Author Archives: Breaking Free

Hanging in Huntly

After thoroughly investigating Huntly Castle, I wandered around town to see what else there might be of interest.  The residential areas were unremarkable, lined with horrid pebble-dash houses.

I spotted a church that looked slightly interesting and started to cross the street when I sensed a vehicle driving along slowly behind me.  I was just about to turn and yell, “Fuck off, creep!” when I heard Richard calling, “Anne, do you want to ride back to Dunrovin with me?”

Feeling a little sheepish, I hopped into the Land Rover and declined a ride all the way back to the house but accepted a lift to the square.

Lynn had sold all the raffle tickets and was now just enjoying chatting with all her fellow Huntly-ites.  I stepped into the library—built by someone akin to Andrew Carnegie but who did not emigrate to America. What a ceiling!

Sadly, while there was all sorts of hustle and bustle just outside, the library was dead.  The librarian looked up hopefully when I entered, pegged me as a tourist, and went back to whatever she was working on.

I walked down one street, then another.  There was the wonderful Huntly Area Cancer Support Centre.

When my sister had cancer, she was handed sheaths of paper with links to websites where she could get information and support. Ditto for her kids and me and my mother as caregivers.  But what my sister—who is an extreme extrovert—could have really used was a place to just go and hang out—with real people.

Lynn was done now and caught up with me.  “Let’s stop in at the bookshop,” she said, “I need to talk to someone there about the Hairst.” The Hairst is like a mega farmers market, a harvest festival held once a year in Huntly that draws people from all over.  The Hairst would feature the Harry Potter children’s party, which Lynn was helping to organize, a dog show, and other events.

Bookshop, as its name implied, sold books.  But it was all volunteer run, and it served as a place to drop in and chat about books, art, and community events.

Lynn talked with the volunteer at the till while I nosed around.

In addition to book, local “makers” sold their hand-made toys and cards and hand-knit scarves.  There was a sunny children’s nook, and I perused the Scottish-themed children’s books.  Another volunteer seemed to be tailing me.  Did she think I was a shoplifter?

“Are you American?” she finally asked.  Ah, that was it.  She had heard me speak and wanted to bend my ear about my war-mongering country and the insane Cheeto we have for a president.

I briefly considered claiming to be Canadian but if she caught me that would reinforce the stereotype of the untrustworthy American.

Instead she gushed, “Oh I so love America.  It’s too bad ….”  Her voice trailed off.

“I know, I know,” I said.

Then we talked about the bookstore and Huntly and what a cold summer it was.  Her name was also Ann but without an “e”.  She appeared to be about my age, and she lived with her mother.  “Mother needs round-the-clock care, so I can’t work and I only get two hours a day respite so I come to the bookstore to do a shift.”

So she volunteered during her two hours out of 24 that she was free.  Some people are a lot more self-sacrificing than I would be.  She was clearly ready for a long, long chat but I really wanted to check out the merch, so I just told her, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d really like to take a look at the books and the cards and so on.”

She smiled rather sadly and I felt a bit guilty but then I got lost in the books.  There were cheap used books and some new ones.  There were loads of old coffee table books with Scottish themes and history books about valiant Scottish history and people.  I cursed myself for blowing my cash on a made-in-China scarf at the Castle, although it did have cute foxes all over it.

Cock o’ the North

Huntly Castle is just a few blocks from the town square. I got some more cash out of the ATM just in case there was a gift shop.  The fivver was a new one to me, and the woman turned out to be Nan Shepherd, a “Scottish Modernist writer and poet.”  Don’t ask me what a Scottish Modernist is.  Or any kind of modernist, for that matter.

I walked down the appropriately-named Castle Street and through Gordon’s School, which is the local private (meaning public) high school.  Got that?

This is the lane leading to the castle, which is picturesque enough in its own right to warrant a wander.

The castle was built near the confluence of the rivers Deveron and Bogie, and there’s a lovely bridge before you turn toward the castle.

There was a small trailer at the entrance staffed by a young ranger or whatever they are called in Scotland.  It felt sort of like a state park in Minnesota, only with a 900-year-old castle.  The trailer included a wee gift shop.  While I checked out the tartan coin purses, Highland Cattle-themed wall calendars, and bagpipe CDs, the ranger chattered away with me.  Or at me.  It was a slow day and she was lonely, like park rangers everywhere.

I handed over a Nan Shepherd for the entrance fee and was on my way.  I recalled looking at the ouside of the castle with Lynn and Richard but why had I never gone inside?  The following week, Lynn and I took a long drive to an event, and we passed half a dozen castles and other mammoth buildings.  “There’s a manor over there,” Lynn waved nonchalantly.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, impressed by the house near the road that was a little smaller than Dunrovin.

“No … that’s the gatehouse,” Lynn corrected me.  “The manor is through the trees there.”

It was the height of summer so it was hard to see but I got the impression it was a Downton Abbey-sized house. “Wow,” I said again, humbled.  “Someone lives there?”

“Yes, some lord or other.”

To a native, thousand-year-old castles and manors and lords are a dime a dozen.  But for me, being from the land of shopping malls and Kim Kardashian, they still impress.

Back at Huntly Castle, I made sure to watch my step.

And then I was standing at the entrance, entranced.  There has been a castle here since the 12th Century. The original builder was Duncan, Earl of Fife.  The front section, which is the most intact, is French-inspired.  Did I mention it is a ruin?

The most famous occupant was George, Duke of Gordon, a well-known show off referred to as “The Cock o’ the North.”  To ensure you saw his name across the top of the castle, he added a pointing hand (to the left of the “G.”)

It was a beautiful day and the rose and ochre-colored stone was set off by the blue sky and emerald grass to marvelous effect.

The Gordons were Catholics in a Protestant country. During the English civil war the “popish” symbols were chiseled off the castle by Protestants.

Inside, this fireplace had whatever was Catholic removed from the top.

There were more fireplaces that appeared suspended in air because the wood floors were gone.

This was once a cozy sitting room at the top of a turret.

Mary queen of scots ate here, and when the Earl pulled out all the stops to impress her, she turned around and imposed higher taxes on him.  This described an early version of the crock pot.

The 5th Earl of Huntly collapsed and died while playing football.  Probably had coronary heart disease from all the rich food.

My flash wouldn’t work, or you would be gazing upon “the oldest wooden toilet seat in Scotland.”  Quite a claim to fame.

There was this old section of—it was claimed—an original door.  Fabulous.

I climbed to the top then to the bottom, where my heart was chilled by this sight.

My son’s prison experience was bad enough; I can’t imagine being shut up in a mud floored, windowless dungeon with no heat.  (And no, those aren’t real prisoners; they’re dummies.)

This Little Piggy went to Market

I settled into a routine as I had in the south.  Get up early, blog and work, join Lynn and Richard for breakfast, then work some more.   I lay on my bed under the covers to keep warm, at first wondering, “How will I ever work without a desk?” but quickly getting used to tapping away on my keyboard in a reclining state.

Whenever I glanced out the window, Dottie the cat would be in position, staring at me like she was trying to communicate some vitally important matter of possibly national interest.  I tried to get into the habit of  rousing myself once an hour and take a lap around the property.  Dottie would accompany me down the drive, but at a distance of about 10 feet, as if to say, “I’m not with you, I just happen to be walking down the drive at the same time as you.”  Lord Parker would wait for me at the gate, then tail me as I walked the circular path around the garden.  When I got to the gate on the other side that led to the river, he would watch me beseechingly with his tawny, human-like eyes, maybe thinking, “maybe this time, maybe she’ll let me come too.”

There, I did it, I anthropomorphized.  I really don’t believe that animals have thoughts, but since we humans have more thoughts than we know what to do with, I guess it’s tempting to lay some of ours on other beings.

It was better than nothing that I walked around Dunrovin half a dozen times a day.  I would like to report that I also took long, vigorous walks every afternoon as I had in Eton and Windsor.  That was my goal.  But just the opposite took place, and I may well have to check into a fat farm to work off the pounds I gained in Scotland.

I blame it on the doubles.  Lynn has two small fridges in the kitchen and two freezers full of venison and other meats Richard has harvested, plus a pantry and a wine cellar. Then there was the double cream.  I continued my personal single, double, and clotted cream festival throughout the month, pouring it over or globbing it onto pastry shells, croissants, ice cream, strawberries, muesli, and anything else that didn’t move.

The three of us ate lunch and dinner together most days.  Lynn loves to cook, is a great cook, and doesn’t stint on rich ingredients or portions.  I feel so lazy saying this, but I only prepared about six meals the whole month.  When I offered, Lynn would usually say she already had the meal planned.  When I offered to make it, she would wave me off, saying it was no trouble.  We often had a salad and veggies, but they were in addition to a leg of lamb or shepherd’s pie.  I made lasagna and moussaka, then felt it was my duty to eat all the leftovers so they wouldn’t go to waste.

My first outing was to the Huntly Farmers’ Market, held once a month in the town square.

Bread, pastries, chutneys and jams and jellies, and beautiful berries.  All good vehicles for double cream.

Have you ever been to a farmer’s market where they sell fresh fish?  I bought some langoustines for our supper.

Surprise!  There was wild game.

Then there was the paella man, a Spanish guy named Marco.  I bought a bowl then walked around while Lynn sold raffle tickets and promoted an upcoming Harry Potter children’s party.

I talked to a retired physician who, with his wife and daughter, runs a small charity which benefits local initiatives in Nepal; they invited me to a fundraiser that would involve ceili dancing.

I sat on a bench to finish my paella and the granite was so cold I let out a yelp.  A woman standing nearby immediately offered me her portable seat cushion, then we began to chat and—too late—I noticed her kiosk full of Jehovah’s Witness literature.  But she and her fellow adherents were very nice and didn’t push it.

I decided to have a wander to work off the paella and wound up at Huntly Castle.

Just another day in Scotland.

Hobs, Hospitality, and Hospital Supplies

Since everyone at Dunrovin spent most of the time in the kitchen, it’s worth noting that we had plenty of ovens and stoves to choose from.  Or hobs and cookers, as they are called in Britain.  This is the oldest, a wood-burner, which must have been just too heavy to remove when the new-fangled Aga arrived.

There is a smaller version of this stove right next to it, to the right.  It’s like a toy stove, and I don’t have a photo of it, but it’s thought to have been used by the servants when the family was away.  After all, servants don’t need to eat big sumptuous meals, right?

Across the room from these is the Aga.  I’m not a plumber and I couldn’t play one on TV, but my understanding is that some Agas can actually serve as boilers for the whole house, and/or produce hot water for the house.

The concept of the Aga is simple and beautiful.  They are always on.  The basic model has one hot burner and one warm burner.  Also one hot oven and one warm one. So you never have to wait for a burner to heat up, or serve food that’s gone cold.

They are also works of art.

They cost an arm and a leg to operate because they are always on.  Since Lynn and Richard have a fourth set of modern ovens and cook tops, they only turn on the Aga for parties.

A few years ago when I was remodeling my miniscule kitchen I checked out Agas just for fun at my local appliance store.  They started at $5,000.  I settled for a flimsy Avanti, which cost $399.  I got what I paid for.

I was installed in the premium guest suite at Dunrovin.  And by premium I mean I had my own bathroom.  I have never had such a large room in any of my own houses or apartments.  It contained a queen-sized bed, a large wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a chair, and—mercifully—an electric space heater which I tried not to use “too much” but honestly I had it on most of the time when I was in the room.

This is the fireplace in “my” room.  Note the bell next to it with which I could have used to summon a servant if I had been there 100 years earlier.

Knowing I am an early riser—I mean really early, like 5:30 am—Lynn had placed a tray in my room with a kettle, instant coffee, and tea.  I just had to remember to bring some milk up at night before I turned in, and I was all set to work in my room until a decent hour, like 8:00.  Otherwise, if I snuck down to the kitchen to make coffee I woke the dogs, who’s barking woke Lynn and Richard.

I’m sure Lynn thinks I’m weird for chronicling the ancient contents of the medicine cabinet in my room.  But I can’t help it—I notice details like this.  It’s not just the big things that make other countries interesting, it’s the details too.

I just checked and I also have items in my medicine cabinet that might seem peculiar to a foreigner—like Breathe Right Nasal Strips, a vial of essential oil (a gift; I would never buy such a thing myself), and a prescription medication that I wouldn’t be able to afford if I didn’t have health insurance through my job.  That’s a hat’s off to the NHS, in case you didn’t get it.

Here’s what I had to draw upon should I get terribly dirty or have an accident.

Imperial Leather soap, which comes with a metal logo embedded in it.  For any of you closet imperialists out there.

Dettol: It’s good to know Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth appointed someone to make a 74p product.

TCP: One product for everything from bad breath to acne.

And lint.  It’s what I have always removed from the clothes dryer filter and thrown away.

If I were going to use lint as a medical treatment I would definitely demand that it be British made.  None of that fluffy French lint.


Pets and their People

What good is a grand house if you don’t share it?  Lynn and Richard welcome a flow of house guests and host fetes such as their annual garden party.

But first, the permanent residents.  Lynn and Richard come from working class London. Richard’s father, a butcher, died suddenly when Richard was 15.  To help support his mother and sister, he lied about his age and joined the army.  Then he worked his way up in HR at British Telecom and retired early.  He is so well read and experienced in business and life that he would make a great philosophy or history or political science professor.

Lynn’s mother died when she was 16 and after being at loose ends for a few years, she landed in a training program at BT and also worked her way up in HR, which is where she and Richard met.  She moved to Nokia, where she supported some kind of internal new business incubator. I recall being dazzled when I met her because she talked about routinely flying from her flat in Cambridgeshire to Helsinki, where she also had a flat, to Sydney or Hong Kong and back in the span of a few days.  After leaving Nokia she’s worked off and on as a consultant for Oxfam, which is how I met her.  She is the only person I know who has ever been to Red Sea State, or had her Landcruiser pulled out of mud by an elephant in Indonesia, or been the only woman at a funeral in the Sudanese desert complete with whirling dervishes.

In America, we admire people who are “self-made.” Lynn and Richard would quibble with this term, pointing out that they were born at the right time—after the war and happened to join a company that was set to grow.  Lynn would say she was lucky to be born Anglo Indian in Britain instead of black in Zimbabwe.

It is kind of sickening that people admire Prince Harry, who was born on third base, and not people like Richard and Lynn.  I think Richard would say he is a republican, which in Britain means throw the “blood suckers” out—meaning the royals and the lords—let’s have real democracy.

On to the other residents of Dunrovin.  You’ve met Lord Parker.  He’s second in line to the Top Dog, Cosmo.  Cosmo was named for the young son of the Gordon’s who was a Royal Air Force pilot shot down in World War I.  The other son married an Irish actress and was disinherited.  As I wrote before, their sisters never married because so many men of their class had died in the wars and this caused the family to die out.

Poor Cosmo (the dog).  I had always liked Cosmo, a black lab, because he was a dignified dog.  Now he was elderly and hobbling around, his eyes had the blue aura of cataracts, and the other dogs were bothering him as though they knew their opportunity to take first place was at hand.  Poor Lynn and Richard struggled all month with the decision of what to do, when.

“As long as he gets up in the morning and enjoys his food, and goes out into the garden and enjoys the fresh air, that makes a dog’s life worthwhile,” Lynn ruled.  Hard to argue with that—I wish my life was as simple and carefree as eating and sitting in the garden.

The second black lab, Finn, is sort of like a middle child.  He’s quiet and low-key and no one notices him until he’s grabbed a lamb chop off your plate.

Then there are the spaniels, Merry and Pippin.  Sigh. I was there a few years ago when they arrived as puppies.  I think the word “flibbertigibbet” could have been coined for them.  Hyper, destructive, everywhere at once—normal puppies.  There are some who think Merry may be a Special Needs dog.  The spaniels had mellowed a little bit, but the phrase, “Nooo!!!  Merry, you idiot!” was still to be heard several times a day.  This is a rare moment of peace in the garden.

In the background lurked the two cats, Dash and Dot, seen here outside my window.

Dunrovin House

Dunrovin House.  There’s so much to say.  So much history.  Mysteries like, “When was it built?” and “How many additions have there been? and “Why is there that faint line on the wall—was that where the original house stopped?”

Was it originally a fortified outpost? It’s set down in a depression; below is a view from the ground-floor kitchen.  Four or 500 years ago, was the ground close to the house even lower, and filled with water?  Lynn and Richard think the original structure was built in the 16th Century, so there’s really no way of knowing these things without spending a lot of time in musty archives.

One day Lynn, Richard, Lord Parker, and I visited a nearby ruin, Glenbuchat Castle, that Richard had heard had similar features to Dunrovin.  Had it been built at the same time, for the same purposes, by the same people?  We didn’t learn anything because it was closed for renovation.

Contrasted with Glenbuchat, which sits cold and empty at the top of a windy hill, Dunrovin is full of life and color. These are a few shots of some of the 24 rooms.

On five levels, there are all the usual rooms you expect to find in a house: bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, dining room.

Then there are: a sitting room, music room, library, great hall, butler’s pantry, parlor, conservatory, and a gun room.  The gun room is required to be locked at all times and only Richard, the registered gun owner, may have a key.  So I’ve only glimpsed inside it.

Many of the rooms had original functions that don’t make sense anymore, like the school room, so they are now used for other purposes.

These call bells in the kitchen provide a list of the rooms in the late 19th / early 20th Century.  There was a Morning Room—whatever that was—maybe where they caught the morning sun and working on correspondence?

The bells were disabled by a family who lived here in the 80s who had four boys.  I’m sure it was funny the first time one of them rang a bell to summon their mother to bring cookies to them in their attic bedroom, but like her, I would have grabbed the wire cutters pretty quickly.

Lynn and Richard have filled the place with antiques and art and artifacts.  They’ve managed to be true to the historic character of the house without making it stuffy, which is always a danger with old houses.

Dunrovin has the things that, in my mind, make a house Scottish—lots of heads on the walls, a fireplace in every room, and a tartan door.

The door, covered with the cloth of the Gordon family tartan, separates the front of the house from the back.  In the Gordon family heyday, the family would entertain in the front-side rooms, which have 20 foot ceilings and views of the hills.  Behind the tartan door, the help would be running up and down from the kitchen or using the dumbwaiter (below) to move food and libations up to the first floor butler’s pantry to be staged for serving.

There is this defunct system for communicating throughout the house.  Now everyone just yells, or bangs a gong in the hallway to announce that supper is ready.

I love this wallpaper in what is now the entertainment room.  Richard, who is the main decorator (“Ricky’s Decoratin’ at yer service” he deadpans), has found such scraps of William Morris wallpaper behind fuse boxes.

See how deep the windows are.  Thick walls are meant to keep out the cold.

The fireplaces are ornate wrought iron or tile and burn wood or peat.  I spent many evenings on the floor in front of this one, with a great fire, a lap cat, and a glass of wine to warm me while we watched Dickensian.

This may sound odd, but for me the one item that says “country house” is an Aga.

More about stoves in the next post, but an Aga is like a fireplace but it’s always on.  Everyone hangs out in the kitchen anyway, and on cold days we are all drawn to lean our back against the Aga.


Lynn and Richard’s home is remote.  You fly into Aberdeen, population 212,000.  From there you head into the highlands and know you are getting close when you pass the town of Huntly, with around 4,500 people.  The closest town to the house is Gartly, a “hamlet” of 144 people.  A bend in the road.

Lynn and Richard’s house has a name, as do many houses in the UK.  I will call it Dunrovin because this is where Richard wanted to move when he retired and was done with big city life and international travels.

Actually, he wanted to move to a “wee bothy” (a hut).  I’m not sure which of these variations he had in mind but Lynn put the kibosh on the idea of a bothy.

Dunrovin had been owned by generations of the Gordon family until all the sons were killed or disbursed in the wars and there were no men of their class for the sisters to marry, so the family died out.

The idea of a stately home was difficult for me to comprehend, as an American.  It’s one of those things I think British people grow up knowing about, so it’s obvious to them.  There is a wealthy family—not royalty or aristocrats but landed gentry—living in the main house which has a name.  Everything surrounding it is referred to with that name and would have been part of the estate.  In the case of Dunrovin, there is the gamekeeper’s cottage up the hill, the laundry cottages over the road, and the farm house.  All were sold off, along with the silver, as the Gordon family contracted financially.

I will share some photos of the house and land, starting with the great outdoors.  My photos have been taken at various times of year over 12 years, so if some look like they’re set in winter, they are.

As you come up the drive, there are fields on either side with grazing sheep.

This is the back garden and beyond from inside Dunrovin.  In the middle distance is one of the satellite cottages that used to be part of the estate.

This is a view in the opposite direction, from the back of the garden near the gate that leads down to the river. Meet Parker.  He’s a very aloof dog; people call him Lord Parker.  But he always appeared and hovered near me whenever I left my room.  Parker is not much for people and I am tone deaf to dogs, so we got along great.

This is a similar view, only taken in summer this year so you can see that the sun really does come out in Scotland.  When there’s the slightest bit of sun and warmth, people like Lynn and me go out and sit on benches and turn our faces up to the sun and go “Mmmmmm,” while Richard complains that it’s too hot.

This is the back garden from the attic, where I spent a lot of time.  No, they didn’t put me up there, although that wouldn’t have been so bad because it’s a nice space with skylight views of the 15 chimneys.  No, it was because I requested to be given a project, and Richard assigned me to clear out and paint the attic.

Here is Parker again, your tour guide, showing you the net house full of lettuce and broad beans and peas.  The netting keeps the birds (and dogs) away.  Across from it is the glass house, where Richard grows hothouse veggies like tomatoes and peppers.

In addition to growing his own produce, Richard shoots deer and other game so in theory they could be almost self-sufficient if they wanted or needed to be.

Exiting out the back gate and leaving behind a disappointed Parker, I would often walk down to the river, passing these trees with old graffiti from soldiers billeted nearby after the war (I think).

Richard had moved a café table down to the river, where I enjoyed a cuppa.

I have asked and been told several times the name of the river, but I can’t remember.  I prefer to think of it as just The River.  This was where I would spend a month.