Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Scotland's beautiful and most unfortunately named flower

As I was driving to Cromarty on the part of Scotland’s north coast known as the Black Isle, I kept seeing these bright patches of yellow fields on the hillsides. It was far more compact and brighter than the golden weeds I had seen elsewhere. It was as if square acres of land suddenly turned bright yellow. 

Outside of Cromarty, I found two fields by the road and got a closer look. This must have been the inspiration for Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” I thought.

A field of this vivid yellow flower against the blue of the Cromarty Bay. 
The kindly docent at the Hugh Miller House in Cromarty told me the flower is called rapeseed.

“Quite unfortunately named,” she added.

It’s used to make cooking oil. “It’s supposed to be healthier than even olive oil,” she said. “At least, that’s what they say.”

I didn’t ask who “they” were.

But I did look it up, and according to the Scottish Rapeseed Oil industry group, the plant comes from the same family as broccoli and is "ideal for roasting, frying, baking and drizzling" and has "less unhealthy saturated fats than other cooking oils."

It sure doesn't look like broccoli, but apparently it's related. 
And, based on the number of these brilliant yellow fields I saw, and this coverage of new crushing/processing plants opening up, it seems that business is booming. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sign(s) of the day: Warnings of the treacherous backroads

When I bought my Scottish road atlas in a Glasgow bookstore last Wednesday, the clerk asked me if I was heading out of the city for a trip to the Highlands.

"I am," I said. "I'm headed to the Isle of Skye."

"Yeah, there's some beautiful scenery there," he said. "Just beware of the potholes."


"No, I mean it. BEWARE of the potholes." He said it the way characters in Scooby Doo talk about the local haunted castle where all the shenanigans go down.

Clio lookin' sharp at a scenic overlook along the A82.
No problem, I thought. I'll just try and avoid them. That is not possible for two reasons:

1. There's just too many of them.
2. There's no where else to go regardless of whether there's oncoming traffic or not.

And it's not like I'm driving a big car. It's a brand new Renault Clio that had 10 miles on it when I took it out of the car lot. (Thanks Hertz!)

Mr. Bookstore Clerk was absolutely right. Some stretches of the backroads on the Isle of Skye are more potholes than road. I think I saw a car ahead of me disappear into one never to re-emerge.

Occasionally, there are signs: "Road liable to subsidence."

When I first saw that sign, there was a sheep near it. And I just got a quick glance at the words-- you know, on account of trying to stay on the narrow road. So I thought, at first, it said that the road was "liable to sustenance" (for the sheep).

Then after driving through the larger-than-usual potholes, I realized what it must have said.

The other complication is that most of the backroads are barely wide enough for one car, but they have little pull-outs every so often for one car to pull over to let oncoming traffic pass or, in this case, to pass a sheep:

Two cars will not fit on most stretches of Skye's roads. 
 It's quite a dance between cars when navigating the narrow bits between passing places.

To his credit, Mr. Bookstore Clerk was right on all counts, not just about the potholes, because the views were truly spectacular.

The first of many times I pulled over to take snapshots on my drives across the Highlands. And I convinced a German couple to take my picture.

P.S. – I just turned in the rental car and the final tally was 902 miles!

The Rain in Skye

Ryan and I couldn't have had more different weather for our trip to the Isle of Skye. Ryan had plenty of sunshine to capture cute lambs and beautiful sunrises.

Our group endured steady rain and fierce winds. Basically the Scotland I expected but hadn't experienced the first few days.

We made it further than halfway up the Old Man of Storr trail because of the conditions. 
The Isle of Skye has beautiful views. A few tips for planning your visit:
  • Make dinner reservations ahead of time, parrticularly if you're traveling in a larger group. There don't seem to be enough restaurants to serve the number of tourists in Portree, the Isle's largest city.
  • Bring waterproof pants, jackets, hats and gloves if you want to hike.
  • Many shops on the Isle will be closed or only opened limited hours on Sundays. Keep that in mind when planning a longer trip that runs through Skye on the weekend.
  • Don't skip visiting the Fairy Pools (according to other visitors) or the views of Kilt Rock.
  • Check out the pottery shops in Uig and Edinbane. 
  • Keep your fingers crossed for sunny weather!
Alyse with Kilt Rock in the background. We had trouble "seeing" the kilt from this angle.
When we tried to hike to the highly recommended Fairy Pools, we found the stone path across the river blocked. Chris and Paula debated our next move. 
Alyse scouted ahead to see if another crossing or bridge existed. It didn't.  
An Isle of Skye tourism poster through the rain splattered train window.

The Castle at Dunvegan. This is still a privately owned home.

On the bright side, the rain made sure the waterfalls were more than a trickle. 

Big rocks, an invisible waterfall and an unmanned lighthouse on the edge of Skye

Legend has it that the Old Man of Storr, a rock that juts out from one of the Isle of Skye’s many steep hillsides, was the marker for a great Viking to hide his treasure in the mid-10th century. The rock is 48 meters high, and is clearly visible from the straight between Skye and it’s neighbor, the Isle of Rasaay.

And, in fact, a hoard of Viking gold was found buried near the beach in 1890.

The Old Man of Storr is the dark rock that looks like an arrowhead to the right of the frame. It looks small and low on the hill from this angle. But I took this shot from about two miles down the coast. 

Walking around and up to the Old Man of Storr was among the many hiking highlights Skye had to offer. The early part of the trail was pretty crowded, but the higher I hiked, the fewer people were around.

Some folks are taking photos of the view. I took this on my climb up. (The Old Man of Storr is the rock to the left.
One of many times I asked a fellow traveler/tourist to take my picture with my camera in exchange for me taking their picture with theirs. I ultimately hiked over to those rocks to climb up to the base of the Old Man of Storr. 

My second hike on this day was to an inland waterfall about three miles off the coast with views like these on the way: 

With this stream flowing at a good pace, I was optimistic there would be a majestic waterfall from the source. 

Alas, it was not to be. The waterfall was a mere trickle on the mountain behind me because of the (relatively) dry weather lately. Lionel from Manchester, a fellow hiker and Isle of Skye veteran, was the only other person I saw on this trek. He took my photo before we walked back together. 
While I took several other walks while on Skye, the third major one was my hike to the Neist lighthouse on Skye's west coast. This one attracts heavy traffic from tourists, which explains why the roads to this part of the island look like they've been hit by a meteor shower. 

They say this is a prime spot for whale and dolphin watching, but not on this morning with rather rough waters. This was the best I could do on an overcast, misty conditions: 

The lighthouse is unmanned. Apparently Neist was the setting for the 1996 film "Breaking the Waves" and the 2012 movie "47 Ronin," according to this bit of tourism info

Also along the rocks near the lighthouse were more cairns, including this architecturally inventive one.  

My last "hike" was an impromptu sprint up three hills as I was driving south off the island. I came around a bend and saw a beautiful view of the Loch Bracadale on the western coast, so when I came to a pull-off spot on the next hill, I parked. I ran across the road, over a fence and up a hill past the sheep, then over two more hills onto a plateau overlooking the Loch and across to Idrigill Point.

Even a cloudy day can't completely mask the incredible views of Skye.