Back at Dorothy’s we decided to have a photoshoot. Another traveler, Lea from Switzerland, was staying with Dorothy as well and she suggested that we take advantage of Dorothy’s beautiful house and gardens, and the fact that I’m a photographer. We pulled dresses from the collections of Dorothy and her two daughters Neve and Cora, both of who joined us throughout the day. Then we played dress up all day and took pictures. It was just the best time.
My good friend and former DC roommate, Sarah, has been getting her Masters in London, so we planned a weekend together in Belfast while I was staying with Dorothy. It was so wonderful to be able to see Sarah and hang out in a fantastic city together. Our first stop was one of my favorite places in the city, the Crown, a gorgeous Victorian pub. Dark rich wood, intricate ceiling designs, and booths with doors. It feels straight out of a movie and I absolutely love it. What’s great is that if you’re lucky enough to snag a seat in a booth you are likely going to be sharing it with at least one other group of strangers. We made friends with the group of women that were in ours and it was great fun.
Both Sarah and I love Game of Thrones, and since so much of it was shot in Northern Ireland we couldn’t pass up the chance to take a tour to different filming locations. So one day we spent on a tour bus geeking out over the show and taking in the stunning landscapes of the country. The tour also included a stop a Giant’s Causeway, because why not, so I got to see that again. I absolutely loved the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It is suspended high above the rocky coast and leads you to an island. Workers alternate allowing people to cross one way and then the other, which means a bit of a wait going either direction. And also meant that we did not allow enough time for the wait going back and nearly missed our bus! We waved it down just as it was getting to the end of the parking lot. Much too close for comfort, haha, but we were happy to get back to Belfast without any other excitement.
During our time in Belfast we walked through different neighborhoods, both Protestant and Catholic, and sought out the murals the city is known for. I always love street art and Belfast did not disappoint. We spent the evening in the Cathedral District bar hopping and having the best time. Then Sarah headed back to London. I will visit her again in London right before going back to the states, and I am really looking forward to getting to hang out with her more in her adopted city.
Dorothy took me to visit several towns around Northern Ireland. First on the list was Derry, known for its intact medieval city walls and as the location of the start of the Troubles. The city walls were so cool to see and walk along, but I was most interested in the street art in the Catholic neighborhood of Bogside. The history of the Troubles was never something we learned in school. I only started learning modern Irish history after college when I picked up books on historical topics I was personally curious about. Spending time in Northern Ireland let me learn even more, and see where history happened. I heard from people who had actually been there during the Troubles, and how, like any country, Northern Ireland is so much more than a single part of their history.
As a whiskey lover I couldn’t miss Ireland’s oldest licensed distillery, so one day we visited the Bushmills. We took a tour, which included a delicious tasting in a beautiful setting. Other days we passed through lovely little towns like Glenarm and Killyleagh. I loved the charm of these places, and their timelessness.
On several occasions I went in to Belfast. I did some genealogy research there, which didn’t turn anything up but I was glad I had the opportunity to do. Dorothy’s daughter Neve plays rugby, and one day I took an intro to rugby class through one of her teams. It was really fun, and I even made a try. Other times I just got to wander the city and take it all in. By the end I really felt like I knew a bit of the city.
During my stay with Dorothy we took many day trips around Northern Ireland, and even some into Ireland as well. She was a wonderful host and I got to see so much of the country thanks to her. Because we did so much I’m splitting up my sightseeing posts into countryside and towns.
First off is the countryside. The rolling hills with a hundred shades of green, and stunning rocky coastlines. Many of the places that we visited had been used as Game of Thrones filming locations, which as a fan, was fun for me to see. It’s such a beautiful country, and I hope you enjoy the photos!
Next I moved on to Ballymena, Northern Ireland, where I would be staying with host Dorothy. I helped out around her house and garden, and in return got to live like one of the family. Turns out that Dorothy is one of the best people I’ve ever met and we became as close as family. This was my home away from home. I stayed there for 7 weeks, and will definitely be back at some point to visit.
Dorothy lives in a big old farmhouse with extensive gardens. It is the house that she grew up in, and her father, John, now lives just down the road. She works amazingly hard in her garden, having sculpted them out of the woodlands that John planted. They are wild and playful with a hint of Alice in Wonderland. People can pay to have events on the grounds or in the Potting Shed, which has been turned into a lovely tea room. The whole place is magical, and I miss it.
John, who became like my Northern Irish/Welsh grandfather, is a genial man, and a collector. At his house he has a shed that he keeps with all his treasures, accumulated over the years. He says they’re bits and pieces that people might overlook, but that he finds interesting. Everything was once, if not still is, practical and functional, and he puts everything out on display. John is also a painter, and so you can see where he has added flowers or bees right onto the wall or items themselves. His artwork also hangs framed among the other pieces. It’s such a cool space, and it’s wonderful to see how much John loves it.
I arrived in Dublin on July first, and was so thrilled to just be back in a city. To celebrate on the first night I got Thai takeout from around the corner and watched Netflix in bed. It was everything I needed.
In the following days I soaked up the city. At the encouragement of my Mom I went to the Trinity College Library, because she thought I would love it. She, of course, was right. Tall ceilings, rich wooden shelves, ladders, stacks of books. It’s like a little slice of Harry Potter heaven. There was a visit to the Irish Whiskey Museum, which included a delicious tasting flight. I walked through the General Post Office where you can still see bullet marks on the facade from the 1916 Easter Rising. The exhibit on the Rising in the basement of the GPO was excellent and gave a lot of context leading up to and following the Rising. I spent one morning in the National Library of Ireland seeing if I could add to any of my genealogy research. In the evening I took a dance class, the first one since I had started traveling in January. It felt so good! My last night in Dublin I went out for a decadent meal at an Indonesian restaurant named Chameleon thanks to a send-off gift card from my client in DC, Scout Bags. It was so much food and all so delicious. The following day I had lunch at the Shelbourne, the hotel on St Stephen’s Green where the English established a strategic position to assault rebels during the Rising.
Then it was time to head north. I spent a couple nights in the town of Dundalk, where some of my family had been from in the mid 1800s. It’s a nice sleepy little town right on the coast. My accommodation was a Bed and Breakfast, the only one I did on my trip, and I totally loved it. My room had a skylight and beautiful wallpaper. After lots of staying in hostels it felt wonderfully indulgent to have a room and bathroom all to myself. Last stop on this little leg was just over the boarder into Northern Ireland at the coastal town of Newcastle, where I spent a few nights and took walks in the countryside.
The month of June I spent on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, just across from the Isle of Skye. I stayed with two musicians, Sandra and Lorna, and Sandra’s mom Mary, on the family croft 5 miles outside the tiny village of Glenelg. It is far and away the most remote place I’ve ever (temporarily) called home. After a half hour bike ride into town I would hang out at the local pub for their internet and the company of the resident dog.
The scenery in the area is beautiful. Along the road to town there are two ancient brochs; Iron Age circular stone structures. They are open to the public and you can climb around in them, which I did on several occasions. In town there is a ruin of an English military barracks, built in 1725 and used during the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The Outlander lover in me found this sight fascinating.
Sandra and Lorna played at the pub a few times while I was there which was great fun. They were wonderful hosts, and we had a great time together.
While spending more time in the Highlands I got to know a family that runs a croft outside of Inverness in Knockfarrel, with organic produce and pork. Crofts are small land holdings for farming that were created as a response to the population upheaval after the Highland Clearances. Jo and Lorna bought their croft, Ian Mhor, 8 years ago from a family that had owned it for 7 generations, since the creation of the crofting system in 1886. Lorna works for the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency but loves the croft and hopes to see it become productive enough to work there full time. Jo was originally an economist who studied the viability of community supported agriculture and decided to put his money where his mouth was. He said that he couldn’t just sit there and watch everyone else have all the fun. Together the two of them are implementing sustainable practices in their farming. They sell their produce and pork products through their own subscription box service and at farmers markets.
During my stay in Knockfarrel I did some little trips around the area. I visited the town of Cromarty right on the coast, which is lovely. The old stone houses have such wonderful charm and the views of the water are relaxing. I spent time walking in the countryside. The rolling hills are stunning, and there are ruins of an Iron Age fort on the hill overlooking the croft. There was a local wool festival that I attended, complete with a bagpipe band, of course.
More from the Croft
After a few days in Edinburgh, Lex, Andrea and I rented a car and headed north into the Highlands. We stopped in the village of Kirkcaldy where some of Andrea’s ancestors were born. It was fun getting to see another place tied to someone’s history. Being the bookworms that we are, we of course stopped in the only bookstore in town where Lex bought herself a book. The ride continued, as did the conversations. We passed an adorable little town and decided to stop. It ended up being Birnam, where Beatrix Potter used to spend summer holidays. There was a small museum dedicated to her and her books, which we enjoyed very much. Eventually we made it to Inverness where we would be staying for a few nights.
The next day was my birthday! We spent the day driving through the Highlands, playing a mix of the Harry Potter and Outlander soundtracks. First we made our way down the beautiful Loch Ness and on to Loch Claunie, stopping on occasion to take in the views. At one such stop on Loch Claunie we found an amazing collection of cairns, stacks of stones, left by other travelers. It was magical, and we decided to build our own to leave behind. Next was a stop at a castle! This lovely structure named Eilean Donan, was built in the 13th century on an island situated where three lochs meet, making it a strategic stronghold. We took a self guided tour. No photography is allowed inside the building, so I couldn’t capture the amazing dinning hall with it’s high stone walls, wood beam ceiling, imposing fire place and mounted deer heads. It was so cool, we all loved getting to walk through the beautiful castle rooms. After leaving the castle we continued on to the Isle of Skye, where the mountains got higher and more wild. We went as far as the Fairy Pools, where we got out and hiked for a bit. During that time a cloud front moved in swiftly, let loose a hail storm on us for about 5 minutes, and then cleared up. We laughed and continued on, talking non-stop as usual. Then it was time to head back to Inverness. We stopped at a little restaurant for a nice birthday dinner, where I also had the local whisky: smokey and delicious.
We stayed around Inverness the next day. First visiting the standing stone circles of Clava Cairn. There are three circular structures there dating from the Bronze Age. With our love of the Outlander series we were completely enthralled with the ancient stones. The wind was particularly eerie in the trees over the circles and created a mystical atmosphere. We couldn’t help ourselves, and we of course took Outlander-esque photos of each other. Sticking with the Outlander theme, we visited the Culloden Battlefield next. This is the location of the bloody final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, which ended the rebellion and saw the English impose an end to the Highland clan structure. We spent the night eating incredibly good Indian food and then drinking some Scotch at a local pub.
Another day trip was up next. First we drove down Loch Ness again and continued all the way to Fort William. From there we went to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a beautiful railway viaduct that runs through the wild countryside, and also happens to be a filming location for the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter. We were equally enchanted with the surrounding wilderness and hiked up the hills beside the viaduct. As we were coming back down we realized that there were a lot of people just standing looking out over the viaduct, as if they were waiting for something. We joined in and to our delight not too long after the Highland Express came by, complete with steam pouring out of the engine. Lex, Andrea and I hummed Hedwig’s theme the whole time, it was super geeky and wonderful. Moving on we drove through Glencoe, another wilderness area south of Fort William. The mountains were so high and the clouds were ever moving through their peaks. We kept pulling over to get out and take photos and soak in the stunning views. Dinner was in Fort William at a local pub where a group of elderly men befriended us.
The last day and a half was spent in the Cairngorms National Park. We did more hiking, and even more talking. Perhaps the two best meals were then as well. There was the dinner at an amazing savory pie place with wonderful Scotch whiskies. Then the last day we had breakfast at the amazing Mountain Cafe, with decadent scones, clotted cream, pancakes and fruit. After that the time came to part ways and say goodbye. Lex and Andrea headed back to Edinburgh to make their way back to the states, and I stayed behind in the Highlands. I’m so happy that they were able to visit, it was a magical vacation.
Finally I got to Scotland! Here I would be spending the next 2 months and, most importantly, celebrating my 30th birthday with two of my closest friends, Lex and Andrea.
I was the first to arrive in Edinburgh and got to settle into our beautiful Airbnb. Lex and Andrea arrived together in the evening on a train from London and it was just the best to see them. They are the kind of friends where it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, we pick up right where we left off. We went out for dinner at the pub across the street and to talk the night away. Until their jet lag kicked in a little and we headed to bed.
Both Lex and Andrea had been to Edinburgh before, but it was my first time. This city is just enchanting. I was completely in love with it from the time I stepped off the bus. The feel of the old climbing streets and the castle sitting on top of the hill. We took our time with the city. Enjoying it as much as each other’s company. Our meandering pace let us take everything in and share the experience even more. We relished our food and delighted in all the little details.
The first morning we started with scones and hot chocolate for me, coffee for the other two. We made our way toward the old town stopping at a craft and food market on the way. Lex went to the art museum while Andrea and I met up with my friend Dan. He was at the end of his trip, having visited London, Amsterdam, Berlin (again), Spain, and Scotland since we last saw each other in Norway. It was nice to get to catch up with him. We had some amazing cocktails at a speakeasy, who’s entrance was hidden behind a bookcase at the bottom of some stairs. My delicious whiskey cocktail arrived surrounded by wood smoke under a glass hood, which then had a very dramatic reveal by the waiter.
After saying goodbye to Dan Andrea and I met back up with Lex and wandered through old town, making our way down the street thought to have inspired Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. All three of us love Harry Potter and we really enjoyed geeking out, which we would continue to do the whole trip. That night I tried haggis, which I really enjoyed. I even got both Lex and Andrea to give it a try, and everyone agreed it was a nice surprise.
Our second full day we continued on our Harry Potter pilgrimage. First stop was Edinburgh Cathedral, most likely the inspiration for the Great Hall, which had a ceiling that was “bewitched to look like the night sky.” The cathedral’s ceiling is painted a beautiful bold blue, with stars in the corners. It was easy to imagine JK Rowling walking through the church and dropping a little bit of magic into her view of it. We spent time playing in the light falling through the stained glass windows. Around the corner from the cathedral we found our afternoon snack, at the Elephant House. It is none other than the cafe where JK Rowling finished writing the first Harry Potter book after moving to Edinburgh with the first three chapters. It was totally worth the wait. I had an amazing boozy milkshake and we shared some Scottish shortbread. Then I had to visit the bathroom, with my camera, of course. Because every inch of the bathroom walls in the Elephant House are covered with Harry Potter graffiti. Potterheads from all over the world have come to pay their respects to the birthplace of our beloved world. The last Potter stop was the cemetery where you can see the graves of a McGonagall, and Thomas Riddle. From there we spent the evening climbing to the top of King Arthur’s seat for a stunning view of the city before ending the night with fish and chips.
The next day we would continue our trip leaving Edinburgh and going into the Highlands.
kaitlin k walsh
Adventurer armed with a camera.