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Rosemarkie -- our northernmost stop in our entire trip around the world
We arrived in Inverness on the afternoon of May 28th with absolutely no map -- even Rick Steves' UK guidebook (which barely mentions Inverness) doesn't have a mud map. Our usual back-up plan is to follow signs to the Tourist Information, but the TI had closed half an hour ago. Undaunted, Russell hopped out of the car at the TI and hand-copied a city map that was taped to the inside of the window. Fortunately, our B&B ended up being just a few blocks away (although it was down a set of crazily skewed one-way roads -- Rick Steves says that when you arrive in Inverness, you should either walk or take a taxi).
Ardconnel House, where we are staying for the next two nights ("ard" is Scottish Gaelic for "plough"), is another place that we were frankly astounded to get into at such short notice. Recently new owners Richard and Isabel Cowe are more than "friendly" (as Rick Steves describes them) -- they are practically effervescent. Isabel's grandfather was a councilman in Stirling; they have a photo of him meeting the Queen decades ago. (Just the day before, Richard and Isabel were invited to the Queen's opening of the Falkirk Wheel Canal outside of Edinburgh.) After getting a parking permit to leave our car on the street outside, we walked down to Palio's Italian Restaurant for dinner.
We had already done the Loch Ness "Nessie" thing the day before, so May 29th was basically a "free day" in the Inverness area. At breakfast we met Wendy, who is homeschooling her two children back in California -- she offered to take a look at Cameron's and Joss' Web pages to see if they bear any resemblance to acceptable school reports. We had a long chat with Richard and Isabel about the business of running a B&B (they used to manage a 20-plus room place in Edinburgh) and furnishing it (Gail was envious of all of the antique furniture). We didn't get out for the day until 10:30 AM.
We decided to head north along the Pictish Trail, so we could learn more about the crazy and savage Picts whom Hadrian found it necessary to build a wall around. Not much is known about the Picts, who lived in north and east Scotland from the third to ninth centuries AD -- there are no surviving records in their own language ("Pict" is actually a Roman name; "picti" means "painted people"). Instead, they have left behind many large standing stones carved with unique symbols that could be anything from clan references to religious symbols to pictographic writing (Gail predicts that some day a Pictish "rosetta stone" will be unearthed that will solve all of the mysteries).
Our first stop was the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, a free museum that contains many Pictish Stones. Unfortunately, the pouring rain had caused a power outage shortly before we arrived, so we were only able to see the exhibits in the dark. Nevertheless, Cameron made some rubbings of Pictish symbols, and Joss played a Pictish harp.
Groam House Museum -- with the power out and no camera flashes allowed
Our next stop was the Tarbat Discovery Centre in Portmahomack. Here, ongoing excavations of the Tarbat Old Parish Church have revealed an eighth-century Pictish monastery. The Discovery Centre itself is housed in the renovated church building, and everyone (especially Joss) was fascinated by the exhibits (although Russell would have preferred to see the site in the midst of excavations, as opposed to newly walled and floored over). Kate, the staffwoman (normally an archeological researcher) was very helpful; she even took us outside to show the boys a pair of "tap-dancing" birds (they stomp on the ground to make the worms come up).
We didn't make it to John O'Groats (the northernmost "end of the road" in Alba), but we did stop for lunch at the Caledonian Hotel in Rosemarkie, which marks the northernmost stop in our entire year around the world. In the interests of time, we skipped some planned destinations such as Dornoch (recommended as a beautiful town) and Raven's Rock Gorge (where there is a trail to a waterfall). As we made our way around Moray and Dornoch Firths (fjords), our only other stop was to look for St. Demhan's Cross, a ninth-century Bronze-Age standing stone in Creich (we found it, unmarked, in the middle of a fenced-in field). As Gail drove back to Inverness, she was very unsettled when a head-on car collision occurred literally two cars behind us -- if we had been going any slower, it would have been us.
Fortunately, we arrived safely back at our Inverness B&B by 5:30 PM. We were going to grab some takeaway Chinese food for a simple dinner, but spotted a Deep Dish Pizza Company on the way and got some takeaway from there instead.
On May 30th, we were (as usual) the last guests to check out. We made one more excursion before leaving Inverness, bypassing the Culloden Battlefield outside of town (where Scottish Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated by his English cousin the Duke of Cumberland in 1746, signaling the end of the clans) to visit the nearby Balnuaran of Clava. Here, the Clava Cairns comprise a group of "ring cairns" and "passage cairns" that served as tombs as early as 3000 BC. We were fascinated to stroll among these ancient stone rings and cairns, but even more fascinated that these ancient monuments are just sitting by the side of the road (in fact, there is a fence built right through one of the standing stones).
The Balnuaran of Clava
On a long day of driving from Inverness south to Edinburgh, we stopped at Pitlochry for lunch, where we ate at Baker's Oven, a cross between a bakery, a cafeteria, and a fast-food restaurant. (Many British towns have "pay and park" lots -- we like to amaze new arrivals by giving them our tickets if there is still time left on them).
Before arriving in Edinburgh, we detoured west to visit the brand-new Falkirk Wheel. This engineering marvel is literally a case of someone "reinventing the wheel." When British Waterways Scotland decided to revive the Glasgow to Edinburgh canal network for the Millennium, they decided to break the "canal lock" model and try something different. The result is the first and only "rotating boat lift" in the world. After a boat enters a large "bucket" at the lower water level, a gigantic wheel transports it -- Ferris wheel style -- to the upper water level, at the same time that another boat is lowered in a corresponding "bucket" on the other side of the wheel.
Although the wheel was formally dedicated days ago by Queen Elizabeth during her Scotland Jubilee tour, we were disappointed to find that the Falkirk Wheel has not yet opened for business (the original target date of May 2002 has already been pushed back to June 1). Although we were able to walk right up to the wheel, the Visitor's Centre was not open yet (the shop was also closed so we couldn't even purchase pins) and the Kid's Play Area has not even been built yet. We stood around in the pouring rain for a half hour hoping to see the engineers at least make a test rotation, but nothing happened.
Falkirk Wheel -- the only rotating boat lift in the world
After our journey north into the Scottish Highlands, we are now in the process of heading back south. We will stop in Edinburgh for two nights, and then make our way back into England. And in less than a week, we will board a plane once more... this time for Ireland.
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