A yellow bus, unmistakably advertising the words “Wild, Sexy…Haggis Adventures” crawled up Blackfriars street adjacent to the Royal Mile, and up walked a man with a clipboard moments later.
A flash of ID for attendance confirmation and there I was, ensconced in the bus impatiently awaiting departure.
“…And this is the emergency exit, in case we all end up in the Loch Ness,” Stevie D, driver and tour guide for the day, knocked the alarmingly small bulge on the ceiling roughly, before the bus embarked on its ambitious mileage of over 540km. A bearded, lanky man who looked seriously unwashed, Stevie wore only a T-shirt and a sweater in the Northern Highlands, speaks with a thankfully understandable Scottish accent with an amusing sense of deprecating humour, and survives solely on endless cups of takeaway coffee and many rounds of DIY cigarettes – a story that his teeth tell only too well.
“Now this is the route we’re taking,” he held up a sizeable map of Scotland, pointing at the key places that the bus will go through – from Edinburgh – Stirling – The Trossachs – several Lochs – passing through the Great Glen [an ancient geological faultline] – Glencoe – Fort William – Fort Augustus – Loch Ness – Dalwhinnie – Pitlochry – Perth – Fife (past the Forth Bridge) – Edinburgh.
Haggies Adventure was the company I chose on impulse early in the week to do a one-day Highlands tour – a day tour known as the tacky “Loch Ness Hunter” to which I capitulated – partly because of the student discount and the free picnic lunch that was included in it.
The first visit of the day was to a large, red “Scot” named Hamish, hairy, burly, and…horny.
Meet Hamish the Highland Cow, or the Heiland-Coo as the Scots say, of this breed that was initially cross-bred with the wild cow, my first love of the wildness.
“Hamish, as you can see, has no fat on him,” Stevie remarked casually. “They’ve gotta constantly keep him warm with food, with all that lean meat on him.”
Stevie chirped out the local news and sometimes blurted irrelevant information that he has read, interspersed it with historical narratives of Scotland, rhapsodised about his love for most kinds of alcohol, and instructed us in several Scottish words that he will be using throughout his commentary.
“As we move further north, you can see the road-signs in 2 languages – English and Gaelic. Gaah-lic. That’s what the old langauage is in Scotland. Aye, we speak ‘Gahlic’ in Scotland. It’s Gay-lic in Ireland, because the Irish are all gays,” Stevie nonchalantly mentioned to loud laughter and a loud “Hey, I’m Irish!” protest from somewhere behind.
A group of Indians who sat in front of me, brought bags of food, and munched throughout the journey on Pappadums, chips, waffles, sandwiches and lots more. They talked, fell asleep, and woke up to eat again. A surreptitious peek under their seat showed up a couple of large bags, brimming full with food storage boxes.
I found myself sitting next to Sabine, a Swiss lady living in the French region of Switzerland, who has a strong love of Australia and its beaches. In no uncertain manner was envy the underlying emotion when I asked for affirmation if Switzerland is indeed a spectacular place to live.
“Mountains, mountains, lakes, mountains…not very much more,” she said rather disdainfully while I resisted any attempt to outwardly choke in jealousy. Sabine lives in Saxon, a small village nestled in the Alps 2 hours away from Geneva, surrounded by all that I deem the ideal landscape. “I’m so used to it. Nothing new. I think Scotland looks a bit like it,” she mused, shrugging yet again.
The Scottish landscape is a dramatically beautiful one, and the hills that surround Edinburgh grew monumentally in size as we passed Stirling and Glencoe and took the road leading into the Highlands, driving through the morning mist that coated the forest and winding roads in a swirl of menacing grey.
That felt nonetheless strangely intimate before the sun burned off the mist, despite the rowdy Dutch tourists, loudly cackling Chinese and the ever-eating Indians tourists.
The commentary that was ongoing however, was getting near sickly.
“They sliced his [Wallace’s] sternum, pulled out his intestines, and stuffed it back in putting feathers and sand in his stomach too, leaving him in great pain, and the whole town looking. He was to be quartered too, so they cut off his manhood, stuck it in his mouth, and got the horses to pull him apart. His head was put on a stake, and the parts of his body thrown into the 4 corners of Scotland…That tells you not to defy the King of England, eh?”
Stevie was in a mood, regaling the bus with tales of Clan wars, massacre sites, Robert the Bruce, Rob Roy, and William Wallace, famous Scottish legends whose gory deaths he particularly relished telling.
Mel Gibson, in his estimation, got the historical facts wrong. Liam Neeson as Rob Roy scored more points.
“Braveheart’s a great movie, but they got some things wrong there,” he said in a somewhat pained tone. “William Wallace was a Lowlander. Only Highlanders wear kilts. He would have just worn a shirt and trousers. They painted his face blue – that was something of a tradition much more ancient. The blue paint was used by the Picts.”
“Any English here? Good,” Stevie said emphatically, sniggering a second later, and apologising sheepishly almost immediately.
“You know the trail of the Hogwarts Express?” he pointed at a distant bridge while everyone scrambled for their cameras. “It’s not this one, but if you take a photo and tell your friends back home that it is, they’ll all believe you,” he said a moment later in response to eye-rolling and faint groans/chuckles, grinning devilishly.
We reached Fort Augustus past 1pm, the southern end of the Loch Ness, and boarded the boat for a short ride round the beginning part of the long Loch – whose waters amount to more than that of England’s and Wales’s combined.
It is difficult to ignore the enormity of the lake and under the intermittent sunlight, Loch Ness’s chimerical landscape under the partly-cloudy sky and autumn colours sprang to life, at once endowing portions of water with a luminescent black and silver (due to the high peat content of the soil), while throwing into sharp relief the highly eroded edges of the surrounding mountains.
Did I see Nessie? “Good ol’ Rick” as Stevie calls him, the cruise operator, believes in more than one monster, showed us just how to capture her.
A brief war-memorial stop in the Highlands was the last photo-stop of the afternoon, a memorial of 3 soldiers looking into the distance, aptly built in the haunting silence, desolation and timelessness of the surrounding mountains, commemorating all Scottish Commandos who gave their lives during the second World War.
How else to drolly deflate this timeless quality the memorial so effortlessly achieves but through a radio competition a few years ago that offered prizes to those who could answer the question “Which soldier can see the farthest?”?
To his credit, Stevie had an eclectic and interesting mix of music that I did not quite grow tired of, but caused much chagrin to Sabine. Beginning with the clichéd “Heart of the Highlands” CD that one finds in a tourist shop, the music was calculated to play soundtracks and folk songs most appropriately when we passed through glens and forests and mountains, and 60’s rock hits and strange Scottish pop/Bagpipes as we were on the return leg to prod the increasingly somnolent passengers awake.
“What kind of music is this?” Sabine demanded when the nasal sound of bagpipes and even more traditional music made its round on the speakers. “Even my grandmother will not listen to this. I will never marry a Scottish man so I don’t have to listen to music like this the whole time.”
In the meantime, we rounded Dalwhinnie, a place famous for its whisky distilleries, producing whisky that taste just like the environment – Heather. Stevie had just begun exalting the hallowed merits of whisky, claiming to have cooked whisky curry and having whisky ice-cream for dessert later.
After a quick break, the bus went through Fife, passed the grandly constructed Forth Bridge and back into Edinburgh.
“Now will you just look at that skyline,” Stevie mused with some pride as he drove through the familiar Princes Street. “How many cities boast of a castle skyline? I have been ‘round the world a few times, but will still say that Edinburgh has the best city skyline.”
The Indian man in front of us started passing around yet more snacks.
“My goodness, they are eating again,” Sabine noted in slight horror at the people in front of us. “This one,” she pointed at the seat in front of me, “is the worst! I am beginning to think that they are on this tour because the picnic lunch is included.”
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who signed up because of the free lunch then. As Red Hot Chili Peppers closed the day with the National Anthem (‘Flower of Scotland’), I suspect that with tour groups, the colossal and near-unspeakable picturesque of the Scottish Highlands has unfortunately found its companion – in the picaresque caricatures of the bus.