I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be studying for my three exams (the first of which is in a week!) and preparing for two exam essays, but April was a month of such copious travel that I need to record those moments before I forget them. And working on my blog is also such a convenient way to procrastinate.
Way back at the beginning of April, I took a day trip out to Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire. Balmoral was built for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1856 and has been famous as the summer home of the royal family ever since. As it’s still a lived-in castle, it’s only open April through July (when the Queen arrives), and the only room visitors are allowed in is the main ballroom. But the gardens and grounds were beautiful enough to hold my attention for the whole afternoon. It was an unseasonably warm day, and wandering by the river, through the gardens and into the greenhouses was a pleasure.
We also visited the nearby village of Braemar and did some (accidental) hiking. My flatmate and I picked a wooded trail and followed it for some time before we realized we were actually climbing a small mountain—the trees obscured our view of the top, so we had no idea how far the summit was, but the view was worth it when we finally reached the top.
A few weeks later, after classes had finished, my flatmate and I took advantage of the Easter Break and booked a three-day bus tour to Skye. Skye has been on my Scottish bucket list for a long time, and although I would have loved to have spent more time there, I can also understand why most people visit in the summertime. During our time on the island we were visited by torrential rain, fierce wind, fog, and even hail. But we still managed to squeeze in enough hiking and castles to satisfy me, and, most importantly, we encountered a herd of feral goats. (And before this, I spotted a road sign that warned me to BEWARE OF FERAL GOATS.)
To make up for the weather, an added bonus to our April visit turned out to be—lambing season! Tiny wee lambs were in abundance wherever we went, and this little guy had a hard time summoning up the courage to jump off the boulder and join his mother, who was waiting impatiently for him. He hesitated for a few minutes and baaed continuously for help, but finally managed to dismount from the rock all by himself. We cheered.
Our first major activity on Skye was a hike to the Fairy Pools during a brief respite from the rain. The Fairy Pools are a series of pools and waterfalls running through Glen Brittle, with a view of the Black Cuillin mountains beyond. The scenery was spectacular, and we earned the view—we had to wade across the river twice, and I was reminded of my watery adventures at Finlaggan. Although luckily, no one had to take off their shoes this time, and convenient stepping-stones were in place.
Later that day we visited Dunvegan Castle, the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. It has housed the Chieftains of Clan MacLeod for over 800 years, up to and including the present day. Not only is the castle fully furnished, and containing some beautiful artwork and family relics, but the surrounding gardens are stunning. Boat trips are run to a nearby island that is the favorite hangout of a certain seal colony. I feel lucky that I got to enjoy the water garden and the walled rose garden before the skies opened again, raining down hail on seal and human alike.
The next stop was another reputed fairy hangout, this time the Fairy Glen. Although the name ‘fairy’ gets attached to a lot of undeserving sites in the Highlands and Islands, I can completely understand why the Fairy Glen is considered a suitable habitat for the little folk. For one thing, rowan trees grow everywhere—on the hillsides, out of deserted crofts, and beside the water. Rowan trees were once planted to ensure good luck and to ward off evil, and judging by the abundance of trees, the inhabitants of Skye thought the Glen contained a whole lot of evil that needed warding off!
The Glen is also covered in these strange, cone-shaped hills that appear almost wavy, like the ridges on sand dunes. They don’t look natural, but, as most weird Scottish landscapes, they are the result of glacial activity. As we hiked up to the highest point, a rocky outcrop called Castle Ewen, I began to notice other strange things. I got a shiver up my back when I saw spirals and names and shields patterned out of rock on the ground below us. In the center of each spiral was a small pile of coins. I guessed it was an offering to the fairies, but I’m not really sure. I left 10p in a pile of coins at the top of Castle Ewen, just to be safe.
The rest of the trip offered endless views of sheer sea-cliffs, mountains, more lambs and crazy ice-age rock formations.
After we left Skye, we rounded off the trip with a tour of Eilean Donan Castle, which is purportedly the most photographed castle in Scotland (and it’s easy to see why). It’s built on a tidal island at a point where three lochs meet, and a bridge connects it to mainland. The castle was restored and lived in in the 20th century, and as such is fully furnished. Having grown up in an apartment within a fully furnished castle-turned-museum, and having experienced the £16 disappointment that is Edinburgh Castle, I decree that the only castles worth seeing are furnished castles. If a castle hasn’t been recently lived in, or extensively restored, don’t waste your money going inside. The best view is from the outside, I promise. But Eilean Donan did not disappoint, and I was very pleased to learn that the restorer of the castle thought to include secret passageways and peepholes into the Great Hall.
After returning to Edinburgh, I had only a day to recover before catching the train to Oxford to spend Easter with my brother and sister-in-law. Oxford was blessedly warm and hail-free, and in true Easter fashion, Robin and I and her adorable ten-year-old neighbor celebrated spring by making dandelion jelly from the dandelions in her own backyard. I also got to play with their housemate’s two bunnies every day that it was sunny out! The three of us spent a day at the Botanic Gardens, which were fully in bloom. The Thames runs right through the gardens, and we watched ducklings floating down the river and Oxford students punting along and singing at the tops of their lungs. We explored Christchurch College, a Saxon tower, second-hand bookshops, and a variety of delicious restaurants. It was an Easter well spent.
I left Oxford reluctantly, and returned to Edinburgh to face the cold, hard reality of exams. Fast forward to now—I haven’t left my flat in three days, eating and showering and getting out of bed are all optional, and no matter how much I study I don’t feel that I’ve achieved anything. Between me and summer vacation are two 3,000 words exam essays (one for a course I completed in November), a Visualising Scotland exam, and, bizarrely, two two-hour Gaelic exams. Right now it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when I saw people and left the flat and did fun things, and hard to believe that I ever will again. I’m starting to get anxious to return home and see my family and friends and boyfriend again, but May 29th seems farther away than ever.
The next time you hear from me, I will be finished with exams and just possibly, maybe, still alive and able to celebrate. Until then, pray for my deliverance from this month-long trek through the seventh circle of hell!