Intrepid Traveler
Back to Dunecht
2003 letter about our adventures in Dunecht, Scotland: On Thursday morning, we left for Aberdeen. But we have to start much farther back than that.
First, let us say that we have had an astonishing run of luck recently. The leak seems to be fixed. The weather has been dry for quite a while. In fact it has been too dry and fields in Scotland actually are parched. And it has been cool in the northern parts where we have been so we did not suffer at all from the heat wave that affected many parts of Europe and the UK.
But the first lucky thing actually occurred June of 2002, when we were in the Bos Campground in Amsterdam. We were parked just across from this huge, beautiful Winnebago. Yes, an American made Winnebago. There was this guy in shorts sitting at a table in the sun. I (Ron) was in a folding chair in the shade. It was hot, and as the shade moved, I kept moving my chair back into it. This guy at the table just sat in the sunshine, head up, soaking up the rays. Every so often, he spoke to someone in the RV. At one point a couple came to visit them and they all sat around the table, speaking a language that sounded quite a bit like English at times. That was when we heard his great laughter for the first but not the last time. It was a rich, throaty laugh that made anyone within hearing distance feel much better about everything. I had to talk to Mike Donald.
It turned out that the language that was very like English that we heard was indeed English as spoken by Scots. Later Mike told a story about being in France and meeting an old French gentleman who was very friendly and spoke to him in English. At the end of the conversation, Mike congratulated him. "Sir, your English is very good." And the French gentleman replied, "So is yours".
We hit it off right away, and Adelle and I were introduced to his wife, Wilma, who hadn’t been outside because she wasn’t feeling well. But they invited us for a beer in their beautiful home on wheels. We have exchanged e-mails ever since. And we had an invitation to visit if we were ever in Scotland. So, we left Edinburgh for a village near Aberdeen where Mike & Wilma Donald live. Meeting the Donalds was the first of the lucky things that have happened.
To return to the subject at hand, both of us want to explain to all that we never had – nor can hope to have –any better time than we had with these two lovely, interesting, intelligent, generous, considerate and hospitable people. When you read the details of our visit, you’ll see that we aren’t even exaggerating.
We were thinking that we shouldn’t interfere too much with their usual life, so we were planning to join them Friday evening. We were encouraged by Mike over the phone to come on Thursday, since Mike wasn’t working on Friday, and we were all invited to a party at the home of a friend on Friday evening. He suggested that we meet him in a "lay-by" (i.e., a highway rest area) just outside Aberdeen, and then he would lead us home. We were there on time, and off we went, following Mike’s car into a beautiful rural area. In fact it was so lovely there that we agreed, sitting in our RV, that the scenery was so beautiful that it was too beautiful to leave to go anywhere else! We drove by field after field with huge rolls of straw, and saw crops of green and tan. We found out afterwards that the green that we didn’t recognize was mostly "neeps" (turnips) used to feed cattle in the winter, and that the short tan crop was what the Scots call corn – but is really oats. What we call corn is referred to as maize. We were able to recognize the fields of "tatties" (potatoes) without any outside help!
After a 15 mile drive through a beautiful countryside, Mike stopped at a lovely old granite block farmhouse where we were greeted by Wilma and Sam, the black Labrador gun dog who lives outside in a kennel.
We talked for a while. When they asked how long we were planning to stay, we tried to weasel out. You know the drill – "well, probably Sunday morning because…etc." They seemed very disappointed. They had made a lot of plans. They seemed to genuinely want us to stay, and of course we did. And they had certainly made plans.
First let us tell you that Mike and Wilma live in one of the houses on an enormous estate. The house is in a beautiful valley, surrounded by pasture land. It is an enchanting place. The pasture is part of one of the farms, and there was a herd of cattle grazing in the far corner. Mike called to them, and they all came running to see what was up. There they all stood at the electric fence line, watching us with great interest. Somehow, we never expected that they would be curious, but Wilma pointed out that the expression "Nosy cow" has a basis in fact.
The estate has a mansion, which, like many of the buildings in the area, is built of gray granite quarried on the estate. This manor house dates from the 1800’s. There are thousands of acres of farmland, many tenants, a golf course, a pheasant raising (and shooting) operation and a bunch of other enterprises aimed at making enough money to support the estate. The mansion, as it happens, is not being lived in. The family that owns it lives elsewhere. The entire thing is like being in the setting of a Dorothy B. Sayers mystery or a BBC costume drama.
Wilma is very involved with both the people and the enterprises of this estate, and both of the Donalds seem to know everyone around.
We talked till way past our bedtime. Friday morning, we went into the garden and had coffee and tea with the freshly baked bread that Mike makes. Wilma went off to work while Mike took us in his car to show us the estate buildings, the towns nearby and a Bronze Age burial site! Lunch was at a restaurant cum market that had been started by close friends of theirs. The assortment of things that they sold in that huge establishment is worth noting. There was everything from things needed by farmers to a second floor full of clothes that are comparable to those sold by L.L. Bean, and a marvelous assortment of delicacies, deli items etc. And a line waiting to get into the restaurant! All this in the middle of nowhere!
When we returned home, Wilma was there. We all had to get ready to go to a party. Actually, the Donalds had to attend two separate shindigs. Fortunately, they were both on the same street. We were free to either go to both or stay at the first party at their friends’ house.
We never left the first party. We felt very comfortable, even though we were the only people in the house who hadn’t either played the bagpipes in a band or been a drum major, male or female, Scottish style. There was a lot to talk about. The funny thing is that when Mike & Wilma introduced us to our hosts, Doug and Fiona Findlay, we found that we had a lot in common – besides the fact that both Doug and Adelle are Gordons! The first point of interest was that they too own a caravan and have been to many of the places we know. But the second point was an amazing coincidence
Doug mentioned that they visit the U.S. quite often because he has a lot of relatives there. Where do you go we asked? Barre, MA they replied. Sounded kind of familiar, so we asked if they knew where it was in the state. Back came the answer – near Worcester! I’ll try to make a long story short. Can you believe that we went to a party at a house in Aberdeen, Scotland where we didn’t know a soul and met a couple who visit our area in New England often, have even shopped at one of Ron’s haunts (Spag’s), and often go down to St. Petersburg in Florida as well?
We enjoyed the evening, and the guests and Mike’s short concert on an electronic bagpipe. We hope that next time Doug and Fiona are in the U.S., they will visit us. We may not be able to entertain them as royally as we were entertained, but we’ll sure try.
Got home late, and went to bed. Saturday was going to be a big day. Wilma had arranged a special experience for us. Although the main house is closed up, the man who is in charge of all the buildings on the estate had agreed to take the four of us through the house, so we could see what it was like. It was like being in a BBC production. There must be 100 rooms! We walked through much of it – including the tower. It was an amazing experience. We’ve been in other such mansions, but we were only in the public area – perhaps five or six rooms. Here we were able to see the whole establishment from servants quarters, the kitchen, many of the 30 bedrooms and dressing rooms and all the living and dining rooms. Believe me when I say that it is quite a different experience from just seeing a few public rooms. Our private tour took two and a half hours!
Saturday evening’s plans were a big secret. Mike would only say that they had laid on a special treat. And they certainly had done so. We had dinner in what looked like a converted castle. It is a very fine hotel with a four star restaurant! Arthur, if you read this, be aware that I had to choose from 161 different single malt scotches. I couldn’t have made a knowledgeable decision even if the list had consisted only of two. I ordered what the waitress described as one of the most popular. Of course, it was delicious. We had a memorable meal in an elegant and beautiful setting. We felt a lot like royalty.
I’m not going to say too much about our day in the moors, except to say that it was an experience to be treasured. There is only a narrow track, very rough, through wilderness and you must have a four-wheel drive car to get through it. Mike has a Range Rover, the first we had ever been in. What an animal. It has two sets of controls for the gear box, both of which have extra low gears for pulling up a grade and going down. I think that one of these is for four wheel drive. Equipped with these, this beast can go anywhere. We drove on this track for hours, and saw no person for quite a while. Instead we saw many coveys of grouse walking along and then jumping straight up into the air and veering off right or left, very quickly. We also saw a few raptors, lots of mountain sheep, so-called blue hares and both Red and Roe deer. The latter are much smaller than the White Tails we have in Connecticut, and are similar in size to the Key Deer in the Florida Keys