ireland and scotland journal

September 27, 2014

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 4:54 pm

We’re heading home now, so I suppose it’s time for me to reflect on the end of the trip. The last two days were spent on Amy’s isle of Iona. The first thing that struck me was all the barbed wire. If I’m frank, it was quite unfriendly and certainly contributed a “get offa mah propertah” vibe. Narrow paths you could take were closely bordered by long strands of barbs. Fences are one thing but barbed wire has a pretty negative connotation and unfortunately it pervaded a lot of my first impressions of the island. However, hiking out to the west coastline was a highlight of my visit to the island. It was beautiful out there, and there were fewer reminders of what seemed to be the very standoffish local culture. Also entering the Abbey before Historic Scotland arrived and after they left because unlike the “tourist” crowd we were actually spending a couple nights and able to attend services.

Overall I’ve been feeling pretty miserable this last part of the trip, but did my best to not let that stand in the way of experiencing what I came here for. The other big site I didn’t mention was the Culloden Battlefield site in Inverness. This was a phenomenal center which not only told the story of the battle of Culloden but of the entire Jacobite Rising, which I found I was ill-educated on but came out with a well-balanced view of the entire episode. The center takes you from the beginnings and before the Rising through the battle before taking you out onto the battlefields themselves with an extensive audio guide. Then you return to the center to learn the aftermath - most notably the persecution of the Jacobites by Cumberland and his colleagues. This was overall one of the most effective military/political/historical sites at not just having that whiz-bang quality (though it did) but truly getting its educational message across and leaving visitors with substantially increased understanding.

I think some of my highlights of the trip included the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, an illuminating and far-reaching whisky tasting in Edinburgh (and the beauty of that city), “cliffs of various kinds,” Derry - the wide range of sites we saw there, the incredible hospitality of our B&B in Drogheda, finally finding the Lost Valley, the Orkney Islands (and the great weather we had there), the indescribably amazing seafood dinner we had at Oscar’s in Galway, Guinness, being invited by a local to a tiny local dive pub our first night in Dublin for music in which Amy got to participate, and making Amy happy by returning to her two homes.

September 26, 2014

Thin Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 11:10 am

We’re on the Isle of Iona, described by George Macleod (founder of the Iona Community) as, “a thin place,” with only a tissue paper between heaven and earth. Another quote inscribed on the wall of the West Range of the Abbey suggests the one who travels to Iona comes not once but three times. This makes my fifth journey here, I believe.

Our first day was wild and rainy and gloomy and brooding. Quite frankly, it brought all my bad memories of Iona pounding back into me. Those of you who know me tend to only hear my best stories and my praises of the place, but those of you who know me REALLY well will have heard me talk about what an intense place it was for me. Because it IS such a thin place, I think it causes you to experience things more deeply, and that certainly includes negative feelings and experiences. As tends to happen, a lot of the sadness, loneliness, fear, homesickness, etc. that I often felt here have been overshadowed by the exuberance, celebrations, friendships, romances, parties, worship services, etc. But like any good pilgrimage or any good journey story, mine had to include darkness as well as light. And boy, was the tempestuous weather yesterday a reminder of that darkness.

And then today happened. I could tell from peeking through the shade of our hostel room window, as soon as I woke up, that there was blue in the sky. I hoped and prayed that it would remain long enough for us to experience at least SOME time on the island with sunshine and its picturesque blue skies. For the most part, it did. There were a few afternoon showers, as I remembered there often being, but the vast majority of our time out and about today was spent under sapphire skies. We explored the Abbey, the Nunnery, St. Oran’s chapel, the Machair, Port Ban, Dun I; and we popped in several shops (almost typed “pooped,” which would have made a much more interesting narrative) and had tea with sweets (scone and brownie) at the Argyll Hotel. Throughout all of this, I was reminded of why I loved and love it here. The lightness in my journey story came flooding back to me. Everywhere I set my foot down, the ground seemed to remember that I’d been there before and then proceeded to remind me of the other feet that had walked there with me. I know George Macleod meant that this place is thin because of our closeness to God here (and I certainly have experienced a lot of that kind of spirituality in my times here), but I have found its thinness in the ghosts of my own times here. I can hear the voices of my friends and see their faces. None of them are far from here, ever.

From a more touristy perspective, it was really cool for me to take in SO MUCH of the island in one day. Working here, previously, I only had such brief snippets of time in which to take in certain activities. It’s been cool to just go anywhere and everywhere I wanted, with very few limitations. Brandon’s been a real sport about that, too.

This is pretty much the last real day of the trip for us. We’ll spend tomorrow making the ferry-bus-ferry-train journey back to Glasgow, then a plane from Glasgow to Dublin, and that will take up most of Saturday. We’ll leave Dublin Sunday morning for our return journey home. Of course, I also feel a bit like I’m leaving my home, too. :-)

September 24, 2014

Scotland and I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 2:28 am

have not seen eye to eye the past couple days.

We journeyed to Skye yesterday, and couldn’t see much through the heavy rain and fog. The “Old Man of Storr,” a rock formation, was supposed to be visible from the road. We couldn’t see it, and hiked for 30 minutes up the mountain until we could finally just barely make it out from its own base, veiled in fog. This was typical of the rest of the day: we really couldn’t see much from the road. The rain was torrential, too, not the light drizzle I was expecting from Scotland. And Scotland just had to choose the past couple days to rain - our most outdoorsy days of the trip (except for Dingle Bike Day). In light of the awful weather, the highlight of Skye day for me was the excellent Talisker whisky we sampled at the distillery. Before arriving on Skye (and before the rain became brutal) we did get to see the particularly photogenic Eilean Donan Castle, mostly notable for its picturesque location.

Today was Glencoe. The day started off with blue skies but they quickly receded into a gloomy drizzle - certainly not as bad as yesterday, but it did affect visibility. It wasn’t the weather that has prolonged my beef with Scotland, however. The agenda today was basically to drive through the beautiful glen and the Rannoch moor, then hike up and into the “Lost Valley” where supposedly the MacDonalds hid. Unfortunately, the Scots don’t seem to like labeling or marking in any way their hiking trails. The National Trust, who manages Glencoe, had maps that indicated the existence of many trails including the one to the “hidden” valley. However once you actually get out there, the trails are hard to follow, and not in any way shape or form marked. This, combined with my having instructions from the Internet on how to follow this trail which proved to be factually wrong, meant we went on quite a wild goose chase before finally finding a landmark that could definitively affirm we were on the right path. It was, however, worth it, and though we crossed paths with some other hikers along the way, when I arrived, we were the only ones there, certainly a magical part of some of our experiences lately.

We’re nearing the end of the trip; we have one more day in Inverness, and then we head to the isle of Iona for the last couple days of the trip, which Amy has remarked makes this whole trip essentially a pilgrimage.

Now I have bronchitis; thanks, Scotland.

September 23, 2014

Too Tired to Write a Clever Title

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 4:46 pm

Yeah, the title says it all.

Our delayed flight made it safely to Inverness, which we’re using as a “base camp” for Isle of Skye, Glencoe, and Culloden battlefield. We’ve knocked out the first two of three. Because I’m so knackered, I’m treating tonight’s post as a kind of bullet-points of various highlights.

Yesterday started out rough because there was some miscommunication about where to pick up our rental car. Having to walk an extra several blocks to actually get said car resulted in us missing the tour & tasting we’d booked at Talisker distillery (see more below).

After finally getting said car, I jumped in the driver’s seat and commenced driving on the left side of the road. Not the most difficult thing ever (as I feared it might be), but it did take some adjusting. Brandon mentioned the narrow roads already. While he was more concerned about side-swiping oncoming traffic (most of the roads we’ve been on are simple 2-lane country roads), I tend to ooch to the left anyway when I drive, so I was more worried about running off the road. We both did quite well, end of the day. We also both had to drive quite a bit on Scotland’s famous one-track roads, where the road is actually only wide enough for one car, so you often have to take advantage of little “passing areas” on the side of the road to allow two cars to negotiate the route.

The special tasting we wanted to do at the distillery was not really available because tey were sold out of the 18-year-old and the 25-year-old. We were able to get on a later tour and still try the 10-year-old AND a few other expressions without a problem. The rental car mix-up, while frustrating, did not ruin our day.

Our day on Skye ended up including a hike that was not on the itinerary. I tend to dress myself based on the itinerary, so I had dressed myself for a drive and a whisky distillery tour. But we hiked. And got soaked (see below for more info). Today’s itinerary had included a Glencoe hike all along, so I was a little more prepared. The directions we got for the trail were a little vague and outdated, plus there were not trail maps or trail signs. It got off to a rough start. Good views, once we finally figured it out, and I guess I got some extra exercise. I just enjoyed finally being in Glencoe.

We got so soaked on our unplanned hike on Skye yesterday that we ended up taking our pants off in the car and drying them over the defrost vents in the rental car while we continued our driving tour. I’m not ashamed of myself.

We saw a few highland cows but not at good places to stop and take photos.
We saw several normal cows walking right on the road we were driving on on Skye.
We saw grouse, including one very sad-looking one that may actually have been mourning the death of its mate (which is what the dead animal in the road right next to it looked like).
We have seen, appropriately, many Scottie dogs and West Highland terriers.
We did NOT see Loch Ness.

That is all I can think of to write about at the moment.

September 22, 2014

The Wrong Side of the Road

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 4:06 am

As I mentioned in my last post, our two day stay in Orkney involved me driving a rental car around the islands. Surprisingly, using the left side of the road wasn’t difficult - perhaps because I had “practiced” as a pedestrian for the first two weeks of the trip. What was a bit nerve-wracking was the narrowness of the roads: I felt I barely had enough room to not scrape the side of oncoming traffic in roads with two lanes; other roads were only wide enough for one car, but bared two-way traffic - if you approached an oncoming car, someone would have to either wait at or back into the nearest “passing place” offered (these were frequent and well-labeled).

Amy mentioned the neolithic sites on Orkney (including Orkney’s answer to Stonehenge), which were cool, but I loved its rugged beauty, and the fact that in many cases we were the only people within sight while walking along incredible coastal cliffs. Orkney definitely gets its share of tourists in the summer but I think it is much less spoiled than elsewhere in Scotland. And Keith, we did get Skull Splitter on draft.

We’re in Inverness now, which we’re using as a base camp (three days) for trips to Skye, Glencoe, and Culloden.

September 21, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 2:38 pm

How much have I written about Edinburgh? I’m suddenly not remembering. Oh yes, I think I wrote bit. Anyway, it was really good to be back in what I like to call “my city.” I love that place so much. It was a little heart-rending, being reminded of my great times there and being there and NOT calling it “home.” Nevertheless, I’m glad Brandon got to see it, and I’m glad the place has basically not changed much.

After a ceilidh on Friday evening (which I LOOOOVED because I’ve always loved ceilidh dancing and which Brandon was at best interested in but at worst terrified by), we woke up Saturday and flew to Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands. Orkney has always fascinated me, but I confess I’ve never known much about it and, of course, have never traveled to. I’ll have to say, I’m impressed. There are several sites here which, together, comprise the World Heritage Site called “Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” We visited many of them today, and they’re all standing stones, dwellings, and/or tombs. They’re fascinating! We’ve certainly seen our share of neolithic sites on this trip, but I think there’s something about Orkney’s stark environment that makes these especially haunting and awe-inspiring. The site of Maes Howe might be my favorite, though, because on the interior of it (it’s one of those mound tombs that at on time was beehive shaped but got covered up by a hill of earth over many centuries) is covered in old Viking/Norse runes from a time that those folks took over the site. I loved seeing the combination of the neolithic structure and the writings of a less ancient but still quite distant people. (In case you’re wondering, most of the runes were the Viking equivalent of, “Olaf was here.” There was even one written in riddle that basically said, “The most clever rune-writer in the North wrote these runes.” Nothing mystical or spiritual here.)

Over the past few days, I have been reminded of just how much I love Scotland. I told Brandon I was afraid that, though I’d always loved Scotland, I’d end up loving Ireland more after I traveled there. People generally seem to get more excited about Ireland. A lot of the people we talked to about this specific trip would get very excited about the Ireland half and less so about the Scotland half. I even had a student who said she was interested in studying Celtic music for grad school, but when I offered to tell her more about my experience at Edinburgh, she politely told me that she was only interested in Ireland. Americans are enamored with Ireland: red hair, leprechauns, St. Patrick’s Day, “Danny Boy,” etc. And yes, I loved Ireland. But… I still love Scotland more. My heart just beats better to Scotland’s rhythms. I could write for hours about it.

I may have time to do that, actually. You see, as I’m writing this, we’re delayed at the Kirkwall airport. The Kirkwall airport, which is smaller than the Lexington, Virginia, Kroger. One plane was supposed to take passengers from here to Shetland, then return back here and load us (and others) up for Inverness, our next destination. That plane is out of commission for the night due to technical problems, so we’re waiting to find out if another plane will be able to take us. If not… we’ll have to practice our flexibility.


September 19, 2014

Scotland Says No

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 6:48 pm

This morning we learned the news of Scotland’s 55-45 vote to stay in the United Kingdom. I have to admit my heart was sad at this news, but intellectually I think this is probably the right choice for the country, and more importantly, it is what the people of Scotland chose with an incredible turnout of almost all their registered voters. The debate from our perspective seemed remarkably civil and impressively informed.

Today, our last day in Edinburgh, we saw Stirling Castle (my favorite castle of our entire trip) and ceilidh danced. Yesterday, we toured
the Royal Mile, the highlight of which was a whisky tasting where I got to sample many whiskies I could never get in the States including some that are never exported out of Scotland. I of course purchased a couple bottles - my most expensive souvenirs of the trip.

Tomorrow we fly to Orkney, where I will be renting a car and for the first time driving on the left side of the road.

September 18, 2014

Home, Sweet Edinburgh

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 5:29 pm

Wow. I can’t believe I’m back here! I love this city so much. It was a dear home to me for a brief time, and I’ll always feel at home here.

As usual at the end of a day of traveling, I’m exhausted and don’t want to write a lot. I will say, though, that I’ve seen some pretty fun touristy stuff here that I never took advantage of while I was actually living here. I think one of my favorites of those was actually going INSIDE the Sir Walter Scott Monument, with its breathtaking views and interesting Neo-Gothic designs. I also liked the inside of Scottish Parliament Building and, of course, the Castle, one of my favorite sites in general. The Royal Yacht Brittania was cool, but it’s very “British” and just happens to be located in Scotland.

I LOVED getting to see some old friends last night, especially in light of tonight’s big referendum vote. I didn’t want to push the subject, but they all seemed eager to talk about it, which was especially interesting because several of them didn’t know each other before last night. I was impressed how civil everyone was about it, and I learned a LOT about average, everyday, young Scottish adults feel about this whole event. I feel we are truly lucky to be here at such a historical time (which it will be, I believe, regardless of the results).

Tomorrow is Stirling Castle and then a Burns-style supper and ceilidh back in Edinburgh in the evening. Which means I need sleep. And when we wake up… WE’LL KNOW.

September 17, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 7:33 pm

Despite its best efforts, Belfast is still most identified by its troubled history. Here is the wall Amy mentioned. It’s called the “peace wall,” I guess because the only way there can be any peace between the Catholics and Protestants is if they stay the hell away from one another; it’s incredibly tall and encircled with barbed wire and spikes to keep the Catholics out of the Protestant area and vice versa. Of course, as Amy mentions, the wounds are healing, and there are many notes of genuine desire for peace written all over parts of the wall. People pass through the gate casually now and the mood was relaxed. I wonder if Scotland’s upcoming vote on whether or not it desires to secede from the UK will re-ignite any desire on the part of nationalist Northern Irish to join the Irish State.

We flew this morning from Belfast to Edinburgh, where indeed we saw much evidence of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. We visited some of the tourist sites, including the Royal Yacht Britannia (which was most interesting to me to get a dose of the ongoing opulence of the royal family) and Sara, we ate at Howie’s (the highlight of which for me was the cullen skink with incredible mackerel). This evening we went out for drinks with some of Amy’s friends who she met during her time in Edinburgh. Overall a great and well-rounded day. We spend three nights in Edinburgh - including the day of the referendum (tomorrow) and the day the results are announced (the following day).

September 16, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 1:45 pm

Since arriving in Belfast, we have learned a lot about the so-called “Troubles” of Ireland’s past. The divisions between Catholics (typically pro-”Republic”/independent Ireland) and Protestants (typically pro-Union/Crown) have existed actually for a very long time and were evidenced in segregation, discrimination, the formation of such groups as the IRA, and, of course, violence in many forms. There’s a large wall in a section of Belfast that was erected by people to basically keep Protestants and Catholics separate. Derry was at the heart of a lot of the Troubles and was the where a temporary “Free Derry” locale opened up that claimed complete autonomy from Britain. It was also the site of the Bloody Sunday raid, when the British army had come in to replace the local police and opened fire on a group of civil rights protestors. In Derry, we saw several murals that have been painted as a response to the violence in this area and visited two museums that gave varying perspectives on the Troubles.

It’s hard not to form an opinion of one’s own when traveling around here. But it’s a little easier to take your time in forming that opinion when you see how strong an effort there is to unite people in peace. I think that’s my personal biggest takeaway from it: praying for vision, courage, humility, forgiveness, and peace for ALL involved. It’s so, so sad and hurtful to think about how these divisions came about from — or at least are masked by — beliefs in the same God.

An interesting, and perhaps less sober, angle on all this for me (selfishly) was learning that the Scottish Presbyterians who settled in Ulster (Northern Ireland) way back in the day were about as persecuted as the Catholics. A lot of them got the heck out of Dodge when certain ordinances made it more difficult for anyone but wealthy Anglicans to own land and hold office; that’s when they set sail for places like America. It’s really cool to think that maybe some of my ancestors came from that wave of “Ulster Scots” and to think that, if they did, I may have walked on some of the land they once walked on.

Aside from all this side of history, we learned, as Brandon shared, about the Titanic’s tender ship, Nomadic. It was really cool to see a lot of the features that would have been seen on Titanic and to learn about the tender ship’s colorful past. Today we visited the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. The transport part had LOADS of old trains and buses that you can climb around on and in; SO FREAKIN COOL!!! The folk was also awesome; a lot of Colonial Williamsburg/Jamestown/Yorktown, only with fewer shops and cafes. It was a “living history” kind of place with restored buildings, animals, a blacksmith’s forge, a basket weaver, people in costumes, etc. It was really fun.

A few little side notes here about some “troubles” of my own:

1. I lost Seymour. Now, I don’t believe I’ve put any Seymour photos on the blog, but I’ve begun to gradually load a few onto Facebook. Seymour is our little stuffed eagle (we left the usual trip bunny at home by accident) that gets inserted into some of our more touristy photo ops. It is my job to carry around Seymour and cleverly pose him in museum, geographical features, restaurants, etc. And when we were getting ready for bed on Sunday night, I realized that he was gone. My first thought was that I’d left him in the Crown Liquor Saloon or the Spar shop where we’d bought groceries, so I called both. No luck at Spar. When I called the Crown, I had to get transferred to the bar telephone line, where I was politely informed that a small stuffed eagle had indeed been found. We threw on shoes and jackets and immediately went to Seymour’s rescue. The Crown Liquor Saloon provided not only excellent beer but excellent eagle protection and human customer service.

2. I lost my wallet. Now, when I travel, I have a special RFID-blocking wallet for my passport and backup credit cards, and I carry a little change purse for my cash and bank card. It was the latter that was lost. I discovered it was missing when we arrived at the Nomadic at about 4:30 yesterday, after having traveled to Derry and back. By the time we finished our ship tour, every place I could have possibly left the darn thing was closed, so I just sweated it out throughout the tour, throughout dinner, throughout the first part of the day today… My top options for places I might have left it were a cafe in Derry’s illustrious Guildhall, the bathroom of St. Columb’s Cathedral in Derry, and the bus we took back to Belfast. I called the bus company first. No report of it, but they took down information and said to check back in again later. Next, I hunted down the cafe’s number and rang them up. THEY HAD IT!!! The gal I talked to was super nice and said she’d tried to find me on Facebook and send me a message about my missing change purse. I asked if they’d be able to post it to our hostel in Edinburgh, and she said that if they posted it first class, it should get there (I’ll be paying for that, I’m sure, but no biggie). Again, nice cup of tea, very helpful and wonderful customer service.

3. Nothing “troubling” at all, just… different. We stopped in at an “honesty box” cafe today, where you pay what you can or what you want. The menu is simply but delicious, and the place is covered in placards about local history (mostly Titanic-related, since it’s right on the docks in the “Titanic Quarter”) and art by local artists. There’s also a “prayer garden” in the back corner of the relatively large cafe, where people can write prayer requests on Post-Its. The Post-Its are put on a prayer wall or attached to a tree in the middle of te “garden,” and little round stickers are on some of them, indicating that the prayer team has already prayed for them. There is also a little teapot, where you’re encourage to write the name of someone you have a hard time forgiving on a slip of paper, put it in the teapot, and be reminded to foster a spirit of hospitality toward that person. Finally, there is a prayer journal, for longer prayers, which will also be read and prayed by the members of the prayer team. I was so inspired by this whole cafe: its financial accessibility for anyone who walks in, its quiet way of reaching out to people spiritually who may only be comfortable with something simple like that, its spirit of overall welcome and care for the community. After the stress of losing Seymour and my wallet, in addition to my exhaustion from all the walking we’ve done, this place was a little oasis for me. And as a final thought, it was a great reminder for me of people in Belfast are slowly, patiently working towards a place of healing and peace, even in little places like cafes.

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