Our excitement had been mounting as we worked our way up to the highlands in our car. We passed beautiful vistas, lochs, fields of bluebells gracing the hills and snow capped mountain peaks. We listened to ‘Everything is awesome’ from the Lego movie on repeat (especially for the birthday boy) interspersed with ‘California’ by Phantom Planet (a request from Eve graciously granted from Josh). Even the pounding downpour that greeted us at Achnagairn couldn’t dampen our spirits. We had hoped to arrive first to welcome everyone and set up for Josh’s party, but we were locked out of the house. We made our way to one of the lodges to shelter from the rain and wait for the house to be opened. We had a great time at the lodge with some of the other early arrivals and before we knew it, the rain slowed and the house was opened up.
It was thrilling for us to enter the house and see different factions of our families milling around the same space. At first glance I saw Corbin’s, Shaw’s and Deacon’s busying themselves bringing in luggage, greeting each other and exploring the rooms. I remember catching my breath and feeling a tingle down my spine as I drank in the atmosphere of having all these different sections of our family, together in the same place. It was truly magical!
The house itself was unbelievable! Each room was waiting to be explored. There were so many nooks and crannies, and the attention to detail in each room was astounding. I particularly loved seeing the ballroom and seeing the reaction of the other guests as they entered it. I felt the anticipation of the ceilidh on our last evening bubbling up inside of me every time I went in that room. A good portion of that evening was spent exploring fancy bedrooms, looking for the library, happening upon the cinema room and of course lounging in the lounge with the fire on later. But first it was time to enjoy Joshua’s party, complete with Loch Ness monster Piñata and enjoy the warming soup Sid and Jean prepared for us.
Finally everyone had safely arrived and we settled down for the night, looking forward to the days ahead.
We had a pretty packed schedule of activities for people to enjoy, some of our favourite things we did were Josh’s party, the family hike, the murder mystery, visiting Eilean Donan castle, quiz, playing capture the flag with the girls, Aunty Ruth’s school for princesses and Matthew’s school for warriors and of course the ceilidh.
The hike was beautiful. Thanks Dan! I think it was the most vibrantly green forest I’ve ever visited. It had an old world charm and mystery that made me feel as though I was stepping in to the movie ‘Brave’ or ‘Lord of the rings’. I loved the high, straight trees (tallest in the UK), babbling brook, moss covered branches and vibrant canopy. The beautiful old stone bridge was a definite highlight that i wasn’t expecting to come across. Some of the girls collected lovely wildflower bouquets along the way. Adults and children chatted and played. It was great. It certainly tired out some of the troops, especially those with little legs and Uncle Len who’d just had surgery!
The murder mystery was that same evening. We were happy to get the kids to bed on time (thanks to being tired out after a day of hiking and Nessie spotting) and made it downstairs in time to start the evening activity. I was blown away by some of the costumes people put together. They looked great. A special shout out to Uncle Jimmy and his moustache!
Mark and Kathy did a great job organising the murder mystery for us and it ran really smoothly. Everyone had a brilliant time but i don’t think anyone guessed the murderer correctly (well done Laura!)
Eilean Donan castle was another highlight. We had been before in autumn/winter time and knew how spectacular it was but were looking forward to seeing it in another season. We knew the drive there was gorgeous and we weren’t disappointed. This time however, we were able to go in the castle. We were pleasantly surprised by how great great it was. There were interactive displays sharing the history of the castle on the lochs, still life scenes set up, lots of workers answering questions and dressed up. The children (and Dave) enjoyed holding swords and getting photos taken. By the end of the visit the temperature felt really high so most of us enjoyed ice creams, looking out towards the beautiful view. We then raced home for dinner (always a highlight when Sid and Jean are involved), and cinema night (most highly anticipated by the children).
That evening were the Gentlemen’s/ladies nights. We both had a good laugh at our respective parties. After some fun games (and chocolate) Heather particularly loved playing capture the flag and laughed so hard at the various shenanigans going on. Kathy A. hiding in the scrub, Jude scaling trees, general biting (Beth!), screaming, cheating (Mel C.), Lucy’s impressive flag catching and Viv’s attack on Debbie K’s hair to name but a few incidents of the evening. Such fun!
The last full day began with the school for Princesses and school for warriors. I don’t think there could have been a better way to start the day for the children. Wow. They really had the time of their lives. While Matthew taught the boys all they needed to know to be true warriors, they were provided with special outfits and swords and taught important moves. Matthew completely captured their imagination. It was magnificent to see the concentration on their little faces as they completely listened and obeyed him. It was as though he had his own little stripling warriors paying attention to every command he gave and giving it their all.
Ruth and Marian taught the girls all about being true princesses. One of the most magical moments here happened when the girls were gathered round colouring their princess books to the frozen soundtrack then all started belting out ‘Let it go’ in unison. There were no inhibitions, they were all just so comfortable, happy and carefree. To me that was one of those priceless moments that can’t ever be planned or contrived or even repeated. I think there were a few damp eyes in the room as the air thickened around us for a few minutes and the adults drank in what was happening between our beautiful little princesses.
That evening was the Ceilidh, we had a formal group photo outside the house which Heather kept everyone waiting for (sorry, we lost the girls’ shoes!) Followed by the most amazing banquet provided by Sid and Jean. Oh the food!
After the food Dave made a speech, thanking everyone involved in making this such a wonderful experience for us:
Sid and Jean for the food with a lot of help from Erin, Paul and Carole for organising the ceilidh band, collection of money and ordering on the food as well as continuous help in the kitchen – along with Melanie, Ruth and Marian, Hilary for organising the popular early morning runs, Mark and Kathy for the murder mystery, Dan for the hike, Marian for the quiz, Annie and Hilary for the quiz, Debbie for organising the bedtime story and cinema night, John for organising the gentleman’s evening and Melanie K for the ladies night, Dave C and John for the children’s games, Tom and Lyn for help with Joshua’s party, Amy and Ashley for taking photos plus everyone else for their contributions towards the whole experience, general clean up, looking out for each other and helping us make some amazing memories.
After some fabulous desserts Dave and Heather were treated like royalty and were ‘King and Queen’ for the night. The princesses performed a dance for us and we presented them with a certificate and special handkerchief as they lined up and curtsied one by one. The warriors then lined up just so, leaning on their swords and came forward one by one to be Knighted.
Much to our surprise Paul and Lindsey said a few words about Dave and Heather and we were presented with very generous gifts. Thank you!!!
Finally it was time for the Ceilidh. The band had waited patiently, observing, perhaps with a little bemusement, the various happenings. They introduced themselves and the dancing began. The ballroom was perfect – large enough for galloping down long rows, a wooden floor for foot-stomping and a fitting atmosphere. A few kilts were on show from Toby (I guess his mission was in Scotland – we’ll allow this) and Ali, the only person in attendance with a genuine claim to the kilt. It was lovely to see everyone really getting involved, dancing, laughing and having a great time.
Heather wore fresh flowers in her hair, as did our girls and they all looked fantastic. We’re not really sure where the flowers idea really came from – Dave had it in his head right from the moment we first discussed the idea of a ball for our anniversary. The flowers gained significance once we decided to move to San Francisco, because, according to The Mamas and Papas, “if you’re go-ing to San Fran-cisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”.
Growing up I (Heather) often went on holidays with my extended family. One particular holiday in Pembrokeshire we rented a few houses to share that were next door to each other. I remember thinking ‘this is what heaven must be like’. I loved being surrounded by my family, I loved that we were all neighbours, I felt so safe, so content and had so much fun.
I had the same feelings on this holiday. I loved being surrounded by my family. When we first arrived at Achnagairn I felt thrilled to see different sections of our family all in the same place, but by the end all I saw was one group of people, all our family. I loved that we were neighbours, I felt so safe, so content and had so much fun. Surely that is how it must feel in heaven. I feel privileged to have had a glimpse of what it might be like, and to have felt a little bit of heaven on earth.
The dream was becoming a reality and that reality required a lot of hard work and organisation. The job Dave agreed to carry out in exchange for use of Achnagairn castle was a big one. It took up a lot of his time, often requiring very late nights and early morning starts. He did this in the run up to Christmas and whilst Heather was looking after the other five children. This included many hospital visits with our new baby Olive who was born with Talipes. But as they always do, things worked out. We had a lovely Christmas, hospital visits slowed and a new year began.
The New Year started with a visit for Dave, Heather and the older children to San Francisco. Then before we knew it we were home and filling out visa applications, getting new passports, deciding what to do with the business and preparing our home to move across the ocean. Not an easy task with five gorgeous children still needing plenty of attention, help with homework and to be bathed and fed! For good measure, Heather decided to carry out her ‘Motherhood Project’ which has involved interviewing some of the best mothers she knows (Still plenty to do on that…) and Dave still needed to make a living.
Organising Achnagairn was a lot of fun and thanks to a lot of great people, not too stressful. We were inundated with offers of help and we took lots of people up on their kind offers. Thank you!!! We realised we really loved thinking up great ideas and then handing them over to others to do the ‘real’ work on it! If only that same model could be used in cleaning our house and feeding our family!! Does anyone fancy food shopping and cooking for us if I come up with the meal ideas?
One of the first challenges we had was who to invite. We wanted both our extended families to come but even with our creative planning there simply wasn’t enough bedrooms. We decided to open the offer of the holiday up to everyone who we thought could travel the distance and work on a first come, first served basis We were sure some people wouldn’t be able to make the long journey or get time of work so thought the numbers would naturally be reduced. To our delight/horror every response was coming in as a yes! One 24 bedroomed property (with a maximum capacity for insurance purposes), 3 luxury lodges (again filled to the brim) and quite a bit of extra work for Dave later, we were able to house 92 of our family members and a few special friends.
Probably the greatest help we have received in making this holiday happen was from Sid and Jean. When they heard what our plans were they offered to come and cater for us! Not a small task by any means. The thought, work and effort they have put in to feeding us has been simply incredible. The food they provided us with, phenomenal. A simple thanks cannot express our gratitude towards them enough. Hopefully the chant, foot stomping and small gifts after our last meal has gone a little way to showing them how appreciative we all are!
A couple of years ago, we were chatting about about some of our hopes and dreams. We remembered some of the wonderful moments we’d already had and thought up new experiences we could enjoy in the future. We love to remember places we’ve been, seen and things we’ve eaten! Moments of joy, laughter, relaxation and even sacredness. Even moments of hard, hard work that we can now see the fruits of, and are so very glad we have enjoyed/endured! We looked forward to milestones we were approaching in our lives and thought up lots of different possibilities of marking them. We love to celebrate and make happy memories. For Heather, this is code for TRAVEL! What better way to get Dave to agree to visiting some far flung place than to remind him of an up and coming special event – our 10th wedding anniversary.
The possibilities were endless, we could spend time in Thailand, riding elephants, enjoying unspoilt beaches, drinking out of fresh coconuts and sampling the local cuisine. Or we could return to our honeymoon destination of Kefalonia with our children in tow, reminding ourselves how if felt to eat fresh greek salad or lamb kleftiko on cliff tops overlooking the ocean, buying fresh honey from villagers, smelling the scent of thyme carried in the air and walking through olive groves, pondering the symbolic nature of those old, beautiful trees and fruit. Perhaps Morocco was the place to go, a new destination with good food (do you see a theme emerging?) souks, beaches, camel riding and many waiting adventures.
So that was the plan for a while, and it was really enjoyable to think ahead to whatever adventures we would decide upon. But then Dave had another idea, what about a formal ball? For all of the family, children too. We could have it somewhere nice, maybe have a meal first and all get dressed up in formal gear. Our children would love that and so would we. The more we thought about it, the better that idea sounded. All the same family members who attended our wedding could be invited, plus all the new children that had blessed our families in the following 10 years. It could be a true celebration, spent with the people who matter most to us and who we have shared some of those special moments we had first been reflecting upon. The same people who had truly supported and encouraged us, laughed and cried with us over the course of our lives so far. Dave pictured Heather wearing flowers in her hair.
Fast forward to 2013, Dave and Heather were now living in Durham. Dave had set up his own design company called Glad which was going from strength to strength. Life was good. Dave was good. So good that Dave was head hunted by a company based in San Francisco and we were lured over to California for an interview for a great job. With the promise of blue skies and warmth, soft sandy beaches, national parks and a vibrant city close by, that pull on our hearts to travel, explore and experience the beauty of the earth became a reality. Dave was offered the job. We accepted.
Around the same time Dave had an opportunity at work to rebrand a Scottish manor house in exchange for the use of one of their luxury houses from their portfolio. They had two manor houses in Scotland and one luxury villa in Antigua. The cogs in our minds started turning and whilst tempted by a trip to Antigua, it was obvious to us that a stay in Achnagairn castle would be one of those one in a life time experiences we just couldn’t pass up. We felt so blessed to be able to make another of our dreams come true. The house had a ballroom!