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09/23/2004 Archived Entry: "Scotland Visit"
Today's log comes from the central Highlands of Scotland where we spent a few days in an isolated and idyllic thatched cottage near the foot of Glen Lyon, not far from the beautiful Loch Tay. With no television nor clock to distract us, household water from a spring, buzzards soaring overhead and a handsome white stag in a nearby field, we made most of a unique opportunity to explore the region.
Nearby was the famous Fortingall Yew, believed by some experts to be the oldest living thing in the world. There are various estimates as to the age of the tree; it is certainly more than 3,000 years old while the official estimate is 5,000, although some claim it may be even 9,500 years old. It is not possible to use the traditional method of gauging the tree's age by counting its rings or measuring the girth because the original trunk is missing. Down the years, people have removed souvenirs or cut off branches for ritual use at funerals and youths even lit fires inside the trunk and yet the tree has survived. Yews do not behave as other trees, but like the hazel, bracken or wood anemone, they renew themselves almost indefinitely by rooting outwards. New shoots rise from those roots and in this case, the yew has two trunks side by side, both males, and both from the original root-stock. Today, the tree is supported by props and surrounded by a wall with iron gates to prevent further damage, although some of its branches have died within the last two centuries. There is a local legend that the infant Pontius Pilate played beneath this tree. He was the son of a Roman officer and a local girl, but was taken back to Rome to later achieve a dubious kind of fame. That story has never been proved false.
We took another step into the past by visiting a crannog - a type of ancient loch dwelling found in Ireland and Scotland. Some 5,000 years ago, crannogs were built off-shore as defensive homesteads and accommodated extended families and their livestock. They were built and occupied until as late as the 17th century. Modern underwater archaeologists have found the remains of several crannogs with remarkably fresh remains such as plants, utensils, food and even cloth, all preserved in the cold peaty water. There was even an ancient butter dish with the butter still adhering to the inside, and lots of hazel nut shells and cherry stones.
The crannog we visited is a reconstruction on Loch Tay near Kenmore. It is circular with a thatched and steeply sloping roof. It has been built using an ancient and authentic method of construction on alder and oak piles driven into the bed of the loch. The floor is made from alder, the walls are of wattle and the roof thatched with reeds; inside the floor is covered with bracken, there is a central fireplace on stones and sleeping compartments, both at floor level and aloft. Built several feet above water level, it is approached by a gangway, part of which can be raised like a drawbridge for defensive reasons. The crannog is open to the public and as well as tours, there is a hands-on opportunity to try your hand with an ancient lathe, simple spinning, grinding grain with a millstone or, best of all, making fire by rubbing sticks together - easier than you think, if you know how. The Iron Age dwellers did know how and were masters at inventing simple tools and methods for their everyday needs.
There are lots of crannogs under Scottish lochs (15 in Loch Tay alone) and many sites can be identified because they now form tree-covered islands. Some are currently being excavated to reveal astonishing evidence of the ancient past.
We then visited the Ben Lawers nature reserve. Ben Lawers (1214 metres high) is a massive mountain overlooking Loch Tay. You can take in the slopes of Beinn Ghlas on the way up. This mountain range is known for its rare wild flowers and is unique in that the higher slopes have been fenced off against deer and sheep. I know of no other mountain which is protected in this way but the outcome is that gentians, alchemilla mollis, Cerastium and alpines flourish, along with a variety of mosses and ferns. And the bilberries are wonderful!
One feature of these mountains, apart from their Gaelic names, is the number of shielings on the slopes. These are clusters of small stone shelters with thatched or stone roofs. Shepherds used them - and still use them - during the summer months to protect their flocks as the animals move higher into the hills. The shepherds sleep here overnight and even hikers and mountaineers make good use of the shielings.
We drove through Tay Forest Park and stopped off at Queen's View, named after Isabella, wife of Robert the Bruce and made popular after Queen Victoria admired it. The famous view from the visitor centre takes in Loch Tummel to the west and the pyramid-like Schiehallion which rises to 1083 metres.
From there we went to Blair Castle, home to the Atholl Highlanders, the only remaining private army in Europe. The castle dates from 1269 and you can tour its magnificent rooms and see the amazing collection of arms, furniture and porcelain, or just picnic in the grounds to the skirl of bagpipes.
No tour of the Highlands is complete without a visit to a whisky distillery and we visited a couple, including the smallest in Scotland with only three workers. This is at Edradour near Pitlochry where the soft local spring water is put to extremely good use! We learned about the early battles with Excise men when over 14,000 illicit stills were operating in the glens - and even now, tax forms 66% of the cost of a bottle of whisky. As one Scotsman said, "Moderation is vital when drinking whisky. Ten or twelve glasses is reasonable refreshment; after that, it's mere drinking." Tours here are free, with a sample tot thrown in for good measure!
Finally, we went to Pitlochry to find their Highland Games in boisterous progress - a wonderfully traditional end to our week in Scotand.