Saturday, April 26, 2014

On the way to church

One of the joys of church-going up here on the north coast of Scotland is the sheer beauty that surrounds me on the way to and from every service. As I've mentioned before, the church buildings I've known and loved in my life all matter hugely to me, but here the journey to worship itself can be as unique and awe-inspiring as any beautiful and ancient building.

I think a bit of background is probably needed to begin with, to show just why Holy Week and Easter here are so busy and yet so very special for me. The history of church life in Scotland since the reformation is very different from that south of the border. Here the parish churches found in every town and village belong to the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. Anglicans such as myself are always made very welcome at their services, but if I want to attend worship in my own tradition, I have to find a congregation of the Scottish Episcopal Church and these are few and far between in this remote and sparsely-populated area.

Two years ago a new Episcopal congregation was inaugurated here in Tongue and we meet once a month on a Friday at a local retreat house, almost in the shadow of Ben Loyal, for a Eucharist followed by a very enjoyable shared lunch. People travel from a wide area to get here, with only a minority of people actually living in the immediate locality, and they need to be fed and watered before they make the journey home.

The view from the retreat house

We are part of what is known as the Northwest Charge, which covers the whole of the top left corner of the Highlands as far south as Ullapool. Our Rector lives 60 miles away and has 5 very scattered congregations in his care. I hate to think what his monthly mileage total must be! If we want to attend a Eucharist more than once a month, we too have to be prepared to travel.

Holy Week began of course with Palm Sunday and the Church of Scotland parish service was held across the Kyle on the Melness peninsula, in the most northerly church building on the British mainland.

The view across the Kyle of Tongue to the Melness peninsula

Melness church, built by local men for local people

Later in the week, on Maundy Thursday I went with 3 friends to an Episcopal Eucharist being held in one of the most unusual places of worship I’ve ever experienced. Once a month on a Thursday at mid-day, people gather from across an apparently empty landscape at the Crask Inn, about 20 miles south of here, and one of the most remote hostelries in the British Isles. As in Tongue, the service is followed by a shared lunch and the chance for a good chat to catch up with everyone’s news. Sadly the weather that day was so bad, with strong gales and driving sleet, that none of the photos in this section were taken by me. However the service was so moving that the battle against the elements faded into complete insignificance and only the experience of worship remains. 


The Crask Inn in sunshine and storm



The view from the inn car-park

Thankfully that was the last kick of winter and Good Friday dawned bright and sunny, as did the rest of the Easter weekend. On Easter Day I walked happily along the road, under a totally cloudless sky, to the parish church for a packed and joyful morning service.

Saint Andrew's Church, Tongue

The view from the church gate

Later that day, still in glorious sunshine, I drove with the same three friends along 50 miles of mainly single-track road across the hills and around the coast to the council day centre in the little fishing port of Kinlochbervie to make my Easter communion at a wonderful service, which was followed by an equally wonderful Highland tea. The drive home at sunset, with tendrils of mist beginning to curl up from the surface of the lochs, and the deer coming down from the hills to the water to drink, was so beautiful that it brought me close to tears at times.

The River Hope on its way from Loch Hope to the sea

Glorious Loch Eriboll, snapped from the car
The Pentland Firth, not the Mediterranean

Sangobeg Sands


Along the shore of the Kyle of Durness

Don't wake the sleeping dragon

Loch Sheigra and Loch Inchard at sunset

Yesterday a very special Easter celebration was rounded off by our monthly Eucharist at the retreat house. The sun may have disappeared behind a layer of thick, grey cloud, but nothing dims the warmth of the fellowship we enjoy and the significance we attach to the worship we travel so far to attend. And there isn't a pew or a stained-glass window to be seen anywhere….


50 comments:

  1. This was such an interesting read. I really enjoy reading about your travels and the local culture where you spend time. Your photos are really evocative too, it looks like a beautiful place but also a bit desolate, I'm sure. The Melness church reminds me very much of some of the small mission churches which are still standing around New Mexico; they're small structures, usually built with adobe bricks which may be whitewashed, but the shape and size are very similar to old village churches there in some ways. I'm so glad to know you have friends in so many places, always a warm welcome wherever you are.

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    1. Isn't this one of the joys of blogging, Jennifer - that we can read about lives and experiences so different from our own as well as finding kindred spirits who like and do the same things we do? You're right, the landscape of the Highlands is wonderful, but very empty and many find it lonely and rather desolate. I can just imagine the little adobe mission churches out in the emptiness of the New Mexico landscape - signs of hope and faith, just as Melness church is. As for friends, I am grateful for them wherever I go.

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  2. Such magnificent scenery Perpetua.
    I think it was well worth your travel to see all those lovely places.
    The little churches , the sea and the fields.
    I am pleased that you had such a warm welcome ... All the people sound so friendly
    Your Easter Passover sounds just perfect.
    It's one of the things Imiss here. Is the congregation before or after mass. Here no one seems to talk.. they just walk out and home.
    Lovely post Perpetua, I can feel your happiness through your writing.
    Best wishes to you there in the land of Bonny Prince charlie.!
    God bless. val xxx

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    1. Val, the scenery up here is glorious, particularly in such wonderful sunshine as we had on Easter Day. I never get tired of it. Yes, you're right - I am always very happy here and this was so much the case at the Holy Week and Easter services. People really wanted to be there and had taken great pains to get there and were glad to be with each other. There's something special about sharing a meal after a service. At home in Wales it's usually just coffee and biscuits, but this is better than just walking out and not talking to each other.

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  3. A wonderful post, beautifully illustrated Perpetua. It has given me quite a different view of the life lived so far north.
    Despite the incredibly lovely scenery it has a feeling of remoteness about it which would give me the screaming 'heebies' . I think I must be a townie at heart, or possibly even agoraphobic.
    I can see the appeal but the sheer vastness of the horizons would send me scuttling for the nearest city.
    The air must be wonderful up there, and relatively unpolluted I imagine?
    Enjoy your northern home. BlessingsX

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it from the safety of your own cosy home, Ray. :-) Yes, this is a very remote area, with tiny populations widely scattered and nothing but empty miles between them, and I really love this, but I know many people wouldn't, so you're not alone in your reaction. I grew up on the edge of the Lancashire moors so empty, far horizons are familiar to me and I feel at home with them and as though I can really breathe. The air really is wonderful and the only pollution comes from a few cars and the peat and coal still used for domestic heating by some people. Up here the coalman still comes round with his lorry. :-)

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  4. Before commenting on your post Perpetua, a quick 'heads up' (as some of the Americans in my congregation would say :-) ), that the link in your first paragraph is wrong. It takes you to Blogger.com, not to the post that you intended.

    I very much enjoyed your illustrated tour of Church life over Holy Week & Easter in the far north-west of Scotland. I'm glad that for the most part, the weather has been kind & allowed you to take these delightful photographs. I think that when you have make a considerable effort in order to attend worship, you appreciate it all the more. Some in my Prague congregation can travel for an hour or more in order to get to St. Clement's and they are often the ones who are the most appreciative of our services. In turn, many in the Brno congregation express great thanks to me because I take the trouble to make an over 400 km round trip, to officiate for them each month.

    Now back to 'Doubting Thomas' for tomorrow :-)

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    1. Thanks so much for pointing out the faulty link, Ricky. I really don't know how that happened as I checked it when inserting it, but Blogger must have hiccupped. :-) It's now mended.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the scenic tour. After so much cloud and rain it was really wonderful to have such glorious weather over Easter and be able to capture this amazing landscape as I travelled to church. You're right that having to make a real effort to get to worship makes one appreciate it even more. I can remember having lunch after one Sunday Eucharist at Saint Clement's with some of your congregation who would have quite a journey to get home again. Our rector does a lot of travelling as I said, but none of his journeys approach your Brno round trip in length. Be thankful for your motorways though - travelling on these single-track roads can be very slow and often interrupted by having to get out of the way for oncoming vehicles or even Highland cattle and deer. :-)

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    2. On my Brno trip on Easter Day, there was a deer grazing right at the side of the motorway!!!!

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    3. Oops!Tthat's much more dangerous than finding them at the side of a single-track road, where one can't travel very fast in any case.

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  5. No wonder you sounded so happy when writing your previous post!
    Such beautiful scenery, but also such a beautiful sense of fellowship which comes across so strongly in what you have written.
    I used to attend the French Reformed Church in an area where, as in Scotland, people would come long distances to attend and there was always a pot luck lunch after the service...and usually an 'open house' in the afternoon where the minister was available for help and advice.

    Happy days!

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    1. I was brimming over with happiness, Helen, and had to write about the reason in more detail. The experience of the fellowship in these small congregations amidst such vast and empty beauty is like nothing I've experienced elsewhere, even though I find good fellowship in other churches too.

      Your French experience has a lot of similarities and I bet you enjoyed those pot-luck lunches (always different and always delicious in my experience) Our Rector often stays overnight at the retreat house before or after the service so he can visit members of the congregation in their own homes where possible. Offering pastoral care to a far-flung flock isn't easy.

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  6. I really enjoyed sharing your travels. As you know I'm a "non-believer" but I appreciate the tradition and ritual in life (and death) and I particularly love that many of the rituals include the sharing of food. There is nothing that draws folk together than "breaking bread" I feel....religious or no...

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Sian. Of course that road is familiar to you from your holiday travels, but it looked truly wonderful that day.You're quite right - much if what I've written about fellowship, particularly fellowship involving food, applies to all people whatever their beliefs. Food implies comfort, hospitality, sharing, all things, which as you say, draw people together in many different contexts. I see it in your accounts of island celebrations as much as in my experience of food shared after worship.

      -

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  7. Hari Om
    Even knowing the territory, as it were, reading it through another's eyes is always welcome - and those photos speak volumes!!! Delighted you had such a warm and enriching Holy week. May the sun continue to shine! YAM xx

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    1. Yes, you're no stranger to the delights of the Highlands, Yam. I look forward to the photographs you would share if you manage to make it up here one day. Holy Week this year more than mad eup for my isolated situation last year. I'm glad to say the sun has reappeared today for my walk along the road to church in an hour or so. :-)

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  8. This looks and sounds so perfect. If any educationalist is ever looking for a way to explain spirituality...they just need to read this post. So, so beautiful. Jx

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    1. Thanks for making time to pop in amidst your last-minute preparations, Janice. I'm glad you appreciated my post so much. It has been such a wonderful time for me this Easter I just had to share it. Safe travelling today and I look forward to your first post from Caunes.

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  9. What a wonderful post. I am impressed with the miles covered to get to worship. I drive about 4 minutes to get to church. When I was about 15 or 16, I made my profession of faith, in a Presbyterian church in Windsor, Ontario. It was called Saint Andrews. What beautiful scenery you travel through. I especially like the Hope River. There is a poem or inspirational story in there somewhere. Blessings.

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    1. Thanks, Bonnie. I too am impressed by the effort people put into getting to worship, especially after my experience in England and Wales of people who won't even travel to the next village a couple of miles away to worship when there isn't a service in their own church. Saint Andrew is of course the patron saint of Scotland so a favourite name for Church of Scotland churches. The scenery is glorious and some of the name very appealing. As well as the River Hope there is a mountain and a lake of the same name. :-)

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  10. Dear Perpetua, I absolutely love this post: the views of your area are breath-taking! It looks so cold, yet so romantic and wonderful too. I really can't pick a favourite picture, they are all so good. I can see what Jennifer means about the little church which looks like those in New Mexico - it does! The sense of community in your Easter worship shines through, and what a perfect celebration of Christianity's greatest feast. God Bless you!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Patricia. I love the landscape here so much that I can't help but share it. Yes, it isn't what you'd call warm up here very often (though we're forecast to reach the dizzy heights of 17C tomorrow) but we dress accordingly and at least the cool wind deters the midges. :-) Melness church reminds me of the Congregationalist chapel I attended as a child - very plain inside and out. At the 3 different Eucharists it was the worship and fellowship which mattered, as none of them was held in anything even remotely resembling a church. It's very much a return to the way the early Christians must have gathered for worship.

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  11. Hello Perpetua:

    How lovely that you should have spent Holy Week in so many different places and with, we imagine, many different congregations. For us Eastertide is the most wonderful in the whole of the Church Calendar and is a time we much prefer over Christmas. Perhaps that is because, to a greater or lesser degree, Easter has not lost its meaning whereas we find Christmas so very commercial that it is sometimes difficult beneath all of the tinsel to recognize what it really symbolises.

    The Church of Scotland, so different as we have discovered from the Church of England, has a thriving community here in Budapest although the Minister is, in fact, an American.

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    1. I really loved my experience of worship this Holly Week and Easter, Jane and Lance. As I said to Patricia, because the 3 Eucharists were held in buildings with no ecclesiastical connection, it felt very much as though we following the way the early Christians must have gathered for worship. There was some overlap between the three congregations, as some people are prepared to travel outside the area of their own congregation and it felt good to recognise a familiar face or two among the welcoming strangers. I very much agree with you that Easter has managed to retain its central meaning more easily than Christmas, though the advent of Easter eggs in British supermarkets as soon as Boxing Day dawns does dilute the anticipation of the season.

      How interesting to hear that the Church of Scotland has such a strong presence in Budapest. It is indeed very different from the Anglican Church, both in its organisation and its forms of worship.

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  12. P.S. Possibly we are losing the proverbial 'plot' as having been carried away with thoughts of Christmas [see above], the main thing we wished to say, and forgot(!!), was how wonderful the scenery is all around you. So remote and so very, very lovely.

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    1. Joun the club, Jane and Lance! I'm glad to see that I'm not the one who has to add postscripts to comments because I've forgotten something. :-) The landscape of the North-West Highlands is hauntingly beautiful and unspoilt. Its very remoteness helps to protect it and for those who are not overwhelmed and even oppressed by its emptiness, it has an attraction almost beyond words.

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  13. What beautiful & moving Easter journeys you have made this Easter Perpetua. Thanks for the lovely photos. We have been very much home-bound this Easter with our family wedding but the newlyweds are now enjoying their honeymoon in an old fisherman's cottage opening straight onto the the beach and bay in St Ive's with enviable views.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the photos, PolkaDot. It's been a wonderful Easter which has more than made up for having missed Holy Week and Easter last year because of the snow. Looking at that sun-drenched landscape it was hard to remember we'd been trapped by 3-foot drifts the year before. You of course have had your own happy celebrations and I hope the weather is being kind to the newly-weds in their idyllic honeymoon location. Up here the temperature is forecast to drop like a stone by mid-week. Brrr!

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  14. I loved this post, Perpetua. The photos, your description of the various services, the love you have for that remote corner of Scotland - it was such a treat to be able to have this glimpse into your life.

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    1. Thanks, Kristie. I so enjoyed writing this post and putting down my memories of a very special Holy Week and Easter before they fade. As for the photos, I love this area so much that I can hardly stop trying to capture its beauty and mystery in all kinds of light and weather. I just wish I were a better photographer with a better camera.

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    2. I think you did a great job with the pictures!

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    3. Thanks, Kristie. :You know from your own experience that we're all our own worst critics. :-)

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  15. I've been sitting here sighing at all the familiar places, hoping that it won't be too long before another visit. You certainly put those of us who worry about the amalgamation of English parishes to shame - and the distances you travel up there are no mean feats given some of the roads. We used to joke about hoping not to meet the Kinlochbervie fish lorry coming the other way. Happy Easter x

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    1. I was thinking of you as I wrote the post and chose the photos, Anny, knowing how well you know the North-West Highlands and how much you love them. You're so right that down south we're spoiled when it comes to parish life and travelling to services. There's a lot of reorganisation going on in my home diocese of Bangor and I wish people would realise how lucky they are if all they have to do is to drive to the next village to worship. Your mention of the Kinlochbervie fish lorry made me smile, as we've met a few of those over the years. :-)

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  16. I am as overcome by your spiritual journey of Holy Week as with the scenic one, Perpetua. As others have mentioned, the Mellness church evokes images of other churches; to me, those of the prairie, where folks gathered, some coming from miles and miles, to attend services, which were often irregular as the minister covered such a large territory. I appreciate the sense of community that must come from traveling so far to worship and receive communion then to enjoy a meal afterwards. Thank you so much for sharing your "way to church" here, Perpetua.

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    1. Holy Week this year was an intense and deeply meaningful experience for me in every way, Penny. I now have a vivid mental image of a little church on the prairie,where there's no real centre of population and the church and worship act as a social as well as a spiritual focus. Many of the Episcopal congregations don't even have a church building, but meet in a hall or a home - or as at Crask, in an inn. Being church gains a whole new meaning in these circumstances.

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  17. Beautiful pictures, P. I'll be up there on the 20th of May. You've made me start researching local churches . After the Hydran Easter, I would love a simple un-explosive service.

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    1. Bother, we won't overlap yet again! I'm sure you can find a simple little church which will offer you a simple and undramatic service. i still can't get over your post about Easter Sunday on Hydra!

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  18. It looks breath-takingly beautiful. Easter is such a special time.

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    1. Easter is wonderful, Molly - as is this area. It's very different from Mid-Wales, and on a much bigger scale, but with the same sense of space and closeness to real nature. I love them both.

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  19. I've enjoyed this post very much. Your Easter joy shines through your writing. I can understand from what you say and from the photographs the reason why you love the north of Scotland and the communities there.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. I'm glad the joy and my love of this beautiful, remote area and its communities comes through in what I wrote and the images I managed to capture. The play of light and show on the landscape means that I simply can't stop taking pictures as it's constantly changing..

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  20. Dear Perpetua, Thank you for comments about windswept appearance, now hopefully my owner will take note and not let it happen again. Lady Vicki.

    Oh yes I have with me, clothing for wet, wind, snowy and summer weather so well prepared. But Scotland is a lovely country to visit with some wonderful locations. Hilary

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    1. Lady Vicki, allowances must be made so that elegance such as yours isn't imperilled by adverse weather conditions. :-)

      Hilary, one can't visit Scotland without clothing for every season. Today we've been in short sleeves up here on the north coast, but the layers will be back tomorrow.

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  21. The grandeur of the countryside is a perfect setting for the lonely churches and it is easy to imagine the combination of hospitality and spirituality evoked in your Easter posting.

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    1. Yes, the small buildings look at home in such magnificent scenery, where even the mightiest cathedral would be dwarfed into insignificance. The mix of spirituality and hospitality was a wonderful experience, each enhancing the other.

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  22. This must be one of the more unusual - certainly more far-flung - Holy Weeks on the blogosphere! Thank you for your wonderful descriptions and photos of this most remote part of the Scottish mainland. Your note that Melness Kirk was built by locals for locals, brings home the self-sufficiency necessary to have survived and to have built communities in this area. (Where, I wonder, do you go for petrol?)
    I am so glad (an overused but lovely word) that you were able to enjoy such a beautiful Easter, in communion with other worshippers. Hallelujah! :)

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    1. I think you're probably right, DB. :-) I couldn't have imagined it myself before I experienced it and the glorious weather of the Easter weekend was a gift for taking photos on my travels. It is magnificent scenery in any weather, but in sunshine it takes my breath away. Of course these tiny coastal communities grew up connected more by sea than by land and had to be intensely self-reliant, before the advent of metalled roads and motorised transport. There's a garage in Tongue itself for both petrol and vehicle maintenance and of course people fill up at a rather lower cost on major shopping trips to places like Thurso, Wick and Inverness.

      It was a wonderful Holy Week and Easter for me, so Hallelujah indeed¬!

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  23. Two years late with this comment but I just have to make it; I wish I could make a dive into this scenery and take part of the worship and wonders of this country and these churches. You have an exceptional way with both words and camera, Perpetua, I am sincerely happy I found you, and as a bonus I can take part of the bloggers on your list.
    In Sweden.I couldn't find relations such as these among bloggers and I don't want to read blogs by priests alone. I do wish I shall see Scotland before I die, I was on my way to Iona once but the opportunity was lost to me. Meanwhile I will travel through your eyes and words. Not bad at all!!

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    1. It's never too late to comment, Fairtrader, and I'm very glad you found and enjoyed the post. It's lovely to have you aboard, both reading and commenting here and also exploring some of the blogs I follow and enjoy. One of the things which most entranced me when I started blogging five years ago is the sense of community I discovered as I got to know bloggers from all over the world and from such different backgrounds. There really is such a thing as blog friendship and the ones I've made have enriched my life enormously.

      The North-West Highland of Scotland is a region we really love and normally we would be there at this time of year. Keep reading and you'll find more posts from there the next time we visit. I do hope you manage to visit Scotland yourself one day.

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I welcome your comments and will always try to respond to them. Thank you for reading.