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June 30 – Deep in the Heart of Scotland
Denny, Stirlingshire

It's about 9:00PM by the time we reach The Topps, a chalet-style farmhouse atop a hill overlooking a panoramic view of the countryside. A working farm specializing in sheep and cashmere goats, Topps is also an inn. The proprietor, Alistair, greets us and takes us on a quick tour of a few of their rooms.

Soon, we are seated in the dining room and have placed our orders. We sit gazing out of a picture window at the breathtaking landscape spread out before us. Dinner is incredible. Robin and I share a fruit plate starter of strawberries, kiwi and the most perfect mango I've ever had in my life. My main course is Chicken Roulade – chicken breast with ricotta cheese and herbs – along with roast potatoes, broccoli and carrots and a basket of fresh breads served family style.

I needn't have worried about making conversation. Dana and Rena are at one end of the table and have hit it off tremendously. Robin is across from me and includes me in her conversation, but we're all so busy eating that talk stops for the most part. My dinner companion, whom Robin has referred to for some reason I still don't understand as "Big Bad Jim," leans over and asks me what I thought of the Freedom statue at the Wallace Monument. I tell him I think it could be improved upon – with a sledgehammer, immediately regretting my words. The last thing I want to do is offend. His eyes twinkle as he agrees. "Or a stick of dynamite."

An aquarium filled with tropical fish burbles behind me. A gas fireplace sends out a warm golden glow. Music from the big band era fills the dimmed room, a mellow sultry voice that's driving me crazy. Who is that, I think to myself, just as Robin asks the question aloud. Rosemary Clooney? Doris Day? Dinah Shore? Robin gets up and takes a peek at the CD player. Dinah Shore. A very young Dinah Shore.

I mentally rename Jim "Gentleman Jim" as he asks if I will join him and Dana outside for a smoke before dessert. I wouldn't ordinarily, but how can I turn down such a kind invitation? Once outside he offers me one of his cigarettes and lights it for me. We stand in the chill air admiring a gorgeous sunset, looking down on the River Carron and breathing deeply of the sweet country air (cough). Nicotine levels back to standard, we go back in to join the others.

There is a discussion in progress about the Sticky Toffee Pudding. Alistair tells us it's a secret recipe, (which he will reveal to us if only we ask, Martin quips) that has been in his family since 1943. Concocted in times of rationing during the second world war, it's made without any sugar. Gentleman Jim has decided on Broken Hearts for pudding. "It's been at least since 1943 that I had a Broken Heart" he says aside to me, his eyes twinkling again. I follow his lead and order the same.

If there were any doubt that Alistair and/or his wife Jennifer were accomplished and enthusiastic chefs it is dispelled with the arrival of dessert. The presentation of strawberries and heart shaped shortbread with artfully placed dollops of cream is a masterpiece that I almost can't bear to dig into. That sentiment lasts about fifteen seconds.

Penny has asked Robin to send her regards to Jennifer, with whom she serves on a committee of some sort. As we enjoy our desserts, she arrives at the table. Martin introduces Robin to her, mentioning that Robin is affiliated with the Scottish Tourist Board, and that Alistair has shown her their rooms.

"First off, you should know that this is an entirely smoke-free establishment." I push my mutant purse from hell further under the table with my foot, hoping my cigarettes are out of sight. I feel as if I've just been caught smoking in the bathroom in high school. I duck my head and cast a glance at Gentleman Jim. Are we in trouble? We were outside, after all. He doesn't seem to care and neither does Martin who is a smoker as well. Okay, I'm just being overly sensitive, I think to myself.

Jennifer continues talking about the inn and the farm and then makes a very valid point, which can be taken in many different ways. She states that she feels that visitors to Scotland should stay in an establishment owned by a native of the country – someone who knows the land, someone who is born and bred here, someone who is part of the land themselves. They know all of the hidden gems, they can be much more effective hosts; they've lived here all of their lives.

Her pride in her homeland is obvious and I am struck with a profound sense of respect for her dignity and self-confidence. On the other hand, she knows that we're staying at Oaklands and she knows Penny personally, so obviously she knows that Penny is English. Her words could be taken as a thinly veiled criticism of our choice of lodgings. No, I'm just being too sensitive again, I think.

I look up at Robin to gauge her reaction. Her lips are pressed tightly together as if she doesn't trust herself to speak a word. I think if I look closely enough I might be able to see steam coming out of her ears. I know how close she is to Penny and admire her restraint and good manners in keeping a retort, that I know is just below the surface, to herself. The tension is cut by laughter at the other end of the table.

Dana and Rena are sharing a laugh and I realize that they haven't heard a word of this heartfelt speech that is my first face-to-face experience with Scottish Nationalism. Jennifer returns to the kitchen and we return our attention to our scrumptious desserts.

Dishes not quite licked clean (we have managed a modicum of decorum) we bid Alistair goodnight with our compliments and head for the car park. Robin's not had much chance to talk with Rena, so we linger here for quite some time chatting. Martin and Rena tell us where they've been in the United States. Coincidentally, they've visited the town in Florida where my parents live.

Rena tells a hilarious tale about taking a dip in the Gulf of Mexico when dolphins swim close to shore and she mistakes them for sharks. Her storytelling timing is exquisite and I can picture it perfectly – Rena splashing up to shore hollering, "Sharrrrrk!" with a thick Scottish brogue. Martin punctuates the story with his droll wit, eyes gleaming with affection for his wife.

It's full dark as we leave Topps behind and head back to Laurieston. It's the new moon and myriad stars sparkle like glitter spread across smooth black velvet. A song starts playing through my head and nothing I do, even attempting to recite the alphabet backward to myself, will banish it. "The stars at night, are big and bright ... deep in the heart of Texas." Argh!

Soon we're approaching Laurieston again, and while this is by no means a cosmopolitan city, the artificial lights of the motorway and the town are enough to dim the twinkling lights above. Robin and I laugh when a motion-sensitive spotlight comes on as we pull into the drive. There will be no sneaking out of Oaklands as we did at Torwood (though we give it our best effort a couple of nights later).

Somehow I've caught a second wind and stay up until past 1:00AM writing in my journal, looking through guidebooks and trying to contain my excitement over our plans for tomorrow, when we will pay a visit to another "must see" on my list – Inchmahome Priory which sits on an island in the midst of Lake Menteith.

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