Tag Archives: Scotland

Went to a Garden Party

Lynn was finding it challenging to communicate with the caterer for the summer party.

“I’d like a paella, like you made at the farmers’ market, and some tapas,” she told him when he came round to discuss the order.

“Si, si, si,” he had responded as he took notes, “And a cured ham.  I just brought one back from eh-spahnya.  Enough to feed 60 people.”

Lynn hadn’t requested a cured ham and really didn’t want a cured ham—especially since it would add £200 to the bill.

“I’ve invited 80 people, but half of them won’t show up, and there are so many vegetarians, and vegans, and you—who don’t eat pork,” she related to me later.

“Did you actually tell him no?” I asked.

“Yes. I think so.  He’s a nice fellow. I think it’s just a language barrier.  I’ll try telling him again, in writing.”

The week flew by, me busy writing about torture, with the attic makeover project, and in helping prepare for the party where possible.  I had found four boxes of children’s party toys, prizes, and art supplies in the attic so brought those down and had them ready to go.  I would be the child whisperer, keeping any little monsters in attendance occupied and out of trouble.

On Saturday, the giant Tesco order arrived.  I loved Tesco when I lived in Oxford. I have hated grocery shopping since I left home at 16, when I had no money or car.  With Tesco, I ordered online, a truck arrived, and two men carried it all in.

The dining room tables were pushed together to make a 15-foot long surface, covered with packages of puff pastry shells, smoked salmon, olives, cream cheese, mozzarella, Gouda, and Stilton; salmon paté, flat breads and party rye and mini rice cakes; tomatoes and fresh basil and dill; strawberries and raspberries and whipping cream; homemade candies from the farmers’ market, and so on.  Kegs of ale had appeared, along with ciders and wines and nonalcoholic bevvies.

“Be ready to form an assembly line in the morning, girls,” Lynn told Gwen and me after dinner.  The men would be busy raking the drive, watching the caterer put up the marquee, and testing the ale.

Promptly after breakfast, Gwen and I carried in food from the dining room, loaded some CDs, and began assembling finger foods.  Salmon paté on flatbread, topped with a cherry tomato and sprig of dill.  Mozarella on a rice cake, topped with a slice of tomato and olive tapenade and basil leaves.  It was fun, it was creative.

This was not the caterer’s food.  This was the “base” on top of which he would contribute tapas and paella and possibly a cured ham.

Suddenly a song I hadn’t heard in decades came on—Looking for the Right One, by Art Garfunkel, and I started to cry.  It’s such a melancholy song, about never finding love. Just when I think I don’t care anymore, wham!—all it takes is one old song.  No one was watching, so I wiped my face and left the room until the song ended.

Marco arrived, and he did indeed bring a cured ham.

“And I will make Spanish omelets,” he informed Lynn as his wife, who worked steadily all day, carried in and unloaded crates of eggs and sacks of potatoes and onions.

“But I didn’t order Spanish omelets!” Lynn replied helplessly.

No matter.  He proceeded to take over the kitchen work surfaces on which Lynn was working.

Did I mention he brought his three children? One immediately tangoed with a dog, who bit his hand and drew blood.  I whisked the child away into my bathroom to wash his hand and keep him sweet so no law suit would ensue.  He was a lovely child and I needn’t have worried.  He ran out into the garden to play with the other children.

The paella was a hit.

I don’t know how many guests came—maybe 50—but they made a dent in the food and everyone went home with a care package of ham.


We had a simple, early supper because Sabrina and Simon had to leave at daybreak the next day to catch a ferry to Orkney … or was it Shetland?  I can barely keep track of my own life, much less others’.

Lynn and Richard and I were in the kitchen at 7:00 to see them off.  We waited, glancing at the clock every few minutes.

“I told them they need to leave by 8:00 at the latest,” Lynn said.  Lynn is one of the most maternal people I know.  I think she learned from her mother, who from all accounts was a real “mom’s mom.”

Simon emerged.  “She’s still sleeping,” he said helplessly.

“I wanted to make you a proper breakfast before you leave,” Lynn declared from the stove, where she was frying sausages and eggs and mushrooms and bacon.  Simon sat down and started eating for two.

It was close to 8:00 when Sabrina came down, and demurred about eating.  “I’ll be fine,” she said.

“Is that a Minnesota ‘I’ll be fine?’” I asked, “Meaning ‘I’m starving”’”

“No, no, I really will be fine without breakfast.  We can stop somewhere for lunch.”

“There aren’t many places to stop,” said Lynn, as she handed them each a bag lunch and bottle of water, “So I made lunches for you.”

“Wow!” said Sabrina, “Thanks so much!  You didn’t have to do this!”  I wondered if the lunches included smoked Haddock sandwiches.

The three of us caught up on work and other projects that day, then Richard dashed off to pick up the next pair of house guests from the train station and also some fish and chips for dinner.

Michael and Gwen were old work colleagues of Lynn and Richard’s from British Telecom.  They would stay for a week, long enough to attend the summer party.  They had come all the way from Rye, in the south, which they described as even more picturesque than Eton.  I have a standing invitation to visit Rye, which I must bear in mind. Apparently The Mermaid is the pubbiest pub in all of Britain.

The next morning all of us except Lynn piled into a Land Rover and made a tour of the Glenfarclas distillery. Glenfarclas is the only distillery that is still family owned.  It was founded by the Grant family in 1836 and the adjacent Speyside cooperage—or barrel making factory—opened in 1947.

We had coffee in the café while we waited for the tour to begin, and then nosed around in the extensive gift shop, where I bought a plaid coin purse.

Our tour guide was an extremely serious guy from New Zealand who seemed completely unaware of how dishy he was.  He taught us what separates the rye from the chaff.

The copper distilling vats are works of art.

Although I am not a whisky drinker, I appreciate the heavenly aroma that arises from fermenting vats.

This wall mural provided a run-down on barrel sizes, in case you’ve ever wondered.

Coopers undergo a 4-year apprenticeship. They’re paid by the piece.

This guy holds the world record for assembling a barrel in 3-some minutes. It’s hard, repetitive physical labor.

We walked through the warehouse where the whiskey is aged.  A small amount of spirits, called the angels’ share, evaporates each year.  There’s a charming Scottish movie called The Angel’s Share.  Watch it with subtitles.

The paneling in the tasting room was salvaged from an ocean liner that sank.  Hmm … I seem to have taken a lot of photos of our guide.

And then there was another gift shop!  Yes, $14,500 for a bottle of whiskey. Priced well beyond my palette.

I bought a small water pitcher which I managed to leave behind at Dunrovin, and a small bottle of the stuff for my cousin.

We had worked up an appetite so we went to a local pub for lunch where the special was a nouveau cuisine-style layered tower of haggis, creamed tatties (mashed potatoes), and creamed neeps (turnips).  We all ordered it, and it was fantastic.  Lest you think I don’t like haddock, I also ordered the Cullen Skink, just to test how good it was compared to the skink at The Bank.

Leith Hall

We slept in, although for me that meant 7:00 am.  I had forgotten to bring milk up to my room so I crept downstairs to the kitchen.  All the doors make that “eeeeeeee…” creaking noise that doors make in scary movies.  When I offered to oil them once, Richard explained that they like the creaking because it tells them when a dog is sneaking in or out where he shouldn’t.

I managed to get into the kitchen without waking the dogs. I fetched milk, turned, and there was dear old Cosmo, lying in his bed in the corner looking at me with his misty bluish-brown eyes.  I walked over and squatted down to talk to him. He briefly moved as though to get up but must have realized I didn’t have food, so he settled back down with his head resting on his paws with his eyes rolled up to look at me.

“Who’s a good boy?  Isn’t it nice and quiet.  No Merry and Pippin to bother you.  Aren’t you the lucky dog.  What a good life.”

He heaved a sigh which rattled his whole body as if to say, “Okay that’s enough,” and I tiptoed back to my room to work until everyone else was up.

Sabrina had booked a pony-riding tour for herself.  Simon was dropping her off, then driving to MacDuff to visit a cemetery and learn more about the Jacobites.  The Star Tribune recently published his article about this.  He and Sabrina were leaving the following day so they packed in two distillery tours after lunch—Glenlivit and Glenfidditch.

Lynn asked if I wanted her to drop me off at Leith Hall on her way to somewhere else.  I didn’t know what it was, but I said yes.  I wanted to do everything.

Leith Hall is a “typical laird’s home.”

I got lucky and joined a tour that had just started with a young couple from Germany and a dour, elderly Canadian couple. It was one of those times when I felt like a stereotypical American, with my enthusiastic appreciation of everything, exclaiming, “Wow!” and asking lots of questions.  The guide loved it, but I got the impression the Canadians found me annoying.  The Germans stared at me as Germans do—as if I was a specimen to be studied.

Photos were not allowed inside except in a few locations.  This is Henrietta, or Henny.

She was Northern Irish.  She outlived the laird and their three children. A niece who could have inherited was lesbian, so Henrietta donated the hall to the National Trust in 1945.  It’s interesting that Henny knew her niece was gay, and sad they she disinherited her.  Henny lived in the house until her death 20 years later.  I would love to know what the niece thought about it all.

I had to—had to—have a photo from the taxidermy exhibit.  I fell behind the group pretending to be seriously interested in reading the plaques about boxing squirrels, then whipped out my camera and surreptitiously snapped a pic.

The tour was brief and then we were cut loose to explore the small military exhibit, where photos were allowed.

In generations pre-dating Henny, the younger sons had been sent to Australia or the Americas. One came home with these articles and the dubious claim that the Cree Indians loved him.

This was a standard issue musket given to British soldiers in America.  It was finely carved.  I wondered by whom.  Was it issued this way or did the soldiers have lots of time on their hands to literally whittle away?

I liked this miniature knick-knack shelf carved by a prisoner of war.

I spent my last £2 on a bottle of water so inspected the tiny gift shop just for fun.  Mostly it was garden-themed items, which was apropos because the gardens were really the highlight of the place. You could wander for hours, and I did.

There was a kitchen garden kept by students of nearby Clatt Primary School.

What a downer of a story for a beautiful tree!

Too late—it was time to meet Lynn—I discovered the walking paths that went for miles through the fields and woods.

Fiddling Around

Sabrina and Simon probably aren’t the first total strangers Lynn and Richard have hosted.

I’ve met an array of guests at Dunrovin. Some were neighbors, some were overnight guests. Some memorable ones were Bekti, a delightful young student from Indonesia and her quieter co-traveler Ahmed, and Sippi, a British-Iranian woman who lives near Huntly but who spends most of her time in Afghanistan working on gender issues for NGOs.  One of my visits also coincided with a visit by Lynn’s niece Lauren, who is a math tutor and plays the sax in a Pink Floyd tribute band.

Then there is Christina, Lynn and Richard’s foster daughter who came to them as a Congalese asylum seeker.  She has now finished a degree, had two children with her Belgian partner who she met in Aberdeen, and moved to somewhere in Europe. Her kids are growing up speaking French, Dutch, and English.  I can’t tell you how charming it is when a two-year-old Congolese-Dutch boy calls dogs “daw-gehs” with a Scottish burr.

I don’t know what Lynn had been planning for dinner, but she magically turned the haddock into delicious fish pies and fish stew.  I wondered if we would have a haddock omelet for breakfast.

After dinner, Richard made a bonfire on the patio and we sat outside under the stars and drank wine and whisky.

Neither Lynn nor I drink whisky, so I think Richard was happy to have two whisky aficionados in Sabrina and Simon.  Between whisky sampling, Sabrina would leap up onto the lawn and play with Pippin the spaniel, declaring, “I love him!  I want to take him home!”  I huddled an inch from the fire, dressed in long socks, pants, and several layers of sweaters and jackets, but she didn’t seem phased by the cool night air.

Richard had thrown open the French doors that led from his den onto the patio, from which wafted old timey jazz.  He and Sabrina  exchanged their impressive knowledge of obscure musicians.  At least they were obscure to me.

I particularly liked the British group The Temperance Seven and the South African singer Al Bowlly, whom I believe would be called “jazz crooners.”  Such simple, nostalgic music.  I made a resolution to buy a record player and buy their music, and I eventually did.  In addition to classical, it’s now my go-to tension tamer music when I’ve had enough of the news of the day and want to pretend I live in a simpler time that probably never existed.

The next day, Richard took Sabrina and Simon on a driving tour while Lynn and I worked and prepped for the tutors’ dinner.  Well, Lynn did most of the work; I set the table.  As I’ve written previously, Lynn and Richard are supporters of the Huntly Summer School, during which professional musicians tutor local children and adults in music. Lynn and Richard used to host the school at Dunrovin until it became such a success it had to be moved to the Huntly community center.

This is the Tin Hut.

The Tin Hut Sessions, a number of which I’ve been lucky enough to attend, have always impressed me with the caliber of musicians the volunteer committee manages to attract.

This evening was no different.  I worried that Sabrina and Simon, being urban sophisticates (as much as we have such people in Minnesota), would think it was hokey.  Those thoughts evaporated when the concert began.  The voice of the featured artist, Shona Donaldson, reminded me of Sinead O’Conner.  There was a Scottish musician who played ancient lutes or lyres, or at least that is what I gathered because I couldn’t understand a word he said.

After the concert he let some local kids pluck around.

At dinner later, I sat next to the Scottish guy and after 15 minutes of him enthusiastically speaking to me, I was still in the dark about who he was and his music. I smiled and nodded until, just in time, Lynn brought out the singing bowl she’d bought Bhutan, which everyone passed around to experiment with, including putting it on our heads and listening to the magic muted vibes it produced there.  It was like being in a counter-ironic JP Sears video.

I’ll Have the Haddock

Things were gearing up at Dunrovin.

House guests would be arriving, the tutors’ dinner at Dunrovin after a community concert would take place on Saturday, and the Dunrovin summer party would be the following weekend.

Richard and I made a run into town.  We stopped to pick up the wine at Tesco (a grocery chain).  I wanted to methodically inspect every aisle to find interesting food items, like tinned (canned) haggis (kind of like sausage, made of sheep organ meats), for souvenirs.  But Richard, being a man, frog marched me through the store and we were done in 10 minutes.

He had some business in Huntly center so it was my chance to check out the three charity shops. What I needed was a wool sweater, long underwear, and thick socks.  I bought a pair of heavy platform sandals.  I would have to jettison something else from my luggage to keep it under weight.  I would probably be able to wear the sandals exactly one day in Minnesota before the weather turned cold.  But they were made of buttery soft leather.  Surely these sandals and I would be together, somewhere warm, eventually.

“Let me buy you lunch,” I suggested to Richard.  “Somewhere nice, to thank you for putting up with me.”  Richard accepted gladly, and we went to the Bank Restaurant, which had a purple and grey theme, which somehow worked.

I ordered Cullen Skink, a thick stew made of foods that are extremely common nearby: haddock, potatoes, and onions.  And butter and cream.  It was divinely rich and I was full after a small bowl, which told me it probably contained 1,500 calories.  While I ate and murmured “Mmmm,” Richard talked about local development efforts.

“It’s good to see this restaurant full,” he said.  “There are forever people from London or farther afield buying the old Victorian hotel with intentions of restoring it to glory. Last time it sold for around £250,000.”  I stopped eating long enough to say wow!

“But you’d never be able to charge enough to see a return, so it sits empty.”

Lynn was home from Oxford, and we awaited the arrival of our first set of house guests.  I say “we” and “our.”  When you are a long-term guest you walk a fine line between pitching in to help and behaving as if the place is yours.

A few months earlier, I had been out for happy hour with coworkers and when Sabrina mentioned she was planning a trip to Scotland, the two pints I had ingested said, “You should come to my friends’ house where I’ll be staying!”

She took me at my word and followed up with me the next day, which meant I had to pitch the idea to Lynn.

“I have this coworker named Sabrina … I don’t know her well but she’s young, has striking red hair, looks like a model … she DJs at night on community radio … her boyfriend’s named Simon; I’ve never met him; all I know is he works for the travel section of the Star Trib newspaper and . … they’re planning a trip to Scotland and I was wondering if you might be open to them spending a few nights at Dunrovin?”

In other words, how would you like to host two total strangers?

She said yes.

This would be Sabrina’s first international trip.  I was excited to see Scotland through the lens of a new traveler, and looking forward to getting to know her better.  We exchanged a few emails in advance of her arrival and I gave her lots of unsolicited advice (my specialty), including admonishments to dress warmly.

Before we heard the sound of tires on the gravel drive, the dogs barked wildly to alert us someone was arriving.  Sabrina stepped out, wearing the shortest plaid skirt I have ever seen.  She looked fabulous but chilly.  One of the spaniels lunged at her and smeared mud all over her stockings.  Simon stepped forward and handed Lynn a plastic bag.

“It’s five pounds of smoked haddock,” he explained.  “We picked it up on the way here from Edinburgh.”

To the Hill, and Through Hell

Richard asked if I wanted to climb a hill with him later.

“I told myself I was going to climb a hill a day in August, but so far I’m a bit behind.  Well, naught for eight,” he smirked.

“I have to work,” I replied, then caught myself. “What am I thinking?!  I can work when I get back.”  It’s just a hill, I told myself.

So after lunch we climbed Tap o’Noth.  Finn, the younger of the two Labradors, joined us.

“It usually takes two hours to reach the top,” Richard informed me on our drive to the “hill.” “It should be faster coming down,” said Richard, “but you do have to mind your step because it’s rocky and rutted.”

I was kitted out in wellies, a wool sweater, a heavy, oversized tweed coat, and an oiled hat, and had my Eco Chic rain poncho from Daniel at the ready.  All in all, a harmonious look.  You never know who you might run into on a hill in Scotland.

As is usual when I try to keep an open mind, I was rewarded.  This was the view of an abandoned farm from the base of the hill.

We wound our way through a magical glen of goats.

Then the real walk commenced.  Here’s the peak in the distance.

The weather shifted from cloudy and drizzly to sunny and back within minutes.

At first the path was grassy, then it gradually changed to rock and got steeper.  The grass was so wet it was like walking on a giant sponge.

Heather, which looks brown from a distance.

It was one of those hikes where you are trying to stay dry but you get slimy inside your poncho from being covered in plastic, and you’re also trying to blow your nose and use your camera phone without getting your tissues and phone wet, and the next minute you need your sunglasses but they’re steamed up and oh my god look at that view! – then – oh boy – pay attention to your step; it’s a long drop off that cliff edge!

“This is the second-highest hill fort in Scotland,” Richard informed me.  I had no idea what that meant.  After two hours we rounded a bend and saw a jeep; how in the world had someone managed to drive up here?  A little further on, we saw people and tents.

An archaeological team from Aberdeen University was scraping away in the rain.  When they saw us they dropped everything and came toward us as though they were desperate for any excuse to stop.  They didn’t stay in the tents, they used them to keep paper dry.

I learned that the fort is possibly pictish. It slowly came into focus for me, as the leader of the team pointed out the rings of stone circling the hilltop that would have formed exterior and interior fortified walls.

The oldest artifacts date to 2000 BCE.  There are vitreous sections, meaning rock fused by high heat.  No one knows how ancient people could have generated enough heat to fuse rock.

I tried to imagine living here, with no heat except open fires, no electricity, dressed in a deer hide.  Brrr!

But the view….

Here are Richard and Finn contemplating the meaning of life.  Or just thinking about dinner.

We trotted down the hill. I stumbled twice and Richard gave me his walking stick.  I prayed he wouldn’t stumble because I wouldn’t be able to drive to A&E.

That night Richard picked the movie—a documentary about the Battle of the Somme.  A million young German, French, and British men died or were wounded over 161 days of trench-warfare horror.  The first day alone will go down as the worst day in the history of the British army, which suffered 57,470 casualties. I am not an expert on war, but it seemed to me that the allied leaders made every mistake that could be made.

I heard a sob from Richard and was surprised to see him crying.  “Such a stupid waste of young lives!” he exclaimed.  Why was I surprised?  Men who have actually served in the military don’t take war lightly, like some childish politicians.

Shooters and Shooters

One day when the weather was nice we had a late BBQ lunch on the patio. Richard grilled the steaks and chops and hamburgers Lynn had bought at Raeburns, while she and I drank wine.

This is a tricky thing about working from a distance and in a different time zone.  If your employer has a “no alcohol on the job” policy, does that include a four-hour break during which you have no work to do, but after which you’ll have a Skype meeting or the emails will flood in because it’s morning back at HQ?  I chose to almost never drink until I clocked off for the day, but once in a while I had one.

I needed it.  We heard a sound of low rumbling getting louder and closer.  “What is that?” I asked.

“Ah, just wait a moment,” Richard replied.

In a blink, a black, triangular aircraft swooshed over our heads, then another and another, and then it was over.  In a second.

Stealth bombers?” I asked incredulously.

“It’s the RAF,” Lynn said casually (RAF—Royal Air Force)  “You know how the chimneys form a cross if you were looking down on them? We think the RAF may use our house as a reckoning point for their exercises.”

“It’s been in the news, they’re practicing with the US air force because of North Korea,” Richard added.

North Korea.  They would shoot their first missile over Japan a few weeks later. As an aside, my sister-in-law is Japanese, and she was in Japan with my nephews (ages four and eight) at the time.  I was worried this might traumatize them, but the eight-year-old’s comment was, “The announcements went on the speakers and told us to get ready to go to the shelters.  It was so cool!”

Back at the BBQ, all was peaceful.  When we weren’t jawing about the impending nuclear holocaust, all we heard was wood pigeons, the click-click of the dogs’ nails on the flagstones as they circled around hoping for dropped food, the gentle rushing of the river depending on the direction of the breeze, and an occasional moooooo or bahhhh from one of the neighboring fields.  It was as though we had imagined the sorties.

I have never eaten so much meat in my life.  OK that’s a lie.  But I don’t get to eat that much meat very often, which is good, because I do love a good steak or juicy hamburger and my cholesterol is “borderline.” I took a few laps around the house and garden to shake off my lethargy.  In addition to my vow to exercise vigorously every day, I had pledged to meditate.  Ha.  I passed the monkey puzzle tree outside the gate (photos are from a gardening site).  This would be something to meditate on, I thought, and walked on.

Later, we reconvened for a typical evening of TV watching in the sitting room.  This is a room with two couches, as I call them; or settees, as Lynn calls them.  It’s a dark-wallpapered, cozy room, and each night Richard made a fire with wood or peat.   I assumed my station next to the fireplace with a cat while Richard and Lynn each had a couch and were draped with dogs.  Within minutes of whatever show we were watching starting, Richard would be asleep.  But this night, after going out to retrieve a cat that had stayed out after dark, he came rushing in to tell us, “Come out to the garden—there are shooting stars!”

I really didn’t want to go outside.  It was cold!  I was tired and a little tipsy.  I was sure I would never be able to spot the shooting stars.  But there, in the country, they were crystal clear and came one after another.  We stood out there in silence for 20 minutes until they trailed off.

Lynn was off to Oxford the next day.  “Richard—don’t forget to pick up the wine for the tutors’ dinner,” she instructed as she rushed off.  The tutors were professional musicians who taught at the annual Huntly Music School.  They would give a concert on Saturday, then come for dinner at Dunrovin.