The Clueless and Apologetic American: Adventures in Scotland, Part 11 – the Grand Finale


Aer Lingus, the airline that makes you pay for water (on short flights, anyway).

I should have listened to the birds.

When I left Kelso in the wee hours of the morning to drive to Edinburgh Airport to catch my flight home, at least five birds flung themselves from the hedgerows in front of my car. This included one huge pheasant I had to swerve to avoid.

It was like the birds didn’t want me to leave, or they were warning me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I awoke at 4:30 a.m. – too early for breakfast at my B&B, but with only an hour’s drive to Edinburgh — plenty of time to catch my 8:30 a.m. flight.


A highland “coo” from a happier day in Scotland.

My B&B host had given me excellent written directions to the airport (plus I had looked it up online), so I felt confident in my ability to find my way.

Everything went fine until I got closer to the airport and had to rely on traffic signs. The signs had all read “Edinburgh International Airport” (this way). But when I got to a huge roundabout three miles from the airport, suddenly the sign just said “Airport” with the name of a town below it that started with an “I.”

Now, in Minnesota, our airport has two terminals – one for domestic flights and one for international flights. Clueless Minnesotan that I am, I thought maybe I missed a sign for the international airport. So I decided to go around the roundabout again to make sure I didn’t miss a sign. That’s what roundabouts are for, right? You can just keep driving around in circles until you find your correct exit.


A pony from yet another happier day in Scotland at Delgatie Castle.

The problem was, I was so intent on reading the signs that I neglected to notice the freakin’ stop lights INSIDE the roundabout.

I had been in roundabouts that had stop lights for entering the roundabout, but I had never in my life been in one that had stoplights inside it. I didn’t even know that was possible! Whose bright idea was it to put stoplights inside a roundabout??????

Needless to say, I ran a few red lights and had a crash. Two cars entering the roundabout on a green light weren’t expecting a clueless American not to obey the traffic signals and crashed into me.

After some yelling (one driver was really pissed, the other not so much) we were able to limp our cars over to a safe spot and wait for the police. That took about an hour. During that time, I was able to overcome my clueless shock and figure out what happened. My mouth was so dry! I also spoke with the not-so-mad driver and asked him which exit to take for the airport. (Which was the one that just said “Airport,” duh.)


Haggis, neaps and tatties. Oh, and BACON.

The police officer was courteous and interviewed me first since I had a plane to catch. Luckily, my car was still drivable, so I was able to climb back inside and continue on my slow, cautious way for the last three miles. Once I returned the car to the rental agency, got done with apologizing for wrecking it, and filled out the required reports, I had an hour before my flight left.

I trotted from the rental car agency to the Aer Lingus ticketing desk, worried that they would not allow me on my connecting flight to Dublin with such a short time window. A bit of my Kelso Luck must have still been left because they said I could still catch it. By the time I made it through security, it was time to board my plane. I sprinted to the gate number printed on my ticket, but the gate was empty. Deserted. Nada.


Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.

I stood there, panting and sweating. Over the loudspeakers, I heard my name being called. The voice said the doors to my flight would be closing in a few minutes. I didn’t catch the gate number, though, and ran around in circles looking for a flight directory sign. I found one, but couldn’t find my flight number on it. So I ran back to the original wrong gate and looked around. It seemed like there were people a few gates down, so I ran there. It was the right gate!

I was the last one on the plane before the doors closed. I apologized to the flight attendant, but he said it was okay, I hadn’t delayed the flight. I found my seat and heaved a relieved sigh. It looked like I would be making it home to America today, after all. But I was uncomfortable, what with all the sweat and a huge thirst.

I asked if I could have some water, but the attendant said I would have to pay for it. (The flight to Dublin was so short, they figure people don’t really need water, I guess.) I didn’t feel like telling him my car crash sob story, and it pissed me off that I had to pay for water, so I just told him to forget it.


Leanach Cottage on the Culloden Battlefield on a somber evening in Scotland.

I endured, thirsty, hungry and de-stressing until my flight reached the Dublin Airport – home to drinking water fountains and breakfast. By now it was 11:30 a.m. I drank a lot.

Eventually, I reached Minnesota – glad to be alive, and even gladder that my son was picking me up from the airport so that I wouldn’t have to drive.

I was a little worried that my crash would make me skittish of driving in America. But when I drove myself to work the next day, it was just like riding a bike (you never forget how). So easy! And OMG, the roads in America are so wide! The drivers so (relatively) courteous! The signs so easy to interpret! If anything, I’ve had to guard against having another crash because I am too complacent.

I began this series of postings by apologizing to all Scottish drivers for the rough start my friend and I had driving in their country (see Cruising in the Crawler Lane). And I shall end the series with the same apology.

I am sorry, Scotland, that my lack of U.K. driving savvy endangered your citizens. I am relieved that only cars got hurt, not people. I would love to visit your country again. But the next time, I’ll let somebody else do the driving. 🙂

I should have listened to those birds.


Mermaid Cottage, Crovie.

Mary Queen of Scots and Kelso Luck: Adventures in Scotland, Part 10


Mary Queen of Scots’ death mask.

Just to forewarn you – this is a long entry. I made the most of my last full day in Scotland. Have a cup of tea and enjoy the read! I’ve highlighted important names to remember for this story to make sense.

My last day in Kelso began with a short drive to the Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre in Jedburgh – on the advice of one of my blogging acquaintances. (Thank you James of “Walking with a Smacked Pentax!”)

The approach to the center is through a narrow alleyway, so the building doesn’t look all that impressive (especially for a former queen to have stayed there) until you walk around to the front, where you can see its stately tower. Having watched a public television series on the queen when I was young, I was interested to learn more and to refresh my memory.


The Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre

Entrance to the center is free, although the written guide costs a few pence. Mary (whose French name is Marie) stayed there for about a year. She almost died there, too, after a trip to visit her secret lover, and encountering bad weather and falling into a bog on her way back to Jedburgh. It was the last place in Scotland she was to live before becoming Queen Elizabeth’s prisoner in England for eighteen years.

Her sad and devious story is laid out clearly in the various rooms. Walking among the artifacts – a buckle, a shoe with a broken heel, a lock of her strawberry blonde hair – I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic toward this woman whose life started out with so much promise, only to disintegrate after marrying the wrong man and trusting people she shouldn’t have.

By the time I reached the room that features her final letter, addressed to her brother-in-law King Henry III, my heart was heavy and quiet. Mean old Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t even allow Mary the comfort of her own chaplain in her final hours. And then I came upon her death mask on display. It was common practice to take a cast of the face of beheaded prisoners. Mary really was beautiful.


The drive back to Kelso allowed me enough time to shake off the sadness. After all, I had a mission to fulfill: I was going to try and find two homes associated with my great-great-great grandmother. Her name was Margaret Gray. She was the mother of Susan Gray, who married William Dick (my great-great grandfather) who worked at Floors Castle.

My mother and/or aunts had requested a report on Margaret from the Scots Ancestry Research Society in the early 1990s. They found that she was listed in the 1841 census as being widowed, 75 years old, and living in a house with her son-in-law and his young daughter. There is no wife listed in the report. One could assume that perhaps the wife died and that Margaret was helping with the child.

The house had a name and location, which, to protect the privacy of the people currently living there, I am not going to divulge. Let’s just call it Pinnacle Cottage. When I was still at home in the U.S. before my trip, I had wondered if a house important enough to have its own name might still be there. I did some Google searches and found a house in the right location.

Graham, the super-helpful host at my B&B, the Bellevue Guest House, also took a look at the name of the house and pointed me in the same direction.

In that same census, another Margaret Gray is listed as being younger (60 years old) and working as a servant in another named house not far from Pinnacle Cottage. Let’s call it Forest Lodge. Could it be that Margaret lived in Pinnacle Cottage and worked in Forest Lodge? (Maybe the lodge owners didn’t know her real age or didn’t want to admit to making a seventy-five-year-old work for them.) Or maybe Margaret lived in Pinnacle Cottage and one of her daughters named Margaret (who she must have had when she was 15 years old!) worked at the lodge. In any event, it seems likely there was some kind of connection.

I was also able to find the lodge with Google, and Graham again pointed me in the same direction. Forest Lodge was within easy walking distance from Pinnacle Cottage.

As I drove back into Kelso, I did so from the Pinnacle Hill direction and parked across a bridge from the hill. I figured I could find the cottage more easily by walking than driving. I crossed the bridge into a neighborhood full of houses, which soon thinned as the area became more wooded. I came to a house with a driveway gate and a sign that had the owner’s last name and “Pinnacle Hill” on it. Not exactly “Pinnacle Cottage,” but close. I walked down the road a bit farther to see if there were any other houses. As I did, I passed another gate where I caught a glimpse of the Pinnacle Hill house through the trees. It was low-slung and covered in white stucco with blue and yellow trim around its many windows.

No other houses stood beyond it – just a natural area with a trail. So I walked back. As I stood near the gate and took a photo of what I could see of the house, I heard the clip of hedge trimmers. I called out a “hullo” and was met by the gardener. (How lucky was that?)

I told him my quest and asked him if he thought this house had been around since 1841. He said he’d ask the owner – an elderly gentleman who was a retired doctor. He went inside to ask and came out with the explanation that the doctor was in his nineties and wasn’t open to having company (actually, he said the doctor liked to hang out naked most of the time, and I laughed and said I wanted to do that when I got old, too) BUT he thought this could be the right house.

Cool. I asked the gardener if it would be all right if I came into the yard to take photos of the house. He said that would be fine, and opened the gate to let me in. The house and yard were well-kept and it looked like another small house was attached behind it. A mother-in-law’s cottage, perhaps??

As I was raising my camera for a shot, I glimpsed a figure that looked like an old man in one of the far windows . When he saw that I saw him, he scuttled from view. (He had clothes on!)

The gardener and I chatted a while longer, then I was off to find Forest Lodge. I continued down the road, past the nature trail and to a sign for the town of “Forest.” I followed the sign and eventually came to a house with an impressive gate and a gatehouse. The name on the gate was “Forest House.” Not exactly Forest Lodge, but it would do.

016Another sign on the gate said PRIVATE in big letters. Hmmm. How brave was I? Apparently, I was medium-brave. I knocked on the gatehouse, but nobody answered. I decided to walk down the long driveway to at least see if I could view the house from a distance and take a photo. But as I walked upon the smooth blacktop, past the immaculately groomed flowers and towering trees, I started to lose my nerve. My nerve fled farther upon seeing a beautiful dapple grey horse gazing at me placidly from over a fence. These people were equestrians. Just how much money did they have? I stopped behind a trimmed tree for a moment and the rest of my nerve fled.

I turned and walked back down the driveway toward the road. As I approached the gatehouse, I saw a car parked by it. But nerveless me couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door again. I reached the road and started back toward my car. As I walked, the sky darkened and rain threatened, matching my mood.

026It wasn’t long before I noticed a woman walking a dog in a field. I could see her through the thin hedgerow and it looked like she came from the gatehouse. I gave my bravery a kick in the pants and told myself I HAD to talk to her. So I did. The sun came out and the sky brightened. She said she was the mother of the woman who lived in the gatehouse. She just happened to visit to walk her daughter’s dog. (How lucky was that?)

I told her of my quest and hesitancy to invade privacy, and she encouraged me to ignore the PRIVATE sign and walk to the house. She said the owner was really nice and wouldn’t mind. It did seem silly to come so far and not try harder to see the house, so I followed her advice.

As I walked down the fancy driveway, more horses came into view and yet more spectacular shrubbery. Then I saw a gardener at work across the yard. He didn’t seem to notice me, so I continued on to the house. What a house! It was a big grey castle-like structure with green climbing vines and roses covering the front. I walked past the two marble dogs guarding the door and rang the bell.


Nobody answered. However, a side door opened and a youngish blonde lady stepped out. I thought she looked too young to be the owner, but I gave her my spiel and asked her if she thought this could be the right place. She did. As we talked further and I showed her the census report, I discovered she was indeed the mistress of the house. And yes, she was very nice. I asked her if I could take some photos and she readily agreed. However, she stayed outside with the gardener the whole time. I don’t blame her.

Mission accomplished and copious thanks given, I walked back to the road, ready for my next quest, which was finding the gravestone of William Dick. I happened upon the gatehouse lady’s mother coming up the road, returning from her dog walk. She asked how my visit to the house went and I relayed the happy news.

Then I told her of my next quest and she showed me on my map exactly where the cemetery was. In fact, it was right near where I parked my car. (How lucky was that?)

Purpose clear, I walked down the road and across the bridge. The cemetery gate was open. I had a crude map my mother had drawn of the grave’s location. After a bit of looking, and concluding my mother must have been drunk when she drew the map, I found my great-great grandfather’s gravestone.

I was so happy, I took a selfie at the grave. The stone was in good shape, although moss was growing over the top and beginning to cover the words. I scraped it off and as I did so, the stone vibrated beneath my hands. It sort of freaked me out until I discovered the stone was a bit loose in its setting. That’s just how the gravestones were. I touched some others and the same sensation ensued. Nothing supernatural. Darn.

Feeling fortunate and lucky, I hoofed it back to my car and to Bellevue Guest House.


Bellevue Guest House, Kelso.

I would be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for the guest house – Graham and his wife were super nice and helpful to me, the food was great (you can even order haggis for breakfast!) and the beds are comfortable. If you’re ever in Kelso, give it a try.

My luck was short-lived, however. My next post will detail the adventure I had catching my flight home the next day.



Floors Castle and Crying During Movies: Adventures in Scotland, Part 9


Floors Castle, Kelso, Scotland

My story about Floors Castle starts, not in Kelso, but a few months ago back on my couch in the U.S. (Yes, I’m doing it again – starting a story about Kelso someplace else.) This was before I knew about the newspaper story detailing my ancestor Isabella’s childhood in the castle and before I was convinced of my family’s ties to the castle.

I knew of rumors of the ties, so I was digging through the castle’s website when I noticed a movie had been filmed at Floors Castle, called “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1983).

I actually saw this movie when it came out since I am something of a Tarzan fan. (I watched way too many Johnny Weismuller Tarzan shows after school while growing up.) Plus, if you’ve read my novels, you know I have a thing for animal/human communication. But the movie was rather fuzzy in my brain since I saw it so long ago.

I decided to buy the movie for a look at the castle in preparation for my trip. When I eventually watched it (sitting on my couch), I recalled why it got panned orginally. Much of the first part of the movie features Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) grunting at apes. The critics didn’t like the lack of dialog, but hey, what are you going to do? It’s a movie about apes! Nonetheless, the movie did end up receiving three Academy Award nominations. It didn’t win any, though.

The last half of the movie is set in Scotland at Floors. My dear blogging audience, because I have no pride left, I will share my reaction to the movie with you. In short, I bawled like a baby. When the castle first appears in the opening credits and the duke and his doomed son (Tarzan’s father) race toward it on horseback, tears were coursing down my face and I didn’t know why. It’s not usual for me to burst into spontaneous copious tears at movies. I’m more of a leaky-tear-wipe-away person. And the castle scenes weren’t particularly emotional, either.

But once the movie was over, I realized the tears were from an overwhelming feeling that my ancestors loved the place and their time there.

A few months later, I found the newspaper story about how my great-great grandfather worked at the castle for over fifty years, and I decided that maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. I mean, why would he work somewhere so long if he didn’t at least like the place and the people in it?


The castle gate.

My Bed and Breakfast was close enough that I could walk to Floors Castle. When I reached the gate, I asked the attendant if walkers got a reduced entrance fee, but she wasn’t buying it. 🙂

I meandered up the castle driveway with some trepidation. After all, if a movie could affect me so strongly, I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing the real thing. This was after a search for my great-great grandfather’s gravestone at the Kelso Abbey that morning, which proved unfruitful. But I was told of another cemetery in town that I hoped to check on my next, and last day in Kelso.

058The driveway was long and lined with tall trees and rhododendrons. It wound through fields and afforded views of the castle and the River Tweed in the distance. Set on a hill above the river, the castle appears to grow directly out of the lawn. I knew from my research that, in addition to the castle tour, Floors features a gift shop and two cafes (one with an outdoor terrace), plus a walled garden. It was still early in the day and I wasn’t hungry, so I planned to tour the castle first and eat later.

Built in 1721 for the First Duke of Roxburghe, Floors Castle is still home to the Roxburghe family and the Tenth Duke of Roxburghe. It is the largest inhabited castle in Scotland but parts of it are open to the public.

As I approached, I became confused about where to enter for the castle tour. It seemed as if the signs were pointing to the castle’s front door. Surely that couldn’t be right. Tourists entering through the impressive massive intimidatingly wealthy front door? What if I was mistaken and I walked in the front door and everyone turned to look at me in horror?


The front door. Intimidating, much?

I decided it was safer to enter the gift shop around the side of the castle first. I browsed the Floors Castle Christmas ornaments, Floors Castle honey, and Floors Castle dish towels, then asked the clerk where the entrance for the castle tours was. “The front door,” she said.

When I explained I couldn’t believe they’d let tourists in the front door she just laughed and said, “Of course, why not?”

Buoyed by newfound certainty, I walked to the front door. I did not get yelled at as I entered. Instead, the docent gave introductory remarks to the small group of us gathered in the entry, then he set us loose upon the castle. The tour is self-guided, although docents are in some of the rooms to answer questions and to ensure that nobody walks off with a priceless vase.

I wandered amid the tapestries, paintings and porcelain. There was even a room full of stuffed birds. Apparently one or two of the dukes were ornithologically inclined. One of the duchesses collected a few Matisse paintings. When I got to the dining room (which was originally a billiards room) I encountered a particularly friendly and knowledgeable docent named David.


The dining room where David and I talked. Image courtesy of Floors Castle.

I told him about my ancestral connections to the castle, and he was intrigued. He had a list of dates when the various dukes reigned, and we figured out my great-great grandfather must have worked for the sixth and seventh dukes of Roxburghe. David said a lot of building was going on during the reign of the sixth duke and that perhaps my grandfather was instrumental in it. The castle isn’t the only business on the estate, there’s also forests, fields, horses, wind farms and the like. It’s a huge operation.

086We also got to talking about the Tarzan movie. He told me he was in the movie – he played a cleric. He said the rainy scenes at the castle were shot with the help of the local fire department up on the roof, spraying “rain” with their hoses. He also mentioned that the film directors were sticklers for historical accuracy. All the television antennas on the roof had to be hidden during the day, and were put back out in the evening so the residents could watch TV.

David promised to look into some things for me. I gave him my card. As yet, I haven’t heard anything from him, but who knows? So, although I didn’t get to totally “vindicate” my ancestors’ role with the castle estate office, at least David knows about him, and my family, and all of you!


My bird friend.

By now I was hungry. Thankful that I didn’t burst into tears during my castle tour, I made my way to the terrace café. I sat outside and indulged my sweet tooth in chocolate eclairs and meringues. A friendly (and hungry) bird kept me company – reminiscent of the Kelso Welcome Swan.

Sated and peaceful, I toured the walled gardens. But I must confess the flowers that truly impressed me were rhododendrons growing in the forest on the trail to the gardens (see photo below). After another visit to the gift shop to buy mementos, it was time to go.


As I left and walked down the drive, I couldn’t help but stop and turn back to look longingly at the castle several times. It was like the ancestors inside me didn’t want to leave just yet. I indulged them for a while, but then it was time for the next adventure.

Welcomed by a Kelso Swan: Adventures in Scotland, Part 8


Kelso as seen from The Cobby Riverside Walk.

Three weird things happened on my trip to Kelso. The first happened before I even left the U.S., after I had already made reservations to stay at the Bellevue Guest House in Kelso. Although there are about fifteen other places to stay, I chose Bellevue because it looked nice and was the closest B&B to Floors Castle. A tingle went through me when I was visiting my parents and I looked in their scrapbook from their trip to Scotland in the late 1970s. They had saved a business card from Bellevue Guest House, where they stayed while they were visiting Kelso. (Cue the Twilight Zone music.)

The second thing was the fact that I did not get lost once on my journey from Edinburgh to Kelso. Just ask my traveling companion (who was no longer there to help navigate) — that was unusual. It was like I knew where to go. Ancestral memory, perhaps?

Actually, the drive was wonderful. The roads were wide compared to those in northeastern Scotland, and the scenery was ultra-pastoral. I sang as I drove – so happy at the ease of finding my way. By this time, I was much less terrified of driving in Scotland anyway, having a week of wrong-handed shifting and wrong-sided driving under my belt.

The third weird thing happened after I checked into Bellevue House. My host, Graham, suggested that I take an evening stroll along the River Tweed just a few blocks away. I unpacked and did just that. The riverside walk wasn’t on a boardwalk like we are used to in the U.S. The “walk” was a wide swath of mown grass along the riverbank. As I emerged from the neighborhood homes and came the river came in view, the first thing I saw was a huge white swan. It swam in the river directly across from me.


The Kelso Welcome Swan (a mute swan).

Ach – so beautiful! We kept pace with each other for quite a while, then parted, only to meet later downriver when it was with its mate. Call me weird, but I felt like the swan was welcoming me to Kelso.


The Kelso Abbey

I made my way along the river to the town square and the Kelso Abbey. The abbey has a graveyard, which I thought my great-great grandfather’s gravestone was in. But it was late and the gate to the abbey was locked. I’d have to come back tomorrow to look. Afterwards, I walked on the Kelso Bridge over the river and got a glimpse of Floors Castle in the murky and darkening distance.

Worn out from my long drive and walk, I retired back the Bellevue House to rest for my gravestone quest and visit to Floors Castle the next day.

Kelso Ancestor Quest: Adventures in Scotland, Part 7

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“Main Street,” Springfield, MN

My trip to Kelso starts, not in Scotland, but in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Springfield. That’s where my mother (from whom I get my Scottish blood) was born, and the museum there is home to a set of family scrapbooks she put together.

A few weeks before my Scottish trip, I visited the Springfield Museum on a quest. You see, one of my ancestors — my great-great grandfather William Dick — was rumored to have worked for Floors Castle in Kelso. He was the lead carpenter (or “joiner”). But when my parents and aunt visited Kelso in the late 1970s, they were told by the castle estate office that they had no record he worked there.


My Scottish great-great grandparents, Susan and William Dick.

As a journalist, I know that could mean a lot of things. It could mean the records were lost. It could mean no records were kept so far back (the mid-1800s) or it could mean nobody looked very hard for the records.

While tooling through the family genealogy book one day (months before my trip), I noticed mention of a newspaper article about William Dick working at the castle. The note said the article was in the family scrapbooks.

The castle, on its website, says it is interested in historical information about the people who worked there, so I thought a visit to the museum was in order to find records to prove that my great-great-grandfather worked there.

I also noticed in the genealogy and census records that at least one of their ten children, Isabella, was born on the castle property in 1842. Why would she be born there if my ancestors had no connections to the castle?

Since it’s a good chunk of a drive from Duluth to Springfield, my oldest son kindly offered to join me in the quest. This was also a good chance for him to learn more about his family history since he had never been to Springfield.

We took off one afternoon with tents in tow — planning to camp in the Springfield City Campground overnight so that we could get to the museum in the morning. The museum wasn’t actually open on the day we planned to visit, but I had made prior arrangements with the museum director to meet us there.

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Very helpful Springfield Museum Director Carole Young with some of my family’s scrapbooks.

We met the director, Carole Young, as planned. She had the scrapbooks waiting for us, spread out on a table. It didn’t take us long to find the newspaper article in question since my dear organized mother had indexed the scrapbooks by family name.

There it was, a story from the Spirit Lake Beacon, a newspaper in Iowa. It was dated 1913 and had the title, “Scenes and Reminiscences of a Spirit Lake Lady Reared Among the Royalty of England and Scotland.” It was an interview with Isabella (the one born at the castle) and the story featured her memories of life growing up in a grand house on the castle grounds. Her father was the head state carpenter at the castle, holding the position for “upwards of fifty years” until he retired.

Their house was apparently near a cricket field and castle visitors, such as Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales would drive down from the castle to their house to watch the games. The article says “rooms were prepared especially for them” by Isabella’s mother and the children. During these visits, Isabella said, “We children were always on our best behavior and willing to do little things to make it pleasant for the visitors,” who often stayed three or four days at a time. Isabella also met famous composers and pastors. She and her siblings were sometimes called on to “make up the required number” for a cricket game, and Isabella was proud that they could play the game well.

Eventually, Isabella, a widow with children, left the U.K. and came to America to marry a childhood neighbor who lived in Illinois. They later settled in Minnesota and then Iowa. Her brother, Francis, came to America also, settling in Minnesota. He was my great-grandfather.

Viola! Proof that William Dick worked at the castle! Unfortunately, there was no way to photocopy the article from the scrapbook, so my son and I took scans and photos with our cell phones. However, they didn’t turn out so well. Once I returned home, I searched for a digital copy of the story. I couldn’t find it in the Spirit Lake newspaper database, but I was able to find the same story in The Des Moines Register, which had published it a week later. Score!

I sent the story and a photo of William Dick and his wife to the castle. I had also emailed the castle previously, but did not receive a reply to either attempt.

Harrummph. Whatever. It was proof enough for me. And the quest was a good bonding experience for me and my son. I realize there’s almost nothing more boring than reading about someone else’s ancestors, but I hope this story wasn’t too painful.

Next posting: Kelso — for real this time!

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Attracting a Parade in Edinburgh: Adventures in Scotland, Part 6


Edinburgh, Scotland

Alas, it was time to leave our dear Crovie Cottage and depart for Edinburgh, where my friend was catching a plane to the U.S. I was going to travel on to Kelso, near the English border, but I had a small window of time to spend in Edinburgh before then. An hour-and-a-half, to be exact.

029We found my friend’s Edinburgh lodgings for the night, then took a bus to the Royal Mile. After being in the tourist-sparse northeastern part of Scotland, seeing the crowds on the Royal Mile was a shock. The “mile” is a corridor of shops, restaurants and historic buildings that span the center of the city between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, where the queen hangs out upon occasion.

We visited shops, looking for tartan scarves and tights; saw street performers; and marveled at the diversity of voices and faces in the crowds. We also seemed to have attracted a parade. My friend and I have a talent for this (see proof from our trip to St. Martin). The parade participants seemed to be all male and were affiliated with different religious groups – their drums pounding out a warning directed at all the sins in the world.

026Was it a marketing ploy to get others to join their ranks, or a protest? I didn’t have time to find out since I had to leave for my Bed and Breakfast awaiting in Kelso. I bade my friend goodbye and was off.


A street performer on the Royal Mile.

Later, my friend told me she climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a group of hills behind her lodgings. As the sun set, she was treated to a “peak” moment, listening to Sir Elton John who was performing in an amphitheater below. She danced up on the hill to “Candle in the Wind,” and “Crocodile Rock” – a fitting end to her magical Scottish journey.

Saving the Whales (and Dolphins): Adventures in Scotland, Part 5


Director Kevin Robinson (left) and Theo (right). The ham in the middle is Jack Borrett.

When I was researching things to do in Scotland, I was intrigued to discover the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit in Gardenstown, next door to our temporary Scottish home of Crovie.

I contacted the “unit” by email before our trip and asked about the opportunity to learn about what they do. We were welcomed to visit. Although it took a few tries to connect once we were in Scotland (due to vagaries in weather and schedules), we found director Dr. Kevin Robinson and research assistant Theofilos Sidropoulos (Theo for short) in their office on the shores of the Moray Coast one afternoon and they were nice enough to talk to us for over an hour.

Let me set something straight. You may have misread the name of the unit as the “Crustacean Research & Rescue Unit.” No, they do not rescue hapless mollusks. They research and rescue cetaceans, which are whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Kevin founded the organization over twenty years ago. He explained that he got his start in the field by working in Inverness for a marine mammal organization. He saw the need for another organization that focused more on marine mammal strandings, and the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit was born. The Unit is a nonprofit organization that tracks the population of the farthest northern pod of dolphins in the world in the Moray Firth. They do this through scouting trips and by taking photos of the dolphins and identifying them by their dorsal fins. Despite dire predictions at first, Kevin said the dolphin population in the Firth is thriving.


Gardenstown, Scotland.

The unit also conducts research. Kevin explained that their latest quest was to take skin mucus samples from minke whales. The samples can then be genetically analyzed. To take such a sample, the researchers must get close enough to a whale to reach it with a pole that has the sampler attached to the end. They need only touch the whale with the sampler (no skin pricks or pain involved), but that was proving easier said than done at the time of our conversation. Also, Theo is a student at Edinburgh University and said he was researching the effects of climate change on the environment and marine mammals.

And, of course, they respond to reports of strandings. They provide 24-hour veterinary response for sick, injured and stranded marine mammals. Kevin said that unfortunately, most of the stranded animals don’t make it. But it’s nice to know that someone is looking out for them.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we also learned the organization focuses on environmental education as well. They educate school children about marine mammals and present papers at scientific conferences, and the like. They even have a Facebook page.


The sign on the path between Crovie and Gardenstown. One takes their lives in their hands at every passing. And it seems the sign has seen its share of rockfalls (or bullets!)

And if, like me, you have a secret desire to save the whales, you can do so by volunteering for the unit during the summer (May-Oct.). As long as you are able-bodied enough to get out in a boat and to walk along steep coastal paths, you’re in! Kevin mentioned that a woman in her seventies volunteered for them and for other organizations around the world. She ended up coming back to them for a second time when she was in her eighties because she so enjoyed her first experience. There are still openings available for this year.

The unit is working to raise funds for a new boat to help with their conservation work and to replace their aging vessels. Click here to donate. Their goal is to raise the funds by the end of July, so please act fast if you are so inclined. They are about three-quarters of the way there.

We left their office with a better understanding of life in the waters of the Moray Firth. Kevin and Theo were also nice enough to direct us to where we could see puffins and seals locally. (And we did!) I think it would be totally fun to come back there someday as a volunteer. We’ll see if the fates will allow for that.

Next up – Visiting Edinburgh in an hour-and-a-half!


Stalking the Wild Puffin, and Seals on a Conveyor Belt: Adventures in Scotland, Part 4


Puffins at the Bullars of Buchan.

One of the reasons my friend and I went to Scotland in June was for the chance to see puffins before they left their breeding grounds. My friend studied these seabirds when she was in graduate school, and she wanted to see them again. Me too. As you may already know, I have a thing for birds.


Troup Head gannets.

Our first try involved a short trip from our cottage at Crovie Village to Troup Head, a nature reserve less than a mile away. The reserve is home to a gannet colony, but puffins are sometimes sighted there, too. I had only seen one gannet in my life (in Newfoundland, sort of by accident). I was thrilled by that, so you can imagine how overwhelming it was to see so many gannets on Troup Head, they were impossible to count. And the view from the cliffs is stunning!


The view from Troup Head.

But, no puffins. The next day, we ended up visiting the director and staff at the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit (who I will write more about next) in Gardenstown, the town next door to Crovie, and mentioned our plight. They recommended we try the Bullars of Buchan, a former fishing village on the coast on the way to Aberdeen. We also wanted to see seals, and they recommended the estuary of the River Ythan in the town of Newburgh, not far from the puffins.


The Bullars of Buchan.

So off we went. OMG, the scenery at the bullars was as spectacular as the scenery at Troup Head. The village is set atop a headland that features a collapsed sea cave that forms a “pot” about 100 feet deep. The seabird colony was home mainly for gulls but my sharp-eyed friend did find some puffins. And a few were close enough to photograph with our low-tech cameras. Score!

Next to find the seals. You’d think they’d be in a nature preserve, too, but they’re not. To find them, drive through the town of Newburgh and follow the Beach Road. You can park right near the estuary. A short walk through the dunes finds you at the river mouth. We were expecting to see a seal colony on land, but what we got was more like a watery conveyor belt of seals.


Grey seals in the River Ythan.

The tide was flowing upriver. The seals were floating, somewhat evenly spaced, from the sea into the river. Their black heads bobbed past those of us watching from shore with clockwork regularity. Seal head dots everywhere – weird but amazing. Sometimes one would dive, no doubt after a fish, and then resurface farther up river. I suppose when the tide reverses, the seals just float back out into the ocean. We watched for a long time, mesmerized.

Other natural wonders we saw were of a more geologic kind. We hiked a good ways. One trip found us along the coast on the way from the town of Cullen to Portknockie, home of the famous, craggy and triangular Bow Fiddle Rock (see image at the end of this post). I can’t help but think it would make a great scene for an album cover. Too bad I’m not a musician!

001Another hike found us on the Great Glen Way above Loch Ness, making our way through primeval forests and gorse hedges with mountains in the background for accompaniment. I never got to see Loch Ness on my ill-fated European trip when I was ten, so I was especially glad to make it there.

Every place where I travel that has an aquarium, I try to visit. I “collect” aquarium visits like some people collect refrigerator magnets from their travels. In planning our trip, I was excited to discover that Macduff, a town not far away from Crovie, had a small aquarium focused on marine fish. The children in Scotland were still in school, and I was heartened to see several busloads of them gaining a greater appreciation for the sea while we were there. Although the Macduff Aquarium is small, they do a great job on interpretation.

The next day, we got a greater appreciation for marine mammals and the local people who are trying to protect them when we visited with the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit – to come in the next installment!


Marie at Bow Fiddle Rock.

The Deflowering of a Whisky Virgin: Adventures in Scotland, Part 3


Sure, I messed around a few times – kissed the rims of a few whisky glasses in my fifty-something years, took a few sips — but I didn’t know what I was doing.

In my everyday world, most of my experience was with wine, gin, and hard cider. I really can’t have much else due to an intolerance for wheat and alcohol made from grain. But scotch whisky is made from barley, so our trip to Scotland within sight of the Speyside Whisky District provided a prime opportunity to experiment and branch out into a whole new area of sensual delights.

My friend and I visited two distilleries in the Highlands during our week together: Glen Dronach in the town of Huntley, and Strathisla in Keith. As with most sensual experiences, my first at Glen Dronach, was the most memorable.

Glen Dronach is renowned as a “distiller of richly sherried single malt whiskies of inimitable and individual character” (according to their web site). Our tour guide, Karen, explained that unlike other distilleries, their whisky is aged in barrels that were once used to store sherry in Spain. The flavor of the sherry seeps into the wood, and seeps back out into the whisky stored in them.


Karen, our distillery tour guide.

The distillery was in full production mode, so we were able to see all the processes, from the malted barley being ground into flour, to the brewing, fermentation, and distillation. The smells of all those processes were earthy and wondrous. I was impressed by how huge the vats were in comparison to a gin distillery I recently visited back home in Minnesota.

As we walked out of the distillery and into the visitor center for our tasting, Karen pointed out an American flag on the lawn amongst several others. She said the flag was new and represented the fact that Glen Dronach and its parent company were recently acquired by the parent company of the Jack Daniel’s brand of whiskey. Others on our tour expressed fears that the new company would come in and change everything. Karen said she hoped that wouldn’t happen. “Why buy something that you like and then change everything?” Those Highlanders and their traditions. I expect that even if the new company wants to change things, they’ll run into a bit of resistance. 🙂

An interesting thing we learned on the tour is that while it is aging, some of the scotch evaporates from the barrels. This is unavoidable. The disappearing drams are called the “angels’ share,” since it’s the angels that get to drink it. Karen said she’d like to be one of those angels someday.

Onto the tasting. I chose the basic tasting, which featured eight-, twelve-, and eighteen-year-old scotch samples. My friend (who was our driver) took the driver’s tour, which, alas, featured no on-site tasting, but she was given a dram of twelve-year-old scotch to take home. Since the distillery is sort of in the middle of nowhere, it makes sense that they would offer this option because the only way to get there is by driving. I suppose there are legal reasons, too.

As I was sampling, my friend asked our guide what her favorite whisky was. Karen said when she has company at home, she brings out the twelve-year scotch. “But,” and here she cradled a bottle between her breasts like a child, “for my family, I save the eighteen-year scotch.”

She was right to save the oldest for her closest kin. The younger whiskies were fine, but when the eighteen-year-old version touched my tongue, I felt things I never had before. (Smirk.) No really, the flavor was so much more full-bodied and warm. The whisky assaulted my entire tongue, not just a part of it. Tastes of sherry, oak, barley fields, Highland air and Speyside water made me stop and take a step back from the table.

“Oh, that’s good,” I said, promptly ignoring the dregs of my other two whiskies, and concentrating on the eighteen-year-old.

We talked for a while more and then a blond-haired gentleman walked into the room. Karen introduced him as Billy, the master distiller. She told him about my reaction to his eighteen-year-old scotch. He smiled and looked pleased that he obviously still had the right touch.

Of course, now that I’m back in America doing research for this posting, I find out that Billy (Walker) is pretty much head of the whole frikin’ company. I can’t believe we met him!

We left Glen Dronach with a good feeling about the family atmosphere of the distillery, and with a supply of scotch to celebrate that night’s Solstice back at Crovie Cottage #13.


Strathisla Distillery in Keith, Scotland.

A few days later we visited Strathisla (pronounced Strath-ila), the oldest operating distillery in the Highlands, and the spiritual home of Chivas Regal scotch. Like Glen Dronach, Strathisla was purchased by an American company that had already been using Strathisla’s single-malt scotch as the basis for its blended whisky products. Strathisla’s parent company also owns The Glenlivet and Aberlour distilleries.

Unfortunately, the distillery was down for cleaning, but we decided to take the tour and do a tasting anyway since we had time. The size and scope of Strathisla were similar to Glen Dronach. But at Strathisla, we had the additional experience of going into one of the warehouses to see where the barrels rest. We learned that distilleries often warehouse other distilleries’ barrels as a kind of insurance in case some disaster befalls the parent distillery.

Another fact our tour guide mentioned is that there are 20 million barrels of whisky in Scotland. Wow! Even though there’s so much of it, it has to age at least three years before it is used. She said the distilleries are having a hard time meeting demand for their product worldwide, and that China is home to most of that demand.

All but one of the whiskies offered at their tasting was blended with grain alcohol, so I only tried the twelve-year-old single-malt Strathisla. (Besides that, I was the driver this time.) It was very good, but did not have quite the same effect on me as the eighteen-year-old Glen Dronach.

I left glad that I had lost my whisky virginity to Glen Dronach and the skillful hands of Billy Walker. Now I know a little bit more what I am doing when it comes to scotch.

As if whiskey virgin deflowering weren’t exciting enough, my next entry will focus on some of the wilder pursuits in Northeastern Scotland.


Cullen Skink and Scones: Adventures in Scotland, Part 2


The non-rocky part of the trail to Gardenstown.

We spent our first day at Crovie Cottage #13 on the Moray Coast exploring the small fishing village and hazarding the “Danger! Falling Rocks!” trail that leads along the sea to neighboring Gardenstown. Eventually, we stopped at a café for lunch.

The Tea Pot Cafe is the kind of place where everyone notices when somebody new walks in. Your table neighbors will advise you on menu choices, ask where you’re from, and if you’re lucky, will tell you the best places to visit.


The rocky part of the trail.

We were advised to visit Delgatie Castle for the best scones and Cullen skink in the land. Scones need no explanation. Cullen skink, however, is a chowder made from smoked haddock. It was invented in the nearby town of Cullen, and is apparently all the rage. Certain restaurants along the coast even boast chefs who have won Cullen skink soup honors. The “Cullen” part of the name of this dish sounded okay to us. The “skink” part, not so much, but we were game to try it.


Delgatie Castle

So, the next day, after a visit to a nearby gannet colony at the Troup Head Nature Reserve, we were off to the castle. Delgatie Castle is no longer inhabited, but is run by an organization. As we approached on the dirt road and the pink tower loomed through the trees, we were stuck by the feeling we were in a fairytale.

Hungry again, we opted to visit the Laird’s Kitchen first and tour the castle later. We were not disappointed by either the scones or the soup, although as you can see from the photo below, the meal was a bit, er . . . white. The bread was homemade and the scones were meltingly hot.

The castle is primitive compared to others I’ve been in but it was interesting to see how the rooms were arranged around the large central tower staircase. There’s also a creepy story in one of the rooms about a monk being buried behind a wall.

So that was our introduction to local fare and Delgatie Castle. Next, it’s on to whisky!


Cullen skink soup, homemade bread, and tea – of course.