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More Scotland, please

Chip Ellis
A collection of postcards shows the beauty and wildness of northwest Scotland. Clockwise from top are postcards of Fingal's Cave on the Island of Staffa; the doors to the Glasgow School of Art; the boat Iolaire of Iona; inside Fingal's Cave; the port of Oban; and, in the center, the falls of River Clyde at New Lanark.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As my husband and I planned our trip to Scotland, everyone we talked to would say, "I have always wanted to go to Scotland."

We had too. The fact that the Scots will vote next year whether to leave the United Kingdom added a timely quality to our decision to go this year. Later in London, we also sat in on a session of Parliament. The question of whether the Scots will stay in the kingdom added weight to all of the discussions we heard. Each time anything even remotely connected to Scotland was mentioned, politicians seemed to stretch as much as possible to accommodate the Scots.

Many people want to visit Scotland for its castles, its heritage, its tartans. But the main reason I wanted to visit was to see and to touch Fingal's Cave.

While others would say they wanted to visit Scotland, I never encountered anyone who shared my interest in Fingal's Cave. Now, though, I think the Fingal's Cave Chamber of Commerce will be sending me a little something extra in the Royal Mail.

My interest began with pictures in National Geographic. You can check out those same pictures on the Web. Just type in "Fingal's Cave" and click on images. I thought it was one of the most amazing creations I had ever seen. I was not disappointed in person. In fact, it was even better.

Just looking at pictures, I could understand why people might consider it mythological or sacred. I have stood inside Chartres Cathedral in France and seen the sun pierce its cobalt blue colors, heard music from inside Canterbury Cathedral in England, and listened to human voices soar inside St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

It takes no stretch of imagination to think of God raising a cathedral from the sea on the island of Staffa. Basalt columns rise straight up from the water. Now uninhabited, Staffa belongs to the National Trust for Scotland. The top of the island is covered with velvety grasses and wildflowers. If angels inhabit cathedrals, winged creatures of all descriptions live on top of the island. Puffins abound.

Before I continue with descriptions of this wondrous place, I should write about how to get there. We knew we could not just go directly to an uninhabited island. So for months, we planned our approach.

We flew into London and hopped onto a train as soon as our passports were stamped. We investigated different methods of travel from London. We planned a three-week trip with one week dedicated to Scotland, a week in Amsterdam and our last week in London, so flying in and out of London worked for us.

We considered flying from London or breaking up the trip, but for our purposes a train worked best. I have always liked trains, and the train trip to Glasgow provided us with great views of the countryside. As we left London, we soon started traveling through countryside that climbed higher and higher on each side of the tracks.

I understand Edinburgh is a beautiful and elegant city, and we hope to visit there someday. But we needed to be on the western side of Scotland, in the Hebrides, to make it to Fingal's Cave.

We discovered that Glasgow is an amazing venue for music. Just a few blocks down from where we stayed, a marquee announced that Jimmy Cliff would be playing that night. I was too tired after a plane and train trip, but my "teenage" husband was ready. Cliff has always been one of his reggae heroes, and David thought his performance was great.

I did not know the incredible number of musical venues Glasgow offered until shortly before we arrived. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated Glasgow a UNESCO City of Music because it is home to more than 130 concerts a week.

I did know the city is home to the Glasgow School of Art and part of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's world.

Before we left home, we made reservations for the dormitory at the Glasgow School of Art. We have had great experiences staying in college dorms during our summer travels, and this one was absolutely amazing. The house is across the street from the art school and beautiful in its own right.

Having stayed in college dorms, we were used to tiny rooms and minimal amenities. But this was an elegant old house. Our bedroom was huge and had a mantel with white tiles.

By staying in college dorms, we save money, and the colleges are usually located in places that help us save on transportation costs. But this place, called the Old School House, was genuinely elegant.

I have always been a Mackintosh fan, and many years ago, art advocates moved one of his tearooms to Washington, D.C., as part of an exhibit. A woman who owned four tearooms in Scotland commissioned Mackintosh to design the rooms inside and out.

When we walked a few blocks over to dine in the Willow Tea Room in Glasgow, it was like walking into a picture book. The place was exactly like I had seen in those pictures, and the food was great.

From our dorm we were within easy walking distance of several great places to eat. One of my favorites was Bradford's Tea Room; the women who worked there were proud to tell me everything they sold was made by hand in the great Scottish tradition.

We enjoyed our tour of the Glasgow School of Art. A bright young art student showed us what an architectural marvel the building is.

Mackintosh also designed furniture, and the school has the world's largest collection of his furniture. Again, what a satisfying experience to see pieces I knew so well from art-book photographs.

We were lucky to be in Glasgow on a Saturday night. What fun to watch the young folks! Dressing up is the thing. Many of them enjoy dressing alike. We saw one group of thirtysomething women all dressed in versions of "Where's Waldo." I observed and enjoyed, but I cannot explain. We saw another large group dressed in Hawaiian outfits. Some dressed up like movie stars, even wearing elaborate evening gowns. Red shoes are very popular among the young and the restless.

Glasgow is definitely a town for the young, and it supports a thriving community of artists and musicians.

From Glasgow, we also took a day trip to the New Lanark Mills. In the 18th century, planners built a model village there with the mill powered by the water from the River Clyde. Along with a nature preserve, the area is a World Heritage Site. We hiked along a trail that gives great view of a series of waterfalls on the Clyde as we climbed.

We made it to the top, where some volunteers provided a peregrine falcon watching post. We felt triumphant that we could spot, through the telescope, the poor female. She was waiting for her mate to return, like all women for the men in their lives.

Later when my husband, David Hartung, wandered out on his own, he enjoyed a visit to the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, a place that combines science and art. The museum contains a World War II Spitfire airplane, as well as snakes and paintings.

He was taken with Edward Bourne-Jones' "Danae or the Tower of Brass," a beautiful example of pre-Raphaelite art. He also thought Salvador Dali's "Christ of St. John of the Cross" well deserved its own alcove in the museum.

He said this museum "is mandatory for kids and old farts."

Reluctantly we left Glasgow, but the islands were calling. Because Staffa is uninhabited, we chose to stay on the island of Iona, a place with its own rich history. Iona is probably where The Book of the Kells was begun.

We took a combination of buses and ferries. I was amazed at how smoothly and quickly each link in our travel chain knitted up. In fact, we were off our first boat before I got to enjoy it properly.

Our bus driver had amazing skills. He navigated the bus on a single-track road. The bus was usually the biggest vehicle on the road. Smaller vehicles had to back up and give way. The countryside was beautiful, with streams of water pouring off the mountains.

As we disembarked from our last and extremely short boat ride, we could see our hotel, The Argyll, coming into view. It is a pretty place with a great view of the water, the Sound of Iona. A glass-enclosed porch is part of the dining room, so you can look out onto the water during meals. The Argyll is tastefully decorated, and the food was great.

Several companies offer tours to Staffa, and most will promise you one hour on the island. Our captain and his first mate were both kind and knowledgeable. A fellow passenger from California was a birder, and he was thrilled to be able to check off some rare birds on his lifetime list after we landed on Staffa.

The great English writer Samuel Johnson and his Scottish acolyte James Boswell traveled to the same islands, and they wrote about it in "A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland & the Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides." I like to study up for any trip, and I enjoyed reading about their visit to Fingal's Cave by candlelight.

As soon as I set foot on Staffa, I knew one hour would not be enough. We walked immediately to the side that led to the cave. Our birder friends explored the top of the island.

Before leaving home, I had listened to Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides overture. He wrote this music after visiting Fingal's Cave in 1829. I know you can think of the waves making music. But what a thrill to hear those waves making their booming crash inside the cave. I sang inside the cave, too, just to hear the effect against the cave walls.

The sides of the cave were pink and black with splashes of a vibrant yellow in the ceiling. I could have stayed watching the colors and listening to the waves for more than an hour, but we wanted to see some of its top side too.

The island is covered in moss, grass and wildflowers, and it is home to many birds. We hiked around a bit -- we would have loved to have walked more, but our hour was waning.

At various points on the island, you can look out to see the velvet green of Staffa, the blue of the sky and the endless roll of the water.

To make a wonderful day even better, we saw a school of bottlenose dolphins on our return trip. They were having a great time and breached the water to show off. At one point, five breached at once.

I did not want to leave Staffa and Iona, but we came to another beautiful Scottish town, Oban. If we get to return to Scotland, I would like to stay longer in each place. We only spent one day and night in Oban, and its attractiveness deserves more time.

Oban is a port town, famous for its fishing. We enjoyed a beautiful day hiking up to McCaig's Tower. This gave us views of water and other islands in the distance as we gained height. Like West Virginia, the area is covered in beautiful rhododendron, and Oban has some elegant stone houses.

We stayed in a small bed and breakfast. The woman who opened her home to us shares the same name, MacFarland, as the street that runs down one side of the Charleston Newspapers building. When I told her that, she said, "So, you will remember me."

We know we want to return to Scotland. It offers islands of beauty, music at any hour of the day, and art that reverberates through the centuries. What more could one want? Simply more.

Williams is a retired Gazette-Mail reporter.


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