Sunday, Oct 1, Glasgow – A Glasgow Sunday is not a frivolous occasion! As I look out my hotel window all I can see are two shades of granite (dull pink and dull gray) and it is raining steadily and hard.
If you happen to be Episcopalian or like Anglican church music, you might enjoy the “weather report” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4z2jwDcb9wI – sounds like Glasgow, but certainly cheers me up!). And now it’s time to catch up:
We reluctantly left the Faroes on Wednesday and flew into Sumbergh Airport on Shetland, arriving in the dark and rain. A taxi took us the 25 miles to Lerwick and the Kveldsro House Hotel in time for a drink (very large selection of Single Malts!) and then it was time to collapse after rather a lot of travel. To get from the Faroes to Shetland, you have to fly south past the Shetlands to Edinburgh, then back north to Shetland. The Edinburgh airport is big, rather inefficient (stairs and buses rather than jetways for our flight, long walks, and all the moving sidewalks mysteriously roped off…). Over the departure gate was a sign that caught my eye: “Haste ye back again!”
But after a long day, a wonderful hotel! (www.shetlandhotels.com): the Kveldsro – lovely rooms with large, well-appointed bathrooms, comfortable four-poster beds, and exceptionally friendly, helpful staff. Try the Scotch Broth if it is the soup of the day: more of a stew than a soup, and a meal-in-a-bowl!
The town of Lerwick lies down a flight of steps from the hotel, then left a few hundred yards along flagstone lanes, which in a few places are not wide enough for cars and people, but the cars move slowly, and the people seem used to stepping into doorways to let them by – just as the drivers seem ready to stop and let you get by. I turned right rather than left, and walked about a mile in the wrong direction, along a narrow street bounded on the seaward side by a stone wall over the water. There was a strong wind blowing – hard to walk against – but a glorious view (and lots of granite houses and buildings). One garage had a unique and practical way to ensure what I presume is a water-tight roof:
On the walk back, I met two Mormon missionaries who politely stopped to talk to me, but we were all too wind-blown and rain-drenched to say much while clinging onto railings in the empty street, so we went our ways with mutual expression of good will. One of them was Norwegian, by his accent.
The village of Lerwick (the “w” is not pronounced) is delightful: all, or mostly, stone, from paving to roof, the harbor just a block away, and row of small shops invite you to stop in. A music store had plastic trombones and trumpets in the window – something to do, perhaps, with the weather, which is cold and wet during what must be a long, dark winter? I found a travel shop, as I needed a U.S.-to-UK plug adapter, but the door was shut with a note “short-handed – for help apply across the road.” Across the road was a ladies’ fashion store, which obligingly closed so the owner could come across the road and open the shop I needed! “It’s a right juggling act today!” she said, and couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. A stop at Jamieson’s knitwear shop is a necessity: Nancy bought several sheeps’ worth of wool, and I bought a superb natural, undyed sweater that will last the rest of my life.
Owing to plane schedules, trains, etc., we only had one day in Lerwick, but it’s wool week, and the island is crowded with avid knitters buying the unique Shetland yarn. When I bought my sweater and the owner discovered I was in Shetland with a knitter, we were instant friends, with other, American, knitters clustering around. I commented on the rough flight in (we aborted one attempt, flew out to sea, and tried again, successfully, if rather bounced about) and the general consensus was “I’ll bet your friend got a lot of knitting done. It takes your mind off things!”
We really hated to leave, but had to take an early departure. Logan Air rescheduled their flight two hours earlier, so we missed it. With no more Glasgow flights that day, we re-booked to Edinburgh, where, while I managed the stairs, Nancy very kindly pushed me down the long hallways in a wheelchair (the moving sidewalk still not working). Would that be legal in the U.S.? The airline people simply handed us an airport wheelchair, and off we went. We then boarded a coach (bus) to Glasgow, about an hour’s trip, and had a good, nostalgic dose of Seattle-style traffic as the city came near. Then a taxi to the hotel, which though clean and friendly, takes mediocrity to new extremes, and thus will remain nameless: minor repairs badly needed, showers that only dribble, an empty dining room (empty of waiters as well as guests), and when eventually a waitress did wander in, the food was meager, and taste-free.
Oct 5 – Iona – We are finally on the tiny island of Iona, in many ways the climax of our journey. It was a long train trip from Glasgow to Oban, the jumping-off point for Iona. Oban presents a lovely front to the sea, but seems to lose energy the further you get from the promenade. We were joined at last by Robert Gage, my oldest friend, a retired priest and musician who has made his career in the UK. The Perle Oban Hotel is worth mentioning by name: very good restaurant, very nice, old high-ceilinged rooms, and within 100 yards of the station, the ferry dock, and the Oban Distillery –- home of my favorite Single Malt Scotch! For single-malt enthusiasts, there is a “Distiller’s Edition” which is “finished in Montilla fortified wine casks for more depth and a kick of spice.” I am bringing a bottle home, and keeping it locked in my safe!
A walk in Oban presented about everything you expect in the Scottish Highlands: strong wind, lashing rain, sunshine, more rain, then some strong wind… I bought a quaich, a traditional Scottish cup.
Then on to Iona: a 50-minute ferry ride to the Isle of Mull, across Mull by bus, on one-lane roads much like those in the Faroes only without the endless plunge over a cliff to concentrate your mind. (To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”) These roads have pull-overs at regular intervals, and the first vehicle to reach one, seeing another approaching, is expected to give right of way. It seems to work very well, and we must have pulled over a dozen or more times. Nancy was delighted to see more sheep, and we saw our first shaggy highland cattle.
From Fionnphort on Mull, you take the 10-minute (rough!) ferry to Iona, where the ferry lets down a ramp, like the ramp on a landing barge, and you walk ashore up a concrete “hard” onto the island. As it was getting toward dark, and raining and blowing, the waiting taxi (the island has one taxi) was a welcome sight. Later in the evening we took the same taxi to the Argyle Hotel, where we found a very good restaurant. The taxi driver asked if we wanted a ride back after dinner, and refused to be paid until the return trip – just give him a call when the time came. This does not happen in cities!
But Iona: looking out the breakfast room window to the low, rocky islands in the distance, you feel that you are at the edge of the world. Which is what Iona was in the 6th century when the island was one of the spots where western civilization took refuge from barbarism, and survived. Kenneth Clark wrote, in Civilization (the transcript of the wonderful 1960’s BBC documentary, still available on DVD):
“… The British Isles offered, for a short time, relative security. One of them was iona, Sacred and secure. I never come to Iona – and I used to come here almost every year when I was young – without the feeling that ‘some God is in this place.” It isn’t as awe-inspiring as some other holy places – Delphi or Assisi. But Iona gives one more than anywhere else I know a sense of peace and inner freedom. What does it? The light, which floods around on every side? The lie of the land which, coming after the solemn hills of Mull, seems strangely like Greece, like Delos, even? The combination of wine-dark sea, white sand and pink granite? Or is it the memory of those holy men who for two centuries kept western civilization alive?
“Iona was founded by St Columba, who came here in the year 543. It seems to have been a sacred place before he came and for four centuries it was the centre (sic) of Celtic Christianity.”
Well, today I am fighting a bad cold and some leg pain, but Nancy and Robert are out exploring. Tomorrow will be my turn, regardless of colds and legs – from the rocky hills I can see from my bedroom window, from the almost constant moan of the wine, the grass heaving in the wind – and Clark’s light – this is not to be missed for anything!
After long walks, Nancy and Robert are back. Nancy has been knitting in the lovely conservatory, and Richard, the owner/manager of Ardoran House (www.ardoranhouse.co.uk/ (5 stars: Nancy has done a fantastic job finding us wonderful places to stay) has presented us with a huge tray of canapes. My two companions are off to dinner, and I am heading for a very early bed. Come cold or bad leg, tomorrow I shall explore!
To be continued… Iona simply demands a “chapter” of its own, as does the next leg of our trip.
— By Nathaniel Brown
Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement six years ago