Edinburgh!

(Also know as: Scotland, Part 6).

Getting off the train at Waverly Station in Edinburgh and emerging on the street was like a homecoming for both Kim and I. We had been been there before and fallen completely in love with it. Even better, we knew exactly where we needed to go and how to get there without having to consult a map.

I’m going to condense our time in Edinburgh down to one post, even though it was quite a full weekend. We stayed at The Hub on Rose St – it felt like a palace after living in Fergus all week! And with a shower! I had been using face wipes and dry shampoo all week, but boy did I enjoy getting a shower in.

We went out after checking in and had dinner before walking the Royal Mile in the dark. It was pleasant to see that there wasn’t a whole lot that had changed, and we really did still know our way around well.

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Lady Stair’s Close became our preferred cut-through when visiting the Royal Mile. Edinburgh is a very walkable city, and we saw far more of it this time around than either of us previously had. In fact, on Sunday we ended up walking about ten miles, and it never felt like work.

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JK Rowling’s handprints just off the Royal Mile, next to Ian Rankin’s.

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Since I had missed St Gile’s Cathedral the last time around we wandered around inside and even were present for a service (I’ll have you know that us two heathens recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly along with the minister). We did appreciate the many scientific causes the church had supported over the years, and read many interesting memorials to early female physicians within its walls. The sheer amount of history some of these churches hold!

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Armstrong’s Thrift Store on the Grassmarket is always a good time. We were also lucky enough to find that there was an open-air market happening full of delicious street food. I got myself a Haggis, Neeps, & Tattties hand pie and it was wonderful!

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Then I showed Kim the spot where I had fallen on my face after tripping over a concrete barrier last time here (hint: right where I was standing when taking this shot).

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Victoria Street! There were many, many anti-Trump products here. Whatever your feelings are politically, I can tell you, hands down after being there, they despise him.

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Kim was also surprised that I hadn’t made it into the Tartan Weaving Mill last time (how?!) so we rectified that situation right quick! This is also where I realized I want all of the Harris Tweed. All of it!

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For dinner (and because it happened to be my birthday!) we went to The Witchery and ate in the most beautifully decadent Scottish Gothic dining room I’ve ever seen.

To cap off the night, we took a tour from The City of the Dead Tours. Our guide told us some wonderfully gruesome Edinburgh history before leading us into the restricted section of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (this is the reason we wanted this particular tour – entry into an area no one else can go!) where we stood inside the Black Mausoleum, where supposedly the Mackenzie poltergeist attacks visitors regularly.

Nothing happened aside from a jump scare at the end (yes, I let out a startled scream, but quickly it turned to laughter), and the ability to forever tell people we were locked in a haunted mausoleum in Scotland after dark.

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The next morning we went out bright and early to get ourselves tattooed!

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We hadn’t planned originally to get the same image, but this one kind of presented itself during the trip and seemed meant to be.  I like that it has Viking and Celtic elements and is also used in imagery at Loch Ness. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of the trip, and makes me happy all over again.

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Since the tattoo process was incredibly quick, easy, and painless (ask for Marc at Studio XIII – you won’t be disappointed!), we had a lot of day left ahead of us to fill, so we headed to Prince’s Street to climb the Scott Monument (in honor of Sir Walter Scott). If you can manage 287 tightly spiraled and enclosed stone steps, you are rewarded with incredible views of the city.

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Looks like a scene right out of Harry Potter, no?

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The Balmoral Hotel.

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Calton Hill, and the Firth of Forth.

We worked up quite an appetite from all the climbing and ducked into a Pret A Manger for coffee and a sandwich to take on our walk into New Town and over to see Dean’s Village, a quaint old mining town from days gone by. (Also, I need a Pret A Manger in my life – Charlottesville, get on it!)

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While strolling along the waterway we happened upon a knitwear photoshoot in progress. What are the odds? It turned out to be Jade Starmore, and from what I saw, the new patterns are quite lovely ( as was she and all the models and assistants I spoke to)!

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Though we had spent the day strolling in the New Town area of the city, Old Town kept calling to us. There’s simply something magical about all that old architecture. Plus, I felt compelled to have a pint in an old pub for our last night there. We had steak and ale pies and some wonderful draft cider before finishing out the daylight right back in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.

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As we stood amongst the very old gravestones, willing it to not be our last night, it began to pour. We were a long walk from our hotel, but getting drenched in the graveyard seemed a fitting way to end our Scottish vacation.

So long for now, Edinburgh. You’ll always be my second home.

 

 

 

 

 

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Scotland, Part 5

Are you sick of Scotland pictures yet? I could look at them forever.

After our last night camping in Fergus on Islay, we set out for the drive back across the mainland to Bankfoot. Because we’d had the early ferry we had all day to make the approximately 4 hour drive, so we took every opportunity to stop and take pictures.

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Loch Fyne.

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Inverary

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We pulled off the road to capture this pastoral view with the mountains in the back as we approached the Trossachs National Park.,

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As we climbed in elevation our surroundings looked more and more “alp – like”, and with good reason. This area is known as the Arrochar Alps. The trees looked so perfectly shaped and green, and you could almost imagine you were in Bavaria rather than Scotland.

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Though we took pictures, there’s really no way to experience just how incredible it was. Photographs do little justice to this awesome place (and we mean that in the original sense of awe-inducing). Passing through Glen Croe was something I cannot adequately put into words.

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After Glen Croe we found ourselves on the shores of Loch Lomond and in need of a potty break. We found a cute little cafe and sat on a bench overlooking the Loch eating bar cookies with coffee. We had passed a lot of signs for camping and outdoor recreation in this area, and at some point I’d love to go back and do some hiking in the Argyll Forest and kayaking on Loch Lomond.

We also decided that we should check the rest of our route and determine how to manage our time, as it appeared we’d get to Bankfoot several hours early. Happily, our path took us directly past Stirling Castle, and as we are both avid fans of Tudor history, this castle was a spot we’d both been interested in seeing.

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The view from the castle. I imagine it hasn’t changed a whole lot since Mary, Queen of Scots’ time, aside from some of the buildings.

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We could have wandered Stirling castle for hours. Sadly, we didn’t have hours, and soon had to be back on the road to return Fergus and catch our train to Edinburgh. I made sure to buy the official guidebook to the castle with its history and inhabitants. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it sits next to me, invitingly. We’ll definitely be back for a more thorough visit in the future.

 

 

Scotland, Part 4

I wish it was always as easy to get up before dawn as it was in Scotland. Many mornings we had early ferry check-ins, but little problem rousing ourselves from sleep (and neither of us is a morning person). It must be a vacation thing. And we had a good routine. Wake up, throw on clothes, turn on the heat. Kim would open the back of the van and turn on the gas, I would get the stove going to make coffee. It was no different that beautiful morning in Skipness. We woke to what sounded like an angry chicken (it turned out to be a pheasant being chased away from the water by a seagull), and watched a stork catching his breakfast. Also, those “Pheasant Crossing” sings were no joke. Those damn things were ALL over the road and in the way that morning. But, we aren’t used to pheasants, so it was delightfully Scottish rather than aggravating.

The ferry to Islay was called “The Finlaggan” and was just as luxurious as the Hamnavoe had been. The parking deck even had a large car lift to fit more vehicles.

Unlike the Hamnavoe, we didn’t nap on the way over. It didn’t have quite the same sleep-inducing rocking motion, and so we found a small table to sit at and watched the scenery as the boisterous group at the next table over spoke in what we assumed was Welsh.

Since the weather hadn’t made up its mind between pouring rain and sun, we settled on setting out northwards to find the Kildalton Cross first thing, as it was fairly dry and the cross was located out of doors.  Though only a few short miles from the ferry, the road was narrow and rutted, with more traffic than you’d expect. And, for extra measure, a random peacock wandering about in the way!

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The sign on the gate to the churchyard. I have already declared I must have one made for my pasture.

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The Kildalton Cross, created in the 8th Century. 8th!!!

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Sheep weren’t the only marauding livestock.

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Such a perfect scene of Scottish Blackface sheep grazing freely, no predators to speak of (no, seriously. I asked what predators they have for sheep in Scotland, and the answer, essentially, was none. Some large birds of prey may occasionally try for a newborn lamb, but that’s pretty much it).

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What a life to live!

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They say if you’re lucky you’ll spot otters in these protected coastal beaches. We didn’t, but loved the “Otter Crossing” signs.

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For lunch we headed to the cafe at Ardbeg Distillery. We are fans of Islay whisky, and the distilleries were the main reason we chose to spend a day there.

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All of the distilleries on Islay are lovely, but the main 3: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig, are rather close together on the eastern coastline. All 3 therefor have a similar look: white with large black, block-style lettering. This was to help ships differentiate them, as they are easily readable from the sea.

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Yes, you can smell the whisky as you walk around, and yes it smells delicious.

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Although we would have enjoyed touring all the distilleries, we settled on Laphroaig. When you buy a bottle of it, you are given a code. Register it online, and voila! You now own 1 square foot of peat across from the distillery. If you visit, you are given one dram of whisky as your rent, along with a flag of your nationality and the GPS coordinates to your plot. We of course had registered months and months ago, so were were excited to collect or rent and plant our flags (they even have walls of wellies for you to use to walk out into the field!).

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The barley floor. We got to taste pretty much every step of the process. It was quite fascinating, actually.

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The only snag we hit that day was needing petrol for Fergus. What we hadn’t realized is that most of the petrol stations on Islay close at 5pm. We spent a bit of time searching for the last remaining station – open until 7 – before we decided upon a spot to park for the night.

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We ended up on the beach in Bruichladdaich just before some rain showers settled in (though we did manage some pictures and shell collecting as well!)

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Our nearest neighbors were far enough away that we felt we had decent privacy.

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Across the road from us in the other direction was a field full of – of course! – more sheep and cows. While walking along the beach we saw plenty of hoof prints and sheep poop, so we knew they wandered over at least once in a while. In fact, they were all in the road the next morning as we drive through the pre-dawn dark to the ferry.

Islay, we barely knew ye. We’ll be back!

Scotland, Part 3

As much as we didn’t want to leave Orkney, we were excited for what we’d encounter on our drive down through the Highlands to Kennacraig, where we’d camp for the night before catching the ferry to Islay.

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For the first half of the day we had fairly clear weather, and took every opportunity to pull over and take pictures or explore a bit.

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Check out that castle right on the cliff overlooking the sea. I’m fairly certain it is Dunrobin Castle, but we didn’t have time to stop and tour. (Next time!)

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Cow! We had been expecting to see far more of these longhorn beauties all over the Highlands, but no such luck. We spotted this guy and his three buddies, and perhaps one or two others from the road, but that was it for the entire trip. I asked Andrew, the lovely gentleman from Big Tree who drove us to the train station in Perth, about the lack of them, but he had no answer. He did suggest we come back for the Highland Games because we’d see plenty then. (Next time!)

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Loch Ness! We both actually squealed when it came into view. Fortunately the lay-by we pulled into had a stairway down to the rocky beach below, so we took a few moments to stand on the shoreline and take some photos (and steal a rock or two, and dip our fingers into the water).

We stopped at Drumnadrochit to see the exhibit and gift shops, expecting the cheesiest display of monster lore possible. However, we were happily surprised by a very well-done history of the Loch itself, as well as its geology and marine composition and life.  The possibility of a monster was discussed with a skeptic’s eye but open to the possibility. We were also surprised to learn that the Loch does not actually contain much in the way of fish life. It’s not as diverse an underwater community as one might imagine.

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Urquhart Castle, overlooking Loch Ness. We did not pay the admission fee to tour it, as it was absolutely crawling with tour buses full of people. But we stopped for a few photos from the hill above.

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Further along down the road we decided to find a good lay-by to pull over and have some sandwiches and tea. While waiting for the water to boil, we looked around and could see an old graveyard a short walk from where we were (just outside of Invermoriston). So, after eating, we ventured down and had a pleasant walk through a picturesque little graveyard full of mainly military graves.  Kim and I both very much enjoy old graveyards for not only the beautiful stonework and peace therein, but the rich history you can discover about an area.

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Just beyond the graveyard we stepped in to use a public restroom and discovered a short walking rail to a waterfall. It was a complete fluke, but we took advantage of the opportunity and hiked about three minutes to the edge of a rather scary drop overlooking a raging torrent of water. Sadly my pictures do it no justice.

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Continuing on, we met with rain and fog for most of the duration of our drive. We passed by Glen Coe and Ben Nevis (they would have been short diversions from the road we were on), but decided it wasn’t worth stopping as the rain was rather heavy and the fog made visibility rather low.

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The upshot is that as we got closer to Kennacraig and the rain began to move out, we were rewarded with some spectacular views.

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In continuing with our theme of happening “by chance” into some amazing sites, we pulled over in a large off-road parking area to double check google maps and realized we were parked next to this lovely little church. Which, oh hey check it out, is full of medieval graves. We could have spent far more time than the fifteen minutes we gave ourselves. We will definitely be back to this spot. Also, I’m beginning to think it was less us landing by luck in amazing places and more that it’s impossible to NOT land in amazing places in Scotland. This lovely spot is in Kilmartin.

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We approached the ferry at Kennacraig just as the sun was starting to set and had assumed we’d find plenty around the area. However, the ferry was rather isolated, and it didn’t seem there was much closeby. We ended up taking a road leading to Skipness, and found a spot to camp for the night near the Arran ferry, right on the water. This was our first time wild camping. It felt a bit crazy, being from the US, to just pick a random spot off the road to spend the night. But, there were a few other campervans randomly dotted along the same beach area, so we picked a flat spot and parked.

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As you might guess being not far from the Arran ferry, that island across the water from us is the Isle of Arran. There were lots of seagulls, storks, and pheasants about to keep us entertained as it got dark.

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We had picked up some small meat pies at a Morrison’s along the way and ate those (with some good Scottish whisky to wash it down) while watching the birds and the sunset. Another magical day in the books.

 

Scotland, Part Two

After leaving reluctantly leaving Kirkwall we drove out to do some more sight-seeing on the island before hitting the Standing Stones.  Along the way we got the knack of driving down narrow, one-lane paths that allowed two-way traffic (there are lay-bys to pull off into, and everyone waves as they pass. It’s very civilized).

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We found a quaint spot on the coast in Birsay overlooking a smaller island and these amazing cliffs.

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Again, sheep and cows are all over the island.  You could get real sick of seeing them if you’re that kind of person (hint: we’re not).  We had our lunch (pb&j sandwiches and tea) sitting in Fergus with the door open to a field of wild hares running about.  We saw yet more sheep. Soon enough, it was time to find the stones before it got too dark.

The Ring of Brodgar,our first stop, is a circle of standing stones older than Stonehenge. As luck would have it, there were very few people around, and we had the site mostly to ourselves. Unlike Stonehenge and Skara Brae, you are permitted to walk among the stones.

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It’s no surprise, of course, that there is heather everywhere. I enjoyed the variation in hues, but had a hard time capturing it just right. I cannot wait to try and create a yarn colorway based on it.

Another thing about the heather: there is now a company making jewelry from its stems. Basically, the wood is compressed under massive pressure until it become gem-like. The company is fittingly called “HeatherGems”. And yes, I bought a necklace.

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Kim is sporting the cowl I made her using JMF Marlowe. I called it “Whiskey and Water”, even though that’s not what the original pattern was called. If you want that one, it’s HERE.

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I’m not really sure I could have asked for better lighting.

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From The Ring of Brodgar we headed out to The Stones of Stennes. There were fewer stones here, and in a smaller circle, but they were no less impressive (even more than Stonehenge, if I daresay. )

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Plus, SHEEP! There were 3 rams grazing down the grass among the stones.  They weren’t interested in my attempts to befriend them, but they weren’t aggressive or unfriendly guys, either.

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There were also gulls and other birds flying around and we heard some crazy sounds coming from over by the water.

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Turns out we werent hearing birds. See that rock there? No you don’t!

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It’s a seal! He had friends splashing around as well, but I wasn’t quick enough to catch them.  Still, talk about right pace, right time!

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Just a wee bit of a seal head sticking above the surface.

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This was not a day we wanted to end. There was so, so much more of Orkney to see, but we were out of time. We found a caravan park on the water next to the ferry, and took a walk along the shore as the sun set.  We agreed we’ll have to go back and spend at least a week just for Orkney and its surrounding isles.  We also happened upon a pasture full of cows that I may or may not have spent a good while petting (if you’re US Customs, I most certainly did NOT touch them).

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Watching the Hamnavoe return to port.

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We waited up to see what the sky situation would look like for viewing aurora activity, but sadly there was quite a bit of cloud cover.

I will say right here that Orkney was my best day ever. Truly. I would move there in a heartbeat, snow or not. I absolutely plan to return (I mean, I still need to see the Northern Lights, or “Dancing Mirries”, and of course, puffins!) and hopefully before too long. Orkney is magic, and I sincerely hope not too many people discover it!

 

Scotland, Part One

Okay, you all know how insufferable I am about travel. Especially overseas travel. Now, having returned from a week in Scotland, you’re going to have to indulge me for awhile as I inevitably cannot talk about anything else. All the lovely people we met and chatted with.  The staggering beauty everywhere you look. The history. The sheep!

For those of you who don’t follow me on FB (you’re always welcome to, but beware I’m a wee bit more political there), you’ll need some background. (There’s also more pictures there from my phone that aren’t here)

My friend Kim and I rented a campervan from Big Tree Campervans out of Bankfoot in Perth and drove it through the Cairngorms to Thurso, on the northern coast, where we caught the ferry to Orkney. After Orkney, we drive down through the Highlands, past Loch Ness and down to Kennacraig where we caught yet another ferry to the island of Islay. Uopn leaving Islay, we drove back across the mainland to Bankfoot where we caught a train to Edinburgh for our last few days. It was magical. The van was absolutely perfect, and I cannot speak highly enough of the folks who run the business. Simon, Hazel, and Andrew were some of the loveliest people we’ve ever met, and I want to be their friend forever! (Plus there was a cat named Crunchy and a dog named Bob. I mean….what more could you ask for?)

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We named the van Fergus. It was just what we needed for two of us: a bed, heat, a sink, and a stovetop, with plenty of storage space. And though driving on the left (correct ;-p) side of the road was weird at first, it quickly became easy.

When we reached Thurso the first night we quickly found the ferry so we’d know where to go first thing in the morning. After that we headed out to find a spot to park for the night and came across Murkle Caravan Park  overlooking a field full of sheep (they really are everywhere. You cannot throw a stone in Scotland without hitting one).

We ate our dinner overlooking the field of sheep, which in turn overlooked the sea. (Yes, I asked. They were Texcel sheep, and I made friends with one by giving it a few salty crisps). Although we were hoping to see the northern lights, we sadly missed out. We did, however, see the Milky Way more clearly and densely than either of us ever had before.

The ferry to Orkney, the MV Hamnavoe, was gorgeous, and absolute luxury compared to the plane we had so recently taken.  We both tried to stay awake for the scenery, but the gentle rocking put us both to sleep for most of the trip. Since they were not allowing anyone on the outside decks, I couldn’t have taken pictures anyway.

As for Orkney itself…..I’m not sure I’ve ever been this deeply in love with a place before.  I’ll only get through part of it in this post, because I have far too many pictures.

Again, sheep and cows everywhere (actually we were so disappointed to see so very few Highland Longhorns that we took to calling the rest of them “Basic” cows.)

Our first destination on-island was Skara Brae, the 5,000 year old neolithic settlement on the coast.

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Along the way we stopped for pictures (and hoped to find the small village of Twatt. We ended up driving through it a bunch of times but never found the sign. Oh well. Opportunity for shenanigans missed).

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We did see quite a lot of Shetland ponies (and were offered one. If only he’d have fit in my carry on!)

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The path leading out to the village site is like my dream of where I’ll take my daily walks with my dogs one day, walking stick (or crook) in hand, wrapped in a hand-knitted shawl of wool from my flock.

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The unearthed settlement is incredible. It was found by the property owner after a particularly nasty storm had exposed some of the top layers, and was subsequently excavated over many years. The dwelling were dug out and supported by stone, with earthen roofs. They very much reminded us of hobbit homes, and were very intelligently laid out. It’s remarkable, given that this site is older than Stonehenge.

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Believe it or not, the climate is actually quite mild here (thanks to the Gulf Stream). There are even palm trees! If I had to pick a prehistoric site to live, this would be it. Abundant sea life, wild hares all over, pheasants and water fowl, plenty of land for grazing livestock, a climate that’s neither tool cold nor too hot (they don’t generally get snow in Orkney).

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As an aside, this roof. I love it! We did see one while we were there that was completely sod covered. Talk about fantastic insulation!

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Along the beach just below the village are so many rocks that people have taken to stacking them in various configurations.  When Kim and I saw we could access the beach, there was no way we weren’t going down there!

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We spent some time collecting little shells and rocks to bring home.

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And found crab parts everywhere. I’m guessing the seagulls feast on them and drop bits back onto the beach, because when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere.  Legs, claws, bodies. I stopped counting how many we found. Giant blobs that I think were jellyfish were caught up in the sea detritus as well.

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The colors! I am so inspired to start dyeing wool again.

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From Skara Brae we drove to Kirkwall, Orkney’s  main town. While strolling with no real direction in mind, we came across St. Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137 by a Viking called Eric Rognvald. The entire island, in fact, has quite a lot of Viking influence.

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We could have wandered around Kirkwall for hours, but we had already overstayed our parking, so we headed over to the pier for a final look at the town before heading out to find the standing stones.

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Stay tuned!

 

 

Suddenly, Lambs!

What happens when you look at your sheep in the morning before work and think, “Looks like we’ve got a good week” ?

What happens is that you get a text at 9 pm that one of the ladies has birthed twins.

Carina had apparently waited for the two hour window in which no one was looking and then birthed, cleaned, and began nursing twin rams. In a panic, Neve ran out with towels and iodine to take care of umbilical cords and drying off. By the time I got home the boys had full tummies and were ready to nap. I hustled them into a pen  and filled a shelter with plenty of dry bedding and hay for Carina.

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The white boy is called Harris. The black one, Orkney. This year’s theme is Scottish islands.

 

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