Tales from the Travel Zeitgeist: Caithness to Inverness

The north of Scotland.

It occurs to me that I’ve not really shown you where Heather and I have been traveling. Below is a diagram of the UK: England, Scotland, Wales, with Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland to the left in grey, mainland Europe below in grey. (Thank you, internet, for the visuals.)

At the very top of Scotland is where we’ve been traveling. You can see it in greater detail via the map at the top of the post. On these maps, north is up. The Isle of Skye is the very convoluted set of peninsulas that jut out from the mainland and cross the map’s graphic border on the left side. It looks a bit like a lobster. See it? (Well, maybe that lobster analogy is a bit of a stretch…) The North Coast 500 winds all along that far west and north coast. You can see why it takes so many hours to drive. And why the scenery would be so stunning. The NC 500 continues across the top of the land mass, then continues to follow the coast around the other side. Once around the top of Scotland, it’s traveling down the coast along the Moray Firth. A firth is a triangular inlet of water – here the North Sea. So at this point we’ve left the Atlantic. And as you travel south, the point of the triangle between those two land masses that make the north of Scotland is where Inverness lies. It’s the biggest city in the north, considered the capitol of the Highlands. About 60,000 people live in its metropolitan area. If you head southwest from the city (down and to the left), you’ll find Loch Ness. It’s long and very skinny – also very, very deep. Nessie can hide herself well in its depths.

In the diagram below, you can also see the Orkney Islands, just off the north coast of the Scottish Mainland. The Shetland Isles are shown as well. However, they are much further north than this not-to-scale diagram implies. Caithness (in red) is the very northeast tip of that block of land we’ve been traveling.

Now you know where we’ve been.

Maybe I should have included all that info at the beginning of these blog posts!

While in Caithness for two days, we stayed with Graham Bethune and his lovely parents, Nan and George, at Ballochly Farm. It’s a green, gentle place, set into rolling hills just inland from the North Sea. Graeme keeps mostly Cheviots, which he’s been crossing with the local Aberfields to improve their hardiness and the crimp in their wool. He also keeps a flock of delightful Castlemilk Moorits. The CMs are a rare breed in the UK. They were developed originally as an “ornamental” breed, to adorn the estate of the Buchanan – Jardine family’s estate in the south of Scotland, near Dumfries. Indeed, they are an elegant looking, picturesque flock of sheep, if sheep can be called such things. With their reddish-brown coloring and long legs, they resembled nothing so much as antelope to me as they flitted across the hillside pastures at Ballochly Farm.

The hills and pastures around Ballochly Farm. Plus white sheep. Lots of white sheep. Those are the Cheviots.
The CMs. Just sheared, so not as glorious looking as they might usually be. But still, quite handsome and wild looking beasts.
Graeme, visiting with his “sheepies”. He doesn’t work with dogs, preferring to train his flock with the bribery of delightful food treats. It works. When they see or hear him, they come running.

Graeme is one of the few sheep farmers in the UK that has figured out there IS a market for wool – but that you must step out of the customary sell-to-the-wool-board-no-matter-the-crap-price-offered and also breed to improve the quality of fiber on offer. Cheviot wool has never been one I’d actively pursue. It’s rarely a wool you’d like to wear next to your skin. However, he’s been breeding better and better fleeces, with a softer hand (yarnspeak for feel), longer staple (yarnspeak for length of the fiber itself) and greater crimp (yarnspeak for nice, bouncy, sproingy structure). I have so much respect for what he’s doing. You can find numerous pics of his sheep and the resultant yarn on social media. Look for @caithnessyarns.

In the yarn studio at Caithness Yarns. Yep, Graeme’s a talker. And he’s got a lot of great stuff to talk about. He’s a fierce advocate for replacing the monoculture, commercial farming processes of the past hundred or so year with more environmentally sustainable practices. And he’s an advocate for the potential of British wool. Go, Graeme, go!

One of the best parts of our stay with Graeme was time spent chatting with his parents, Nan and George. Both in their eighties now and fully retired to the farm from years as professionals living in Edinburgh, they love nothing more than spinning out tales of their family history in the area, the archaeological wonders to be discovered in Caithness and sharing the delights of their garden. It was a real treat to spend hours sitting around the table and living room with them.

Nan and George, regaling us with tales. Oh, Graeme told his share as well. Everyone was so excited to have their first real visitors since the pandemic set in. Even the four dogs and two cats were excited about newcomers. Only the sheep seemed unaffected.
Nan shows off some of the family heirlooms. This was an Irish linen bedspread, probably made just after the turn of the previous century. Wow, it was amazing to touch and view. Intricate stitchery and so delicate. I wondered how it had survived four generations of Bethune family life.

After we left Ballochly farm, Heather and I traveled down to Inverness. We landed at an estate just outside the city which has been converted for rental as holiday cottages. Pretty standard story these days. The descendants of the landed gentry are having to figure out how to hold on to and support their family inheritances. Dunrobin Castle, about which you heard me rant recently, is now open to the public as a historic and tourist center. The family keeps only a small set of rooms for their private use. In fact, I recently learned it served as a boarding school for about a decade. The Farr Estate, where we stayed, has been thoughtfully reworked by the present family for contemporary (and hopefully long-term) viability. They pulled down the big house in the 70s, recognizing it was a “money suck”, likely to send them into bankruptcy if they tried to maintain its upkeep. Instead, they retained several of the smaller, on-site buildings as permanent homes for the extended family. Then they renovated the Victorian era chapel and tennant housing for use by travelers and vacationing groups. In this way, they’ve also been able to hold on to the estate’s substantial acreage – somewhere around 22,000 acres. In a fairly small country, that’s a huge piece of land.

Photo of the no longer extant Farr House.
We stayed in this building. Still pretty fancy, despite not being the estate house. Beautifully renovated and so comfortable. I wish we’d had time to explore the surrounding countryside.

While in the Inverness area, we met with a collection of fiber folks that I think are doing some of the best and most innovative, creative work in Scotland today:

– Drynwyn, of Loch Ness Knitting – a natural dye studio focused on limiting the negative impact of textile production on the environment. Drynwyn’s thoughtful approach to using waste and collected botanicals for dying, commitment to supporting local artisans and farmers and her approach to making color were all a joy to hear about. http://www.lochnessknitting.com

Heather and Drynwyn on her back porch. Drynwyn lives in a village about midway down the length of Loch Ness. Everyone try saying it together now: Drumnadrochit!

-Julie Rutter, at Black Isle Yarns, and her friend and designer Emily Watkins. They are a dynamic duo, working together to create fantastic patterns and yarns for us all to enjoy. Oh my. Wonderful stuff, wonderful ladies. Find their websites and social media feeds. You won’t be disappointed.

Their new book.
Emily’s design for a rectangular shawl called Eanaich. No, I don’t know how to pronounce it.

– Speaking of dynamic duos, we also had a meet up with the pair that created the popular podcast Stories of Scotland. Heather has been listening to them for years. I just started, because of our meeting and Heather’s desire to draw them in to participating in some way during our trips. I find these two ladies utterly enchanting and their podcast informing, entertaining and funny as hell. Check it out!

We also had some fantastic meals while in the area, plus spent a wee bit of time at the Inverness Botanical Gardens. As I wandered among the blooms, I couldn’t help but hear Monty Don’s voice echo from among the great clumps of color and foliage. “Hello. And welcome to Gardener’s World…” Monty, along with his assistant Golden Retrievers, have been a staple at our house during the pandemic. Nobody gardens like the British. And nobody can make gardening more interesting and intriguing than Monty Don. Remember how you once thought it ridiculous to watch something called The Great British Baking Show? And then you found yourself caught up in a world of meringues, fondant and flavor combinations? Well, Gardener’s World has been a program for fifty something seasons. Yes! Fifty something! And Monty Don is its host. I leave you with that golden nugget of potential viewing for the weeks ahead. Plus a few photos from the Inverness Botanical Gardens.

Thanks for hanging in there with me through this adventure out into the travel Zeitgeist. Next up, final days and final thoughts.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for the Maps and the explanation about the area. I found it really helpful especially since I’ve never even been to Europe. The picture that startled me was the one of Graeme. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt! Yikes!

    Like

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