Backyard Brief: What’s New?

This spring I’ve added a new bird feeder to the party, and there are some new arrivals not before seen, plus others not seen in a while. Some migratory, some residential. Most of the birds that visit seem to prefer the finch seed mix to the black oil sunflower seed, but they are two different brands, so I suppose quality could be a factor. I’ll have to mix the two in both feeders to spread the sights and delights. Happy Earth Day.

New this year
  • song sparrow – Smaller than the house sparrow, with a narrower beak, buff and brown streaking with a black chest spot and eye line stripes, he makes beautiful music all day. The song sparrow perches in our weeping cherry tree beneath the bedroom window, in the tops of the trees (hazelnut?) lining the street sidewalk, in the evergreen of the neighbor’s yard behind us, and hops in the grass below our large backyard feeder. I think there may be more than one. He just seems to be everywhere these days, and it’s a welcome addition.
  • brown-headed cowbird – brief glimpses in the vicinity, seen and heard (loud, bright, high-pitched chip) 4/21/17 on our gazebo structure. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the camera in time. Shy fella.
New this season
  • chipping sparrow – Two males! Also petite like the song sparrow, with a ruddy skull cap and grayish cheeks with an eye stripe, he can easily hide even in the freshly mowed grass. I might have seen females without realizing they weren’t female house finches or house sparrows. Those all tend to blur together. Although I did see a male chipping sparrow last June, the one I thought I saw in May 2016 turned out to be a female red-winged blackbird. These guys appeared 4/21/17.
  • red-winged blackbird – Usually a transient visitor, this time with female in tow; several males spotted, three at once on one occasion this week.
Other less regular visitors seen lately
  • downy woodpecker – Sometimes upside down as necessary, feeding on the suet. Female downy confirmed and pictured below. The other possibility was female hairy (longer beak, larger bird, no black bars on outer tail feathers). 3/31/17
  • common grackle – He keeps trying to alight on the squirrel-buster feeder without success. I haven’t captured his image yet, though. 4/21/17
  • European starling – Usually in flocks, they tend to prefer the suet as well.
IMG_0487_starling-triptych

starling triptych

American goldfinches are in the process of molting for their brighter seasonal black and yellow. The rosy house finches and house sparrows are as ruthless competitors as ever, northern cardinals have come around now and then in mated pairs, and the docile mourning doves have made themselves at home in the bed below our pagoda dogwood. The American robins continue to dominate, as expected.

Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

For this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo, the first of two annual camps (also in July), I continue and hope to reinvigorate the process of writing my 2016 NaNo novel based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

Currently, I have a detailed plot outline, my main characters are taking shape, and I’m zeroing in on the kind of story I want to tell. I’ve drafted almost the first half of the story, but many of those scenes and especially several pieces of exposition probably will require significant rewriting to match the second half’s focus and character arcs.

My Camp NaNo goal is to finish the first draft of the whole story by April 30–however disjointed, incoherent, or mediocre it might be. Forward momentum! The summary and excerpt below represent my latest clues to what the final draft may become.

To see hints of the slow, unsteady development of the project since last summer, see this seed, a snapshot on the cusp of its germination, and the small bud of a key scene‘s rough draft.


Happy writing and reading this month, which is also National Poetry Month. For ideas on how to celebrate poetry, visit my list of suggestions from last year. Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 27th this year. Whatever you’ve got going, I wish you the best. Enjoy!

Plus, nature lovers, don’t forget to watch The Zoo tonight at 10pm EDT on Animal Planet, and Wild Scotland starting tomorrow at 8pm EDT on NatGeoWild. My post from earlier this week about TV nature programs and Scotland nature tourism can be found here.


I’ll soon share some other projects seeking fertile soil.

Summary: Novel synopsis-in-progress (drafted 3/28/17, revised 4/1/17)

A fantasy tale based on Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land re-imagines the second of his two Alice books. Glimpses of original chapters and the use of characters provide a frame of reference for new adventures and insights about the true nature of heroics and villainy in Looking-Glass Land. The teenage girl Song Warber, a Jabberwock, or Wock, wields her singular music-making powers in the struggle of freedom and justice for all Looking-Glass Landers.

A little girl named Alice mysteriously arrives in Looking-Glass Land and stirs up trouble for Song’s family even as both her presence and Song’s threaten the monarchy. Yet, it is only by allying with this alien little girl that Song can fulfill a destiny she only begins to fathom when her family falls into the hands of those determined to tear them apart—the Royals, or chess pieces, of Looking-Glass Land. Alice’s destiny is also at stake as she awakens to the gritty realities of this ailing country. Her triumph will depend on new alliances, betrayals, comings of age, secret support, a bit of magic, open battle, overcoming tragedies, facing fears, and confronting the White King, the Red Queen, and a vengeful Humpty Dumpty.

Can two young girls of vastly different species, upbringings, and worlds ever hope to right the wrongs of the place they inhabit, however briefly, together? The good of parallel worlds may depend on it. And what will become of Song and Alice in the process? It’s a reversal across the chessboard of team loyalties and the realm’s purpose as a land of vivid dreams, uncommon reality, and infinite possibility. Will Looking-Glass Land survive the turmoil?

Hunted Song novel excerpt (3/28/17, rev 4/1/17):

A story was told. Another was told after that. A minimum of three short stories or two longer ones would always be spoken in any given sitting where storytellers and story hearers gathered together.

Every story told was a try on the part of a contestant. It was a storytelling contest. Each contestant was a member of the Looking-Glass Land community, a long-standing member of the fellowship of the realm. No one was new. No one was young. No one was particularly old. The Royals were an exception. The White Royals looked wizened. The Red Royals, middle aged.

Storytelling had once been merely a pastime as popular as baking and walking in Looking-Glass Land. As popular as tea time. In fact, stories were often told over hearths and tea tables and tea sets. Tea things were the natural scenery for a storytelling session. Like other pastimes, preoccupations, and cultural rituals, the tradition of storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came with many rules. There were particular steps to be taken in the telling of a story. Specific qualities each story must have. A certain size an audience must have in number, to represent a story telling properly. Like tea time in England, storytelling in Looking-Glass Land had a certain order of operations to it.

As times grew harder, the wizened, middle-aged and neither youthful nor old inhabitants of the land grew more serious, less playful, less tolerant of creativity, invention, new ideas, new characters, or, eventually, any new stories. The only stories permitted were stories that had been told many times before. Known stories. Stories people had heard over and over again. Stories that became in their telling like the reciting of a pledge each morning in school or the swearing of an oath for public office. Familiar, unoriginal, the same–always the same. Even the wording had become regimented so that each well-known story could only be told in exactly one way with exactly the same words from start to finish, every time.

The contest continued, however. It became a competition in style of delivery. The stories never changed, so contestants needed only to memorize the content, and the rest could take on a variety of bellowing, shrill screeching, whispering, and outrageous inflections, dramatic pauses, vibrations and other sound effects, as well as musical accompaniment of every kind. Even a technique such as ventriloquism had been a trend at one time, but eventually, the crowds began to crave more elaborate movements on the part of the storytellers and from any actors they chose to act out the events of the tale.

You may think, So what? Stories are popular because they are told over and over again. When a story is repeatedly shared, it means it is popular. This can be true. However, the people of Looking-Glass Land took repetition to a whole other level. There were never to be any new stories of any kind for any purpose. Even recounting the events of one’s day to one’s family came to carry with it very strict rules and restrictions. Such recollections could only be so long and would not be permitted to be repeated outside the family circle within hearing range of other families or anywhere in public.

This was at first very difficult for people to comply with, as you might imagine. But over time, with practice, and a few minor adjustments to the rules, as with many things grown easier with habit, recitative storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came into its own. Upon visiting the land at such a time, you would note that it was as if no one had ever heard an original story, so much so that it mattered little who had originated the stories in the general repertoire. The creators had been forgotten, and no one mourned the loss of their memory. Memory instead became less and less important, and forgetfulness became au courant and du jour, as the French might say of more benign customs.

As a result, even short-term memory became devalued and less tenable among the people. This had reached a level of such ridiculousness that an outsider would find it absolutely comical how poorly the people held facts, events, even names in their memory, how few things they remembered while traveling from point A to point B, even just down the road from their houses. A side effect of this was that the Looking-Glass Landers were constantly getting lost in their own neighborhoods and villages, and needed help from a kindly neighbor they’d sought help from a thousand times before but whom at the moment they could not recognize. They could only hold so much information in those dry, unused brain muscles, you see.

The lack of need for invention, creativity, new ideas, or any kind of refreshing of activity had an even more devastating impact. It created scores of demented community members, folks with early onset Alzheimer’s, as it were, though they wouldn’t be able to spell that word let alone hold their own attention long enough to grasp its meaning. To try to remember the term? Forget it! And so they would.

This chronic, permanent forgetfulness applied to all things. There were occasional anomalies among the villagers in the thoughts they managed to commit to memory in their own clandestine ways, even while original storytelling became illegal, in both spoken and written form. Mainly, though, among most of the population, to forget was to comply, and to recite was patriotic. It was a way to pay homage to the stories the kingdom had declared the best, most worthy tales to be passed down from generation to generation in Looking-Glass Land. It could therefore hardly be noticed when the variation in delivery of these rote storytelling activities gradually lessened as well.

Like the flappers on the floating island world discovered by Gulliver, the people of Looking-Glass Land devised a means of support for their forgetfulness, to steer them aright and keep them from wandering forever aimlessly amidst their brooks, woods, and meadows. One of these devices was a system of concrete roads on which were painted in permanent pigments instructions to every destination known in the land to every other destination, as well as labels several points in advance of reaching a destination to remind the traveller that the arrival was imminent.

This worked even in cases where the person was in fact closer to their point of origin than they were to their designated destination. With abysmal short-term memory, the misguided could be guided best only by counter-factual signs and directions exaggerating the distance, the nearness, the direction, and the size of the places people sought to reach.

In fact, in our land, with our far superior short-term remembering skills (trust me, even you with poor short-term memory have nothing on these characters), we would interpret these overdone instructions as patently false, utter lies, and deep absurdities.

And who made such systems, you ask? Why, the government of course! They were naturally exempt from the restrictions they decreed. They became the parents, nurses, and shepherds of their people, and they could do very much as they liked, always, without challenge or correction or fear.

Such was the state of Looking-Glass Land in the years around the time Alice made her historic visit.

Actually, that would have been her second visit, if memory serves. Alice had been to Looking-Glass Land before, and the results of the first visit differed greatly from what that old fart Charles Dodgson professed them to be in his famous novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. It’s really quite funny. For a man who treasured his memories of childhood and later friendships with children so dearly, he proved to have significant memory problems of his own when it came to the fictional worlds he himself had created.

As an outsider myself, from the next country of Wonderland, I saw what went on in Looking-Glass Land with my own eyes. I possess certain . . . powers that made these observations easier. Because of my unique circumstances and close investigation, I can tell you how it really happened, and I will very shortly. I only hope your memory is not so short. I hope that you will be able to learn and benefit from this history–for everyone’s sake. Perhaps having this written form to re-read and refer to will aid you in that endeavor. I bid you good luck and urge you to make an effort, if you can.

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4

Last updated March 17, 2017

My previous posts in this series collected and presented the vast majority, a total of 37, of the options for Outlander tourist attractions in Scotland: book- and film-related sites numbering 15 in Part 1, 11 in Part 2, and 11 in Part 3.

This post tells the story of my planning process for our own Outlander-themed Scotland trip, complete with changes in scope, backtracking, enlisting outside help, comparing and revising itineraries, and reflecting on the choices we made. Next time, I’ll provide a review of our Outlander tour experience and of the tour company we went with for our day tour.

Also in my final post in this travel guide series, I will list and discuss Outlander tour companies and tour options, including additional film locations not covered in my first 3 posts, compile a list of all the resources linked and discussed in the first 4 posts, and run down a list of websites and apps I used and loved but didn’t mention here. I’ll also provide some final thoughts on travel for Outlander, in Scotland, and generally. A sign-off of sorts with directory, closing credits, and bibliography.

Other Scotland trip posts down the road will add to the trail of breadcrumbs I’ve laid down since last October, to highlight specific sites visited, services engaged, adventures experienced, and images captured. Be glad you weren’t subjected to a slide show at my house; you have the privilege to take in these servings in digestible portions. In case you missed the first several, see the list at my introductory post “Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained.”

March 2016

It was about this time last year when I began my months’ long planning process for a UK vacation with an Outlander focus. I don’t recommend spending as much time as I did—even if you have it; I simply have an obsessive, high-maintenance approach to project planning. I “just want it the way I want it.”

Still, as with many transcontinental excursions, for travelers from outside the UK going there for the first time, there are some things you should consider and do several months in advance of your departure. The most obvious include booking airfare, lodging, and, of course, your dream Outlander tour. In most cases, it will be wise to book the tour first of all.

Where I Started

My first phase involved researching England and Scotland for places and attractions I would most like seeing. In addition to doing online research, I purchased a set of travel guides and magazines at the bookstore instead of from online, where I previewed them and their reviews, so I could flip through the pages of the options, get a feel for each one’s layout, focus, ease of use, size and weight before buying. These included a combination of books and magazines:

  • the pocket guide DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 London 2016, filled with best-of lists
  • the full guide books DK Eyewitness Travel Great Britain (2016) and Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain with the Best of England, Scotland, and Wales (2015)
  • Discover Britain magazine (Apr 2016)
  • London 2016 Guide from Britain magazine
  • Scottish Life magazine (Winter 2015) focusing on Orkney
  • Scotland Magazine (Mar 2016) featuring “Best of Argyll”

I had enjoyed the color illustrations, digestible organization, and other features of DK’s guide to Provence when I traveled for study abroad in college, and I was not disappointed in any of the DK products I bought for this trip. Fodor’s turned out to have a valuable alternative perspective along with stellar regional maps and recommended sites labeled by “Fodor’s Choice” in each region.

Curse of Abundance

In addition to taking notes on the overall highlights of each major city, I compiled lists of attractions from different regions of England and Scotland into groups. After a few weeks of attempting to narrow the list down to a reasonable set of regions and sights, I then used the suggested itineraries in the guide books to draft a few possible trip outlines. The shortest trip I could stand to plan under these constraints was 16 days, and that turned out to be too long for us due to the budget and timing of our trip.

Getting Unstuck

To solve this problem, I took a different tack: First I created a checklist of steps to consider taking to strategize our tourism.

  1. Hire a travel agent!
  2. No more than 1 of each of these types of attractions per day in regional, smaller towns and countryside. Countryside:
    • castle & historic home
    • museum & castle
    • home & museum
    • < 2 castles
    • 2 historic homes & 1 home’s grounds
    • < 2 larger museums

          In town:

    • shopping (1 street or 1 famous shop)
    • art gallery/antiques/architecture walk
    • bookshop
    • park
  1. Travel by train or car only; buses take too long (this would later turn out to be a false assumption). Again, for smaller towns and the countryside, unless otherwise advised.
  2. Choose 2-3 regions of England plus London, maximum.
  3. Choose 2-3 regions of Scotland plus Edinburgh (or Glasgow?), maximum.
  4. Plan a trip that lasts more than 14 days (a fortnight). Otherwise, you won’t even squeeze in 2 regions per country beyond the major city.
  5. Choose a theme of types of places to focus on, especially in smaller towns & countryside, one theme per region or town. Possible themes:
    • history – range of periods for greatest variety
    • literature – there are lots of literary tours and trails highlighted in guide books, and I took special interest in crafting some possible versions of literary tours in both England and Scotland, focusing naturally on Shakespeare, as well as Burns, Scott & Stevenson, among others.
    • sports/contemporary culture
    • views/vistas
    • nature walks
    • art/architecture
  1. Consider avoiding longer ( > 1 day or ½ day) scheduled tours, being locked into those.

From this process, I color coded my previously handwritten notes, highlighting preferences and categorizing attractions by type. Fodor’s and the top 10 guides were particularly helpful to this end in their category pages by type of attraction or experience. These included castles, palaces & historic homes, villages & towns, cities small & large, gardens by season, and things like parks, mountains, lakes, and walks.

To narrow further, I even created a Must-NOT-See list of things to avoid because either I did not care about them, they seemed overrated or tourist trappy, or they might even disgust, offend, or otherwise dampen our adventure.

The Must-Flee List

My must-not-see list included things easily captured in online pictures or video and grandeur for its own sake. Between college visits, study abroad, and post-college travel, I had already been to Paris, Normandy, the Loire Valley, Provence, the Riviera, Venice, Florence, Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, and Holland, as well as Utah, Colorado, New York City, Washington, D.C., Virginia Beach, western Massachusetts, upstate New York, and several parts of California. My husband had already been to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ankara, Istanbul, and Paris.

And together we’d been to Chicago, Wisconsin, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower and the Badlands, the Great Plains, Denver and the Rockies, Northern California, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, North and South Carolina, Orlando and the Florida coast, and on a western Caribbean cruise for our honeymoon. With everything we’ve been blessed to see, we didn’t need to be dazzled by immensities.

Other no-nos included shopping meccas (not my thing); Wales which has lots of cool castles (plenty of those in Scotland) but not much else of obvious interest; places too far out of reach, such as the Outer Hebrides, Ireland, Northern Ireland, East Anglia, Cambridge, and the Orkney Islands (though I might make a beeline for Orkney next time for all its uniqueness); gardens best seen in other seasons; famous sites too far off our “circuit” unless personal meaning demands it; too many churches; and too many castles. In London, I discarded Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, and anything focused solely on the Royals. I just didn’t care.

Chopping Block

When all that was said and done, even with all that trimming and relinquishing, I finally realized and admitted to myself that we couldn’t do both England and Scotland in a feasible amount of time without feeling rushed and disappointed by what we would miss. Over the years, my vacation philosophy has evolved to a preference for more in-depth exploration of a smaller territory over the impulse to cover as much mileage as possible before throwing your exhausted carcass back on the plane or in the car home.

At that point, I asked my husband if he would object to visiting only Scotland this time around, and to my surprise, he agreed. I had been laboring under the assumption that he would very much prefer England due to his greater familiarity with it, his frequent exposure to English Premiere League football matches, his Manchester City fandom, and, frankly, his lesser interest in Scotland and Outlander compared to mine.

I was so relieved to gain this freedom of focus, to be able to plan a trip that wouldn’t be the typical whirlwind tour of a vast region that goes by in a blur and becomes more stressful than the everyday work situation your vacation is meant to offset.

Scotland it would be.

Scotland Guidebooks

To adjust to this change in plans, I purchased the DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Scotland pocket guide and a used 2011 edition of Peter Irvine’s Scotland the Best, touted as the guide preferred most by Scots. The top 10 guide provided the same format of best-of lists in various categories—some regional, some interest based—found in the London version.

I would have purchased a more current edition of Scotland the Best, but the best option would not be released until October, after our trip would have ended. I felt the older edition served its purpose and did not regret buying it. Without illustrations or photos, Irvine’s guide focuses on providing comprehensive best-of lists in a broad range of categories and subcategories.

Certain of Irvine’s preferences I found surprising compared to those in the other guides that seemed more in agreement with each other. As a later purchase following so much in-depth research, Scotland the Best turned out to be less useful than the collected wisdom from the other guides, but I was still glad to compare viewpoints and learn about some attractions beyond the beaten path.

Drilling Down

With these new tools, some of my more intensely focused additional considerations consisted of narrowing down options among types of attractions found in abundance, such as castles, to only the very best, those nearest along our natural circuit through the country, or those with special literary, historical interest, or film association. For instance, having traveled in Europe and to several major U.S. cities with rich arts scenes, I already knew which types of art I preferred and what kinds of activities my husband and I leaned towards.

I also felt the need to mix in a variety of activities requiring different levels of energy, foot travel distance, and other demands on the human body or mind, spread across several days with rests or natural lulls built in. Thus, an all-day Jacobite Steam Train ride after several days of hoofing it to cover our bases. Hubby slept a total of at least an hour on that West Highland line while the spectacular countryside meandered by, but he had the very legitimate excuse of having been the designated driver of the previous week, adapting to opposite sides of car and road, as well as single-track, stone-sided, and winding roads, for the first time. I was just the navigator.

Outlander Tours

As for factoring Outlander in with all of these guidelines, I had already begun screening the other guides for popular Scottish sightseeing and scanning Google maps to locate as many Outlander-related sites as possible. I had also oriented myself to some of the better, recommended Outlander tour companies, using Diana Gabaldon’s website as my starting point.

Newly applying the Scotland focus to the Outlander tour search, I then began narrowing down those options to find one that would be more than a half-day but less than 3 days in length so we wouldn’t overdo Outlander at the expense of classic Scotland and an overall varied set of experiences.

I settled on Inverness Tours early on, but as the timing and focus of our trip evolved and solidified, I lost my window of opportunity to book a day tour during the dates we had selected. My second choice became Slainte Scotland, but I hesitated, corresponding with the company to gather more information to clarify exactly which sites the tour would include.

Reaching Out

Although it might not seem like we needed it, I did end up hiring a great travel agent, Chima Travel in Akron, Ohio, which helped with reality checking, pre-packaged tour awareness, and eventually discounted airfare and hotel package booking. However, our agent was impressed by my prior homework, to be sure.

Excited to see the trip taking shape, as I mentioned in my overview in Part 1 of this series, I laid out our tentative list of sites and sights in the post Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland.

“Five Scottish regional destinations for a 2-week visit, clockwise order from the south-west: Most preferred sights are listed for each area, though we may will not make it to all of them.

  1. Glasgow and environs (4 nights Glasgow) – Glasgow Botanic Gardens, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Park, City Chambers, Glasgow Cathedral/Necropolis, a play, boat ride on the river Clyde; Cumbernauld (Outlander studios drive-by), Falkirk Wheel, Stirling Castle, Doune Castle (Monty Python, Castle Leoch), Wallace Monument

  2. The Trossachs, Argyll, and Central Highlands – Loch Lomond (and maybe Loch Katrine) in Trossachs National Park; Loch Awe, Inveraray Castle; Glencoe

  3. The Great Glen, Highlands, and west coast (2 nights Fort William) – Fort William, Glenfinnan Monument (Jacobite Rebellion launch), Jacobite Steam Train to Mallaig, lochs and walks in the Great Glen; Eilean Donan Castle

  4. Inverness and environs (3 nights Inverness) – Inverness Visitors Centre, excursions to Foyers Falls, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle (maybe a boat ride), Cawdor Castle (Macbeth), Culloden Moor (Jacobite Rebellion), Clava Cairns (standing stones with split rock), Cromarty, Black Isle, Moray Firth

  5. Edinburgh and environs (4-5 nights Edinburgh) – Edinburgh Castle, National Museum of Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Calton Hill, The Royal Mile main street, which includes Writers’ Museum, Greyfriars Kirk (“Bobby” the Westie), St. Giles’ Cathedral, Scott Monument, and more; Southern Uplands including Rosslyn Chapel and maybe Abbotsford House (Sir Walter Scott) and Melrose Abbey

The above sites are separate from several specific towns and rural locations where the Outlander TV series has been filmed. After some consideration, I’m inclined to skip a packaged Outlander tour in favor of making our own. I know enough about the books, TV series, and show creators that information won’t be lacking, and we need not be further restricted in our movements or schedule. ”

What I ended up doing is splitting the difference and combining self-guided Outlander tourism with a single day’s guided Outlander tour, taking the official tour early on and scooping up the remainder once we obtained our rental car on day 4.

Another part of reaching out came to me around this time. My friend and fellow Outlander fan called to tell me she and her husband would be going to Scotland in July with another couple for 10 days and that they had booked with Inverness Tours. She thought I’d be jealous, but I told her about my planned trip too, and we ended up sharing in each other’s excitement. She agreed to help with recommendations after her trip to inform mine, and she even looked at my itinerary to weigh in on its feasibility. I’ll share their circuit and some of her tips in my final post in this series.

Our Scotland Trip

Next is a look at our two-week trip overview and a comparison between the planned and actual itinerary of the first two days. While day 1 turned out quite different from its plan, day 2’s plan came to fruition, except for the Real Mary King’s Close, which was our last major Edinburgh attraction on the 19th. Note the bit about where we dined and what I ate.

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 22:56:18_p1d1-2

And the rest of our itinerary . . .

Sept 16

We flew in overnight on September 15, arriving September 16 late morning in Edinburgh, and used a taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Residence Inn south of Old Town. After sleeping very little on the plane, we snoozed in the restaurant of our hotel waiting for our room to open up, then slept the rest of the afternoon and had a late dinner at Vittoria, which serves up-scale Italian food.

We then used a combination of buses, trains, a tour van, and our unaccustomed feet to explore the hilly, cobbled Edinburgh and surrounding areas over the next three days.

Sept 17

Outlander Tour of 5 filming sites. A 9-hour tour with Slainte Scotland, led by Managing Director of Clyde Coast Tourism Ltd., proud Scot, and Outlander STARZ TV series extra, the lively, lovely, and knowledgeable pro tour guide Catriona Stevenson: Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), Blackness Castle (Fort William), Falkland (1940s Inverness), Doune Castle (Castle Leoch) including whisky tasting, Culross (Crainsmuir and Castle Leoch herb garden).

That evening at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, we attended a vibrant performance by the Dundee Rep Theatre of the ceilidh-style historical and political play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, which kept us awake even after an all-day tour and with jet lag setting in from the day before. Seeing this play early in the trip provided essential perspective on the past 200 years of Scottish-English relations and politics, which we could then reflect on as we traveled the country.

Sept 18, 19

Edinburgh city tourism, including book sites Palace at Holyroodhouse and walks through Old Town, setting for the printer’s shop and smuggling outfit of A. Malcom, Jamie’s alias in book 3, Voyager. The main focus on these days, though, was catching some of Edinburgh’s major attractions, including Edinburgh Castle, the Writers’ Museum, the Real Mary King’s Close, and Scott Monument on Princes Street—well worth it!

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 22:59:36_p-1d3-4_18-19_re-done_WritersMuseum

We picked up our car on the evening of September 19, our last night in the capital before heading north to the Trossachs and Argyll early on Tuesday morning.

Sept 20

All-day personalized journey through Argyll & Bute’s vistas and sites of ancient Scots roots and a Gaelic kingdom’s medieval hillfort, with the delightful Àdhamh Ò Broin, Gaelic Language Consultant for the Outlander STARZ show. We hired him for a day of his time to share his love and knowledge of the endangered Dal Riata Gaelic dialect, the wonders of Argyll, the region of his upbringing, and insights into the everyday lives of Scots from the past and today.

We managed to fit in views of island mountains, croft ruins, standing stones, ancient hill fort, cairns, sheep, a few castles and ruins, lochs and hills, bagpipes, singing, cattle, jokes, supernatural stories, local color tales, coffee, lunch, two churches, and a night view over the Kyles of Bute. We even took a close look at a caterpillar (in Àdhamh’s hand on this blog’s recent header image) at the Kilmory Oib Township ruins.

Phew! What a day. By far superior to anything we could have done on our own. As a result, we skipped visiting Inveraray Castle and the Auchindrain Museum village, though we passed by both. The richness of our experiences made those omissions irrelevant.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:08_p-1only_d5partial_20th_topScreenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:08_p-2d5partial_20th_middle

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:50_p-2d5_20th_bottom

Sept 21, 28

Combined with unrelated but great attractions in the vicinity, we selected additional Edinburgh-area Outlander options among Glencorse Old Kirk (visited, film), Linlithgow Palace (visited, film), Hopetoun House (skipped, film), and Preston Mill and Phantassie Doocot (skipped, farther east, film). Upon returning to Seabank B&B at the end of day 2 in Argyll, the Trossachs, Stirlingshire, and Midlothian, we encountered our previous day’s guide Àdhamh Ò Broin at the Drover’s Inn, on the north end of Loch Lomond! Well, it is a small country, after all.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Sept 22

Drove through Glen Coe—an absolute must for any first-time visit to Scotland—on our way northward up the Great Glen toward Inverness. Parts of Glen Coe were used for long shots during Outlander‘s credits.

Sept 22, 23

Made sure we passed Loch Ness (book) to and from other adventures, such as our Jacobite Steam Train ride from Fort William (book) to Mallaig on the western coast and back. The train passes and stops at Glenfinnan after crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which was used in the filming of Harry Potter. The Glenfinnan Monument is the site where the standard for the Jacobite Rising of 1745 was raised by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Sept 25

Drove to Loch Rannoch area, Perthshire, sort of hunting for the site of Craigh na Dun‘s filming, surmising also about the location of the Mackenzie rent party’s rides on the way for Jamie to meet Horrocks through the forest near Aviemore, along the way to and from Rannoch Forest, Loch Rannoch, Rannoch Moor, and Kinloch Rannoch. It was actually somewhere on the nearby Dunalastair Estate where the Craigh na Dun set was created and filmed.

Sept 25, 26

Identified Inverness (book)-area Outlander filming and book sites to choose from, visiting the gorgeous Beauly Priory (book), mysterious Clava Cairns, and humbling Culloden Battlefield (book & film), as well as Cawdor Castle (the Macbeth castle), while skipping Loch Garve (book), Falls of Rogie, and Castle Leod (book) in Strathpeffer.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Sept 27, 28

Scouted and targeted Glasgow city centre and metro-area filming sites, including George Square, Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis, Pollok Country Park, and the Outlander studios in nearby Cumbernauld. On our last day of sightseeing, we visited Linlithgow Palace, used to film the exteriors and corridors of Wentworth Prison in the last episodes of series 1, and finished the day at Hampden Park, home of the Scotland National Football Team, of the Celtic Rangers, and of the Scottish Football Museum. We ate a fabulous lunch at The Cotton House, in Longcroft, Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire (http://cotton-house.co.uk/).

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Some days fulfilled the carefully assessed, vetted (by recent Scotland traveler friend), and revised plan, but most deviated quite a bit, and some plans were totally replaced. Overall, we managed to meet our priorities, fit in some spontaneity, and get sufficient rest to keep going.

End of the Tourist Season

One thing that really helped us was favorable weather for outdoor activity during the whole first half of the trip, including our day-long Outlander tour on the 17th. A mixture of sun and clouds with highs in the mid 50s to low 60s held strong through most of each day from September 16 to 23. From all I had heard, this was like winning the lottery. Actually, my research showed September to be generally drier than late summer, but we were lucky, too.

Before making final reservations at B&Bs, and for the Outlander and train tours, and before purchasing tickets for the play, I asked my husband whether he would prefer a train trip or a boat ride on Loch Ness. He chose the train. I originally preferred the boat cruise, but a train excursion turned out to be the wiser choice, as it rained the whole day of the 23rd and the train offered shelter and the occasion to nap, which hubby really needed at that point.

We had a rainy afternoon in Perthshire on the 24th while the west coast got hammered (we were lucky to miss the really bad stuff in Mallaig the day before), but we enjoyed a beautiful sun and clouds Culloden visit that morning. Then, the daylight hours of the last two days in the Highlands—25 and 26 in Inverness, Moray Firth coast, Beauly & the Black Isle—were uniformly gorgeous.

Once we got to Glasgow, our last leg of the trip, the rain mixed with the cloudy skies more often, but shelter was easy to come by and most of the 27th was conducive to picture taking at Glasgow Cathedral and around town. Finally, the 28th provided steady light rain throughout our visits to Linlithgow Palace (castle ruins), Outlander studios (front gate), Pollok Park (driving around), and Hampden Park (indoors).

The Verdict

My experience of this trip was so absolutely positive, I don’t hesitate to call it the best trip of my life, and my husband is nearly in agreement on that score. Thorough, careful planning surely played a key role in increasing the chances of such an outcome, but we must also give proper credit to the place, the sights, and the people.

What we might have done differently if we had a do-over

Top changes I would have made to smooth out the schedule, without looking at weather:

  1. Limit the 17th to only the 9-hour Outlander tour to reduce exhaustion for subsequent days. If possible, schedule our viewing of the play’s performance for the evening of the 16th instead.
  2. If possible, avoid scheduling exploration of Inverness-shire for Loch Ness Marathon weekend, for greater flexibility.
  3. Travel earlier in the tourist season to increase Jacobite Steam Train scheduling options.
  4. Book lodging at three major bases instead of four, to allow more time to explore and spend less time packing and unpacking, as well as adjusting to a new home base.
  5. Allocate sufficient time each evening to literally map out the next day’s specifics.
  6. Skip the interior of the Palace at Holyroodhouse, or reduce the time spent, in keeping with my lesser interest in pomp, circumstance, and royalty. Focus solely on its abbey ruins, and then climb Arthur’s Seat instead.
  7. Visit a local pub for a pint or a dram and strike up a conversation with a native.
  8. Walk less and see fewer sights during one of our packed days to make doing #5 and #7 more plausible.

Top changes I would have made if I were in better shape, without looking at weather:

  1. Add a whisky distillery tour in the Highlands or a whisky tasting experience in Edinburgh.
  2. Make the effort to climb up Arthur’s Seat near Holyroodhouse and take in the view of Edinburgh and environs.
  3. Climb all 237 steps to the top of Scott Monument, the tallest monument to a writer in the entire world.
  4. Visit Calton Hill for more views of the city from the opposite end nearest Edinburgh Castle.
  5. Do more hill walking among the lochs in the Trossachs, at Schiehallion near Rannoch, or around Loch Ness.
  6. Walk up and through the Necropolis path (also if I hadn’t been so fixated on capturing every last nook and cranny of the Cathedral) in Glasgow.

Top changes I would have made if we had had more time, without looking at weather:

  1. Spread out our Edinburgh sightseeing across 4 full days instead of 2.5 (18, 19, and only a bit of 17 and 16). Our last day in Edinburgh was a bit stressful as we tried to cram in all the best of the rest, including The Real Mary King’s Close (accomplished) and the Scottish Whisky Experience (skipped).
  2. Visit Gladstone’s Land and Georgian House for the Old Town-New Town classes comparison in Edinburgh.
  3. Make sure to enter a bookshop dedicated to selling books. This notion ended up on the chopping block, but I did purchase a National Trust Scotland book on Culloden, and Historic Environment Scotland books on Cairnpapple Hill near Edinburgh and on Linlithgow Palace.
  4. Go back to Culross to see West Kirk (the Black Kirk) and visit Hopetoun House (Sandringham) and/or spend more time at each stop of the Outlander tour, including Culross Palace and Falkland Palace.
  5. Go back to the National Museum of Scotland to take in more of its numerous galleries.
  6. See more waterfalls, try harder to see wildlife, and make a point of seeing sea wildlife, especially otters.
  7. Spend some leisure time enjoying the amenities and luxuries of Daviot Lodge, including the garden, the living rooms, and the huge bear-claw tub!
  8. Take a ferry to the Isle of Skye and explore it for at least a day, including the Fairy Pools and the Cuillin Mountains.
  9. Make a more concerted effort to find the Craigh na Dun set at Dunalastair Estate, Rannoch.
  10. See the Burrell Collection and/or Pollok House at Pollok Country Park, Glasgow.

Top changes I would have made to lighten the luggage load and save time, without re-considering weather:

  1. Pack fewer jeans and more leggings and light-weight, comfortable pants to reduce laundry needs and vacuum bag compressibility.
  2. Pack fewer toiletries and over-the-counter medical provisions, allowing occasions to purchase them as needed in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Inverness areas.
  3. Pack no reading materials for leisure that were not directly related to the current trip; have audio books available instead.

What you can do

While careful, refined planning can have positive outcomes, as you have gathered by now, it’s no quick or easy process. I had to contact multiple service providers directly, exchanging emails with our tour guide at Glencorse Old Kirk and hosts at Daviot Lodge and Seabank B&B, arranging Alamo/Enterprise car hire (I was more successful at finding good rates than my travel agent was!), and booking the Jacobite Steam Train excursion, our viewing of the Lyceum Theatre play, and our Outlander tour directly from across the pond.

All of this was of course predicated on gaining intimate knowledge of distances and durations of travel between key towns and cities and spatial relationships among sites on our must-see list. I spent countless hours just perusing Google maps, creating personalized travel guides including a chart of distances between cities, and bookmarking and starring favorites toward making this a great trip.

Then, I familiarized myself with money-saving strategies such as purchasing Historic Environment Scotland’s Explorer Pass and National Trust Scotland’s membership to reduce costs at individual sites. In the end, it was cost effective to buy the Explorer Pass but not the NTS one in our particular case. I oriented myself to banking, traffic, and other infrastructural systems, often trying out apps for satnav/GPS, bus systems, and rail networks. I even had my husband program our Garmin Nuvi GPS with Scotland maps, which became indispensable when trying to save mobile data with phone satnav.

Glimpsing all the detail, reading, rehashing, clarification, and direct booking that went into my process should tell you one of a few things about your own planning. It may tell you either that:

  1. You had better get cracking and start planning well in advance if you insist on a DIY experience of some duration and are a first-time traveler to Scotland or the UK.
  2. This self-tailoring is not for you; your best bet is to trade flexibility for a pre-packaged set of experiences where the details are out of your hands and you can just relax and enjoy. Or,
  3. If you do like the idea of going it alone for whatever reasons and you’re confident you can take a much simpler approach than I did, perhaps in part because you don’t mind healthy doses of spontaneity, you can separate which factors are deal breakers and which ones you’re happy to leave to chance.

You may discover that you couldn’t care less about Scotland itself (or at least cared less than you thought you did) and are only interested in the Outlander attractions, or heaven forbid, vice versa. If so, more power to you, but if you can stomach the stress of it, I recommend splitting your focus between the two.

The good news is that Outlander‘s growing popularity continues to boost Scotland tourism (confirmed by both my own travel agent and Scottish news sources). As a result, more and more travel companies and touring services have added Outlander to their repertoire in one way or another or enhanced the offerings they already had.

Just remember for me in reading this post, the previous ones or the next, that . . .

(Disclaimer) It’s ultimately up to each of you as trip planners to verify details to make your stay go as smoothly as possible, details such as which sites are open to the public (not all are), how, and when, especially if you intend to take the DIY approach for all or part of your trip. I have and will continue to provide some resources to get you started, but information and access can change, and the location property owners and stewards have the final word, so be sure to do your own verifications.

In Part 5 of this travel guide series, we’ll focus on Outlander tour companies and tour options, along with film locations not covered in my first 3 posts, and bring together all the shared and unshared resources I used and liked. I’ll close with some thoughts on Outlander, Scotland, and general travel.

But wait! There’s more. In future posts, I’ll continue to highlight specific sites visited, services engaged, adventures experienced, and images captured during our trip. Keep coming back to my introductory post “Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained.” to get the full scope of available bits from just after our trip last fall through the rest of this year.

I hope all this helps you get through Droughtlander, at the very least. Thanks for reading.

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Weeping Cherry Bee Photos

Photos: Our weeping cherry tree with bees on a breezy day – March 30, 2016

 

Bumblebees and weeping cherry tree, 2012–same tree, same camera, different bees, different touch-ups:

All images by C L Tangenberg, used by permission only

Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 8 of 10

The second half of “Taking It,” a poem about my next-door neighbor’s Siberian husky competing with birds for its food. April 2000.

That’s when the starlings surged.
She returned to find the blue bowl bluer.
She blinked and looked toward the house for help.

The birds are still hungry. And they know her limits.

Standing her ground yesterday,
baffled as the birds amassed,
the dog nibbled neurotically on the leftovers
while the starlings crushed each kernel
on the hard, paved periphery
to make it small enough.

Today, she’s almost waiting for a hungry starling kiss.
Today the husky takes it lying down.

copyright C. L. Tangenberg

Image: AKC Siberian husky breed section

Image: Siberian husky on AKC website

First Flowers

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Image by CL Tangenberg, 3/31/15

 

We welcome these 2015 Ohio Ice Age survivors–so far, two separate clusters of purple-and-white-striped crocuses thriving in our front-yard flowerbeds, glowing despite overcast skies.

 

 

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Image by CL Tangenberg, 3/31/15

The lone white wonder rose first, as pure as snow . . . er, as soft as a cottony summer cloud.

 

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Image by CL Tangenberg, 3/31/15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bright orange hearts beam forth, portents of warming sunsets.