Wednesday 18 to 20 April - March of the Black Watch, Inverness, Dalhousie Castle Bonnyrigg, Edinburgh
Wednesday 18 April 2012
I woke up with a heavy head cold and decided to cancel my Loch Ness cruise. There was only one place on the cruise I hadn't already seen and I made the decision to rest up and get better rather than risk the rest of the trip being miserable.
I dragged the chain a fair bit, taking until 10.30 am before I got dressed and headed up the street to get some medicine and have a slow cruise for some souvenirs. I thought that would be all I could handle.
I didn't take the camera, not intended to do anything much. I soon kicked myself for not taking it. As I got to the top of the street I noticed a few soldiers. Not being up to date with the dress of the UK army, I didn't know who they were. There were more near the mall, with a car dropping off some solidiers who were obviously injured.
There was a large contingent of foot police around and I asked a couple of them what was going on. They explained that the Black Watch would be marching through the streets at 11.00 am.
I knew that they had returned to Fort George from Afghanistan last week, but didn't know they would be in town today. I didn't have the energy to walk back down the hill to pick up the camera, so resigned myself to missing the event.
I visited the pharmacy, got all drugged up and made my way back to the main street just as the parade was about to begin. I watched as they marched past, the large crowd cheering very enthusiastically. Many of those in the crowd were related to the soldiers.
I found the march surprising. This is the Black Watch. The special army of the Queen. When I looked at them they weren't the mature battle hardened men I expected. These were mostly boys aged about twenty years old. I must be getting old because they looked so very young.
If they have just been to Afghanistan I think they will probably be very different young men and women now. Definitely not the kids that left the UK.
The people watching the parade seemed to be very proud of the army. Their cheering, clapping and vocal support was certainly more than I've seen anywhere else. I think they were very happy to see them home.
I bought a couple of souvenirs and returned home to pack. I've loved Inverness and it was with a lot of regret that my holiday here was over. I still have Edinburgh, Wales and back to London to do, but I'm a little sad to be leaving here.
Thursday 19 April & Friday 20 April 2012 - Dalhousie Castle - Bonnyrigg near Edinburgh
My hosts at the Moray Park House B&B were very nice and I was sorry to leave. The house was lovely, very well situated and had a warm feeling.
I jumped on the train to Edinburgh for the three hour plus train ride.
As I've said in the earlier blogs, trains are brilliant for seeing the countryside. We passed through the mountains with their snow caps. Through streams and fords and beautiful farm land. The train arrived and I grabbed some lunch at one of the cafes at the station before grabbing a cab to Bonnyrigg.
Bonnyrigg is eight miles from Edinburgh. To get to Dalhouse Castle, we travel past Melville castle, which is technically more a country estate than a castle.
The cab driver was very gregarious and we chatted all the way to Bonnyrigg. He told me he had been married twice, the first time was a disaster. He had met and gone out with his second wife when he was in his teens. It wasn't until about fifteen years later when they were both divorced, that they met and got together. They have been married for sixteen years. It was a nice story.
The driver gave me plenty of hints on where to go and what to see when I got back into Edinburgh.
My first glimpse of Dalhousie castle was pretty impressive. Large and small turrets, battlement and an ivy covered wall. As we drove up the sweeping drive, the falconry was on the left, with all the birds sitting out on perches on the lawn, sunning and dozing themselves. Wow. They were beautiful birds.
I was greeted at reception and straight away knew that I had made the right choice of castle. I'd trawled Celtic Castles.com and other castle sights looking for a castle that not only kept an authentic feel, but offered a pampering experience.
I had a porter take my bags to the rooms, which I was eternally grateful for when I copped a look at the amount of stairs I had to climb. The entrance had split spiral stairs up the the first landing and then straight staircases, four of them, to the floor where the Robert the Bruce room was located. There was one floor higher than mine, which would have meant another 26 steps.
Quite surprisingly I climbed the steps without too much trouble. They were wooden with low risers, which didn't place too much pressure on either knee.
The room was one of many themed rooms. Mine was decked out in plenty of tartan and had the name Robert the Bruce. A picture of the man hung on the wall and the whole room was furnished in very old furniture. The colours were predominently red and blue. No four poster, but it was a canopy bed, with the biggest bit of tartan material hanging over the large bed.
I opened the window and marvelled at the view, which showed the surrounding grounds, forest and farmland beyond, without the sight of another building for miles.
This place was pure indulgence for me. The fantasy part of my holiday, which would have been complete had the castle been up in the highlands.
I took the camera and scooted down the stairs to explore. There were hotel rooms on all floors and the bottom two floors had a lot of sitting and function rooms, all open to enjoy.
The library was full of overstuffed chairs and lounges, a lovely fire place and huge book cases.
The birds had just been put away for the evening when I went to the falconry, so I just had to wait for the next day. The ceilings in the castle were impossibly high and I can imagine how cold it would have been without central heating.
Tapestries, beautiful pictures and historic displays were all over the place. The castle has been in the Ramsay family for 850 years. The history is available in each room, along with the extensive room service menu and information about the falcon mews, archery and health spa.
The Orangey is an atrium extension, which the desk clerk told me had been a hard battle to get approval due to the buildings' heritage listing. Mainly glass, the building apexes the side of the castle and overlooks a very large field. The falcon displays for weddings and special days are held here. Surrounding the field are huge trees, oaks, larch and firs, with a trout filled stream meandering along the side of the field
and disappearing under an old stone bridge.
The Orangey is where afternoon and morning tea, and other meals are served if guests are not eating dinner in the dungeon.
I had a pot of tea and a scone, which turned out to be three warm scones and piles of cream and jam. I couldn't eat it all but it was scrumptious.
I walked around the outside of the castle in the fading light and got a real feel for the immense size of the building. It would have been most impressive when first built, as it is today.
At reception, I was advised that my booking in the dungeon restaurant was for 7.30 pm and that I should attend the library for pre-dinner canapes and drinks and place my order from the menu. When ready, a waiter/waitress would then collect you and show you to the dungeon and your seat for the night.
I found the library again and entered to find it full of frogs. Well, actually, it was full of French men, all talking ten to a dozen in French. They were gathered around the large window in an assortment of chairs and sofas so I sat near the warm fire. A very sombre waiter came out of a hidden door, which looked like a bookcase. Inside the hidden room was a full bar.
The waiter supplied the menu for the night and a six page wine list. I ordered a Glenmorangie whiskey whilst looking at the menu. The waiter brought out nibbles on a tray for me whilst I was thinking.
After careful consideration, I ordered garlic and potato soup and the pan seared trout with prawn paste. Accompanying it was sauted red cabbage and grilled vegetables. I ordered a red wine from Chile to go with dinner.
Not long after my escort arrived to take me to the dungeon, I was one of the first to arrive and had an opportunity to take a photo or two. There were half a dozen or more waiters/waitresses on hand. The French men went into an adjoining room and I had a central chamber all to myself, along with three waiters.
The food was excellent, as was the wine. Dinner cost £100 per night, so I expected the best.
I climbed up the stairs and prepared for bed. The bed was huge and looked lovely but it was unfortunately way too soft for me and I had trouble sleeping. Never mind, I still enjoyed it. The stair well creaked as you walked up them, but the floors were relatively quite and with walls two feet thick, there was total silence in the castle at night. No lights outside other than security lights around the castle. It was wonderful.
In the morning I headed to the orangey for breakfast. No sign of the French, but there were German, Austrian and British guests. The two British women having breakfast saw the deer at the same time as I did. Two red deer came out of the forest to eat in the field.
At first, just of an instant, I thought they were kangaroos, as I'm so used to seeing them at my place. I then remembered where I was and knew what they were. It was ethereal sitting in a castle, watching deer in the misty meadow. Absolutely delightful.
After breakfast I headed for the falconry. The birds were still in the cages, but I had a close up look at them. Hawks, buzzards and owls. Magnificent birds. They even had a mopoke.
I watched the eagle owl for a while, a big beautiful bird with bright orange eyes. He was hooting, so I video taped him. I hadn't noticed what was making him so excited until I looked slightly to the right. On the ground under the oak tree with a nut feeder, was a grey squirrel. He darted off into the bushes when I said out loud, 'Oh a squirrel!' There wasn't anyone around to hear, but I was so surprised I said it out loud.
The squirrel was replaced by a couple of brazen rabbits, which cared little for my presence and obviously knew the birds were no threat. The owl seemed frustrated at having prey so close. I spoke with Kathy, the falconer and booked a session to fly the birds later that day. I went away quite excited.
The weather cleared and I strolled around the gardens, walking over the bridge to follow the road. It led to a secluded double storey building in a stone walled sheltered clearing. Called the Lodge, it was a private hideaway for rent. I couldn't see why anyone would prefer to stay here rather than the castle.
The castle has full spa facilities, with turkish bath, spas and a number of different massages. I didn't take advantage of these services as it never occured to me to do so. I was enjoying myself just exploring and soaking up the atmosphere.
At 2.00 pm, with the sun shining, I made my way to the falconry. Kathy took me through the twenty odd birds, giving details of the type of birds, how they hunt, how fast and life spans. She talked about their training and how the owls were a 'bit blonde' compared to the buzzards and hawks.
Kathy's family had owned the business for the past 22 years. Some of her birds were over thirty years old. Two of the birds were more than five years over the normal life span of their breed. Kathy explained that they feed the birds daily and only feed them chickens, which are low in fat and a more healthy option for the birds.
It was fascinating listening to her and you could see that the birds were healthy and looked pretty happy, sitting out on their perches, soaking up the sun.
I had the choice of owls to fly, and chose Duke, the eagle owl I had been watching that morning. Kathy chose Watson, the buzzard hawk, which is Britain's most common hawk. She stated that she liked these best as they are amongst the fastest predators.
Kathy had three other types of hawks, the breed of which eludes me. However, they were interesting as they are the only type of hawks that hunt together in 'packs'. The dominent female makes the kill and if she misses, the males from either side take her place. They use their white tail to flick and communicate with each other.
I grabbed a leather glove and we walked out onto the lawn at the front of the castle. Watson was first as there were another couple to fly the owl in the following half hour. Watson was released and flew up into the trees. He had a look around and we walked across to the middle of the lawn.
Kathy put some pieces of baby chicken on my glove and I held it out to the side and tapped the top of the glove. Watson saw the signal and came to me. He dropped down from the tree, flapped a couple of times to get up speed and then glided low and up onto my glove. To watch a hawk in full flight coming straight toward you and then have it land on your hand is incredible. I loved it. I really loved it.
Watson ate the pieces and and sat on my hand for a minute or two. You pull your arm into your body when the bird lands as they become heavy to hold at arms length. He was marvellous. Different shaped head than a falcon and eagle. Very soft and intelligent eyes.
Watson flew off to the trees and we repeated the process quite a few times. We needed to be a fair way off from the trees as Watson was so fast he needed room to manoevre. Kathy told me heaps about the birds and you could tell that after 22 years of raising and flying them, she was passionate about the birds.
The other couple arrived and we put Watson away. While we waited for Kathy to prepare the eagle owl, Duke, her sister brought Navajo, a greater owl, out of his cage. He was the biggest owl I've ever seen, with soft grey and black feathers and the most beautiful face. He was very friendly and loved a pat on his back and around his eyes. He was super soft.
Duke, was smaller, but weighed more as Navajo was all feathers. Kathy put Duke on the ground and let him walk around to demonstrate why he was called the Duke. He did indeed waddle like John Wayne.
The man and his wife had chosen only to fly the owls, although his wife only took photos. I think it was a bit much for her as she seemed somewhat nervous. I video taped Duke's flight onto the man's hand. He flew in very close to the ground, soaring up and onto the glove with such grace.
We took turns with the glove, Duke obliging by flying in again and again. He was a lot heavier than the buzzard. Finally, Kathy fed him three full chicks and told us to watch his ear feathers. She said that they stand up when they are aroused or full. Sure enough, the last chick was just swallowed when his feathers came up. He then snuggled into Kathy's shoulder and was ready for bed.
What an experience. For some people, they like to jump out of planes, or run with the bulls. For me, this was my adrenalin rush. It was exciting and fascinating, watching the bird's natural instinct as they flew in to the glove. Simply wonderful and was definitely one of the best highlights of my trip.
Although they are hand reared, they are still relatively wild, with strong natural hunting instincts. They will hunt the rabbits and squirrels while they are free flying, although some of the birds are not quick enough to catch them.
I had afternoon tea in the Orangey, the euphoria of flying the birds lasting well into the night.
I went to the library prior to tea but changed my mind about a posh meal and ordered room service to my room. I tipped the waitress well as she was puffing a lot after coming up all the stairs with the meal tray. I ate my tea while watching the sun go down over the forest. Not a bad way to spend a day.