Day 4 – Saturday
The weekend. But what’s a weekend when you’re on holiday? We didn’t want to go anywhere “touristy” so as to avoid the weekend crowds so we headed for the Royal Family’s residence of Balmoral Castle. It didn’t make a lot of sense to us either, but we wanted to do some Highland hiking and that was in the area.
As we drove across the misty Highland landscape we saw a sign for Glenlivit Estate. We had done some research and knew that the estate had a lot of hiking trails throughout and it was a good morning for a quick hike. We parked the Lemon at a small pull out, put on our hiking boots and headed up the hill. We had very little idea of what we would see, so everything would be a surprise!
A fine mist caught on the vegetation
Cresting the hill
The two track led up a heather-clad hill and then crested to a thick pine forest with skittish sheep underneath the branches. Our trail skirted the forest and transversed the hillside and we scattered ewes and lambs as we walked. As we stood on the hillside listening to the lambs and the birds we heard another noise: motors whined from the road below as they neared. A pack of roadsters zipped by, one by one, each one with a throaty roar as it disappeared behind the trees. It was simultaneously fun to watch (and hear) and disappointing to have the peacefulness of the setting interrupted.
For some reason, I rarely think of trees when I picture Scotland. Yet Scotland has a lot of forest still clinging to the hills and valleys. Pines and birch dominate and woodlands, with half a dozen other species making an appearance. It was nice to get chance to enjoy some of these forests on our walks. Unfortunately, a lot of the forested land is being harvested and replanted with non-native Sitka spruce. This tree, while fast-growing, produces a poor quality of wood that is suitable only for pulp and paper production. It means a fast turnover of the forests and reduced native habitat for many of Scotland’s animals.
The wide bands of fast-growing Sitka spruce
Pheasant – frequently sighted throughout our holiday
The trail we were on was faint. There were many times that we wondered if we were even still on it. It was also slick with mud and sheep shit. There are a lot of sheep here and they leave their mark everywhere. The sun stayed hidden behind the clouds which was fine by me. I enjoyed the cooler temperatures and the faint threat of rain. Our trail followed a logging road for a while before returning to the heather fields and mud. The logging road was frequented by rabbits and pheasants – we were never truly alone here. After climbing another crest the trail overlooked a lush green valley dotted with the stone remains of half a dozen crofter’s cottages. No roads came through here and I imagined the peaceful – if not lonely – life of the shepherds of years gone by.
Dan on the “trail”
We had lost the trail but had brought our hiking GPS with us. Dan had marked the car’s location so we meandered our way towards one of the ruins and what the GPS said would be the general direction of the Lemon. The mud was loose and slippery, so our footing was chosen with care. No so much the sheep that we startled as they finally noticed our approach, and they bounded expertly through the bogs and hummocks and only stopped when they felt that we were no longer a threat. These were not the docile farm animals I’d grown used to in Switzerland.
Sheep and what passed for the trail
Looking back up the valley
We were now on a tree-lined track and unintentionally herding a dozen sheep before us. They refused to run off the track, and we had no other way to go. We walked along quietly in the mud, following the sheep, until we noticed a man walking towards us. He was the shepherd and wanted his sheep off the track and up the hill. He waved them off and they scattered up into the trees, his Border Collie doing its job of making sure that they went in the right direction. We stopped to watch them work. Their movement was slow and careful, and soon enough they were out of sight.
Following the sheep down the track
Herding sheep up the hill
We eventually made it back to the car. It had been a longer walk than I had anticipated but much more interesting than I expected as well. It was time to head for Balmoral Castle and see what the Royal Family was up to.
The roads across the Highlands were narrow, twisted and beautiful. The GPS took us down a little side road that led us closer to the village of Ballater than it did Balmor, but we took a quick right and after a few kilometers we found the parking lot for the castle. We parked the Lemon and went to the gazebo to see if we could buy tickets just to see the grounds. We didn’t have much interest in seeing inside the castle itself, but I discovered on this trip that Dan has a great affinity for formal gardens and we figured we’d check out where the Royal Family hangs out. I went in and asked about the tickets but there were no other options than the single price ticket for everything. Dan and I were torn: we were here, but did we really want to spend the money on something (the castle) that we didn’t really care much about? We decided no, we didn’t. Instead we’d get lunch back in Ballater.
We parked off the main street and enjoyed the walk along side streets, meandering our way around to make sure that we chose the best food option. Oddly enough, we found very few food options to pick from and finally settled on the Deeside Inn, a fancy-looking inn/restaurant just off the main park square. We took a seat and when the waitress finally noticed us (it was dead quiet in the restaurant with only one other couple having drinks at a window table) she informed us that there was no menu but a choice of the soup of the day and one of three different sandwiches.
The Desidee Inn in Ballater
View from the restaurant
The sandwiches were good and the soup even better, but it wasn’t a place that I’d recommend very highly. Perhaps the full menu is more satisfying. While we sat there in the silent restaurant I did observe a few people checking out, so apparently they do get some business.
Ballater, like most Scottish villages/towns I’d seen so far on this trip, lacked color. It seemed that all of the building in Scotland were made out of the same grayish brown stone, with gray sidewalks and gray streets. Trees might be found in a central square but the main street was usually devoid of anything remotely plantlike. I found it stark and uninviting – and in that way, also very interesting.
A colorful house in Ballater
During lunch Dan and I discussed Balmoral Castle. We decided that it was stupid to come all of this way and not go. So we drove back to the car park, bought our ticket and walked up the short drive to the Royal Grounds. It turns out that the we couldn’t even get into the castle itself. There was only one room open to the public (the Ballroom) and the rest of the ticket gave access to, you guessed it: the gardens. The woman at the ticket desk must have thought I was looney for asking for a “garden only” ticket!
We walked around the outside of the castle and then did a jumbled up tour of the gardens, not quite following the audio tour, but still managing to figure things out.
Front of Balmoral Castle
We went off the map and found some forest trails
Scotland is full of rhododendrons – and we just missed the peak season!
Another (better?) view of the castle
The gardens are used to supply some fresh vegetables for the family as well as twice-weekly fresh flower bouquets for the castle and church. We seemed to be between prime flowering times, as the amount of color in the gardens wasn’t as spectacular as I would have expected. The greenhouse was an exception and was a crayon box full of color.
We had seen the gardens and the one room of the castle and we were done. We returned to the car to head and because of the shortage of roads through the Highlands, we retraced our steps back to Aviemore. It hadn’t been a thrilling day, but it was interesting none-the-less.