent country home still used by today’s British Royals. Much laughter ensued during (and after) our visit to Dundonald Castle after our encounter with the unforgettable Colin, a volunteer guide there. A salty old Scot for sure, Colin knew every nook and cranny of that Castle ruin and was determined to tell us every_single_story from the beginnings of the 14th century castle’s medieval start to the present day. After nearly an hour and a half, even I was running out of steam listening to Colin go on and on. Dear, sweet man. But, we finally had to feign illness to be able to escape Colin as graciously as we could. Shout-out to Historic Scotland, however, for your fine volunteer. They should sell t-shirts in the Gift Shop—“Dundonald Castle: You can check in, but you can never leave!” It’s a magnificent spot, however, sitting high on a prominent hill-top overlooking Dundonald Village with excellent views of the Firth of Clyde.
In addition to castle-hopping, we also visited the enchanting village of Alloway, birthplace of Scottish bard, Robert Burns. Highlights for me included a walk amidst the gravestones at the Auld Kirk and Cemetery and the Brig o’ Doon and surrounding gardens near the Burns Monument. It had started off a bit rainy that day, but almost on cue upon arrival in Alloway, the sun burst through the clouds and I felt like a character in the old 1954 film “Brigadoon” for which Alloway and Brig o’ Doon had served as inspiration for the film by prominent composers Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe. The gardens were in full technicolor bloom that day. It was so stark going from the gloominess of the Auld Kirk to the dazzling gardens, but just another thing I love about days spent in Scotland.
I also took a stroll down memory lane with the Clarks when we visited the seaside village of Ayr—a childhood haunt for both Evelyn and Peter. Another stop was the Coney Island-like village of Largs. Peter insisted we make a visit to the famous “Nardini’s” in Largs—a sea-front café whose claim to fame is not only their delicious gelato but the fact that this Italian café in the heart of Scotland was founded and operated by Italian settlers from the Nardini family for many years. I had no idea there was a linkage between Scotland and the Tuscan city of Barga, where the Nadinis had emigrated. In Barga still today, Scots and Italians live and work side by side. Back in poverty-torn Europe circa mid-1800s, emigrants from Barga left to seek work as grocers and at restaurants in other parts of Europe, the U.S. and some south American countries. Many emigrants from Barga made their way to Scotland. These links between Barga and the countries adopted by the emigrants has helped transform the small Italian town, as has regular jaunts by emigrants back to the place of their birth. Each summer, Barga is full of Scots-Italians on holiday, which gives it a unique flavor. At Nardini’s, I tried the mint-chocolate chip gelato, and it was as good as any I have had in Italy! Italians in Scotland and vice-versa—yet another Hidden-Scotland fact uncovered!
Lastly, I returned to Dean Castle and Country Park in Kilmarnock for my second visit there. Dean Castle served as a filming location for Outlander’s episode 2.08, “The Fox’s Lair.” I had visited “the Dean” in 2016—given its proximity to the Clark’s home. However, this time it was a rendezvous spot for my meetup with fellow Outlander Cast Blog writer, Andrée Poppleton. Andrée had recently moved to Scotland from Australia for her self-proclaimed “gap year.” Andrée and I had only met virtually, so it was delightful to have some time to spend with her in person and at a spot which we both knew well from our viewing of Outlander.
We were also most fortunate to meet a friendly castle worker, Donna Nicoll. Donna was bursting with stories about Outlander filming and her close encounters with stars Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe, and Gary Lewis. She pulled out her smart phone and shared with us several behind-the-scenes captures of that week of filming where Donna told us she was hovering nearby trying to catch all the action. Of course, she had nothing but great praise for the kindness of the actors and crew from Outlander. It’s a story I have heard over and over as I have made my way to a few filming locations around Scotland. I think it was just as exciting for Donna as it was for Andrée and me to talk Outlander that day and walk some of the same ground as our beloved actors.
A few more home-cooked meals with the Clarks and my time in Scotland was finally winding down as I prepared to head home to Virginia and back to my job, my pets and, of course, my duties at the Outlander Cast Blog. I was overcome thinking about how much more I had learned about myself and about Scotland this time around. It’s a never-ending fairy tale for me and a place that has come to feel like a second home. I have almost as many friends in Scotland as I do at home in America now. I am so grateful for that because each of them has made such a difference in how I view and experience this amazing place. I end this final posting of The Scotland Diaries with just a few of the things I came to know about both myself and beloved Scotland during the long days of my trek on the Arran Coastal Way and in the weeks that followed. Scotland inspires me and enriches me more every time I visit.
1) There are no strangers in Scotland.
With few exceptions, every person I have met on my travels in Scotland is kind, helpful and full of joy—no matter their circumstances in life. There is a contentment among these people that is to be envied and sought.
Perhaps it’s the spectacular settings upon which many of these places lie. Or, maybe it’s the ancient stones that remain despite the ravages of time and weather. Each one tells its own story, and those stories will touch your soul.
Whether rugged and boulder-filled, flat, sandy, gently waved or the coastal island crags standing stalwart on their own, the Scottish coast is mesmerizing and comforting to the soul. I could find my home there and never wish for another.4) Take the time to learn Scottish history and don’t be afraid to challenge how it is portrayed at some of the more prominent attractions.
Scottish history is rich, indeed, but be aware that the English are fond of not telling the full story of the Scots. There are deep and complicated divisions in Scotland’s past, but those conflicts should not be ignored or sanitized for the sake of a clean version of history or shame for past transgressions. Seek the truth. You will be better for it. #RealScotsHistory
5) Scotland is a beautiful, wild country that will test you if you choose to challenge it
No one likes being alone. But, sometimes, those are the cards you are dealt and the circumstances in which you find yourself. If you can endure and survive, you will be the stronger for it.
Don’t allow anyone to tell you can’t or shouldn’t do something because it’s too far or too hard or too expensive. Believe in your dream. Make it happen.
There is nothing like the feeling of a warm embrace awaiting you on the other side when you travel away from the things you know and love. But, when that away place also becomes a place of love and warmth, it feels like you never left home. Scotland has become my second home now and my friends there feel like family. There is nothing better.
That will boil along there until the floodgates of life shut in eternal rest – Robert Burns
Missed any of the previous entries in the Scotland Diaries? Find them here: