More Scotland Highlights

(Thank you to Deb for sharing the post below.)

Sweet pea flowers are the queen’s favorite. They had some bunches for sale at her gardens at Balmoral Castle, but I thought they looked a little weary from the heat.

 


Jeri offered me a sip of her whiskey that made me choke, and tears flowed because it was so strong. I forgot I should sip slowly and not gulp. Did taste mighty fine however.

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Below are some more photos from Deb.

 

Linda shared the photo below. She thinks this would be the perfect Scottish Bella Voce uniform!

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Jenny with her Bella Voce polo and authentic Scottish kilt

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Adventures in Argyle (and other stories)

Editor’s note: The next few posts will be from various Bella Voce members sharing their own stories from the trip. This post is written by Ellen.

We were warned about the “midgies.” They’re little bugs, somewhat similar to the no-see-ums we so much treasure here in Vermont. The photo on the left, from outside the Atholl Palace Hotel, shows Cathy and Donna-Sue shielding themselves from the little critters.

In the right photo, Heather posed in some heather to highlight her Scottish heritage.

After our shared concert with the Inverness Gaelic Choir, they hosted a lovely and friendly party. We ate, drank, and chatted, and they gave us little gifts of either whiskey or fudge. A special treat – five of their guys sang for everyone, with some tongue-twisting songs. We were wowed! Next season will be their 30th. They will come across the pond to sing in Nova Scotia. A few of us planted a seed – come sing with us here in Vermont! (Heck, after crossing the ocean, won’t we be relatively close?)

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Now, about the argyle socks…

Maybe it was Vikki’s idea. Let’s all wear argyle socks for the third (of three) concerts. Linda and Dawn bought them for all of us. The night before the concert, as some of us sat outside enjoying after-dinner drinks, the socks magically appeared on our hands, singing! (Does anyone remember Lamb Chop?) Dawn appeared, and we serenaded her. She absolutely howled laughing! Before leaving for the concert late the next afternoon, Deb and Dawn showed theirs, while sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby. Jeri and Laura posed outside, showing some leg or ankle – scandalous! After the concert, at our tour farewell dinner, Colleen and Jenny sang for us, socks on hands.

(Click to enlarge photos.)

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June 29-30: Inveraray and Home

Our last full day was a perfect compromise between relaxing and celebratory. After a blessedly late morning, we all met outside our hotel to commence the walk to Inveraray Castle. Alex showed us a shortcut through town that brought us to the castle in about 20 minutes. Of course, we enjoyed another beautiful day as we passed through the quaint streets of Inveraray. The castle was quite a sight! Many of us compared it to a typical “princess castle” that you might see in a little girl’s bedroom. It was what childhood dreams are made of!

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The surprising thing about Inveraray Castle is that actual normal people live there! The Duke of Argyll and his family live there, and the castle displayed many photos of the family doing normal family things, just coincidentally in their castle home. Not a bad gig. The castle has seen an increase of tourism since it was featured in Downton Abbey in 2012. The DA fans in the group were giddy with excitement to see stills from the show featured around the castle.

We toured the rooms of the castle, which were absolutely stunning and full of surprises. The main room was called the Armory, which artfully displayed more weapons than you could count. We saw the magnificent Dining Room and the enormous Kitchen in the basement. We also learned that the Duke is a champ at elephant polo, which is exactly what it sounds like.

After the visit to Inveraray Castle and its beautiful gardens, we were free for the rest of the afternoon. Most of us chose to peruse the cute shops in the town and look for some final souvenirs. The remainder of the day was a combination of napping, drinking, and swimming (most in the pool, but some even braved the Loch!) The drinking may have led to a sock puppet performance of some of our repertoire… More on that later 😉

At 6 pm we walked through town to head to All Saints Church for our rehearsal, this time wearing our concert attire and getting a few looks. The church is a tiny, old stone building that is very bare bones. Luckily, the stone kept the place rather cool, although it didn’t keep the midgies out! The real draw to the church is the giant bell tower next door, which contains one of the largest peals of bells in the world.

We weren’t sure how many people to expect at our concert that evening, but we ended up attracting a mix of locals and tourists (some of whom we met at the hotel). Since it was our last concert, we had a little fun to celebrate. Vikki had the ingenious idea for us all to wear argyle socks (partly in honor of the aforementioned Duke of Argyll). We took many, many photos of us displaying our socks, and we all had a laugh about it during the concert. Frank was the star of the show for using a rented electric piano that was being a bit temperamental. Yet again, folks came up to us to say how we made them cry, especially during Auld Lang Syne. That one’s a tear-jerker!

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After the concert, we headed back to the hotel for our farewell dinner. Dawn presented thank-you gifts to the incredible folks who made this tour happen: Deb and Alex. And Dawn unexpectedly received a gift of her own from the choir. It was a heartfelt evening as we all wrapped up to prepare for the long trip home the next day.

On Saturday, we all woke up bright and early to eat breakfast and head on the bus to Glasgow for our flights home. Despite delays and lost baggage, we all made it to Vermont safely.

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June 28: Loch Ness and Inveraray

The monster hunt has begun! We checked out of Inverness to drive to catch a ferry on Loch Ness. The lake is long and narrow with mountains on either side, much like our own Lake Champlain.  The dark, deep lake makes for the perfect environment to breed mysterious rumors of what lies beneath the surface. We learned that legends of a monster in the lake have been told since the 6th century. It was only in the 1930s that the story exploded with alleged sightings every few years. We kept our eyes peeled during our ferry ride for any sign of Nessie, but she didn’t make an appearance. Or maybe we just weren’t looking in the right place!

Our ferry docked at Urquhart Castle, a ruined fortress that once defended the people living by the loch. The vast stone structure had been an important stronghold, but it was also subject to many raids. The clan that held it last decided that they were sick of getting attacked, so they left the castle. For good measure, they lit a fuse and blew up the place. They must’ve thought something like, “If we can’t have it, nobody can!”

(Right: Linda and Dawn waving from the Urquhart Castle tower)

At this point in the day, it was getting quite hot — unseasonably warm for Scotland, as everyone keeps reminding us. We were glad to return to the bus to head to our next stop: Neptune’s Staircase. The Staircase is a series of locks on the Caledonian Canal in Fort William. It was a bit funny looking at the locks after looking at the lochs. (Hint: Clear your throat a little bit when saying the “ch” in “lochs.”)

During the remainder of our drive, we saw views of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK. We also stopped at Glen Coe and learned about its tragic history. On the bright side, it was the site of many films (Harry Potter, James Bond, Monty Python & the Holy Grail, and more). We also saw spectacular views of the Three Sisters, a set of three mountains. The three sisters on our tour just had to take a photo in front of the Three Sisters!

 

One bit of excitement today was when a couple from Arizona recognized us by the ferry. They had listened to us perform all the way back in Edinburgh and even bought a CD!

In the evening, we settled into our hotel in Inveraray, a quaint little town by Loch Fyne. Tomorrow we will sing at the local church and celebrate our last day together.

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June 27: Inverness and the Highlands

Today we took a day excursion driving through the Scottish Highlands. Our tour guide indulged the Outlander fanatics aboard and took us to a location used in the TV series, Beauly Priory. The priory is a tumbledown monastery in a cemetery that is shown in the second season of Outlander. It was almost as exciting as meeting a real-life Jamie Fraser.

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Our tour guide, Alex, provided us with some helpful context for some of the events mentioned in the Outlander series. He gave us a little history lesson about the Jacobite rebellions and the Highland Clearances which purged the country of Scottish traditions for many years. Only since the 1850s have traditional Scottish elements (bagpipes, tartan, etc.) been accepted back into culture.

Our next stop was the Glen Ord Whisky Distillery. The tour guides showed us the various machinery and tools used in the process of making whiskey (spelled “whisky” here). Fortunately the tour ended with a whiskey tasting, which may explain what happened next… The tour guides asked us to sing to them, so of course we obliged! We sang “Shenandoah” right there in the gift shop surrounded by bottles of whiskey. One of the guides called it the “best work day ever” and sent us a video of our performance. (Stay tuned for a link.)

We made several stops throughout the drive to photograph the beautiful scenery. We saw a perfect U-shaped valley, a lookout with views of the Atlantic and the Summer Isles, and a deep gorge with a waterfall. We stopped at a beach to dip our toes into the other side of the Atlantic and waved to our loved ones across the pond. The ocean was surprisingly warm — warmer than Lake Champlain!

Our last stop of the day was at the Inverewe Gardens. Most of us were rather sleepy at this point, so it was the perfect place to have a relaxing stroll through plants and flowers from around the world.

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After the gardens, we returned to Inverness for another night. It’s off to Inveraray tomorrow. We’d be remiss to skip the most exciting part of the day: four members of our party got stuck in the rickety, tiny old elevator at our hotel. Fortunately they are still with us, but it was a close one. Mishaps seem to be following us!

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June 26: En Route to Inverness

Today was all about Gerry, our bus driver. We already knew he had skills since we saw him navigate the busy streets of Edinburgh, but this was a whole different ball game. Gerry expertly drove our giant coach bus up and down tiny country roads, avoiding cyclists, logging trucks, and other tour buses. In one of the more dramatic moments of the day, we all disembarked so Gerry could drive our 15-ton bus across an ancient one-lane bridge. Then, of course, we all had to immediately get back on the bus while it was blocking traffic from both sides. But no one honked! Scots are so nice.

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During the drive out of Pitlochry, we saw the landscape change dramatically. Our tour guide, Alex, pointed out how the tree line ends and suddenly only scrubby vegetation can be found covering the mountains as we headed further into the Highlands. Despite the seemingly inhospitable lands, we saw endless amounts of sheep perched precariously on the rocky mountainsides.

We stopped at the picturesque little town of Braemar in the glen, or valley, of the mountains. This is just one of many towns we would see where almost every house and building is made of stone.

Around lunchtime, we stopped at Balmoral Castle, the summer home of the royal family. Yet again we had miraculous weather which made for the perfect day to explore the grounds and gardens of the castle. During a tranquil walk on pathways that crisscross ponds, trees, and other vegetation, it is easy to see why the royal family would choose this location as their serene escape.

 

We arrived at Inverness with just enough time to eat dinner and head to the cathedral for our rehearsal. We were so excited when the singers from the Inverness Gaelic Choir arrived for our joint concert. The mixed choir sings a wide range of tunes in the Scottish Gaelic language. They may have even inspired us to add a little more tartan to our concert attire in the future! We had the pleasure of listening to their performance during the first half, and we were so impressed! Bella Voce performed during the second half, and then the two choirs merged to perform “Auld Lang Syne.” It was truly a touching moment, and there might have even been a few tears in the audience. We were so appreciative of the warm welcome we received from our new friends in the Inverness Gaelic Choir. It was such a joy to meet such friendly, generous people who appreciate a good joke and a song. We won’t soon forget when the men of the choir began singing for us! It was a really magical moment, and we felt so lucky to witness it. Until we meet again!

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June 25: Stirling and Pitlochry

Monday was a busy day! We woke up and checked out of our hotel to head to St. Giles Cathedral. We were joined by Alex, our tour guide for the rest of the trip. Since the cathedral is open to the public, people were milling about as we rehearsed and performed. Our beautiful faces can be found on many an international camera roll! We ended up with a very modest crowd for our performance. The acoustics in the church were incredible. Various listeners came up to Dawn after our performance to say how stunning we sounded.

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During our drive out of Edinburgh, we saw three bridges crossing over the Firth of Forth. We were confused by signs for the Forth Bridge and started looking for a fourth bridge until we realized we need to brush up on our spelling. Our major stop of the day was at Stirling Castle. The castle is really a magnificent sight since it appears right in the middle of the landscape on an imposing mound of rocks.

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During our tour of the castle, we learned that James V (father of Mary Queen of Scots) wanted the castle to send a clear message about how powerful and tough he was. So, naturally it is decorated with the manliest creature of all: unicorns.

The castle afforded breathtaking views of the mountains, and we even spotted a Scottish Camel’s Hump, plus a monument to William Wallace (also known as Mel Gibson). In the evening, we arrived at our hotel in Pitlochry– the aptly named Atholl Palace Hotel where we wished we had stayed more than one night! It’s not every day you get to sleep in a palace, after all.

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Our humble abode for the night in Pitlochry

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