Back to Blighty #14 – Cake and Rowing at Fraser’s Wagon

The final visit of our trip to Mid-Argyll was to see my good friend, the artist Fraser MacIver.  Fraser lives in a converted showman’s wagon on the bank of the Crinan Canal, his studio surrounded by his beautiful garden.  Should you ever find yourself in Mid-Argyll, I highly recommend a visit to Fraser’s Wagon.  He always has art on display in his studio and always has a warm welcome for visitors, whether old friends or strangers.  Fraser introduced us to Fred the cat – a new companion since my last visit to the Wagon – and fed us with delicious banana cake, still so steaming hot from the stove that the frosting melted all over it.  A special treat for the boys was a jaunt in Fraser’s dinghy.  My oldest was given a brief and rudimentary lesson in rowing and took two of his brothers out for a whirl in the canal.

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Back to Blighty #13 – Crinan and the Crinan Canal

We checked out of our hotel in Ardrishaig with over an hour to spare before we had to collect our 9 year old son from his friend’s house, following his sleepover there.  We, therefore, decided to take a jaunt out to Crinan.

The village of Crinan is at one end of the Crinan Canal – the other end being at Ardrishaig.  The 15 lock canal opened in 1801 in order to connect Loch Fyne and Loch Gilp with the Sound of Jura.  That allowed commercial vessels, including Clyde Puffers, to avoid sailing around the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Even on a murky grey day with the rain battering down, Crinan is a picturesque spot.  We spent an hour wandering over the lock gates, looking at the puffers moored in the basin, watching sailing boats moving through the final locks and out into the sound, admiring the view across the Duntrune Castle from the lighthouse, strolling past the lobster pots, making friends with chubby snails and creating a bow.

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Back to Blighty #12 – Carnasserie Castle

Following our jaunt around Kilmartin Glen, we headed a few minutes further north to get to Carnasserie Castle – a favourite play location of my boys when we lived in Lochgilphead.  Before even reaching the castle, of course, some tree climbing had to be done.

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Carnasserie Castle is a ruined tower situated on a hill just north of Kilmartin village.  It was built in the 16th Century by John Carswell, later the Bishop of the Isles, whose main claim to fame is that he published the first ever book in Gaelic.  The Castle was blown up by Royalist troops in the 1680s as retaliation for a later owner supporting the rebellion against James II and VII.  It has, therefore, been a ruin for several centuries.  Apparently it is a spectacular example of architecture of its period but that is not something I know anything about.

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My kids love running around in the walled courtyard garden and scurrying across the hillocks at the rear of the castle – which sometimes gives me palpitations since the drop from some of them is really quite steep.  What they especially love, however, is the castle interior with all its imaginative play possibilities.  In addition to large spaces, there are two towers, one at each end of the castle.  These are accessed by spiral stairs which open up into other rooms before spiralling upwards again.  My mountain-goat-children whizz up these steps in no time at all which always makes me feel queasy as it means they reach the open roof before I do.  The way they leap around at such heights – especially the youngest one who has neither fear nor an ability to undertake any sort of risk assessment – makes my knees wobble.  They also love the cellar – which contains a well – and that is a much safer venue for play but, alas, they prefer the higher areas of the castle.

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Back to Blighty #11 – Kilmartin Glen

The difficulty with returning for so short a time to a place where we lived for over a decade is that is was absolutely impossible to return to all of our favourite places.  We would have loved to have revisited the castles and other ruins the boys used to play among, traipsed through familiar forest paths, explored abandoned villages and circled lochs we loved but it just was not feasible.  The boys even sighed about not being able to travel up to Oban which was amusing given that they used to moan about that car journey every single time.  We decided to narrow the field by only selecting from places that were in the immediate vicinity of Lochgilphead.  The boys unanimously decided that we should visit Kilmartin Glen.

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The Glen – centred around the village of Kilmartin – is rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites.  Across Moine Mhor (the Great Moss) stands Dunadd Hill, an ancient fortress of the Scots, part of the kingdom of Dalriada.  There are lots of ancient monuments and sites in the Glen but we restricted our return visit to a circuit we used to do frequently, starting at the Nether Largie standing stones.  These are a set of five standing stones – two sets of pairs and one in the middle – surrounded by some smaller stones.  From when my kids were tiny tots I have been taking photos of them standing up against the central stone or menhir, like a neolithic height chart.  If I gathered all of those photos together, all taken at the same spot, it would form a record of their childhoods and their growth.  So, of course, they had assume the position and have another group portrait taken.

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A stroll across the field brought us to Temple Wood, the site of two Neolithic circles.  Unlike Stonehenge, visitors are permitted to touch the stones, walk within the circle, which makes it much more accessible and engaging – particularly for the kids.  The Southern circle is a ring of standing stones with a burial cyst in the centre.  Ring markings can still be seen carved into one of the standing stones, though I noted they have become much less distinct than when I first saw them in 2002.  The Northern circle centres around a single stone and would once have been a circle of timbers – a woodhenge.  Just as they always did, the boys soon set up a game involving battles and running between the two circles.  I enjoyed the relative serenity of the place.

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The next stop on our circular route was to one of the chambered burial cairns that run in a line from the village down the Glen.  This has always been a particularly favourite spot of the boys as it never fails to spark their imaginations and get them acting out some sort of game, whether it be wizard battles or zombies arising from their graves.  It is possible to enter the burial chamber – and the boys always do.

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Should you ever find yourself on the west coast of Scotland, my boys and I highly recommend a visit to Kilmartin Glen.  As well as walking through the Glen, the village houses the Kilmartin House Museum where various artefacts from the surrounding area can be viewed and the museum happens to have an excellent cafe too.  The church and churchyard next door to the museum are well worth a visit too.  There the visitor can see early Christian and medieval carved gravestones.  We didn’t go there on this trip.  It was added to the long list of places we wished we could visit but did not have time for.

Back to Blighty #10 – Home to Argyll

Note: The photos illustrating this particular blog post were taken on our journey to Lochgilphead rather than being of Lochgilphead or Ardrishaig.

 

Over 22 months since departing from our home, we returned to Argyll.  As soon as we started crawling along the side of Loch Lomond, I instantly felt my spirits rise.  It was lovely to be among the hills, glens and lochs again.  The dramatic landscapes, the way the changing light skiffs across the hills, definitely made me feel like it was a Homecoming.

We stopped off for breakfast at Luss, on the shore of Loch Lomond.  I have actually only ever stopped at Luss once before.  Because we were always on a mission to get somewhere or else to return home, it never made sense to take that little detour.  The one time I did stop there was in the back of an ambulance when I was in labour with my oldest son so that I could violently vomit.  Ah, happy memories.  Luss is a tourist trap full of coach tours of overseas visitors.  As such, we knew we could rely upon the little shop and cafe to provide us with some full-on Scottish munchies.  It did not disappoint.  We had baps* all round.  Eggs, lorne sausage**, British bacon*** and haggis were consumed with relish and gusto – not all in the same bap mind.  I had egg and vegetarian haggis, something I have not had in over two years.  It fair tickled my tastebuds.  While I would never normally permit my children – or any of us – to have soda for breakfast, washing down our baps with bottles of Irn Bru was a must.  Goodness how we have missed Irn Bru.

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Suitably fuelled for the day ahead, we forged further into Argyll.  We stopped off at the Rest and Be Thankful for nostalgia’s sake.  The Rest and Be Thankful is a pass through the Arrochar Alps at the head of Glen Croe.  The original pass was built by the military in 1753 and gains its name from the fact that weary, physically exhausted travellers could reach the top of their ascent and rest and be thankful.  That original road, which runs parallel to the modern road, is sometimes put into use as a diversion when landslides block the route.  That’s the thing about nostalgia, you see: when we lived in Argyll, the Rest could often be a source of aggravation and hassle whenever landslides closed the road and led to lengthy detours by secondary roads or by ferry; but returning as a visitor I could just focus on the breathtaking splendour of the scene without even thinking about the pain in the bahookie that stretch of road could be to us in times past.

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Finally we arrived in Lochgilphead and it was a strange sensation.  There was almost a sense of autopilot, that we should take certain turns in order to arrive home as we always did, but of course we no longer have a home to go to there.  We were home and yet we were not home.  A very peculiar feeling indeed.  Indeed, the children were a little perturbed and upset by the sight of our former home.

What was lovely, however, was to be back in such a friendly community.  It was impossible for us to walk anywhere in the two days that we were in Mid-Argyll without bumping into people who wanted to say hello to us, find out how we were faring and just generally have a good blether.  That was something I always enjoyed about living a Lochgilphead: there was always someone to have a natter with when out and about, even if it was just to complain about the incessant rain or the ferocity of the midgies.  More generally, I miss the sense of community we experienced living there and all of the groups and organisations we were involved in.  Living in the suburbs of a major city means that the locus of life is so very different to what we had become accustomed to after over a decade of living in such a small population centre.

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For the two days that we were in Mid-Argyll, we were tightly scheduled to meet up with a cornucopia of friends.  It was overwhelming to know how many people wanted to meet up with us or have us visit them.  We were made welcome everywhere we went – and I drank so many cups of tea that my eyeballs were swimming in my head – and we were touched by how many people had altered their schedules and amended their plans in order to accommodate our visit.  The parents of my 9 year old’s best friend had actually come back from vacation early just so our boys could get as big a chunk of time together as possible, which ended up involving a sleepover.  We were really bowled over by the generosity of spirit of all of our friends.

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Again, it was weird not having a home to invite people to.  Instead, we took over the lounge area of the hotel we were staying in overnight.  It was a wee bit like running a drop-in clinic as various friends appeared in order to spend the evening chatting with us and catching up.  So that I could chinwag in peace with all my mum friends, a trio of dads trooped fourteen kids off to a local playpark where they ended up doing circuits of the field in order to avoid the midgies. We do not miss the midgies. Not one bit.

Regardless of whether we were meeting with friends at the hotel or at their houses, the feeling was the same: it was as though we had been away for two weeks on vacation and had just returned rather than having been away for almost two years on a permanent basis.  All our friendships just fell back into their usual rhythms, even the common topics of conversation.  A few friends have been over to America to visit us, of course, but even with those who we have had more sporadic contact with in the time since we have left it was just a case of picking right back up where we had left off, like there had only ever been a brief lull in conversation.  It was a very comforting and comfortable feeling.

We were also very pleased to see the way in which our children just slotted back into their friendships.  Given their ages, they don’t have the same degree of access to online communications as we do to help us keep connected to friends back home but somehow they just snapped right back into things.  My 8 year old has had the same best buddies literally since he was born so it was especially lovely to see them all together again, playing away as if they had never been apart.  My six year old Romeo was also reunited with his Juliet and they got to spend an afternoon together which was adorable and warmed the cockles of my soul.

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So our visit back home that was no longer our home but which felt rather like coming home was a great success.

 

*I realise that I had best explain that a bap is a British word for a small bread roll designed to be filled.  More specifically, our baps were Scottish breakfast rolls which have a nice crispness to them while the interior is soft, light, fluffy and yeasty.

** Lorne sausage is a sliced, square sausage.

*** British bacon is back bacon unlike the streaky bacon my kids have had to become accustomed to since moving to the US.

 

 

 

Where We Came From – A Nostalgic Retrospective

A little tinkle on my phone alerted me to the fact I now have 100 followers on my blog.  Wow.  Who would have thought?  Certainly not me.  I started this blog as a bit of writing therapy, to help me process my thoughts as I experienced this massive change in our family life, and to record our everyday family experiences in a new country.  I really had no idea anyone else would find it of interest and am deeply flattered that so many people do.  Thank you, one and all, for taking the time to read my mutterings and musings, view my photos and look at my drawings.  I very much appreciate it.

Given that I am at a bit of a landmark moment with this blog, I thought I might create a bit of a retrospective entry.  The reflective nature of this post has also been provoked by the (hopefully imminent) sale of our house in Scotland because, apart from the dear friends we have there, the house was our last tie to Argyll.  Mr Pict and I had lived there since the summer of 2002 and had started our family there, had put down roots there.  So as liberating as it is to be free of the burden of the house and to be able to press forward with establishing a permanent home here in Pennsylvania, it is most definitely a very bittersweet, watershed moment in our lives.  As such, this post is all about Argyll and the favourite places we have left behind.  I thought regular readers might find it interesting to see where we have come from.  The photos are in no particular order – just determined by where I found them on the external hard drive that crossed the Atlantic with me – but were all taken in the last couple of years.

These photos were taken at Arichonan, a ruined crofting village near where we lived.  My boys loved visiting there as it was a wonderful site for imaginative play and for finding bugs and reptiles.  It was a disappointing trip if we didn’t come back having found at least one interesting critter.

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These photos was taken in Kilmartin Glen, an area famed for its neolithic and Bronze Age remains.  We often visited the standing stones, stone circles and burial cairns there.

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We also liked a lovely walk in the hills of Achnabreac that took us past more neolithic cup and ring markings.

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These photos were taken in Kilmory woods and loch, near where my husband worked.

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These were taken in Kilmory Gardens, adjacent to the castle my husband worked in.

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This was the building in which Mr Pict worked.

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These were taken in Oban, from McCaig’s Tower.

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These were taken at our favourite nearby beach, Westport on the Kintyre peninsula.  We only seemed to go there when it was cold, hence the lack of beach wear.  As you will see, one of our favourite activities there was dune jumping. 

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These photos were taken at Saddell Abbey.  Where we lived, we were never far from centuries of history.

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These photos were taken at Crarae Gardens, which are maintained by the National Trust for Scotland and are planted to resemble what would be found in the Himalayas.

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These were taken in Tarbert, a fishing and sailing village and home to yet another ruined castle.

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These were taken at Crinan, a village at one end of the Crinan Canal.

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These were taken at Carnasserie Castle, a medieval ruin that my kids used for lots of knights and Lord of the Rings themed play.  I was often cast as an orc.

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Skipness Castle was another place that sparked wonderful imaginative play.  It also has a ruined chapel and graveyard containing wonderfully carved grave markers and a lovely beach with views over to the island of Arran.

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Another favourite place of ours was the island of Gigha.  We would go over as foot passengers on the ferry and then wander the island, including the gardens of Achamore house and the beautiful beaches.  Then there was Dunaad Hill Fort, once the capital of the kingdom of Dal Riata, which provided great views over the surrounding landscape, including Moine Mhor.  We also enjoyed walks along the Crinan Canal and around the village of Inverary.  However, I think I have trawled my photo archives enough for one post.

Thank you for indulging me in this dose of nostalgia.  Perhaps it will inspire you to visit Scotland and – if and when you do – venture further afield than the major cities.  I hope it has also provided you with some insight into the level of culture shock we have experienced moving not just from Scotland to America but from a remote and rural area to the suburbs of a major city.  You can probably also now understand why my children are as feral as they are.

Thanks again for reading.  I really do appreciate it.