Monday, March 30, 2009

Oh, tho' I walk through the Valley of Ghosts

Many years ago my mother-in-law said to me that I needed to stop ending every sentence with “you know”. Well it seems that lately, all my sentences have been starting with “Oh, wow. Oh, wow!” Today was no different – and in fact I probably repeated this phrase ad nauseum.

We left the delightful Blair Villa after a quick chat with Alec and his partner and doubled back on ourselves to travel (via a different route) to the south. We were headed for the islands off the coast of Oban and initially were a little dubious as the morning was misty and from time to time, raining gently. But true to form, it was such that it did not really impede us and we were able to take in some magnificent scenery.

Then we drove from Oban over the Isle of Seil going from point to point (Easdale to Cuan) then over to Luing Island by car ferry where we went to Cullipool, down to Toberonochy and back to the ferry to Seil and then down to Balvicar. The scenery was ever changing. We watched the wind blowing in from the Atlantic play a losing battle of chase-away with the mist and storms rolling across the landscape from the east. It was wild, wet, windswept and wonderful! Every once in a while those winds won out for a short time and we caught glimpses of the most beautiful sunny views. It was amazing how going up one side of a hill it was blustery and damp and then over the peak there was sunshine and clear skies!

From the islands we drove to Kilninver and to Kilmartin where we stopped at the Museum to learn of the ancient history of this area that is full of cairns, henges, standing stones and cup and ring carvings that date back to about 4000 BC.

Prior to exploring the enigma, represented by 5000 years of human history, we commence with a light lunch at the museum's cafe. The cafe is a representation of its surrounds - rustic. Occupied within a reconstructed barn, the cafe boasts a menu of fine foods, beverages and its walls decorated by the efforts of local artists and artisans.

After we had tendered to our hunger pangs, we ventured into the drizzle toward the museum... and silence. The silence was was punctuated only by the sounds of dripping rain, as we viewed the Glebe Cairn at Kilmartin. A sight to behold, indeed, as we attempted to comprehend the age of this memorial to its ancient dead. The Kilmartin Glen is the basin for forensic archaeology and anthropology, in determining the life and demography of ancient Scots.

The Kilmartin House Museum is the caretaker of more than 350 monuments within the 3.7 km radius around Kilmartin village. The museum takes its visitors along a corridor of time, clearly showing the subsistence and ascent of its ancient inhabitants. There is a raised relief map of the the Kilmartin Basin, whereby the locations of monuments, carvings and cairns are indicated by pin lights when a specific button is depressed. The museum also presents an AV presentation showing its interpretation of these past cultures.

The drizzling rain is perstistant, and so are we. Our next stop is the Kilmartin Church, located next door to the museum. However, the church has an interesting graveyard containing examples of graveslabs (precursors of modern headstones). The stones have been located within a greenhouse structure for conservation purposes. Arranged chronologically, the age of these stones range from the 13th century AD through to the 18th century AD.
The rain is steadily increasing so we decide to move onwards in search of henges, megaliths and stone circles within the area. This area has been dubbed by archaeologists as The Valley of the Ghosts because not only of the wealth of early and pre-history here, but also because so little is known about why there is such a rich concentration in this valley.

Upon leaving Kilmartin, we venture upon an old cairn which appears to have been used as a burial site. The pile is not high, however, past excavations has exposed a ring of stones which may have been the result of a ritual? I must admit, the area had a significant eeriness to it - no, nothing manevolent; just odd. The result of an over imaginative mind... hmm, maybe?

The next landmark we visit is the Temple Wood standing stones, which are part of a lineal group of cromlechs and cairns. One can only look in awe at the alignment of these stones, as for the original purpose - astronomical, spiritual - the exact secrets have yet to be revealed.

Tonight we are staying at Stonefield Castle Hotel. Yep - in a real castle. Normal rack rate is from £140 and we got it for £50 - so we don't feel at all guilty! The actual building is amazing and our room has views of the Loch and out to sea (over a flat roof). When we arrive there is a blackout and with the candles lit everwhere it certainly added to the atmosphere! Young Colina at reception could not have been warmer nor more helpful, and the waitresses said they were happy to live off-resort because it meant that they still got the wow factor each day when they came to work - now, how special is that! The Castle is set in grounds that contain the UK's best examples of Rhododendrons and Azaleas - they are all in bloom and are just so beautiful. Eat your heart out Mum!

Dinner at the Castle is the title on the Menu page. How do you choose when there are so many scrumptious dishes?
Haggis parcels with Arran Mustard Mayonnaise (in a wonton wrapper!)
Rich Shellfish Chowder, Potato, Spring Onion & Tarragon Brandade, Saffron Mayonnaise, Sea Salt Crouton (Michael)
Twice Baked Mull Cheddar Cheese Souffle with Piccalilli (Maria)
The Best of Loch Fyne - a selection of hot and cold seafood served with hand cut chips (crab, scampi, oyster, mussels, baked salmon, scallops) Michael
Chicken & Tarragon Roulade, Forest Mushroom Risotto, dressed rocket and shaved Parmesan - Maria
Warm orange syrup sponge, orange sorbet and cardamom syrup - Michael
Classic Creme Brulee with home made shortbread - Maria
And the meal is certainly up there with the best of them. Then it was in to the bar for coffee and a dram of 12 year old Brucchladich whisky from the Isle of Islay. Aaah nectar of the gods!

And for those who describe the Melbourne weather as four seasons in one day (do I hear a song about to burst forth?), then the weather today could only be described as four seasons in an hour! What a great day!!!

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