Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Owls and the Pussycat

From Stirling Castle, we drove north to the Cairngorm Mountains. Cairngorm means green or blue hill. But in fact, at least this time of year, these "hills" appeared more pink than blue or green. I think the color comes from the dried bracken (a large coarse fern) that grows everywhere. You can see it more clearly in the picture below. 

We could hardly have picked a more beautiful time to visit the highlands, with the trees just beginning to turn and the landscape a rich tapestry of green and gold and rust.   
I wish I'd taken more pictures, but I was "on a mission" and it was a long drive to our destination, the Highland Wildlife Park, where I hoped to see one of the most elusive and threatened creatures in the British Isles (if not Europe), the Scottish wildcat.

 Since they think there are less than 800 left the wild, I knew this zoo park would be my only opportunity to glimpse this rare creature. And glimpse is about all we could do, as the two cats we saw moved almost constantly, pacing rapidly through the maze of branches and "catwalks" in their pen.
They look much like domestic cats (or "moggies" as the British refer to them), except for their unique markings, that are somehow more wild looking than the typical tabby stripes. 
 These markings are especially distinctive on their faces. The other thing that distinguishes them from domestic cats is their gorgeous, plush tails.

Besides the wildcat, we saw all sorts of wonderful creatures, like these two owls.
 This is great gray owl. They are truly "great", as in huge. This a close-up from about 20 feet.
 European wolves. They look bigger than American wolves.
                                                            A lynx family. This is dad.
 A wolverine. They are extinct in Europe, although there are hopes of reintroducing them, and they are rare in the U.S. They move with the strangest loping gait. This one didn't seem fierce at all, but I've heard that they are formidable fighters and will even take on a grizzly bear if there's food
 The always adorable red panda.
                                                       The very odd-looking Pallas cat.
And two polar bears that their keeper called for their feeding by yelling, "Here lads! Here lads!" (Love it!)
The Park was only indeed our only chance to see the fauna of Scotland, at least alive. While driving we saw a great deal of roadkill, including two small deer (sad) and literally dozens of birds, many of them pheasants. We found out why when we spotted a pheasant in the middle of the road. We pulled up right next to it, and it didn't move. Unlike the game birds I've seen along the roads in the U.S., the pheasants of Scotland have apparently been bred for hunting for so long that they've had the common sense (Get out of the road, stupid bird!) bred right out of them!
A car was coming behind me, or I would have taken a picture of the pheasant. But he looked much like this.
 BTW, wouldn't "Scottish Roadkill" be a great name for a rock band! We saw some amazing bands on the streets of Glasgow and Dublin. But that comes later. Our next stop after the Cairgorms was the Isle of Skye. Coming soon.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Stirling Castle

Although I've seen the exteriors of many castles in my travels (Tower of London, Conwy Castle and Cardiff Castle), I've never toured of the inside of one. Stirling Castle was perfect for a castle newbie, being not too large and overwhelming but still full of history. And we picked the right time, too, late in the day in late September, with only a handful of tourists around.
   A delightful living history presenter (shown here with my daughter) told us all sorts of fascinating stories about the castle and the royal household of James V (she was playing the role of his sister).
In addition to the sumptuous interiors (look at all the purple!), I especially enjoyed the recreated atmosphere of the castle kitchen...
the gardens...
and the stunning views from the castle walls
To make the trip perfect, we spent the night in another castle, the delightful Broomhall Castle, a tiny castle that has been converted to a hotel/restaurant. Lovely.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The National Museum of Scotland

I love museums, especially ones that focus on history. There's something incredible about looking at the bones of someone who lived hundreds of years ago and seeing the everyday objects that they used during their lifetime. This photo is the reconstruction of the grave of a early Scottish warrior.
He might have been Pictish, although that was the name given to the early people of Scotland by the Romans and we don't know what they actually called themselves. The Picts fascinate me, perhaps because we know so little about them. They were clearly a distinct people with a distinct language, as in 735, the monk Bede refers to four languages spoken in Britain at the time: British, Scottish, Pictish and English.

Recently researchers have begun to explore the idea that the images and symbols the Picts left behind may actually represent this language. Here's a link to a site that explores this fascinating new perspective on the Picts: It would be wonderful is some day were able to decipher Pictish.

Like other Celtic tribes, the Picts used knotwork designs. Knotwork never fails to affect me. I love how it reflects the interconnectedness of all things and the eternal circle of life.

Irish artistic designs clearly influenced this brooch found in Scotland. In early times, the connections between Scotland and Ireland were probably much stronger than the connections between Scotland and the rest of Britain, as travel and transport by sea was much easier than by land. (I'm not sure it isn't still that way after two weeks of driving in Scotland and Ireland!) No one took more advantage of that fact than the Norse, whose influence on Scotland was profound.

To be continued...

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Celtic Adventures

I've been very neglectful of this blog. This summer I was gardening and as the outdoor season wound down, I was busy planning for a trip to Scotland and Ireland with my daughter. We left on September 27, a day later than planned due to all the flights through Chicago being canceled. Unfortunately, our luggage somehow managed to catch a flight there and would not catch up with us for three more days. After being rerouted through Newark, we arrived in Edinburgh a day late.
The thing about Edinburgh is that you are constantly reminded how old the city is. Fabulous buildings that would have you gawking in any American city, are, ho hum, everywhere. This splendid edifice is actually a department store, where we went to get an adaptor to make my European voltage converter work in the UK.
Of all the magnificent buildings, none is more impressive than Edinburgh Castle. Built on the crest of an extinct volcano, it towers over the city centre (English spellings always look prettier) austere and grand. Due to lack of time (and a disinclination to stand in line) we didn't tour the castle, but chose instead to visit the National Museum of Scotland.
My favorite display there was the carved effigy of Mary Queen of Scots (She's actually buried in Westminster Abbey only a short distance from her famous sister Elizabeth.) If the effigy is to scale, she was a tiny woman with dainty features and hands.

Although I didn't tour the castle, I very much enjoyed walking through the gardens around the base of it, admiring the lush foliage and the amount of work that must go into maintaining it. Especially the immaculately tended floral clock that actually keeps time.
As one of those people who takes more pleasure from details than massive structures, I found plenty of delightful images in this storied city.

Too soon (of course) we had to bid goodbye to Edinburgh to begin our journey to the highlands. Traveling fortune finally smiled on us as our luggage arrived at the airport a few hours before we were to pick our rental car there.