Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Jamie and Claire Tour - May 2009

So we have roared straight through Belteine, not even pausing to really welcome the start of the Light Half of the year because I have been so busy putting the final touches to the first Jamie and Claire Tour. The day has finally arrived! The Jamie and Claire Tour (May) has begun and this entry will be the blog of our week on the Highland trail, with insights, images of the land and of course, Matters of Great Import regarding the journey of Claire, Jamie and Clannsmen through the Highlands.

Day 1 – into the Highlands

We have two Outlandish Spirits with us, Hannah and Ina. More from them later when they have recovered from the adventure of their International Flights. After months of anticipation, the first explorers have come to see what Inspirations 18th Century Scotland has in store to fire their souls.

We hope many.

Our visit to “Cranesmuir” (two pics) did not involve being nailed to the pillory, or being burned as a witch (despite the company of the tour), but we did explore the herb garden beneath Geillis Duncan's house and now our fingers smell of crushed lemon and rosemary.

Ina stood beside a fine waterwheel in MacNab Country, waiting for the appearance of Granny MacNab and the red drawers (complete with disrobed Highlander). Alas, there was but a wolf for company.

I decided that our guests' adventure should begin, as did Claire's, with Craigh na Dun. It is a Verra Special Place (pic) and leaves an impression on all of us.

It also resulted in Hannah finding our dashboard totem, now called Donas (pic).

With a mascot we needed a name for our travelling clann. Ina suggested Three Crones and a Dude. Hmmph. (see pic of three crones)

Things from the day that put a smile on Hannah's face “The view from the top”, “luggage arrived at the same time as me”; Ina Costa: “The really good Coffee named after me.” (Costa Coffee – we had to get her something to stay awake after her 36 hours' journey). Day one ends with all the girls safe asleep in the Highlands. We have begun!

Day 2 – Raising a Rebellion

Over breakfast, Ina describes her previous night using her US hairdryer with her fancy travel plug adaptor.

Scot: “Does it have a transformer in it to change the voltage?”

Ina: “Huh? Well it worked.”

Scot: “Err...”

Ina: “Although it did make this vrum vrum noise.”

Scot: “And did it get hot?”

Ina: “Yeh, actually, it got real hot. And my hair went all fuzzy.”

Scot: “ So you plugged in a hairdryer that was expecting 110V to a supply that gives 220V? That would explain your White Afro this morning.” LOL

They thought our 1800s B&B was “worth it for the great breakfast alone” and Hannah introduced Scot to Porridge with Whisky added. How had he missed that all his life?

This morning we went to the Tacksman's house, akin to the houses that Dougal took Jamie to when gathering MacKenzie rents and drumming up Jacobite support (pics).

The men there told us sooo many things about the thatched roof structures: the fire in the middle of the floor; the box beds; the Soay sheep, the oat drying kiln (like the one on Fraser's Ridge). The smell of peat smoke still lingers in our clothing.

Our next Special Place was introduced by reading the passage about Claire in her borrowed gown, walking between Dougal and Jamie, up the hill to her marriage. As the chapel comes into view she realises it is the place where she married Frank. Our Chapel today manages a similar impact. The visit was made more special because Ina carried a we remembrance from a recently departed Outlander fan, a MacDonald sister whom some of you may know. The keepsake was left in this MacDonald Chapel, high on a hill, with the echoes of Gàidhlig poetry and wedding vows on the wind. A good place to come to rest.

Our trip on Lochness did not result in meeting the Each Uisge or any other 'craiturs' or monsters, other than the redoubtable Gordon Menzies, our skipper, who furnished us with Tales and history of the Loch and surrounds. He showed us evidence of his own encounter with the unexplained of the Loch. Gordon was born and raised on the Loch. It was nice to meet a local 'boy' who was friendly and knowledgeable.

Hannah and Scot have had a Monalisaesque grin on their faces since dinner. The food was excellent, but a 30 year old Islay single malt has them quite transported. It went verra well with the Chocolate Cheesecake.

This time of the year is arguably the best to visit Scotland. The are fewer visitors, things are cheaper and more available and most importantly, nature and weather are at their best. We have been enjoying fields and avenues of the Wild Hyacinth (what the English call Bluebells) which are at their peak this week and only last about three weeks.

Day 3 – in the wilderness

Today we spent walking in the wilds and we are very tired, weary of limb and not a little sunburnt, all in a good way. We were in a remote, wooded glen, perhaps not unlike those around Lallybroch. Ina and Hannah report that they got a strong sense of what Claire experienced while travelling through the Highlands with the Highlanders. Hannah even made a bed in the heather for a while. Walking through a native Scots Pine forest we came across a cnoc that reminded Scot of the place from where Jamie and Claire looked down on wolves at night while on their honeymoon. We read the passage from the book (pic of Sam reading).

This area is new even to Scot and myself and I was left wondering why have we never been here before.

Day 4 – from Leoch to Silkies

The morning involved a beautiful walk through the wild hyacinth that lines the avenue to Castle Leoch. Photos were taken beside the castle in beautiful sunlight.

During our stop in the village, Ina and Hannah met “Mrs. Bean”, as in “Mr. Bean's mother”, keeper of a “bits and bobbies” shop in the village. Ina takes up the story; “Hannah motioned me in to see the pottery and things. We were real quick, went straight to the teapot and picked it up to buy it. As we took it to the counter and Hannah paid for hers, Granny Bean asked if we wanted it wrapped for the journey. 'Sure' we said. She's SLOOOWLY pulling out the bubble wrap, smoothing it onto the counter, and I'm waiting her for to take my money for my own teapot. She slowly writes down the price on the cash book for the day. We were still paying for them when Sam came in and said 'we gotta go', so I said 'we'll just pay and come back tomorrow'. Mrs. Bean said, 'Oh no people don't come back tomorrow' and she carries on tying the little bow, slowly. By this time Sam's jumping up and down.” It was like that scene with Rowan Atkinson in “Love Actually” when the man is trying to buy jewelry for his girlfriend but his wife is in the store and he's in a hurry, but the attendant (Mr. Bean) wants to wrap the gift.

Mrs. Bean gave us enough to snicker about to keep us going as we progressed into the wilderness and... To the Silkie's Isle. The island sat amidst a flat, gray ocean, windswept and sweet-scented on the heather cliffs. The surprise for us was that we found on the cliff top, a blow-hole or chimney that we had not known of before, just like the one that Jamie and young Iain climbed down to reach the shore. We love these synchronicities. No seals to be seen, but we watched in wonder as the Gannets dived for fish.

The landscape was bleak and empty and we'd prepared for this place by reading sections from Voyager where Jamie escapes from Ardsmuir seeking the place of the White Witch on his journey to the Selkie's Isle. Ina said, “You think about what people went through, so harsh. We really got a sense of that.”

Tonight our guests stay in a smaller version of Lallybroch and sleep, dreaming of the Tale Scot told (with harp) of how the MacKenzie's came to own Gearrloch (that being the location of Lallybroch in the Outlandish Companion).

Gàidhlig lessons move on a pace and Hannah especially has enough interest to take up more formal lessons.

Day 5 – Cùil Lodair - Culloden

We leave the west coast this morning, stopping in to pick up yesterday's purchases (Mrs. Bean should have wrapped them by now, we hope.) From there it's onto a difficult part of the tour, the battlefield of Drummossie Moor, Culloden. This is not going to be an easy visit. For those of you who have been to the place, they will know the feelings that cannot easily be put into words. Hannah has prepared a ceremony for her time with the fallen.

Perspective from Scot:

We are here at Culloden as I write. I am sat in the visitor centre. Myself, the manager of the Centre and no doubt many others have no desire to walk onto the field of battle. I went once, many years ago. That was enough.

Hannah is out there now, performing a ceremony for the aftermath of the last battle on British soil. She has with her seeds of two flowers. The Wild Hyacinth - the flower the English call Bluebell – and the Scottish Bluebell, the flower the English call Harebell. Both Bluebells, both beautiful. They grow in different soils and flower at different times of the year. They hold the same name, but are quite different. A metaphor for the two cultures that met and clashed on the field 250 years ago. As I write, Hannah is out there, bridging the gap between. She's laying the Low Road for the men who fought, for the families that stood behind them, for the echo that is still heard by the Americans, Canadians and others that carry the blood of the Culloden victims today. She lays the Low Road to carry us all home.


From Culloden we went to Cawdor castle in a mood more upbeat than one might expect. Hannah's ceremony has accomplished something. The reason we choose to visit Cawdor was that it is close to Castle Leoch in general size, which is unusually large for a Highland castle, but most importantly, Cawdor is very much lived in and we could feel that quite easily. While other castles are perhaps more similar in layout or furnishings to Leoch, Cawdor 'Feels' more akin to what Claire might have experienced. In that respect, it is a good approximation of Leoch and worth the visit. It even has a garden where we tried to picture Mrs Fitz-Gibbons bustling about collecting herbs.

Tonight we stay in an Inverness guest house very like the description of the Wakefield Manse, but brought to modern styles of décor. Our host is Mrs Graham. No, really. However, she reminds us more of Mrs Baird, the host of the guest house where Frank and Claire stayed on their first visit to Inverness, on account of the frantic hoovering she undertakes as soon as our muddy feet have left her entrance lobby.

Day 6 – Grand Houses

We might call this a Lallybroch day. We have taken Ina and Hannah to a number of houses akin to Lallybroch, but this, we all agree is most like our vision of Lallybroch. Still a lairds private home, set amidst hills just like the Fraser estate. Today there was a beautiful, healthy, light atmosphere about the house and grounds.

We have returned to Edinburgh. On this particular incarnation of the Jamie and Claire Tour, our guests are staying in a fabulous house, more grand than Lallybroch, more opulent than the Duke of Sandringham's house, more tasteful than Versaille. Dinner will be served at seven by black-kilted young gentlemen. We'll hear in the morning how they liked the attention. We may have trouble getting Hannah and Ina away for the last day – the lowly closes of the old town, haunt of A. Malcolm, Printer and his nefarious associates.

Day 7 – Edinburgh, the underbelly

We walked the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace, seat of the short-lived court of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1746, up past the tavern where Claire's coach arrived back in Edinburgh in 1768 to find Jamie. Along the way we looked in on the various closes and buildings that Claire and Jamie visited. We had a strange adventure in 'Carfax' close (or rather the real close that exists in place of Carfax).

As we entered a small, “little old ladies'” tea room, we were met by the proprietoress, a woman that bore more than a slight resemblance to Mrs Graham, the Wakefield housekeeper. This morning though, she did not have the competent calm of Mrs Graham, her assistant had not turned up and the lunch rush was beginning. “Jist write yeer order doon on that piece o' paper and I'll get tae ye,” she called over her shoulder from the sink, frantically washing dishes. Within minutes Samantha was in the kitchen helping, a moment later two strapping men in town for the Heineken Rugby Cup were drying up and making their own breakfast to wails of “ochone, ochone” from the host. It was like a scene out of an Ealing Studios films from the 40s.

Scot was happy though, as our frayed host had REAL mutton pies, which were once common in Edinburgh and Glasgow and have disappeared. He hasn't had one in twenty five years, poor lad.

I was left left behind in the tearoom, playing waitress and helping out the lady, while the other three descended to the underground vaults of Edinburgh to hear Tales of wine merchants, smuggling, illicit stilling, prostitution and body snatching. Ina said “I could really imagine Jamie and his men working away in those low vaults. I could just see him.”

A stop into a rare shop provided Hannah with a good excuse to leave all her remaining money behind in Scotland. Just a few local women make the woolen clothing, none of which has seen a machine. Hanna now sports a fantastic hat made by a woman who is a Gille (gamekeeper) and still uses Highland Ponies to bring the shot stags off the hills. Verra fetching is Hannah's Hat. Ina has a Shawl of Harris Tweed with beautiful Celtic knot-work on it. These garments come from a long tradition of home industries that haven't much altered since MacDubh was born. Next door, Hannah and Scot got left behind discussing the finer points of whisky with the fine gentlemen of Cadenheads, Purveyors of Single Malts. They might have stayed all day were it not for the delights that awaited them further up the hill.

A walk through the various closes in the book, ending the day with a some fine Scottish ales in the World's End tavern (pic below). We even got to peer down into the cellar of the pub where the Flodden Wall still stands. Perhaps a small, blue-silk Chinese man can be heard singing from below; a smell of brandy wafts up...

So, we have come to the end of the May 2009 Jamie and Claire Tour. Each subsequent one (July and September 2009) will be a little different, partly in the itinerary, guest numbers and tour length, but mainly because there will be new people ready for adventure, each bringing their own spirit to play. Scot and I are very glad to have begun with the fine travelers that are Hannah and Ina. They were up for everything and such good company along the way. Special people make a special adventure. Here's tae ye lasses!

Visit the Jamie and Claire Tour website for more photos

Some words from Ina after her return home

"Being with you guys made me realize life is for adventures and I had been only surviving day to day. I know I'm on the "'just got back from vacation high", but hanging with you three made me see that that is no way to live. After Culloden and being apart of Hannah's cemeromy, I have to shake it up a bit. I do live in one of the most beautiful places in the world and need to pay attention to that."

Mission accomplished then. I take Ina's words to heart, for perhaps we all need to go away to appreciate what we have at home.

[Post edited to say: Click on "Comments" below to see more of Ina's words.]