Day 15 in Scotland, coming into Oban

(It really is one of the castles from Monty Python & The Holy Grail)

(It really is one of the castles from Monty Python & The Holy Grail)

The Latvian-Scottish hairstylist in the salon across the street from our flat holds my hair up in the mirror, both of us looking at it, and says it’s a disconnected style, which I ask her to define but she can’t really, other than one part of it isn’t connected to the other. And that’s ironic because my stylist in Seattle talks to me about Jung and synchronicity, the fact that everything’s connected, there is no coincidence, it would be harder for nature to separate one thing from the other.

The tour guide at the distillery holds an eye dropper in a stainless steel pitcher and talks about adding water to the whisky, says it helps keep the smoke down, but don’t add more than a drop or two, once you put it in you can’t take it out. And don’t add ice: whatever the whisky was going to do in the glass it will stop doing once you add ice.

We start in a long, narrow room they call the malting floor, covered a few inches deep in barley, which starts as an insoluble starch they add a bit of water to, and over the course of five to seven days germinates, develops sugar, and they come round with a three-pronged plough to fluff it so it doesn’t get tangled, then smoke and dry it over a kiln fed with peat cut from the fields.

And back at the pub, old men sit alone at the bar staring at the grain in the wood and I write about them behind their backs and think they’re here because they have nowhere else to go, I’m just a blip on their screens, a brief interruption: I draw the Puget Sound on my palm with an X to mark Seattle, to show where we live in proximity to the sea, and they ask about Nirvana, and I tell them about Aberdeen, and we nod and go back to our drinks.

On Orkney Island, they’ve only got about six hours of light the darkest time of year, and the tour guide complains about going to work in the dark and coming home in it, which I say I can relate to in Seattle.

They keep the barrels in a cool, dark room — good for ageing whisky because there’s not much variation in the temperature between winter and summer, which the Latvian stylist attests to when she says October was better than June; she had her winter jacket and boots on still most of the summer.

In the hotel bar, the rugby players are clumping up in the corners: one with a neck thick as a tree trunk orders several dishes off the menu — the barmaid asks are they for sharing, and he shakes his head no.

They have dishes like homemade pork scratchings, spicy pickled chillies, long, Polish cured sausages — steak mince tatties, seasoned squid, farmhouse cheese with beetroot and black pudding salad.

And after the ferry crossing back to the mainland Monday with rocky seas, the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin blowing back the northern UK, our car has a grizzled look around the edges like an old dog’s jowls with sea salt slobber, and though it’s dicey on the boat and some are staggering for the bathrooms, Dawn and I go out on the deck and wrap our arms around the metal rails and feel alive from it all, the rise and fall of the waves, the spray, the sense we’re riding a beast, and how small we are, how much we’re a part of it still.

Although we consider ourselves seasoned travellers we made a rookie error by overpacking, fearful we wouldn’t have enough of everything on a 90-day road trip through the UK, and so we wedge ourselves into the car with our winter coats, plush toys, books, laptops, sliced cheese I keep beneath the passenger seat, seashells in an empty Pringles can, CDs, maps, navigator and cell phone chargers, adaptors, half-full water bottles, barf bags.

The kids used to complain about getting car sick and ask us to pull over but now that we have medicine for it and bags we took from our boat ride out of Amsterdam, we just threaten to give them the medicine or tell them to use the bags, and that’s that — no one’s gotten sick yet, the jig is up.

The mind remaps to driving on the other side of the road the way your eyes adjust to a new prescription, though occasionally I get rattled and slip out, and this happens most times entering or exiting the roundabouts at rush hour — and after miles along twisting roads, estimating the distance between our car and the oncoming lorries we pass, squinting through windshield wipers and potholes, I’m wrung out like my blue jeans, the same pair since Amsterdam, broken in like a catcher’s mitt and taken on a sad aspect, the kind of sadness only a dog’s eyes can possess before it collapses in a heap on the floor at day’s end, defeated.

I stay up late in our Victorian apartment now in Oban, which has bay windows that actually overlook a bay, ferries queuing at the terminal — and the light that comes through our windows at night gets bent by the glass and thrown in a jewelled pattern along the walls; when I hold my hand up to it it looks like snakeskin, the same mottled look as the brownstones that line the streets below. In the morning we decide we’ll stay in all day and cook, watch the clouds and storms come and go.

Categories: travel, writing

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25 replies

  1. You can tell a lot about a man by his sad-eyed jeans…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely writing, as usual, Bill. And a grand photo of the castle. Hope the worst of the weather is over and you haven’t been vlown into the North Sea yet :).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Lynn – I’m sure the worst of the weather hasn’t arrived yet. I’d be disappointed if it has. The castle…we just saw it from the road and Dawn said OMG that’s the castle from the Holy Grail, and I pulled over and shot it and lo and behold, she was right, unplanned.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yep, was just listening to the forecast this morning – you better batten down any hatch you’ve got handy because you’re going to have a rough couple of days up there. Possibly up to 90 mile an hour winds in parts of Scotland. Sounds like hulking down in one of those part-buried huts in Skara Brae is your best bet 🙂


  3. Grey day here and made multiple decisions not to go out. The granola bars came out like granola cereal so it’s pizza tonight. The sun went down too early and I remembered the job that I had where the only light I’d see was neon.

    I could have just said the post resonated. Oh, well. 🙂


  4. Oh I do love Scotland — and your descriptions. I need to catch up on them! Is that Stalker Castle? I have a picture from a different angle in my bedroom. Beautiful, beautiful place, Scotland. And the food has improved considerably in the 30 years I’ve been going there (sadly, not often enough!


    • It is! That’s funny you have a photo of it in your bedroom. As with other things here, we were just driving along, spotted it, pulled over, and I took this photo. My wife insisted it was one of the castles in the movie, then looked it up, and came up with a result that said “Castle Stalker,” which sounds funny. To be a castle stalker, right. The food is really quite good…I’ve been trotting around a Bon Appetite issue I have from 2004, which I poopooed, but it’s all been good. Great people here, through and through.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree about the people — my husband went to Univ of Edinburgh for a year and fell in love with the place. Took me there and proposed — so I am a softy for the place. We have great friends there.

        The cuisine has improved because there is more ethnic food available — although I will say I do like me some haggis!


      • That’s nice Elyse, thanks for sharing that. We’ll be in Edinburgh for nine days starting next week. Looking forward to it, but also a bit desensitised, which is strange – some road fatigue I think, coming on 115 days or thereabouts being out of the US. Looking forward to cycling back to a small place called Stranraer in the country, possibly a day-trip to Dumfries before we ferry over to Belfast at the end of the month, then Dublin, Galway, Cork, a few spots in between. Looking forward to settling in more and less running around, hard on the kids as you can imagine. But such a kaleidoscope too, even with the rain and wind.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Be sure to take the kids to the Frankenstein Pub — It was a church that was turned into a pub, and there is a …. well, you’ll see. Great fun. My son LOVED it when he was about 11. So did we and we were older!


      • I will! Thank you Elyse, I think another blogger friend recommended that too. Can’t wait. Churches turned into pubs, good place for worship. Worn down seats, too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Elyse, I did my degree at University of Edinburgh too! The Frankenstein pub was the very first one I ended up in! Funny. When was your husband there?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t mean to be so brief or unfriendly. I was stopped at a red light …

        He did his junior year abroad that year and fell in love with the place.

        We first went to the Frankenstein pub on a visit new years’ day 2002. Frank kept trying to come out, but he’d had a late night the night before!


      • Ah, I didn’t think that at all, no worries! I was there in 2013, but I’m sure it hasn’t changed a bit, either from 1976 or 2002!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. i love the castle pic and scotland sounds like such a dark and moody place. perfect setting for all things murky –


    • Dark and moody but so much more, too. Gritty, and down to earth — I love it. Had no idea. Really wasn’t that interested in coming for some reason too, but got interested quickly when I got the atlas and started looking into it. As with so many other places I’m sure, just good to get in and look around.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I may have asked before (it’s becoming a habit) but have you ever watched Local Hero? God, I love that movie.


    • It looks lovely! No, I haven’t – 1983, good looking cast too! Keep the hits coming man. They have The Wind That Shakes the Barley here on DVD and I may watch that with Dawn tomorrow, our last night at this apartment. Made my kids watch Master & Commander tonight, with Russell Crowe. Perhaps a bit violent, I couldn’t remember, it was right when we had had Lily and ironically our bedroom was leaking from the roof, which had interesting tie-ins to some of the scenes on the ship, in the movie. Felt that way too, a leaky roof in a 1919 bungalow in the winter, in West Seattle.


  7. I’ll never understand how they were able to get the building materials out to this remote site to construct that castle.

    I disagree with your philosophical stylist back in Seattle. Life if fraught with coincidences. They happen all the time.

    You make this place sound fairly inhospitable. No wonder there’s the drink.

    Could you spend the rest of your days in this fashion or do you think it’d get old?


    • It would get old. It’s good, but home is kind of one of a kind, irreplaceable, and can’t really be found on the road. And I’m too old for these tour buses and all these groupies, burning me out. Feeling like Robert Plant, or Geddy Lee.


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