Monday, June 15, 2015

My Droughtlander Trip to Scotland

Patty here

Have you ever been to a place where the land and the people resonate with you on a cellular level? I’ve traveled a fair amount, but for me there are only two places that fit that description. Scotland is one of them. Years ago, I traveled through the country by car and was charmed by its beauty and complex history. Scotland is the ancestral home of several branches of my family, so I was excited to return a couple of weeks ago, this time traveling by boat. After stops in Cornwall, Wales and Dublin, Ireland, I headed to Scotland. Here are a few highlights from the trip:

Isle of Iona, Scotland 

Iona is a 1.5 wide and 3 mile long island off the coast of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. Irish missionary St. Columba established an abbey there in 563, which is considered the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Macbeth and Duncan are allegedly buried in the cemetery...or not.

"Out damn spot!"

Portree, Isle of Skye, Scotland 

Skye is the largest island in the Inner Hebrides. It has 900 miles of coastline. Gorse, 2,500-foot snow-peaked mountains, misty skies, streams winding down mountains in shimmery ribbons, black-faced sheep, breathtaking beauty.

Portree Harbor

Skye Bridge to the mainland in the background. Yellow gorse on the hillsides.

An interesting side-note with a French twist for Outlander fans, especially for upcoming seasons:

“The story of Drambuie begins over 267 years ago in July 1746. Prince Charles Edward Stuart (known also as Bonnie Prince Charlie) was on the run, after defeat at the Battle of Culloden had ended his hopes of restoring the Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain. The Prince was pursued by the King’s men across the Highlands and Islands of Western Scotland, bravely aided by many Highland Clans. Among them was Clan MacKinnon whose chief, John MacKinnon, helped the Prince escape from The Isle of Skye. In thanks for his bravery the Prince gave John MacKinnon the secret recipe to his personal liqueur, a gift that the Clan were to treasure down the generations. An extraordinary elixir that would, many years later, become known to the world as Drambuie.” 

 Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland 

“We dinna have a lot of trees.” An understatement. Only 14 miles from the mainland, the island is covered by peat bogs (85 million tons of it), which makes the ground inhospitable to trees. I was told that during the Bronze Age, an Icelandic volcano erupted and blocked the sun for two months, creating a landscape that is windswept and barren. Wind in excess of 100 knots is not uncommon. The island experiences heavy rains and 80-knot winds about every 2-weeks, so the houses are low with small, inset windows.

Peat burning on the hearth

The residents still burn peat in their fireplaces. Each crofter has an allocation. No money changes hands. Collecting peat is not a commercial enterprise. It is a shared community effort.

Peat drying

Ninety percent of the residents here speak Gaelic (the Scots pronounce it GAL-ik. The Irish say GALE-ik). Most of the signage is in both English and Gaelic.

The Standing Stones of Calanais, Scotland’s Stonehenge, which dates to 3000 BC. There are a total of 32 stones in a circular and avenue design, perhaps constructed to observe the stars. The stones stand on the top of a peninsula that spills into East Loch Roag.

Jamie? Claire? I'm baaaaack.

Gearrammam Blackhouse Village, a reconstructed settlement of traditional blackhouses where people and animals shared the same door, but lived at opposite ends of the house. The houses are built with stone masonry and thatched roofs. Looking for a unique vacay locale? Several of them are available to rent.


While on the trip, I compared samples of several regional Scotch whisky (p.s. there is no e in Scottish whisky). Having smelled peat burning on the hearth, I finally understood the smoky taste of some. By law, in order to be an authentic Scotch whisky, it must be:
  • Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:
    • Processed at that distillery into a mash
    • Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems o Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast o Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% (190 US proof)
  • Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal) for at least three years
  • Retaining the colour, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation
  • Containing no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel colouring
  • Comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40% (80 US proof)

Stromness, Orkney, Outer Hebrides, Scotland 

There are 71 islands in the Orkney chain. You will find few Gaelic speakers here. In fact, the people don’t consider themselves Scots. They are descended from Picts, Norse and Scots and call themselves Orcadians. They have a strong allegiance to Norway due to proximity and the Viking’s 500-year reign over the islands. Orkney didn’t become part of Scotland until 1468.

Here is the 5000-year old village of Skara Brae, one of the best preserved stone-age settlements in Europe.

The original would have had a roof of some sort

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall (the biggest town and capital of the Orkneys) build by the Vikings in the 1137. It still has a Church of Scotland congregation, but is open to any Christian denomination by arrangement.

Aberdeen, Scotland 

This highland town of just over 200,000 features rolling hills and verdant forests of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, sequoia and silver birch, all imported from North America. The Scots Pine is the predominant native tree. The Highland Clans are still alive and well. I was told that four local Highland clan chiefs still play golf together every Wednesday. In nearby Ballater, the Highland Games are held the first weekend in August.

Balmoral Castle. About an hour’s drive from Aberdeen near the village of Craithe, is Balmoral Castle. Prince Albert purchased the castle for his wife, Queen Victoria, who called it "my dear paradise in the Highlands.” It is an astonishingly beautiful place, remote and serene.

Victoria and Albert

This is where Queen Elizabeth parks her car while staying at the castle

View from the ballroom

Hope you enjoyed the tour.

Slàinte Mhath!


  1. Oooh, fabulous, Patty. I DID enjoy the tour. What a magical place. I've only seen Edinburgh and Glasgow to date but will be seeing more this summer. Your preview is enticing! I don't know about my relatives' old vacation slides but yours are definitely interesting!

    1. Thanks, Bonnie. This trip only made me want to go back and stay longer. I loved Aberdeen. Could spent some time there.

  2. You're a wonderful travel writer!

  3. What a great travel journal, Patty! I have never been to Scotland. Your interesting tour and lovely pictures make me want to go there.

    1. Alice, I think you would love it. Perhaps you should set your next book there?

  4. Great blog! I feel like I went on a mini-vacay.

  5. As the kids say, I'm Totes Jelly (Totally Jealous!). What a great trip. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Totes Jelly? I'm out of the loop :)

  7. Move over, Anthony Bourdain! You really should become a travel, food, and Scotch writer.

  8. I've never been to Scotland, but would love to get there someday, and this makes me want to go even more. As a former travel writer, I think I can honestly say you've got that travel writing down. And the photos are fantastic.

  9. Travel writer? Really? That means all my trips are a write off...considering.

  10. james o. born6/15/2015 5:56 PM

    Outstanding. I'm booking my ticket now