Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
ONCE AGAIN SCOTLAND
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made…”
W. B. Yeats comes to mind as Roxie, my wife, and I prepare for a week in a small cottage far away from busy Manhattan. The need to travel close to the ground, and to have some peace there – “for peace comes dropping slow” - has been our fantasy for years. For Yeats it was a lake isle in western Ireland, for Thoreau it was Walden, and for us it has been some remote place in Scotland, a country we both love.
Three times our fantasy had been fulfilled. Our first “Innisfree,” found by Roxie in a British Authority’s publication under the listing Self-Catering was a “working croft,” situated on Scotland’s west coast on the Coigach peninsula in the village of Achiltibuie; the second was a tiny cabin in a remote corner of the Isle of Skye; and the third was a stone cottage in St. Margaret’s Hope, a hamlet in the Orkney Islands.
This time around it was Harbour Cottage in Gardenstown, a small village along the Moray coast in Aberdeenshire in northeastern Scotland.
Just as on our trip to the Orkneys, years ago, we made a brief stopover in Inverness, and once again stayed at Columba Hotel on the banks of River Ness, across from Inverness Castle.
A grey, slightly threatening sky greeted us on our short walk from the railway station. Looking out of the hotel bedroom window, we saw the castle, its red sandstone dramatically lit against dark clouds. But never mind - after two flights and a 3½-hour train ride we were ready to hit the sack.
Our stay in Inverness was brief and relatively uneventful. I recall long walks along the Ness, a visit to Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, and a satisfying dinner at Rajah, the oldest Indian restaurant in the Highlands.
Another stopover followed, this time in the town of Banff, just a few miles from Gardenstown.
There we found a lovely little B&B named “Castle View,” and had fun just meeting people. At the cozy Ship Inn down at the harbor we ran into Kenny and Sam, two local gentlemen both of whom we would later meet over cappuccinos and scones at Kenny’s place, The Broken Fiddle, a small café & restaurant on 9 Strait Path.
Why broken fiddle? Asked about it, Kenny told us the story of James MacPehrson, a legendary outlaw and fiddler who, before he was led to the gallows on November 16th, 1700, famously played and sang a song - whereafter he broke the fiddle over his knee and cast it into the crowd.
That evening, having dinner in the Bar Bistro at County Hotel down the street, we fell into a lively conversation with a 95-year-old National Party MP and his 82-year-old Canadian mistress. It turned out that she was a retired doctor and well versed in poetry. I always thought I was pretty good at quoting Yeats, but proved no match for her.
Now to Gardenstown, where we went by bus, traveling through a rugged North Sea coastal landscape, much of which was covered with yellow gorse. Arriving at the village, we took a downward turn and, in one hairpin turn after the other, twisted our way to the harbor. And there it was: Harbour Cottage, which for the next week would be our little home away from home.
Originally a fish net store, the cottage was now a comfortable and well-equipped two-story dwelling. As Roxie settled down for work on a new book, I went out with my camera, looking for local color.
And I found it - in the harbor, with its picturesque fishing nets, buoys and boats and, not least, in those stone cottages, clinging to the nearby cliffs, and crisscrossed by steps and walkways. Even clotheslines lent themselves to photography.
Ours being a self-catering place, I did most of the cooking – which, incidentally, required challenging climbs to the basic grocery store at the top of the village. As for outside entertainment and dining, there was always the Garden Arms Hotel, a small, friendly 18th century pub and restaurant, run by Dave and his wife, Lynne. I recall the pub’s cramped space, heavy wooden beams, and congenial atmosphere. Hearing that I liked peaty single malt, the man next to me promptly treated me to a shot of Ardbeg, which proved a whirlwind of peat and exceptionally delicious. Minutes later, Dave, who did most of the bartending, decided to offer an alternative, and handed me a Monkey Shoulder.
The pleasantness of Garden Arms Hotel extended to its restaurant, where Lynne ruled the roost, specializing in well-cooked fish and good veggies. I particularly recall a dish with haddock wrapped in bacon.
Once, following the beach, we walked to Crovie, the picturesque village just east of Gardenstown. The next day, passing the red sandstone cliff known as the “Old Red,” we headed west for a visit to the ruins of St. John’s Church, which, perched on a hill, is noted for its magnificent view of Gardenstown.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
The church (of which only a roofless shell survives) has a history that goes back to the year 1004, and is known for its intimate – if not macabre – connection to the “Battle of the Bloody Pits.” In this battle, Danish Vikings, vastly outnumbered by the Scottish army, were massacred to a man, and left to rot in open graves. Later the bodies of three Danish chiefs were found. Their skulls were cut off and built into the wall of the church.
And there they remained – for over a thousand years.
On our last day in Gardenstown, Mary and Gordon, a couple we chatted with during one of our dinners at the Golden Arms, invited us for a drive along the coast.
After brief visits to Portsoy, and to Pennan, the village best known as the location for the 1983 film “Local Hero,” we ended up at the Banff Springs Hotel, where a wedding was in full swing - a happy gathering, complete with kilts, bagpipes, and, posing for the camera, a most expressive young guest.
It was just as I remembered it: the castle dominating the skyline, an abundance of statues, the soaring Scott Monument, and row houses with neat rows of chimneys.
The Battle of the Bloody Pits may lead one to believe that Scandinavians are less than welcome in these parts. Not so.
A case in point is Anna Christopherson from Sweden, who, with her husband Mike, successfully runs six bars and restaurants in Edinburgh. At Akva, their most recent and thriving restaurant, she greeted us with a big welcoming smile. Asked about how Scots react to things Swedish, Anna said, “Oh, they love it all.”
At Akva we indulged in crisp bread loaded with smoked salmon, continued with a Smörgåsbord Sharing Platter, comprising smoked trout, mackerel, gravlax and crusty bread, and concluded with a platter of the sticky, Swedish chocolate cake known as kladdkaka.
How Swedish can you get? And in Scotland of all places!
Our wish to travel close to the ground is alive and well. I recall that tightly packed huddle of houses hemmed in by the cliffs, the birds flocking on the rooftops in the morning mist, the fisherman telling me when he goes out for oysters, and the simple but friendly greeting of another:
“Enjoy yer day.”
Editir’s Note: Roxie Munro is the author/illustrator of more than 40 award-winning children's books. She has had 14 New Yorker magazine covers published, and is a fine artist with work in numerous public, private, and corporate collections. Her latest book is Masterpiece Mix, about artists and their creations. To check out her books, go to https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=roxie+munro . For more info on Roxie's work, go to http://www.roxiemunro.com
© September 2017 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.