We had started our first year in Scotland as insecure and very American travelers. We wanted our own bathroom and a nice green salad on every menu. But returning for a second tour, we felt more daring and planned a weekend devoted to spontaneity.
Still very American and not wanting to admit it, we set out with every conceivable piece of gear we might need for this first weekend we’d planned not to plan ahead. Of course the weather justified our over-packed boot somewhat–cold weather, hot weather, rainy weather being all possible and more than likely all on the same day.
I was also prepared to feed us for three days if no amenable restaurant crossed our path. The only snag here was that our large cooler had very little to keep it cool. The freezer in the flat holds only two ice trays, no more, and less if we want to store anything else there.
I inquired at several supermarkets about bags of ice and was greeted with an icy, and somewhat scolding “no” that included the understanding that Scots, if they ever actually need ice, make their own. That Americans actually pay for this commodity was shocking. I was embarrassed to have revealed this shameful thing.
Also on board were our guidebooks, now aged a year beyond their prime, but I considered them vital emergency protection.
The first leg of our journey took us over the A9, Britain’s most notorious killer road that staggers back and forth from two- to four-lane highway as it blasts north through the Highlands. Most of Scotland was traveling north, half of them with caravans in tow, for this fine autumn weekend. It was not a relaxing start.
We escaped the traffic when we veered east at Boat of Garten and entered the Spey Valley. The sun was still high and our relief at leaving the motorway put us in the mood for traveling further. A look around convinced us that this valley must be a land flowing with bed and breakfasts. We would look for the perfect scenic spot, a riverside farmhouse perhaps with a charming pub nearby. Another hour, we said. Plenty of time.
The hour passed pleasantly as the scenery grew wilder and the traffic saner. Our target for stopping was 6:30. We began to look in earnest at 6:15 for that perfect B&B. At 7, we were still searching. A stop in one quaint village found both the inn and the B&B full. Sportsmen, we began to nervously surmise. When exactly is the hunting season around here?
Then at last another sign. A hotel ahead. Expensive perhaps, but possibly worth it. The grounds of the place were shrouded in mist as Scottish cattle with enormous horns roamed peacefully about.
Only a few cars sat in the car park, another hopeful sign. We freed ourselves from three hours worth of oatcake crumbs and gum wrappers and stumbled out of the car.
The sleek attire of the women who greeted us and the whispering darkness of the lobby bespoke high rates. But it was too late to back out. We had to ask. A double sir? Of course. That will be £97, an easy number to convert to dollars, about $170 per night. Trying to retain our dignity we indicated that was a little “dear” for us and hurried out into the misty darkness. I began to suspect that darkness was a serious handicap to the successful spontaneous weekend.
We prayed and trekked onward, both apologizing profusely as though we should have known better. “That’s OK. It makes a better story.” My husband, Mike, tried enthusiastically to agree.
Next stop: Elgin, a large splotch on the map and surely home to innumerable B&Bs. Forget the scenery, let’s just find a bed. Lots of traffic and lots of ugly orange street lights later, we still had seen no B&Bs. “Maybe this isn’t the main route through town,” Mike said. But it didn’t look like we would like any road through that town. So we stuck to our northward-bound course.
A few miles out we spotted it. Farmhouse B&B it said. “Shall we …?” Mike said. “Yes,” I said, with as much authority as I could muster.
The light was dim, but as we passed through the gate, we could just make out the name, “Barmuckity.” It was a funny name and inspired some comments on what the muckity stood for.
Our hostess led us to a whole section of the house that we were to have to ourselves and directed us to a pub nearby for a meal. While we were settling in, she returned acting like she was the intruder instead of us and advised us we might want to hurry. “I took a wee look at the paper,” she said. “They only serve until 8.”
Outside we could just make out the shape of small sheds spread widely about. Mike peered into the darkness and concluded without too much confidence that we were looking at pigs. Perhaps an explanation for the “muckity.”
Our first attempt to enter the pub at the Tenant Arms took us through the wrong door. This was the room for serious drinkers, who also smoked and played snooker. We were embarrassed by our error. When we finally entered aright, we were greeted by the same woman who had shooed us out of the room on the other side. There was something rather tentative in her welcome and very telling in the silence and the stares of other diners. They knew we were foreigners.
It has happened so often that I ought to be accustomed to it by now. I still feel unwelcome, when more often than not, all I should be doing is putting the waitress at ease. We brought an element of unpredictability into what was undoubtedly a very familiar Friday night crowd. We ordered our usual fish and chips. She delivered our meals with a large dish of tartar sauce usually an indication that we have been identified as Americans.
We tried to strike up a conversation and finally she softened. “Where is it your staying?” she said. “Toward Elgin,” we said, pronouncing it properly with a “g” as in gun. “The pig farm is it?” she said grinning for the first time. “Yes!” We shared the joke and confessed we hadn’t actually figured that out at first.
We soon feared that we were dawdling beyond the allotted time. There is a rather strict limit on when you are supposed to be eating in most of these places. We never seem to get it quite right. We apologized and asked for dessert anyway. One dish appealed to us: Dream or cream, (she wasn’t sure) Rob Roy. Mike ordered one, and we determined it was both dreamy and creamy, so I ordered another. We also defied tradition when we left a tip on the table. It is a hard habit to break, especially when you sense that your presence has caused more than the normal inconvenience.
Back at Barmuckity, the wee children were in their jams and were shushed out of the way when we came in. The only residents for the night, we had the bath, the sitting room and a small kitchen all to ourselves. But we were ready to crash and slept quite soundly through the night. The sweet sound of children’s voices and breakfasting parents greeted us through the door down the hall when we awoke.
Our breakfast was served in the living room at a table surrounded by a large bay window. “Yup, those are pigs all right.” We watched as four huge sows poked about. It was fascinating as we tried to determine who was doing what out there in what we realized were acres of pigs. We barely flinched when the sausage and bacon were served, although I couldn’t really do them justice. But I can’t blame the pigs. I can never do the meat in these British breakfasts justice.
We asked our hostess about the farm. She said we were welcome to look around after breakfast. Barmuckity actually means “hill of pigs,” she said. But when they bought the place two years ago not knowing what the name meant, there were no pigs there. That was their addition after moving away from Edinburgh. Now Barmuckity is home to 20 boars, 250 sows and 2,000 piglets.
Noting a large pile of boots outside the front door (obviously important gear on a pig farm), we loaded the car and began to shoot photos and study the operation. We couldn’t see any piglets, but one of the workers offered to give us a tour. We jumped at the opportunity, stepping gingerly through the “muckity” and over the 8,000 volt electric fence that segregates the various groups of pigs. He took us to metal huts where huge sows lay with huge litters of piglets jockeying for a spot to feed. A lighthearted border collie pranced about behind us.
Would you like to hold a piglet?” he said. “Sure!” He pulled one out of the shed and handed it gently to me. The little guy was terrified. His squirming stopped abruptly. Only his frightened little eyes were moving. “Do you see how warm they are?” asked our guide with a lovely touch of wonder from one who sees the drama enacted day after day, over and over again. “Even in winter they’re warm like that,” he said.
He went on to explain proudly that the farm is “environmentally friendly.” The pigs are raised on straw, not cement, which is more humane. They were also scattered about over many acres. Only in the barn where a few of them were corralled closely together was the odour strong.
We left Barmuckity full of wonder ourselves at the goodness of God. “I think henceforth the word Barmuckity will represent for me the wonderful surprises God has in store for us,” Mike said.
1991-2017 Linda Murray Green. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared on the University of Edinburgh website.