The Loch and the Wood

Jean and Bill’s house had one of the most comfortable beds we slept on during our trip. It was difficult to throw off the covers the next morning I was so warm and snuggly. But we had things to do and places to see! There was no time for a lie in. I was the first out of bed, being the one on the outer edge, and felt only a twinge of jealousy that mom got to enjoy a few more minutes of cushioned comfort. I gathered up my bath things and went to take a shower.

We had been shown the bathroom the night before. It was beach themed and painted in lovely sea foam green and steely blue. The couple had boasted their new improved power shower, which to my slight dismay only had half of a glass panel to close it off from the rest of the bathroom. I had never come across anything that looked like this and I was sure I would spend most of my shower worrying about splashing water all over the floor (which did happen a bit).

There was also the trouble of turning the damn thing on. It should have been easy. There were only two dials for Pete’s sake. I turned the obvious ‘on’ knob and nothing happened. I tried turning on the tub faucet and then turning the dial. Still no water out of the shower head. At last, I had to concede defeat to the all mighty power shower and go ask mom for help.

She couldn’t figure it out either. Since she was still fully clothed, she went down to find either Bill or Jean and ask how to work the shower. Hiding back in the bedroom, I heard Bill’s voice float up the stairs. He sounded apologetic as he lead mom back up the stairs and began to explain that all you needed to do was flip the switch outside the door to turn on the water. Whodduh thunk it? I slipped back out into the hall as Bill descended the stairs and mom turned towards me. I smiled, feeling silly and went to take my overly exposed shower. Thank goodness there was a lock on the door.

When we were both clean and had finished up our morning Facebook sessions, we left the house for the bus station. Oh! A brief tangent if I may. I fiddled around with the phones the night before and managed to get our 3G working! So we left feeling much better about our navigation abilities. Today we were headed south, down the coast of famous Loch Ness to a little place called Drumnadrochit. From here we would take a cruise out into the Loch while being regaled with many facts about the spindly body of water and stories of the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately named Nessie.

We left with plenty of time to kill before the bus actually left. The café inside the station office had just opened once we walked in so we ordered tea and scones for breakfast and waited for our bus to arrive. Just like in Waverly Station, we had to sit patiently staring at the schedule board for our bus’ stance number to appear. With a few minutes to go, we left our table inside and moved outside to stand with the rest of the passenger waiting at the stance. I watched expectantly as bus after bus turned the corner and pulled into one of many long rectangular spots beside grimy glass hutches. Ours finally came to a stop in front of us and we began the slow process of boarding, one by one.

Loch Ness is really a very long, well, loch. It stretches southwest from Inverness about 26.5 miles. Drumnadrochit is just under the halfway point between Inverness and Fort Augustus, which is situated at the western end of the loch. I spent the 20 minute drive to Drumnadrochit taking in 14 miles of dark water that shimmered and danced with reflected light and the steep angled banks on the opposite shore covered with densely packed trees. I think mom spent most of the trip trying not to be sick.

Drumnadrochit, or sometimes Drum to the locals, seemed to consist mostly of farmland, with only one or two main roads where most of the shops resided. We were isolated to one area during our visit so it was hard to be sure. We were dropped outside the post office and across from a strip of houses, cafes and a bed and breakfast. Once again, we found ourselves with ample time on our hands. The cruise didn’t leave until noon and we had arrived shortly after ten.

The bus left for the harbor from the Celtic Crafts gift shop up near the Nessieland shop we had passed on our way into town. Deciding it was best to know where we had to be before we got busy with looking around, we walked back up the hill to Nessieland. It was pretty standard as gift shops go. Glass cases filled with glittering stones and statues stood front and center when you walked in. Wooden spinners and stands followed, covered with key chains and bookmarks and magnets of all kinds. Stuffed animals slouched on shelves, some realistic, others cartoon-y.

We were the only ones in the store besides the clerk, so we took our time browsing everything at least twice over. I had an eye on a Nessie pin for my work apron back home and was a little disappointed when they didn’t have violently purple tartan flats in my size. I scanned several displays of clan tartan key chains looking for McMillan before seeing they had bookmarks to the same affect. Plus I already had enough key chains.

Having seen all I wanted, I began to wander aimlessly through displays just for the sake of doing something. I drifted back towards the counter when a woman approached me. “Are you here for the 11 o’clock cruise?” she asked. I told her that we were here for a 12 o’clock cruise. This seemed to be good news. She asked us if we would mind moving our time up an hour. We told her we had no problem doing so as we were already here early. It turned out that our captain for the day didn’t typically do cruises on Saturdays but he was filling in for the lad who did. He had a prior engagement scheduled for later that day which turned out the be the reason why we had to switch our cruise time from 3 to 12 before we had even arrived in the country. There was a shinty match on, a sport we were told was the real official game of the Highlands (as opposed to what, I can’t remember. Football maybe?).

Our wait time was cut from an hour and a half to just 30 minutes. We had a bite to eat at the little café tucked away on the other side of the shop, apart from all the souvenirs. The woman who approached us turned out the be the captain’s wife and we spent a bit of time chatting with her before sitting down to some homemade lentil soup and bread. When our bowls were empty we left the shop and went round the corner to the car park where we’d be departing from. That’s when we came across the giant Nessie sculpture, accompanied by a baby Nessie. Luckily we still had a few minutes to spare so we had a chance for a photo-op.

With the closest thing I would ever have to a picture of the Loch Ness Monster, I replaced my camera in my bag and mom and I went into the small shop that served as the meeting place for the cruise. It was smaller than Nessieland, just a single room filled with mostly jewelry displays. Presently, a short, stocky man with white hair and a goatee to match entered the shop. This was George Edwards, our captain.

We followed him out to a van parked adjacent to the shop. Another couple was there waiting. They would be the only other tourists joining us on the cruise, which we were just fine with. We drove a short distance back the way we had come from Inverness then turned down a narrow ramp which took us to a small harbor where a few boats were docked. The five of us climbed out of the van and stepped over the stern railing and onto the boat. Mom and I, with our fellow tourists, took seats up top while George stayed below at the wheel.

Within a few minutes we were pulling out of the harbor into open water. The rumble of the engine vibrated through the bottom of our seats and made my legs tingle. There was little wind but that caused by the motion of the boat, but the air was cool enough to make my coat feel comfortable warm. Two or three boats besides our own dotted the steel-gray water of the loch. Each was a fair distance from us. The closest we ever got to another ship during the cruise was when exiting and returning to port. It was a quite day on our part of the loch. The only sounds to be heard as we moved farther and farther into open water was the gentle gushing of water cleaving against the boat’s prow.

A patchy layer of ashen clouds hung low in the sky over our heads. Some spots were thick with the gray fluff but there were fractures here and there that let the frail rays of sun fall through onto the water. The light did little to penetrate the dark waters all around us. All it could do was turn the loch’s surface into a dazzling display of miniature flash bulbs. The hills surrounding the loch looked gritty through the morning mist, a blurry scene of trees and wild grasses.

Eventually, George’s voice crackled through speakers placed around the base of the upper level. He welcomed us aboard the Nessie Hunter (great name, right?). He began the talk by telling us of the loch’s history. Loch Ness follows the Great Glen Fault that runs from Inverness to Fort William on the other side of the country. It is Scotland’s largest loch by volume, second largest by surface area, and second deepest in Scotland after Loch Morar. The deepest point in the loch is approximately 813 feet deep and was discovered by our very own George Edwards and was subsequently named after him. It is now referred to as Edward’s Deep.

George told us about the thick layer of sediment that sits at the bottom of the loch. He said that scientists have taken core samples of the sediment and that they very accurately tell the history of the land. Effects of Chernobyl and the Great Scotland Fire could be found in the geological sandwich taken from Loch Ness’ underbelly and carbon dating revealed the timing was spot on. There was a whole book of history below the bottom of the boat, hundreds off feet down, made up of radioactive sludge and the burned down houses of people long dead.

We, of course, touched on the Loch Ness Monster. George is a believer, and I have to say to a degree so am I. The history of Nessie goes back years, and while it’s unlikely, nay, near impossible that one mythical water horse could survive decades and decades in the depths of the loch alone, it is very probable that some sort of undiscovered creature might have been living and breeding in the impenetrably murky waters. If you’ve ever wondered why someone doesn’t just lead a deep sea type of exploration in Loch Ness to find out once and for all if Nessie is real, the answer to that is people have. Maybe not specifically for Nessie, but people have attempted to explore what life is like beneath the surface of the loch. The problem is the peat.

Peat is a soil-like material that consists partly of decomposed vegetation and, when added to water, makes it hard to see anything more than a few inches in front of your face. The peat levels in Loch Ness are so high that it makes it nearly impossible to do any worthwhile exploring. In addition to being home to some enigmatic animals, Loch Ness also boasts a rather unique underside. Instead of progressing from a steady decline to a sheer drop off, Loch Ness looks more like an inverted trapezoid. The sides of the loch slant away from the banks at a steep angle before flattening at the bottom to form a sort of trough. George showed us just how true this was by bringing the boat within 20 feet or so of the shore.

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So close!

After flirting with the loch’s edge, we turned towards Urquhart Castle. Though it’s not much of a castle anymore. It’s little more than ruins turned into a tourist trap, a fact illustrated by the swarm of people crawling over every inch of the place. The castle was originally built for medieval fortification and later played a roll in the War for Scottish Independence before it was ultimately abandoned in the 17th century. For some reason, there was a trebuchet on the front lawn. Mom and I decided we were glad we didn’t make plans to go to the castle. Seeing it from the water was good enough.

Urquhart Castle was left behind and the trip was winding down to the end. We spent the last few minutes before reaching the harbor in silence, listening once again to the soft sloshing of water against the hull. There was one last bit of excitement to be had though. The harbor was rather small and George’s boat rather big. The neighboring boat was moored when we got back. I’m certainly not a boat savvy person but even I was sure that this park job would be tricky to maneuver, between trying not the hit the dock and trying not to hit any other boats. George was definitely flaunting his 26 years of boating experience with this one. Though I’m likely to be easily impressed when it comes to boat steering skills.

We waited for George to tie us off before climbing back onto solid ground. Everyone thanked him for the enjoyable time before we all got back into the van and made the short drive back into Drum, and thanked him again when we arrived. Mom and I returned to the Nessieland gift shop and picked up a few souvenirs we had decided on before we left for the cruise then ventured out in search of place to get a snack.

We discovered a little bakery round the corner from the shop on the ground level of the same building. The place was nearly devoid of all baked goods when we walked in but it was such a small place and we were so obvious walking in that it would’ve felt rude to turn around and walk out again. So we picked out a raspberry cupcake and some sort of pecan tart as well as a drink each. Goodies in hand, we walked back down the lane towards the spot we’d been dropped off at. There was a solitary picnic table outside the bed and breakfast that we occupied while we nibbled our treats.

The next bus back to Inverness wasn’t due till later so, as usually, we found ways to amuse ourselves while we waited on transportation. When we’d had enough of the sun, we crossed the street and sat at a table in the shade. A couple of ‘No’ supporters had set up a stand a short distance from where sat. Mom, being curious and open-minded, wandered over after a little while to chat and hear their side of the issue.

I sat people watching mostly. Not that there were many people to watch. The occasional couple walked by, a family pushing a stroller and their toddler dawdling behind them. Cars passed from both directions and only one driver was dickish enough to shout at the ‘No’ people. Mom wander back after a few brief minutes and the ‘No’ supporters began to pack up their pamphlets and flyers. We moved from the table to the stone wall running behind the bus stand.

A woman joined us a while later and we soon struck up a conversation. It turned out she was from Wyoming so we had some things in common to talk about to pass the time. The bus arrived at last and we relaxed for the 20-minute return trip into town.

It was really quite nice being so close to the bus station. Had circumstances been different, we probably never would’ve made it to the Clootie Well. And for being a last minute, we’ve-got-nothing-better-to-do activity, it ranks very highly on our list of favorite things we did. We took a short rest back at the house before talking about what we could do to fill that last couple of hours in our day. I had looked up things to do in Inverness before we left and the Clootie Well had been the only thing that stuck out to me. Our timing was just right to catch the next bus up to Munlochy.

Munlochy felt even smaller than Drumnadrochit. Google Maps was no help with locating the Clootie Well, so we walked down to the shop for crisps and some directions. With crisps and, unexpectedly, a pig-shaped cake in hand, we left for the Clootie Well. The shop clerk had been clear with her instructions but we were thrown when we found ourselves faced with a suburban neighborhood instead of a hidden forest path. We turned back, thinking we had missed it when we happened to run into the very same woman from the shop that had helped us. She graciously helped us out again and told us we just had to cross through the neighborhood to reach the path we needed.

The neighborhood was quiet. The only signs of life were some abandoned bikes on a front lawn. We passed by these and followed a sidewalk that led around to the back of the houses and into the trees. Suddenly we were in a proper forest, situated between what seemed to have been a recently built subdivision and main highway. It was one of many places in Scotland where the line between urban and wild blurred every so slightly.

By this point, if we never found the Clootie Well, I would’ve been fine just walking around in a proper forest. But since we did find the Clootie Well, I know now that I should’ve been disappointed rather than indifferent towards finding it. The signs were gradual. One or two thin strips of threadbare cloth appeared on lithe branches. Then a larger grouping would appear, but its reach never exceeded the slender branches reaching out over the path. That’s when we came across the stairs.

Large flat slabs of rock had been sunk deep into the earth to make a path up to the top of the rise. Either side was flanked with more trees covered with more and more scraps of cloth and other bits of refuse. At the top we realized the full extent of the Well. The ground fell away again as soon as we crested the hill. The stairs went down the other side and veered right at a cleft in the ground. Here the spring gurgled softly, pooling in a square stone trough before spilling over and down into a deep crack in the earth. A wide swatch of leaf-strewn dirt separated the trees comprising the majority of the forest and those down at the edge of the highway.

Every single tree within eyeshot was wrapped, draped and smothered with everything from ratty bits of fabric to shirts, flags and even a few pairs of shoes. I might have expected such a large display of grungy, mud-splattered clothing to be unattractive but it was one of the most breath-taking things I’ve ever come across. There was a spectrum of color that splashed bright patches among the browns, greens, and oranges of the trees. Reds and blues created the most contrast.

It was unbelievable. I found myself wondering how long the Well had been there and if the volume of fabric was due to length of time or the number of people that had come to visit. The Well did make me ever so slightly anxious as to the environmental effects the Well had on the forest and the animals that lived in it. But I knew the trees would adapt to their cloth bonds, either by growing over them or breaking them with sheer girth expansion. And aside from a few plastic bags hung in the trees I didn’t imagine an old t-shirt would cause too much harm to any woodland creatures.

Mom and I hadn’t come to the Well empty handed. She had brought a well-loved shirt that I’m sure she would’ve gone on loving for a while longer had we not sacrificed it to the Clootie. But everything else we had brought we were less want to part with so mom’s old pale blue button up was our top choice. I mean, it already had holes in it! I did have a brief moment, however, where I considered leaving a piece of clothing of my own, a sock perhaps. I had plenty of socks with me on the trip. But I decided walking back to the bus stop would’ve been too uncomfortable with only one sock so mom’s shirt was sufficient.

I suppose I should explain what exactly a Clootie Well is before I go much further, at least what we thought a Clootie Well was when we showed up. A clootie (so we thought) was a kind of mystical being that lived in a spring. Anyone who visited the spring needed to dip a piece of cloth in the spring, make a wish and then the clootie would grant your wish. A cute idea. But really, a clootie is the Scots term for a strip of cloth or rag, not a mystical fairy-like creature. Clootie wells are places of healing in the Celtic tradition. If you were ill, you were supposed to go to the spring, dip a piece of fabric in the water and tie it to a tree and the spirit of the spring would heal you. There are variations of this practice but this seems to be the best-known one. A few of our details were wrong, but the idea wasn’t too far off. Alas.

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Before picking out the perfect tree to tie our beloved shirt to, I took a Sharpie out of my bag and wrote ‘Vote Yes’ on the back of the shirt. Then I picked the most difficult tree to get to and began scrambling up the hill, the loose ground shifting beneath my feet. I told mom to take an action shot of me tying the shirt to the tree, which turned out to be the best picture we took of us with our clootie. We tried a selfie once it was secured around the trunk but we couldn’t get rid of our crazy eyes. They were good for a laugh, both now and then. We spent another few minutes or so taking pictures from every angle we could, making sure to capture all the most bizarre things hanging from the trees. The shoes, for some reason, were my favorite.

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We finally tore ourselves away from the Well and crossed back over the ridge. The sun had sunk significantly lower in the sky while we were at the Well. In a few minutes we passed out of earshot of the highway, where only the occasional car would hum by, and we were back in our proper forest. The trees enveloped us in tranquil silence, the loudest noise being the dirt crunching beneath our feet. We took a short detour, wanting to spend more time in the forest. The rays of the setting sun were splintered by breaks in the canopy. They lit up the burnt orange trunks of the trees like sticks of fire. I didn’t want to leave. If we didn’t have to catch a bus and if I hadn’t forgotten to bring a book, I would’ve sat down on a stump and read till the last bit of light vanished.

We returned to the sleepy suburb and plodded down the steep lane that brought us back to the main road. The bus wasn’t due for another few minutes so instead of sitting in the dingy bus hut, we sat down the road a ways on a bench beside a grassy patch. The village was quiet. Several cars drove by but other than that there was no sign of life. I let my mind wander, staring into nothingness, only coming back to reality when I heard an engine. It was a good thing, too. The bus showed up a few minutes early and if we had been just a second later it would’ve flown right by us. And, fortunately for us, the driver picked us up even though were weren’t at the official bus stop. Mom and I were quite sure no driver back home would’ve done that for us.

Back home, we flopped down on the bed and began discussing what to do for dinner. Mom had discovered a website called Happy Cow which specialized in listing vegan and vegetarian restaurants in different cities. At this point in the trip I was still skeptical as to how veggie friendly Scotland would be. But there were several places within 15 minutes or so of the house that sounded just right for us. We chose a place called La Tortilla Asesina. I was glad we decided to eat out. I mean, I don’t think Bill and Jean would’ve let us use the kitchen, and we didn’t have any groceries anyway, but the walk took us into a much more lively area of Inverness.

It was a Saturday night and lots of people were out despite the chilly night. Music pumped out of bars as we passed and crowds of people moved up and down the street, looking for a place to eat or moving on to grab a drink somewhere new. We found La Tortilla Asesina easily. It was a cramped space, a fact accentuated by the large quantity of people it was currently host to. The ceiling was low and I was glad I wasn’t any taller. A two-person table had cleared just as we walked in. One of the servers wiped down the table and brought out silverware for us as we took our seats.

The place was about as vegetarian friendly as most of the restaurants back home. I still couldn’t eat a majority of the dishes but I could at least find a few things to choose from. I ordered an omelet that came out looking like a piece of egg pie. It was curious but still tasted fantastic, and despite not being a very large portion it filled me up just fine. We split a jug of sangria and passed the time chatting about whatever came to mind. When the jug was empty, we paid the check and went back out into the moist night air. This was the first day we had with any semblance of rain but you couldn’t really call it that. It was a spray bottle mist that was just heavy enough to bother your eyes but not much more than that.

Once we got home, we changed into our pajamas and sat down on the edge of the bed to Skype with dad. It had only been three days and he was already missing us, as was to be expected. I took out my laptop and launched Skype only to find it didn’t recognize my login information. I wasn’t going to waste time fussing with the thing so we were forced to use my phone instead. The conversation didn’t last long. We didn’t have that much to talk about. But we told dad about the Clootie Well and the flight over. Mom talked about her genealogy and asked how her cats were doing. All the important subjects were covered. We said our goodbyes, plugged in our phones and settled down into bed.

~Ren

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