The morning of August 5 found us docked at Reykjavik (RAY-kya-vick), the capital and largest city in Iceland. It is the northernmost capital of a sovereign nation in the world & its population of about 120,000 is more than a third that of the entire country. Although it was officially founded as a city in 1786 it is thought to be the site of the first Icelandic Norse settlement in 870. When we opened our curtains in the morning it was well after sunrise but it still looked pretty spectacular.
We were in town for an overnight stay, so for the first day we booked a non-Holland America tour of the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is the classic tour in this area, visiting some of the most popular sights in Iceland in one long day. While waiting for our bus we saw some minks on the rocks near our harbor. It turns out that minks are one of the few types of wild animals in Iceland, most if not all of which were introduced by man. As we drove the rather long way to our first stop our driver/guide pointed out the lava fields. Although they are thousands of years old, some of these lava fields have little more than moss growing on them still, while others are lush with vegetation. He explained that this depends on the depth of the lava; if it is too deep plants can’t reach the nutrients in the ground under them so substantial growth never begins. Our first stop turned out to be a bathroom stop, with a gift shop also on the premises. American travelers must have quite a reputation since a restroom is often the first stop on a tour (wasting precious time in our opinion). This is the first of several pictures of gift shops in this episode, responding to a request we received just before we reached Reykjavik. So I hope you enjoy that, Cecile!
Our first real visit was to Vatnsleysufoss (also called Faxi Falls), a wide waterfall with a fish ladder next to it to enable salmon to swim upriver to spawn. As has been noted before, Iceland is full of impressive waterfalls.
You see a lot of fields in Iceland with large stubby cylinders of hay wrapped in plastic (I think) that will presumably feed animals in winter. But our guide helpfully explained to us that these are really giant marshmallows left out for trolls in the hope that they will eat these instead of local children. They come in mint and licorice flavors as well as plain white. He says they have been quite successful in that few children are eaten by trolls any more.
Our next stop was Haukadalur, a geothermal area of geysers & steam vents. In fact the word “geyser” coms from one of the features here, a now-dormant geyser named “Geysir” that used to be the main attraction here because of its frequent eruptions. Near it is a geyser called Strokkur that still erupts pretty dramatically every 5 or 10 minutes. You can see the crowds standing around it waiting to take pictures of the next eruption.
Since everyone knows that heat is what makes steam you would think that people would know better than to stick their hands in it. But of course you would be wrong; they do it all the time, despite a sign warning against it in four languages.
In addition to the main geysers there are small bubbling pools (one called Litli-Geysir) and steam vents. There are also pools filled with hot water from below, some of which display unusual colors. We learned at Yellowstone that at least some of those colors are caused by bacteria living in the hot water.
One of the more unusual features is called Blesi. It comprises two pools. The hot water bubbles up into one that hardly looks like it has water in it at all, and then it runs over the edge into another pool with a very blue cast . If you look closely into the second pool you can see the cavern at the bottom. The second pool is bright blue from silica in the water that reacts with the air as it runs from one pool to the other. And because there is no independent source of hot water in the second pool it is much cooler than all the other pools here. Its also very pretty. All of the pictures here are of the second, runoff, pool because it was the only one that looked really interesting.
This was a lunch stop, for those who wanted to buy lunch (everything in Iceland is really expensive; one passenger told us he bought a bowl of take-out soup here that cost more than $10), so it was a lengthy stop. Among other things, we looked through the large gift shop. In Iceland there are three primary souvenirs: Puffins, Vikings and trolls. Sometimes they are combined, for the perfect souvenir! I really shouldn’t be so snarky since gift shops are the only places we saw any puffins on this voyage.
Our next visit was to yet another beautiful waterfalls called Gullfoss (golden falls). It is quite large & falls down two levels. On sunny days it generates a rainbow, but our day was not sunny.
Gullfoss may have gotten its name from a golden hue that sometimes appears in the evening. But a better story is that a local farmer with a lot of gold could not bear someone else possessing it after he died, so he threw it into the waterfall. So far no one has swum under the falls to find it. Early in the 20th Century an Englishman tried to buy the waterfalls to generate electricity. The daughter of the owner of the land, named Sigriður Tómasdóttir, fought against it for years in court and by threatening to throw herself over the falls if construction began. She lost her court battle, but the purchaser ultimately failed to pay and so the falls was saved. It is now owned by the government and is a nature preserve. By the falls is a plaque to Sigriður Tómasdóttir, who is considered Iceland’s first environmentalist.The trail to the edge of the waterfall is also named for her.
We walked up to the top of the canyon ridge. From there you could see the glacier in the mountains miles away.
This is a good spot to look at today’s flowers, since we saw a lot of these near Gullfoss. Also in this area were several small rock piles presumably built by visitors. You see rock piles like this a lot in Iceland, presumably set up as way markers most of the time.
On our way to the last major site on the Golden Circle we stopped to meet some Icelandic horses who were anxious, as always, to meet people from a bus who might give them food. They were not disappointed.
We continued on to Þingvellir (the first letter is pronounced like “th” in English), an Icelandic national park, a UNESCO world heritage site & a place of great historical and geological importance.
Historically, this is the spot where the Icelandic Althing (general assembly) met from 930 until 1799. It is considered the oldest parliamentary body in the world, and has met since 1844 in Reykjavik. The original Althing would meet for a couple of weeks every year & everyone was invited. It served legislative and judicial purposes. Before laws were written down an official called the Lawspeaker would recite all of the laws from memory (over the course of three Althings) as well as the procedural rules of the gathering. He sat on a rock called the Law Rock & everyone gathered around to listen. The location of the Law Rock is not currently known for sure, but there is a flagpole where it is thought to have been.
Geographically, the long cliff behind the Althing location is the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate. The North American and European plates are moving apart here, at a rate of about 1 mm per year, and there is a wide rift valley that represents the “no man’s land” between the plates. The floor of the rift was formed by volcanic action & it is relatively thin & is sinking, also at about 1 mm per year. The western edge of the European plate can be seen from the top of the cliff at Thingvellir lying across Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
As we drove along this lake on our way to Thingvellir I heard the guide say that it is very popular to piss in this lake. I wondered why that would be so popular, but then we got to the visitor’s center and discovered that it cost $2.00 to use a restroom! It turned out that the guide had actually said it is popular to fish in the lake. That’s very different; never mind.
There are many smaller fissures in the floor of the rift. One of them, called Nikulásargjá or Peningagjá was bridged in 1907 for a visit by the king of Denmark. On our arrival at Thingvellir we parked next to a fissure with a bridge; I don’t know whether it is the same one but it was quite beautiful. We thought at first that this fissure was the dividing point between the tectonic plates, but of course it wasn’t.
There is a path leading up to the top through a fissure in the cliff. Normally we would have taken that route, but we had been ill & when we first got out of the bus there was a cloudburst. We hadn’t brought our umbrellas and although the rain stopped there was no guarantee it would not suddenly begin again when we were halfway there. So we decided to forego the walk & went to the top in the bus. We did see people standing at the top of the cliff, though, and we could see in the distance a waterfall called Öxarárfoss dropping over the top of the cliff.
From the visitor’s center on top there was quite a view, some of which you have seen above.
We drove back to Reykjavik but since this was an overnight stay there was no all aboard deadline, so our guide took us on a short tour through the city. We stopped at two places. The first is a building on top of a hill called Perlan. The base consists of five massive tanks holding hot water pumped in from geothermal stations to heat the city. The tanks have been there for a long time, but in 1991 they built a glass dome on top. Inside are shops, a revolving restaurant in the dome and the Saga Museum (which is being moved this year). In front is an interesting sculptural group of jazz musicians. Around the dome is an observation decks with striking 360 degree views. Fortunately, the rain was long gone & it was now a bright sunny evening.
Our last stop was at the Hallgrímskirkja, probably the best known landmark in Reykjavid. A Lutheran church built after World War II, it is the largest church in Iceland with a soaring bell tower that can be seen all over town. It is named after 17th Century poet Hallgrimur Petursson, who was married to Gudrídur Símonardottir who had been abducted from the Heimaey area during the 1627 North Africa raid mentioned in that episode and enslaved as a concubine. She was returned to Iceland a decade later after being ransomed by the king of Denmark. She was notorious among Icelanders because she was twice her husband’s age and was pregnant when they married. Inside is an impressive pipe organ and while Mary was there the organist filled the church with the theme from Star Wars. Awesome! I wish I had been in there to hear it. I will leave it at this for now since we would be visiting the church again the next day.
So after a day jam-packed with many of Iceland’s best known sights we returned to the ship to eat & rest up for a partial day in the city tomorrow.
We arrived at Heimaey Island mid-morning on August 5. We had to anchor outside the small harbor because Prinsendam, another Holland America ship we had sailed on twice, was docked there. I was feeling well enough by now to go ashore, particularly since we had an excursion scheduled so there wouldn’t have to be too much walking. Unfortunately, the tour turned out to be probably the worst one we have ever taken. Even Holland America eventually acknowledged this, refunding 50% of the tour price.
Located just offshore in the south of Iceland, Heimaey (pronounced with 3 syllables, as hi-MAY-ee) is the largest island near Iceland. On the north side is the town of Vestmannaeyjar with some 4500 inhabitants. It has been populated for more than 1,000 years and in 1627 it was the victim of the same North African slave traders who had decimated the Djupivogur area.
We were tendered ashore for our tour in late morning. Unfortunately it turned out that the buses on the island were out on an earlier Prinsendam tour & we had to wait on the dock for more than an hour before they returned. It was chilly & windy, so this was not a good development for the many people who were somewhat ill. Worse, Mary tripped & gashed her knee walking up the steps from the dock. When the buses finally arrived there were not enough seats for everyone who had bought tickets, so a few were left behind. In retrospect we wished we had been among them, because the bus tour went nowhere important that couldn’t have been reached on foot & the tour guide was terrible. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything interesting to see. Even from the ship there were interesting views of islands or peninsulas with rock formations where puffins and other birds often nest (but not when we were there).
You will notice the characteristic landscape of rock & grass but no trees. As we passed a small planting of short trees our guide repeated a point we had heard before: What to do if you are lost in the woods in Iceland? Stand up & look around.
The fact that this town still exists here is pretty remarkable. In January, 1973, a volcano called Eldfell next to the town that had been thought extinct suddenly erupted. The eruption lasted some 4 months & increased the size of the island by about 20%. Everyone on the island was evacuated within a day and only one man (who had broken into a pharmacy to obtain drugs & was overcome by toxic gas) was killed. But about 400 houses were buried in lava & ash.
As the lava flow was overcoming the town & threatening to cut off the harbor that was essential to the fishing industry here, a professor and some townspeople decided to try to divert the flow by pumping water on it from a fire truck. This had the effect of more quickly cooling the lava wall which then impeded the flow of lava in that direction. Once it had been proven to work, the United States provided a number of boats with pumps to pour seawater on the lava flow headed for the town & the harbor. This saved both and, although the entrance to the harbor has been reduced to a little over 100 yards, the new land created by the lava flow serves as a breakwater that provides better protection from foul weather.
Our most interesting stop on this tour was on Edfell. We walked up to a viewing spot, although not all the way to the top which would be a substantial climb. The side of the volcano is still mostly bare volcanic rock, although the townspeople have planted grass around the bottom & are hoping it will eventually cover the mountain.
While on Eldfell we also saw the nearby volcanic mountain of Helgafell whose eruption some 5,000 years ago made a single island out of what had been two. It is now mostly covered by grass & as I mentioned it is hoped that will happen to Eldfell eventually as well. Our guide also pointed out Eyjafjallajökull lying across the water near the edge of the Icelandic mainland. You will probably recall that trans-Atlantic air traffic was grounded for about a week in 2010 because of an eruption in Iceland & this is where it happened. In 2010 Iceland also had a banking meltdown during which it defaulted on substantial European loans & we heard several times that the volcano showed that you shouldn’t mess with Iceland. “You asked for cash and we gave you ash” was their saying, which we also saw on a tee shirt in Reykjavik. My thought about this was that the real lesson is you shouldn’t loan money to Iceland. By the way, don’t even think about trying to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull; there were sarcastic tee shirts in Reykjavik saying something like “What part of Eyjafjallajökull can’t you pronounce?”
There were some tiny white wildflowers trying to grow in the lava on Eldfell. As for fauna, we saw a lot of sheep & also gulls in the water outside the harbor.
After leaving Eldfell we drove around the town seeing some pretty uninteresting things (“Here is the supermarket, and there is the liquor store . . .”). But did we see the new museum about the volcano that included excavated houses? Of course not. We drove past the empty site of an annual festival that had been held a few days before our arrival, and our guide helpfully explained how much fun it is to drink a lot. Speaking of drinking, it is an interesting fact that until 1989 it was illegal to produce or drink beer in Iceland. The official reason was that beer drinkers tend to drink it a lot while drinkers of wine & spirits don’t. This is obviously not true & the theory we heard while in Iceland is that beer was considered the drink of the working classes. Today Icelanders not only drink but brew beer. We also drove to an overlook outside of town from which you could see . . . grass-topped rocks in or by the sea, looking pretty much the same as the ones we had already seen.
We made one stop in town (really a bathroom break, which eat up a lot of time on these excursions). It was at the town cultural center, which wasn’t too exciting in itself. But we discovered that inside was the public library, and of course regular readers of this blog know that this is always one of our objectives. The Icelandic word for library is bókasafn (literally “book collection”), and there it was outside the building and also at the inside entrance to the library. Because of the houses buried in the volcano that turned out to be well preserved when excavated Icelanders call Vestmannaeyjar the “Pompeii of the North,” and there was a tee shirt in the library that conveyed that. There was also an interesting red rug indicating that the library had been established in 1862. I don’t know what the 1977 date signifies, but I would guess that is when it was reopened after the volcano. In front of the cultural center was an interesting abstract sculpture of a woman.
After getting off the bus we decided to head back to the ship rather than walking around the town. We were both still under the weather, pretty tired from the bus trip & Mary’s knee hurt. Too bad since the museum sounded interesting. But we were headed for Reykjavik the next day and wanted to conserve what little energy we had for that.
Those who have followed this blog may be wondering why there have been no towel animals for awhile. The answer is that in the second half of the voyage, after reaching Amsterdam, our towel animals were repeats of the ones we had on the first half of the voyage. However, during this stop in Iceland there was a competition among the room stewards in towel animal creativity. The entries were all displayed on the Lido deck near the pool. So here are a few of the entries, probably the last towel animals you will see on this journey.
After a day at sea we arrived at Djupivogur on the morning of August 4. Unfortunately I was unable to see this town because in the evening after touring Shetland I came down with the Dreaded Shipwide Illness. For more than two days I had such a debilitating headache I couldn’t eat anything and could hardly make it from the bed to the bathroom. Those who know me will recognize that not eating for two days means I must be really sick! Fortunately, the first day was a sea day, but I had to spend August 4 in bed as well and bypass Djupivogur. Fortunately, however, Mary did go into town for a few hours & therefore we have the pictures she took there.
Djupivogur is a town of fewer than 400 inhabitants in eastern Iceland. It is most famous in Iceland for having had the highest temperature ever recorded in the country: 87 degrees Fahrenheit in 1939. To our relatives in Texas that would be a cold front! Founded in the 16th Century the town was a trading center and sold fish to the Hanseatic League. The oldest building in town, called Langabud, was first built in 1790. Today it houses a museum & restaurant. After a large part of the town’s population was enslaved by North African raiders in the early 17th Century they built a cairn called Bóndavarða just above the town as a lookout. We don’t know whether the cairn in the picture is that one.
The village is surrounded by mountains and interesting rock formations. The most famous is Bulandstindur, a mountain more than 3,000 feet high that is shaped like a perfect pyramid. It has a longstanding reputation as a source of spiritual energy, but those who have seen Stargate will recognize it as a landing dock for space ships.
Just outside of town is Eggin í Gleðivík (Eggs of Merry Bay). This is an artistic installation created in 2009. It is a long row of 34 sculptures of eggs of the variety of birds that inhabit the area. Each one is different from the others but they form a unified artistic whole. Pretty unusual.
The small Djupivogur church, built in 1894, is no longer used for religious services, but it appears to have some community functions. It is undergoing restoration that is expected to be complete by 2016.
Other interesting things in town included a sculpture of a reindeer made of reindeer antlers, a monument to Eysteinn Jonsson, a local guy who was a minister in the Icelandic government from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, a house with a collection of trolls in front, and the 1922 Æðarstein lighthouse. There was also what appears to be some kind of monument featuring a ship’s propeller above the Langabud building, but we don’t know what it signifies.
Well, that’s pretty much all we have on this little village in a spectacular setting. But before we go, we can’t forget the flowers. We have included a couple of pictures of trees, not only because they are so rare in Iceland but because they show the effects of living where ocean winds are common.
So Mary came back to tend to her sick spouse, who still couldn’t get out of bed or eat. Tomorrow would be another port day & it was not at all clear whether I would be able to make it ashore. Tune in to the next episode to find out!
Saturday, August 2, found us anchored at Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands. Sparsely settled, Shetland has a population of a little over 20,000 & half of them live in or near Lerwick. No place in Shetland is more than 3 miles from the ocean. It has no native animals & no native trees; all that are there were introduced by men. Much of it looks very bleak: devoid of trees with houses scattered in tiny villages, just grassland, rocks & sea. But it has its own stark beauty.
While the Shetlands have been inhabited for about 6,000 years, the Vikings settled it in the 8th Century and it remained at least nominally a Norwegian possession until the 15th Century. It seems that in the late 1460’s Princess Margaret was betrothed to King James III of Scotland. Her father, the king of Norway, was too broke to pay a dowry so he gave James the Shetland & Orkney Islands as security for later payment. Princess Margaret died en route to Scotland but the Scots insisted that the dowry was due nonetheless. The dowry was never paid and thus Scotland’s possession of the islands became permanent.
Even after it became part of Scotland the Shetland economy continued to be based mostly on selling fish to the Norwegians & the Hanseatic League in Bergen, Norway. The culture of the Shetlands today owes as much to its Norwegian origin as to its Scottish connections. Lerwick is closer to Bergen than it is to Edinburgh, and the people are very proud of their Viking heritage. The very names of Lerwick & Shetland are of Norse derivation.
We spent the first part of the day on a bus excursion that took us to the southernmost point on the Mainland island of Shetland. This was nice because it gave us a chance to get out of town & see the countryside. A lot of villages, isolated farms, some ruins & even a beach.
We saw Mousa Island, now uninhabited but it has a famous tower built during the Iron Age. And we saw some fishermen who were cleaning their fish & tossing the entrails to the excited gulls gathering around their boat.
What would a visit to Shetland be worth if we didn’t see Shetland Ponies? We stopped along the way to meet some up close, & they came running over as we have seen with other animals used to getting a treat from tour buses. Even when they have their heads up they are not as tall as I am.
Then we reached Sumburgh Head, the southernmost point in Shetland. We parked by a marvelous mid-19th Century hotel that looked like an old castle. On a hill nearby was Sumburgh Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Shetland, built in 1821 by Robert Stevenson who was a prominent lighthouse builder and father of writer Robert Louis Stevenson.
Right next to the hotel was a field enclosed by stone walls containing more Shetland ponies.
We walked from there to the main object of our trip, the Jarlshof archaeological site. The name Jarlshof, which means lord’s house, was coined by Sir Walter Scott who visited the area in 1814 & included it under that name in his novel The Pirate. (“Jarl” was a Norse word that evolved into the English “Earl” after the Norse conquered most of England). At the time Scott visited the only thing visible was the remains of a 16th Century fortified house. It was built on the foundations of a medieval stone farmhouse by Robert Stewart, brother of Mary Queen of Scots, and expanded by his son Patrick Stewart (no, not the star ship captain). It was abandoned in the late 17th Century and fell into disrepair. Here is Scott’s description in the novel of how it looked in 1814:
“[A]n ancient Earl of the Orkneys had elected this neck of land as the place for establishing a mansion-house. It has been long entirely deserted, and the vestiges only can be discerned with difficulty; for the loose sand, borne on the tempestuous gales of those stormy regions, has overblown, and almost buried, the ruins of the buildings; but in the end of the seventeenth century, a part of the Earl’s mansion was still entire and habitable. It was a rude building of rough stone, with nothing about it to gratify the eye, or to excite the imagination; a large old-fashioned narrow house, with a very steep roof, covered with flags composed of grey sandstone, would perhaps convey the best of idea of the place to a modern reader. The windows were few, very small in size, and distributed up and down the building with utter contempt of regularity. Against the main structure had rested, in former times, certain smaller compartments of the mansion-house, containing offices, or subordinate apartments, necessary for the Earl’s retainers and menials. But these had become ruinous; and the rafters had been taken down for fire-wood, or for other purposes; the walls had given way in many places; and, to complete the devastation, the sand had already drifted amongst the ruins, and filled up what had been once the chambers the contained, to the depth of two or three feet.”
Severe storms in the late 19th Century washed away some of the topsoil in this area to reveal for the first time earlier ruins on the site. The area was excavated between 1925 and the 1950’s, uncovering a complicated mix of buildings and artifacts dating from about 2500 BC. There are a lot of excavations in a very small area & it can be pretty confusing trying to tell which are which. So I will do my best to explain this stuff, but I may not have it all correct. The earlier people built round stone walled houses while the Vikings who first came in the 8th Century built longhouses with straight walls & corners. This was because the Vikings were used to building with straight wooden logs or planks, which do not easily adapt to round walls, so even though they built with stone here (no trees in Shetland at that time) they adhered to their traditional rectangular shapes.
Just beyond the Stewart house are some “wheelhouses,” called this because they are round & have spoke-like interior walls. They are mostly underground & are prehistoric in origin.
There was a nice little visitor’s center with some artifacts & explanation, but we did not have much time to spend there (in fact our whole visit to Jarlshof was too rushed to fully understand it). One item that caught our attention there was an old Viking board game called Tafl. Several broken tafl boards were found on the Jarlshof site. The idea of the game for one player is to move the king (the center piece with a dot on it) to the edge of the board while the other player tries to capture it by surrounding the king with his own pieces. The pieces move like rooks on a chess board. Apparently this game was later overshadowed by chess, a more sophisticated game with a similar idea.
Leaving Jarlshof for the drive back to Lerwick we were stopped at the Sumburgh airport, the main commercial airport in Shetland. Its relatively short runway crosses the main north-south road & we were stopped to permit a plane to take off. Further on our guide pointed out to us some old round stone buildings still in use & a farmhouse (called a croft house, generally denoting a tenant farmer) built on the model of a Viking longhouse. The Viking design involves a rectangular living quarters with utility buildings connected on the ends so that everything can be reached without going outside. This type of house is still popular in Shetland, according to our guide.
Our guide pointed out where peat was being harvested to use as fuel for fires in winter. Peat is organic matter that decays and compresses over time. It accumulates at a rate of about 1 mm per year, not nearly enough to replenish what is harvested. It is dug up in rectangular shapes & left out to dry before being moved to where it will be used for fuel.
We left the main road to visit a small village called Hoswick in an area called Sandwick where (probably not coincidentally) our guide lives. The Hoswick Visitor Center is in a former tweed weaving mill & includes a small cafeteria, a gift shop and a museum that includes displays of old textile machinery & radios. The most interesting display was about a landmark legal case in 1888 in which the local tenant farmers had beached a lot of whales & the landlord asserted his ancient right to a percentage of the proceeds. The court sided with the farmers setting an important precedent. Near the visitor center is a knitwear factory with a shop. We looked but didn’t buy.
Driving though the town on our way back to the main road we passed a walled cemetery by the water, haystacks in long rows and individual and a sheep standing alone on a hill. There was a large fire burning by the beach but we never learned what it was about.
Before getting back to Lerwick, this would probably be a good place for showing a variety of wildflowers we came upon in Shetland. All but the last we came upon by the side of the road during the excursion.
On the outskirts of Lerwick we drove past Clickimin Broch. Brochs are round structures found mostly in Scotland. Clickimin Broch was first erected in the 1st Century AD and located on an island in a lake. Unfortunately we were moving so the picture is a little blurred.
Our excursion ended with a brief drive through the streets of Lerwick, a town with a definite character involving stone buildings & walls & lots of chimney pots.
After leaving the bus at the harbor we spent some time walking around the commercial district looking in shops (mostly knitwear, books & gifts). It got cold and windy, but we still decided to find the library. It was on top of a hill overlooking the harbor, up a street that was steep enough that part of it was a stairway. The library was housed in what had been a church, a stone building with stained glass windows. The sign by the door had a snail painted on it. When Mary asked what that was about the librarian said it was added by an anonymous person that had been painting snails on signs all over town. It was a local mystery.
Just up the street was the Sheriff’s Court, built in 1875, where weddings are held. And sure enough there was a wedding that appeared to have just finished. Its hard to see, but the groom appears to be wearing a kilt.
It was cold & we were tired, so there aren’t many pictures of Lerwick here. But we did find the rooftops with their array of chimney pots to have a certain charm, looking like something out of Mary Poppins.
And so, very tired & not feeling too great, we returned to the ship for the trip back to Iceland.
After a day at sea, the morning of August 1 found us sailing up the Cromarty Firth (a firth is an inlet or bay leading to the sea) to Invergordon, Scotland. This is a town in the highlands of northern Scotland not far from Inverness. It is a mostly rural area & Invergordon is a small town that specializes in repairing oil platforms & making whisky (yep, this is Scotland). It was a very foggy & cloudy day, which lent the area an atmosphere right out of Macbeth.
There is not a lot to see in Invergordon so the thing to do here was to see the highlands, which we did on a bus excursion. When we disembarked there was a single piper walking back and forth on the pier to welcome us.
We drove through the hilly region for a while, along rivers & lakes (lochs) and through several small towns characterized by square stone buildings, lots of chimney pots & flowers. We passed several whisky distilleries and many farms. We stopped in a small town called Beauly (pop. about 1,000), reputedly named by Mary Queen of Scots who remarked in French during a visit that it was a beautiful place (“Beaulieu”). It was very nice, despite the gloomy weather, but it seemed pretty typical of the towns we saw. It was notable for the ruins of a 13th Century priory.
Our first destination was Urquhart Castle, a ruin that sits on the shore of Loch Ness. First built in the 13th Century on older foundations, it is one of the largest castles in Scotland. It has been under public control for about 100 years.
The castle is at a strategic spot on the shore of Loch Ness & had a very bloody and complicated history with control shifting back and forth among a long list of English & Scottish aristocrats. This was particularly true during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th Century, which involved Robert Bruce and Williams Wallace on the Scottish side countering repeated nvasions by English Kings Edward I, II & III. It was again a point of contention during the Jacobite uprising that began in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution when William of Orange was placed on the English throne to replace the deposed James II of England (who was also James VII of Scotland). The English-sympathizing Grants who held the castle at that time withstood a siege by the Jacobites (who supported the exiled James), then when they left the castle in 1690 they blew up the gatehouse to ensure the Jacobites could not occupy it. There is still masonry lying in front of the gatehouse from that explosion. After that the castle fell into disuse.
The curtain wall up the hill on the right is the oldest part of the ruins, dating to the 13th Century and probably built by Alan Durward. The Grant Tower, the most prominent feature on the left, was built by (you guessed it) the Grants. It once had turrets on each of its four corners.
As I mentioned, the castle sits on the shore of Loch Ness, a huge lake 23 miles long and up to 750 feet deep where the Loch Ness Monster is said to hang out. We didn’t see the real monster, although there were lots of stuffed ones in the gift shop at the castle & elsewhere in the area. Loch Ness contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England & Wales combined. There are great views of the Loch from Urquhart Castle.
So the castle was very interesting to explore, as you could climb up to the top of the tower and wander through the ruins. But our time was pretty limited so we didn’t get a chance to visit the old part on the hill. We also saw a movie in the visitor’s center about the castle’s history & there was a gift shop selling everything from stuffed Nessie toys to whiskey (I was told later they were giving away free tastes, but we missed that). Altogether well worth visiting.
Next we headed for Inverness where we had lunch. But first I should mention the Great Glen, a series of glens (river valleys) lying on a geological fault line running across northern Scotland from Inverness in the east to Fort William in the west. Five Lochs are aligned along this fault: Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, Loch Lochy and Loch Linnhe. There are also rivers connecting the Lochs, including the River Ness, which runs through Inverness. In the early 19th Century the Caledonian Canal was built to connect all of these watery features into a navigable passage all the way through northern Scotland from the east coast to the west coast. The canal is some 60 miles long but only about a third of it is man made. It has a couple of dozen locks (not to be confused with lochs). We rode along the canal & the River Ness on our approach to Inverness.
After a short drive through Inverness (no stops, so only quick pictures from a moving bus window) we had a very nice lunch at the Kingsmills Hotel. The lunch included the Scottish favorite haggis. For those who don’t know this is made from sheep’s entrails (heart, liver & lungs), minced with spices, oatmeal and onion, all encased in a sheep’s stomach (today they use sausage casings) and simmered for 3 hours. It looks like a hockey puck on the plate, round and black. Yes, we tasted it, so now we have done it and never have to do it again. Some of the people on the tour really loved it, though, and ate more than one.
I mentioned above the Scottish Jacobite resistance that arose when the Scottish house of Stuart was summarily replaced as English monarchs in 1688 by William and Mary (the Dutch William III of Orange & his wife Mary Stuart, daughter of the deposed James II of England). In 1745 this cause was revived by Charles Stuart, grandson of James II known as “the Young Pretender” (in later years he was often called “Bonnie Prince Charlie”). Charles landed in Scotland from exile in France & raised an army among the highlanders. They took Edinburgh & successfully marched south well into England. But his military leaders decided to retreat rather than continue to London because of little support among the English and a fear of English military strength. The uprising ended at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 when the British crushed the Scotts on an open marshy field, then pursued the remnants of the Scottish forces relentlessly. The battle lasted less than an hour, with close to 2,000 Jacobite casualties against only about 300 for the English. This turned out to be the last battle ever fought on British soil. Charles escaped & was spirited out of Scotland dressed as a lady’s maid after an epic flight, then spent the rest of his life in exile. Sir Walter Scott portrayed this uprising from the Scottish point of view in his first novel, Waverly.
So after lunch we proceeded to visit the battlefield at Culloden. It was, as you might expect from the description above, a large open field. There were flags marking the British lines (red) and the Scottish lines (blue) at the beginning of the battle. But really there wasn’t much else, beyond the usual feeling of being on a spot where history was made. If we had had time to visit the visitor’s center we might have learned a little more about it.
Prince William, Duke of Cumberland was the English commander at Culloden, and his brutal campaign to find & execute the remnants of the Jacobite army earned him the nickname “the butcher.” There is a noxious yellow wildflower that seems to grow everywhere along the roadside in this part of Scotland that the Scots call “Stinking Willie” or “Stinking Billy,” reflecting their view of Prince William the Butcher.
We proceeded to our last stop, Cawdor Castle. This was the reason we picked this excursion over several others, because at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is made the Thane (lord) of Cawdor, & that is presumably where King Duncan is then murdered. Unfortunately, this is hogwash (as is much of Shakespeare’s history). The real Duncan was actually killed in battle, and Macbeth crowned King, in 1040; neither of these events occurred at Cawdor Castle, which wasn’t even built for another 350 years. The real Macbeth was never Thane of Cawdor & he was king of Scotland for some 17 years. Nonetheless, Duncan’s comment in the play when first reaching the castle (Shakespeare never actually calls it Cawdor castle) is pretty apt (Macbeth Act 1 Scene 5):
This Castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses’
Unlike Urquhart, Cawdor Castle is an intact house in which the owners still live. The castle came into the hands of the Campbell family in 1510 when Muriel Calder (the original spelling of Cawdor) married Sir John Campbell. Today, Colin Campbell is the 7th Earl of Cawdor and his stepmother lives in the castle during the off season. The Campbells are actively involved in running the castle; the Earl’s wife was there on the day we visited. Our bus driver saw her come into the cafeteria & clear the dishes from an abandoned table. I would say that is pretty hands-on! The central tower dates to the 15th Century, although part of it may date to the late 14th Century.One interesting thing in the castle is the remains of an old holly tree. Legend has it that the castle was built around a living tree after a donkey, carrying gold, lay down to rest under it. Scientists have determined that the tree in the castle died in the 1370’s, so that may be when the first part of the castle was built. Unfortunately, no photography is permitted inside the castle so you won’t see any of that here. But it has extensive and beautiful gardens.
I guess that, before leaving Cawdor’s gardens, this would be an appropriate place for today’s set of flower pictures. A lot of these are from the gardens at Cawdor Castle.
As our bus neared the dock about 5 minutes after the all aboard deadline our guide said “Well we’re right on time.” I doubt the ship’s officers would have agreed, but fortunately this was a ship-sponsored excursion so they had to wait for us. The day had finally turned sunny & on the way home there were massive clouds shining in the sunlight.
On the way to the sea we passed the town of Cromarty (population under 1000) on the opposite shore from Invergordon. It looks like a nice little village with a lot of local character judging from the buildings. There was a small lighthouse there. Cromarty dates back to the 13th Century.
And so we sailed out of Cromarty Firth into a dramatic ocean view, and headed for the Shetland Islands.