A Wee Drive

Last night we asked our innkeeper at the lovely Birch Croit Cottage in Nethy Bridge for any recommendations to visit in the local area, and he had some great advice. “The Scottish Highlands are nice,” he said, “but go to the west coast if you can. There’s a place called the Torridon that is quite remarkable. It’s a fabulous Glen, with towering peaks. It’d be a wee drive to get there, and the last part of the road is quite narrow. But it’s supposed to be rainy tomorrow, so that might be a good time to be in a car anyway.”

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“Hmm…the road is quite narrow?” I echoed. “Will a couple of dopey Americans driving on the other side of the road be able to get there without scaring themselves silly?” I asked.

“Well, the road is not a Harley road, more of a Suzuki road,” he responded. “It’s a single lane wide for the last bit, with places to pass every few hundred yards or so–but just go 40 instead of 60 and you’ll be fine.”

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The more we heard, the more it sounded like an interesting adventure. Never mind that we were in a right-hand-drive car, and that we’d probably been driving 40mph on 60mph roads for big chunks of our trip already. We love to take local advice when we can, so the choice was pretty easy.

It was an interesting trip indeed. Yes, the last twenty miles were one-way with pull-outs for oncoming traffic. Yes, the driving was exciting at times. And yes, there were stretches where we had to back up our car on a narrow one-lane road to get into a pull-out to let another car past. But the locals know how to do that, and I guess we do now, too.

The last eight miles of our trip–to the spectacularly situated community of Lower Diabaig on the north Atlantic–had our undivided attention, as it was along cliffs that were exciting to navigate going forward, let alone in reverse.

Once we arrived in the seaside community of Lower Diabaig, we had the chance to enjoy a cup of coffee at the lovely restaurant there, Gille Brighde (Gaelic for Oyster Catcher).

After enjoying our coffee, we walked along the harbor, collected seashells, checked out an old shipwreck, and shared a full-on seaside picnic (from a cooler full of food that we’d brought along). That gave us a chance to puzzle over the story behind the village, the shipwreck, who/how the road was built, and more. But mostly we just looked out into the harbor and soaked in the beautiful scene.

As our innkeeper in Nethy Bridge had suggested, the Torridon is worth the visit. It has craggy peaks all around the Glen (which is what they call a wide sweeping valley here, so that’s what we call it now, too). And it was fun to be nudged into a place that we wouldn’t have chosen on our own.

On the drive back to Nethy Bridge, we took a few short side hikes before stopping through Inverness and visiting the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew and Inverness Castle.

Visiting Inverness was the cherry on top of a day when a (mostly) gas-powered adventure to the coast actually seemed like an accomplishment.

Bookends

Today we bookended one of the most touristy destinations in all of Scotland with two slices of more local culture. We started our day at the Scottish Highland Games in nearby Newtonmore, followed that with a visit to Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart, and closed things out back in Nethy Bridge at the remains of one of the oldest castles in Scotland, Castle Roy (11th century).

As for local culture, both the Highland Games and Castle Roy certainly fit the bill. We didn’t know the Highland Games were happening nearby until we saw a sign yesterday while driving. The games go on all summer, with the venue moving from town to town, and today was the day for Newtonmore.

The activities are a mix of athletics (hammer throw, high jump, trail runs, shotput, etc.), cultural activities (traditional Scottish dancing, bagpipes, children’s games), music, carnival rides, and the Scottish equivalent of funnel cakes and candy. It’s hard to go wrong with any of that.

As one might expect, the Highland Games are a very big deal to the communities that host them, in particular the athletic events. We were likely the only Americans (or at least among the few) in attendance today, and we appreciated the opportunity to experience something truly local.

The mix of athletics with music (especially bagpipes) and dancing is certainly unique–but we walked away from the Games thinking more about how alike our cultures really are. There were carnival rides, adults enjoying family outings, kids that dropped ice cream cones and burst into tears, kids that were all smiles after getting replacement cones–pretty much what you might see in a lot of places in the US.

Next, we were off to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, where we went from being the only Americans to being the only Americans that had attended the Scottish Highland Games that day (?), quite the trade.

As for Loch Ness, it gained its fame in part through the legend of the Loch Ness Monster, which dates to 1933 (at least). Regardless of the veracity of that tail, we’d heard that the Loch was beautiful and that Urquhart Castle was interesting (it was, and it is). And when you combine an historic castle (1200s) with a beautiful Loch and the story of a mysterious sea serpent, you have a recipe for a giant gift shop and an overflowing parking lot.

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The Loch is loved well beyond Scotland. And much of the Loch’s draw has to be that it’s hard to prove to a skeptical public that something doesn’t exist (and how ironic is that?!). Another thing that humans seem to share across cultures is that we thrive on the mystery of the unknown, whether it’s Nessie, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, or Souzz’s personal favorite, Champ, the sea serpent that supposedly prowls Vermont’s Lake Champlain.

Monster or not, the sheer beauty of the Loch and Urquhart Castle are not to be discounted (and yes, I really did just type “monster or not”), And it’s a reminder that touristy things are sometimes touristy for multiple reasons. And we don’t know what’s under the surface, either.

We closed out our day at Castle Roy, an 11th century fortress built by the Clan Comyn in Nethy Bridge, and we were delighted to find that we were the only people there. While Castle Roy is not nearly as dramatic or famous as Urquhart, it is also a special place, and it reinforced to us that Scotland is a land of many different kinds of experiences.

We didn’t expect to see Nessie today, but just yesterday we hadn’t expected to go to the Highland Games or Castle Roy. That’s a pretty good day of discovery.

A Lot To Learn

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” With that in mind, we are now in sunny (ok, cloudy and sometimes rainy) Scotland, on the first leg of a trip that will also include the Faroe Islands (a part of Denmark).

We flew into Edinburgh overnight last night and got right to it, driving three hours north to Aviemore and then on to the quaint little village of Nethy Bridge. While in Aviemore, we did a quick shop at the Tesco, the local super market, and it was fun just to see what was on the shelves.

Our cottage in Nethy Bridge is lovely, and it’s just a short walk into town (maybe 15 minutes). There’s not much to Nethy Bridge, just a store and a coffee shop and the Nethy Bridge Hotel, but this is one of the oldest villages in Scotland. It formerly was called Abernethy, but the name was changed in the 1800s to avoid confusion with another Abernethy in Perthshire, 50 miles to the south. The name Nethy is supposedly derived from Nevie or Navie, which is the enclosed space around a Celtic Church.

What the town of Nethy Bridge lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality. The Nethy Bridge Hotel structure dates to 1897, but there has been a hotel of some sort on that spot for more than a thousand years. In more recent times, Cary Grant, Mae West, and Lauren Bacall have all stayed here.

We started at the pub, where we enjoyed a beer served at room temperature (as is tradition). Scots have been brewing beer for 5,000 years, so we figured we’d try to learn something. Traditional Scottish “real ale” also doesn’t have a ton of carbonation. Beer geeks know this and seek it out, while tourists sometimes send back their drink and complain that it’s flat and warm (thanks to my friend Scott for schooling me on that some years ago).

Our dinner at the hotel was lovely, and we started with appetizers that included something called “haggis bon-bons” (hey, when in Rome, you eat what the Parisians eat, or something like that). I dove headlong into the haggis, even if it wasn’t fully traditional. I confess I didn’t love the idea of what it was made of, but it tasted really good, a lot going on in a small space. And clearly they put haggis in a small package for tentatively adventurous eaters (read: tourists).

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In a tip of the cap to my brother–who as a kid had an hours-long standoff with my mom over eating a pea, and finally ate half of a pea–Suzy ate approximately one half of one pea’s worth of haggis. She did, however, enjoy the salmon, and the fish and chips (with peas).

Afterwards she said about the haggis that she “just wasn’t wild about eating something that contained lung.” Perhaps there are foreign lands after all…or perhaps we just have more to learn.

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Enjoying a dram at sunset, thinking about what we might learn tomorrow