Communion Of Dreams


Scotland 2018: 9) My kind of party.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Sunday, May 13.

We had a nice breakfast in the hotel, then packed up and cleared out. In a downpour. Which continued most of the drive south to Edinburgh. But our good weather-fu held out, and by the time we got to the airport to drop off the rental, it was a beautiful day. We got a taxi from the airport to our B&B back downtown, where we dropped off the bags and then went out for a walk.

It was still early in the day, so we decided to walk over to the Royal Mile and then up to Edinburgh Castle. The Castle is brilliantly sited, of course, and it’s easy to understand why it has played such an important role in Scottish history. The Wikipedia article covers the history of the castle pretty well, and there are plenty of images available online, but here are some I took.

Esplanade leading to the castle entrance.

 

 

Cannon on the Argyle Battery.

 

The current “One O’clock Gun”, a L118 Light Gun.

 

Cannon on the Forewall Battery.

 

One end of the Great Hall.

 

The other end of the Great Hall.

 

Little mortar in the Great Hall. There were a number of these on the floor around the walls. I could see having fun with them loaded lightly charged and shooting softballs.

 

These guys were dressed for the dance.

 

Spin the Wheel of Misfortune!

 

Go on, take a chance!

 

Axe me no questions.

 

My kind of party!

 

My, such big balls.

 

Which go with this monster.

 

Mons Meg. Seriously big gun.

 

William Wallace window in St Margaret’s Chapel, installed in 1922.

 

St Margaret of Scotland window.

 

St Columba window.

 

Inside the prison exhibition.

 

A very special cemetery on the grounds.

 

Explanation.

 

We finished up at the Castle, then strolled back down the Royal Mile, stopping off at a big Burger joint where I had this monstrosity:

Mac Attack: Aberdeen Angus beef patty, Scottish cheddar cheese , mac n cheese fritter, Virginia sweet cured bacon, lettuce & beer mustard. Served on a white glazed bun.

Yeah, all that stuff is on the burger. The ‘mac n cheese fritter’ was about the size of two decks of playing cards stacked together, breaded and fried crisp, sitting on top of the burger patty. It was almost impossible to bite into the whole thing. But it was pretty damned tasty.

We took our time getting back to the B&B, just exploring the town along the way. After resting a bit, we went back out to explore some more, over around the Edinburgh Playhouse. That evening we popped into a quirky little place just around the corner from our B&B for a little light dinner. We crashed early.

 

Monday, May 14.

We had train tickets back to Manchester shortly after noon. But that gave us plenty of time to check out one more part of Edinburgh we had wanted to see: Calton Hill.

I only took a few pics while we were there, though we did very much enjoy both the walk and the views from the top. Here are a couple to give you an idea:

Looking across to Arthur’s Seat.

 

Looking past the Dugald Stewart Monument towards Edinburgh Castle.

After our stroll on Calton Hill, we got back to the B&B in time for our ride to the train station and the five-hour trip to Manchester. It was pleasant to roll through the Scottish then English countryside, snacking on goodies we’d brought. We’d booked a room at a hotel next to the Manchester airport, and had a nice dinner there that evening. The flights back home (Manchester to London, London to Chicago, Chicago to Columbia) the next day were all fairly uninteresting, except we did take a new A380 for the transatlantic leg of the trip. That thing’s a monster, and it felt less like being on a jet and more like being on a large ocean cruise-liner. It was a long day (about 22 hours) of travel, but we’ve had worse, and it was good to be home.

Since then, people have asked me if I enjoyed Scotland, and wanted to go back. Unequivocally, yes, I did enjoy it. And I could certainly see returning, but it would have to be for a specific reason (to attend the Edinburgh Festival, say, or something like that). While we only got to see a small portion of the country, I feel like it was a good sampling, and now ‘that itch has been scratched.’

 

Jim Downey

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Scotland 2018: 8) No stone circle is really complete without a nuclear bunker.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Saturday, May 12.

We had a nice breakfast at the hotel, and considered our options for the day. Aberdeen and the surrounding area has a lot to offer — our preliminary list had about a dozen possibilities on it, and we had identified at least that many more in looking through “Vistor’s Guides” and such there in the hotel.

In the end we decided that we really wanted to see more of the Highlands, and figured that driving up into the Cairngorms was the best way to do that. It was probably the best decision that we made on the entire trip.

Why do I say that? Well, read on …

The Cairngorm Mountains are just incredibly beautiful on their own. Seriously, like the inter-mountain range of the Rockies in Colorado, though of course they’re not as tall.

And Martha had seen something promising on one of her research forays: Kildrummy Castle.

I admit, I was somewhat unimpressed with the number and quality of medieval castles in Scotland. That’s because for the most part, castles were repeatedly upgraded and renovated … or they were allowed to disappear completely. So you get those magnificent structures like Stirling, Dunvegan, and Edinburgh, or private fortresses such as Eilean Donan and Doune, all of which saw significant rebuilding and modernization through their history. But places like Urquhart and Old Inverlochy are pretty rare in Scotland, whereas in Wales they’re seemingly around every river bend.

But Kildrummy Castle is a magnificent ruin, substantial in structure and easy to understand in terms of layout and architecture. It would have been a formidable stronghold, and played an important part in Scottish history. We stopped in at the ticketing office, and had a chat with the caretaker — who was both enthusiastic about the castle, and a little surprised to find a couple of American tourists stopping in to check out the place. Then we walked up the path to the castle, which I hadn’t seen at all while driving.

But this is what we saw:

Promising …

 

Up the hill and across the dry moat.

 

Across the drawbridge, left …

 

… and right.

 

Elphinstone Tower.

 

Great Hall and Warden Tower.

 

Chapel.

 

Exterior of the Chapel and Warden Tower.

 

Martha in the inner ward.

 

More of the inner ward.

I want to note that we were the only people there, the entire hour or so we spent exploring the castle. On a beautiful Saturday, in the largest National Park in the U.K.

And this, I think, is important, and in itself changed the way I thought about the entire trip. Scotland has done a fair amount of work to promote tourism, and there were places we visited which were crowded with tourists from all over the world. But just a little work to get off the beaten path always took us away from the madness, into a part of the country which was just as beautiful, just as full of history, and a whole lot more enjoyable (at least for this introvert).

We stopped back by the ticketing office. I thanked the caretaker, and told him that I thought that Kildrummy was one of the best medieval ruins I had seen anywhere, in Scotland, Wales, the UK, or on the continent. I’m sure it made his day. Visiting Kildrummy made mine.

Spirits high, we headed further into the mountains. First we stopped at Glenbuchat castle, a nearby fortified home dating to the 16th century. It was well-sited, but closed for renovations. Then we went to Corgarff Castle, a medieval tower which had been expanded in the 18th century, but didn’t hold our interest. We had a nice lunch at a little cafe, then proceeded south across the moors on the Old Military Road:

Stairway to heaven.

We took the A93 back towards Aberdeen for a while, but then went north again towards the small village of Tarland, but stopped at the Tomnaverie Stone Circle. From another website about the circle:

The restored circle is a truly beautiful site to visit, the circle is now neatly grassed over, the quarried area to the south has been filled, and there is a small car parking space available below the hill. The raised location allows for panoramic views in all directions, and there is also an information plaque which gives details of the circle and its history. Those with an interest in prehistory or megalithic monuments will need no coaxing to visit Tomnaverie, and for the casual visitor it is wonderful place for a stroll or a picnic.

See for yourself:

Oh, say can you see?

One unusual feature of the Tomnaverie Stone Circle is noted on the information board:

Which is here:

The small structure just right of center is the bunker entrance.

Strange juxtaposition.

We decided to make one last stop before heading back to Aberdeen, which was just a short way away: Culsh Earth House. Description from that site:

Earth houses, or souterrains, can seem mysterious structures: stone-lined tunnels dug into the earth, usually leading to a dead end and with no obvious purpose. The reality is actually fairly mundane, and it seems that earth houses were simply built as underground storage for agricultural produce.

Culsh Earth House probably dates back to some time before AD100. At the time a timber roundhouse farmstead would have stood nearby, perhaps a direct predecessor of the farm which stands immediately to the south today. The entrance to the earth house might have been inside the roundhouse to next to it, and the earth house itself would probably have been used for the storage of grain or other produce.

Here ya go:

Wonder where that goes?

 

Cool!

 

Looking back.

 

Reemergence.

The rest of the drive to the hotel was uneventful. We had a nice dinner in the pub, and crashed relatively early.

 

Jim Downey

 



Scotland 2018: 7) Spirits of stone. Spirits of growth. Spirits of hunting.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Friday, May 11.

We left Tain, headed south and through Inverness. On the east side of the city we stopped at the Battlefield of Culloden, the site where the Jacobite Rising ended. But since neither Martha nor I are particularly knowledgeable of or interested in this episode of history, we decided to just look around a bit and then move on.

But not far from the Battlefield, there was something we did particularly want to see: the Clava Cairns. This is a group of burial cairns and standing stone circles dating about 4,000 years ago, during the bronze age. It is a wonderful, magical, site:

Martha in one of the passage graves.

 

Part of one of the stone circles.

 

Stone circle around one of the cairns.

 

The other two major cairns beyond the closest one.

The ring cairn.

 

The Culloden Viaduct in the distance.

From the Culloden area we decided to drive east, taking the A96 more or less parallel to the coast. Our eventual goal was Aberdeen, but the idea was to enjoy getting there.

It was, as you can see form the image above, a grey and cloudy day. It was also windy. Crazy windy. So much so that where farmers had plowed their fields, the wind kicked up clouds of dust so heavy that it was impossible to see through. Some of these clouds obscured the roads at time, making driving even more fun that usual.

We decided to leave the A96 and take local roads out to the coast through the town of Kinloss and out to Findhorn.

Findhorn. Ring any bells?

Perhaps you remember it from the classic arthouse movie My Dinner with Andre (one of my favorites), where Andre discusses the remarkable spiritual community founded there in the 1960s, renown for the exceptional harvest of oversize vegetables, which was attributed to help from spiritual entities known as devas (catch the reference in Communion of Dreams?). I remember reading about Findhorn back in the 70s as a New Age settlement, and friends and family had visited there to experience the alternative cultural movement themselves. Having a chance to drop in for just a taste of the place was something I couldn’t pass up. So we did, and spent some time walking through the community, checking out the Original Garden, which still has a special place in my imagination. And unlike many things you see after so many years of anticipation, this one wasn’t diminished by reality. See for yourself:

One of several entrances.

That’s the founder’s caravan — what the Brits call a mobile home — which was the first shelter at Findhorn, adjacent to the garden.

Leaving Findhorn, we kept close to the coast, to the small village of Burghead. Why? For the Pictish Fort which is there on the point of the peninsula, which is still quite evident:

The Visitor’s Center, which also has an observation room for watching the sea life.

We headed further east. Got back on the A96 briefly, but then were again on local roads heading for the coast. To the small town of Banff. Why Banff? Because of another arthouse film from the early 80s which I love: Local Hero. The small town bar in that movie is actually a *really* small local pub called ‘The Ship Inn‘ in Banff. Where we stopped in for a bite of lunch and a pint. And were greeted by two local dogs, three patrons sitting on stools sipping their beer, and the landlady. There wasn’t room for much more.

Then it was further up the coast for another film location from Local Hero: the tiny seaside village of Pennan, which played the part of Ferness in the movie. Here ’tis, red phone box and everything:

So you can see just how little of a town as there is. That’s it. All of it.

From there we made our way to Aberdeen, where we had hotel reservations. In the oddest Hilton (Doubletree) I’ve ever stayed in. We were in what was ostensibly a “handicapped accessible” room, and which did indeed have the appropriate safety bars and call buttons fitted out in the bathroom for someone in a wheelchair. But which literally required us to go up two flights of stairs and down one to get to — there was no other way to get to the room. Seriously — there’s no way someone in a wheelchair could have gotten to the room without being carried there. Crazy.

But we had dinner in the hotel, and crashed early.

 

Jim Downey

 



Scotland 2018: 6) More Magical Movie Moments!

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Wednesday, May 9.

This was going to be another driving day, going back across Scotland, but further north. We had a nice breakfast at the B&B, and got on the road. The rain started just as we got on the road.

But it kindly paused, so that we could make a stop once we were back on the mainland: Eilean Donan Castle. This 13th century castle is extremely photogenic, being on a small island at the juncture of three major lochs. See for yourself:

It’s the traditional home to Clan Mackenzie, but you may recognize it as the home of Clan MacLeod from a certain well-known film:

Yeah, that’s the same causeway. Which was actually added just last century. But looks cool.

Still, it’s a very cool place. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside the castle. But there’s plenty more to see at their website.

Just as we got back to the car to leave, the rain started back up. I gotta say, the Scottish weather was most considerate for us this trip.

We headed east on the A87 to the A82, stopping at Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness. Yes, that Loch Ness. Urquhart Castle is a ruin, dating back to the 13th – 16th centuries, but it is a *very* picturesque ruin:

We had a light lunch in the cafe, and got back on the road towards Inverness. Well, towards Tain, actually, on the coast north of Inverness, where we had accommodations for the night. But first we stopped here, to make arrangements to take a tour the next morning:

It may not look like much, but it’s the home of one of my favorite whisky lines: the Glenmorangie Distillery.

And this is where we had accommodations for the next two nights:

The Mansfield Castle Hotel. It was perfect — stylish, a bit old & stuffy, with just enough of a hint of having seen better days to give it a certain seedy charm. Hey, that same description applies to me, so I don’t mean anything negative by it.

We collected some items for a light dinner and enjoyed them in our room.

 

Thursday, May 10.

A really excellent breakfast at the hotel the next morning, with both Martha and I enjoying traditional kippers and eggs, in addition to all the other goodies. Then we popped back over to the Glenmorangie Distillery for our tour, and concluded with a bit of shopping there.  As it turned out, at each of the distilleries we stopped at on this trip, the very same whiskys were available for purchase back in the States (well, except for some absurdly high priced — I’m talking $3k and up — selections), so I didn’t get too carried away, and only brought home a few bottles as keepsakes.

It was still quite early, and we had decided to take a trip to the far north, all the way up to John o’Groats and the nearby Castle of Mey, just across from the Orkney Islands. I would have liked to spend some time in the Orkneys, but the logistics for this trip were just too difficult to arrange. Perhaps another time.

But the drive up was wonderful! We stopped in the small town of Wick to check out the Old Pulteney Distillery and Old Wick Castle (which was closed for work). We did get some great pics of the seashore there. Here’s one:

And then on to John o’Groats and Mey. Even though we arrived there mid-afternoon, it felt early because the sun was still so high in the sky. That’s because that part of Scotland is so far north that there was more than 18 hours of daylight in early May. We had a nice lunch in the Castle cafe, then enjoyed a guided tour through the Castle itself. Spending time in the Castle of Mey and the attached gardens was a delight.

Orkney Islands in the distance.

 

Castle of Mey

 

Walled gardens. Wall is about 4m tall.

 

As you can see, the gardens are extensive.

 

Looking north to the Orkneys.

 

We started back to Tain, taking our time to enjoy the land- and seascapes. We hit some pockets of rain, which didn’t last, but gave us some great scenes:

Somewhere, over the North Sea …

 

The gorse was gorgeous.

 

For my otter-loving friends, look close at the sign.

Again, we decided to take dinner in our room, just relax and unwind a bit after all the driving.

 

Jim Downey

 

 



Scotland 2018: 5) Fantastic faeries, and a castle in the Skye.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Tuesday, May 8.

A driving day. Just as we loaded our bags into the car, rain started falling. It persisted for most of the next 3.5 hours as we drove NE to Invergarry, then NW to the Isle of Skye. Because of the geography of Scotland, this sort of back & forth to get somewhere is typical, and you quickly learn to just enjoy the scenery or it’ll drive you nuts. This probably explains a lot about the Scots and Scottish history, now that I think about it.

Anyway, yeah, it rained while we drove. And I discovered something about our rental car (a new Vauxhall Astra): it had a ‘rain sensor’ setting on the windshield wipers. Yeah, it would vary the speed of the wipers depending on how much rain you had on the windshield. Handy, for driving in the UK, I imagine.

The rain started breaking up when we got to Skye, and wow, is that island beautiful in its stark emptiness:

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We crossed the island to the west coast to Dunvegan Castle. While the current appearance of the castle is largely due to Victorian-era renovations, parts of the castle itself date back to the early 1200s.

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It is home to the Chief of Clan MacLeod. It’s been the home of the Chief of Clan MacLeod for over 800 years. And the history inside the castle shows it. Here are a few glimpses:

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Martha thinking: “… hmm … yeah, I could live here.”

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Trinkets!

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Weapons!

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The Faerie Flag!

And a whole lot more.  Seriously, spend some time poking around their website, or peruse the Wikipedia entry.

After a light lunch in the castle cafe, we thought we’d see if we could find the Faerie Pools. Getting there wasn’t a problem, though the last section of road (about 5 miles) is one-way, with passing areas. But it was a popular enough that parking was a bit of a nightmare, easily 5x the number of cars parked along the narrow road as were in the small designated parking area. But we lucked out, and got a spot in the gravel lot.

While the rain had passed, there was a stiff cold breeze blasting across the landscape. We dressed appropriately and set out. It was about a mile to the first pool, and we kept going for about another half mile to see some of the higher pools. Just an incredible landscape and a lovely walk:

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20180508_161633After the walk back, we climbed into the car and drove to our B&B in Ardvasar on the SE corner of the island, just across the bay from the fishing village of Mallaig. We had a very yummy dinner at the hotel restaurant just down the road.

 

Jim Downey



Scotland 2018: 4) In another reality …

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Monday, May 7.

We had a lovely early breakfast at the B&B, then popped down to the railway station. We were early because we wanted to queue up for non-reserved tickets for The Jacobite, a steam train that runs out to the coast and then up to the charming little fishing village of Mallaig. But in another reality, the train is known as the Hogwarts Express, and yes, it does cross over the wonderful curving Glenfinnan viaduct:

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We were lucky, and got tickets. They even had a Harry Potter giftshop on the train. And served HP-themed snacks from the food trolley. Seriously.

Mallaig was a small, but pleasant place. The weather this day was cold and wet, so first thing we opted for was a hot lunch at The Fishmarket Restaurant, then we walked about a bit looking at the town and harbor before it was time to head back to Fort William.

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It was a pleasant two-hour ride up, and then back, with wonderful views all along the route. I could have done without the idiots who had their windows open while the train went through a couple of tunnels, which brought in loads of coal smoke into our car and liked to asphyxiate us all, but otherwise it was a delight.

It was still early in the day when we got back to Fort William, so we decided to jump in the car and do some more exploring. As it turned out, there was a very nice castle ruin there: Old Inverlochy Castle.

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These are the kinds of ruins you can find all over Wales. But they were relatively rare in Scotland. Because it seems that through Scottish history, there had been a tendency to keep rebuilding and updating castles and other strongholds at least well into the 1600s, subsuming the earlier structures into the new in whole or part.

From the castle we went to look over Neptune’s Staircase:

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This does it much better justice:

Driving back from the Locks, we passed a Marks & Spencer, and stopped in to pick up some salads and nibbles for dinner — while the food we’d had all along the trip so far was generally quite good, both Martha and I were feeling like we really had to make an extra effort to get as much fresh fruit and veg as we were used to.

 

Jim Downey



Scotland 2018: 3) It’s more than a famous film location, but … pass the coconuts.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Sunday, May 6th.

We had a lovely breakfast at the B&B, and for the first time I had real, actual, haggis … and discovered that I quite liked it. It was our host’s own home-made, and the slice I had with breakfast was buttery, crunchy, full of flavor. Yum. The haggis I had a couple of additional times during the trip was similar, and likewise quite tasty.

Following that, we packed up, then went up to Stirling Castle, just up the hill. Stirling is a very substantial royal castle, on the order of such Edward I castles in Wales as Caernarfon or Conwy. But as with a number of additional castles in Scotland, Stirling had been renovated and updated repeatedly after the medieval period, serving different functions both personal and military up until almost the current time.

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The Great Battery.

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Nothing quite like commanding the heights.

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The Great Hall.

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Hmm … feels oddly familiar …

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Royal Chambers.

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King’s and Queen’s Knots, seen from the walls of the castle.

It was good that we were able to get there first thing, because by the time we had enjoyed our tour of the castle, the crowds were starting to get thick. We headed off on our way.

To Doune Castle. Doesn’t sound familiar? Maybe this will help:

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I love that they sell coconut halves there.

Yeah, Doune was used for multiple different ‘castles’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Wikipedia outlines:

  • At the start of the film, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and Patsy (Terry Gilliam) approach the east wall of Doune Castle and argue with soldiers of the garrison.
  • The song and dance routine “Knights of the Round Table” at “Camelot” was filmed in the Great Hall.
  • The servery and kitchen appear as “Castle Anthrax”, where Sir Galahad the Chaste (Michael Palin) is chased by seductive girls.
  • The wedding disrupted by Sir Lancelot (John Cleese) was filmed in the courtyard and Great Hall.
  • The Duchess’ hall was used for filming the Swamp Castle scene where the prince is being held in a tower by very dumb guards.
  • The Trojan Rabbit scene was filmed in the entryway and into the courtyard.

As well as also having served in other films and television shows, including Game of Thrones and Outlander.

Recognize any of these shots from the castle?

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Sir Galahad almost slept here.

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“You must spank her well, and after you are done with her, you may deal with her as you like… and then… spank me.”

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We’re knights of the Round Table, we dance whene’er we’re able. We do routines and chorus scenes with footwork impec-cable.

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In his own particular idiom.

And some other pics:

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From Doune we headed northwest through Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Driving through the beautiful Trossachs was wonderful, and reminded me very much of the area around Snowdon in Wales or parts of the American West in the Northern Rockies.

We had a very substantial lunch at a nice pub along the way, so weren’t very hungry that evening. We popped into a grocery store and got some snacks and cold cuts to make a light dinner. I was amused by the selection of decent scotches (at absurdly low prices) there in the little store:

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Mmmmmmmmm …

Jim Downey