Renewing Our Vows in Scotland – Part 1: The Highlands

Debbie and I renew our vows every five years somewhere new. For our 20th anniversary, we did something very off-path. We travelled to the far north of Scotland to one of the oldest stone circles in the world. We renewed our vows in a pagan handfasting ceremony. At twilight. On the equinox. It was a truly magical event. Here’s our story in three parts.

It’s been awhile, yes. Not that the summer hasn’t had its share of off-path adventures, including teaching in Costa Rica and buying a new house – well more accurately, a fixer – in Fall City. And the house has indeed been greedily consuming every spare moment of time it seems. Nevertheless, shortly after we moved in, Deb and I headed off to the Scottish Highlands.

Deb had spent several months planning this amazing trip, which included a number of adventures including our vow renewal – or as one of our friends mistyped, our “vowel renewal.” The name “Cargile” is Scottish and so I thought it appropriate to get remarried in the full traditional Scottish kilt kit. I could not find a kilt in the Cargile tartan of “Clergy” so I settled for the more common “Black Watch”, though I was fortunate to find a handfasting cloth in the Clergy tartan.

Suitably prepared, we headed off with our Tortuga backpacks of course. We only use those for travel now and surprisingly my kilt and all of its accessories, along with the rest of my clothes, fit. Deb’s gown also fit along with all of her things.

Our first day involved a lot of flying and a long train ride from Edinburgh to Inverness. There, we rented a car for our trek through the Highlands. We knew we’d have to drive British-style and joked that it would be more challenging if we got one that was “stick.” We did! It actually was not difficult at all to master British-style driving (including driving stick with the stick on the left).

Debbie Drives UK

Deb’s First Drive

The Bonnie Highlands

Over the next several days, we took a long tour through the Scottish Highlands. What a beautiful country. I could describe just how beautiful it was, but I’ll leave that to the photos. There are a lot more at the end.

Scottish Highlands

Looking West near Unapool

Scottish Highlands

Some Locals in Lochinver

We spent our second night at the Kylesku Hotel, the Scottish Hotel of the Year, in the northwest of Scotland. Sonia and Tonja, our innkeepers, welcomed us like family. It was right on the loch (lake) and we had amazing fish that literally came off the boat. The dock was right next to the hotel.

One of our first fun adventures was an unexpected rescue. As we hiked around the hotel, we came to an overlook on the loch. Deb spotted an odd sight – a slowly undulating white arm touching some plants by the edge of the shore. We went to investigate and found that a fairly large (compared to what we’ve usually seen diving) octopus was stranded in a shallow hole surrounded by plants. This loch is attached to the sea and the tide had gone out. The poor thing was listless and was feebly moving its arms. I went down and had to pry its sticky arms from some plants and then lift it up. It was about two feet long and was much heavier than I would have expected. I was able to toss it into the water. Then the most amazing thing happened.

The octopus, which I thought was nearly dead, sprang to life in the water and zipped around in a circle in front of me and then jumped out of the water and back in before swimming away. Its “happy dance” touched me. It felt like it was saying “thank you.” I never knew octopi could, or would, breach. I just wish I could have gotten a picture. It was a pretty amazing creature.

The next day we had a gorgeous hike through the Scottish Highlands near Lochinver. We started off in a forest by a river and then ventured out into the hills. We were the only ones around and felt that we had the entire world to ourselves. The heather was rich in the hills and the views were spectacular.

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Staples – Heather, Rocks and Mountains

Scottish Highlands

My Love in the Heather

The Highland Games

From Lochinver, we travelled east to Invershin where we stayed at the Invershin Hotel. We had a fantastic time there and met new friends from Canada and Germany along with our wonderful innkeepers, Cheryl and Angus. We chose Invershin because we were attending the Highland Games.

The games were the finals for the year in Scotland so we got to see the best of the best. It was one of those moments that really distinguishes an experience in a country – like watching an Arsenal vs. Manchester United game in a British pub in London, or dancing in a jammed samba club in the middle of Rio de Janeiro until 2am.

The games have been going on for 2000 years and all events take place on a grass field, including the track and cycling events. But those were pretty ordinary compared to the “heavies” competition. They threw stones and hammers in a variety of ways and also did the caber toss. Essentially, they pick up a large tree, run and then flip it so that, ideally, it does one half rotation and lands straight in the opposite direction.

Highland Games

The Caber Toss

Highland Games

And a Flying Kilt

Yes, kilts were flying. But these athletes did not wear their kilts the “traditional” way; they had compression shorts underneath. The bagpipers, not so much, as one of our Canadian friends learned!

The games also had a dance competition, a bagpipe competition, and a parade with full pipe and drum corps.

Highland Games

The Sword Dance

Highland Games

The Pipe and Drum Corps

And of course, what games are not complete without Tug of War? This was serious. They were (highly) competitive teams. The matches would take 10-20 minutes with lots of grunting and an occasional plumber’s butt.

Highland Games

“Cracking” Under Pressure

Before we left, we visited the Invershin castle. It has a sad story like many Scottish castles as we learned. After many generations, the last heir of the castle willed it to a hostel group with a stipulation that the castle be preserved as a hostel. That hostel group had it for several years and ran it into the ground. In need of repairs, first they sold off all of the 57 acres of land and then all of the paintings and sculptures inside. Even after netting several million pounds, surprisingly, they seemed unable to spend the 500K pounds to keep the castle maintained. The locals led a valiant battle to save it. It was offered up for free if you could demonstrate that you had the necessary cash to fix it up and keep it in its original condition. A group of investors bought it and is now trying to turn it into a 5 star hotel. Sadly, it’s not a unique story in Scotland.

Invershin Castle

The Gates of Invershin Castle

Dunrobin Castle

After Invershin, we had a free day and decided to visit the beach town of Dornach, located on the east coast off the North Sea. The gem there was Dunrobin Castle. There were countless paintings of Earls of Sutherland (12 I think) and their kin. But the highlight was the castle and grounds itself. The castle was “Disneyesque” (in a good way) and the grounds were spectacular.

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle from the Grounds

dunrobin castle grounds small

And the Spectacular Castle Grounds

From Dornach, we drove back to Inverness to catch a plane to the Orkneys and our big day. While in Inverness though, we found a shop and looked up the Cargile crest. It was a pretty funny experience. With our genealogy historian there, we found the proper crest for the name “Cargile”, spelled as we spell it. The crest was ermine with a red “X” across the front and a martlet over the top. Interesting? Well, “Cargile” was originally a youngest son. The “X” means that he had no title or holdings. The martlet, which had no feet, meant that he also had no land. Poor guy. So, there’s the story of Cargile clan.

cargile crest

The Cargile Crest

Fortunately, our adventure doesn’t end on the sad origins of us Cargiles. It doesn’t even end after our amazing vow renewal in an ancient, powerful place. But you’ll have to check back shortly for more. Pura Vida.

More Photos

Loch Druim Suardalain

Fisherman on Loch Druim Suardalain

Rock Wall

One of Many Ancient Stone Walls

DSC02127

More Pipers

DSC02171

A Shetland “Pony” in Invershin

Invershin Castle

Invershin Castle from the Trail

Invershin Castle House

The Caretaker’s House at Invershin Castle

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle Above the Grounds

Andy and Deb at Dunrobin Castle

At the Hedge “Gate” of the Grounds

Deb at Dunrobin Castle

Debbie Framed

Funny Deb

Having Fun in an Inverness Pub

Avila

The next stop on our new adventure was the historic walled city of Avila in northern Spain. The city has grown a bit beyond the original walled city which is around 1300 years old and is regarded as the finest walled city in all of Europe. It sports the famous nine gates wall comprising 87 towers. In our trip planning, Debbie discovered this intriguing city and so it easily became one of our stops.

The ride to Avila from Sevilla ended up being a bit of an “Amazing Race” adventure in itself. We started on the high-speed “AVE” train in Sevilla. It would take us to Madrid, where we would take a “short train” from the long distance arrival train station (Atocha) to another train station called Chamartin to catch our medium range train to Avila.

Arriving in Madrid, we had 45 minutes to get to our Avila train. It was the only train out to Avila with seats available. We were told it was plenty of time and that the ride to the Charmatin station was free. This might have been true if we actually knew the train station.

After we exited the train, we made the mistake of going into the main terminal area, which then made us have to buy tickets again to get to Chamartin station. That would not have been too bad, but signage was unclear about whether we could take the metro or a local train (it was actually both). I made a guess and got us 4 local train tickets.

Once on the local train we had another bit of a panic as to where to get off; there were 4 stops with “Chamartin” signage. We got help from a local and found the stop, no problem. We exited in Chamartin station and had about 10 minutes still left to get our train. We found it after a bit of searching on one of the various train boards but there was no platform marked.

The Madrid train station is pretty long and has 18 platforms (like gates in an airport). We came up in the middle. The board had our train number and “REG EXPRESS” next to it, but no platform identified even after a few minutes. We thought perhaps that “REG EXPRESS” meant that it left on a specific platform. I saw destinations lit up above each platform entrance and so I started running down the north end of the platform reading each one, hoping that one would be ours. We had about 6 minutes until our train left. Deb and the young adults followed closely enough in case I found it but not too far so they didn’t have to run to the end.

The north end was a bust so I ran to the south end. It would have been a lot more fun except that we are all wearing our Tortuga backpacks (thank goodness for those). Mine weight about 30 pounds and when I ran I didn’t exactly have a narrow profile. I got to be the blocker though for the others 🙂

The south end was no better and when I saw that our gate was not down there and that we had one minute until our train left, I expected that we’d be left behind.

Deb looked at the big board one more time and saw that our platform number had been posted! Of course, it was number 13. We all sprinted to the platform entrance, down the walkway and into the train just before it took off. While it was super stressful, it was a great, and successful, “Amazing Race” moment. Without the stress, I don’t think you get the excitement. But, we would probably have just settled for boring when it comes to catching the last train in a foreign country with two young adults in tow.

We arrived in Avila without any problems and it was a short walk to our hotel. Deb and I let Aidan and Nev relax while we scoped out the town and a place for dinner. We took a long walk all the way to the walled city part of Avila, next to the Church of San Vicente.

Avila - Church of San Vicente

Avila – Church of San Vicente

Church of San Vicente

We found what we thought was a good restaurant next to a helado (gelato) shop and went back for the young adults. On the way back to the restaurant we had chosen, we happened upon what we thought would be a better restaurant choice. We were really hoping for some great food after our experiences in Sevilla and we were not disappointed.

Avila is out in the country and there is evidently a lot of farm-raised beef. We had some of the largest and best steaks we’ve ever had (and that’s saying a lot since Deb is from Kansas). We all had great meals and our bad luck food streak was over.

The next day we went out to see the amazing walled city of Avila.

avila walled city

avila walled city

Avila Flying Buttresses

Avila Flying Buttresses

Model of Avila

Model of Avila

Avila

We started with a walking audio tour of the ramparts (the ledge up on the wall). It was a pretty interesting setup for an audio tour. As we walked by different areas, we would hear details about those areas specifically.

Walking the walls was not only fun but really gave us insight into defending a castle or walled city. This walled city was interesting in that about every forty yards or so there was a tower which jutted out from the wall.

Avila Front Gate

Avila Front Gate

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Towers

These created more “surface area” for defense and gave defenders the ability to protect the wall better. The walls were all rock, about three feet thick. Despite a few areas where the wall had been repaired over the centuries, it looked like it wasn’t going anywhere.

The wall is named the “nine gates wall” because there are nine gates or portals around its circumference. Some are very small and a few are pretty large – car or carriage size. Two of the larger ones were on the sides and one of the smallest was at the very back end of the walled city.

The patron saint of Avila is Saint Teresa of Jesus. Santa Teresa founded the Carmelite order of nuns – a very secluded order of nuns. I had actually visited a Carmelite convent when I was in Catholic high school – at least I visited the door to the convent.

After the wall tour, we explored the interior of the walled city. They tried to keep the original layout and architecture as much as possible while allowing for modern conveniences like cars.

As you’d expect, the streets were very narrow and so all roads were one-way. It must be a nightmare maze for cars (good!). The streets were all cobblestone and many of the buildings were the original stone.

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

The Streets of Avila

Inside the walls there is of course a great church. We didn’t get an explanation of why this church wasn’t Santa Teresa’s church. It was gothic and was a really interesting shade of uniform gray rock. There was a large basilica on one side, flying buttresses, and a spires. The gargoyles seemed pretty worn but it had wonderful lion statues surrounding the church.

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral and Lion

Avila Cathedral and Lion

Avila Cathedral

After a day of touring the inside, we walked back to our hotel. It was a great walk as we got to walk along the walls of the city. There was a green area between the walkway and the walls and you could almost get a sense of what this walled city looked like hundreds of years ago.

There were many rocky areas near the walls, which Aidan enjoyed climbing. We had a lot of fun in the late afternoon sun sitting on the rocks, taking pictures, and just enjoying the environment.

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Deb and Nev

Deb and Nev

The Walls of Avila

That night we walked back to Avila and found another wonderful restaurant. The steak was fantastic once again and so was the duck. They had twenty entries under “sherry” and Deb and I enjoyed a fine sherry from the region for dessert. Nev and Aidan had to suffice with lava cake.

We left Avila the next morning. It was a short, but wonderful trip. Evidently, though, we switched our “bad food luck” for “bad train luck.” Our exit wasn’t nearly as exciting as our entry, but we had some stressful moments.

Our (original) train was to leave at 10:05 and take us to Madrid, Chamartin, where we had so much trouble before, and then catch a short connection to Madrid, Atocha for our next leg to Barcelona.

We arrived at 9 and Deb found an earlier train that could take us directly to Atocha without the confusing inter-city transfer, so we gladly hopped it. At 10:05, it stopped at one of its stops in El Escorial. It seemed like many other stops, although we noticed a number of people getting off. Then, they turned the train off.

The people who got off took another train. We were there alone. Based on what Deb heard, this train went all the way to Atocha. Well, we learned it did not. We had to catch another train to get there.

We were stuck in El Escorial at 10:20. We had to catch our train to Barcelona at 1:10pm and then our train from Barcelona to Avignon, France at 5:30. There wasn’t much time between the trains. So our “Amazing Race” stress started up again, but this time we couldn’t run or do anything. Frankly, I’d take running versus sitting any day of the week. At least you feel like you are doing something.

Everything worked out though. There was another train coming in an hour at 11:15 and it would get us to Atocha by 12:25 – plenty of time to catch our high-speed train at 1:10pm. The little snafu didn’t hinder us – as I write from our high-speed Ave train comfortable cruising to Barcelona at nearly 300 kilometers per hour – but it did tell us to be wary of trains near Avila in the future.

Traveling by train is at once more comfortable and more hectic than traveling by air. We hadn’t traveled by train in Europe much before and so hadn’t really appreciated this. Booking trains can be confusing. Transferring between trains can be stressful. Sitting in the comfort of a high speed train is indeed a wonderful experience.

The AVE trains, at least in Spain, have these most amazing bocadillos (sandwiches) with serrano ham and manchego cheese on a grilled baguette. Pure heaven. These have become a highlight of our travel. In fact, we now call the high-speed AVE trains the “sandwich trains.” We all were looking forward to the sandwich trains from Madrid to Barcelona and then from Barcelona to Avignon.

I think we have the rail system down now. The young adults now have a feel for what travelling by rail should be like (unlike rail in the Pacific Northwest). We’re not sure what “curve ball” we might find in the next stop, France, but we are ready for it. We are looking forward to more great adventures, interesting discussions with Nev and Aidan, and amazing places to see. Stay tuned. Pura vida.

PS: More pictures!

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Avila Cathedral Tower

Avila Cathedral Tower

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Avila

Avila