Scotland: Visiting Eilean Donan and Blair castles

Posted: Sunday, June 07, 2009

On our fifth day in Scotland with our English friends, Alison and Laurence, my husband, Don, and I visited Eilean Donan Castle, the Caledonian Canal and Blair Castle.

We started our morning with Eilean Donan Castle. The four of us arrived 30 minutes before Eilean Donan Castle opened for the day. A favorite with Japanese, American and British travelers, the castle is probably photographed more than any other Scottish castle. It is featured in a scene of Patrick Dempsey's movie, "Made of Honor."

Since Don and I first visited Eilean Donan Castle in 1981 or 1983, the interior had changed dramatically. There were only two rooms with few furnishings to tour in the early 1980s. At that time, we spent more time outside the castle. We even stayed in a B&B in the village. In April 2008, most of the visitors arrived on coaches and many of the visitors were from Japan.

The castle was in ruins for two centuries. In the early 1900s, John MacRae-Gilstrap and Farquhar MacRae spent 20 years rebuilding Eilean Donan Castle. Since the last time Don and I visited the castle, a large visitors center had opened. The castle's interior rooms are well furnished. We visited the Billeting Room and the Banqueting Hall. The Banqueting Hall has wonderful furniture including a large long dining table, a tartan carpet and gothic windows.

Many treasures are on display in the Banqueting Hall. The Banqueting Hall was crowded with visitors. The guide was excellent. She was able to keep the large group quiet and listening while she talked about the castle.

We even saw the Victorian bedrooms. The large castle kitchen is in the basement. Manikins represented the lady of the castle, the cooks and the butler who were checking the food for a banquet. The kitchen is set in the 1930s. What a difference from 1981 (or1983) when we first visited the castle and only saw two of the rooms with little furniture.

From Eilean Donan, we followed the Five Sisters Mountains that are rugged, beautiful and in April the mountains peaks were covered with snow.

At Telford, we stopped at the Telford Falls where we learned the history of Thomas Telford who started the construction of the Caledonian Canal in 1803. It took 19 years to construct the canal and the locks are still used to this day. We saw the locks at Fort Augustus and watched two boats pulled from one lock to another. The three locks at Fort Augustus are Lochy, Oich and Ness.

Loch Ness is famous for the Loch Ness monster that occasionally surfaces. Rick Steves writes, " ... there have been several seemingly reliable sightings" of the Loch Ness Monster.

After we ate lunch, we took a rather long drive past mountains and up and down hills. Snow covered the mountains and I was amazed that Scotland had so many mountains. We could see the ski runs that cut through the forested mountains. Ski Scotland!

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Blair Castle. According to Eye Witness: Great Britain, "In 1844 Queen Victoria visited the castle and conferred on its owners, the Dukes of Atholl, the distinction of being allowed to maintain a private army. The Atholl Highlanders still flourish."

The castle was opened until 5:30. The tour and the interior of the castle have changed since the early 1980s when Don and I first visited the castle. Don's aunt traced the Harris lineage back many, many generations to Blair Castle. However, Don is not in line to be the Thane of Blair.

Blair Castle is a white fairy tale castle with towers and turrets. The entrance hall of Blair Castle is two stories high, paneled in wood and weaponry hangs on the walls and guns are in gun racks.

From the castle Don and I walked up to the ruined church and took photos of the church, the lambs and their mothers and the red, hairy Scottish cattle. When we were ready to leave the castle grounds, the main gate was locked. However, the late exit was not locked. Blair Castle also has a gatehouse.

Alison had made reservations at the Wellwood House Bed and Breakfast for two nights in Pitlochry. Alison also made dinner reservations at the highly recommended Armoury. In spite of its name, the Armoury is quite elegant and serves gourmet meals. We enjoyed our starters (appetizers) and the excellent wine. The salads were well presented and the lamb was delicious. Don and I shared the beautiful presented chocolate cheesecake and ice cream. Our B&B host was right; the food was not to be missed.

• Alma Harris is a retired Juneau-Douglas High School English teacher who loves to travel and write.

Eilean Donan Castle is a favorite with Japanese, American and British tourists.

In 1844, Queen Victoria visited Blair Castle in Scotland and allowed the Dukes of Atholl to maintain a private army.

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