By Laura Purdie Salas
RISMEDIA, June 20, 2008-(MCT)-Blame “Scooby Doo.” That show made haunted castles look like so much fun. I knew from the website that Glengorm Castle, a 19th-century manor on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, was not dark, spooky or dangerous. But I secretly hoped it would be. So you can understand my disappointment when I saw firsthand how lovely the place is.
Then hope returned when I learned its history: The castle was built by James Forsyth in 1863. He evicted all the tenants on the estate and burned down their cottages. The thatch roofs created a blue smoke, and the picturesque name Glengorm (blue glen) was born. One of the evicted tenants cursed Forsyth, vowing he would never sleep a night in the castle. He didn’t: Forsyth died in a riding accident before the castle was completed.
Excellent! A curse before the castle was even complete! The possibility of a ghost!
Turns out there are more baas than boos, more sheep than ghosts. There are no moats, drawbridges, nor arrow slits. Instead, there are black-faced sheep and Highland cattle. In fact, Glengorm is a family home. Tom and Marjorie Nelson own and run the 5,000-acre estate, which includes the castle, a sheep and cattle farm, self-catering cottages and a small cafe. The Nelsons live in the castle with their kids, and there’s occasional evidence of family life, such as a recent birthday party for a cheery pile of rambunctious kids.
Needless to say, I got over my disappointment quickly as I fell under Glengorm’s spell.
My husband and I stayed in the castle’s Laorin room, a sunny cream and yellow room with fantastic ocean views. The bathroom the size of a small bedroom gave our suite a somewhat royal air. And the fact that the round closet was part of a turret enhanced that feel.
Our three days at Glengorm passed quickly. Our first afternoon, we hiked on the grounds, marching through field after field of sheep and lambs (April and May is lambing season).
Mull is part of Scotland’s Western Highlands, and the ocean always looked to be “just over the next rise.” But like the end of the rainbow, the ocean proved unreachable. Eventually, we sat our weary selves down on some rocks and ate our gigantic sandwiches from the cafe, along with some fresh-baked shortbread (aka An Excellent Reason to Visit Scotland). The sun poured down. Sheep bleated and wind whipped around us. No cars. No cell phones. No people. No stress.
When we returned to the castle, we hung out in the sitting room for castle guests, playing Scrabble in front of the sunny window. A wide variety of whisky bottles-18 by my count-lined a mantel, available for guests to try. A couple of other guests were reading and enjoying a taste or two.
The next morning, after our “full Scottish” breakfast (eggs, mushrooms, tomato, bacon, and sausage), we drove around Mull looking for wildlife. First, we headed to Tobermory, the only city on the island. There, the woman in the Tourist Information Centre told us which kinds of Mull’s extensive wildlife lived where and mapped out a loop of the northern half of the island for us.
Off we went, hurtling along Mull’s narrow, one-track lanes (that’s one lane for both directions of vehicles). Along the loop, we made several stops. We climbed around a bit at Eas Fors (that’s the Gaelic word for waterfall followed by the Norse word for the same), a 100-foot waterfall surrounded by stunted, wind-twisted trees. We stopped to admire two ancient-looking fishing boats abandoned at the shoreline in Salen. Water and weather had taken their toll; their wooden hulls sported peeling paint, their iron bits were rusty, and the ropes were disintegrating.
We wanted to see something even more ancient, and decided to swing by the small town of Dervaig to see its standing stones (think mini-Stonehenge). We had a travel brochure with the vaguest of directions, but we assumed it would be clearly marked. After driving back and forth through town numerous times, we gave up. We couldn’t find the parking lot the brochure mentioned. We figured the residents were thinking, “Didn’t we just see that car? Four times?” We finally drove off, disgruntled at our lack of success.
A couple of miles out of town, I saw a landmark sign and hollered, “Turn in, turn in!” A dirt parking area had a small sign pointing toward the forest. We followed the wet, squishy trail into a forest of pine and fir trees covered with moss and lichen. It was like a green velvet orchard.
Ahead, sunlight filtered into a small clearing containing the stones. They are thought to be around 3,500 years old, and, like standing stones all over the world, have no proven or written history or explanation. But there was something very cool about these two remaining stones, each sticking up out of the ground about 7 ½ feet. We stood in the quiet, pondering who arranged these stones, and why. And when the three remaining stones fell, and why. Simple gravity? A helping hand? Who knows, but we didn’t stand very close to the standing stones for very long, in case gravity decided to thrust into high gear as we stood there.
Farther along our circular route, we had a nice lunch at the Calgary Hotel. While there, we browsed the small art gallery and saw those Salen fishing boats immortalized several times over and realized they’re something of a landmark. The Calgary was the only spot on our route outside of Tobermory offering food. Luckily, the food was tasty.
We were less lucky in viewing wildlife. On that gray, rainy day, Mull’s wildlife was notable only in its absence. We did see some common seals off the coast. At a distance. They looked like discarded innertubes. Still, it was a terrific way to spend a few hours and get to know the island.
On our third day, we were determined to hike down to the beckoning ocean. Given Day Two’s weather, we decided to get up early and hike if it wasn’t raining. We did, it wasn’t, and down to the ocean we went. We followed a short (it took about half an hour), muddy path down to Flat Rock, where we scrambled around the basaltic formations that reminded us of Minnesota’s North Shore along Lake Superior. Along the way, we admired tiny wildflowers and the vast North Atlantic.
I most enjoyed hiking around the grounds. On the estate, you can find sheep aplenty, shaggy Highland cattle, stone fences, standing stones and gorgeous views. But walking around the castle, inside and out, was cool, too. The architecture, the turrets, the dark woods, the dining room table older than the castle itself. These things were constant reminders that we were someplace special.
So I decided that gorgeous, comfortable castles are not so bad. Giant bathtubs and comfortable beds and scenic views, do, after all, have their advantages. And if my rather morbid tendencies made me wish for something a little more haunted, well, apparently I’m the only one.
I flipped through the guest comment book before we left, and not one other person had expressed a desire for unexplained nighttime noises. So I kept my mouth shut. Maybe someone else will be lucky enough to discover headless knights or wailing ghosts here. I made peace with the idea of simply enjoying a luxurious castle suite in the harsh Western Highlands.
10 Tips for Visiting the Isle of Mull
1. First, stay a night in Oban, the city on mainland Scotland with a ferry to Mull. Oban is chock-full of B&Bs, and you can get an early start to enjoy a full first day on the island. Oban is a two-hour drive (or train ride) from Glasgow.
2. Having a GPS in the rental car is a wonderful thing, but it won’t be of much use on Mull, since many of the island’s addresses aren’t in the databases. Get directions and a printed map before you drive anywhere.
3. Watch out for sheep in the road. Seriously.
4. Drive carefully. Most of the roads are one-lane, with Passing Places for one car to pull over when two cars meet. You’ll get the hang of it, but don’t be offended when the locals go zipping by you.
5. Use the tourist information center in Tobermory. It’s a great repository of maps, books and helpful people.
6. If you want to go online, the Posh Nosh cafe in Tobermory has two computers available for 1 pound per 15 minutes.
7. Want to see some wildlife? Take a tour. I wish we had. Otters, sea eagles, seals, dolphins and whales are just a few of the animals living on or around Mull. But you’ll probably need an expert to help you find them.
8. Dress for mud and wind. It rains a lot there, and the earth is wet and mucky year-round. Hiking shoes, a windbreaker and a scarf are all essential.
9. Be flexible. Plan both indoor and outdoor activities, and work with the weather. When it’s sunny, get outside to explore. Save whisky sipping and pub crawling for rainy days or nights.
10. To find a castle, visit www.scotland-inverness.co.uk/Chatelaine/accomm.htm. This page has links to castles that operate as hotels or bed and breakfasts.
© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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