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S C O T L A N D : D A Y   1 1

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AUGUST 29 (Tuesday) -- Dundee to Ballater

Our hotelier at the Shaftsbury spent part of the next morning chewing us out for alloting only one day to Dundee (a fair criticism; it seemed an attractive town), and offering me unasked-for advice on how to keep the women in the party under my thumb. With that in mind, I manfully insisted that it was my turn to drive, please, please, please, and we were off again.

Our first stop this morning was Glamis (pronounced "Glahrms") Castle. Part castle, part stately manor home, this is the estate of the Bowes-Lyon family, the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne. It was without question the most sumptuous of all the castles we visited. Set in acres of well-tended grasslands and forest, and approached by a long, straight drive reminiscent of the oak-lined carriageways of the great plantation homes of the American South, the imposing, dusky rose pile of Blair Atholl stands like a guardian of the memory of magnificence.

There's a lot to guard. Glamis was probably the largest of the inhabited castles we visited, and, in the familiar pattern, every single room was stuffed full of memorabilia. There was what I mentally called the Gun Room, the Stuffed Animal Room, the Oriental Room, the Sharp Pointy Things Room, the Fine China Room, the Other Stuffed Animal Room, the Ornate Dining Room, and on and on it went. Once again, by the end of the tour I was beginning to tire of wonders. There was simply too much to take in, crammed into too little space, and seen in too little time.

Which was a shame, really, since there's much more to Glamis than mere concentrations of "stuff." For one thing, Glamis is said to be one of the most haunted castles in Scotland. This is perhaps understandable, given that the history of Glamis stretches back beyond even the reign of the Scottish King Duncan, who lived at Glamis before dying at the hands of his distant cousin Macbeth in A.D. 1040. Historians say that Macbeth believed the succession had wrongly ignored his claim to the throne as dictated by the ancient Pictish custom of matrilineal inheritance; the death of his cousin Duncan would give him his chance to rule. By most accounts, his reign of about one decade was just, if not magnificent, but the events of a few years later in England would come to make this chapter of Scottish history little more than a footnote. (That is, until popularized by an English playwright named William Shakespeare.) Duncan's son was Malcolm "Canmore" (literally "big head," although "great leader" better captures the meaning of the word). Malcolm defeated Macbeth, was crowned as King Malcolm III, and married Margaret, the daughter of the English King Edward "The Aethling," after she was forced to flee the invasion of Duke William of Normandy and his supporters in 1066. (Remember St. Margaret's Chapel, located high atop Edinburgh Castle? Same woman. She was canonized in A.D. 1250 for having devoutly advanced the cause of Christianity among the rough men of her Scottish husband's court.)

Glamis has seen more recent service. Not only was it the childhood home of England's Queen Mother, the castle was used during World War II as a place of convalescence for wounded British servicemen.

These things weren't on our minds when we all emerged from the castle's sandwich shop, blinking in the light of day and trying to remember in which century we lived. We didn't have to say much, we just looked at one another and knew that we'd all gone into artifact overload. It was almost a relief to bundle ourselves into our cars again and take to the emptiness of the A- road. Now we were headed roughly northward along the eastern coastline. (It was also about this time that Tricia left us to return home, bringing us back to the original party of five who met in Edinburgh what seemed like weeks before.)

Today would be another day spent taking in sites of little interest to anyone but myself (although the others continued to be gracious about humoring me). And soon, about halfway up the eastern coastline of Scotland, we came upon what would prove to be one of the handful of places that made the greatest impression on me: the ruined Dunottar Castle.

The first element of Dunottar, its great tower, was originally erected in the 1390s by Sir William Keith, the Great Marischal of Scotland, though there probably have been fortifications here since the ninth century and human occupation even earlier. Built on a circular promontory extending out into the southern edge of the frigid North Sea, the only land approach to Dunottar is down a steep and narrow ravine and back up again. It is so well protected from invasion by land that, over time, the entire rock came to resemble a small walled town. Nearly a week of galumphing through cities and miles of castle-touring had done wonders for my lung capacity and endurance, but this trek down some two hundred steps and back up fifty nearly did me in (and this was mostly downhill--the easy direction). I can only imagine what it would have been like for a soldier attempting the same approach while missiles rained down on him from the numerous fields of fire provided by the high walls. And for the invader unlucky enough to have survived the approach, just behind the land-side portcullis gate were poised multiple cannons, all aimed directly at the entryway. (This may have been one reason why the gatehouse at Dunottar was regarded as perhaps the strongest in all of Scotland.) Even the simple act of blasting away at this gate could have unpleasant consequences for attackers: Prisoners were held in a dungeon directly adjoining the gateway, so destroying the gate would virtually guarantee the deaths of whatever captives might be held there.

I only had to get past a bored-looking National Trust for Scotland ticket agent.

Once inside, Dunottar opened up before me. To my right was a tall tower from which any advancing forces could be seen from miles away (now sentried only by pigeons); to my left, the sea crashed into the rocky beach which surrounds Dunottar like shark's teeth; and before me lay a broad, grassy field from which broken and roofless buildings of golden sandstone rose here and there. Dunottar from a distance had seemed small, like a child's toy, but standing in its center I was struck by its breadth.

To one side were the stables, complete with lodgings for ostlers and stablehands. This building rose two stories high, and its rooms had been heated by cleverly constructed double fireplaces. There was even a fine view out across the sea for the stablemaster. Facing the stables was a small garden, which must have served to grow herbs for the inhabitants. Beyond this was a fortified passageway leading down to a sea-gate, and behind that rose the great hall, three stories high (of which the first was composed of multiple dressing rooms and chambers, while the second and third stories comprised the galleried dance floor). In an open area past the hall could be found the main well for Dunottar, some 30 feet in diameter, and close by that was a meeting hall which had been refurbished and in which the smell of a recent fire in the generous fireplace was still evident. Past this were the kitchens and apartments of the Earl Marischal, his relatives and his guests. And finally, at the far corner of the mount, reposed the church that had served the small but bustling community.

I must have investigated every fallen building, every cramped and crumbling spiral staircase, every narrow passageway and every room whether it still boasted a roof or not. In my mind's eye it was easy to see Dunottar as it must have been in its heyday during the early 1600s, a hive of brisk activity, a living stronghold with a sense of fun in good times (and of torment for imprisoned religious Covenanters later that century). As I learned later, this setting of brute stone amid watercolor scenery was enough to convince Mel Gibson to film his version of Hamlet here. Even in ruin, Dunottar is still a showplace of stone, sea and sky.

I wandered there a long time before I came back to the present and realized that everyone must be waiting for me.

Once we'd waited for the cattle to meander off the road, we drove west toward Ballater. The bracken, which had been green in the wet west, had begun turning golden in the drought plaguing most of Britain, so there were a number of stops for "photo-ops." We became a little less enthusiastic about our day when we had trouble finding the Darroch Learg Hotel. The farms in the hills were scenic, but by now most of us were more than ready to sit down on something that wasn't moving, so we were getting a little cranky.

Eventually we spotted our hotel, perched on the side of a hill. The directions I'd gotten said it was on the "main road" of Ballater--but my idea of what constituted a main road had been swollen by years of living in the suburbs of the crowded American Northeast. Ballater's main road looked like a country lane by comparison. Scenic... but a definite case of cross-cultural confusion on my part.

We had rooms in an attractive and roomy bungalow separate from the main hotel. Later that evening we descended upon this part of the hotel for dinner, which was being served in a spacious dining room with a spectacular view of the rusty sun setting behind the hills. Dinner itself was hardly less spectacular; the portions were small (as I learned was usual in Britain) but fresh, varied and tasty, and Beth called upon her recent experience in a wine-tasting class to order for us a white wine that exceeded anything I'd ever enjoyed before.

Tired and well-fed, I spent the rest of the evening writing and mailing the last of the postcards I'd be sending home.

Previous Day: August 28 Next Day: August 30

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U.S. to mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean


arriving in Glasgow


Glasgow to Edinburgh




Edinburgh to Oban




Oban to Kyle of Lochalsh


Kyle of Lochalsh


Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness




Inverness to Dundee


Dundee to Ballater


Ballater to Leslie Castle


Leslie Castle to Stirling

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Stirling to Glasgow




Glasgow to back home again

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