Tag Archives: Scottish Highlands

Things that Change, Things that Last

A month ago I wondered if I was the proverbial frog in the slowly heating water.  Was I oblivious to the worsening coronavirus situation all around me in the UK?

Yup, I was.

The UK now has the dubious distinction of vying with Italy for second-rank for COVID-19 deaths; we are about 400 deaths shy of Italy’s total, 28,710.  Of course, different countries count deaths differently.  The UK just started counting COVID deaths outside of hospitals, so our number jumped.  I don’t know how Italy counts.  Regardless, it isn’t good.

However, it’s not as bad as the US.  Here’s a graph we see on the daily briefing.  It shows the US trajectory going up, up, up.

In two weeks, I’ll return to Oxford, an overcrowded city.  After 10 days I will—probably—fly home.  My flight was cancelled once, although I only found out accidentally.  I’ve rescheduled, but I don’t relish the thought of being on a bus, then at an airport, on a plane, in another airport, another plane, a taxi, then being quarantined for two weeks.

Who knows where that trajectory will have taken the US by then.

Meanwhile, I am safe in Scotland.  Here’s a view of Lynn and Richard’s house from halfway up the hill behind it.

We had great sunny weather for 10 days and now gloom and “Scottish mist” have set in.  Fortunately it’s a large enough house that one never feels claustrophobic.  I can’t imagine how it must feel to be stuck inside an apartment with kids and no garden or even a balcony.  Kudos to the people who are handling that well.

Here’s a little history and tour of the house.

The original structure was probably built in the 17th Century as a defensive outpost to guard the road and collect tolls from people traveling between Huntly and Gartly.  It was built into a geographic bowl, so there is a ditch all the way around.  Think of it as a moat without water.  Any attackers would have had to run down hill, where the occupants would be waiting for them, muskets pointing out of “murder holes.”  Below, the ditch viewed from Richard’s office and the kitchen.

Kirkney Water, a stream, runs around two sides, there is an acre-long wall on another, and in front is a very long lane lined with ancient trees; so no one could “sneak up.”

Whether or not the original structure was incorporated into the house built in 1847 is not known.  All the surrounding land was owned by a branch of the Gordon clan, headed by the 4th Earl of Huntly.  The family lived in the house, where I am sitting now.

There was a game-keeper’s cottage up the hill, a farm, and what are called “steadings” across the road—stables and laundry facilities and so on—all of these are now modern single family homes.

This is the Gordon-tartan-covered door in the front hall.

The Gordon family had to sell the home because the two sisters who lived in it had no heirs to whom they could leave it.  One brother had been killed in WWI.  The other was disinherited for marrying an Irish actress.  The ladies had not been able to find “suitable” husbands; that is, men of their class, since so many men had been killed in war and they lived in such a sparsely-populated area.

Here is the old stove in the kitchen—it’s way too heavy to bother removing.  Next to it is a small stove probably used by servants to prepare smaller meals when the family was away.

Here is the next generation stove, the Aga, used only in winter.  There’s a third generation, too.

These are the bells in the kitchen that would ring when the family wanted to summon a servant.  Disconnected by a family who had four teenage boys!

There’s a dumbwaiter in the corner, and to the right of it, a proving cupboard for breadstuffs.

Here are a few more vignettes from around the house.

Whiskey decanter set.

Reindeer skull hat rack.

Victorian taxidermy.

No Scottish country home is complete without an old dog snoring in the library.  This one’s name is Parker, fondly referred to as Lord Parker.

 

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.

Dunrovin

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.