Monday, July 29, 2013

Our First Few Days in Scotland!

So in an attempt to get caught up in talking about our trip to Scotland, I am going to cut this discussion into a bunch of different parts. Today's reading for my dear readers?  The first few days of our holiday!

Our first goal on this trip was to spend about a week on the island of Islay, one of the islands that make up the Inner Hebrides in the highlands of Scotland.  As you all know, Jim was turning 50 during our trip and he wanted to enjoy the peaty whiskies famous in this remote area!

So here is how our adventure started:  We left Saint Louis on July 4 and arrived in Manchester, England, at about 7:30 AM on July 5 (Friday).  Our first day had all kinds of challenges!  First, since we couldn't get a direct flight from Saint Louis, we went to Chicago first and then our second flight took us over the Atlantic.  That second flight was on an older plane with very little room for movement (I have flown a lot and never been squeezed that much!).  The woman in front of me decided to push her seat back (though everyone else seemed to understand that doing this would severely impact the person behind you) and I couldn't even cross-stitch.  Instead, I pretty much stared at the woman's forehead for about eight hours.

Once we landed, things didn't get much better (at first).  The airport in Manchester seemed a wee bit understaffed so we had to wait in a customs line for about an hour.  After making it through this first hurdle, we then tried to buy train tickets to Glasgow (where we would be staying the night) but quickly discovered that there had been a fire on the tracks near the airport and the trains were not running.  A railroad employee suggested that we take a local bus to the Manchester Picadilly station and then we spent the next hour or so on a crowded, slow-going local bus that dropped us off -- finally -- about two blocks from the train station.  After a hike up a hill, we made it to the station, purchased our tickets, and found ourselves on a crowded train.  Once we transferred to another train, we were finally able to sit down and I think the both of us at that point were pretty darn tired (after being up for about 24 hours at this point).  The best part of the day was making it to our hotel room in Glasgow.  We were smart about it and booked a room at the Grand Central Hotel, steps from where we got off the Manchester train.  The room was great -- here are a few pictures:

We walked around Glasgow a little, finally eating at a pub that reminded us of the Dubliner back home.  I think we both slept pretty hard though it was difficult to sleep in a place where it didn't even get dark until about 11 PM.  The next morning we were supposed to pick up our rental car right outside the hotel but apparently there had been changes made that we were not aware of.  To make a long story short, the hotel helped us contact the rental car people and we finally got the car stuff worked out and pointed our rented Fiat 500 toward Kennacraig, a ferry terminal about 3 hours away.  Since it was about 11 AM by the time we left Glasgow, we had plenty of time to explore before meeting our 6 PM ferry.

I should mention at this point that Jim caught on to driving on the other side of the ride with a manual transmission (so imagine having to shift gears with the other hand!) quite quickly -- and well!  Though I was super nervous most of the time because of the narrowness of the roads, Jim did a fantastic job the entire time dealing with my nagging about how close we were to shrubs/ stone walls/ cliffs/ curbs.  I know it wasn't easy to take on most of the driving (OK, all of it) but he did an outstanding job!

On our way to Kennacraig, we stopped at a castle that a friend has a connection to -- Dunans.  We were able to only take some pictures from the outside but this brief stop was a nice way to kick off all the castle watching that we would be doing during the entire trip.  Here is the Dunans Castle from a little stone bridge:

We then continued down the road, stopping finally for lunch at a castle we just happened to stumble upon and saw signs for -- Inveraray Castle.  We were pretty hungry by this point so we stopped in the cafe first and I then discovered that this was the very castle in which the Christmas special from the third season of Downton Abbey had been filmed!  Egads!  How could this be?  How did I not know this?!  I managed to get through lunch quickly and then we were off to tour the whole castle!  Amazing!  I loved it!  

After spending some time touring the castle and the gardens, we jumped back in the car and made it with plenty of time to spare at the ferry terminal in Kennacraig -- and then we drove onto the ferry! (which was actually sort of interesting for the inventive way that these folks loaded the cars!)  Jim got lucky when we were sitting in the lounge upstairs) and managed to watch some qualifying for the next day's Formula 1 car race:

By the time we got off the ferry (it was about a 2 hour trip), it was raining on Islay (the island that we were to spend the next week on!) but we found our B&B pretty easily.  I loved Kathy's place (if anyone is headed to Islay, I would recommend checking out the web site for Octofad Farm!).  She made the BEST breakfast!

The next day was a Sunday and we started our rounds of the whiskey distilleries!  Since several of them were closed on Sundays, we made it to two on this first day:  Ardbeg and Lagavulin.  Jim had a nice time at both and then after Lagavulin we had a nice walk around the front and explored an ancient castle in ruins (the third picture):

We stayed on Islay for almost a week, spending our time at seven of the eight whiskey distilleries and exploring these amazing historical spots.  I can't even list everything that we saw or did but here are some of the highlights from the first few days:

Kildalton Cross and Church:  This was our first adventure in "single tracking" it down a narrow one lane dirt road!  But wow!  What a place!  These pictures show Islay's most famous treasure, the ninth-century "High Cross of Kildalton."  What is amazing, of course, is that the cross is unbroken and well preserved enough to enable us to see a lot of the detail (which suggest the idea of sacrifice).  The cross sits in front of the ruins of a church, a late medieval roofless ruin (with some interesting grave stones).

Claggain Bay: After our visit to Kildalton we continued down the single-track dirt road to Claggain Bay -- lots of pretty stones and forever to be remembered as the place where we were attacked by kites (the bird, not the toy).  We must have been too close to a nest but check out this beach!  Isn't it beautiful?!  And keep in mind that during all of our adventures in Islay we would see -- at the most -- maybe two other people!  This is quite an isolated place!

Finlaggan:  This was the administrative capital of the medieval MacDonald Lords of the Isle.  This place was just simply magical in a way that I can't explain.  Between the 12th and 16th centuries, this "island" was busy with the comings and goings of so many people.  The island has the remains of several buildings (a church and a great hall) and you can see the stones of numerous other structures from different periods, too.  And, again, Jim and I virtually had this space to ourselves!

 (The view as you walk toward Finlaggan)

Kilnave:   It took us quite a lot of work on another single-track dirt road to find this place but it was well worth it -- perhaps one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen in my life!  Kilnave is a late medieval chapel set in a magnificent scenic location (just on the east side of Loch Gruinart).  Jim and I were the only people there and, again, it was amazing just to soak in all the history.

Well, this blog post covers just the first few days -- there will be lots more to come (including more pictures!).  I didn't think that I was going to be that excited about Islay because we were coming here for whiskey (and I don't like whiskey).  But little did I know how amazing this place is -- and that there might even be a whiskey that I do like!  But more about that later!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

I'll try to update when I can!

Hey all!  We are off to Scotland today but I wanted to be sure and thank everyone for your encouragement and support and I finished doing revisions on several of the key chapters of my dissertation.  I have no idea what the final outcome is yet but I know that I did my best and that these chapters are much better than what I did originally.  I will be taking this long awaited break to visit my "motherland" (my grandmother's family emigrated from Hamilton, Scotland to Canada many years ago) and to just simply take a break from everything.  When I come back, I will attack this whole dissertation one more time and get it done.  My hope is to defend in about September and graduate in December.  Go n-éirí an bóthar leat  (Galeic for Bon Voyage!)   :D

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Party is Over!

The title of this blog posting refers to two "parties" -- the dissertation-alooza and Jim's surprise 50th birthday party!

Let's talk about Jim first!  I had been planning this party since late last year.  Jim is not big on parties and surprises but I wanted to do something special for his 50th birthday.  Since I knew that we were going to be in Scotland during his actual birthday (July 17), the party had to take place before we left -- so viola!  June 29th was the last Saturday before we would be leaving for our trip.  I was pretty stressed out (mostly because I was also working as hard as I could on my dissertation) but it was also hard to juggle keeping a secret, dealing with catering problems on my own, making sure folks would come to the party, coordinating the decorations and the cake, setting up, and just doing everything I could to make sure everyone had a good time!  But I think it all came out successfully!  Here are a few pictures (I took some before folks got there but then didn't take any once people arrived -- I was too busy mingling with all the wonderful people who came!):

The party was at the Dubliner, a bar/ restaurant that we frequent on Washington Avenue, about two blocks from our place.  I had just a few decorations including this banner I had made!

In lieu of gifts, I asked folks to bring donations for "Stray Rescue," the great downtown organization that Stella, our fabulous pooch, came from.  By the end of the party, we had collected $220  

I used dog bowls from the Dollar Store for candy and little mints that said "Happy 50th Birthday":

The birthday boy himself!

Jim walking into the party!

And check out this fabulous cake (it was a cake replica of Jim's D600 Nikon camera!)  Not only did the cake look great but it tasted fabulously!   (It was made by "Cakes by Nette")

I am happy with the way that the whole party turned out -- I am not sure how many people were there (maybe 45-50?) but I think a great time was had by all!

And the other party, you ask?  Dissertation-alooza!  The day before the party (Friday), I finished the revisions of Chapter 5, the last chapter that I needed to edit before our upcoming trip to Scotland (on Thursday!).  I feel like Chapters 3 (Methodology) and 4 (Results) are the strongest -- perhaps not fantastic but I think pretty darn close to "good enough."  I might need a little more guidance for Chapter 5 (Analysis) but I did the best that I could.  The best part, of course, is that these chapters no longer look like the old versions, making them stronger versions of what it is that I want to say.  I hope to defend my work in September so I just hope that all the work I did this last month did the trick.

So now -- I pack and figure out what I am going to bring to Scotland for three weeks!  More to follow soon!