Harry Potter, The Bonny Prince and Our own Personal Castle

Our version of what was done and what to do when in the land of Ben Nevis…

The first order of business after landing in the western highlands was to ride The Jacobite aka Hogwart’s Express aka The Harry Potter Train. The children were not thrilled after we took our seats. They complained that we were victims of fraud and were convinced that I was trying to cheat them out of a real Harry Potter Train experience. The real steam engine must have plush compartments off a corridor, down which comes a trolly serving pumpkin pasties and chocolate frogs. I could feel my temperature rising after forking over almost 200 pounds sterling to hear more whining until I caught fellow adult passengers snickering at the outrageous nonsense coming from my entitled kids. “Are you kidding! What do you think this is, Universal Studios?!?” I cried with a sarcastic edge. It took some time before they realized that everyone we passed was waving up at us because we were on the famous train used in the movie, and apologies were in order. Lucky for them gratitude began to surface at some point before they had their faces glued to the window looking out for Dumbledore’s place of burial. Otherwise I would easily keep them at home in the study while I took a kayak out on the loch.

After climbing off at Mallaig we had some time to walk around a bit and snap a few photos of the Inner Hebrides and Kurti got to visit some of the boats docked in the arena.

The next day we drove back out to Glenfinnan to see the famed steam train’s viaduct once more and soak in a bit of history. In one direction the viaduct spreads across the landscape with a powerful ben behind it and in the other direction the towering monument of Glenfinnan symbolizes the beginning of the Forty-Five and the raising of the Stuart standard shortly after the Bonnie Prince landed on the local shores in 1745 after departing his refuge in France. There is a lovely hotel and restaurant where we ate called Glenfinnan House with local specialties and a fantastic vista.

Zipping back toward Fort William we made a quick stop at Inverlochy Castle.

Then on to Neptune’s Staircase where we were fortunate enough to see a boat come through, but didn’t stick around for the entire 90 minute process. There are a total of eight locks in the staircase and it’s really quite pleasant to sip a coffee in the cafe in inclement weather. We were lucky as it only started raining as we planned to leave.

Another day we went for a hike beyond Ben Nevis to Steall Falls. The valley you walk through to reach the falls is where the Harry Potter Quidditch match was filmed among other large screen movies, and for good reason.

Anna and Sophia love manouvering on the tight rope that crosses the stream. But Kristina and Kurti are too still to small and had to disrobe, walk, fall on the slimy river bed rocks, and be carried across by their courageous sisters. Anna and Sophia were more than willing to pose for the camera as the heroes, and walk out of the canyon sopping wet up to their knees.

Anna’s Italian sneakers from our trip last summer couldn’t be salvaged, but we did find a cool rock shaped like a dinosaur egg to carry back to the car park with us.

After dinner out we returned to Ardhu house, an imposing structure that was likely last remodeled sometime in the 70’s and our home for the week. The gorgeous grounds are set right on Loch Linnhe with an interior that must have been quite grand when it was fresh. The kids were so excited when we pulled up that they exclaimed, “We’re staying in a castle!” But after spending some time inside with the particular smells familiar to an older building, the  kids were often found outside soaking in the amazing scenery, sometimes with their mouths open to the brooding Scottish heavens as the rain poured down.

To the Highlands!

On the way to Fort William we stopped at the engineering wonder of Falkirk Wheel and walked back in time to what was briefly considered the boundary separating the civilized Roman Empire from the uncivilized heathen Picts further north. I’m not sure how much has changed, but we can’t wait to eat more smoked salmon, oatcakes, seafood and hopefully something green. I secretly hope to get Kurt in a kilt, but I don’t think he is very adventurous when it comes to fashion.

The genius of the Falkirk Wheel can be seen by clicking here. I still can’t get over the efficiency of this amazing engineering feat–it only takes the amount of energy required to boil 8 kettles of water. The children were mesmerized until they found the nearby water park that not only was great fun but also taught a few engineering lessons in the process of playing. AND, no one got wet! Phew.

We walked up to the Antonine Wall and thought the kids were going to have an apoplectic seizure with all the whinging on the way there and back. My theory is that allowing electronic devices in the car has them anxious to return to their dopamine fix. Why else would my kids be begging to return to another 3 hours bottled up in a car packed with luggage? Just doesn’t make any sense after watching them frolic around the old Roman fort like wood nymphs.

After the ‘strenuous’ walk, all 4 kids were rewarded with a go in the four available water walking balls. Unbeknownst to them they expended more kilocalories trying to stand up in these PVC bubbles than on their little hike, but that just meant that they were going to be subdued in the family wagon as we made our way up to Onich.

We did stop off for dinner in Balquhidder at Mhor 84. If Kurt and I didn’t have children with us I would have insisted we take time time to eat and stay for a respite at Monachyle Mhor, but alas,  we are 6 and our behemoth of a self-catering house on Loch Linnhe awaited our brood. Maybe someday we’ll be able to return to Monachyle Mhor without children to have some venison neck, nettle crust, skirlie and wild sorrel for dinner and lazily sleep in on a dreich Scottish morning with a fire roaring…. someday. maybe.

Just Beyond Edinburgh

On a day trip, we visited Cairnpapple Hill and took in the amazing view with the 5,000 years of history. I did share the fact that the henges, cairns and standing stones we would visit throughout Scotland were locations where bodies had been buried and sacrifices and cremations had taken place over the course of thousands of years, but that did not keep my little monkeys from leaping over the plots of the Christian family who had been lain to rest, or from joyfully rolling down the banks of  the Cairnpapple henge. There was not a somber member of our party as the wind carried our locks playfully into the backdrop of a gorgeous blue Lothian sky.
Cairpapple Description
At Linlithgow Palace, rolling down hills continued until we acquired some more grass stains and the swans captivated our attention.  The children didn’t care that this was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, but were enraptured when Emma told us that the reigning Queen owns all mute swans and if you harm one there may be a hefty £5,000 fine levied by the Crown. This left me wondering what the punishment was 100 years ago. We made our way up to the courtyard and I took a photo of Kurti in his knight costume in front of the very fountain that flowed with red wine during Bonny Prince Charlie’s visit back in 1745. The kids thought it was a stupid idea to waste so much wine and before I knew it they had run off to play hide-and-seek. Dare I admit they were hiding primarily from me and all my history factoids?
Making our way to Blackness Castle on the Firth of Forth, we found quite the formidable fortress. Known as the ship that never sailed, we walked the lush lawn and looked out across the water while I silently cringed thinking of all the prisoners who had been housed here over the centuries. I will say to any Outlander fans that the episode with Black Jack’s knife pointed at Claire’s exposed breast did invoke a bit of the sinister imagery that danced around in my head.
Another day we went to a favorite refuge of Mary, Queen of Scots, Craigmillar Castle. After visiting the chamber at Edinburg Castle where David Rizzio, was stabbed 56 times before the pregnant Mary, we were now at the very location where it is said she plotted the murder of the main assailant–her  husband, Lord Darnley. Darnley had apparently ordered Rizzio’s execution out of jealousy as it was rumored the child she was carrying was Rizzio’s. I didn’t share this little tidbit with the children but rather used more castle hide-and-seek to entice them into exploring. Then everyone had the opportunity to practice a bit of archery with a smartly dressed professional archer, and then climbed a  fanciful twisting yew tree, which is consequently the type of tree believed to have provided wood for bows and arrows.
Again we were blessed with cooperative weather, and began packing up for our journey to the the Scottish Highlands…..


A quick rundown of Scotland’s Capital and how we enjoyed it together


Anna and Sophia liked Edinburgh last summer enough to warrant a second visit with the whole family. As our first stop, an August arrival fortuitously coincided with The Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. It is the opportunity for a fair dose of sophisticated entertainment before heading off to learn some survival skills practiced by our Meso/Neolithic ancestors. Yes, animal tracking, catching a spark from striking flint and transporting our fire around in tree fungus. You know–in the event global politics continues to worsen and we survive WW III. Even if we aren’t plunged into post-apocalyptic hell, I think learning how to dye wool with lichens and weave your own sleeping mats to prevent hypothermia is pretty cool. My son would agree, but my hormonal t(w)een girls are a question mark so Glasgow Girls and a classy night out At the Illusionist’s Table has set us off on the right foot. The younger ones enjoyed the not-so-age-appropriate James and the Giant Peach and  Story Pocket Theatre’s King Arthur (see Emma’s fantastic version of their experience here). We all were able appreciate the talented French Canadian group that put on Attrape Moi, a performance that I found to be a great deal more intimate than Cirque du Soleil. I would go again. 

As one must on the Royal Mile we enjoyed Edinburgh Castle, but the real highlight was again–for the second year running–the Real Mary King’s Close. Where else can you share with your children the stench of 17th century animal  waste, the nightmares of  Black Death and the bubonic plague, and pick up a bit of borrowed French in the process–Gardyloo, anyone? Whenever my little monkeys complain about accommodations that don’t meet their snobby Manhattanite expectations, I will remind them of the days when we only bathed once a year and children were nailed to the pillory for any number of minor offenses. What’s a little house dust or a lumpy sofa with a stain? 

On the Unicorn

The Scotch Whiskey Experience is another favorite of ours where you embark on the journey of whiskey making in a cozy cask and end the tour with a dram of your own. Although Anna is less than 2 years from ordering her own glass of cider in a local pub, she is still almost 4 away from her own dram of scotch, so she and the kids partook in the other Scottish favorite, Irn Bru. I think the stuff looks and tastes like carbonated cough syrup but ‘Kurti’ starts jumping around like his pants are on fire whenever he sees it at the market. Makes me wonder how much sugar is in that stuff since my 6-year-old son now seems to be a diehard addict. Move over Sprite.

Strolling past The World’s End toward Hollyrood Palace and Arthur’s seat is anticlimactic until we hit The Fudge House. Chocolate Rocky Road, Rum & Raisin, Chocolate Orange, Praline & Drambuie, Highland Cream, Lemon Meringue Pie, Marzipan & Amaretto, Chocolate Peanut Butter. Yup–between last summer and this summer we have had quite a sampling. Sophia liked the flavor she selected so much that I was finding bits wrapped and hidden in the breadbox. I hope there weren’t any other stashes she hoarded away in the Edinburgh rental. I can just imagine our hosts happening upon a rock-hard chunk of Chocolate Orange and mistaking it for some odd geological sample collected at Arthur’s Seat. 

After a tour through Hollyrood Palace and Abbey we are all sugared up and ready for the hike up Arthur’s Seat. Fresh air, views for miles, and for Kurti and Kristina there is the thrill that this very spot may have been the legendary King Arther’s Camelot.


Melissa Breyer’s article about words describing nature and landscapes includes the Gaelic term rionnach maoimmeans, which refers to shadows cast on the landscape by clouds gliding across the sky. If I had a whole day, I could easily spend it watching the magical kaleidoscope of dancing colors on the moorlands of Scotland. This effect is so mesmerizing that I had to include a brief clip. I can’t recreate the experience but I thought it would be better than just leaving you with the description of a word I can’t even pronounce… Enjoy!