Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh to the highlands ...

Following are three days worth of notes taken after leaving Edinburgh: >>>
As this is being written I am on the ScotRail train from Edinburgh to Mallaig. It’s lunchtime. I had to ride the commuter line from Edinburgh to Glasgow this morning and then grab a second train to ride out of Glasgow to the northern highlands. The weather is a bit overcast, but the scenery is very nice. The hills rise as high as the clouds and quite often we see sheep and cattle grazing on the hillsides. I am also amazed to see so many hikers / backpackers on walking trails near the rail line. The railway line follows many of the lochs and firths along the way. A loch, I am told, is a lake. I don’t know for sure what a firth is. I will be sure to find out. I bought a first class ticket for this train, but I don’t know yet, what makes it first class.
When I booked the ticket online, I was asked if I wanted a power supply for my computer and whether I wanted internet service. I answered yes to both, but neither is available on this train right now. Good thing I charged my batteries in Edinburgh before I left. The train is pretty crowded and there is very little leg room. I hope the other trains I ride are not like this. We are expected to arrive in Maillag in about an hour or so. My seat mates are a family from Spokane, Washington. Very nice people who decided to take in the scenery of Scotland. They’re pretty pleased so far. They too are heading for the Isle of Skye so we will be taking the ferry from the mainland across. I hope to get some nice photos when that happens.
As the train rides deeper and deeper into the highlands, I realize I am getting closer to where my ancestors came from. It’s a feeling of amazement how they could possibly leave this place. The train rides by several old farms where there are only stone outlines in the ground of where farm houses once stood. I try to think of the sense of loss the people must have felt to have to leave this area to go to Canada. I know that some left for religious reasons, but from what I have read, the most left because of the terrible poverty and starvation that existed here so many years ago. Canada must have seemed like a paradise. The train has just arrived in Morar. It’s a tiny village on the west coast and I can see the ocean from the train stop. Wow, I can’t believe I am here. I can remember my Grandma in Mira telling me about this place. I guess I am excited and emotional at the same time. Up until now, this place has only been a name on a map. I am quite pleased that I have made it here. There is a small bay where fishing boats are moored and several houses. The train is carrying on to Mallaig, where I will get off. In the next day or so, I hope to learn a lot.
It’s just after ten o’clock Wednesday morning and I am on the train heading out of Mallaig heading for Glasgow. The past couple of days have been enlightening. I have met several Gillies families and they all assured me that Gillies and Gillis are all the same. One man explained that because the name is pronounced Gillis, with a hard S sound, he believes the English rewrote the name as Gillis for many of the emigrants who left Morar in the early days. Regardless, it was so nice to meet people who regarded me as family.I had a quick chat in a pub with Sine (pronounced Sheena) and Angus who both have Gillises as grandparents or for great-grandparents. They also have several cousins who are Gillises. Sine estimated that fifty per cent of the families in the Morar and Mallaig area are Gillises.
I also visited the old cemetery in Morar and snapped photos of several of the old headstones engraved with Gillies. Some were barely readable, but were from the early 1800’s and therefore quite likely they knew my ancestors.

It was just an amazing feeling to be there, standing among the headstones and thinking of this little part of the world.
Morar is now just a tiny village with less than 50 houses. There is a hotel, a gasoline station, a store, an elementary school and not much else. I was told that most of the villagers are Catholic.
I visited the local heritage centre and learned a bit of the history of this area. People here still talk of “the Clearances”, which is when the rich landowners cleared the land of the tenant farmers, without caring what happened to them or their families. I was told it was one of the reasons why so many Scottish families headed for Canada and the United States.
My stay here has been interesting. I could not get a room in Mallaig or Morar, but I did stay at a B&B in nearby Armadale on the Isle of Skye. I had to take a ferry from Mallaig to Skye. It was about 25 minutes to cross. The walk from the ferry terminal to the B&B was roughly two kilometres, another 20 minutes. There is a hotel in the village that served lunch and supper so that was another ten minute talk.
I enjoyed freshly caught scallops, sea bass, oatcakes, tatties and of course, more of that amazing sticky toffee pudding just oozing whisky. Supper was served in the pub and each night just after 7:00 p.m. the place began to fill up with the locals coming to see their neighbours and to `ave a pint or two. Guinness is very popular here, but so is cider.
I seemed to have passed the test with respect to drinking Scotch. Everywhere I went I ordered it without ice, and then I learned that one is expected to add just the tiniest drop of water to the whisky to bring out more of the flavour.
I took the three-kilometre hiking trail from Morar to get back to Mallaig. Hiking and backpacking seems to be a very popular pastime in Scotland. Anyway, while I was on the trail, I took time to stop and create a small Inukshuk, a figure of a man made from rocks. It’s my own little way of leaving a bit of Canadian tradition in Morar. A woman at the hotel assured me it will likely stay for awhile since it is considered bad luck to knock one down.
The scenery here is pretty cool. The highlands are definitely highlands. They’re not like the Rocky Mountains you see in Alberta, but they’re certainly high enough.
Arriving in Glasgow this afternoon for a couple of days.

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