Thanksgiving is a big deal for us as it combines several of Sara’s favorite things: hosting, cooking, and the beginning of Christmas. This was our second Thanksgiving in Scotland, the first being two days after we arrived from America. With our possessions in tow, we went on a whirlwind apartment tour throughout Edinburgh, and celebrated the day with Mexican food and a concert by friend Brigid Kaelin.
Determined not to repeat the Saddest Thanksgiving Ever (no offence Brigid, the concert was great) as Sara has now named that particular holiday, we went on the hunt for options in the spring. Sara quickly discovered the Landmark Trust which is a not-for-profit body operating across the United Kingdom that maintains and rents out a magnificent host of castles, towers, and manor homes as vacation properties. They take care to preserve the original character and tone of each property and seemed to have great reviews along with very expensive prices, particularly for the summer and Christmas seasons. Exceptions were the cold wintery non-holiday months, including the non-(British)holiday of Thanksgiving!
Flipping through the properties, Saddell House quickly caught our eye. Situated fairly on the west coast of Scotland, it also has a castle on the property, overlooks a private beach and bay, and looked like it had a massive kitchen. We managed to persuade good friends Matt and Lauren to join us and made a deposit, not really knowing what to expect.
Our trip out to Saddell House involved renting a car and transporting four days worth of food and our turkey which had to be special ordered from Crombies, our fantastic neighborhood butchers. Fresh turkeys aren’t available in Scotland this far ahead of Christmas, but we were assured that we’d receive the best frozen, free range, organic bird available. And we did – born and raised on a farm in a little town called Peebles.
We upgraded two sizes of car on the rental to make sure we had enough space for ourselves and supplies (our friends drove separately) and this meant we received a manual transmission, diesel car about the size of a Yaris or Honda Fit. Americans always ask and so we’ll tell you – the gearshift is on your left in the UK, but the pedals are the same configuration. Although only about a hundred miles away as the crow flies, the trip would be roughly 170 miles across the Central Belt to Glasgow, then north alongside Loch Lomond, then down a peninsula to Campbeltown with the Isle of Arran to the east of us and and islands of Jura and Islay to the west.
The M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow is what an American driver would expect – a four lane divided Interstate-style highway with on-ramps and no lights. From Glasgow onwards the roads become very un-American. They are only two lane and are extremely narrow for American standards, involve a lot of roundabouts while still in populated areas, and then quickly narrow even further and lack a shoulder as you begin climbing into the very sparsely populated highlands.
To give a bit of perspective – the population of the United Kingdom is roughly 63 million people, and of that total, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland combine for 58 million. This means that only about 5 million people live in Scotland, which has half of its population living in the Central Belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, a 75 mile strip. In other words, the highlands are empty. Extremely empty, even for American West standards.
While making the trip out, it was raining heavily which added massive hydroplane-inducing puddles to the list of obstacles we had to navigate. Since most transportation to these remote towns in the highlands is done by car or truck we were sharing the road with some very large vehicles in surprisingly heavy traffic as we made our way north around the banks of Loch Lomond.
As we approached our turn south we found our road had been closed by a landslide, and we had to divert north about an hour out of our way towards Oban. While a bit of a nuisance it did afford some spectacular views of the scenery as we were in and out of rain, dark clouds, bright sunlight, and we passed by snow-capped mountains. We also managed to see a bit of sunset over the ocean as we drove for a while along the western coastline, before crossing back over to the east side of the peninsula where Saddell House is located.
Sundown is at roughly 4PM during this time of year which means we arrived in darkness to find the house ready and nestled between the trees and the ocean. There was also total darkness with zero light pollution but we could hear the ocean even if we couldn’t see it. Saddell House started first as a castle built in 1508 which still stands about a quarter mile down the road. The house we were staying in was built in 1774, burned down in 1899, was rebuilt almost at once and was privately owned until after World War II when many of the great houses found themselves in financial difficulty. The Landmark Trust rescued many of these houses by purchasing them, giving their occupants the chance to live out their life in their property, and later renovating them and opening the properties to the public. In Saddell House’s case, the last owner was a widow who died in 1998.
The mansion itself is massive. It sleeps thirteen, but this is simply because Landmark closed five rooms on the top floor, and didn’t renovate the basement which originally housed servants quarters and the great kitchen. The basement would easily have enough space for another 5-7 rooms.
A number of changes were made to the property – the great entrance hall was made into a dining room, and the smoking room and library were made into bedrooms on the ground floor. The dining room was turned into a massive kitchen, and the butler’s serving room (adjacent to the kitchen) was renovated into a second kitchen, which while tiny compared to the main kitchen, is still twice the size of our kitchen in Edinburgh. Fireplaces are present in every room and we dined in the company of at least a dozen mounted deer heads and horns, and even some kind of killer fish.
The next morning we awoke to the stunning views of the ocean and coastline we’d be enjoying the entire stay. Surrounded by trees on one side, the house looks over Saddell Bay and a curved white sand beach that’s bracketed by rugged rocks and shoreline one either side. Our English friend Elco treated us to cheese toasties (later he’d be taught how to make a proper grilled cheese as repayment) which consisted of toast topped with a fried egg and melted cheese. Over the three full days we had we went for walks along the deserted beach, admired the castle and ruins of Saddell Abbey which were both close by, played Nintendo Wii games courtesy of a projector we brought, lit fires, and ate and ate and ate. We also played many rounds of ping pong on a table set up in the original great kitchen in the basement. Two of our group decided they’d go for a swim in the icy ocean water which was over almost as soon as it began, the brave two making a beeline back for hot showers immediately after the plunge.
Our Thanksgiving day feast included all the hallmarks of a traditional celebration hosted by Sara, which many have experienced over the years – a magnificent, perfectly cooked bird (despite an overeager oven), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes (this year with marshmallow topping on half just for Lauren), fresh cranberry sauce (NOT canned), green beans, and an unbelievable dressing which improves every year. We had glasses of cinnamon-scented water, champagne, and after dinner, Thanksgiving-themed cocktails made from pear cider and other secret ingredients.
We ate dinner around 4:30 which meant we ate a second dinner around 8:30 and then dove into pies (pumpkin and pecan) around midnight. Our English friend who was experiencing his first Thanksgiving dinner spent about 30 minutes laying on the dining room floor in front of the fire between Second Dinner and Pies.
Immediately after First Dinner, the Christmas music began playing, and we enjoyed several rounds of video games and movies.
Our drive home was sans-detour and meant we got to sample some amazing fish and chips and traditional Scottish coal-fired pizza in Inveraray, a tiny village which overlooks the cold ocean water towards the snow capped peaks of the Argyll Forest Park. The drive north and west from Iveraray was absolutely breathtaking with water, mountains, dark clouds, bright sunlight, and snow capped peaks all filling the view as we trundled along a deserted two lane road seemingly at the end of the world.
Despite no internet or connection with the outside world, we all agreed the days flew by during our stay and we wanted to stay even longer. In the end it was a very thankful, very full group headed home to Edinburgh.