A First-timer’s Take on Ireland and Scotland, with Belfast in Between. Part II

We awoke a little groggy and snoozed as long as we could. The night before, after the tour of Belfast with Marty had wrapped up, Jamie and I didn’t really have time to venture out and explore the town again, but we weren’t ready to call it a night either. Entering the lobby, we saw there was a birthday party going on in our hotel bar, so we slipped into the mix and had a drink — a special house concoction that turned out to be so good we had a couple more. Before going back to the room, we inquired at the front desk about catching a cab early the next morning. The man behind the counter (who was wearing colossal dark-red sunglasses) assured us that a cab to the nearby ferry terminal would not be a problem, and sure enough, five hours later when we returned to the lobby loaded up with luggage, it was only a minute after the hotel placed the call that a cab was waiting outside.

Intermission: Happily Trapped on the Irish Sea with a Thousand Football Fanatics

The cab ride to the ferry terminal was short, maybe five minutes through the industrial side of town. Like most Irish men, Colin was a football enthusiast, although in his case he was possibly a football extremist, and I’ll just leave his story there. As a matter of practicality though, the first thing he told us was that an important match up was taking place in Glasgow today, and that the ferry this morning — first run of the day — would be loaded to capacity with people headed to the stadium. It was to be a contest between two Scottish teams: the heavily favored Celtic Football Club and the Heart of Midlothian F.C., also known respectively as the Celtics and Hearts.

After loading the 600 or so vehicles onto the lowest deck of the ship, passengers began boarding a few floors above. The MS Stena Superfast VII is a 30,000 ton, 670-foot monster, with the capacity to carry 1,200 passengers and 660 cars across the northern mouth of the Irish Sea, in a little over two hours. Having no idea what we were doing, while boarding, we literally went with the flow, which took us up two flights of stairs and then deposited us and the rest of the spirited but peaceful mob onto the main deck. From this center-point of the ship, the mob then dispersed in all directions, most folks with purpose either heading for their favorite places, or straight for the galley to our immediate right. Tucked away in the far corner of the room, we snagged one of the last open tables left in the massive, atrium-like deli, a two-seater pushed against a bulkhead, and sandwiched between the end of the kitchen and a watertight door to the outside. It was a good spot because from it we could survey the whole place, undetected.

The ferry left the dock precisely at 0730, and having observed for a while the few hundred people inhabiting the dining hall, two things were obvious: One, if there were any Hearts fans on board, they weren’t making any statements about it, and two, for all unattached males under fifty, the obvious goal was to drink as much beer as possible. Practically everyone in the place was wearing green and white jerseys — Celtics colors — and almost every occupied table had a beer pitcher or two on it. For those that didn’t have a seat, they just walked about, wearing and carrying the same. At the next table over, while one Celtics fan was finishing his breakfast and washing it down with amber-colored brew, his friend opposite him, tightly grasping his empty pint glass with foam at the bottom, had his forehead planted on the formica, with eyes open. But there was an order to it all. Wandering the extent of it later, I saw more of the same in the bars, lounges, and seating areas spread across the ship, although in these more secluded areas the shows might have been less exuberant. Mixed in with it all were old couples reading or snoozing in comfy, faux leather lounge chairs, and families with young children enjoying the view out the window, or taking in the interior scene surrounding them, one that they were perhaps seeing for the first time, or the tenth. And though greatly outnumbered, I saw Hearts milling about, too, with colors on full display.

After breakfast, Jamie and I went through the watertight door and stepped outside onto the starboard-side deck. “Are you in the military?” asked a tall, thin, blonde guy with rosy cheeks and a beaming, friendly face, standing with three other young men in tight formation. I was wearing camo pants, which must have been what prompted the question, and oddly enough, that’s how things started. Killian, the inquisitive blonde, I would soon gather, was the voice and brains of the crew, while his counterpart, Rory, a sturdy character with fiery red hair and matching beard, was its spirit and muscle. Third in line was a supercharged little speed-talker, a guy not more than five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds, whose name I never got but one I’ll remember as “Alaska”. And last was an impressively drunk, scruffy-faced, shuffle-footed oddball, who consistently made mouth sounds which I think were social contributions, but ones most of the time he spoke to his shoes. I don’t remember how much time had passed before Killian produced a joint, but it wasn’t long. Pulling it out of his shirt pocket and silently handing it over to me to do the honors, I lit it up, took a drag, and then passed it over to Mumbles, gazing at his footwear. Looking up, he genuinely seemed surprised by this act of inclusion, which instantly struck me as strange, but he accepted the toothpick-skinny blunt without comment, took a puff himself, and then passed it along to Alaska on his left. Next was Rory and as puny as it was, it barely made it back to Killian before that was officially the end of that. Although entirely inconsequential in effect, and more ceremonial than anything else, Killian’s gesture of intercontinental goodwill was appreciated, nonetheless.

Killian, Rory, and Alaska then fired off a fusillade of words, almost competing with one another to ask and tell me as many things as possible. Even Mumbles now seemed a little more animated and engaged. Meanwhile, Jamie stood by in silence, stunned by the sheer energy of it all. Asking me in confused unison where I was from, I told them I live in California these days, but that my home state is Maryland, which Rory inexplicably reacted to by singing “Sweet Home, Alabama”, a song he only knew the first three words to, and sang several times. Next, Alaska took over the line of questioning and asked me how many states I had visited, to which I offered him a more efficient response by instead telling him the three I had not, one being his “namesake”. Alaska then proclaimed with all seriousness that if he ever ended up in America’s northernmost state and was attacked by a grizzly bear, the first thing he would do is bite his ears off.

All in the span of maybe a minute, laced within other fast-paced small talk, I then got their stories: Killian was excited about an approaching, first-time trip to America, off to NYC to visit family, and in two weeks Rory was moving to Australia, in search of adventure, with no particular plans on how to find it. In contrast, Alaska was living in the present, apparently not thinking much past the football match, while Mumble’s story remained untold, which was probably just as well. And then in a flash, after a hearty round of handshakes, Killian, Rory, and Alaska ran off in an easterly direction towards the stern, still grouped in tight formation, laughing and in pursuit of their next unanticipated experience in life, which abruptly left Jamie and me with Mumbles, who now just stood next to us in silence, and stared at us both blankly. After what was probably only fifteen seconds but felt far longer, without a sound, Mumbles then slowly shuffled off in the opposite direction towards the bow, on his own, and we didn’t see any of them again.

Shortly before 10:00 a.m. the ferry pulled into Cairnryan and the off-loading began. Once again, we jumped into a slow-moving stream of people, this time one running down the stairs we had climbed two-and-a-half hours ago. The scene in the central staircase was a little more boisterous now, although still congenial and controlled, with lots of talking and laughing, and small groups of young men, fueled by expectations and beer, rough-housing with each other, and singing Celtic F.C. songs. Caught up in the commotion, Jamie and I seemingly floated down the stairs, and not paying attention, we floated all the way down to the car lot, located at the lowest publicly accessible point on the ship. So, turning around and working against the semi-solid flow of humanity, one now descending at an even larger volume, we slowly made our way back up the stairs, and eventually reached the checkpoint where the carless people disembarked.


And then we were in Scotland!
Within this picture are two of the cooler parts of this entire trip, one of which came to be entirely by chance. I’ll cover the car here, and the boat I’ll explain in the next photo. After getting off the ferry, we headed straight to the Hertz lot, located next to the ferry terminal. Weeks before, we had reserved a modest something-or-another, because that’s all we needed. In fact, smaller is better over in Ireland and Scotland, as the roads at times can get ridiculously narrow. Well, the woman at the front desk informed us that our modest car wasn’t there, and that no others were available either. They had simply run out of cars! No explanation as to why, but that didn’t really matter anyway. Yet instead of giving us a voucher or an apology as an inadequate solution to an embarrassing problem, Hertz gave us a choice between the two finest cars in their fleet. They were both brand new and identical models and we chose the black one.
The boat was something planned well in advance, but the experience of staying on it for four days was far more than we expected, and all in a good way. Built in 1972, the Scotia W is an eighty-foot, four-cabin, wood-hulled trawler, converted into a boat-and-breakfast, located in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. Alex, a co-founder of the operation, stayed on the boat with us the entire time, and over our four days we saw three groups of guests come and go. By the time it was our day to depart, we had gotten to know Alex fairly well and had settled into this existence easily, to the point where we were getting to think we were somehow Scotia W crew ourselves, or at least part of the welcoming committee. At the end, this was definitely a hard place to leave. A Little Note About Scotland Sunlight: The picture above with the Mercedes was taken in the late afternoon, shortly after we’d arrived at the small marina, the day we drove up from the ferry in Cairnryan, 250 miles to the south. The photo sunset shot seen here was taken two nights later, at about 10:00 pm. In the northern lats of the Highlands, the spring and summer sun drops late; full darkness didn’t come until around eleven o’clock.
Situated on the northwest coast of Scotland, Ullapool is your quintessential little fishing village, picturesque from one end to the other. Despite its tiny size and population of only 1,500, it’s the largest settlement in the region, and is an important port and a popular tourist destination. We wandered through the town on a cool, cloudy day, with no particular plans to do anything specific, which I think is the way you’re supposed to do it.
One of the boats I worked A LOT back in my boat days was a noisy, old thing called the Zenith, which looked absolutely nothing like the Zenith you see here.
Jamie makes a friend.
Meaning “valley of the deer” in Scottish Gaelic, Glenfiddich is the world’s best-selling single-malt whiskey. Founded in 1886 by William Grant, the first whiskey flowed out of the stills on Christmas Day, 1887. Today, it is managed by the 5th generation of the family. Glenfiddich has grown to be a massive operation, and is now Scotland’s largest distillery, with a capacity of 10 million liters per year, which accounts for 35% of all single-malt sales in the world.
Part of the process …
Here is a “legal” photo of some of the 29 stills on site. A foot past this point on the tour, all further picture-taking was strictly prohibited until we exited the warehouse, as the guide clearly and firmly told us. Of course, we hadn’t made it halfway across the walkway, before a scofflaw bringing up the rear tried to sneak a shot. Somehow able to catch this indiscretion while also talking and pointing at things everywhere, the eagle-eyed tour guide had caught the guy red-handed. Based on her justified, peppery verbal reaction to the infraction, I thought for her next move the woman, who looked to be in her sixties, was going to run to the back of the line and karate chop the camera right out of his hand. Whoever she is, Glenfiddich needs to give that woman a raise.
Both nestled in the Highlands and only five miles apart, when it comes outward appearance Macallan Distillery (pictured directly above) and Glenfiddich could not be more different if they tried, and it seems in that regard both are trying very hard indeed and succeeding. Everything Glenfiddich is, Macallan is not, and vice versa, and yet both are perfect archetypes for their visions, one steeped in 19th century practices and traditions, and the other a facility that seems to have channeled what whiskey distilleries will look like a century into the future. Taking the Glenfiddich and Macallan tours only minutes apart was like jumping off the deck of a beautiful, old, wood-hulled schooner bound for Connecticut, and then suddenly being thrust into the cockpit of a spaceship headed for Mars.
Everywhere through the facility it looks like this: Colored lights that go on and off, depending on if there are people there to see them, every inch of metal appearing as if it had been wiped down with a cheesecloth minutes ago, and the whole place, inside and out, giving off the impression it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, come back from the dead, and the Creative Directors of Cirque du Soleil. For me, it was about ten minutes into the tour before I began to appreciate the aesthetic intent, but once that sunk in it was hard not to recognize the genius behind it all.
A shot taken during one of Macallan’s well done video vignettes.
After leaving Macallan, Jamie and I took a wrong turn in the vicinity of the distillery, and is sometimes the case on country roads in Scotland, and in Ireland as well, the chance to turn around and get going in the right direction again might not come for a bit. This was not the first time on this trip we’d gotten a little off course, but in this case, it worked out to be a stroke of good luck. Eventually coming upon an intersection, we made a left, which a short distance later put us alongside the back lot of Speyside Cooperage. In the Dufftown/Craigellachie Highlands region, since 1947 Speyside has produced some of the highest quality casks in the world, all crafted using only traditional methods and tools, the origins of which date back 5,000 years. Casks are made exclusively of American Oak, used for its unique sealing/breathing properties, and the still-expanding company — the largest cooperage in the UK — now has satellite operations in the United States, in Ohio and Kentucky. An average cask lasts 60 years, and Speyside produces and repairs over 150,000 casks a year. The photos above and below were shot at a distance, from behind the facility, and from our position in Speyside’s back yard we could see thousands of these, all stacked as you see here.
Out of all the castles we visited, Kilkenny Castle in Ireland was my favorite, but of the four we saw in Scotland, that would be Stirling Castle. Like Kilkenny, it’s in excellent condition — which after seeing a few you realize is not always the case — and also like Kilkenny, due to the access permitted to visitors, and the history of the place provided in the tour, you leave it having a sense of what living in such a palace and fortress might have been like. Stirling Castle’s story begins in the early 12th century, although most of its buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and a few structures from the 14th century remain. Situated atop a steep hill and surrounded on three sides by cliffs, Stirling was considered almost impenetrable, yet over the centuries at least eight attempts were made to overtake it, some of which were successful, the last being in 1746. Far too much to cover here, but as one of Scotland’s largest and most strategically important castles, its complicated past is fascinating.
“Aches and Pains Row” in The Great Hall. Stirling Castle is quite a big place and attempting to see it all ultimately is a physical challenge.
Shopping side of historic, downtown Edinburgh.
An artist puts his take on historic Edinburgh to paper.
National Museum of Scotland: Growing up in the D.C. area, I spent a lot of time in the many free Smithsonian museums, especially the Museum of Natural History. Aside from the Field Museum in Chicago, I’d never seen a facility that compared to the Smithsonian … until I came here. Maybe not as big, but what’s lacking in comparative space is more than made up for in density; it would take weeks to see all the exhibits packed into this place.
A dancer limbers up before a show on the museum’s ground floor. At the time I took this, I thought this was just a guy — another visitor — who’d spontaneously decided to do some dancing; This area, at least at the particular moment, was casually functioning as a multi-age playground of sorts. Next thing, an amazing, interactive performance was under way, one in which, face-to-face, a dozen or so dancers mingled through the spectating crowd and beyond, including this guy.
As a result of a 2014 study, 26 sieges over its 1,100-year history were identified, giving Edinburgh Castle the distinction of being “the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world.” Last occupied by royals in 1633, for centuries afterward, the stronghold was primarily used as military barracks with a large a garrison. Today, the castle is under the ownership and control of an executive agency of the Scottish Government. However, the military does still operate and is responsible for some of the property, which include the New Barracks and the military museums. Direct administration of the castle by the War Office ended in 1905, yet it is one of the few castles in Great Britain to still have a military garrison, active mostly for administrative purposes.
Active-duty sentries of the military garrison at Edinburgh Castle march in formation back to the New Barracks.
Centuries of disparate architecture represented in a segment of historic downtown Edinburgh.
These guys are everywhere within the historic, tourist side of Edinburgh. To me, it actually looked like a relatively tough gig, as every performer I came across seemed to be in the midst of playing — never on a break — and that’s one instrument that from what I’ve heard becomes exhausting to play, after you’ve been at it a while. I’ve never seen a small, skinny bagpiper. And then on top there are the thousands of tourists to deal with. But if you’re not playing, I guess you’re not making money.
“Oi! … Oi, take me pick-cha! Jamie and I were walking along a small street running through the outskirts of Edinburgh’s historic district in search of a particular bar, when we heard this, coming from behind us and across the street. Over the years, I’ve heard this before, shooting U.S. cities, usually when in less desirable parts of town, and in those settings never has the call-out had anything to do with portraits. It’s just a way to test the waters, to gauge if a target is worth hitting. One of the hazards of street shooting in sketchier places, especially if you have conspicuous gear. So, although this area was far from sketchy, just hearing the words made me expect more of the same, so I suggested Jamie pop into the bar we happened to be in front of, and then turned around to see across the street a crew of six guys, the last one in line being the one trying to get my attention. “Oi, come on, how ’bout a pick-cha, eh?” Without saying anything myself, I motioned for him to pick a pose, and after some deliberation on his part he happily settled on this one. After I took the shot, he thanked me and gave me a quick wave, and then caught up with his crew, which soon disappeared inside a packed corner bar, one by appearances popular with the locals, a few hundred feet down the road. Whether there were initially less friendly intentions at play here or maybe this guy was just testing to see if I was an American asshole, I’ll never know, (strange to ask for a picture you’re never going to see) but it seemed we both walked away feeling better about the world, without really knowing why.
A small, private party in mid swing, in the historic district of Edinburgh.
One of the more eye-catching and tourist-attracting avenues we came upon in the Old Town, the popular name given to the oldest part of Edinburgh.
Street performer begins her show on the Royal Mile, the main street of the Old Town, which runs downward from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. The term Royal Mile was coined in the 20th Century, and no part of the street actually bears the name.
One of the star pizza makers at Forno 500, in Dublin, along with the critically important oven, one handmade on site at the restaurant by uniquely skilled artisans brought from Napoli, Italy.
Forno 500 makes the best pizza in the world. In fact, it’s so good, I wouldn’t even call it pizza, or if it is to be called pizza, then all other pizza should be called something else. Jamie and I went there on our last night of the trip, after we’d returned to Dublin from Scotland, for a flight out the next morning back to San Francisco. After finishing off a margherita — my favorite pizza type — I couldn’t stop raving about it, talk that Dee, the proprietor, must have caught in her movements about her busy place. Next thing, we struck up a conversation with her, during which she told us all about the history of the unique pizza they make, and about how her restaurant had come to be, in of all places, Dublin. We talked for quite a while, too, so long the restaurant had started to wind down by the time our conversation had begun to do the same. That’s when Dee asked me if I wanted to go back and see their kitchen, meet the pizza makers, and see the famous oven. Having my camera with me on the table, I jumped at the chance, and that’s how the shots above came about. The photo with me and the fantastic pizza makers was taken with my camera by Dee, who’s a photographer herself. What a great way to finish off this adventure it was, to have the experience we had with Dee and her friendly, talented staff. Whenever we’re in Dublin again, it’s agreed this will be the first place we’ll eat after getting off the plane.
After leaving Forno, it was late. Adjacent to the restaurant, in the same stone building, we noticed the facade of an old-school music venue, and around the corner of the building, down a narrow, one-way alley, we saw Dido and her band climbing into their tour bus, exiting the music hall from the side door out into the alley. We caught a glimpse of her, and her name was displayed in lights on the destination sign above the bus windshield, making it clear who she was. Better part of twenty years since she’s been a big name in the States, but it seems she’s still drawing them out overseas, and it was funny for me if not even a bit strange, because only a few weeks before, she popped into my head out of the blue, and I wondered about what ever happened to her. We wandered in the immediate area for a little while and caught a last drink at a bar close by. Even though it was late, we didn’t want to take the cab ride back to the airport hotel, as we knew that was it, once we got there. In some other dark, narrow alley I took this shot, the last of the night and the last one of the trip. Nothing flashy, and a shot barely taken with intention, but for some reason I believe it quietly sums things up, or at least puts an appropriate punctuation mark at the end of the last sentence.
Till next time Ireland and Scotland.
These three maps show our road travels over fourteen of the eighteen days. The last four, we were on foot and car-free. The left map (rotated to fit) covers our 688 miles through Ireland, the middle map shows our route from the ferry terminal up to the Highlands and our movements up there, adding another 548 miles, and the right map shows our last driving leg, one which ran from Inverness — our hub city in the Highlands — down to Edinburgh, tacking on 175 miles. Altogether, we drove 1411 miles through the two countries.