Visiting friends in Scotland

Trip Start Aug 02, 2012
Trip End Aug 02, 2013

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Flag of United Kingdom  , Scotland,
Friday, January 4, 2013

The alarm started beeping around 4 am. It was far too early and our free breakfast couldn't be availed till half past six but we had a train to catch to Glasgow. We had tried to book our hotel in London to be nearby to Euston given that we had an early morning departure of 5:40am. We made our way to nearby Paddington station, and caught the first tube of the day over to Euston station. We were on the train as scheduled. The train was very comfortable and we were glad to be in a designated "Quiet Coach" which allowed us to catch up on some sleep. There was a signalling delay due to a power outage midway and so we were delayed getting into Glasgow by about an hour. Allan was there to pick us up which was very kind of him and we drove back to their house in nearby Beith, about half an hour west of the city. After dropping our bags upstairs in our own suite with attached bath, we joined Allan and Marjorie for lunch downstairs. We relaxed for the next couple of hours until we had to walk over with Allan to pick up Beth from school, which is literally a stone’s throw away. Beth rushed out to greet us but was definitely a bit shy despite anticipating our visit for the past month we were told. Knowing what an extrovert she was, I was sure it would take her only a few hours to get comfortable. Sure enough, by the time we were done with tea, she was chatting away with us. We met Sally that evening after she got off work and that’s when Beth and Sally handed showed us “the timetable” for the next two weeks. It was drawn out on a 5ft by 3ft sheet of construction paper, with dates down the left hand side and names (Ian, Sally, Beth, Megs and Anoop) across the top. The activities to be participated-in/performed-by a particular person on a particular day were denoted in each intersecting cell in the table below. Beth and Sally had been working on it since well before we arrived to ensure we knew the schedule of events for our upcoming stay. I had assured Sally that we would be quite happy with days of doing nothing but sipping tea and reading a book but it looked like we wouldn’t have too many days of that. There was a lot of visiting with various members of the family over Christmas and New Year’s, a few days on the Isle of Arran and a visit to the Falkirk Wheel. We were all set for a busy, yet relaxed, couple of weeks of holiday season festivities.

The next morning, Sally and Beth met us over at Allan and Marjorie’s. It was the last day of school and Sally had organized for Meghan to visit Beth’s classroom. Megs thought it was rather brave of her teacher to say yes knowing how crazy her class usually is on the last day! We walked by the school and Beth got into line with the other kids in her class. All the kids were required to line up every day just outside the main building before being allowed in to school. The most organized (and still standing) line got in. The kids asked Megs questions about Christmas in Canada and were quite horrified to learn that at least in her family, they had to wait until after breakfast was over and all the dishes were done (and sometimes the turkey in the oven!) before they were allowed to open presents. She went on a tour of the school with Beth and her friend; the school was laid out in pods with an open floor plan. This meant there were no closing doors and the classrooms were built around a common area in the centre. Megs then went off to church with the class for the Christmas service and heard some of the classes singing carols. Then it was back to school to help with art projects until lunch. She had a great visit and enjoyed getting in on some pre-Christmas excitement with the class. With a mandarin each in our pockets, Sally and I headed for a brisk two hour walk around the outskirts of Beith.  It was a very scenic walk and it was really nice to get some fresh air, enjoy the rolling hills and catch up with Sally. We got back just in time to see the school kids returning from church and heading back to school. Megs was at the rear of the line keeping the kids organized on her end. That evening, after dinner, we attended a Christmas carol performance by the local choir which we quite enjoyed. Allan was called upon to give an impromptu speech of thanks which he handled remarkably well by grabbing a napkin and scribbling his speech on the back of it. It definitely made it credible as he referred to his napkin and claimed that he was called upon just an hour ago to give this speech. It was an interesting choir with the youngest member under ten years old and the oldest member being the choir master, who I’m going to venture was in her late 70’s. The choir even acted out a skit that portrayed the forgotten voice of the wives of the three wise men – definitely an interesting spin. They also sung a carol that was “very popular in Canada” titled “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”. This was definitely a pure coincidence. Once the choir was done, everyone moved to the adjoining activity room for tea and snacks where we were introduced to some of the locals from Beith – a couple of whom we would meet again in the coming days.

The next morning, we moved over to Sally’s place, which was to be our home base for the rest of our Scotland visit. I would often rise between four and six am (I don’t really know why I was getting up so early) but it worked out quite well as Beth would often be up between five and six and on most days. We’d sit in the kitchen and chat away about a variety of topics ranging from interesting tidbits about Sally (don’t worry Sally, my lips are sealed J ), Beth’s career aspirations to be a marine biologist in Canada specializing in porpoises down to more immediate details such as what was being baked in “Beth’s Bakery”, as it came to be called. Beth was naturally the manager (I tell you that girl has management potential – she is awfully good at delegating). I was promoted to assistant manager over Meghan after threatening to stop baking bread most mornings. Ian and Sally were simply “workers” and we were all to get paid 5 pounds a day. I asked Beth how come I was getting paid the same as the “workers” and she said it was the Christmas season and wanted everyone to feel equal.

The two days preceding Christmas saw Megs enter into a baking frenzy and Beth had everyone’s time slot allotted in the kitchen as not only was there was a lot of baking going on, but we were having company over for Christmas eve for appetizers. Sally’s oven had never seen so much activity. Megs got spiral cookies prepared and in the fridge, ready to roll out and bake the following day. My favourites, “Holiday Chocolate Chippers”, which I first tried at Janet’s were also on the menu. We also showed Sally how to bake a loaf of bread as she wasn’t convinced about how easy it was. She definitely didn’t believe that I had gotten the recipe off the side of the flour packet. When we had gone shopping for baking supplies, Megs and I were very surprised at the small quantities that everything came in. Chocolate chips in 150 g packages, flour in 1 kg bags and so on. We were used to getting chocolate chips in 500 – 1000 g bags and flour at a minimum of 5 kgs. Needless to say, we had to make a few visits to the supermarket to stock up on supplies.  After a long day of baking, Megs gave Beth an early Christmas present. “Holly and Ivy” was one of her favourite books and she had gotten Beth her own copy and she read it to Beth that evening. Before going to bed that night, Beth instructed us that if we were to see Santa in the middle of the night, we were to immediately look the other way and not disturb him. We were sleeping in the living room where the tree was so there was a good chance that that might happen so she wanted to play it safe. 

Christmas day was finally here and Beth couldn’t contain her excitement. Present opening started by half eight and Beth was efficiently distributing presents from Santa. Megs and I had gotten each other a couple of books and I knew how much Megs liked her jigsaws, so I had ordered a 1000 piece Christmas themed puzzle. We had a wonderful package from Sheahan & James and Rob & Janet to open, too. We were also tickled with all the Christmas cards we’d received at Sally’s – a big thank you to all that sent one as we really enjoyed receiving and reading them. Sally, Allan and Marjorie had also gotten us some very thoughtful items to help us remember our first visit to Scotland which we thought were just delightful. Beth excitedly opened all her presents and was soon busy playing with some of her gifts. Once all the presents were opened, Meghan immediately got the puzzle going. The puzzle lay on the dining table for the next couple of days and that’s when it occurred to me just what a social activity completing a jigsaw can be.  Anyone who was visiting just couldn’t resist sitting down to put in a piece, and then one more and then insisting that they must be leaving after they got the next one in.  A couple hours later, once we’d made a good start on the “Which Way Santa?” puzzle, we started getting changed and ready to head over to Allan and Marjorie’s for Christmas dinner which was going to start around 4pm.

When we arrived, our hosts were busy getting dinner in the oven. We retired to the living room and soon the rest of the family started arriving. We were meeting most of them for the first time so I tried very hard to match names to faces.  We all sat in the living room mingling and having appetizers while the rest of the present opening continued. We really enjoyed watching all the kids open their presents – we had gotten a lego set for each of the kids that were there tonight (Callum, Ewan and Cameron). Everyone slowly made their way over to the dining room by around half four and took their assigned seats – Megs had been given the job of writing the name cards. The dining room was beautifully laid out and with seventeen of us in total, it was a noisy, but delicious feast. It started with a salmon salad and moved on the usual fixings of turkey, potatoes and brussel sprouts and other accompaniments. There were several desserts to choose from including Christmas pudding, ice cream, cheese cake and fruit salad. Post dinner is when the real entertainment began.  It was the annual family quiz competition. They even had buzzer boards that had been built by a family member about thirty five years prior. Alistair and Kirsty were the quiz masters and the rest of us, kids included, were split into two teams. It was then that I learned that the Richardsons are a competitive bunch and that Sally buzzes in after the first two words of the question and loves to argue with Alistair simply to argue. Meghan and I were definitely quite lost in the quiz because many of the questions were tailored for the Scottish majority. It was the rowdiest quiz I’ve ever partaken in but it was a lot of fun. I jokingly volunteered to come up with the questions for the next quiz (for New Year’s dinner on January 2nd) and Alistair surprised me by taking me up on the offer. Once the quiz was over about an hour and a half later, everyone returned to their homes, feeling completely stuffed and satisfied.

In Scotland, Boxing day didn’t involve a swim as it usually does when at the Bennie’s. It was a very quiet and relaxing day for us where all we did was go for a long walk, work on the puzzle and eat leftovers from Christmas dinner. The following day, we headed off with Allan and Marjorie to the Isle of Arran. We caught the ferry from Androssan over to Brodick. This ferry ride was about an hour long and was very similar to the Sunshine Coast run in terms of the amenities and layout of the ferry. We had a cappuccino (which is much better than on the ferries because they use a real espresso machine) and worked on crossword puzzles. We drove off the other end and along the coast towards the caravan (similar to a small mobile home in Canada) that they own. The caravan is situated on a caravan park and theirs happens to be waterfront facing, and less than thirty meters from the water. It was a very cosy caravan with two bedrooms, kitchen and living room. We had a quick lunch before heading out for a drive around Arran. The rain had let up temporarily so we thought we should make the best of it. We drove along the coast, towards the south end of the island and back around through the middle. Allan and Marjorie had been determined to show us Goat Fell since we had arrived in Beith, the highest peak on the island, but it still lay hidden among clouds. Nonetheless, we really enjoyed the drive and the views all along the coast and inland were beautiful. Houses dotted the coast line separated by the occasional sheep farm. Most of the inner island was either unoccupied or farmland. Arran was often described as “Scotland in miniature” and is known for some of its food products and especially its whisky. I particularly liked the rhubarb ginger jam from Arran Fine Foods which I ate whenever possible for the rest of our stay in Beith. Partway along our drive, we stopped at a small cheddar factory and bought some cheese from them. When we got back to the caravan, we all settled down for a hot cup of tea to warm up. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and playing a few games of rummy tiles. We also taught Allan and Marjorie to play “Beggar thy neighbour”, a trump card game that we quite enjoy.

The following morning after breakfast, we drove into Brodick to get the latest updates on the ferry service back to the mainland. It had been very stormy the previous evening and there was a chance that the ferry wouldn’t run. The ferries were running but there were no guarantees on when they would be called off. We decided not to risk staying another night because our hosts had plans lined up on the mainland leading up to New Year’s day. A little over 24 hours after arriving, we caught the ferry back to the mainland. It had been a very short trip to the island but we had enjoyed our time there and looked forward to our next visit when we’d get to explore it further.

Meghan and I wanted to thank everyone for having us for the holiday season so we decided to cook dinner one night – we were making spaghetti carbonara, garlic bread and “caesar” salad. It was mid-afternoon when Marjorie came by to drop off a few things and mentioned that Allan was going to watch the local football game. Allan hadn’t thought to invite me because he thought we might be busy preparing for dinner. This wasn’t a televised match so I knew the game would take just over 90 minutes to play and that left me with plenty of time to help with dinner. Marjorie dropped me off at the local pitch where the game was already underway. I paid my five pound entry fee and joined Allan and his friends on the raised steps, a few meters away from the sidelines.  It was quite chilly out and thankfully the sun decided to show itself for about half an hour. We cheered on the Beith Juniors as they are called and if I recall, they scored a goal or two before half time. For half time, we went inside the little clubhouse, where there was hot tea, biscuits and small sandwiches available for executive members (I guess I qualified because I was there with Allan). We even had a wee dram to warm up! On our way out back to the field, Tommy (one of Allan’s friends that I had been chatting to for a bit on the sidelines earlier), came over and gave me a Beith Junior’s hat (toque) as a gift for coming out. It was extremely nice of him and I was thrilled so I donned the scarf and toque and cheered even louder during the second half. Beith went on to win 5-0. On our way out of the park, Tommy mentioned that I should drop by the local bakery to have a look around. I found out then that he was the Irvine of the 4th generation “Irvine’s Bakery”! Allan had mentioned to Tommy that I was quite into my baking and how we had been baking up a storm at Sally’s. Tommy was well retired now and his son was running the bakery. I had never been behind the scenes at a bakery so I was super excited! We agreed to meet at half ten on the 3rd.  I walked briskly back to the house because it was nearing four and we still had a dinner to make. We got dinner made in time and the food was enjoyed by all that evening.

Hogmany (New Year’s eve) was a low-key event for us (as it is on most years). Allan and Marjorie were off with friends as were Sally and Ian. Beth was at her dad’s place and so we had a quiet evening. We brought in the New Year with our television host in Edinburgh. A neighbour decided to set off a few of his own crackers so we got good sound effects to accompany the more prolific display in Edinburgh. We were actually on the phone with Anne at the time 2013 rolled around and Megs informed her that she didn’t have to stay up till midnight in Canada since she’d brought in the Scottish New Year with us.

On New Year’s day, Allan took us for a 120 mile drive through the Scottish countryside, along the coast, and back to Beith. It was a wonderful drive and we got the full gamut of weather: rain, sunshine, strong winds and even a rainbow. We really enjoyed the scenery and got out in a few places to take pictures along the way. The second day of the New Year saw Sally’s kitchen busy from early afternoon till dinner time. We were having almost everyone that was there for Christmas dinner over for dinner and another quiz round. Allan was bringing pies to put in for the main course and Megs had made her 'caesar’ salad, Sally a lentil soup, and I rounded it out with dinner buns. It was a busy day of baking and cooking but we we got everything done in time for our guests arriving. It was nice to see everyone again and we caught up on what folks had done for Hogmany. Once dinner was done, we proceeded to what everyone had been waiting for – the quiz. Megs and I had spent a number of hours coming up with questions that we thought weren’t biased towards to Scotland and were more general knowledge, all though that was sorely contested several times during the night. We had questions in every category from Entertainment, World History, Current Events, Olympics and naturally, those relating to the Commonwealth (including some high level questions about India and Canada). Megs and Alistair helped keep score and this time we even had a prize for the winning team. Little did they know it was a small cardboard trophy about two by three inches which Alistair had gotten in his New Year’s cracker. It was a well contested battle of the minds and at the end of the evening, it coincidentally ended in a draw.

The third day of 2013 was off to a busy start as we met Tommy at the bakery. I had requested that Beth be able to come along (she had informed me that that would make a great birthday gift for her from me) and Sally and Megs were quite keen on coming, too. Allan assured me that Tommy wouldn’t mind and indeed, Tommy was more than happy to show us all around the bakery which had started in the second decade of the 1900s. As soon as we entered the bakery, I handed Tommy some of the dinner buns that I had baked the previous night. I know, pretty gutsy giving a professional baker baked goods but I didn’t want to show up empty handed. At almost the same time, Tommy took out a pin from his pocket and handed it to me - it had a flag of Scotland and Canada. I thought it was a very nice gesture and I pinned it to my shirt right away. The tour got underway as Tommy took us downstairs to see how commercial baking was done and all the equipment that went along with it. Some of the beaters were nearly half as big as Beth was! I thought the retarding cycle that could be set one of the coolers was very savvy as it allowed the rolls inside to ferment and rise slowly over 24 hours at varying temperatures, to provide a nicer flavour and texture. Maurice, Tommy’s son, had come down by then to continue the tour and explained that some bakeries will cut corners by doing a short rise over a couple of hours but it compromises the flavour and texture.

We then went upstairs to where the cakes and pastries were made. We saw a commercial doughnut fryer and the cake station where one of the ladies was expertly putting the icing on a custom birthday cake. It had an edible photo on it and when I asked Maurice about it, he took us into his office to show us the printer for edible photos. I was really surprised to find that it was just a desktop inkjet printer (using edible ink) that printed onto edible paper. The interesting part was that the paper, when placed on the cake, melts into it somehow so it looks like it is part of the cake and not glued on. Tommy and Maurice gave us a demo on folding icing cones and I have to tell you that it is way harder than it looks! I was determined to get it and about ten tries later, I think I looked somewhat competent at it. Sally and I were firing questions one after the other and we would have kept on going but we were meeting in Bonnybridge in the afternoon so we had to bring the tour to an end. Not to mention that Maurice probably needed to get back to work, too. We went downstairs and had coffee and treats in the cozy café. I had a delicious custard filled doughnut glazed with caramel accompanied by a cappuccino. We all got our sugar highs as we chatted and munched away. I finally went over the cashier to settle the bill and she refused to accept any payment. I looked at her with a puzzled look and she said that Tommy and Maurice had insisted that it was to be on the house.  I tried to pay but the cashier just ignored me – I was learning quickly that all our hosts in Beith were very friendly and generous. We said our goodbyes and thanks to Tommy and Maurice and headed back to Sally’s for a quick stop before heading out to Bonnybridge to meet up with Ian.

The canal behind Ian’s house led straight to the Falkirk Wheel. We had a very pleasant walk canal-side and within about half an hour, we were looking at this Millennium Project that is an engineering marvel. It uses almost no electricity to function and instead uses gravity and some basic physics principles – if memory serves correctly, about the cost of eight kettle boils a day. It bridges a height of about 50 meters and when makes almost no noise when in operation. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was that I had to look twice to make sure it really was moving. It can simultaneously transport two vessels (one heading down, the other heading up) and connects a key canal to Edinburgh that now replaces a number of smaller locks. After watching it in action standing right underneath the wheel, we headed indoors to the small interpretation center to learn about the Falkirk wheel and purchased a couple of postcards and a spurtle (we had seen Sally using one to make her delicious lemon curd and Anne use it to stir porridge). It was getting dark by the time we left the wheel and headed back to Ian’s for some tea and snacks before heading back to Beith.

The following day, Allan picked up Sally, Beth and I for another drive through the countryside. Our first stop was at Hunter’s Furnishings, the second furniture store that Allan and family own and manage. Led by Beth, we had a fun time checking out a variety of furniture, especially the adjustable beds. From there, we stopped by the nearby marina, where Allan generously treated us all out to lunch. It was scrumptious meal that included lobster and prawns with garlic bread, a mushroom soup, stuffed chicken breast and a tiramisu that was to die for. Megs had a prawn fajita for her entrée and couldn’t believe that she got 24 large prawns! The food, the setting and the company was all very memorable. From the restaurant, we did a driving tour of the nearby countryside. Our first stop was the Electric Brae where midway along a road, Allan simply came to a complete stop, turned off the car and put it into neutral. I was really surprised for a few seconds until Allan told me to look out the back window. I craned my neck around and I could have sworn we were going uphill with the car in neutral. I looked straight ahead and was wondering why we weren’t rolling downhill towards the bend in the road ahead instead. I put the window down and looked out at the road and sure enough, we were rolling backwards. This was so bizarre that I got out of the car and began to walk in the direction the car was rolling and it was almost as unbelievable that we were going uphill against gravity without exerting any force to do so. After a few minutes, Allan turned on the vehicle and drove “downhill” and stopped by a sign that explained this optical illusion. The explanation goes like this:

“The Electric Brae runs the quarter mile from the bend overlooking Croy Railway Viaduct in the west (286 feet above ordinance datum) to the wooded craigencroy glen (303 A.O.D.) to the east. Whilst there is a slope of 1 in 86 upwards from the bend to the glen, the configuration of the land on either side of the road provides an optical illusion making it look like the slope is going the other way. The term “electric” dates from a time when it was normally thought to be a phenomenon caused by electric or magnetic attraction within the brae.”

We had seen nothing like it before and as we drove over and past the Electric Brae, it still seemed unreal.  Our next stop was the summer vacation spot for the Richardson family back when Morag, Anne and Allan were kids (Anne, please excuse me for not remembering the name of the town). We walked the length of the pier, took a couple of photos and then headed back to the warmth of the car to head towards Scott’s place where we dropping Beth off for the weekend. On the way, we stopped off at the Robbie Burns museum but since we didn’t have enough time to actually visit it, we went in for some hot chocolate and scones. On our way out, we browsed the gift shops and after Megs hummed and hawed over an apron, I took an executive decision and just bought it! I knew she wouldn’t regret it and sure enough, she was thrilled. She now had a “Tartan tabby” apron and a Scottish spurtle – how fitting was that? This was also the first time that we had just visited the café and gift shop of a museum.

After dropping Beth off and saying our goodbyes to her, we drove back to Beith in the dark. We told her we’d see her later in the year in Canada when they came to visit, and that made her even more bouncy than she already was. I was going to miss my five am, candid chats with Beth. When we got back to Beith, we thanked Marjorie and Allan for hosting us and said our goodbyes to them, too – I asked if they’d like us to drop by in the morning before we went to the airport but they didn’t sound too keen on that (perhaps the 5 am visit would be a tad early?).  We finally made it back to Sally’s and began madly packing our bags to be within our budget airlines’ strict luggage regulations. After finishing packing, Sally gave us a quick viewing photos from Tom & Morag’s silver wedding anniversary and her recent visit to Wimbledon with Ian. We got to bed around eleven and were up before five am the next morning to head out Glasgow airport, chauffeured kindly by Sally. We said our final set of goodbyes, already planning out meeting later in the year. It had been a wonderful first visit to Scotland, definitely made because of the hospitality and friendliness, and we were looking forward to our next visit! 
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