I LEFT MY HEART ON IONA

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Last summer, when a friend of mine said that she was going to Scotland by herself, I took the liberty of inviting myself and she gracefully allowed me to tag along. 

The trip got off to an inauspicious start. My flight was delayed by almost nine hours, which meant I missed my connection to Edinburgh. No worries! They’ll route me through London. Yay, London! A bonus I hadn’t expected. Never mind that because of this, the airline couldn’t figure out where I was and it took a solid three days to be reunited with my bags. No worries – shopping! 

Then my friend’s flight was also delayed, and she was now going to miss the entire first day of our trip, getting in at 10 pm instead of the more civilized 8 am. We had planned on touring Edinburgh that first day, then driving to a castle in the Scottish countryside to stay at that night, for which we had prepaid. See the problem was, she was our driver. No worries – I’ll take the train! I head to the train station, ask for a ticket to Culcreuch, only to be met with a befuddled look. Graeme, the helpful ticket guy and native of Scotland, had never heard of this place. This is how I knew I was in trouble. Ten minutes later I’m BFF’s with Graeme as well as his co-workers, whom he has called over to help the poor, stranded American. Deb, who is a jovial gal, looks up at me over her glasses and says “But that’s in the middle of noooowhere! Did you know that, dear?” Well, I do now, Deb. I do now. 

Eventually it’s decided that I should take a train, then a cab, all of which is made considerably easier by the fact that I STILL DON’T HAVE MY BAGS. When I hail a cab at the city nearest *howeveryoupronounceit, I jumped in and told the driver where I wanted to go and he said "Where?!" and I still managed to be surprised that no one, even getting closer to this place, has ever heard of it.

So, I give him the postcode and he looks it up and says "Oh dear. That's in the middle of noooowhere. Did you know that, dear?"

Yes. Thank you. I did know that.

"Well then, we'll just have a lovely drive out to the country." And off we went. I eventually make it to Culcreuch Castle, hit the pub, have some dinner, and am happy as a lark. 

My travel companion finally arrives in the middle of the night, and we embark on our adventure the next morning. We made our way over the coastal town of Oban, which reminds me of a very small Seattle. In other words, it felt like home and I loved it. 

Our first stop was at the famous Oban Distillery. The hostess asked if we’d like to do a tour, but when we found out it was an hour long, we paused to think. She jumped on the pause and said "or, you can just go upstairs and drink." And we became best friends with Sally. She gets us. 

So, we head upstairs to sit at the bar which has tartan covered barstools and has been around since 1794, and we hit the jackpot with Stuart. Stuart immediately starts gifting us with his knowledge of scotch. He is charming and funny and we buy Scotch for ourselves, scotch for our husbands back home and then head out to have dinner by the sea. Glorious. We end the night by listening to a bagpiper in the lobby of our hotel, and I started my tradition of taking sly selfies with men in kilts. This proved to be one of the most fun parts of my trip.

Early the next morning, we arrive at the dock for our “Three Island Tour” – which was a boat tour of the Isles Mull, Staffa and Iona. I’m excited about the photography possibilities – especially given that it was apparently prime puffin-viewing season on Staffa (an island uninhabited except by these black and white birds).

Our first ship was a large ferry, then bus across the Isle of Mull. As we pull up to Fionnphort, the skies begin to look questionable and the wind is starting to kick up. And when the seemingly "too small to be a tourist boat" pulled up, I thought "this will be fun!" as I saw them handing out yellow sea parkas to the passengers 

That's right – I missed the painfully obvious clues: ominous skies, heavy winds, small boat, parkas.

About 20 minutes into the journey to Staffa, things got fun. Big waves, rolling and rocking, high winds. The skipper started handing out plastic bags, but soon resorted to saying "kindly lean over the side of the ship." We had to stop and wave (while clinging for life to the boat) at Staffa – the water was far too choppy (or “fresh,” as the Scots call it) for us to go ashore. So, puking, but no puffins. 

We looked like the cast of Gilligan’s Island when we arrived on Iona, windswept and green. But I quickly recovered, and also swiftly fell in love with this charming, lovely Scottish isle. I visited the Iona Abbey, sat on the beach and visited the small shops. It was incredible and I do so solemnly swear that I left a part of my heart on Iona. 

The next day, we started out for Inverness. We stopped along the way to see the viaduct where Harry Potter was filmed, as well as the Glenfinnan Monument. Along the way, we passed many lochs (including one called Loch Lochy, which still makes me laugh. “Lakey Lake” – I mean, are you even trying, Scotland?), and I wondered aloud, having taken no responsibility for the planning of the trip whatsoever, where Loch Ness might be. I pulled it up on my phone, and it was SEVEN MINUTES AWAY. On the road to Inverness. 

We, upon arriving at the town of Loch Ness, (and at the advice of a local barkeep), walked through a farmer’s sheep field and found ourselves on a deserted shore of Loch Ness. It was incredible and I was fangirling big time. I will, however, admit to shrieking like a little girl when a stick washed over my foot. What a delightful surprise, to see Loch Ness.

We made it to Inverness, checked into the Strathness House, had a lovely dinner, and finished off the night listening to a dashing older rocker guy (in a kilt, no less) covering everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Neil Diamond. 

The next day, we were on our way to Balmoral Castle when another delightful surprise happened: highland cows! (or, “heeland coos”) I had been dying to photograph some, but all the ones we’d driven past were in fields far away. We came around a corner on a tiny road, and there they were – a whole glorious herd of them, right next to the road. I stood there and photographed, and chatted with them, and plotted for the kidnapping of one of their babies (who are fluffy balls of amazingness). I thanked the Scottish travel gods for the blessing of seeing these beautiful creatures up close. 

We made it to Balmoral, and befriended (as we do) the gentleman who drove the shuttle back and forth from the main gate to the castle. He told us some “hidden” places to see while touring the castle. On our way back, we struck up a conversation with him, and in the middle of the rather benign conversation, he states “Oh, and the Queen arrived while you were touring the castle.” I’m sorry – what? The Queen had, in fact, arrived while we were touring the castle. We never saw her, though, nor any fanfare. When I mentioned that the arrival of the President of the United States is generally a media circus, the gentleman simply looked at me and said “Well, we’re not Americans.” Duly noted. We are rather unnecessarily hysterical. 

We wound up at the gorgeous Tor Na Coille hotel that night, but before turning in, took a drive out to the Dunnottar Castle ruins. While I expected amazing scenery, I was completely unprepared for the beauty of this place at sunset. One of the more incredible moments of my life. 

The next day, we drove through the amazingly beautiful Cairngorms National Park on our way to Edinburgh. Our last day was spent in Edinburgh, where we toured many of the famous Harry Potter sites, including the café where J.K. Rowling wrote parts of her novels. We were able to see so many historic sites and we absolutely loved the city of Edinburgh.

I will carry a piece of this trip with me in my heart for the rest of my life. Everything: the beauty of the countryside, the history in its buildings and land, the warmth of its people – all combined to make for an amazing trip.