Goodbye Scotland – G’day Australia

Central Manse
Main Street
Lybster
Caithness KW3 6BN
Scotland
21 August 2009

As I write our time here in the bonnie county of Caithness is rapidly drawing to a close.
It is quite sad really, but time, that ever-rolling stream, is tidal, and the tide is on the ebb.
We have had a busy week, mainly on all the last minute things that need to attending to before the march-out scheduled for 0800 hrs this coming Monday.
Last Monday afternoon we went out to Dunbeath Care Centre, had a cuppa with the oldies and a good chat, then drove into Wick to get some provisions.
It was that morning that I had an unexpected phone call from  Mr George Bethune, inviting me to conduct a service… an unusual service, as it turned out. As he spoke my mouth was forming the words “No.. sorry – can’t do. We leave here on Monday morning………..”
What I actually said was, “When IS the service?”
”Sunday afternoon,” he told me.
Well, that put a whole new complexion on things. “What sort of a service is it, George?”
I then heard a fascinating story….
On 25 August 1942 (wartime of course) shortly after 1.30pm, a big four-engined RAF flying boat, a Sunderland with an Australian pilot and 15 other crew members, crashed into a hillside in heavy fog near Dunbeath. Fifteen of the sixteen were killed instantly. The tail gunner was thrown clear when the  aircraft flipped, and survived, although badly burnt.
George Bethune’s father was one of the first on the scene.  People in the district had heard the crash and the explosion. They had quite a job, finding the aircraft in the remote hills and in the heavy fog.
When they were examining the bodies, looking for possible survivors, someone exclaimed in horror “Cor lummy – here’s the king!”
It turned out to be, not the king but the king’s brother, the Duke of Kent, who was on some sort of a secret mission but all that has been cloaked in secrecy ever since.
It seems he resembled his brother, King George V1. No one is quite sure where the aircraft was heading, but it is thought Iceland.
The tail gunner was sworn to secrecy and carried anything he knew to the grave a few years ago.
George, the son of Will Bethune who was one of the first on the scene has written a small booklet of the incident, a copy of which he gave me. The fact that the Duke of Kent had been killed made it of course a story of  great international interest. George said the propellers of the aircraft were at full pitch, meaning the pilot must have suddenly spotted the hill in the dense fog. Had he had another fifty feet or so of height, he probably would have cleared it, it is generally believed.
In time a memorial cross was erected at the site and each year there has been a brief service there on the nearest Sunday to 25 August.
It was a request  to conduct that service that I was rung and I agreed to do it.
The other day we were in Wick where I decided to get a haircut. There are two barbers in Wick. Both are female. I have been to both. Both are about the same in the skill department. This time I decided to go to Jenny. She’s a funny girl. I was the only one in the shop. I asked for “a tidy up and a trim” for my hair was a bit wild. I should have been there a fortnight ago. “OK,” said Louise.
It was an hour later that I walked out of Louise’s shop with a small thatch of hair on the very top of my head. Jenny talks, and obviously thinks she’s not doing her job unless she continues to cut. I am fascinated, listening to her, for she has a very pronounced Caithness accent.
A couple of times I said nervously, “That looks fine, Jenny.”
“OK,” she’d reply, “I’ll just give it a wee trim here” (snip-snip snipsnipsnip..).
Oh well, I won’t need another haircut for months. I must say it is a very good haircut anyway.
We went back to Dunbeath Care Centre at their invitation in the afternoon where I discovered that I was on as the entertainment! It  wasn’t hard… talked about Australia, got them talking about their experiences, told them of my part time jobs as a crocodile wrestler and funnelweb spider milker, done to extract the venom to make anti-venene.. the time soon passed, with a lot of hearty laughter all round. A couple almost believed my crocodile and spider stories…
It was a sad but at the same time funny farewell to all those delightful folk, and then we went to the Dunbeath school where we farewelled the children there.
On Thursday, on one of my calls, I dropped in on dear old John and Bella.
They are both elderly,  and very gracious and lovely folk. Bella never misses church at Dunbeath. John is a retired shepherd, but at 87 still runs a croft and works like a 50 year-old.
John has his hobby of making shepherd’s crooks, which the shepherd also uses as a ‘walking’ stick or more accurately, a “walker’s stick” to help him over ditches, up hills, down dales  and through bogs and burns. They double as crooks for the sheep.
He carefully fashions the handles out of ram’s horns and carves a little Scotch thistle on it.
Months ago he had offered me one as a gift, and refused my offer to pay for it.
Today John said, “Your stick is ready for you,” and handed it to me. It is lovely! I was utterly delighted. Then John said “And here’s one for Janet” – and handed me another.
Well, I was overwhelmed. I tried to pay f or it, said I couldn’t take it, but again he was insistent. I had to take it. I knew it would be the last time I would ever see John and Bella, and my heart was heavy when I left, but the crooks will be treasured.
Didn’t Janet get a surprise when I handed her HER OWN  walker’s stick!

The walkers stick

The walker's stick

I wish I could thank John and Bella enough, but all I can do is keep in touch, and I did give them a very nice card when Janet and I called in today. Janet wanted to thank them personally.
It was last night (Thur) that we had our farewell in the Lybster Bowling Club.
Most who attended were Kirk folk, from either our Church of Scotland or the Free Church of Scotland. There are no other denominations around here anyway.
I was nervous about it all day, but it turned out to be completely informal; a bit of a greeting from Pauline the session clerk, a brief word of thanks from me, then everyone got stuck into the mountain of tucker that the ladies including Janet provided.
There were two presentations. I was given a handsome Caithness tartan tie, and Janet was given a very beautiful and elegant Scottish silver brooch. She loves it, and I will wear my tie with pride. Stewart handed me a very fine poem that he had written for me. I was quite touched.
By coincidence he and I were both wearing our SAS ties. I was given one at my farewell as the SAS chaplain, Campbell Barracks, Swanbourne WA  in 1989. Stewart is former SAS.
When they left, Sandy and Lyn also gave me a tie of which I am very proud: pure Caithness wool and authorised by Prince Charles, available at the Castle of Mey here in Caithness.
During the week I took Janet to see a couple who live on a property well out of Dunbeath. Alan is a retired sea captain. He and his wife Margaret live alone with their gorgeous little dog Sam. We had a most pleasant time with them, and when we were leaving, which is the last time I suspect we will see them,  Alan, insisted on giving me a bottle of fine Scotch whisky and giving Janet a bottle of Bailey’s.
The kindness and generosity of folk around here never ceases to amaze and humble us.
At 1.45pm we were at the Lybster school, for the Assembly, where we were farewelled by the children. Mrs Grant met us at the door and we were brought in, to see all the smiling little faces looking up at us.
It was for only about half an hour. I had to tell them a bit of where we were going, and again they had question after question about Australia. They also sang three songs.
I have never heard children sing like these. They sang “He’s got the whole world..’ and my favourite “Spring Chicken” (we told them it would be springtime in Australia in a few days) and another Christian song. Then Mrs Grant asked me if I would like to say a prayer, which I did. I am amazed each time I go to that school. All the teachers join the children in the Christian songs and there’s a lovely air of reverence. All the children are present.
We were then handed a lovely “Thank You” card, which had been signed by the teachers and all the children. I’ll be putting that away as a great keepsake!
Janet and were asked to stand at the door of the school and shake the hand of each student as he or she left. We came home feeling quite uplifted, but again sad as our leaving draws closer.
We took an hour off, grabbed our walker’s sticks and walked up into the hill above the harbour, where the heather is really starting to make a show. Our sticks were really handy, for the way up was on a narrow path, somewhat waterlogged with all the recent rain, and the bracken grew to the very edge.
It was so lovely up there, among the heather, and not another soul in sight and above us a great wide Caithness sky, for the rain had cleared. Despite my walking stick I did manage to fall once when I accidentally stepped into a ditch hidden in the grass and ended up with my ‘ooter in the ‘eather.
On the way down the path, I saw a black and white flash further down, and what eventually should heave into sight but Ben, a border collie we know, stick in mouth.

 Ben comes running down the track

Ben comes running down the track

Down a bit further we met John and Dorothy, so we chatted with them for a while, chucking the stick occasionally to an ever-waiting Ben  before going back to the harbour and having one last cappuccino at “Waterlines”, the little heritage museum run by the locals which has a little cafeteria attached. Just offshore I saw a fishing boat making its way in against a rising sea, for the wind was picking up again.

Sunday 23 August:
9.30pm, and Janet and I are drained, after an emotionally charged morning and an afternoon of exertion in the wild and remote hills above Dunbeath.
Both services at Dunbeath and Lybster  this morning were so sad, with some tears, which of course had a powerful effect on Janet and me, and we too felt somewhat overwhelmed by it all. I only just managed the benediction at Dunbeath.
Several pressed numerous gifts and cards and tokens of affection upon us. I was silly enough to choose as a final hymn in each service “Blest Be the Tie” and that really was the clincher to moisten eyes. Pauline the session clerk spoke movingly of our work here. After 12 years of vacancy, she told the folk, they now know what it is to have a parish minister of their very own, and they know they need one. They certainly deserve the best.
Janet and I rushed in from the second service, climbed into walking clobber (I left on my clerical collar), grabbed our beautiful walker’s sticks and headed off back to Dunbeath, to the heritage centre.
There we met George Bethune and a few others. Some ladies had prepared sandwiches, and after a quick bite and a cuppa we jumped into the cars and headed into the hills. We went with George. We drove for a couple of miles before parking the cars and then headed off into the hills. The further we went, the wilder became the country. The ground underfoot was wet and somewhat treacherous in many places with bogs and burns hidden in the deep grass.
We climbed hills of heather and peat, heading into remoter country. Before us great, clouded hills rose into the sky, while below were valleys sheltering silvered streams. It was quite breathtakingly magnificent. We passed the quiet waters of loch Borgue.
Walking through heather is not easy, for it clings and does not want to let go. Our wonderful walker’s sticks came into their own, and several times mine saved me from falls – once from falling into quite a deep bog.

and into the hills

and into the hills

The walk to the crash site, by hills and lochans

The walk to the crash site, by hills and lochans

We skirt great hills

We skirt great hills

In the distance  we see the memorial cross

In the distance we see the memorial cross

For an hour George and a couple of others led us through the trackless heather, up hills and down glens and moors of peat and long grass, until finally, high up a hill, we could see it… a large white cross.
Finally we were there. It is a tragic place – easy to see that if the pilot could have managed a few more feet, that heavily laden Sunderland, with full crew, bombs and depth chargers, would have cleared the top. A hundred yards from the crash site a cement slab, suitably inscribed, marks the spot where the body of the Duke of Kent was found.
As we arrived, a kilted Roy Gunn was playing his pipes. It was spine tingling, high up on the hills, with the deep valley below, the hills around us, and the mist and the rain sweeping in, to see that lonely piper and hear the sweet skirl of the pipes.

Roy and Janet

Roy and Janet

The eighteen present gathered around the memorial cross, with the names and ranks of the dead engraved on its base, and I commenced the service.

The group gathers for the service

The group gathers for the service

I had John Tunnah read out the names of the dead. Janet read Psalm 46, and I did the rest. At the end, George and I placed roses at the foot of the cross. Roy then played the haunting lament, “Flowers of the Forest.”

The highland piper

The highland piper

The highland minister

The highland minister

The benediction followed and the service, which took no more than about ten minutes, was over.
At once backpacks were opened, and to my surprise, bottles of whisky appeared and the dead were honoured with an informal toast. It’s firewater to me. Janet and I politely declined several  offers.
Roy Gunn the piper, who is about 80, who has been playing at the site for a few years now, was too old to make the journey across that difficult terrain, so he was brought up in an eight-wheeled, small ATV. It’s an amazing machine. It can traverse almost any terrain and can float across rivers. The fat tyres with special treads propel the vehicle on water – or an outboard can be fitted to it! It is ideal for the type of country we were in. It will hold four. Janet came up to me. “Jimmy the gamekeeper who is driving the ATV has offered to take us down,” she said. I guiltily agreed after Jimmy told me he was going to go back for some of the older folk. We were keen to return to our packing. It was our last day in Caithness.
It was an extremely rough ride, and a couple of times I thought it was going to tip over backwards up some of those hills, but finally we were back at the cars.
The ladies back at the Dunbeath Heritage Centre were waiting for us with a cuppa and sandwich, which was most welcome, for we were quite soaked up to the knees.

Sunderland M for Mother

Sunderland M for Mother

Finally we were away, came back here to the manse, then went off to see a couple of final folk, then came back to pack. I was instructed to finish writing and pack the study.
So here I am, work finished at last, but the events of the day and the week are on my mind.

Travel Lodge Hotel
Hill Street
Glasgow
27 August 2009

We are now a long way from the lovely hills of bonnie Caithness, and a great quantity of the river Wick has passed under its handsome bridge.
Early on Monday morning we were on our way south in our faithful little VW Golf. As we passed each village we would call out a farewell to those we knew there, (not that they heard, of course), until the  last village  in the peaceful parish of Latheron was lost among the hills.
A couple of hours or so later we arrived at Inverness where we handed back the car at the car rental place. The car was in pristine condition, for a couple of days previously we’d gone to a garage in Wick where we’d thoroughly cleaned it and vacuumed it; something we’d done on other occasions.
Janet cannot stand dirt or untidiness, despite being married to me.
We caught a taxi to the Inverness bus terminus and an hour later were on a Glasgow- bound bus.  The scenery on the way down was glorious. We passed great hills, some with burns tumbling in white cascades down their sides, past shining lochs, and banks and braes and hills adorned with purple heather. We crossed quiet rivers and forests of stately fir, occasionally stopping at a village to pick up or set down.
Until Perth we hardly saw a house. After Perth the country flattened out. The closer to Glasgow, the heavier the traffic until in the end we were crawling along, stopping and starting in a snarl of traffic and ugly roadworks.
Finally we were at the bus depot in Glasgow. After the quiet beauty of Caithness, our first impression was that Glasgow was horrible.
At the bus station we struggled to a taxi rank and were taken to the hotel.
There was no phone in the room, and no public phone, which I discovered when I asked at the lobby.
“There’s no public phone here, but there is one down the street,” I was told.
I walked and walked but couldn’t see it anywhere. Finally I spied a policeman, so asked him.
“See that wee red box aboot fifty metres in front of you sir? If you walk to that, you will find a telephone inside it.”
I thanked him, feeling a little foolish. “Och,  that’s no trouble sir,” he replied politely, “we always like tae make allowances for you Australians.”
The swine of a phone didn’t work anyway.
I walked and walked until I found another and made the call. When I walked out of the booth I discovered I was completely lost. I had no idea where I was; whether to turn left or right. Nothing was familiar.
I wandered here, I lingered there, ‘till I was fit to drop..’ (as Banjo Paterson wrote).
I asked people. They gave me complicated directions which didn’t go where they said they would.
I began to feel like someone who has dementia, who gets lost in his own  home.
It’s quite an unnerving experience.
It was a young chap in a Tescos shop who finally gave me directions I could follow, so finally, a couple of hours after leaving the hotel, I tottered thankfully into the room. Janet had been wondering what had happened to me.
Time and again I have discovered that the Scots (by and large) have an unusual way of giving directions. It may be an over-supply of information. Even the young woman at the hotel counter, who gave us a map of Glasgow and marked the position of the hotel on it, marked it on the wrong end of the street, so when we left it to go for a walk, following the map, we walked into the wrong street and were utterly confused.
(Not that I can talk. I failed map reading in my direct entry officers’ course when I joined the Army and there is an old adage among soldiers: “If you want to get lost, hand the map to an officer”).
The following day we went for a wander, and discovered some of Glasgow’s beautiful buildings. Among them are St Columba’s Church, where Gaelic services are held, with its great steeple, and also St Stephen’s, also with a steeple that seemed to touch the clouds scudding high above. “That’s making me dizzy!” Janet said, peering up. “It looks as if the steeple is moving but of course it’s the clouds.”
What a nice little sermon illustration, I thought.
It was St James who wrote “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” (James 4:14) while God, as the hymn tells us, “endures unchanging on.”

St Stephen’s Glasgow steeple

St Stephen’s Glasgow steeple

St Stephen’s was open, so we walked in an were met by two charming ladies, who showed us around the lovely interior. There is also a bright and airy café attached to the church, so we went in for a coffee. While we enjoying it, both the minister, Rev Peter Gardner and his assistant, Sandy Forsyth, wandered in, learned who we were and introduced themselves. They are very nice and we did say we hoped to see them on Sunday.
We were hopelessly overweight with our luggage. We just seemed to have accumulated things, and have been given many gifts by those wonderful folk in Latheron. We went to the post office where we learned that we could post 10 kilos surface mail for £111 but not to expect to see it any time in the near future.
We decided the only way was to contact Transglobal, the courier firm that took our 25 kilo bag a few weeks ago. (Door to door for £97 including insurance, delivery in 3-4 days).
\Next, we found the magnificent Mitchell Library, with its beautiful Victorian architecture. It is so impressive and is huge. It also has free internet access for its members, and it costs nothing to join, so of course I joined. I am now a card carrying member of the Wick Highlands library, Glasgow library and Shetland library!
We found the Transglobal website, filled in the paperwork, paid online and printed out the forms. It was such a relief to have our luggage worries taken off our hands.
You will have trouble believing what British Airways charges for overweight baggage. We were quoted £55 a KILO.

Wednesday 26 August: The Edinburgh Military Tattoo

We had booked a hotel room in Edinburgh where we could spend the night after attending the Tattoo. It meant we had to vacate the Glasgow room overnight, so this morning we transferred a veritable mountain of luggage down to the bus depot in a taxi and deposited it there, for £4 an item, to be stored overnight. The chap behind the counter took pity on us and did not charge us for the walker’s sticks or for a small bag Janet had bought at the one pound shop, into which we had thrown some paperwork and bits and piece.
We boarded a bus there for Edinburgh and were there in not much over an hour. “Auld Reekie” is the ancient name given Edinburgh I believe, made mention, if memory serves me right, in a poem by the Scots poet Robert Fergusson (born 1750 in Edinburgh. Died in Bedlam lunatic asylum, in 1774, unhappy man).
A taxi took us to our hotel just off the Royal Mile. As soon as we were settled in, we went for a walk – and were greeted by an amazing sight. As we entered the Royal Mile, we were confronted by a teeming horde of people of such that no one could number, stretching away out of sight. As we moved further along, we heard spoken just about every language under the sun. Edinburgh at this time of the year is a veritable Babel. (Genesis 11:9).
We discovered that not only is it the month of the Military Tattoo; it is also the month of the annual Edinburgh Festival.
As well as all that, this year of 2009 is also the 250th birthday of the Scotland’s most famous bard, Robert Burns.
Walking along, we observed countless numbers of entertainers, all trotting their stuff in the open air, for the weather was fine… jugglers a-juggling comedians entertaining, sword swallowers a-swallowing, beggars a-begging, pipers merrily a-piping,  street painters a-painting, and much more.. one fellow was standing on his head, which ws enclosed in a bucket. The Church was there too, for I saw a couple of open air evangelists, and spoke to them, and took their photo. I tell thee, never did we see the like afore. We stood and stared in wonder, like the Irishman from the mountains of Mourne who went to London, and sang of it. We stood there,  mouths agape, and several times I was forced to mutter, ‘Well, we ain’t got nuthin’ like this back in dead dawg Creek, Australia!”
I was keen to go to the Church of Scotland head office, 121 George St to see what was there, and also to browse again in the Church Store where all things pertaining to clergy and items clerical could be obtained, from books to raiment. It was just over eleven years ago that Rev Jim Reid and I were there and both of us purchased a clerical shirt from a “half price” display. I still have mine.
We were there briefly, discovered that the church stores shop is no longer there (“all done online these days”) and spent the rest of the day exploring the central part of old Edinburgh. We walked for miles and miles. We discovered the unfortunately ugly new Scottish parliament house, from where one can see the lovely, elegant towers of Holyrood castle.
At 8.15pm Janet said, “It’s time we were off.”
We set off back into the Royal Mile and made our way up towards Edinburgh Castle.
We found ourselves part of a living, breathing, multi-coloured conveyor belt, edging its way into the castle grounds, amid an air of great excitement.
Finally we were in, and seated, right at the very top of the North Stand. The view was superb. The stands were all crammed with people, with views down to the central square (which at other times is the castle car park). As we waited for the Military Tattoo to start (our tickets courtesy of the generosity of the Hewsons) the MC read out several announcements. We listened idly, and then were astonished to hear “Also with us tonight are Tony and Janet Lang, from Australia…” Janet started yelling excitedly “Did you hear that? That’s US!!” I remonstrated with her at once of course, for her poor grammar, telling her to shout “We are the ones (of whom he speaks!)” but she took no notice.
We have no idea who put forward our names, but deep suspicion must fall upon the heads of the Hewsons! Anyway, we were much excited.

The stands at Edinburgh Castle

The stands at Edinburgh Castle

I can’t go into all the details of the Tattoo itself for too much is involved, except to say it was utterly enthralling, colourful, spectacular, and we were proud to see the Australian Federal Police Pipe Band. We knew that among them was the nephew of Peggy, from St John’s Mayfield NSW, and wished we could have picked him out.
Also there were Australian dancers who performed a dance based on Robert Burns’s poem “Tam o’  Shanter.” It was brilliantly done.
To my way of thinking, the most entertaining was the Tongan Military Band. They were so funny! They really put on quite a show, and played and sang (and danced) so entertainingly, but every performance was special, unique, memorable.
It was nearing 11pm when we made our way back, again in the midst of the human conveyor belt, down the Royal Mile towards our hotel.
We were exhausted, for it was 08.40 by the time we even awoke the following morning, but we hurried about, hurried on foot to the bus station and were on a bus back to  Glasgow by 9.30am.
I was keen to be back by 11.30, because if we were later than that, we would have to pay for another 24 hours storage on our bags, despite being possibly minutes overdue.
The bus was full. Janet was on one side of the aisle and I was on the other. I was seated next to a pleasant young lass who is a student at Edinburgh University and is Irish. She told me all about her family, skiing holidays with her family in Canada (Whistler) and family trips to New York and so forth.
She did not know who I was, for I have learned over many years to be coy. Some folk have a strange reaction when finding themselves seated next to a minister. There was that occasion on the train to Newcastle where I had a man crying on my shoulder – literally crying. It was a guilt thing I seem to recall and he decided it was confession time.
Others like to ramble on about their particular philosophy of life: “I’m not religious, but….” is the usual opening line. I sit there, offering the occasional grunt because I do not want to be involved in their ramblings.
Others have thrown me a cunning glance and come up with something like:
“Now here’s a question I’ll bet you parsons have never thought of…. Who made God???  Gotcha, haven’t I?”
I have learned to be quiet. Anyway, my travelling companion this day was pleasant, and the time soon passed.
We were back in plenty of time to collect our baggage, which I did at the desk while Janet found a taxi.
In the afternoon Janet decided to separate all that was going with Transglobal Couriers and put it in one bag, ready to go. She had not long started when suddenly she exclaimed “There’s a bag missing! When you picked up the bags, you missed one!” It was the very one without a tag. I went off to fetch it – a small cheap bag, like a shopping bag with a zip top she’d bought in Glasgow. I walked to the bus depot and asked for it. “It’s blue and white striped,” I told the man at the desk.
He came back. “I can’t find it. Hold on – I’ll look again” and disappeared.
When he returned he was shaking his head. “Sorry – can’t find it. If you can’t find it at home, come back and I’ll get the supervisor.”
I wasn’t too worried. I remembered it seemed full of books and papers.
When I gave Janet the news she practically had hysterics. “Tony – that bag has all the paperwork for the courier – the most important papers of all – he can’t take the bag without them!” Major panic, believe me.
“You sent them on a wild goose chase,” she told me; “it’s not a blue and white striped bag at all – it’s a red and green checked bag!”
She sent me back. The man behind the counter took me back into the storage room and sure enough, he found it in two ups.  He picked it up, looked at it, went pale, dropped it and stuttered, “Th – there’s a bomb in there!”
Just as he had his mouth open to yell ‘BOMB – RUN!” or something similar, which would have transformed the vast Glasgow bus station into a sea of confusion and terror, I realised what it was and called “It’s not a bomb!”
When we’d thrown papers and things into the cheap plastic bag, I’d discovered I’d left my cordless mouse out of the main bag, so threw that in. When the mouse is turned upside down it emits a red, flashing light from underneath, which I suppose has something to do with what makes it operate cordlessly. I could see the flashing light through the thin plastic. It’s a wonder the battery hadn’t gone flat. Taking the bag from the hand of the still shaking and pale-faced young man, I fled….
That’s the second time I’ve done that. The first time was some years ago, on a small local ferry. I’d inadvertently left my lunch box on the ferry when I had disembarked. The new laws about bags left in public places had just come in.
In accordance with the new rules, the ferry was evacuated, the police came and eventually the  bomb squad  took the little lunch box and blew up my cheese and pickle sandwich…. (So I discovered later).
We spent Saturday 29 August on the hop on, hop off bus and came to have a deeper appreciation of Glasgow and its long, fascinating history. There are many magnificent buildings and interesting sites. I have wanted to go to ‘The Barras” for years. It’s an old fashioned market, dating back to the time when people flogged all sorts of items for sale from barrows. We wandered around the barras, a rather down at heel part of Glasgow, but interesting nonetheless.
We loved the timeless elegance of “The people’s palace” which is a museum of the social history of Glasgow. Behind it is a beautiful “wintergarden” containing a cafe and grounds full of tropical plants, some of which grow in our garden here at Wangi.

The wintergarden at the peoples palace

The wintergarden at the people's palace

Most impressive of all is Kelvingrove museum, which we were told is the most visited museum in Britain. The building that houses the museum is an architectural gem.

Kelvingrove Museum

Kelvingrove Museum

We discovered that Glasgow is a city of culture: home to the arts and music. Every week there are 137 different music and drama performances around the city. Its parks and gardens are plentiful and lovely. Outside the highlands and the islands, it has the largest Gaelic speaking population in Scotland.
The grand Glasgow Cathedral (St Mungo’s) dates back to the 13th century and is open to visitors daily. The Church of Scotland holds services there weekly.

Glasgow Cathedral known as St Mungos or St Kentigirn

Glasgow Cathedral known as St Mungo's or St Kentigirn

We came to be quite fond of the charming and cosmopolitan city of Glasgow, with its friendly inhabitants, and all the time I was conscious of the fact that so many of my relatives are buried there. I am sure I have living relatives there if I knew where to find them. On our last, brief visit here in 1998 we found the house in Langside where my mother lived.

Sunday August 30: The Last Day
This morning we went to the lovely St Stephen’s church in Bath Street Glasgow, where we were made very welcome. It was an uplifting service and afterwards we met many of the congregation over a cuppa in the hall.
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur… at 3.30pm we were at Glasgow airport.

Waiting dejectedly at Glasgow airport

Waiting dejectedly at Glasgow airport

At 6pm we were in a BA A319 Air Bus bound for Heathrow.
The nightmare that is Heathrow followed. By 9pm however we were aboard a BA Boeing 777, Sydney bound.
We hit the tarmac at Sydney airport at 5.15am on Tuesday 1 September…
Days have passed… days spent with family and friends… days and nights overcoming the uncomfortable strain of jet lag during which I have not had the energy to write much.
Our amazing neighbours have watched over our house, “Puddleby on Sea”, have tended to lawns and shrubs. It is much the same as when we left it. We can never repay them.
In the garden is a ripening bunch of bananas.

 Puddleby on Sea, Wangi Wangi NSW

Puddleby on Sea, Wangi Wangi NSW

Janet and the bananas at Puddleby

Janet and the bananas at Puddleby

I sometimes have a strange sensation that those wonderful months spent in the parish of Latheron, in beautiful Caithness, were part of a lovely dream – but there are smiling faces in my dreams, and braes and burns and heather-sweet hills and people and adventures too real to be dreams.
Looking down at me from a shelf above my desk is a teddy bear, wearing a cheerful tartan bow tie, arms open in a welcome. It was sitting on the desk in the manse at Lybster when we arrived, thoughtfully put there by one of those gracious people we have come to know and love, and it kept me company all those days.
Each time I look at the bear I think of them.

The Bear

The Bear

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Recollections & Reflections in which it appears both Langs are becoming slightly dottled (Caithness speak, meaning a kangaroo loose in the top paddock)

Central Manse
Main Street
Lybster
Caithness KW3 6BN
Scotland
15 August 2009

It is getting on for 11pm Saturday 15 August. Outside it is overcast with the promise of more rain, but the chill wind that blew for much of the day has dropped.
The long days of summer are now over and by 10pm I see stars… when there aren’t clouds, which is rare, but I did photograph half a lovely Caithness moon the other night before it disappeared shyly behind another bank of clouds.

Caithness moon from the manse

Caithness moon from the manse

When we were down near Lybster harbour this morning I noted the heather is only now beginning to show on the hills. Being so far north (approximately the same latitude as Siberia) the heather arrives later here than further south.
That bridge in the photo is interesting historically. It is called a “Wade Bridge.” Between 1725 and 1737 the English General Wade directed the construction of some 250 miles of roads, as well as 40 bridges, to enable English troops to move more easily around the highlands in the subduing of the Jacobites, so the bridge is ancient.

The heather on the hill

The heather on the hill

Weighing heavily on us is  the sad approach of our leaving, in just over a week’s time,  but I will forget that for the moment and cast my thoughts back over the past couple of weeks or so ago, aided by my trusty diary……….
(Lang’s rheumy old eyes roll back into his head as he begins to think; an activity these days that leads to headaches and nervous twitches).
A lot of it may be a bit boring, but skip those bits and if you like comics, just look at the pictures…..

This morning we did a lot of cleaning and packing. I emptied a lot of stuff out of my study, put some in cases and chucked other stuff out I thought I was going to keep, but one never does when it has to be sent 20,000km with the associated expense.
We went in to Wick later today. Janet wanted to get a few things and I needed diesel for the car, and Wick has the closest garage (13 miles to Wick, 20 miles to Helmsdale).
We did our wee bit shopping and then went to the Wick Heritage Centre. Janet had been, but I had not. It was the busiest herring port in Scotland at one stage. In two days one year, fifty-million fish were landed. Is it any wonder the herring industry self-destructed?
Anyway, the Heritage Centre is a fascinating place and we enjoyed it thoroughly.
On Wednesday we went out of the parish. We drove to the pretty village of Watten, 13 miles away, where I returned two books to Michael and his wife Rena with whom we have become good friends.
Michael, a retired Church of Scotland minister, is the one who built a big model of the 19th century clipper Ariel out of matchsticks. It is so beautiful! I put a pic of it in the blog some time ago. He and Rena are quite delightful folk. When we arrived, they were ‘lifting” (harvesting) a large garden bed of potatoes.
They had three big tubs of them. Each year they put the tubs of potatoes in their shed where  they keep well all the cold winter and provide them with an ample supply of potatoes. Imagine doing that in Australia. You’d have a shed full of  rotting potatoes!
Michael and Rena have a beautiful garden which includes a hothouse, which was full of ripening tomatoes. The home-grown tomatoes here are delicious: small, but of an unusual sweetness. I must try to get a vacuum sealed packet to bring home.
From there we drove to Thurso, a few miles further on to see Rev Kev Cooper, the other Oz minister who  belongs to the same Presbytery I do in Australia. We’ve known him and Jenny his wife for a long time. We went to see them before we leave, and the four of us went to a little cafeteria for lunch, for it will be the last time we see them before we leave.
We then drove to Wick and had to wait around for a couple of hours to go to our next port of call. We are trying to see everyone before we leave on 24 August.
Wick has a very pretty little mall off the main street, called the market square. It is beautifully decorated with tubs and vases of flowers, and I sometimes wonder how long they would last in some of our vandal-ridden Australian towns.

Flower be-decked market square in Wick

Flower be-decked market square in Wick

As we strolled through we stopped to chat to a lady who was leading two gorgeous dogs. One was a Sheltie and the other a four-month old sable collie. We’ve had two sable collies. They are beautiful dogs and we love them. The two we saw that day were very handsome, and placid too, and I spent a long time admiring them and patting them – particularly the sable collie whose name, the lady informed us, is Cuillin, after the magnificent mountain range on the island of Skye. I recall seeing it when we were on Skye.
There’s a great Scots song called “The Road to the Isles” which I am sure many will know:
“The far Cuillins are pullin me away, as  tak’ I wi’ my crummack to the isles..”
(A crummack is a walking stick, for walking in the hills, or a shepherd’s crook, similar I imagine to the one dear old John Gunn is going to give me when he finishes it).
Finally we bade the lady good-day and ambled on a short distance to a little coffee shop called Morag’s, for we still had time to kill.  We go in there from time to time.
It is a really pleasant place to rest one’s weary bones. We had just settled down and ordered when the lady who owns the dogs appeared.
“I live just around the corner,’ she told us. “I left the dogs at home and came to find you. I brought you this.” She handed us a  beautiful picture of Cuillin when he was a couple of weeks or so old. It is so lovely. I have scanned it and must show you.

 Cuillin the collie puppy when a few weeks old.

Cuillin the collie puppy when a few weeks old.

What a wonderful thing to do, for complete strangers! I am just as much thrilled with that sort of kindness as I am with the photo. The photo does however rekindle my love of collies. Finally it was time for us to go to the home of Rev John McPhee and his wife Noela (who is Australian). They are such delightful, hospitable folk, and we had been invited for dinner. They have spent many years as missionaries in places such as Central South America.
Noela is a Queenslander from Biggenden.
On Tue we had morning tea with our organist at Dunbeath and I did some visiting after that. In the evening we were at dinner again, this time with one of our parishioners, a retired lady schoolteacher. Another lady was also a guest; the one who runs a croft and owns Calainn, the beautiful Highland pony.
It was a most interesting evening where I picked up many of the strange Caithness words I hear about the  place, such as “boorach.’
“Och, come in, Tony and Janet, but dinnae mind the hoose. It’s a real boorach” (mess).
Of course it wasn’t. She is a very neat and tidy lady.
Unfortunately, the locals we visit for meals, morning or afternoon teas are extravagantly generous in the portions they serve, so not only are we not maintaining weight; we can’t help putting on a wee bit.
On Monday we were at lunch again! The folk in the parish are making our last days memorable. We were with Andrew and Jean and their whippet, Watson. They have a lovely home with glorious views down the coast across the steep, majestic sea cliffs of Caithness, looking out across green hills dotted with sheep. Looking out to the south,  the vast North Sea stretches away and on clear days it is possible to make out the distant hills of Aberdeenshire, about sixty miles away.
In the late afternoon we were at the home of  Eric and Eileen, being served a most elegant but overly generous afternoon tea. Eileen is a fabulous cook and delights in her ‘home bakes” as cake making is called here (and in Shetland too). Eric and Eileen have one of the three shops in the village, and a hundred years ago Eileen’s great grandfather had it as a draper’s shop.
The house is attached to the back of the shop. From the road the house cannot be seen, but when one walks through the shop to the house and garden, one is greeted by a small paradise. The house is Caithness stone, large and handsome and the garden glorious.

Eileens and Erics lovely garden

Eileen's and Eric's lovely garden

Eileen serves Janet and Alice afternoon tea

Eileen serves Janet and Alice afternoon tea

“Did you see the sign on the shop door?” Eileen asked me as she handed me a cup of tea. I hadn’t, so went to look. We were astonished, as well as pleased. Those arrangements were made without a hint of it reaching us!

 Notice on Erics & Eileens shop door

Notice on Eric's & Eileen's shop door

Our last Australian visitor, Sandra, left early Sunday morning. She had a nice time I think.
On Friday she and Janet had caught the bus down to Helmsdale village, 20 miles south and had an enjoyable time. They visited the little  museum down there, walked the pretty streets and told me “my” house is still for sale. It is a pretty, white-washed cottage down at the tiny Helmsdale harbour and above the door has the name  “Harbour Cottage – 1816.” Yes, it was built nearly 200 years ago and is yours for a mere £120,000.
While they were doing that, I was out tending the flock around the parish and in the afternoon doing some work for Sunday.
Janet and Sandra have gone off to various places such as down to Helmsdale and up to Wick so it has been a diversion for Janet who has had someone with whom to go places when I haven’t had the time.
Sandra went out each day to pick a large bowl of raspberries and redcurrants that grow wild in our overgrown  garden, so  we had fresh dessert each night – delicious, with cream and ice cream!
Rev Arthur Pearce and wife Joan  (UCA) were here for a couple of days. (He was the Methodist minister, Berrigan-Tocumwal-Finley when I was Presbyterian minister at Tocumwal-Finley, ‘way back in the early 70’s and we’ve been friends ever since).
We took the Pearces and Sandra up to Dunnet Head (mainland Britain’s most  northerly point) and John o’ Groats one day and on the way back took them to the Whalegoe steps,  and also the Camster Cairns, the 5,000 year old tombs, for both are on our doorstep. Arthur and Joan took us out to dinner at the good ol’ Portland Arms hotel in our village that night.

Arthur & Joan Pearce and Sandra & Janet at John o Groats

Arthur & Joan Pearce and Sandra & Janet at John o' Groats

On Tuesday, Prince Charles was at Dunbeath, the little village which is the place of the other church in the parish. There is an old mill there by the strath , dating back to the early 1700s, which has been under repair and we were told he was going to open it as a tourist spot. He is very interested in restoration of historic sites.
At 11.30 we, Sandra and the Pearces were all in a good spot in front of the mill, awaiting the arrival of Prince Charles.
Hardly anyone was there – maybe twenty if that and as many waiting security type people with suspicious bulges under the right armpits etc and some police. About an hour later PC arrived in a huge Audi, had a cursory look about, squeezed the flesh of the few waiting local dignitaries and departed without as much as a single glance at us gawking plebs.

 Prince Charles at Dunbeath

Prince Charles at Dunbeath

Made suitably aware of our lowly status in the Great Scheme of Things we repaired, chastened, to the  little tea house near the Laidhay museum (it was an old croft house with attached byre and has a thatched roof) and had a light lunch, served by the two charming ladies who run it, who also make a great deal of the top quality food they serve.
During the week we learned we owed an apology to Prince Charles. For his visit we should have been up at the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. Where we were at the mill was just a private affair, we were told, largely for those involved with the restoration of the mill.
Apparently there was a smallish crowd at the Heritage Centre too, where tea and sticky buns were served and he spoke to lots of folk, shook hands with many, met some school children and called out to everyone, “Are you all from Dunbeath?”
Someone called “No – Manchester!” and he called back a cheery “Good on yer!” or similar and gave them a wave.
If we’d been there and called out “No – Australia!” he may even have come over and greeted us personally! Oh well, it was not to be.
From Dunbeath  we took our guests to the 4,000 year-old standing stones of Achavanich, about four miles from Lybster.
It was on one of those roads that we saw a horse and cart with a couple of locals.
It looked so picturesque.

Horse and cart

Horse and cart

On Monday. I was out alone, visiting, and it was a glorious Caithness summer day.
At one home I was greeted by five children and three dogs that came charging down the drive. It was so funny, with the children accompanying me up to the house chatting away  happily and the dogs leaping up and about and barking  in a frenzy of excitement, trying to outdo one another as a welcoming committee.
It was wonderful to be out among those glorious hills. The narrow winding roads through the hills were empty. The sun beamed down mildly from a soft, pale blue sky, upon which the Master Painter had daubed the occasional touch of white.  The green and gentle hills were dotted  here and there with sheep and highland cattle, while off to the south, the darker blue of the North Sea sparkled and danced.
The tranquil beauty of it all refreshes heart and soul. There is an enchantment about Caithness that is very special and quite spiritual.

Hills and sea

Hills and sea

It would be interesting to be here in the harsher season of winter, when days are short and nights long, when snows flurry and whirl in the biting winds, and all appears dead and drear.. ..and yet, as the Lord said to those who gathered at the apparent deathbed of Jairus’s little daughter, “She is not dead, but asleep” (Luke 8:52).  And so she was, and so we rejoice in the miracle of the seasons.
One day Janet, who was writing a postcard, came in.
“Can you remember our postcode?” she wanted to know.
“KW3 6BN” I told her.
“No – our Australian postcode.”
I was thinking about it (I know it off by heart) when she found it somewhere.
“We live on Watson Road, don’t we – or is it street?”
”It’s road,” I told her, “and Watson? That doesn’t sound right. That’s the name of Andrew’s and Jean’s whippet down at Latheron.”
She went back to our address book. “It’s WATKINS!” she exclaimed. “I looked up our neighbour’s address! We live on Watkins Road!”
“I just hope you can remember what town we live in,” I grumbled.
Now this, I thought, is an interesting development. It appears Janet is becoming slightly dottled for reason or reasons unknown, while thankfully I am remaining sane.
Maybe Janet is right. Maybe it IS time we went home!
Earlier that day we took Sandra for a walk along the strath of Dunbeath. She is the only one we have been able to take, for the weather has been too bad when we’ve wanted to take other visitors from Oz.
It was glorious today and we walked down until we could see the gorge called  Creag an Fhithich  towering above us, before turning back. I love that strath, with its woods and little glens and the rippling burn… the ancient wall, where once stood a monastery a thousand years and more ago, and further on, burial cairns dating back 5,500 years. It is an amazing place. Nearly all its history is pre-history.
On the walk back Sandra found more wild raspberries so we stopped a while to try one or two.
On the way home I turned off along the Forse Road. It heads off towards the sea, and I had been told of the ruin of a castle down there. Few ever go there.
Further along we parked the car and walked another half mile or so to the cliffs where there is indeed a ruined castle. It must have been a sight, fifteen centuries ago when it was built.
All that remains is part of a wall. It was built out on a headland and the only way to the castle wall itself is along a very narrow spit of land which falls away quickly into the sea below. It must have been easily defended. It is a bit too dangerous to walk right up to it…… for me, anyway.
These days, looking beyond it out to sea, one can observe an oil rig on the horizon! What a contrast – an oil rig and the ruin of a of a 6th century castle!

Ruined castle with the oil rig just visible through the haze

Ruined castle with the oil rig just visible through the haze

One Saturday we went off to Sinclair castle, outside Wick. It was a special day for the Hoose o’ Sinclair. It was open day at the old 14th century castle. (Later additions in the 16th century). It’s a ruin but the work is progressing to restore in time a great deal of it. Janet and I had been surreptitiously let in for a private look around some time ago, but the guide gave us some very interesting information about the history of the castle. He is passionate about its restoration. Without doubt it is superior to Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.
From there we walked half a mile or so along a path across the fields, admiring the new heather which is starting to stand out in soft and lovely purple raiment among the grasses and peat. By the middle of the month its beauty will transform many a dark hill and mountain, and brighten the shore of many a lonely loch. (5.1 million people live in Scotland but they occupy only 3% of the land mass. 97% is uninhabited!)
Our walk took us to the Sinclair Centre. It is a lighthouse, still in operation, but the clan owns it and its rooms contain much of the clan history, reading rooms etc.
There was a carnival atmosphere there. In a tent, musicians in mediaeval garb played mediaeval music. It was lovely to listen to. Someone else had a stall selling the fabled pure Caithness honey, from the nectar of wildflowers. Pipers played merrily.

The mediaeval players

The mediaeval players

An unpleasant smell wafted to me. It turned out to be a pig roasting on a spit.
My vegetarian nostrils were affronted, but judging by the line-up I was in a very small minority! Another man was wood-turning.
The highlight of the day, however, was yet to come: a re-enactment of a skirmish between English redcoats and highland clansmen! When I enquired if it represented any particular battle, I was told no – it’s just something that might have happened in the highlands in the 18th century.
In a clearing in the grounds, the “battle” finally took place. It was amazingly realistic. Both sides used flintlock rifles, and both sides were appropriately dressed.
The enemies faced each other. The redcoat commander issued orders. The redcoats fired, with noisy discharging of weapons and much smoke from black powder.
The highlanders fired back. Men on both sides fell. Then the highlanders charged, in the style that carried their enemy before them in many a conflict. The onlookers cheered as the redcoats fell back in the hand to hand fighting. Finally it was over.
The English ‘dead’ lay thick upon the field, and prisoners were carted off as the onlookers cheered the triumphant highlanders. It was all a lot of fun. There would have been hell to pay up here in the Highlands if the redcoats had won!

The Highlanders charge

The Highlanders charge

A marvellous surprise
When the Hewsons, friends from Newcastle left us, they left us with a most exciting gift. They had been going to go to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo on 26 August but then realised they have other commitments and can’t go, so gave us the tickets!! We are really excited.
It was so good of them.  Our night at the Tattoo is 26 August.
They spent Wednesday morning packing, but just after lunch they followed us in their car to Dunbeath. Janet and I had been invited to go with the Dunbeath Care Centre folk to go to the beautiful gardens at Dunbeath Castle. The castle itself is nothing less than exquisitely beautiful and is a private home, set in vast and glorious gardens, tended by full-time, professional  gardeners. The gardens surpass anything we have seen that is privately owned.
The owners very kindly invite the Day Care people around from time to time and provide a vine afternoon tea. Janet and I have met the lady of the house a few times. She is a very pleasant and warm person who invited us into the castle at one time and has told us we can visit the gardens any time.

Dunbeath Castle. The egg is a wedding anniversary present

Dunbeath Castle. The egg is a wedding anniversary present

Janet in the garden at Dunbeath Castle

Janet in the garden at Dunbeath Castle

It was our pleasure to be able to take the Hewsons to see the gardens, which they loved, but after a short time they had to be on their way to Ullapool to catch a ferry to the Hebrides.
Wednesday had not finished with us. Among the congregation at Dunbeath are Bill and Cherry. They are really charming folk and invited us to join them for drinks and nibblies in the evening. I had not been to their home before  but knew where it is.
At 6pm we drove through a set of imposing gates and proceeded down a long driveway, heavily wooded on either side. We must have driven down it for at least a quarter of a mile. When we saw the house, we gasped, for it is a beautiful stone manor house, mid-19th century and in superb condition. Bill and Cherry are very hospitable and warm folk. Pauline our session clerk was there and John (another one of the congregation) as well as another couple.
We were treated to a very pleasant evening.

Bills & Cherrys home

Bill's & Cherry's home

Tuesday 28 July:
The Hewsons arrived on 27 July. They were very keen to go to the Castle of Mey – the castle that was owned by the Queen Mother, so we took them there on today. It’s not very far from here – about thirty miles.  It is a handsome castle and kept to perfection.
It’s not large as far as castles go, but the Queen Mother has left in it all her homely little ornaments, her old furniture and photos and paintings – even some of her favourite clothes, and it’s almost as if she were still  there. The people showing us about who still remember her, speak of her with the greatest affection. She was indeed a very lovely, kindly and naturally warm person.
At 5.45pm we were back in Wick, where we met Pauline, our session clerk and her hubby John, and the six of us went off to dinner at the lovely McKay’s hotel as guests of the kindly Hewsons. It was a jolly evening.
McKay’s is such a pleasant hotel and the owner is a gentleman. He sent over a complementary glass of port each. He knows John and Pauline very well.

The Hewsons at Dunbeath Harbour with Janet

The Hewsons at Dunbeath Harbour with Janet

The Combined Parish Family Service at Dunbeath went very well indeed and there was a large congregation. My usual sermon starter joke had ‘em in the aisles. Remind me to tell it one day– it’s about a watch. You may have heard it.
The service was arranged to suit the younger folk so we sang some jolly Christian songs and it was a nice, bright service. I asked one of the children a question and had to get her to repeat the answer THREE times – I just could not understand her Caithness accent!


Sunday evening, 16 August

My recollections of the past two weeks or so are now complete. (Rheumy old eyes flutter as their owner struggles into semi-consciousness).

Oh – I had better tell you about today. We had a really good couple of services and it seems to me the congregations have been building up a little. I feel I am leaving at the wrong time. I did suggest to Janet that I stay and she go, but she jumped at the idea with such enthusiasm it occurred to me it may not be such a good idea…..

This afternoon we went to see Merran, Stewart, young Jamie, their lovely blue merle border collie Wolfy and their two amiable cats, Pichi and Pippin. I had to smile when we walked into Merran’s kitchen. High on top of a kitchen cupboard was a cardboard box and protruding from the box I observed one dark, pointed ear. I reached up and tapped the box. There was a faint stirring from within, and then two beautiful blue eyes, set in a dark face, appeared and regarded me sleepily as if to say “OK – what’s all the fuss about?” It was Merran’s handsome Siamese cat, Pichi, which means “Peach Blossom.”  “He discovered that up there is the warmest place in the house,” Merran explained, “and as he was always jumping up there, the best solution was to put one of his daybeds there!” All of us cat lovers are aware of the practical intelligence of cats, who will invariably find the warmest or the coolest place around, depending on the temperature. (The other day I observed a farm cat draped across a hay bale, soaking up the warm sun). We left Pichi to return to his slumbers but were joined later by Merran’s other lovely cat, the sociable Pippin.

Merran’s father who is visiting has been quite a famous  piper in his day and is teaching Jamie, who played “Scotland the Brave” for us and by his playing I think it highly likely he will follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
Och well, it is quite late and soon I will totter awa’ tae ma wee bed, trying not to disturb Janet who has been in the land of Nod for quite some  time. She needs her sleep these days.
Before I post this to daughter Heather, who is my blog editor, I will run it past a Hester, who lives up the road, and is, I have discovered, an excellent proof reader as well as a fine grammarian.
She likes to mark my work and although naturally reserved and shy, like so many highlanders, did agree to a photo. She is very intelligent. Not so much as a split infinitive gets past her.
There was a time that Janet used to be my proof reader, but now that she appears to be slightly dottled I am having to rely on Hester.

Hester

Hester

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Highland Wanderings

Central Manse
Main street
Lybster
Caithness KW3 6BN
Scotland
Friday 10 July 2009

Summer days mean school holidays. I was speaking to someone the other day about the school holidays and she sighed and said “Och – the year is running away. In no time at all it will be the tattie holidays.”
“What,” I asked, “are the tattie holidays?”
“They’re the October holidays,” she explained. “At one time all the children had to have holidays in October to help gather in the tatties (potato harvest) and the October holidays still go by that name.”
Tomorrow is the Latheron Show Day and all us Highland  teuchters will be there. Janet is keen to go in the morning – but I also have to fit in an interview with someone regarding the funeral on Tuesday.
In the  afternoon there is the wedding of one of the parishioners. I don’t have to officiate,  but we are invited.
The following day there is the Kirk – where the happy groom is to be confirmed!
We will be staring at each other rather bleary-eyed I suspect, for the reception is to go quite late.
I have the two morning services plus one in the afternoon at a home for the physically and mentally disabled.
From Mon to Fri in the mornings there is a church-run “Kids’ Club” in which both Janet and I are involved and of course on Tue afternoon there is the funeral of our dear Margaret Gunn.

Saturday 11 July:
It is now 9.30pm, for we snuck away from the wedding early, for tomorrow looms large on my horizon.
In the morning I had the interview with the lady I needed to speak to, for information on Margaret Gunn. They taught together at Wick High School. Margaret was such an amazing woman. I spent a lot of time with her and her cats over the past three months. She was crippled at a young age, result of drinking TB-infected milk. It got into the bones in her legs and she spent a lot of time – years – in hospital as a child. She grew up in “the Ha’ (which Colonials would not be able to  pronounce).
It means “The Hall” as in “Toad Hall.” It is now called “Lybster House” and dates back to the 17th century. The house is invisible behind a lovely wooded garden, across the field from the manse.
Anyway, she was of an indomitable spirit, was very bright, gifted in art and music, gained a degree in teaching at Edinburgh University, taught English and was a devout Christian, and member of the Kirk here. She even managed to play a round or two of  golf! I really enjoyed her  sense of humour and the fact that she loved cats. We will all miss Margaret.
Later we went off to the Latheron Show, which was held in a field here at Lybster. It was a tiny country show, just like we get in Australia but I don’t know if I have ever seen one so small. It was marvellous. We wandered about the grounds, admiring pens of chooks (some amazing- looking fowls, breeds I have not seen before), sheep, goats, cattle. All had been judged and the winners had their ribbons tied to their pens… all except the goats, which are not above eating them. Theirs were on the ground in front. There were parades of beautiful horses and ponies from Clydsdales to Shetlands and also the dressage competitions. There were a few stalls of course, with fairy floss (what the locals call candy floss), burgers etc and Janet bought a bucket of chips which we ate as we walked about in the chill wind that blew from leaden skies. It was all the fun of the fair but we had to leave, for at 3pm were at a wedding down at little Latheron Harbour. The couple are members of our congregation: Tony and Gay, a delightful couple. Tony is recent ex-Royal Navy so wore his uniform jacket with Black Watch kilt and looked very handsome. I did not have to officiate. Our deacon John Craw did that excellently, and looked magnificent in Trews. He is extremely tall: ex-Army. He was REME for 22 years. A couple of youngsters piped and many men were kilted. It was a real Scots wedding, although the groom is Welsh and the bride English.

The happy bride & groom

The happy bride & groom

It was freezing down there at Latheronwheel harbour, with an icy wind blowing straight in off the North Sea. Janet very sensibly wore the overcoat Jean from St John’s Waratah-Mayfield loaned her before we left. Some of the others, in frilly summer outfits, froze.
We went along to the magnificent wedding breakfast at the Portland Arms here in Lybster, but as I wrote earlier, we escaped before the show ended. It was supposed to end at 0100.

Sunday Arvo 15.30:
I had an email note from Liz in Shetland the other day. She was asking about the word “Arvo” and I had to explain that it is used in Australia and means “afternoon.”
We awoke to grey skies and cold, but there was a change. By the time the Service commenced down at Dunbeath at 10.00am it was still cold but the rain was  bucketing down. It’s back to winter and the heaters are working well here at the manse.. The Services both went well, but the Service at Lybster was special. We had another Confirmation. We had three last week and one would have thought to get them all over at once. The new communicant at today’s service however was none other than yesterday’s bridegroom, Tony!
He had spoken to me some months ago about getting confirmed. Then it occurred to him that it would be  a wonderful surprise for Gay, so a plot was formed. He did the lessons secretly. I took it to Session, who dealt with it secretly and this morning the confirmation took place. When I called Tony’s name to come forward, Gay was completely stunned! She had no idea. I explained the plot to the congregation and told the folk that Tony wanted to start his married life as a member of this congregation but wanted it to be a special surprise for his new wife who is already a member – and it certainly was a surprise! We had quite a few visitors from all over who had come up for the wedding, who were flying back to places such as London, the Midlands etc this afternoon. For them, the far north of Scotland is the very back of beyond, especially in view of the fact that 24 was the forecast for London today.
I would say about 8 or 9 would have been our maximum  – and this is mid-summer, the equivalent of our January Down Under!
After the Service we had a good hot soup for lunch but at 2.15 were at a home for the physically and mentally disabled, about three or four miles from Lybster.
Jim Morrison, the Free Church man, ran it. I wanted to observe what he did.
The home itself is a magnificent building, dating back to the 1600’s and built by some relative of the infamous 1st Duke of Sutherland, of the beautiful Dunrobin Castle down in Sutherland.
The folk there at “Force House” have severe problems but are so delightful and loving, and they love the action singing.  The staff often bring half a dozen of these folk along to the Lybster service, so I know quite  few of them.
It was on Wednesday morning I received the call to advise me that Margaret Gunn had died. Poor little Margaret. I had seen her the afternoon before, and could see that her time on this earth was rapidly drawing to a close. She was struggling – and yet I learned later that at 1.00am she was talking with the staff and having a little laugh, and died at 5.00pm.  I have two nice photos of  her cats Tilly “the flichter” as she called her, and Red, taken by her fireside. A flichter is another Caithness word and means a restless one. Margaret was an expert on the Caithness dialect. Tilly doesn’t like to sit still for long. She’s a dear little cat. If I could, I would bring her and Red home with me.
Now I must leap to last Sunday, 5 July in the year of grace, 2009.  It was a very special service – Dunbeath & Lybster combined, which is the practice of the first Sunday of the month in this Latheron parish. It was a memorable service. For the first time in years, there were confirmations. We had two, as well as two joining us from other congregations; one from England and another from NZ.
The confirmations were very moving for those participating and there were tears, hugs and kisses among the women elders and the newly confirmed. Janet said it was a moving service. It was followed by Communion, so in all, a big service, and that was followed by tea and sticky buns in the church hall, so something of a gala day. Quite a few of the folk here are now beginning to say they are not looking forward to our going. I too would stay for longer but I think Janet is ready for ‘hame and hearth’ as my dear old Scots Granny used tae say. The call of the children is in her ears.
After the service and a quick bite, we were on the road, as Janet planned.
We headed off to Wick first, where I saw Margaret for the second last time for a brief devotional.  She was still quite conscious.
We then headed west, to Thurso, passing along the top of Scotland, into the neighbouring county of Sutherland which goes all the way to the west coast and the mighty mountains of the Western Highlands.
We paused briefly at the village of Melvich, then Betty Hill, where we found a small roadside caff and enjoyed a coffee.
As we travelled, the country became increasingly mountainous, wild and lonely – and extraordinarily beautiful – only fifty miles or so from the gentle green  hills of Caithness!
The road is called single track – that is, one car wide, with passing places here and there to duck into when one meets a car coming the other way.
I was starting to stop every half a mile or so to photograph some new and beautiful scenery, seeing in the misty distance the majestic, castellated shape of Ben Loyal towering above all the others.
Finally we arrived in the pretty township of Tongue, or in the Gaelic, Tunga. Tongue rests in the shade of Ben Loyal.

War memorial in the town of Tongue with Ben Loyal

War memorial in the town of Tongue with Ben Loyal

We drove ever onwards, heading west, and I was ‘minded of the lovely Scottish song, “Westering Home.” A dear lady, Mrs Beatty in our Church, St Andrew’s Leeton, used to sing it and other Scottish songs at various church functions. Her hubby was the Session Clerk back then.
Both now have been gathered from the church militant to the church triumphant.
We passed down the lovely waterway of the Kyle of Tongue until we reached the tranquil waters of Loch Eriboll. It is a massive sea loch. During WW2 it was a mustering point for convoys. The sailors used to call Loch Eriboll “Loch ‘orrible,”we read – probably from when they were in wild winters.

 Loch Eriboll and mountain on mountain

Loch Eriboll and mountain on mountain

We travelled on and on, stopping often for photos. We came to one pleasant place and pulled over to take a few snaps.
As I stood I heard a lamb calling from a nearby hill. I strained my eyes, but just could not pick it out. The baahing seemed to be coming from exactly the same spot and went on and on.
Finally, curiosity overcame me, so I followed the sound, up the hill. Half way up there was a fault in the grassy hill that formed a narrow dirt path. Erosion had formed little hollows, like mini-caves – and it was in one of them that I found my lamb! The little fellow had backed into one of the mini dirt caves for  reason or reasons unknown, but when he tried to walk out, his shoulders were just too wide! All that was poking out were his neck and head, from which peered a couple of anxious eyes. I reached down, grabbed him by his woolly shoulders and gave a sharp tug. At once the dirt sides crumbled and broke off and the little chap was free. He went charging off down the hill without even a grateful bah, to be reunited with his anxious mother. How long he had been stuck there I could not guess, but not too long, for he was in good nick. After I had done all this I was kicking myself for not taking one photo!

 Loch Eriboll near where I found the lamb

Loch Eriboll near where I found the lamb

Finally, roughly one hundred miles from Lybster, we arrived at the town of Durness, where we intended to stay the night.
Durness is the most north-westerly town on the Scottish mainland. Cape Wrath is about ten miles further west and the most westerly mainland point, but the day was cold and overcast with a mist, so we decided not to go. We would have had to depend on a ferry anyway, for some of it.
There are only a few small  shops but lots of B&Bs. Most of them had “No Vacancy” signs, but we saw an old place with a free room, so we booked in. It must be one of the roughest B&Bs in the Highlands. We were shown into a tired old room with three single beds and a bit of ancient furniture in it, but it looked comfy enough, and indeed the beds were very comfortable.  Also in its favour was the price, which was considerably cheaper than most B&B’s so we had a good deal.

Croft house near Durness

Croft house near Durness

We were not much further north than Lybster but a long way west. It was still broad daylight, so we went to explore the famous “Smoo Caves.” The caves are at the foot of a cliff on the edge of the town.  They were inhabited in Viking and earlier times by fishermen. The word “Smoo” is from Norse Smuga or cave and there is a similar Gaelic word for cave: smudha. We had a good look through them.
The breakfast the following morning was excellent as it is in most B&B’s. We had a good look around Durness, including the pretty Bay of Balnakiel, accessed via a narrow road with stone walls either side.
Finally we drove on, now heading south towards Lairg, down by the Kyle of Durness, with the great mountains towering around us as we drove through the Highland hills. It is hard to describe it all. Remoteness, isolation, beauty, grandeur tumble as descriptions through one’s mind, but there is even more; a sort of spiritual quality that defies accurate description.

Our road through the Western Highlands

Our road through the Western Highlands

I would use ‘awesome” if it were not so trite from over-use these days.
All the same, we were filled with a sense of awe.
On we drove down that narrow, narrow road, past the mighty Ben Ghlas, heading south.
By the shores of lovely Loch Inchard we found a lonely hotel: hotel Richonich. It is a very attractive-looking pub. We stopped there for morning tea and from its window looked down the long loch with its looming hills. If ever you are up that way, we would recommend the hotel Richonich. Lovely views, fine staff.

The view down Loch Inchard from the hotel Richonich

The view down Loch Inchard from the hotel Richonich

It was a journey of seemingly never-ending lochs, burns and great mountains. On the way we were thrilled to see the heather starting to bloom on the hills, which has not happened yet in Caithness but by this time we would have been well to the south of Lybster, travelling down the west coast, while Caithness is on the far north east coast.

The house below the hill by Loch More

The house below the hill by Loch More

We are amazed at the difference between east and west coasts, only a hundred miles apart. Caithness is mainly gentler green hills and glens while the west of Sutherland inspires awe and amazement – especially for us Australians… mainland dwellers anyway. We haven’t been to Tasmania.

Ben Stack with river and bridge in the foreground

Ben Stack with river and bridge in the foreground

Finally, vast Loch Shin came into view across the misty hills. I think our Lake Macquarie would fit into one of its bays, but that may be a bit of an exaggeration! All the same, it is considerably bigger. We travelled down and down, with glorious views across its waters, until we reached our next main town: Lairg.

Loch Shin getting closer to Lairg

Loch Shin getting closer to Lairg

At once one has the feeling of a well-heeled, prosperous sort of a town and this feeling is reinforced when we discovered that there is a branch of HARRODS there!
First, however, we travelled a bit out of town to see the famous Shin falls, where at this time of the year, the salmon jump on their journey to their spawning place.
We found the falls, which are not wildly spectacular, but were thrilled indeed to see leaping salmon! Unfortunately, every time I clicked the camera, I was a tad too late and I was left with some good shots of white water…
We found the lovely Harrods shop, and entered, Janet uttering short barks of excitement before springing in, tail wagging….
Near the entrance there is a life-sized figure of Al Fayed, beaming down upon us, all done out in Highland dress.  As we ate a bowl of very tasty soup with roll for a very late lunch, I remarked to Janet “This morning we were breakfasting in one of the most run down establishments in the Highlands. This afternoon we are dining in one of the most exotic!”
Naturally Janet could not prevent herself from purchasing the odd item.
Our arrival at Lairg coincided with the arrival of heavy rain, so we did not stay too long. Finally, we headed eastwards, to the fair township of Colspie, home of some of the finest ice cream in the Highland: Capaldis. I love it. It’s on a par with the fabled Orkney ice cream.
We did not linger there however, but headed back towards the far north, and the gentle highland hills of Caithness, and hame and hearth.
We were back here about 5.30pm Monday.
All those amazing and glorious sights we saw were encompassed in a distance of only just over 200 miles, according to the car speedometer.
The following afternoon I went in to see Margaret and it was obvious the end was very close. She knew she was dying – had known for months. We had a little prayer and I pronounced the Benediction.
As I rose to leave, Margaret reached out a slender white hand. “Tony,” she whispered, “I feel like some nut milk chocolate. Would you have some, for me?” She smiled her lovely smile.
She died that night. You may recall that a few weeks ago, I asked her if I could bring her in something – a chocolate, perhaps. She told me then that, much as she liked chocolate, she could not have it. Jokingly I had suggested I eat it and think of her.
She had thought that very funny, and it became a bit of a standing joke between us.
I was told that Margaret inherited her love of art and music from her mother but her sense of fun from her father. It never left her. I still have the occasional nut milk chocolate and I still think of her.

18 July
Today, the day of the Caithness County Show at Wick, began its course with heavy rain. We were not going to go, but finally were driven out of the house by boredom and drove into Wick where, thankfully, the wind and the rain eased a little, but the Show is in the middle of a field so of course it was damp underfoot. We did not spend any money on the Ferris wheels etc and in fact hardly spent a penny. We looked at the various agricultural displays and things as we did at the Latheron Show last week.
I was interested to see a display of vintage tractors, and the most popular among them was the famous old Ferguson. The owners had brought them in for the general public to admire, and I was one who did. I would now love to own an old Fergy!
They looked as good if not better than they did when new, back in the 1950’s.
The original Ferguson tractor was grey, but later ones were red.  My father had a grey one, powered by kerosene, and my brother Bill could drive it like a veteran when he was seven years old. To reach the clutch he had to jump off the seat to push it down with his foot, for he was only wee, shove the gearstick into the next gear, then leap back on the seat again.
Nowadays we know it was highly dangerous. One slip and he would have been under those big back wheels. How many kids have been killed by tractors and other farm implements over the years? Many.

Ferguson Tractor at the  Caithness County Show

Ferguson Tractor at the Caithness County Show

My father tried his hardest to teach my mother to drive the Fergy but with disastrous and occasionally hilarious results. Poor mum– she hated it. In fact she hated anything mechanical and to the day she died would not use even a potato peeler, but always used a knife, and not being particularly dextrous took off 15 centimetres of potato with the skin as she peeled.  Well-covered fat potatoes were reduced to weedy thin naked ones.
That is why I am the way I am, and to his dying day my father could never really accept the fact: that he had an impractical wife and eldest son.
The other day I got ready to go somewhere and after putting on my attire I asked Janet how I looked. She replied, “crumpled” but then added kindly, “but that’s the way you are.” I didn’t like to ask if she were referring to my face…..
From Monday to Friday mornings, Janet and I were involved in the school holiday “Kids’ Club” run by the two Lybster churches: the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland.  It was all a lot of fun. The kids had a great time (aged 6-12) and the Scripture Union material was superb. The one running it was John Craw, our deacon who is marvellous with children and also Andrew Martin, who is one of the teachers at the local school. They both belong to this Kirk. There were lots of helpers from both churches. The one who prepared all the craft work is the wife of the Free Church of Scotland minister, Jim Morrison, and she too is a teacher at the local school. She was brilliant, with all the things she had the kids doing for craft and they loved the craft.
On Wednesday afternoon we went into Wick to purchase a bit of tucker Janet refers to my vegetarian food as “Tony food” in the same way one speaks of ‘cat food’ or ‘dog food’).
When that was done we decided to take a look at Sinclair Castle, or its ruin, which is only about two miles from Wick, right on the coast.
A heavy haar (sea fog) had settled on the land and it was all white and mysterious, for it is a lonely place. When we got there, a couple of workmen were doing some maintenance, for the Scottish heritage people are keen to stop any further deterioration. We took a few photos as we chatted to the workmen and then the boss said “Would you like to come in and have a look around?”

Janet at Sinclair Castle

Janet at Sinclair Castle

He showed us various rooms, and told us how they would have looked in days of yore, for they would have been plastered, possibly wall-papered too. It was a huge castle in its day, the ancestral home of the clan Sinclair, dating back to 1397. At one time, we were told, it would have had a staff of 250. We saw the ancient bread making oven, and the kitchen, and where the family lived, and even where the toilets were – a small room with a hole disappearing  doon to the sea below, for the castle is built on the very edge of a cliff.
On Tuesday afternoon we had the sad funeral of Margaret Gunn.
After the service in the Lybster Kirk we went off to Latheron graveyard with its glorious views down the coast past Dunbeath. It was raining and the rain softened the green land and the picturesque, towering sea cliffs, while away to the south stretched the mighty North Sea, all misty and grey and sombre that day, which well reflected the mood of us all, for Margaret was well loved in the Kirk and in the village.

23 July
I am sitting here grimacing in some pain, for I now have a bandaged knee, acquired a short time ago. The incident happened while in the process of rescuing a vagrant bee that wandered into the lounge room and was buzzing vainly against the window.
I have perfected a means of rescue and release of small flying visitors that manage to get in to the house and then want to get out, but find it impossible. They can’t understand clear glass and why they can’t get forward motion.
I brought my usual tools of the trade: a clear plastic container and a sheet of paper. The first part went well enough. I placed the plastic cup over the bee and slid the sheet of paper underneath, then turned the  cup upside down, bee inside and paper acting as lid to contain it. As I turned to leave, the usual Lang clumsiness asserted itself.
One shoe caught in a coffee table behind me which unbalanced me  (some suspect I am just, well… unbalanced). Anyway, I flew like an out of  control Dumbo the flying elephant across the room, crashed into a second coffee table and would have hit my head on a wooden inset of the armchair upon which Janet was seated, had she not deftly put her hand there, thus cushioning said head with her hand.  I lay on the floor groaning and bleeding as Janet, the former nursing sister Lang,  tended my wounds. (She gets quite a bit of practice). Even now I see blood, although largely contained, seeping through to my trouser leg at the knee, and there is a rapidly swelling bruise on my other leg. Fortunately I appear to have very strong bones, probably because of the quantity of cheese I eat.
Now here is the miracle: In all that chaos of plunging body and crashing coffee tables with contents flying everywhere,  I still held the bee in the clear plastic cup! I had the bee in the cup, and a sheet of paper over the mouth of it, and held it all the way to the floor! Admittedly the container is now split, but it held together enough for Janet to release the bee into the garden, which I implored her to do before attending to my injuries. Bees deprived of nectar don’t live long.

Sunday July 19

We had visitors at the Dunbeath Kirk which swelled the numbers nicely, but even more visitors at the Lybster Kirk, for there was a baptism there.
In fact the family and friends of parents and infant just about filled the Kirk. It was most pleasing to see. As well as the baptismal family and friends, there were also visitors from other parts of the realm, for in these summer months people travel the length and breadth of the country, from Merry England’s south to Bonnie Scotland’s north. And so it came to pass that during the service little Tyler Logan was received into the family and household of faith, through baptism.
The parents invited Janet and me to join them at a celebratory function, but we had other plans afoot.
One hour and fifteen minutes after the Benediction, bags in the boot, we were in the car and headed south, down the A99 to the A9 and down to a turn-off just before Dornoch, where we turned right, along a minor road.
It is so marvellous, getting off the major roads. Our journey took us along the side of the lovely Dornoch Firth  but we had only glimpses of it through foliage of deepest green, while here and there patches of lovely mauve wild foxgloves nodded a colourful greeting.
We arrived at the picture-book pretty village of Bonar Bridge where we turned off again, travelling through rolling hills, to arrive eventually at a lovely, secluded little hamlet called Rosehall. It was time for a cuppa – or as the old Caithness folk would say, “a wee cuppie.”
Janet went to the boot to get the thermos while I walked along the roadside a little.
I paused on the pretty stone bridge we’d just crossed in the car and looked down on the small river Cassley, burbling and bubbling its gentle way around shaded banks and braes to join, eventually, the great Dornoch Firth on its way to the sea.

The Cassley river at Rosehall, from the stone bridge

The Cassley river at Rosehall, from the stone bridge

It was a scene of quite exquisite beauty; one to soften even the most jaded soul.
Walking back along the road I saw some berries peeping through the foxgloves lining the road. When I had a closer look, I discovered they were wild raspberries, ripe and delicious.
The village was so quiet! The only person we saw was a lady walking a West Highland terrier, who exchanged a pleasant word with us.
We sat on a low, lichen covered stone wall, to enjoy our simple repast, then, hunger and thirst satiated, we were on our way again, travelling the rolling green hills, through rain-misted glens, up through steepening hills beside the Strath of Oykel, ever higher, looking down the valley floor, where the river Oykel lay like a carelessly thrown silver ribbon, past the odd lonely house until we arrived at a picturesque bay, called Ardmair, and we knew then that we were not far from Ullapool.
The bay is in the shelter of a great, cloud-wreathed peak, and all was grey before the falling rain, but nothing could disguise the beauty of the place.
We paused while to drink it all in before heading off again and soon were on a hill overlooking Ullapool, all misted with rain, where the Hebridean ferry “Isle of Lewis” was nosing into her berth.

The Hebridean ferry “Isle of Lewis” arriving at Ullapool

The Hebridean ferry “Isle of Lewis” arriving at Ullapool

Keen to find a B&B, we drove down into the town, for the hour was drawing on, although it was still quite light. We were fortunate enough to strike oil almost at once, at a charming home in a quiet street where a pleasant and rather shy lady who  introduced herself as Joan directed us to a comfortable room.
Because it was still light, we decided to have a quick look at the town and then have a meal.
Ullapool is a living picture-postcard. It is old-world picturesque, its white houses and shops set right on the harbour, where fishing boats nestle against the quay and gulls cry.  From the street one looks down wide Annat Bay, until sea, sky and hills meet.

Annat Bay on a clear morning

Annat Bay on a clear morning

The Caledonian hotel, the grandest looking building in Ullapool, provided a good and tasty repast for a reasonable price.
The following day our B&B hostess provided a very fine breakfast. By 9.00am we had bidden her good-day and were on our way.
With time on our hands we had a look at the various attractions in Ullapool and at last settled for a four-hour cruise to the Summer Isles aboard “Summer Queen”, a smallish cruise boat. The Summer Isles sounded a lovely place to visit.
The day however was overcast and rather chilly and it was a little difficult to imagine local offshore islands that would be in any way summery, but we were going for the experience, not the imagined temperature….
With about thirty other souls we boarded “Summer Queen” and departed at 10.am.
Our vessel was quite comfortable and there was plenty of room. We motored down Annat Bay to open water. The weather was rapidly deteriorating and “Summer Queen” was soon punching into a reasonable chop. We had superb views of the Summer Islands and also back to the towering heights on the mainland.
The passengers kept largely to themselves, but we heard many different languages being spoken. We fell into conversation with a friendly German girl and her friend.
Her English was very good, his almost non-existent.
The Summer Islands are not exactly spectacular, but we were seeing them at their worst, in wet and chilly conditions. Only one of the islands is inhabited: the island of Tenera Mhor, where only seven people live.
“Summer Queen” berthed at the small jetty at Tenera Mhor, up which we climbed to be greeted by by a path leading towards a long building with a red phone box outside. This, we had been told, was the local shop and post office, where we could buy postcards and send them on their way with a special Tenera Mhor stamp.
We followed the others along the path, grateful for the warm clothing that protected us from the strong, chilly wind blowing across the island.
The post office building is really a long shed, with a few tables and chairs, and a small café providing simple fare such as sandwiches, cakes, tea, coffee and cold drinks for the visitors who call.

Tenara Mhor post office and shop

Tenara Mhor post office and shop

We bought a couple of postcards and sent them with the special Tenera Mhor stamp. The locals were very charming and welcoming.
An hour later we were aboard ship again and heading out around more of the islands, all looking a tad bleak in the weather conditions. “Summer Queen”  moved out into open water and conditions became quite rough. I decided to get a good photograph of the waves from the deck, and unwisely moved to the forward deck. I lifted the camera and had it ready for the next wave to hit. I did not have to wait long; nor did I anticipate the size of the wave. A great white wall of water shot up over the bow and completely engulfed me! I fell back before it and just managed to make the door back into the saloon. I came in, completely drenched. Janet looked at me in astonishment. “What happened to you?” she wanted to know:  “did you fall overboard?” I certainly looked as if I had and in fact am quite grateful that the wave did not take me with it when it disappeared over the side.

Waters Wild

Waters Wild

It was far too wet and wild to venture outside, so we all sat inside. I found myself seated next to a chap and soon engaged him in conversation. He told me, in somewhat halting English, that he was Spanish, from the north of Spain. He was a very decent chap. He told me that his name was the equivalent of David in English and he, his wife and two other couple were in three cars, travelling around Scotland. His wife, a dark-eyed, attractive woman, was beside him, and smiled at me from time to time.
“Mya wife,” he informed me, “doesa nota spika da word of Eengleesh.”
Another man came to speak to David, who introduced us. “Dees eess my friend, Manuel,” he told me.
Manuel could speak excellent English. “Do you come from Barcelona?” I asked.
No, he told me, he too comes from northern Spain, on the other side of the country from Barcelona. It seems he had not seen “Fawlty Towers” so was unaware of the Manuel of that series, which is probably just as well. He stayed, and there was a great rapport among us. We were still chatting when the “Summer Queen” arrived back at Ullapool.
When we parted, David’s wife presented  both cheeks to be kissed. “Eetsa da custom eena my contry” explained David. The other Spanish friends waved and smiled  farewell. I really enjoyed my too-brief time with those charming people. I only wish my Spanish was as good as his English.
We had a brief lunch, then we too bade farewell to lovely Ullapool.
We headed south down the coast road, the A835.  Janet was very keen to see a beautiful tree garden. We didn’t have far to go before we arrived. The garden is called Leckmelm Gardens, just three miles from Ullapool. A great high wall protects it from the road. We parked and went in, and at once were taken back centuries. There is acre upon acre of dense forest, of just about every type of tree under the sun. A lot of it is very dense, but it is all very beautiful. Janet was utterly captivated and took many photos. Some of the trees are enormous and are obviously centuries old. At one time the garden had been abandoned for about a hundred years, but latterly someone has been restoring it and we saw signs of work being done. I took a photo of Janet among the trees, looking like a wood sprite, while she took one of me in which I resemble a vacant-looking garden gnome.

The woods of Leckmelm

The woods of Leckmelm

Finally we left – we were the only ones exploring – and headed south again, down past beautiful Loch Broom, until we got to the turn-off leading to the Corrieshalloch Gorge and Measch Falls.
We parked the car and walked through some forest until we got to the gorge, where an amazing sight met our gaze. The gorge is about 200 feet deep, in heavily wooded country, and is crossed by a suspension bridge that sways a bit as one crosses.
A warning at the start calls for no more than six people to be on the bridge at any one time.
The gorge, with it tumbling white waterfall, is  breathtaking and beautiful, although Corrishalloch means, in the Gaelic, “Ugly hollow.”

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge

On the other side is a walk along the edge of the gorge that leads to a platform sticking out into the gorge… not recommended for anyone with vertigo, but the view is glorious.
We walked back to the other side and followed a path along the gorge for about a mile to the Measch Falls. This is a very high, slender waterfall plunging down into the floor of the gorge and is well worth the walk. That walk of something over a mile brought us eventually back to the car and on the way there are spectacularly beautiful views all the way down to Loch Broom.

View down to Loch Broom from Corrieshalloch Gorge

View down to Loch Broom from Corrieshalloch Gorge

We drove south again, to the beautiful village of Strathpeffer, then Dingwall and finally Inverness, where we promptly got lost.
The traffic was heavy, streets everywhere… after the quiet beauty of the past couple of days, I felt utterly miserable.
We found a street full of B&B’s but as it turned out, all but one were completely booked out. We booked in to the one, and half an hour later it too was completely booked out. To park the car behind the B&B, I had to drive between two buildings, the space so narrow it was necessary to fold in both driving mirrors and be directed in by the man of the house. There were inches either side – a nerve-wracking experience!
The B&B and the owners were quite charming and when my blood pressure had settled down we went for a walk. It was no more than a five minute walk to the bridge over the lovely river Ness, on which handsome Inverness castle looks down. Opposite the castle, on the other side of the river, which is the side we were on, is the stately Columba Hotel, so we popped in there for a pleasant meal before returning to our B&B, for we were both tired……
Next morning our cheerful hostess served a delicious and ample meal and gave us directions out of Inverness – which happened to be, had I only known, at the other end of the street!
I had actually had a nightmare that night about getting our car out from between the buildings, but the B&B lady’s hubby has been directing cars out for years, and did so this time as well, with no problems.
Finally we were on our way, managed to get lost once more, but were finally heading in the right direction, this time to the famous but sad battlefield of Culloden, where was fought the last major conflict on English soil, in AD 1746.
There is a large and impressive visitors’ centre at Culloden. It is not cheap, for it is a charity that receives no government assistance, but it is worth every penny.
We went in and spent ages looking at all the relics from the battle: shields and swords and flintlock rifles and pistols and other items. There is also a film shown that is a graphic re-enactment of the battle itself.. not for the squeamish.
We then went of a guided tour of the battlefield. We were shown the actual battle lines where the Government Army and the Jacobite Army stood 500 yard apart, facing each other. The Jacobite Army lost, and 1,500 of its men were killed. We saw the clan burial sites of mass graves, with headstones denoting what clansmen are buried there: McGilvrays and Macintoshes and Camerons and McKays and all the rest.

Site of a mass clan burial at Culloden moor

Site of a mass clan burial at Culloden moor

It is the saddest place, and it is said that for years, no birds would sing there. We noted that all the visitors spoke in hushed tones, even out on the battlefield.
There is too much there to go into detail, but let it be said that Culloden and its history are not to be missed by any who visit Inverness, for the site is only four miles from the town itself.
There is also a shop there, selling all sorts of Culloden books and curios and memorabilia and souvenirs. There is also a little caff where Janet and I had a bite before leaving for hame and hearth.

Friday 24 July
It was time to forget for a time the shed blood of Culloden’s sad moor, with its tragic history.
Yesterday evening we visited one of our parishioners; a lady crofter who runs a croft most ably. She invited us out for a cuppa and so we went. It is  a very fine property and we had a most enjoyable time with her, her two border collies Dot and Speck (Speck won a prize at the County Show we went to last week) and her three horses, which are Highland Ponies. They are not pony in size, but big, solid horses. One is a gorgeous foal, called “Calain” which means “beautiful” in the Gaelic. He is jet-black, but his mother and grandmother are white.

Calain and his mother

Calain and his mother

Och weel, tomorrow we are going to the Highland Games in the pretty village of  Halkirk, so I’m awa’ tae mah bed…….
I’ve been trying on some of the gear I will be expected to wear to the Games.
Here is one effort. What do you think?

Tony the grumpy old teuchter

Tony the grumpy old teuchter

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In Which We Have Some Memorable Adventures

Central Manse
Main Street
Lybster
Caithness KW3 6BN
Scotland
Saturday 27 June 2009

We are back in June. You will be overjoyed to learn of our continuing good health in this lovely land. We are far too occupied and far too busy to think about being sick! In fact we are just in (it is just after 2.00pm) from having a morning in Wick, at their big annual Harbour Festival.
It’s the same all over Britain at present. There are festivals everywhere, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats… Glastonbury, Stonehenge… even here in li’l ol’ Lybster.
Yesterday when I was doon the toon o’ Lybster, a convoy of gaily decorated 1960s Mini Minors pulled up. The drivers and passengers were all dolled up as flower power people and the Minis themselves were painted with flowers and symbols of the fabulous 1960s, When “the times they were a’changin’ as the old song has it. The Minis were off to the Wick Festival, which started today.
This past month, the country seems to have burst into life. The roads are full of motor-bikers doing the Land’s End to John o’ Groats annual pilgrimage, sharing the roads with motor homes, caravans, push-bikers, walkers, all doing the same thing. One has to be alert on the roads to avoid them, as well as crazed city dwellers from the cities down south, who don’t appear to  have registered that this a quiet rural area, with narrow, winding roads that are neither autobahns nor even the M3, which we share with tractors and other farm machinery as well as the odd sheep, cow and teuchter out rounding them  up.
Mother nature too seems to have sprung to life, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The grass and leaves, with almost 24 hours of daylight to play with, are bursting with the brightest greens you have ever seen (if you are a Colonial, reading this in Australia). Birds and small animals are everywhere. Deer roam the woods and rabbits, porcupines and other small creatures the roads, frequently with fatal consequences.
The other day a Scottish wild cat ran across the road in front of me. They are larger than domestic cats and have quite a feral look about them.  I was amazed to see it. The sky is full of the sweet carolling of birds as nature does her utmost to make the most of the short northern summer.
The farmers have been busy too and the harvesters are busy in the fields.

A country lane

A country lane

We had a very enjoyable time in Wick. The Festival is down at the harbour; once the busiest herring port in Europe, according to the Wick blurbs. The harbour today was full of boats and many lovely traditional sailing craft. Among them I was delighted to observe “Swan” from Lerwick, capital of Shetland; the 109 year-old herring drifter which has been beautifully restored as a sail training vessel. We saw it many times in Shetland last year and it came up to Unst too, on more than one occasion. On one occasion it took aboard six young people from Unst on a sail training cruise to the Norwegian port of Bergen.
There was another, similar vessel old herring drifter in Wick harbour today, also beautifully restored, called “Reaper.” I went about “Reaper.” She is very roomy below decks.
Her design is called a “Fifie” and was built in 1902 so she must be originally from Fife, but she looks very similar to “Swan.”
We wandered here, we lingered there, saw lots of craft type things, listened to a brass band, saw many kilted men, had lunch. Everything was bright and colourful and lots of noise, as is the way with these sorts of events.
9.50pm: We had a most enjoyable time in Wick before returning to the start of the Lybster Gala Week and we are not long in. It was all the fun of the fair again.. the floats, the crowd (big, for Lybster), the colourful outfits, the pipes, the Scottish dancing, the crowing of the Lybster Gala Queen.
When Janet and I went to the village hall to check on when we should start judging the floats (a task we had been asked to do a month or so ago),  we were told that we would be also judging the children’s Fancy Dress! We were a little horrified. Judging the floats was going to be bad enough. Anyway, all the kids were paraded before us and some were great – but we established a new category: “Highly Commended”. The organisers thought that was OK so I think all the kids were in line for something. Then we went off to judge the floats. We had Karen, one of the locals, helping us. She was done up as a fairy.
As well, Janet was keeping some rather unusual company!

Janet with James and Jo

Janet with James and Jo

Janet and John

Janet and John

Finally it was all over and we repaired back to the hall. It was a true country scene: kids and parents everywhere, the hall decorated and even a dog in there with his family. Tea/coffee and cake were being served: 50p a touch, so I went off to buy one each for us. The lady at the table looked at me. “Och, no, no!” she said. “You’re on the TOP table – you’ll be getting served the noo.” I looked at the top table and was horrified to see the Gala Queen and all her entourage there! I hate fuss!
There was nothing for it. I fetched Janet, we sat and were indeed served.
Then Lyn the organiser came back. “Next job!” She informed us. “You’re to hand the prizes to the Queen who will hand them to the winners.” I had thought our stint was over, but it was not to be.
We stood up on the stage as the winners’ names were called. I did one lot and Janet the next. Finally, it was over. Then Lyn stood. “On behalf of the Gala committee I’d like to thank Mr and Mrs Lang, our judges…”  (clapping) “and accept these tokens of our thanks.” We were handed  a box of chocs, a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of plonk. More horror. I had asked for us not to be identified as the judges but Lyn doesn’t seem to have heeded. She is kind and generous.
Looking back, it was all a lot of fun really for the folk around here are very easy-going country folk, similar in so many ways to the Shetland folk.
Most of the rest of the week was fine. We have a lot of duck and chook eggs in the fridge, result of my visiting around the district. The eggs are really lovely, from real free range chooks that scratch contentedly around farm yards and die eventually of old age.
On Thursday I was doing the rounds and called in on John and Bella Gunn. John is an old retired shepherd, and we got talking about “the sticks” he makes. I thought they were crooks. “Would you like to see one?” he asked. I said I would. He brought out a couple. They are lovely; made from hazelwood, but the handle is lovely. He gets old rams’ horns, carves them to shape and polishes them. At the front he carves in a Scotch thistle. I duly admired the lovely handiwork.
“Would you like one?” John asked. I said no, but that sounded a bit ungracious, so I said I’d be happy to buy one (I don’t need a stick yet, as you know, but may, in time, if ever I live long enough).
John wouldn’t hear of it and insisted on giving me one. He kept it with him to put a bit of extra varnish on the stick. I came away somewhat overcome by old John’s kindness.
The combined Church of Scotland Women’s Guild Rally (Caithness Presbytery) was held here at the Lybster Kirk the following (Wednesday) evening. Guilds came from all over the Presbytery. I was the guest speaker. Also present were Kev (Kev the Rev they call him) Cooper and wife Jenny. Kev is also a member of the Hunter Presbytery NSW as I am, so we know each other really well. He is doing a locum ministry at St Peter’s Church of Scotland Thurso. We had a good old yarn and he and Jenny are coming here for lunch next Wednesday. They got here about a month ago. He seems to be very popular with his congregation. So far I think both us Oz ministers seem to have acquitted ourselves reasonably well, which is good.
Anyway, the service went very well (the Guild ladies ran it) and my talk seemed to go over well enough.
I had ‘em in the aisles once or twice. Janet said it was good.
On Tuesday the Presbytery of Caithness met, at which our Deacon, John Craw, was inducted as the Moderator of Presbytery. It was an open meeting to which all who wished to go were invited.
The handover and induction was a very dignified and lovely, brief service and was followed by Holy Communion at which John preached most effectively. Everything was done with order and with dignity.
Monday was a day off, and Janet had decided that we would have a good day off. She had it all arranged. At 7.45am we were on the bus to Inverness. You could hardly credit just how green the country is. It actually defies description. It has a depth we just don’t see in Australia. The whole country is bathed in deepest and most beautiful green. Even the leaves of the trees are the lushest and greenest one could possibly imagine. It was good to be able to sit in the bus and see it without having to worry about the driving. We had a good trip down (150km south of here) and then a good look around that old world town of some 60,000. It is called the capital of the highlands for there is no other place anything like as big. We had lunch, then shortly after were on another bus that delivered us a short distance to the jetty at the Caledonian Canal, where we boarded a ferry called “Jacobite Queen” and soon were headed down that lovely Caledonian Canal on our way to Loch Ness. It is a most interesting trip and included one lock.

Passing through a lock on the Caledonian Canal

Passing through a lock on the Caledonian Canal

Finally the great waters of Loch Ness stretched before us. The scenery is breathtaking, with the great mountains all about stretching into the distance. The day itself added to the dramatic effect for there was a lot of cloud about, and rain and mist as we headed down the dark waters of the loch. The waters are very dark because the water rushing from the great hills is darkened by the peat. It si a mysterious loch, for it is astonishingly deep, at 750 feet. That’s about 230 metres.

The glorious panorama of Loch Ness

The glorious panorama of Loch Ness

Did we see Loch Ness? No, I am very sorry to say we did not, but my camera was poised every inch of the way. Is there a “monster” in Loch Ness? Most assuredly yes. I have always believed it and sightings go back to St Columba in the 5th century AD.
Too many good, reliable people have claimed to have seen it and wait – there’s more.
On the way to the ferry, the bus driver showed us a clipping out of the local paper from last month. The boat on which we were to travel had recorded (and photographed) an object it had picked up 64 feet under the keel of the boat. It was the largest object ever recorded on a sonar in Loch Ness, and it was moving (ie, swimming), 64 feet down there, in those dark waters. The photo of the sonar reading was in the local paper. The boat’s crew is crew were all a bit coy and would not say it was Nessie; they are simply showing what the sonar reading was, and we can make what we like of it.
We made our way down to the ancient 14th century ruin of Urquhart Castle and stayed there quite a while, exploring it and reading its ancient history.

Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle

Finally a bus collected us, took us to Inverness where we boarded our bus tae the north and arrived back in Lybster at 9pm. It had been quite a day.
Interestingly, I was telling Margaret, in hospital, the Loch Ness story. She told me that some years ago, she visited an abbey, situated on the shores of Loch Ness (now no longer there). One of the monks told her he had definitely seen “Nessie.”  Highly excited, he ran in to tell the prior (the head of the abbey) who said, “Unless I see it with my own eyes, I will not believe it!”  You can read a similar story in John  20:24-30.
Oh well, it is now just the back o’ eleven, as my dear old Scots granny used tae say, so I will hit the sack, and wonder what other adventures Janet has lined up for us…..

Sunday 5 July
There was only one service this morning – a joint Dunbeath-Lybster service held at Lybster. On the first Sunday of each month there is a joint service held in each church in turn. This time it was the turn of Lybster Church… and an usual service it was.
My visiting around the parish has brought to light some folk who would like to become communicant members by profession of faith (that is, via a confirmation service) and also two who wanted to transfer from other congregations. One who wanted to transfer belonged to a congregation in England and the other from the NZ Presbyterian Church. Those seeking communicant membership had undergone some preparation from me during the past month or so.
Dear old Annie has wanted to become a communicant for years, but didn’t think she was good enough.
“Annie, “ I had explained for the  umpteenth time, “no one is good enough. We are made good enough, not by our own merits but by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, Who died for our sins.” Annie is a lovely, gentle and humble soul and finally the message sank in. She would become a communicant. Not only were there to be two confirmations and two new members by transfer, there was to be a service of Holy Communion too.
Happily, the whole service went well. A couple were so emotional, tears were shed. The JABOS singers sang two lovely solos during the service and, the elders warmly welcomed  the new members. In fact it was quite a lovely service.
Afterwards, we all gathered in the hall for a cuppa and sticky bun and there was a lot of jollity and happy laughter. It was a wonderful gathering of God’s people and a service to remember…..
To make it even better, the days have been so warm! On one day the temperature rose to 22.4 and the local Caithnessians were limp with the heat. It was described  as “extreme” and few really liked it. The usual maximum is around 16, but Janet and I just loved it. The locals just shook their heads when we told them that sort of temperature makes for a really fine winter’s day down our way! We have been enjoying it. We have been told however that even now,  the summer solstice having come and gone, the days will shorten rapidly, for summers up here at latitude 59 are short but very sweet.
Quite a few people have been badly sunburned. Many appear to have no idea about the heat of the sun and its danger.  Their skin is so white, the sun burns it severely.

Saturday July 4
We went into Wick in the morning for I was keen to see dear little Margaret, in the Town and County hospice. I knew her time on this earth was drawing to a close rapidly, and so did she.
She is the one who has a small flat here in Lybster and who has the six cats, all of which have been dumped on her and she will not turn them away. I only wish I could take one or two back to Australia with me – especially big Red. Red is so handsome. He is black and white and almost blind.

Tony and Red

Tony and Red

Margaret has been a wonderful Christian lady all her life and has belonged to this congregation always. She was born here in Lybster was a teacher by profession, was in the Guild and involved in all the Church activities. She’s one of those really sweet, kindly and humble folk whom I always regard as the saints – the true saints.
On the way in to Wick we saw quite a few bicycles, well loaded down, their riders pushing away doggedly, very obviously doing the Land’s End to John o’ Groats trip. I saw one couple resting by the road and I said to Janet, “Let’s ask if we can take their photo!”
I wheeled in to a handy  parking spot by the old Bruan Kirk  and called out to them.
Well, you wouldn’t read about it – they were New Zealanders! They came over for a chat and were only too happy for us to take their photo. It turns out their names are Stuart and Elaine  from Blenheim, south island of NZ. They were heading north and as they were not far from Wick, they had only a few miles to go. They were a very nice couple and not exactly young. They were in their sixties they told us, but don’t do it rough. They  sensibly stay at B&Bs, have good meals and enjoy a comfy bed and good brekkie. They looked so fit! I took a couple of pix of course including one with Stuart holding out a small NZ pennant flying from his bike. They said they would get to John o’ Groats July 4 and left Land’s End exactly a month ago to the day.

Stuart and Elaine from NZ heading for John o’ Groats by bike from Lands End

Stuart and Elaine from NZ heading for John o’ Groats by bike from Lands End

I saw Margaret while Janet did some shopping.  She was “comfortable” and we had our usual little devotional.
In the afternoon Janet  wanted to have a look at a “dig” down along the strath of Dunbeath so I took her. Folk from the University of Nottingham down in England are excavating what they believe to be some buildings from the late Pictish or early Viking period, so about 1500 years old. Nearby there is an ancient wall, which I have seen a few times before.  I asked if it were part of the present dig. “Well, that wall is probably a comparatively recent structure,” I was told. I was surprised. It looks very old indeed.
“How recent?” I asked.
“It’s probably been there only about a thousand years,” I was told.
We drover into Dunbeath village where I went to see  Annie who has not been well but who was to be confirmed the next day. I left Janet having a cuppa with another member of the congregation and saw my sick one, who thankfully is much better.
“But I won’t be there if there’s a haar,” she told me “I’m very frightened of fogs.” Unfortunately there was a heavy haar (sea fog) for much of that day.
I then went to where Janet was having tea with Zena, who  had a cup of coffee waiting  for me too. As we were about to leave I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Zena.”
”Not if there’s a haar,” she told me. “I never go on the road if there’s a haar.”

A haar taken near Lybster

A haar taken near Lybster

Friday July 3
There were two school break-up services on Friday, first at Dunbeath School and then Lybster. The Free Church of Scotland man, Jim Morrison and I shared them. Jim is so good with the children. His children’s stories are always better than mine. Jim is one of the finest people one could meet and so is his wife, Kathy, who is a teacher at the school.
You would not credit how well the children sing at the Lybster school. They are like a choir on their own. I just love to hear them.
All of the kids belong to either the Church of Scotland, or the Free Church of Scotland so it’s all in together. As well, the teachers all sing away lustily too and join in the services. It is a most unusual experience for an Australian or just about anyone coming from another place, to have everyone the same and the teachers so supportive. Although not everyone goes to Church, the Church has a real presence in the community.
Having come to know Jim and his wife quite well I can see the real value of a long ministry in a small community like this. They’ve been here for 25 years. Everyone knows them, they know everyone. Jim in fact is a Caithness boy, born and bred and is even related to a few around here.
The rest of the week was mostly the routine life of a parish minister. We had Rev Kevin Cooper and his wife Jenny to lunch on Wednesday. He’s the other Oz minister in this presbytery who comes from the same presbytery (Hunter) in NSW that I do so we know Kev and Jenny quite well, and we showed them around our little village.

Rev Kevin Cooper and his wife Jenny at Lybster Harbour

Rev Kevin Cooper and his wife Jenny at Lybster Harbour

Monday was the highlight of the week. Mind you, were it not for Janet, I would just keep working. She is the one who has ideas of what to see.
We drove up to John o’ Groats again in the morning, going by the Yarrows and its lovely loch, which isn’t far from here.
We arrived a bit early, so went off to see the stacks at Duncansby Head – three huge pointed rocks, two of which look like witches’ hats. The cliffs are very high, and dangerous. At Duncansby Head there are a couple of narrow inlets, with great drops into the sea below – what we Caithness ) locals (and Shetlanders) call Geos. Geo is a Gaelic word, meaning “cove.”

Dramatic view of the stacks Duncansby Head

Dramatic view of the stacks Duncansby Head

The gulls are still nesting and I managed to get a beautiful picture of nesting gulls, with their nest built into the cliffs, and lovely wildflowers about them. I was utterly charmed.

Nesting gulls at Duncansby Head

Nesting gulls at Duncansby Head

Finally we went down to John o’ Groats where shortly after 2pm we set off in a rigid open inflatable boat (they are called RIBs), “Northern Explorer” to explore the wildlife around the island of Stroma, which is 2 miles or so off John o’ Groats. Because the Pentland Firth is one of the most dangerous waterways in the world, suitable precautions have to be taken so we were fitted out with oilskins and lifejackets. The boat holds twelve but there were only four of us. The other two were a couple of English folk. Fortunately, the day was superb – sunny and windless, and the Pentland Firth like a millpond.
Stroma is a Norse name and means “island in the stream” (strom = stream).  From the mainland one can see lots of houses on it but in truth it is completely deserted now, apart from many sheep.
There were two crew on board who were very good. We motored over to the island which did not take long. When we got there we could see what appeared to be a chapel but in fact it is a mausoleum, filled with the ancient dead, all of them Kennedys. The Kennedy clan owned the island for centuries we were told. The mausoleum  is situated in the walled cemetery.
What followed is hard to describe, for it was a magic journey as far as Janet and I are concerned.
The inflatable, with such shallow draft, could nudge in among the rocks right by the shoreline. We were treated to a moving panorama of (mainly) birdlife, including puffins on the water and on the hills.

Puffins off Stroma

Puffins off Stroma

We were so close to the grey Atlantic seals we could almost have touched them (had we wanted to lose a finger or two).

The seals of Stroma

The seals of Stroma

The birds largely ignored us. We motored  slowly into strange sea-caves, some huge.
Above us in one cave were veritable galleries of seabirds, row upon row, almost as if they were waiting for some marvellous opera of the sea to start, and I thought at once of “The Pearl Fishers” (Bizet, I think) and could almost hear, in the ripple of the water, the song from that opera “In the Depths of the Temple.”

Awaiting the start of the opera. The seabird cave of Stroma

Awaiting the start of the opera. The seabird cave of Stroma

Deep in one cave we found a family of seals enjoying the solitude and silence, and  I thought of Matthew Arnold’s beautiful poem, “The Forsaken Merman” and the words
“Sea green caverns, cool and deep, where the winds are all asleep…”
Mind, the merman’s caverns were under the sea, but this was the next best thing.

The seals sea green cavern cool & deep

The seals' sea green cavern cool & deep

In one cave, we were told, there was a whisky still which the excise men (customs) never found. It is called “Smugglers’ Cave.” I was fascinated and recall many great yarns of my youth, including “Captain Clegg” who was a pious clergyman by day and the chief of the smugglers by night.

Out we went around the top end of the island where there is a lighthouse. Our crewman pointed out a line of very disturbed water. “That is the edge of a giant whirlpool called Swilkie” he told us. “In rough weather there can be a wall of water ten metres high and four hundred metres across. It’s very dangerous and has claimed many s ship.” Indeed just before, we had passed the rusted remains of a ship hard up against the rocks.

We moved on, and suddenly were passing along the edge of more very rough water. The crewman pointed. “The witches’ cauldron” he told us, “ a giant whirlpool. There is a huge hole in the seafloor. The sea pours in and is thrown out, and more water rushes in. Get caught in that, and you go down into it.” I prayed those engines to keep going!

The troubled waters of The Witch’s Cauldron

The troubled waters of The Witch’s Cauldron

Away from us there was a line of white water that stretches up to the Orkneys, called, incongruously, “The Merry Men of May.” It’s where the North Sea and the Atlantic meet and its wild turbulent waters, its rushing currents and tides there have proved fatal to many a brave sailorman.
All the waters of Pentland Firth are very dangerous.
Our boat moved to the other side of the island, then back to John o’ Groats.
What an adventure! It is one I’d love to do again.

Janet on the way back in

Janet on the way back in

That trip to the island of Stroma was nothing less than unforgettable. There was a quality of magic about it.

A friendly seal waves us farewell

A friendly seal waves us farewell

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In which we have a break in Orkney, and marvel…..

Central Manse
Main Street
Lybster
Caithness KW3 6BN

For the past week we have been enjoying the company of our friends, Lyn and Sandy from Swansea Australia – ten minutes from us at Wangi Wangi by water across Lake Macquarie, 45 minutes by road around the edge of the lake. They have been having a great look around the countryside in their hire car and occasionally I am free to go with them.
While I am not always free, Janet usually is, and today was a good case in point.
She went with Sandy and Lyn to the Castle of Mey, near the small town of Castletown.
It’s a smallish castle as far as castles go and was the property of the Queen Mother.
It was hers in that it did not belong to the royal family. She bought it as a run-down castle out of her own money, and with her own money, restored it to perfection, with lovely gardens and grounds and a beautiful but very homely interior. It’s not grand inside and she never meant it to be, but has a homely warmth about it that grand buildings rarely possess. It’s a home, not a showpiece.
Every year the Queen mother came up here to Caithness to stay a few weeks at the castle. It was always very precious and  special to her, and is full of her own furniture and little ornamental oddments that we all have. Anyway, upon her death the castle passed to prince Charles, for she bequeathed it to him, and every year he, following in his grandmother’s footsteps, spends a month enjoying the peace and tranquillity of lovely Caithness.
The castle is open to visitors when Charles is not in residence, so that is where Janet took Sandy and Lyn today. They had a most enjoyable time, despite not having a sociable chat over a cup of Twinings and a cucumber sandwich with PC himself……

The Castle of Mey

The Castle of Mey

On the other hand I spent the day working, for we were away from Monday until late Wednesday afternoon as I will recount later, so have had so much to catch up on, visiting sick people taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy ……  (Those are the 17th century words of the old King James version of the Bible known as The Authorised Version, and the reading was Matt 4:24. They are quaint old words and few understand them these days, but every now and then I use them, for they are so quaint).
It is now 8.15pm and Janet and Lyn have gone for a walk down to the tiny harbour here at Lybster. It is a good two-mile walk and it is steep down to the water so they will get good exercise. It is broad daylight and will be light and bright at 11.pm.

Now I must hurry you back to Monday, for that is the day we left for Orkney, the islands that lie off the northern tip of Scotland’s mainland…it’s not very far, ye mind, to the bottom island, which is the main island of Orkney, which takes only an hour by ferry.
Now that sounds an easy trip – but that stretch of water, known as Pentland Firth, where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean converge, can be an extremely rough and highly dangerous waterway, for huge currents meet there. Many ships have gone down around there and many a good sailorman lost, including a number of Caithness deep sea fishermen.
At 9.30am last Monday Janet and I and Lyn and Sandy were heading seawards from Gills Bay aboard the vehicular ferry “Pentalina” out into the Firth which, thankfully, was like a millpond.

The red duster waves farewell to mainland Scotland

The red duster waves farewell to mainland Scotland

Also aboard was Lyn’s and Sandy’s delightful little rented Peugeot 207.. . small, very economical but with a surprising amount of room in its comfortable interior.
An hour later we disembarked at the pretty port town of St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney. We drove north on a pleasant,  winding road along the shore of mighty Scapa Flow, which is huge inlet. Orkney is awash with history, going back over 5,000 years.
In 1919, at the end of the First World War, there were 74 captured German ships anchored in Scapa Flow. The German fleet was under the command of the German Admiral, Von Reuter. The admiral sent out a secret signal to the fleet and at an appointed time, the crews pulled the plugs (sea cocks) in their ships and scuttled every single one of them. Yes, folks, every captured German ship went to the bottom of Scapa Flow, but of course none of the crews died.
There is a much more tragic story surrounding Scapa Flow. In October 1939, six weeks after the Second World War commenced, a German U-boat sneaked into Scapa Flow and torpedoed the Royal Navy battleship “Royal Oak” which was anchored there, and 883 officers and men went down with her.
I am trying not to turn this chapter into a travel documentary, but it is hard, for there was so much to see in the brief time we were there and of course that’s what we did – we went sight-seeing.
The capital of Orkney is Kirkwall, a harbour town. In many ways it is similar to Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. It too is quaint and pretty, with a similar sized population. It is a very old town, and the funny, narrow little streets meander everywhere. Amazingly, cars drive down them. We loved Kirkwall.

Kirkwall Harbour and hotel

Kirkwall Harbour and hotel

We found a nice little B&B, run by a lady with a pronounced Orkney accent.
The Orkney accent is very noticeable – it has a sort of sing-song quality.
With only Tuesday to get in most of the sight-seeing, we set off after we had booked in to the B&B and drove to the harbour town of Stromness, which lies to the west of Kirkwall. It is very similar to Kirkwall both in size and quaintness. We loved Stromness too. The towns and villages of Orkney are unlike anything one would ever encounter in Australia.

Kirkwall main street at 9.30pm

Kirkwall main street at 9.30pm

If I went on to describe everything we saw and did in Orkney, I would be writing this time next week – and that is by visiting only the main island. There are others that we just did not get to, for our time was so limited..
It is a beautiful land, breathtakingly green, with some lovely lochs and great hills, and countless numbers of sheep and cattle – and the most delicious ice cream one could ever sample: the rich Orkney ice cream, from Orkney cows, made right there!
Both Lyn and I became quickly addicted to the ice cream.

Two Orkney cows flutter their eyelashes at the camera

Two Orkney cows flutter their eyelashes at the camera

On the way back we visited Maes Howe, a 5000 year-old chambered cairn (tomb), with a 10 metre tunnel one must crawl along to gain entrance, but it is huge inside.
The following day we were up early and went first to St Magnus Cathedral (Church of Scotland). It is awe-inspiring and was built in 1137. Its founder, Magnus, was murdered and his remains are interred in one of the cathedral’s huge pillars.
There is a lovely aura of peace and tranquillity in the cathedral. We could have spent hours in there, looking at ancient tombstones, photos, the beautiful furniture (glorious pulpit) and many other fascinating relics. If ever you go to Orkney, a visit to the cathedral is a must.

St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall

St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall

Leaving the cathedral, we drove to the “Stones of Stenness” – huge standing stones put there by the ancients, for reasons unknown, and then on to the amazing “ring of Brodgar” which are more standing stones, forming a giant circle. The stones of Stenness and the the Ring of Brodgar have stood there for 5,000 years.
We went from there to the fabled Skara Brae. Apart from roofs, it is an intact Neolithic village, built of stone. Its inhabitants lived there between 2,500BC and 3,000BC. Until the middle of the 19th century no one knew the village was there, but a huge storm uncovered a part of it, so it was excavated. Even the original stone box beds are there. No one knows why the inhabitants appear to have left so suddenly, leaving almost everything intact.
About a five minute walk from there is a 17th century manor house called Skaill house. “Skaill” is the old Norse name for a hall. One must remember that the Vikings ruled Shetland, Orkney and the north of Scotland (including Caithness) for about 500 years. Skaill house is a fascinating place and is full of amazing artefacts, including a dinner service once owned by Captain Cook!
It was at Skaill House that, swept up in the ancient Norse history of Orkney, I was completely carried away – much to Sandy’s embarrassment. Take a look at his face!

Tony Blood Axe

Tony Blood Axe

Next day (Wed) we booked out and drove back towards St Margaret’s Hope, down the coast of the beautiful Scapa Flow.

Scapa Flow heading back to St Margarets Hope

Scapa Flow heading back to St Margarets Hope

On the way we stopped to have a look through the lovely Italian Chapel. It was built by Italian prisoners of war in 1943 from two Nissan huts donated by the camp commandant and has been kept in perfect condition ever since. Of course it is Roman Catholic and all done in the ornate Latin style.

The interior of the Italian Chapel, Orkney

The interior of the Italian Chapel, Orkney

At 12.00 we were aboard “Pentalina” again and heading south to Gills Bay, mainland Scotland,  through, thankfully, calm seas.

Sunday 14 June
We had two good services today, at Dunbeath and Lybster.
Afterwards the Coustons and we went into Wick, where we had lunch at McKay’s very fine hotel before coming home. (Outside McKay’s hotel is officially the shortest street in the world at six feet, nine inches long, which is, give or take a centimetre of two, about two metres).  It was a farewell to Lyn and Sandy, who were due to leave next day for a leisurely trip to Edinburgh over several days, then home to Australia’s
sunny shores.

Sandy & Lyn on the shortest street in the world. 1 Ebenezer Place Wick Scotland

Sandy & Lyn on the shortest street in the world. 1 Ebenezer Place Wick Scotland

Over the past couple of months or so I have been visiting Wullie. Most folk baptised William rarely get that name up here, or even Bill. Most are called Wullie or Willie.
Wullie had been a career soldier before the war and by the outbreak of the war was a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM). He proudly served in the Black Watch Regiment and remained in the Army after the war until retirement. He was delighted to learn that I had service as an Australian Regular Army chaplain. To him I became “Padre” and he told me of all the fine padres he had known, during the war and after. Over the past few months I became “his” padre.
He used to speak of the war, and battles glorious in which he’d fought.
“I know you Aussies think ye won single-handed at El Alamein,” Wullie used to say with a grin, “but it’s not the way it was. A lot of us Brits were there too, and we were at Gallipoli too, in the First World War. We did our bit. O’ course, if it wasnae for John Wayne, Jerry would have won, hands doon. Och – that man was amazing – he fought and won on land, sea and in the air. No wonder Jerry didnae stand a chance!”
Wullie had a wonderfully independent spirit and scorned help, insisting on living “all alane” in his old butt and ben. When I called, I generally found him pottering about in his superb garden, back as straight as a ramrod, his flowers obediently standing to attention in perfectly straight rows. It occurred to me sometimes that at Wullie’s command they would smartly march off.
One day Wullie had a nasty fall while cleaning out a drain, and at his age, frail and with old war injuries still affecting his old frame  the prospects were not good.
I was with Wullie at the hospital when his brother, Ewen, arrived. The brothers were close, and Ewen often popped in at Wullie’s hoose.
Now, at the hospital, Ewen took his older brother’s hand. “Ah, Wullie, Wullie, ye auld fool ye – diggin’ in a ditch at your age!” He shook his head sorrowfully. “Hitler couldnae kill ye, Wullie, despite trying, but I fear ye may ha’ done it tae yersel’ this time!”

Sunday 21 June – Fathers’ Day
Today was the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Last night I went out at midnight to have a look about, and it was really light, and the green of the grass obviously green, despite an overcast sky. I believe the sun finally sets about 3.46am or thereabouts and pop up again shortly after – something like that.
I had quite a relaxed day, for the Worship Group in our church conducted the services at Dunbeath and Lybster. I went along to both in the hope of scoring two lots of chocolate that I knew were to be handed out to the males in each congregation.
At Dunbeath, some nicely wrapped chocs were handed out and attached to each little parcel was an appropriate Bible text
In my quest for more chocolates at Lybster I was disappointed. I held out my hand hopefully, but received a smiling shake of the head.
The Worship Group, I must add, did a wonderful job, conducting both services.
The call we were half-expecting came next morning. Wullie had finally succumbed.
I was saddened to learn the news. I had grown fond of the old soldier.
I went to visit some of Wullie’s extended family (he was an old bachelor), and help with the general arrangements
The funeral was set for the following Thursday.
With the week closing in and needing some free time, we decided to take Tuesday off as a rest day. Of course Janet had it all planned………
We drove off in the morning to Helmsdale, the town a few miles south of here which marks the boundary between Caithness and Sutherland, where we had a recuperative cuppa before heading north, surrounded by glorious scenery, up the strath of Kildonan.

The winding road on Kildonan Strath

The winding road on Kildonan Strath

As we travelled we were excited to have three encounters with wild deer; first in a heavily wooded area, and later as we drove by a great hill. Deer it seems to me are bits of posers. On each occasion the deer paused long enough for me to get out the trusty camera and take a pic or three before legging it with a toss of the mighty antlers

Wild deer watch us curiously from the woods on the strath of Kildonan

Wild deer watch us curiously from the woods on the strath of Kildonan

We travelled through this picturesque and beautiful countryside as the Helmsdale river rushed down one side, dotted here and there with hopeful salmon fishermen.
Finally we arrived in the tiny hamlet of Forsinard which, surprisingly, has a tiny railway station where the train from Inverness to Thurso stops (mind you, it stops everywhere!) Situated in the railway station building are a couple of rooms for the use of the FORSINARD FLOWS NATIONAL NATURE RESERVE.
The country around here is known as flow country – the vast area of bleak and apparently barren rolling peat moorlands. The country here is full of dubh lochans (dubh: Gaelic, meaning black. The peat turns the water dark) and lochans, which are small ponds. The lochans dot the landscape.

Janet gets involved in the flow country

Janet gets involved in the flow country

It turns out that these fragile peatlands are among the rarest in the world and are full of rare plant, bird and insect life. There is a four mile walk that one can do, but it was going to start, under the guidance of a ranger, a bit late for us, so we opted for a one mile walk on which we could take ourselves. We set off. Janet was reading up material and taking photos, and peering down at little plants and things, while I was taking in the dramatic landscape out there, with its distant, beautiful hills and great skies. It is magnificent. Mind, I suspect that if you found yourself lost out there in the middle of winter, it could prove seriously and even permanently fatal. It is so different from the rest of Caithness, but there is a lot of it out here, this flow country. It holds in balance a very special part of nature, and while we were there, we had a choir of many birds, chief among them the beautiful skylark.

Dubh lochans

Dubh lochans

Finally we left, and somewhere on the way home paused to enjoy a leisurely sandwich and thermos of coffee Janet had brought, rapt  in the beauty of the lonely hills. Turn off the car engine, and all one hears is the sigh of the wind….
We were back in time for me to attend the session meeting that night.
Charles Rigg the interim moderator ran the meeting and later came in to the manse for a cuppa before heading home. He told me that he had tried to buy a copy of “A Kangaroo Loose in the Top Paddock” through the online store Amazon. They had one – for $US75.00 !!
Hang on that copy, if you have one! Even in Australia the price in second hand book shops is between $35 and $45, plus postage!

Wullie’s Funeral
On Thursday morning we gathered  for Wullie’s funeral in one of the small churches in the parish. The sky was dismal, and shed a few tears for Wullie.
After the service in the Kirk, the cortege moved slowly off to the cemetery which, like many of the cemeteries in Caithness, has glorious views over the sea
The weather was, to say the least, inclement. We walked down the hill to the graveside and stood with a high wind about us, as a huge black cloud hovered above, ready at any moment to unload another torrent of the sort that had descended on the Kirk just a short time before, during the service.
There was almost a dreamlike quality about the funeral… the massive dark cloud above us, the small band of  black-clad mourners huddled around the open grave, my black gown fluttering and whipping in the wind, and beyond us the cold grey circle of the North Sea, sweeping onto the dramatic sea-cliffs of Caithness, and all around us, lonely green hills misted with rain.
To be asked to be a pall-bearer is considered a special privilege in this and other parts of Scotland, as is the task of lowering the coffin on its silken cords.
The funeral director called out the number… “One!” and the person allocated the first cord stepped forward to take it; then two! And so on.
It was taking time, and I kept glancing apprehensively above at that mighty cloud, taunting us with a cold few sprinkles. The funeral director, mind fixed firmly on the solemnity of the occasion, cared not a whit for anything but the task at hand, come wind, come weather.
Finally, it was done. All the eight bearers held a cord, and at the undertaker’s word, the coffin was lowered slowly into the rich dark earth. The coffin in place, the undertaker called for the cord holders to let the cords go as one, and they fell with a muffled thud onto the coffin: “Earth to earth… ashes to ashes… dust to dust…” As I mentioned each, the undertaker reverently threw some earth into the grave………
Finally, it was all over:

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;
Dream of battled fields no more,
Days of danger, nights of waking.
(Sir Walter Scott: The Lady of the Lake”).

We made our way slowly back to our vehicles, the funeral aura around us. The cloud still hung off.
The moment we were all in our vehicles, down it came – a veritable wall of water. I thanked God for letting us get the committal over before that cloud burst its watery sides.
We gathered in one of the family’s homes for a cup of tea before finally I drove home – and was saturated getting from the car into the manse!
A couple of days later I walked into the manse to find Janet poring over a map.
“Tony – do you realise we have been here all this time and have not yet managed to get down to Inverness? I think on our next day off we should go – and while we are there, do one of those cruises on Loch Ness.”

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The arrival of (long) summer days – but not necessarily warm days!

Central Manse
Main Street
Lybster
Caithness KW3 6BN
Scotland
30 May 2009

Since the last blog chapter I have been quite busy and in fact when Janet remarked the other day that my previous day off was six days ago we decided it was time to recharge the batteries.
We have been keen to return to the strath of Dunbeath ever since we were there a few weeks ago. I wrote it up in the blog, for it was the most beautiful place one could imagine and I will never forget it. All the same, we had not managed to get to the very end, so decided this was to be the day.
Armed with cameras and binoculars we drove to the old mill by the old bridge at Dunbeath, parked the car and headed off into the strath.
Immediately the only sound was the running of the water in the burn and the sweet calls of many birds.
We followed the lovely burn all the way along its shaded path, through gentle woodlands where the timid roe deer lurk, past patches of glorious wildflowers, by hedges of fragrant gorse (what we Scots call whins), to the foot of a large, steep and rather rugged hill, which we proceeded to climb.

The woods where the lurk the timid deer

The woods where the lurk the timid deer

Two thirds of the way up, Janet had had enough and found a suitably comfortable rock to await my return.
I was keen to find a certain place high above – and at last found it.
Right at the very top, there is a lovely view to the east of the strath, where the burn continued upon its way, through rolling hills into the distance.
Right where I was, however, was a deep ravine, with the burn a hundred or so feet below. It was the place I had been looking for, for here a dramatic incident occurred about three hundred-odd years ago.
The rival clans of Gunns and Keiths had been warring for some time, and just around that spot, the Keiths had captured one Ian McCormack Gunn. Being kindly gents, the Keiths were reluctant to kill their captive in cold blood but were happy to see him dead if possible.
They gave him an option. If he could jump across the ravine, he would be free. To fail would be to plunge tae his doom. If he were not prepared to attempt it, then the Keiths would be forced to dispatch him with the edge of the sword.
The gap across the ravine is enormous, but the unhappy captive decided on the jump…. A long, very long jump indeed, if he had any hope of living.
He took a long run and with a strength born of desperation sprang into space – and cleared the void! The Keiths looked on in astonishment and nae doobt some respect as he landed safely on the other side.
The story has never been forgotten.
It is said that the young Gunn was enormously strong; in fact extraordinarily strong because he was an orphan and had been raised, it was said, on hind’s milk.
Ever since, that place has been named “creag an fhithich” or to those who have no Gaelic, “Prisoner’s Leap Gorge.”

creag an fhithich or prisoners leap gorge

creag an fhithich or prisoner's leap gorge

It was great, up there. Away from the ravine, the hill formed a rolling grassy plateau, so I ambled on.
As I walked I thought I saw furtive movement in the grass and made my way slowly towards it, camera at the ready. Suddenly a large, beautiful and brightly coloured bird sprang up and legged it across the grass at amazing speed. I just managed to get in one photograph before it was gone. I had a feeling it must have been a pheasant, but was puzzled, for it was a completely different colour from the pheasant I saw last week.
Fortunately I had the photo.

A disturbed male pheasant legs it at amazing speed

A disturbed male pheasant legs it at amazing speed

I made my way back towards the brow of the hill where I knew Janet would be waiting some distance down.
Looking down to the beautiful strath I suddenly detected movement, quite a long way away, on the edge of the woods.
I stopped and stared. There it was again!
I concentrated on the spot, and finally could just make it out. It appeared to be a young deer. Ever timid, it was eyeing the burn. It wanted a drink I think, but was too timid to venture out of the sheltering woods into the open. They are so hard to see! Dappled sunlight may be a deer or may be shadows. When next I looked, the deer had vanished back into the sun-dappled woods,  but the words of Psalm 42:1,2  stayed with me:

“As the deer pants for streams of water,
So pants my soul for You, O God!
My soul thirsts for the living God….”

We made our way back to the strath, across a narrow suspension bridge to the other side of the burn and then along a path where we saw numerous deer prints, up a steep, wooded hill to a road called Braemore, with picturesque views that led us down to the A9, which leads on to Dunbeath. It was a hot walk for the temperature had peaked at 16 degrees and we felt the heat. A short distance along the A9 is a watering hole called The Bay Owl, where we enjoyed  a coffee while taking in the glorious coastal views down past Dunbeath castle.
We were a tad footsore and weary  by the time we got home – but it was a great adventure
Last night I emailed the pic of the bird I encountered, to Lis in Shetland.
The reply came back almost instantaneously. It is indeed a pheasant.
It seems not all pheasants are the same, and the pheasant I encountered, which had a white ring around its neck, is a male bird of a variety that was introduced to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century AD!

The big building on the right is the Bay Owl Inn

The big building on the right is the Bay Owl Inn

On Thursday I had a reasonably close call that could have had me return in an urn.
I drove up a narrow one track road and was hardly into it when I saw a vehicle coming the other way, hell for leather as they say. I don’t think the driver noticed me at first  but then he did. He jammed on the brakes so hard, he lost control altogether on the loose surface and finally shot across the road in front of me and skidded into a wire fence.  Where he hit the fence was just at an entrance to a farm. He left deep skid marks just before impact. He immediately jumped out of his vehicle and ran around to survey the damage if any, so I knew he was OK and fortunately it was a wire fence. The result may have been different if it had been one of the many dry stone fences around here! He’d have completely smashed in the front of his car and taken out the fence too. The road is so narrow that if he hadn’t gone where he did, he would have hit me for I had nowhere to go. I took a photo of the spot on the way back.

The skid marks

The skid marks

The other day we visited a farming couple. I learned that they have a farm out near the village of Watten near an area known as the dhu lochs. “Dhu” is Gaelic for “black.” We were told that it is a difficult walk to the lochs across boggy peat and so on and takes a couple of hours to get there.
The family has a photo on a wall of one of the lochs and the water is indeed black and the surrounding country isolated and barren. Who knows what strange creatures live there? I am very keen to explore the lochs. If you realise that you haven’t heard from us for a week or so and neither has anyone else, it may well be that we have fallen into some bottomless bog on the way to the dhu lochs, or a creature from the black lagoon (or loch) has claimed us..
Sunday 31 May: today was Pentecost Sunday and I am happy to report that the three services went well – by that I mean, no one complained on the way out, or threw anything at me.
I used a kite for the children’s (Pentecost) story. I told them that there was a possibility that during the week they may observe me, running about in the field behind the manse, attempting to get the kite into the air. They may not either.
Visions I have of it are akin to watching a whale’s attempt to fly a balloon….

7 June

Summer is here at last. The scories that built their nest and raised their young in one of the manse chimney pots are no longer there. They and their little ones have flown, but no doubt the parents will return next spring.
Our friends Lyn and Sandy Couston arrived a bit over a week ago. We have been showing them around, but you wouldn’t believe it – the weather turned bad again and on Friday was snowing a short distance from here – and this is summer!
Yesterday was really chilly. The temperature did stagger up to a tropical 9 degrees for a time but soon dropped back again. Oh well, what else does one expect in the far north east of the Scottish Highlands? All the same, Caithness, this county where we live, the most northerly in mainland Britain, is gloriously beautiful and we truly love it.
Yesterday we took the Coustons to John o’ Groats where they had a good look about. Mind, there is not a great deal to see there – just a tiny village living off the tourist trade in the summer and heaven alone knows what in the winter. All the same it is truly quaint and unspoiled – nothing like the vast, sophisticated money-making tourist traps in many places around Australia and elsewhere.
Lyn bought some lovely scarves for her daughters and the odd bit such as postcards etc and I took some good photos of them in front of the John o’ Groats sign.

Sandy & Lyn at John o Groats

Sandy & Lyn at John o' Groats

From there we travelled along the top lip of Scotland to the town of Thurso, (not far from John o’ Groats) which is about the same size as Wick. Here we met up with Rev Kevin Cooper (Kev the Rev) and his wife Jenny from Australia. Kevin and Jenny live at Rutherford, near Maitland. We belong to the same Presbytery in NSW, (Hunter) so I know him well.
Kevin is over doing locum work in St Peter’s Thurso which is a magnificent Church and really beautiful. He gets congregations of about 200 or so. I am happy for him but very thankful for our quiet village life here in Lybster. He is being kept a lot busier, with lots more happening. Anyway, we met the Coopers at “Horizons” which is the excellent museum in Thurso, where we all had lunch.
We watched a DVD at the museum: titled “Caithness” and is all about the beauty of this place in the various seasons. It is such a beautiful DVD.  Copies are available for sale so we bought one for £8.00. A number of the places featured on the DVD are right here on our doorstep around Lybster.
Sandy was speaking to a local about the beauty of the area.  “It should be,” the other grunted, “it gets washed every day!” (Yes, there is a reasonable amount of rain!)
I had only one service today at 11.30pm, in Dunbeath. It was a family service and the church was full. Folk came down to it from Lybster and as well we had visitors, quite apart from Sandy and Lyn. There were some English folk there, and others, including a man and his Staffy dog from county Fife, which is down Edinburgh way.
Our visitor was a very pleasant chap, and so was his dog “Blue.”
Blue sat quietly in the congregation without any noise.
Later, speaking to him, I learned that he was in the Black Watch Regiment and 26 years ago took a bullet in the chest while serving in Northern Ireland during the troubles. By a miracle he survived.
The service itself went very well indeed and I am so pleased it did. Anyway, we made it a jolly sort of service and had a few kids involved, reading, singing, one on a keyboard and so on. It was followed by a cup of tea. All the kids made a huge fuss of Blue, who loved the attention.
On the way back we stopped at The Bay Owl for lunch, which was very pleasant, for there are lovely views down the coast beyond Dunbeath castle and occasionally one sees whales, Orcas, dolphins.
It is hard to go to sleep at night, for it was still fairly light when I went to bed at midnight last night. I awoke at 3.30am and it was quite light again. At 11.pm it is still quite light. I’m glad we are not attempting to put kids to bed at 7,30pm.

07 Rear of Church and manse Lybster taken at 10.00pm

07 Rear of Church and manse Lybster taken at 10.00pm

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The Warming Spring Brings Us Some Visitors

Central Manse
Main Street
Lybster
Caithness KW3 6BN
Scotland
18 May 2009

I think I will go back to the very beginning of last week, May 12, to see what my daily journal has recorded my activities, for I have already forgotten it. Thank heavens for my journals, which now go back many years!

Anyway, you may recall that Janet was still in Canada at the time of the last entry, being feted, wined and dined by all our family there.
I had thought I would possibly drop a pound or two in her absence, but it was not to be. Not only was I invited out to dinner on several occasions, food arrived.. eggs and soup from Merren and Stewart and two large containers of soup from Eileen at the shop. I was also comfortably sustained by a regular supply of Eric’s famous jellybeans which he sells me in quarter pound lots. Weight loss was out of the question – in fact, on the contrary……!

On Wednesday I met Judy the Dunbeath organist and former district nurse on a roadie (small road, country lane) near Dunbeath. She had an area to cover to collect for the annual “Christian Aid” appeal and had suggested I go with her to meet various folk, which I thought a good idea. Quite  a few of the elders and others had districts to go about, getting donations and Judy’s was not a big district but nonetheless sparsely settled.

A wee hoose in the glen

A wee hoose in the glen

I met many folk I would not have met, some in very lonely croft houses, some with old-fashioned fuel stoves heating their wee kitchens, sometimes with old granny seated comfortably in front of it. Some of those places took me back to my youth, and the fuel stove in the farm kitchen, around which we boys used to sit on cold and frosty Riverina mornings while our poor mother tried to get to it to cook breakfast. Occasionally she accidentally spilled something, such as boiling porridge, on us, but looking back I know it was our own fault.
At one home there was a retired sea captain and his wife, and he and I got on famously. It is a strange sort of place for an old sea dog to let down the mud-hook (anchor); a quiet country lane in the middle of nowhere in particular, in a Scottish highland district, but from his hoose he can look out to the North Sea and observe passing ships through his telescope.
At one cosy croft house, an elderly lady was sitting by the wood stove, her shawl about her, a pot of something simmering away quietly, while a large white cat slept on another chair. It was a memorable and beautiful country picture straight from the annals of “Scots Own.”

As we drove down one road a colourful bird ran across in front of us into the undergrowth. “What was that?” I asked.
“Pheasant,” said Judy. “They breed thousands of them up here, then go out and shoot them.”
I still cannot get my mind around the thought of killing beautiful, innocent and harmless creatures, for sport. I mean, I was in the Army combat pistol club in Oakey Qld during my days as a military chaplain, and was ready, willing and able to defend myself if the need arose – but the difference is of course  it would have been against someone who was keen to kill me; as well-armed or  possibly better armed than I was.
Thankfully I was never faced with that situation.

The postal services are different up here. There is no motorbike. Instead, the postie walks the streets pushing a large red enclosed barrow with the mail. Where there is no letterbox on the street, the postie walks up the path and delivers the mail through the slot in the door, which is the situation here at the manse. There is also a Saturday delivery.
One day there was a call at the door as it was opened (which is the way up here, for few doors are locked): “Tony – are you in?” It was Lyn, the postie.
She handed me a letter and then asked me if Janet and I would judge the floats at the Lybster Gala week that starts on Saturday 27 June.
It is amazing just how quickly we have absorbed into this delightful little community.
Around and about, there would have been others far better qualified in terms of importance and status to do that job, but we were asked. I count it a right honour, so despite my dubious qualifications when it comes to that sort of thing, I agreed.
We have already been asked to present the prizes at the Sunday School prize-giving.
Again I could think of others much better qualified, but it is an honour not lightly bestowed and it would be right churlish to refuse for no reason.

Early one Thursday morning I collected another minister and we drove up to a township called Castletown, on the very top end of Scotland, between Thurso and John o’ Groats.
My passenger was a Godly, earnest, and rather humble man and one of the finest people one could meet. He likes to chat but after a mile or two I noticed that his talking had dropped away. I glanced at him. He was staring straight ahead fixedly, and I observed a slight pallor on his cheek. I was about to ask him if he was well when I noticed that his hands were making small, nervous, clutching motions. Then I realised it was my driving that was making him nervous. It was completely safe. I mean, not once did I lift a wheel on a bend or even squeal a tyre, or even drift onto the wrong side of the road, but I suppose my driving compared to his would definitely be classed as a bit exuberant. The little Golf is such a pleasure to drive on these winding roads. It loves them and clings to the tar like a limpet. Around this really delightful man I always feel a bit of a bumbling rough bushie (what we highlanders would call a “teuchter” or country yokel), but he would be dismayed if he thought I felt like that.

One thing I have noticed these days. There is a marked increase in the numbers of bicycles on the road, heading either north or south, wobbling along, loaded down with pannier bags and sometimes pulling a little cart, also well-loaded. They are the intrepid souls doing the Lands End to John o’ Groats run (bottom of England to top of Scotland) or vice versa. There are also walkers doing the dame thing, and an increasing number of motor homes and caravans. Spring coming to the highlands has meant a lot more folk coming to explore these parts.
Janet arrived on Friday afternoon, looking very weary and with a slight cough, which I naturally presumed was swine ‘flu and I have been worried lest she become the north-east highlands distributor. She is now a little better but not completely well.

On Saturday just before lunch Paul and wife Mae arrived. They are old friends of my brother Bill and his wife Jenny. We know them quite well, and as they were in Britain asked to pop to have a look around these parts. They were pleasant and agreeable company.
The highlands bunged on a special day for their arrival: heavy rain, wind and fog – all at the same time. The weather was atrocious – and it was cold. There was not much we could do, but in the afternoon I took them out to see the standing stones at Achavanich, which are not very far away down a narrow, lonely road. Half way there, the fog thickened and it was hard to see the fence by the single lane road. At one point a car, travelling a bit too quickly and with lights off, loomed out of the fog (a tourist of course. We locals don’t do that sort of thing!) The young piece in the other car gave a snooty toss of her dolly mop, roared off and in a second disappeared into the opaque blanket. We had narrowly avoided a head-on. I was very nervous. Finally we arrived and our visitors dutifully climbed out of the car. They were quite fascinated by the ancient and mysterious stones, approximately 4,000 years old, forming what is believed to be either a burial site or possibly a site of human sacrifice, for many human bones have been found. The mist swirled about us and the peat was soggy underfoot. Away to one side the small loch was barely visible, while off to the other stretched the seemingly endless “flow” country, eerie and mysterious through the swirls of fog. It was not hard to imagine “the hound of the Baskervilles” out there.
We shivered – from the cold  -or  perhaps something else…….

The following day dawned much brighter. Paul went with me to the Dunbeath Service and also the Lybster service where we met Janet and Mae.
Our guests went for a sight-seeing tour after lunch on Sunday. In the evening upon their return they took us to the “Portland Arms” hotel for an excellent dinner.

Paul, Mae Janet and I enjoy a meal  in the “Portland Arms” Lybster

Paul, Mae Janet and I enjoy a meal in the “Portland Arms” Lybster

They went off early the following morning to John o’ Groats to catch the ferry to Orkney for a day tour. A bus collected them where the ferry docked and gave them a great tour.
I was at Dunbeath School for RI that morning, visited a recuperating parishioner at home on the way back, went to Wick to visit a lady in hospital there and at 7.30pm was at the choir practice here in the Lybster Kirk  A new week had started.

Tuesday May 19
Paul and Mae left to head off south early in the morning.
I usually like to have Mondays off but yesterday was just one of those days.
Janet has had it in her mind for some time to visit Dunrobin Castle. The castle is just north of the town of Golspie, about a 45 minute drive south of here and as the day dawned clear, we headed off, arriving just before the falcon flying exhibition.
The castle itself is magnificent and is the seat of the clan Sutherland.

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle

Some of the grounds of Dunrobin Castle

Some of the grounds of Dunrobin Castle

The expense of keeping such a magnificent residence must be horrendous. I am guessing that that is the reason why the castle is open to paying visitors. We paid our £7.00 each and made our way through gardens of exquisite beauty to the falcon flying exhibition. The falconer was showing off the talents of a magnificent European eagle owl named Cedar, who was displaying his talents to a very interested crowd of about seventy folk. Cedar was amazing. His beauty, his strength, his intelligence, his ability to fly in complete silence left us all open-mouthed. The falconer loved his birds and it showed. Cedar showed his affection for that remarkable man. Also joining in the gig was a falcon, not as big, not as awe-inspiring as Cedar but no less amazing. During and after the demonstration, Cedar sat socially on a bench among the delighted onlookers but we were warned not to touch him. One look at that beak would have convinced anyone! Cedar we were told is very placid, but no one disobeyed the warning!

Cedar

Cedar

Afterwards we went up to the castle itself and were free to walk through the twenty rooms and along the wide corridors open to tourists. The corridor walls were lined with beautiful paintings of various members of the clan dating back centuries.
Each room was different, each full of rare and lovely paintings, wall hangings, antique furniture, each room breathing a glorious past.
Looking at the paintings of long dead Sutherlands however, surrounded by all the glory, pomp and circumstance of their day, is a reminder of the shortness and frailty of human life.
As the old Book of Ecclesiastes puts it so succinctly: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the earth abides for ever.” (1:4).
We spoke to one of the attendants who told us that there are quarters in the castle for family members, but most have private residences somewhere on the estate of 20,000 acres.
Finally we left and made out way down to the town and had a sandwich at a picnic table by the North Sea. In the distance we could see the flashing light from the lighthouse on Tarbat Ness, away to the south east. A chilly wind had sprung up out of the North Sea by this time so we did not linger.
Towering above us on top of  Ben Bragghie is the  massive 130ft high memorial  of the 1st Earl of Sutherland. The statue of the man dominates  the town and district.
The Earl himself was despised by the people. He was responsible for the Highland Clearances in that area back in the 1830’s, when hundreds of crofter tenants were removed forcibly from their crofts to make way for sheep, which it was believed would prove more profitable than rent from the crofts.
Since then, I am happy to report, the Sutherland family has done all in its power over the years to right the wrong done, and an amicable relationship exists in the town and district with the Sutherland clan.
On the way home we stopped at another place packed with history: the now abandoned and sad village of Badbea, which lies right on the coast, just inside the county of Caithness. (Sutherland lies a little to the south).
It was there that the  former crofter tenants, removed from their land,  were forced to eek out a pitiful existence . To get there we walked along a narrow muddy track over peaty, desolate moorland  right to the edge of the great cliffs overlooking the sea, where the village once stood. Now, almost nothing remains, apart from a stone memorial. It is a tragic place and a sad aura hangs over it. The winds there blow with such ferocity that the children had to be tethered to prevent them from being blown over the cliff into the sea; a fate met by many animals.

Saturday May 23
The rest of the week has been spent “lifting dat bag, toting dat bale….”  as the old song has it. In other words, I have been engaged in productive labour, with nothing particularly outstanding to record.
Now that spring is well advanced, so much is coming to life. Many of the district’s attractions, closed during the  cold winter months, are now opening: little cafes, museums and other places of interest are welcoming visitors.
In fact the whole district is coming to life with the warmer weather. The days are getting longer and longer and with all the extra sunlight nature is working overtime.

Storm clouds over Latheronwheel

The grass in the fields is deepest green, new lambs are everywhere. Highland cattle are suckling their young. Beautiful new foals are prancing beside their mothers. The trees, stark and bare a short time ago, are clothed in rich green garb, hiding the rooks’ nests so plain to view this time last month.

Highland cattle grazing

Highland cattle grazing near Lybster

Janet and I have visited “Waterlines” down at Lybster harbour, which is also  the Lybster Heritage Centre. It has a little café attached, manned by locals.
Lybster has a fascinating history for in days past it was the third busiest herring port on the Caithness coast.
Last night we were guests of Tony and Gay out on their property, together with Pauline the session clerk and her husband John.
It was a jolly sort of an evening. Tony’s and Gay’s house is set high on a hill, looking out across farmlands to the sea. Just on dusk, a rainbow of vividly brilliant hues rose from the sea, breathtaking in its beauty.

Rainbow from the North Sea

Rainbow from the North Sea

From the conservatory windows  we could  see the lights of  two oil rigs thirteen miles off the coast. Unseen beyond them to the south east the Aberdeenshire coast and the twinkling lights of Bucky, Banff and  Macduff townships, 55 miles away across the water..
It was an unusual night. There was not a breath of wind, and the sea so calm and beautiful. Looking at it, I was ‘minded of the lovely poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, (one of my favourite poets), the first verse of which goes:

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

It was just on 11.00pm when we finally left the house. We were amazed to see that the darkness we expected to see was not there! It was a sort of half light.
Up here, 59 degrees north, the daylight will linger longer until the summer equinox. On the longest day (21 June I think) there is traditionally a game of golf  up here –  which starts at midnight!

Monday 25 May
Our second lot of Australian visitors arrived on Saturday: Jim and Margaret Hiles, whom we know very well. They are members of St John’s Mayfield and really fine people. We had been looking forward to their coming.
In contrast to the previous Saturday, the weather last Saturday was almost pleasant.
It was a trifle overcast, a trifle windy, a trifle wet and a trifle more than a trifle cold!
Like Paul and Mae, the Hiles are cheerful folk. Because they were here for such a short time we decided to show them what we could, so after lunch Saturday made our way out to the standing stones at Achavanich, where I took Paul and Mae only a week previously.
From there we journeyed back to Lybster then out to the burial cairns at Camster, which also are not far away. Janet enticed Jim and Margaret into one of the burial chambers, but I would not go in.
Janet was still not finished with them. She guided us another couple of miles up the coast to the Whalegoe steps. The history there is amazing. The herring fishermen built 365 steps down the side of a cliff to a shelf they built called “The bink” from where they launched their small boats another twenty feet down into the North Sea to chase the ‘the silver darlings” as they called them: the herring. When they returned the boats had to be winched up onto the bink. It was an amazing enterprise. Most of the fish were treated there on the spot, put in barrels of brine and transported by sea to faraway places. Quantities however were carted up the 365 steps by hardy women, who carried wicker baskets full of fish on their backs. We went down the steps to the bottom. It is a dangerous place in big seas. The walk back up was exhausting.
How those women did it, loaded down with fish, defies the imagination.
The name  “Whalegoe” is interesting. It means in the Caithness dialect “Whale Inlet.”
It seems it was a spot where dead whales were washed occasionally into the inlet. When that happened, the dead whale was winched 250 feet to the top of the cliff. If the whale was under 60 feet in length, the fishermen had to dispose of it, but if over 60 feet it was the duty of the Laird to dispose of it.
It is unclear what happened to all  the remains, but it is known that gates  and other objects were made of whale bones – and to back up the story, one of the parishioners here has an arch of whalebone over a gate leading into a field!

The whalebone arch over the gate

The whalebone arch over the gate

On Sunday we introduced our visitors Jim and Margaret to the congregation. That’s two lots of Australian visitors in two weeks – the locals are impressed!
We had a quick lunch after Church and headed off to John o’ Groats, which our visitors were so keen to see, having come  so far north.

Janet with the Hiles at John O Groats

Janet with the Hiles at John O' Groats

The day was a bit like yesterday, weather-wise. They had a very enjoyable time at John o’ Groats – but after that we took them to the REAL northernmost point of Britain’s mainland – Dunnet Head.
Dunnet Head lies a few miles further along the coast from John o’ Groats and is a bit further north. It rarely rates a mention because, apart from a lighthouse, there  is nothing there at all – just a windswept, barren coastline.

Peekaboo Tony at Dunnet Head

We took them back via the town of Thurso, down the A9 to Latheron, where we turned off and headed north back to Lybster.
In the evening we all went off to the good ol’ Portland Arms hotel for dinner, which was a pleasant interlude with a tasty meal.
Our visitors left us at about 10.00am today.
As I write now, at 6.45pm on Monday May 25 in the year of grace 2009, a massive haar (fog) lies over the land. It is supposed to be damp and chill  for the rest of the week, fining up for the weekend.
I’ll keep you posted!

The hills of Caithness not far from Badbea

The hills of Caithness not far from Badbea

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