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Port Ellen

Just before arriving at Port Ellen, you can see a square lighthouse. Normally lighthouses are round so they can withstand the brutal weather that accompanies their perilous location. In this particular spot, the weather is not so bad so the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse is square. Maintained by the Northern Lighthouse board since 1924 it looks to be in amazing condition considering it was commissioned in 1832 in memory of Fredric Campbell’s wife. It felt oddly out of place considering the beautiful weather that day.

The next time I go to Islay, I want to take a walk on the singing sands beach to take a closer look at the lighthouse. It sounds like a very nice walk and you get to see seals, otters and feral goats. Who doesn’t like that!

Port Ellen itself is another small port town with all the appropriate charm. I highly recommend the Sea Salt Bistry & Take Away, the food there is quite good and the people are very friendly. Plus it is good to get some food before heading out to the epic lineup of distilleries: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.

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Ferry to Port Ellen

I have been on ferries in Seattle, San Francisco, Greece and a few other places around the world but the most unexpectedly nice ferry was in Scotland. The cold steely gray deck is heavily painted and well maintained just like the oblong marine portal door that leads to the tight stairs up. The top is unexpectedly open with a large circular lounge area centered around a huge lighted sculpture of bubbling cylinders of water, slick seating and the faint smell of lemony cleaner. It felt like a Vegas nightclub designer decided to slow things down a bit in life and start designing cruise ships, starting with this ferry. Slightly dated upscale with the obligatory slot machines peeking around the corner.

The inside needed exploring but I ended up spending most of my time on the upper deck taking pictures of the smooth water reflecting the fall Scottish colors along the shoreline. Occasionally houses peeked out of the deep orange trees making me wonder who lives there and if they think it is as beautiful as I do. I did look up some of the houses based on my cameras GPS coordinates and they are cottages for rent. Out of my budget at 1,800 pounds a week but they look very nice.

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Kennacraig

Kennacraig is a hamlet. When I hear the word hamlet, I think of a largish house. Turns out my vocabulary of British jurisdictions and geographies is not so good and a hamlet is a small village. To further complicate this the term clachan is preferred term for a small village in the Scottish highlands. Kennacraig is not in the Scottish highlands but it is in closer than all of Brittan. While I may continue to debate this with myself while drifting to sleep, Kennacraig is best known for its small ferry terminal. The small and quite pleasant ferry terminal is the most common way to get to Port Ellen. The magical home of smoky peaty scotch.

Frequently when we travel we are lucky with the weather. This time we were more lucky than normal and we were greeted at the ferry terminal with mirror-like flat water brooding overcast sky with bits of blue sky and zero wind. It was so calm, the ferry that was unloading was not even making ripples in the harbor. I immediately jumped out of the car, and madly ran over to take pictures of the landscape reflecting in the salty ocean mirror.

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Tarbert

Tarbert has all the charm and friendliness you would expect from a west coast village in Scotland. Small, picturesque and known for it’s great seafood, we should have spent more than 1 night there. In our short time there I felt like it is the kind of place where the sun moves slower and the waves are softer. Even the smell of the ocean is missing the normal salty bite I am accustom to on the west coast of Oregon. Next time we will plan an extra few days to get a warm cable nit sweater and a warm cup of coffee to watch the abstract clouds drift across the bay and sample more of the amazing seafood.

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Doune

Castle Doune is only an hour outside of Edinburgh and about 2.5 hours away from Tarbert. Not quite halfway, it was a good stop for the very first part of our cross-country drive in a different country. Doune was on my short list of places to see in Scotland mainly because it was used for multiple scenes in one of the best movies of all times, Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. Driving up you can immediately recognize the castle from the movie. If you go, make sure you do the audio guides. Terry Jones does an excellent narration and it was the best audio guide we listened to during our trip to Scotland.

I can remember while I was still in high school, borrowing the camcorder from my parents to record our version of Quest for the Holy Grail on a full-size VHS tape. This mountain dew fueled creation process was more fun than productive but we did dedicate the better half of a day and late into the evening creating our masterpiece. The result was a 4-5 minute video of minimal effort costumes, poorly selected locations, and ridiculous cinematography. Editing was literally rewinding the video and shooting the scene again. Someday I hope to find the tape but it may be better to leave it in my memory.

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Tarbert Castle

Tarbert Castle was the first castle ruins we visited on our trip to Scotland. Like nearly all castles in Scotland, much of it has been destroyed or used for other buildings. Looking out across Tarbert harbor, it is easy to imagine Robert the Bruce watching over the fortification to help protect against the Lords of the Isles in 1320. Once stony embattlements, fragrant kitchens, and busy courtyards are now replaced with manicured green grass the musky smell of sheep and the occasional rabbit. Castle Tarbert is in the twilight of its life, standing as a reminder of the difficult history that ravaged for so many years.

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Stonefield Castle

Stonefield Castle Hotel is less than 5 minutes from the Kennacraig ferry terminal. We picked it as our midpoint stop between Edinburgh and Ardbeg Distillery because it was a convenient way to break up the 6-hour drive. The convenience turned into one of the highlights of our trip with comfortable rooms, amazing food, and gracious staff. The feeling is upscale homey from the dark wood paneling and the high level of staff there. They all remembered everyone’s room numbers and all of our orders were correctly added to our bill without signatures or question. Everything was correct, efficient and smooth. I have never stayed anywhere that fluidly and effortlessly runs like that. Our time there was a great experience and I will definitely stay there again when I get the chance.

As we were saying our goodbyes to the staff I found myself wondering if this type of service is what some people grow to expect. There must be stores and hotels that don’t mention, display or discuss price. These places would have patrons wander and gesture at what they want while someone follows behind picking it up, paying for it and shipping it home. Stonefield castle is far from gesture shopping but the light taste of freeness and extra trust makes me a wee bit uncomfortable. The feeling was not strong enough to make me stop but I did double check everything to make sure there were no mistakes. This self-realization that my trust has clear boundaries makes me wonder if it is part of my core personality or something I learned in life. There is no way to find out but I do know more about what kind of lifestyle I am comfortable with.

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Exclaiming

Fall in Scotland has an abundance of rich reds, browns and orange splattered across the smooth hills. On our drive from Glasgow to Tarbert, the colors floated by and I stared out the window as if I had never been in a car before. Frequently I would point and exclaim that there is yet again some more beauty to behold. This was mostly silly because everyone else in the car was also looking outside at the landscape whizzing by while we hugged the wrong side of the road.

Kilchurn Castle is on a small lake and normally the pictures are of a grand reflection at sunset. We didn’t have the time to spend the day there waiting for the right moment but I like the lighting in this picture a lot. Frequently on our drive, the clouds open up and large splashes of bright sunlight would light up random spots. This type of lighting rarely happens in San Francisco so to me it makes the picture look like a bad photoshop job. I kind of like it that way because it reminds me of the giddy excitement I felt on our first rural drive in Scotland.

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High Kirk

St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh is massive and pointy with it’s signature crown steeple on top. Standing as the religious focal point in Edinburgh for more than 900 years gives it more history than anything in America. It is named after the patron saint of Edinburgh that also happens to be the saint of cripples and lepers. While lepers are less popular nowdays, he was quite famous and important in the middle ages. You can’t help but think about the amazing amount of history this place has witnessed.

Snapping some quick pictures of this grand relic as I am running around the morning streets is not the way I like to visit. But this morning I am a giddy tourist excited to see the city, running to catch as much as I can in my 40 minutes of free time. Some day I will return to breathe in the musty history from the middle ages and give it the silent thoughtfulness it deserves. Next time.

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Gothic Rocket

Only a few weeks back, I stood at the entrance of my hotel in Edinburgh holding my freshly cleaned and charged Canon 5D mark IV. It was much colder than San Francisco but I was prepared with my heavy coat and a scarf. Looking around, I filled my lungs with the smell of changing leaves and commuter car exhaust while I decided which direction to start. Only 40 minutes to take some pictures before we headed to pick up the rental and drive to Tarbert. My memory of last night was clouded from staying awake for more than 30 hours followed by a whiskey tasting and dinner. Still groggy and now jetlagged I decided to follow roughly where we had gone last night to see what it looked like in the morning light.

Like a giddy tourist, I ran around taking pictures of anything and everything.

People ran to catch double decker busses, waited at stoplights and other very normal things on a Thursday. For me, all I saw was the gothic architecture behind the delivery trucks and between the taxis. Nearly out of breath from jogging up the hill, I found what I wanted. The Gothic Rocket. We walked past it the night before and the odd shape and size intrigued me. Its real name is the Scott Monument and it is a tribute to Sir Walter Scott. It’s truly huge and is quite photogenic for a monument. Nobody sat or rested at the base of the Rocket and it seemed to be confidently alone in the bustle. A nice calm spot in the middle of the morning.