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Star Fort

Started: 2014-05-28 07:25:00

Submitted: 2014-05-28 08:29:37

Visibility: World-readable

Sunday, 18th May: in which the intrepid narrator heads into the Scottish highlands

On my third morning in Edinburgh, I awoke rested and fully adjusted to my new time zone, seven hours ahead of my old time zone.

We ate breakfast, checked out of our hotel, and walked 0.8 miles to Edinburgh Waverley Station, past sights we'd seen in the previous days. At the station I picked up the tickets I'd bought earlier at the automated kiosk (after scanning my credit card and typing, somewhat awkwardly, my eight-letter confirmation number, on the on-screen keyboard organized alphabetically). The whole thing was so fast and efficient that we had plenty of time to sit in the waiting area while Calvin played at the little play area, picking up germs from around the world.

After a few minutes the station monitors announced the platform for the 09:33 First ScotRail service to Inverness. We joined the small crowd of people waiting on the platform in front of a short train comprised of Class 170 diesel multiple units. When the train's doors opened we boarded the train, stowed our luggage at the luggage rack at the end of the carriage, and found our seats, three of four seats around a table in the middle of the carriage.

Our train departed promptly at 09:33 and called at Haymarket before crossing the Firth of Forth rail bridge. From inside the train I could see the hulking columns that make up the bridge, but I couldn't see much of the bridge itself while on the bridge. The train turned up the north coast of the firth, giving further views of the North Sea, before heading inland to climb the Highland Main Line. I enjoyed the Scottish scenery out the window as we traveled: the forests giving way to irregular pastures dotted with sheep, then rugged moors covered with shrubs festooned with brilliant yellow flowers (which we first mistook for heather but I eventually identified as gorse), and finally rugged mountain tundra that would have been right at home in Colorado.

Calvin in the First ScotRail service to Inverness
Calvin in the First ScotRail service to Inverness

We arrived in Inverness at 12:57 and set out to find lunch. We found a Pizza Express around the corner from the train station, then caught a taxi to the airport to pick up a rental car. We could have seen most or all of what we wanted to see using various forms of public transportation (or hiring a taxi for an all-day tour) but I thought we would have better results by renting a car, since I was willing to try driving on the wrong side of the road. (I did, at least, know how to drive stick shift, which seemed like an advantage.) I found a very long queue in front of the Alamo/National/Eurocar rental desk and, eventually, picked up the keys to my hire car. (My State of Colorado driver's license was sufficient to drive, though I neglected to read my copy of The Highway Code before leaving home.) We headed to the car park and found a black six-speed diesel-powered Vauxhall Mokka crossover waiting for me. I hopped into the driver's seat just as it was starting to rain, handed Kiesa my phone to try to navigate for me, and headed out to brave the wrong side of the narrow Scottish roads. (I spent all week walking up to the left side of the car expecting to find the driver's seat there.)

Rental Vauxhall Mokka
Rental Vauxhall Mokka

Riding in the taxi on the way to the airport helped acclimate me to the nuances of driving in the Scottish countryside, especially when it came to navigating the roundabouts that the Scots put up at almost every intersection where an American traffic engineer would have put a stop sign or a traffic light. (Once I got used to the idea, it was actually pretty easy: yield to traffic already in the roundabout, and exit at the right place. In many places the road going into the roundabout included hints as to which lane one ought to pick to get to the right place. By the end of the week I was navigating complicated multi-lane roundabouts with ease, though oddly that's the one thing I'm not sure I'd be able to do easily in a right-hand-drive country.)

Calvin studies the site model at Fort George
Calvin studies the site model at Fort George

By this time it was the middle of the afternoon, and although it was raining, we headed to nearby Fort George, an eighteenth-century star fort built to solidify the English control of Scotland. (My guidebooks indicated it was the best-preserved fort of its type in Britain, and probably in all of Europe.) We successfully navigated the several miles along back roads to the fort (me driving, Kiesa navigating). As we walked to the entrance I noted with pleasure the defense in depth and interlocking fields of fire designed to protect the fort against a land attack by restive locals, with large, low earthen embankments to protect the fort itself against opposing cannon fire that would have razed an older masonry fort. (It was built immediately after the nearby battle of Culloden -- of which, more tomorrow.) The fort is still occupied by the Scottish regiments of the Royal Army, as an administrative headquarters of some sort. We walked through the fort's buildings in a light rain, then climbed the wall on the far side to look out over the Beauly Firth, an inlet of the North Sea protecting the approach to Inverness. The walls were topped with historic canons, and Calvin enjoyed running around on the grass while Kiesa tried to keep him from getting too close to the edge of the walls.

Calvin looks down the trench at Fort George
Calvin looks down the trench at Fort George

We paid a brief visit to the regimental museum before it closed, then looked at some of the other batteries, including a good look at the landward defenses before returning to the car park as the main gate was closed behind us.

Calvin and Kiesa look at the chapel in Fort George
Calvin and Kiesa look at the chapel in Fort George

Sight-seeing completed, we drove back to Inverness, eventually merging from the back roads onto the main A96 road. I tended to hug the left side of the road, since I'm used to positioning the car based on the driver's seat being on the left side of the car. The experience of my driving may have been more nerve-wracking for Kiesa than me. She served as my navigator, interpreting the navigational directions my phone gave, but as we reached Inverness Google Maps tried to take us down several roads that were either closed for construction or closed to private vehicles. After a few wrong turns and more roundabouts than I could count, we found our hotel, the Glen Mhor Hotel, right on the bank of the River Ness. I'd decided to pay for a more expensive hotel for this leg of our journey, with a one-bedroom suite to provide a bit more space to separate us and Calvin.

We ate supper nearby at La Tortilla Asesina, a Spanish tapas restaurant with enough vegetarian food on the menu to satisfy us. While eating our waitress made the single most insightful comment about Calvin I've ever heard, in a Scottish accent: "He's chatty, isn't he?"

We walked back to our hotel and put Calvin to bed, while I scoured my guidebooks and tried to figure out what we would do the next day.

For more photos from Sunday 18th May, see Photos on 2014-05-18. For Kiesa's parallel account, see Scotland – Day 4.

Oh please! Civilized? Alanis Morissette? No.
- Willy, 14 July 2001