Thursday 16th March 2006
If nothing else, today’s drive provided most of the different weather conditions Scotland has on offer.
When I left Oban just before 9:00 am, the sun was out, the sky was blue and there was not a breath of wind. By the time I got to Loch Lomond, the sun had disappeared, the sky was grey and the wind had picked up. This was followed – as I was escaping the Glasgow traffic – by driving snow on the M8 and, later on the M74, sleet – not ideal conditions for motorway driving!
Fortunately, things improved somewhat as I moved further south, though the sun – which had shame-facedly peeked out briefly around Dumfries – had gone into hiding yet again for my arrival in Kirkcudbright.
I am staying at the “Selkirk Arms” one of the few Best Western hotels that boasts any AA rosettes, which of course had no influence on my decision to stay here. Well, perhaps a little!
Be that as it may, I live in the hope of more of those culinary pleasures that I hadn’t expected, but which have added so much to my enjoyment of the trip as a whole.
Dinner tonight was an encouraging start. An entrée of marinated pan-seared breast of pigeon on a nest of roasted winter vegetables, flavoursome; lamb cutlets with all the flavour that comes from them not being trimmed too much; and a sticky toffee pudding with vanilla pod ice cream. Yum-some!
Friday 17th March 2006
Another day, another castle. Today it was Caerlaverock Castle, one of the few Historic Scotland sites in this area open on a Friday. As it’s about 50 miles from Kirkcudbright, I made a round trip of it by taking the inland route via Castle Douglas and Dumfries on the way to the castle and returning along the Solway coast. It really was a very pleasant drive through two quite different types of country and farmland – from rolling hills to wet coastal flats. I’m glad I did it. I also saw a number of new-born lambs, so despite the cool start to spring, the real thing can’t be too far away.
Oh yes, that castle. Built in about 1270 to replace an earlier smaller one (the foundations of which have recently been excavated and can be viewed) Caerlaverock looks every bit like a castle should, though in this case is triangular rather than rectangular in design.
Despite its forbidding exterior, giving that stern appearance of impregnability, what remains around the inner court looks every bit as grand and ornamented as the manor-house type residence it became in the 15th and 16th centuries. The contrast in styles was just amazing.
Tonight there was a formal dinner for the local legal fraternity, so we (two other guests and I) were relegated to the “Burns Room”, of course. The relegation ended there, because I was able to indulge in Queenies (tiny scallops) grilled on half shells with hazelnut and herb butter, delectable; roasted monkfish on a prawn and chive mash, delicious; and Drambuie parfait with raspberry and mango coulis de-lovely!
All accompanied by warm, friendly service from waitresses, the chef, and the owner!
Saturday 18th March 2006
Today would have to have been one of the most frustrating days I’ve experienced since I’ve been here. It started well – a bright, clear if slightly cool day – and ideal for castle and abbey viewing. Passing by Cardoness Castle because it was on the wrong side of the road and I could turn off safely on the return leg, I fronted up to Glenluce Abbey which was open only on weekends in winter. It was all locked up!
After three attempts I finally tracked down the Historic Scotland District Manager to be told that, for this weekend only, Glenluce was closed so that the warden (?) could take some leave, and that there should have been a notice to that effect. Needless to say there wasn’t.
At the same time I was assured that all the other sites in the area would be open. Having driven over 40 miles to see it, I was not “well pleased” as one of those expressions goes.
Being so close, I drove on to Portpatrick on the coast, but have to admit that, whilst a quite attractive village, I’m less than sure it was worth the additional 15 mile drive, given my frame of my mind. But worse was to follow.
Arriving at Cardoness Castle just after 12 noon, there were lights on in the Visitors’ centre but no life! There was however a notice to the effect that the staff were on their lunch breaks and that “normal transmission would resume” at 1:00 pm. The prospect of waiting in the car didn’t appeal too much so, in the belief that I’d have to score one out of three, drove back through Kirkculbright to Dundrennan Abbey – and you guessed it, it was all locked up too.
Another call to the District Manager who, after checking told me that the warden there was probably on leave too, because, “as you’d understand, it’s very quiet at this time of the year”! He did have the grace to apologise!
As if to reflect my somewhat soured view of the world, even dinner tonight was less than fair. The “pan-fried” haggis and “tattie scone” entrée was just alright, but the flavour of the scallops in restaurant’s award-winning main dish was over-powered by that of an “abundance” of ham pieces with which they had been stir-fried. What a wicked waste, because the scallops would have been just fine all on their flavoursome own. If it’s possible to have a negative rosette – this dish earned just that!
As you couldn’t help but perceive, this was not one of my more successful days. But tomorrow is another day, and the one on which I catch the fast P&O Ferry from Cairnryan to Larne in Northern Ireland to start my Irish “adventure”.
Sunday 19th March 2006
The ferry didn’t leave until 3:00 pm (though check-in was no later than 45 minutes before that) so I had plenty of time this morning to do my thing!
First, I made it to Cardoness – and got in this time! It was built in the early 1500s as the fortified house of the powerful Galloway family, the McCullochs, apparently more by reason of the perceived threat from neighbouring families than a foreign power. That this was its purpose is clear from the fact that the tower house – all that remains now – whilst square and slab-sided from the outside masked a well-planned residential interior where every space was used to advantage and decorated with what must then have been great style – all six storeys of it! The stonework is just marvellous.
…and the view from the top of the tower house is not bad either – though it would probably have been better in the 16th century when the shoreline was just at the foot of the castle.
With time still to spare, I drove around the Machars, one of the peninsulas that juts out into the North Channel, between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The landscape was mixed – from what was clearly valuable farmland on the eastern side to the more wind-swept, bleak and, I suspect, not too productive western side.
Here again, I found the contrasts worth the 40 mile or so side-trip, before fronting up at the ferry terminal just on 2:00 pm.
The ferry was on time, loading was a breeze, as – I’m happy to report – was the short 1 hour passage to Larne just 15 miles south of Carnlough where I’m booked for the next couple of nights. I have a feeling the ferry may be one of the hydrofoils that were – and still may be being – built in Tasmania. Whether it was or not, it was quick, comfortable and, apart from the antics of some hyperactive children, relatively peaceful!
The building of Carnlough’s “Londonderry Arms” was completed in 1848 at, so I’ve read, a cost of between £500 and £600. That’s not to suggest that nothing has been spent on it since – it’s just something that I felt sure you’d want to know.
It is run on very traditional lines including – on Sundays only – “High Tea” instead of dinner. In due course I may even get to find out what the difference is, but dinner (of a sort) was what it seemed to me to be.
But, surprise, pleasant surprise, the hotel does have WiFi access, which means that I can keep in touch with the wider world from the “Coffee Lounge”. Great!
If you somehow perceive that I didn’t find High Tea worthy of critical comment, you’d be right – but a “reality check” from time to time won’t do Norm any harm at all!
Monday 20th March 2006
I’m glad my crossing from Scotland was yesterday rather than today. The grey, bleak and wet I could have coped with, but I’m less sure about the strong wind or the resultant “hearty” swell. It wasn’t what I had in mind either for my drive along the Antrim coast, but “needs must” if I’ve got the expression right.
More or less with the objective of having the coast on my side of the road on the return leg, I drove across country via Ballymena and Ballymoney to Portrush. Braving the cold and that wind, I did a quick walk around town centre and the harbour, but as had been the case in the coastal villages and towns in England and Scotland, Portrush too was still in hibernation with many places, including a quite large hotel, still closed.
Apart from the coastline itself, which I think one of the most attractive of those I’ve seen, was to visit Dunluce Castle. And that’s where I spent a couple of hours happily exploring the ruins, although I did find it necessary occasionally to seek refuge in the Visitors’ Centre when the rain got too heavy and, as importantly, to warm up again.
If ever there was the perfect site for a castle, Dunluce has it. The dramatic ruins – and they really are – stand on a black basalt stack, 30 metres high, projecting out from the coast. When built, probably in the early 16th century, the main impression would have to have been one of impregnability – a stronghold impossible to conquer before gunpowder.
But had it been under threat a sea cave directly under the castle could hide several boats for a quick escape.
Today’s castle – or what is left of it – dates largely from the 16th and 17th centuries being built by the MacDonnells, an offshoot of the McDonald clan. The family seems to have shared some of the same un-neighbourly characteristics as the McCullochs of Cardoness in that they fought with and against their neighbours, and against English raids.
The weather deteriorated almost as soon as I’d left Dunluce and the rain turned to sleet – not ideal conditions to be driving along the coast or for that matter to be viewing it. So, nothing for it but that I head back to the “Londonderry Arms” to enjoy the warmth of that open fire in the Coffee Lounge.
As I’m off to Donegal tomorrow, I’ll get this off while I’ve still got the means to do so – from the Coffee Lounge, of course!