On the Way to Orkney, Part IV: Knot Tying at Balfour Castle

“Aye, this rain! We’ve had it for months now, I tell ye,” said Captain Mike as he stowed our luggage in the hold. “It’s a dreich day, gloomy even by Scottish standards.” He untethered the boat from the dock at the Kirkwall corn slip, and we wobbled to the cabin. “OK?” he asked. We nodded from our wet seats and the captain took to the helm. “Noo, aye you’ll go,” he announced, and we sped north toward Shapinsay, the next island in the Orkney archipelago.

The captain’s voice faded as I stared out the window and tried to situate myself in a reality I could hardly fathom. I’m on way to my wedding in a castle that can be reached only by boat or helicopter, I thought. Is this really happening? If you would have asked me last year who got married nowadays in a real castle, I would have said Madonna or Princess Di. Certainly not me. But now here we were. And here it was: a majestic assembly of stone materializing at the edge of the horizon—stark, gray, and utterly imposing, like something out of a British novel.

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On the Way to Orkney, Part III: The Falls of Glomach

Walking meditation brings you back to your true home, the home of your spiritual ancestors—the present moment.—Thich Nhat Hanh

We were on an old coffin road. For centuries families had carried their dead along this route to be buried at Clachan Duich, safely inland. The narrow path that had started gently through the pastures and forested glens of West Affric quickly became steep and occasionally treacherous.

It didn’t help to have a pair of lungs so well abused in youth that the two of them now probably did the work of just one. Hiking uphill is a breeze for Chris. His lungs are made of iron, and he has the heart of a horse. My organs are more like overinflated balloons, ready to pop with one skyward step too many.

Chris disappeared over a hill, and I stopped to catch my breath. We were deep into the range now. To my left, a steep mountainside bore tufted grasses and scree. To my right, the earth yawned into a valley, then erupted into another pyramidal peak. This one dotted with stags and does.

The physical beauty of the Highlands is every bit as stunning as you might expect: jagged mountains glazed in green velvet, wrapped in mist, and then laced with bourns. The emptiness, though, is haunting. Read more

On the Way to Orkney, Part II: A Massacre and a Near Poisoning

You know you’re in Scotland when you see a bagpiper in a parking lot in the middle of a vast, desolate glen. If you’re on a Macs Adventure, like us, then such a sight is a clue that you’ve arrived at the first trail head of an eight-day hike-and-drive expedition. We pulled in beside a  bright yellow bus with the words “Wild and Sexy” plastered to it in two-feet-tall block letters. The door opened and out came a gaggle of retirees led by a little woman with a red flag. While they gathered around the piper with selfie sticks, we consulted our route notes.

This was Glen Coe, the most famous and impressively dramatic of all Scottish glens. According to the notes, it was also a “true Mecca for keen walkers, epitomised by the famous pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mor, the guardian at the entrance to the glen.” We never figured out quite what the guide was referring to there. Nor did we positively identify the Coire Gabhail, the hidden valley where the MacDonald clan once stashed their stolen cows. But that didn’t make the story of the MacDonald Massacre of 1692 any less riveting a tale of bad manners in the extreme.  Read more

On the Way to Orkney, Part I: Glasgow Guzzlers

We call it the Wedding March. For eight days Chris and I would hike the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye before tying the knot in the Orkney Islands. Of course everyone thought we were crazy, which is probably why we decided to do it. After all, who takes a long and arduous journey on the way to their own wedding? And how exactly does one pack for such a trip—particularly the bride? Hiking boots and tulle are a terrible mix.  Read more