16 Dec 2010

A sensual top 10 for 2010

The year is not so much drawing to a close as it is spinning like a bolt of ribbon that has been dropped and is now rolling down the stairs. I feel like I am running after the countless things I have to do before we are away, flying on a plane to Canada.

It has been a good year. We travelled as much as we could around this wee country, and my senses have often been superbly spoiled. Looking through my photos and posts, I have come up with 10 of my favourite sensual experiences of the last 12 months. I hope you enjoy them.

In no particular order…

Balvaird Castle. This out-of-the-way castle just inside the boundary of Perthshire, is like a pop-up hideaway on a rural hilltop. I loved the silence, the views, the sombre, stately stature of the castle itself. Would it have been the same without those gorgeous gnarled trees? I don’t know.

Traquair House. One of my nose’s most beloved encounters of 2010. It was like every room was telling a different olfactory story. If only I had a way of unravelling the aromas and finding the words that fit with them, how even more remarkable this house would be.
Millport harbour on the Isle of Cumbrae. I was amazed by the extent of my feeling of escape in such a short jaunt from the mainland. I was there on Easter Sunday, but the way the sun shone and glimmered off the waves, and the way the people walked the shores and bought fish and chips and hired bicycles, it could have been high summer. I would love to holiday here and take my time walking the whole island.
Alloway. Good old Robert Burns Country. This small town has so much genteel romanticism packed into it, especially in high summer when the sunlight is streaming through the trees of the old kirkyard and the river looks so gentle as it runs beneath the Brig O’Doon. My only regret is not taking the time for a leisurely lunch near the riverbank. We walked a lot but didn’t stop enough to just enjoy and take it all in.
The gardens of Culzean Castle. They just go on and on, from lush forest walks to the walled gardens with high flowers on either side of long grassy paths. There are winding paths down to the water and wide open park spaces and romantic ponds. The highly manicured gardens in front of the castle itself are best seen first thing in the morning before the crowds start rolling up.
Scottish mussels. One of my favourite food discoveries this year. There wasn’t much fish in our diet when I was growing up, so living in Scotland I find I have to get over feelings of intimidation when it comes to trying new seafood. Now I know that one of the best things in the entire world is Scottish mussels in a white wine and cream sauce, eaten with fresh crusty bread. Oh my.
Autumn heather in the Pentland Hills. This was a case of seeing just the right thing at the right time. After a hectic and stressful summer, being able to escape to these kinds of views so close to Edinburgh just brought me back to life. I find the deep purple of blooming heather mesmerising. Lucky me that I later found this colour beautifully captured in a bar of soap.
Dollar Glen. For that luxuriant, surrounded feeling, this place can’t be beat. A river on one side and tall trees on another, soaked green moss clinging to dark grey rock, the quiet drip-drip-drip between the constant rush of river water. And to emerge through it all to see a castle and the glorious Ochil Hills behind, what more could you want?
Rumblethumps. A rustic foodie surprise. I had expected this simple recipe to be something to check off a list and file under “comfort foods,” but it was so much better than that. More like COMFORT FOOD, heavy and creamy with the mildly bitter taste of the cabbage and the salty tang of melted cheddar cheese. Definitely the cheap and cheerful dish of the year.
Ossian’s Hall at The Hermitage. Chosen for the wonder of those glass doors and the feeling it gave me to walk out over that rushing water, the rising mist cooling my skin while the shadows of towering firs fell over me. Perthshire holds so many tourism gems, but I think The Hermitage is one of the best.
So there you have it - my list of highlights from 2010. Where there any posts I have done this year which you particularly enjoyed? If you could travel anywhere in Scotland in 2011, where would it be?

That only leaves me to thank you for joining me on my random adventures and food experiments. There will be much more to come next year. With the madness of December I haven’t managed to organize a giveaway this month, but I have some ideas for January.

There is another Scotland blog giveaway going on at the moment however. Up for grabs over at Scotland Here and Now is a copy of Roddy Phillips’ new book The Familiar, so hop over to get your name in the airmail friendly hat.

There may be a baking post cropping up while I am across the pond, but in case I can’t manage it, I wish a Merry Christmas and Happy Hogmanay to all you Scotland loving beauties.

7 Dec 2010

Awe-struck in big tree country

Back before the snow fell and the temperatures plummeted, when the last of the autumn leaves were still clinging to the trees, we visited The Hermitage near Dunkeld in Perthshire, a place that had long been on my “to see” list.

We are going to go for a walk, but first I would like you to take a moment to think about the last time you felt a genuine, giddy sense of awe.

Today the senses of an average person living in even a semi-urban environment are bombarded by a steady stream of electronic data. We text and listen to our Ipods while we are cooking, we play pc games while chatting online with friends and watching clips from Youtube.

After awhile the mind builds a filter, weaving all of the clutter together and holding it just far enough away from our consciousness that we can reach out an pluck something out should it intrigue us enough.

With all of that in mind, imagine what it would have been like to step out of a carriage in the early 18th century and stand beneath the looming Douglas Firs of the Craigvinean Forest, while the River Braan booms next to the path which leads off into the shadows.
As you walk, the forest becomes darker and the river louder. Filled with a sense of anticipation you round a corner and see it, the squat grey building with its peaked roof. You catch your breath, already hearing the roar of the falls pushing on your ears.
Built in 1757 as a viewhouse meant to amplify the sound of the falls, in 1783 it was re-decorated as a shrine to the blind bard Ossian and dubbed Ossian’s Hall.

The insides were covered floor to ceiling with mirrors, so visitors would see the Black Linn falls before the full sound reached their ears. Everywhere they looked the moving bulk of waves and mist would surround them, and when they finally stepped out onto the platform it was like an explosion of power threatening to sweep them away.

Vandals partially destroyed the hall in 1869. A hundred years later the area was given over to The National Trust for Scotland and the hall was rebuilt, albeit without the mirrors.

What is still magnificent is the set of glass doors that lead onto the platform, so visitors can experience the moment of rising vapour and roaring waves that occurs when the doors are first pushed open and you step outside. Inside there are tarnished romantic scenes of nature and snippets of poetry that are meant to further inspire. In this instance however, I think nothing can replace the reflected reality of all those mirrors.
Beside Ossian’s Hall is a stone bridge, curved like a stretching cat over the river. Bright green moss clings to every jutting rock, making you half believe that it has never known human hands, that it has been here forever, grown from the banks to join in the middle.

A narrow muddy trail leads down to the side of the bridge, where a small entrance emerges next to black rock and rushing water. The only purpose of this had to be aesthetic, a way to get visitors closer to the force of nature.

Like the moment of opening the doors of Ossian’s Hall, moving beneath that stone arch and into the open feels like an initiation of sorts.
Awe comes with feeling vulnerable to the elements, yet just far enough away to still cling to a sense of safety. If we experience these feelings now, imagine the reaction of visitors in Victorian times.

Across the river stands Britain’s tallest tree, a 209-foot Douglas Fir. The path to it was blocked so we didn’t attempt to venture closer, but with all the other towering giants looming just overhead, I wasn’t disappointed.
We wandered on but the weather closed in before we could visit Ossian’s Cave, an artificial cave near the end of the valley walk that was built in 1785. I imagine the darkness falling around a lone figure who had agreed through some adolescent bet to spend the night in the cave, the sound of bird song fading with the light while the river roared louder and the damp crept in.

I had never been anywhere like The Hermitage and can’t wait to go back. I want to see it again in the height of summer, all that green against the river and the stones.

Do you see what I mean by awe? Do you think we still have the same capacity for wonder as we did hundreds of years ago? Or has electronic influences dulled our ability to experience nature as anything but just another pleasant distraction?

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