Monday, June 15, 2015

the people of Thornhill and the castle of Drumlanrig

It happened last night: I was finishing supper and I felt it -- something loose in my mouth. Chipped tooth, missing filling: right there for the world to see in the front uppers.

Needless to say, first thing on the agenda for my first full day in the middle of nowhere is to call a local dentist.

My hosts suggest a dental practice just two villages down -- a mere twenty minute drive.

And so after glancing out my window in what is now mid-morning...


...and after a wonderful breakfast of grapefruit in port, yogurt, cereals and fruit, and eggs with Scottish smoked salmon...


...and after admiring the sheep and especially the lambs, whose gentle plaintive cry I would hear occasionally at night...



...I head to Thornhill (population: 1500).


It is not a tourist destination, but a working town -- with the nearest to us chain grocer (Coop), post office (of sorts) and, of course, dental practice.


I take the one opening that's available -- with a young dentist who cannot be more than 25, though I know judging age is tricky. The coppery plates outside state her name as Evmorfia Stamatiou and announce that she received her degree in dentistry in 2012. In Greece. The second dentist in the practice is more senior: he has been there for a dozen years and he hails from Poland. It seems that Scottish dentists avoid being plunked down in the middle of nowhere. Poles and Greeks -- they follow the work.

I ask for a temp filling. Anyone can do a temp filling -- even a 25 year old. (I was amused that the receptionist inquired if I minded a woman!) She took great care, put in something that feels like it may last a few days and charged me 20 pounds. I am looking forward to going back to my guy back home and asking him how much he'd charge for putting in a temp for a stranger from, say, Scotland.

After, I walk the town, glancing over at the butcher,

(if you want to know how to make haggis, zoom in and read the poem)

...the baker,

(so... British, so very sugary)

...and too, at a cafe with a very fun sidekick of half artsy half playful stuff to sell.

(toys from France and a very British poster)

(a patron, by a wall of art)

...and at the post office (meaning a woman behind a desk at the grocer's -- an idea I might float to the beleaguered USPS) and grocery store.


The skies are mostly gray today. They say it wont get past 59F so I have my sweater and fleece. But now I do want to walk and I'm lucky -- Thornhill is just a couple of miles from Drumlanrig Castle. Yes, there's the castle to admire. But, too, there are superb gardens and outside the grounds -- pine trees and rhododendrons, bluebells and ferns grow savagely and beautifully, up steep hills that frame the castle grounds.


But let's start with the castle itself.


It's a seventeenth century building and it belongs to a Duke and Duchess and if you think it's a fine piece of architecture, know that it's not their only holding -- they are said to be the largest property owners in the UK. Their wealth is considerable.

Maybe you heard of them and the castle in the news a few years back? It was the scene of a major art theft: a dozen years ago, a Leonardo da Vinci painting was stolen from it. Who would steal a da Vinci? Apparently someone who knew the Duke was quite "attached" to it. Five years after the theft, the thieves appear to have contacted Glasgow lawyers to facilitate the return of it. For a small fee. The painting is worth some 50 million pounds. They wanted a mere fraction of that.

The Duke charged the lawyers with extortion, to no avail. It seems the lawyers were legit: they were there to facilitate a transaction. For a fee. The Duke then refused to pay them, even as the painting was returned. Last year, the court ruled that the Duke himself may be sued by the lawyers for nonpayment of fees.

It could only happen in the UK: the royal assumptions and presumptions, the wealth, the legal angle - it all sounds so properly British!

As I drive up to the entrance of the castle grounds, I see that the price for a castle visit is ten pounds (about $16 in today's strong dollars). The price for the grounds stands at six pounds. I hesitate, then say -- just grounds. The royals have probably hidden the good art!

But then I reconsider.
So if I pay ten pounds, I get both castle and grounds? 
Okay, throw in the castle then.
But unfortunately, it's closed now. Only open in the summer months. 
I smile at the timing of this information.

I walk the gardens.

(the formal part)

I have to repeat myself here -- the British, they do gardens and walking paths so well! No one comes close! The perennial borders (which I did not photograph here, because they were long and narrow) are abundant and exquisite. The hiking trails -- available everywhere for long and short distances, all perfectly marked and tended. This is a nation of flower loving bird watching walkers and that's not an overstatement!

But at the castle grounds, it is the woodland gardens tucked into the dense and beautiful forest that capture the imagination.


(not too late this year for bluebells!)


(the arch, by the artist Andy Goldsworthy)


The walk here is so beautiful that I want to do more. I reach for the map given to me by the ticket agent (well, I prodded her for one) and I study the hikes listed on it. One, the most challenging (by their standards), offers a panoramic view of the area. I'm ready for it.

I walk backwards on the trail and so I have a tough time of finding the signposts, but I manage, with only a few retraces.


And it is a beautiful and serene view.


Even though I am experiencing some rain drops on my hand. No matter. I am in a dense forest. The canopy above me is protective. The drops are gentle and after a while, they give up and move elsewhere.

(the Marr Burn river)

(the Druid Loch, reflecting so many dense trees that you cannot tell what's lake water and what's forest)

(the car that got me there)

Very late in the afternoon, driving back to Three Glens, I realize I have yet to visit the village associated with my place of stay (Moniaive). But I put it off yet again. I've walked long and hard. A cup of tea in the sun room -- now that sends chills up my spine!

Later, much later, I meet Neil (the farmer who owns Three Glens and who corresponded with me initially about my visit). He is here to mow the grass around the house.

We talk about his sheep -- I tell him I'm guessing he has several hundred. He grins: eight thousand right now. Three thousand mature sheep, and then their lambs, and then last year's lambs that are not yet reproducing but are no longer lambs.
And why the line up this morning? (See first photo, where the sheep are separated from their babes.)
The shepherd was treating the lambs for worms. Preventively. They get it from the grass and aren't mature enough to deal with them. Next week we'll be sheering. I've been doing that for thirty years. That's why the gray hairs!
I am so sorry to be missing it!

Supper: mixed veggies with sausage, followed by a curry beef (from Neil's meat stock, of course), then local ice cream and whipped cream for dessert.


(with rhubarb)

In my room, I see that a mist has taken hold in the hills. Rain maybe? The week is to be a mixed bag of weather patterns. Not warm, but not cold either. I'm slowly easing myself into a routine and a Scottish mindset. I can never fully embrace it  --  it's always interrupted by a return home -- but I get closer. The more people you meet, listen to, or just see at arm's length, the closer you get.

Outside, the sheep find places in the pasture to settle in for the night. A very young lamb cavorts around her mom. Again, she completely reminds me of Snowdrop! Uncanny!

I listen to the occasional meh-eh-eh-eh. It grows quiet outside, but never for more than a few minutes. The lambs voices are like the sounds of a calm sea: one wave, then another, then none at all, and then one more.

When you're here, passing through, you begin to understand all that Scottish pride that many thought was at stake in last year's vote for independence. In the end, they did not emerge a separate nation. Perhaps because they knew that in many ways, they already were out there on their own.