Scotland

DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

Saying goodbye

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I left the lovely place I called home for a year just as the season they call summer started to change into the chillier winds of the upcoming autumn. For the longest time, I’ve hesitated to put feelings into words into this entry just days after I had handed in the biggest work of my life (s0 far!) partly out of sheer laziness, but because of the overwhelming sadness and the newly minted loss that’s churning deep in the tummy at the moment as I type this in yet another place which I should know like the back of my hand but is still to me so foreign.

The happier memories keep coming back still – the recent and most vivid yet was the day TC and I decided to take a leisurely drive across along the Fife eastern coastal trail some time last week or so.

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It was a neat, compact trip just as we planned it that took us onto the Forth bridge and onto the East Neuk. Poor TC had to endure my whims for stopping time to time just so I could use his camera for a shot that seemed somewhat picturesque. We breezed through the quaint and pretty fishing villages under angry looking skies and blustery winds (those make fantastic pictures under the rare and occasional burst of sunlight) and finally made a photo-stop in Pittenweem, which somehow landed us in a chocolate cafe with a cup of unbelievable hot chocolate and a huge box of pralines to go.

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Well, then – who knew Cocoa tree Chocolate also had self-catering holiday flats?

Anstruther was literally a stone’s throw away in the rented but rather trusty Astra, where apparently the most famous Fish and Chips store in the UK could be found. It got TC’s finicky and reluctantly-given approval after a couple of bites, so it must be worth something, never mind the press reviews.

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St. Andrews was our last stop and a little walk down its main streets was sufficient. The Scottish equivalent of Cambridge as I would call it, minus the snobbery of the upper class. Or maybe that was just not evident in the summer absence of the above-mentioned.

And then it was my turn behind the wheel of the car: riddled by mini squabbles, a rushed 20 minutes in Dunfermline, unmarked country roads, and the most infuriating traffic I had ever encountered in the space of 45 minutes in the Edinburgh city centre.

My last week was spent in a frenzy of non-stop packing, rushing to Edinburgh Fringe Festival activities between the free slots of time, returning library books and just simply….trying to live. The crowds on the High street and the Royal Mile were obviously insane, but there were always the beloved crag trails if TC and I needed to escape the summer crowd. Climbed them again, we did, if only just to look at the sprawl of the city for the last time.

And then it was all over. We piled as much as we could into a rented red Nissan March and headed for Glasgow Airport, navigating through the treacherous road signs that confused us tremendously. But somehow we made it, with several directional scares along the way along city bypasses.

I remember little after that. The flight was god-awful, with loads of screaming children, crowded terminals and endless duty-free shops. Then came the reality check: the unfamiliar familiarity and the rush of fatigue and the tangled emotions that accompany every trip.

 

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DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

Heat in the Granite City

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Yet another train journey, in a pale, pale imitation of Paul Theroux’s penchant for them. Only that this left me with an aching bum (never mind the rather nice countryside obscured greatly by fog that lined the North Sea east coast of Scotland), and a lingering bit of train feebleness (read: motion sickness). It was however, fantastically quiet in the Quiet Coach – that’s not really the norm by the way – and I tried to pacify myself by bringing a large book to lug around in the hopes that some academic distance might be gained in recompense for taking a day trip when it seemed just unnecessary.

“Did you read about us?” trilled the lady inspector as she made her way down the carriage. “We’re busted. The government’s got us.” A fantastically fatalistic way of beginning a journey to the Granite City – or Aberdeen.

Then came the train driver, who made a woefully funny announcement which I think only tickled my funny bone as the train pulled into Inverkeithing.

“Ladies and gentlemen…passengers in Coach B are requested to alight from other coaches. This is due to the national express train being longer than the platform.”

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Britain is in the middle of a sweltering heatwave, and for some insane reason,  a city as far north as Aberdeen wasn’t spared the heat and humidity, made worse by granite, granite and more granite. Stately buildings vie for visual priority, and seem determined to create an urban jungle sort of beauty on its own aesthetic terms. It makes for a strange feel though, almost Nordic, but not quite.

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Travel guides don’t seem to be able to know what exactly to say about its atmosphere, industrial, made rich and thriving by its night life and North Sea oil industry. Union street is where the visitors naturally head for, a long, long shopping street to indulge every fashionista – but without the crowds of London or Edinburgh or Glasgow. To my disbelief, I had never seen Primark so empty. H+M was in comparison, dull with the lack of people around. People seemed to have forgotten that Topshop was smack in the centre of it all. Even the Scottish accent mellows out here, vowels pitching and rounding and flattening when you last expect it.

But I loved it all – what do I not, really? There wasn’t much to do except to duck in and out of shops, wandering in the tiny streets off the arterial one, and popping into the Art Gallery. Somehow that passed the 5 hours rather easily that I had there.

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DestinationsEnglandScotlandThe British Isles

Winter of (Dis)content

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TC and I congratulated ourselves on the relatively fuss-free and brilliant KLM internet check-in procedure as we were ensconced in the Airport Shuttle (also pleased that the driver found the pick-up location) en-route to Edinburgh Turnhouse Airport, replete with our bagfuls of gifts and other stuff sitting behind us.

Once more, the security checks and baggage drops seemed effortless, as we found a nook adjacent to the gate that had reclining chairs on which no one seemed willing to lie. Near-slumberous repose overtook us, until an announcement for our flight woke us into anticipation, and catapulted us into dread and unprecedented panic as we were told that this flight to Amsterdam had been cancelled due to technical faults – its obvious repercussion being that we would miss our long-haul connection back.

A horrendously long queue formed quickly behind the KLM ticket desk, whose harried and hassled staff worked to sort out 105 different connections that arose from this cancellation. A young man behind us was obviously upset at having missed his flight as well to the same place we were flying back to, and spoke with expletives peppering every sentence as he made call after call in escalating desperation, seeking other alternative flights.

A 90-minute wait in the ticket desk queue had us re-scheduled on a BMI Flight to London Heathrow, which would thereafter give us a 45-minute to an hour’s dash to another Terminal to catch the British Airways (BA 11) flight back. BMI brought us to Heathrow with no issues, or so we thought (having passed through Edinburgh’s security yet again). A 10-minute bus-ride from Terminal 1 to 4 led to a mad dash to a premier lounge that told us the BA 11 gate was closed and a boarding pass might possibly be obtained at the gate itself – and the outcome speaks for itself – where the flight was fully booked, and the computer system had either apparently bumped us off, or we were in fact, never really booked on BA 11 at all.

The hunt for KLM’s Heathrow office began before the office shut down for the night, in a version of what TC described as “The Amazing Race gone so terribly wrong”, taking us through wrong turns, closed offices, false directions, a reverse route through the surly immigration desk, (telling our story as we go along, each step lengthening it all the more) explaining why we are going through customs not having left the UK at all, and finally, the ticket desk in the departure hall.

The explanation of the missteps so far (that was starting to become the default explanation to every person we met) ensued once again.

The customer service officer booked a room with breakfast in the Hilton Heathrow without preamble, an admission that nothing more could be done for the night, and she was gone for an amazingly long time after which she had arranged everything rather pleasantly for us. Possibly pitying our ragged, vagabond state, she frankly told us that Edinburgh Airport made no mistake in the booking, but as all airlines are overbooked, British Airways had given up our seats as we had probably reached the gate too late.

An available flight next morning was to be our lucky card. TC was grudgingly impressed with the overhaul of the BA/QF flights, and while griping about the recent safety record (or lack thereof), admitted that the leg room and the entertainment system were decent – until we were told by the pilot rather apologetically that it wasn’t working. Only 3 movies could be shown at a time and while TC busied himself with “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”, the only excerpt I watched throughout the long, long flight was the last 20 minutes of “Kung-Fu Panda”.

Our bags’ location however, remains a mystery still after enquiring exhaustively at every turn.

Commiserating people have come and gone, but it was horrifyingly mind-warping to hear the family talk about this absolute nightmare as if it were a ‘good’ learning experience.

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DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

Out of Skye

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In many ways we were anxious to retrace our route back to Invergarry to finally see the landscape in the daylight, and take in all that we missed on the way up to Skye. The car was frosted over and we realised that for much of the day temperatures would hover at -3 to -1 deg under the deceptively sunny skies.

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In many ways, we weren’t disappointed. Skye’s Cuillin Hills (its Himalaya lowland equivalent) dominated the Southern landscape as we headed towards Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge. I alternated between marvelling loudly at the hills and protesting in fright as TC wrestled with slow vans, Royal Mail trucks and annoying drivers.

Back on the mainland, Eilean Donan castle’s (literally: Island of Donan Castle) romantic air was spoilt by the reconstruction of its bridge, but its location on the picturesque Loch Duich made it a breathtaking stretch to drive through.

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And then it was back up into Glen Garry, the scenic route that was covered in snow, onto Dalwhinnie for lunch, a place people stop over for its whisky distillery more than anything else. It was from Invergarry to Spean Bridge that our route differed – this time to Dalwhinnie, down to Pitlochry, Perth, Dunfermline, the Forth Bridge down to Edinburgh.

The default mode of stopping and taking more shots kicked in.

It was an organic cafe – something TC has always sniffed at – but it offered all the fuel our bodies needed for the rest of the way home. The photo-taking pretty much stopped after Dalwhinnie when we got onto the M9 back to Edinburgh – both exhilarating and terrifying to drive and overtake at 140 km/hr.

Of course, the trip would not have been complete without yet another round of getting lost in Edinburgh itself.

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DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

Skye unravelled

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The morning in Portree began with a frenzied photo-taking session of the harbour from the room window.

Sated with Charlotte’s vanilla plums and the generous breakfast a little later, Bill proceeded to tell us that hordes of tourists queue up in front of their door, taking photos of the harbour.

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“The second game we play is figuring out where they come from,” he smiled in glee.

Breakfast was heavy, and we were soon on our way once more. A855 towards Staffin from Portree is a single carriageway (and at times a single road!), and an RBS truck and other larger vehicles hilariously overtook our leisurely romp in the Vectra as they looked in danger of tipping sideways.

I finally understood why so many people laud the ethereal light and its shadow-effects on Skye.

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The Trotternish peninsula’s coastal drive exceeded our expectations, and we marvelled at the unfairness of the location of some Leadership training camp in Staffin as we made our way up the hairpin turns of the Quiraing, an spectacular and alien landscape of rock formations, stopping to guess at the kind of animal that could have made bean-like droppings. Somehow, the occasional scatalogical nature of our conversations never did diminish.

My words do the pictures no justice. We continued around the peninsula, and the highland bulls finally came into view. It excited me greatly, and TC was highly disturbed by my ‘unholy fascination’ and excitement with them.

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Lunch took place at Dunvegan Hotel (we were the only visitors in this low season) and in the setting sun at 2pm, after which it was a short route to Dunvegan Castle, the traditional seat of the Macleod Clan for several centuries.

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But we had more to look. Up from Dunvegan Castle lay a dirt track road to Claigan that was supposed to lead to Coral Beach, something that Charlotte promised was a nice and easy walk. What she did not mention however, was that it seemed to be a shingle beach and its walking track smelled overwhelmingly of dung.

“Gallantry is dead,” I remarked casually as TC hopped past a stream and ambled on. He turned immediately and grimaced, holding out his hand.

“That was just once! All the other times I did so, it went unnoticed!” He protested gamely.

The setting sun promised good pictures, but also meant that we couldn’t finish the walk in order to hit the road back in time. It was only later when we were back in Edinburgh did we realise Coral Beach had indeed a sandy portion, but we needed to walk 2 miles to reach it.

Bill commented that it was “quite a drive” that we had done for the day. Indeed it was – the route back was a single track road for 9 miles, a rather remote area uphill on which we saw a passing taxi (!), a lone walker and several other trucks.

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DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

The Daze of Skye

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It started as an insane and unthinkable plan. Going to the Isle of Skye with either Rabbies or Timberbush Tours seemed to be the default mode of seeing the Highlands until the Travel Companion (the TC) remarked that a road trip in a rented car may not be that implausible after all.

TC’s short visit meant that we had just that pocket of time to visit some place out of Edinburgh before he was dragged into relentless shopping, and he came rather prepared to join Scotland’s nationalistic fervour.

“They [the Scots] will be very happy. My father said my jumper resembles the Scottish flag,” TC remarked. “And everyone seems to know the Loch Lomond song except me.”

After a comedy of errors, a cancelled tour, fast and furious internet planning over Skype, internet bookings and much trepidation (in a country where all major routes and motorways are dehumanised and alphanumerically named), TC, the backpacks and I found ourselves in a 1.9 Black and rather sleek, diesel-run Vectra Automatic with a Tiptronic function, driving out of an immensely confusing Edinburgh street system – out of the town centre, towards Stirling and into the Northwestern Highlands.

It went something like this: Edinburgh – Stirling – Callender – Crainlarich, Ballachulish, Fort William – Invergarry – Dornie – Kyle of Lochalsh – Portree in Skye.

Our frenzied route-planning the previous night made us wonder about fuel consumption, traffic conditions, and quite simply…time. Varying opinions on the time needed (we were told that the journey could take either 4 hrs, or 8-9 hrs!) made the journey a bit more pressurising and stressful, driven by the need to be in Portree before the darkness fell.

Obviously, that was not to be.

There was, as I discovered, only 1 route (and it was not a motorway) into the Highlands through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, a highly scenic trail but a snail-bitingly slow one, unaided by the awed gasps that TC and I emitted constantly each time a snow-capped mountain came into view which led to photo-stop after photo-stop.

The first leg in the car was mine, and the virgin experience of driving abroad started off nicely in the bright (maybe a bit too bright) sunlight, leading us into Callender where a short coffee break was needed before the change-over.

It was an amazing route nonetheless, and seeing the landscape of Glencoe and the Trossachs that Haggis Adventures brought me through now doused in snow ignited a new sense of awe.

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TC then took us from Callender onwards to Fort William where we stopped for lunch, a road that turned winding and somewhat more dangerous from the way TC took his turns.

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The stretch from Fort William to Portree felt like the most treacherous of all, and was especially harrowing when darkness fell early because of the overcast sky. Heavy snowfall on “The Road to The Isles” slowed us down tremendously when a snowplough stayed in front for much of the stretch, sprinkling salt over the single carriageway – it was then that we heard on radio that heavy snowfall plagued the exact area we were passing through. TC called it a winter wonderland.

The speedy Vectra went on nevertheless at 50-60 miles/hr in the pouring rain and onto the A87 that led straight into Portree. In retrospect, that was more foolish than brave.

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It had never felt more depressing in the darkness when TC announced that we had reached Skye but had yet another 32 miles to go before we reached Portree. A wrong turn, an illegal U-Turn later and we were on our way again.

Bill and Charlotte Johnson, the new owners of the guesthouse Ben Tianavaig (pronounced “Chia-na-vaig”) that was to be our lodging for 2 nights, greeted us heartily with Chamomile tea (we needed its calming effects!) and several maps of Skye, recommending us several sightseeing places.

“Are you interested in castles?” Bill asked us as we looked through his brochures of Skye walks.

“Mountains first, then castles,” I quipped half-seriously. Bill laughed and nodded approvingly, saying that we had good taste.

“Then the best would be to visit the Trotternish,” Charlotte unfolded yet another map, pointing to the northernmost peninsula of Skye. “It has very dramatic landscape – you could see the old man of Storr, the highest point on the Trotternish.”

In the comfort of our room (named “Torvaig”) which had a view of the Portree Harbour (we needed to take her on her word as it was all dark out), we heaped praise on each other for getting to Skye safely, and then lauded the trusty street directory. A makeshift dinner from Somerfield supermarket that consisted of an onion and cheese sandwich, fruits and chocolate biscuits seemed oddly comforting…until TC got into a shower that spewed merely cold water, leading to unanswered questions and many apologies from Bill and Charlotte who had no clue what went wrong.

TC ended up bathing in another room, ending up with more hot water than he wished for. A strange but rather funny twist to the end of an exhausting day.

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DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

Go West

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The Timberbush-Tours pickup point is a most painful uphill trek up to the very top of the Royal Mile, and I nearly boarded the wrong bus in error after that horrendous walk.

We started the trip……with The Famous Grouse’s Finest Scotch whisky. All 8 passengers in the 16-seater minivan each received a small bottle of whisky, is now sits next to me as a form of insurance against cold winter nights.

“This is what we give our children in the morning!” announced Marty, the guide for the day with Timberbush Tours. Clad in a kilt, a sweater and a green windbreaker, he cut a strange figure with his flowing locks, glasses, and sharp teeth.

“Anyone did any tours of Scotland? Loch Ness tours? Loch Ness…oooch that’s rubbish,” he scoffed. “Are you excited? Me too! I’ve never driven a bus before,” he added as an afternote.

Like all drivers that I have come to observe, he smokes, had rather bad teeth, and believes that haggis and whisky were made for each other. The Oban and the West Highlands tour was predictably less popular than the iconic Loch Ness weekend ones, and with the arrival of winter, nature’s colours have never looked more astoundingly vivid.

Driving out of Edinburgh, Marty passed Murrayfield stadium, giving a scathing commentary on Scottish sport.

“The largest stadium in Scotland. 76,000 Scots regularly come here to watch rugby and humiliate their country. We’ve invented many sports in Scotland; now we can’t play them anymore,” he laments rather jovially.

As a tribute to the recent cold spate that Scotland has been experiencing in the past 2 weeks, snow has already sprinkled several mountainous peaks, its white overlaid with grey matter, cut by the jagged treetops and bottom ferns of startling autumn deciduous reds.

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Typical tales of Scotland’s past through the (dis)enchanted lens of tourism of course followed in tandem.

“Before Braveheart the movie, 30,000 people came to visit the Wallace Monument every year. After the movie, it was 130,000 people who came every year. God bless Mel Gibson and his family,” Marty said with relish. “Braveheart the movie did wonders for Scottish tourism.” The mini-van darted through the strategically positioned Stirling country, and sudden outpourings of praise for that movie but like Stevie, he could not help pointing out its inaccuracies.

“I saw Mel Gibson twice when he was filming the movie in Stirling. He’s tiny, 5 ft 5! The website says 5 ft 10. If that’s the case, then I must be 7 ft 39 inches. But he is handsome, with bright blue eyes. I nearly fell in love with him myself.”

“This is Rob Roy county. That film was historically more accurate. But he certainly didn’t speak with an Irish accent (Liam Neeson), and Jessica Lange sounded like a Russian.”

The rather familiar route through Stirling, Doune and the Trossachs came into view again, passing Callander, a popular retirement village.

“This is Callander,” said Marty. “A very popular place to retire. As the bus passes through, you will notice that we are the only ones with our teeth.”

I found out under dubious circumstances that Robin Hood is none other than the corrupted version of William Wallace. “Robbing” Hood was simply a misnomer for 6 ft 7 inch Wallace who apparently wore a green hooded tunic and green trousers who had his peasant army, or later known as the outlaw band of ‘merry thieves’. The sparsely populated Highlands had a chilling reason behind it – because of the British Government’s deliberate exile of the Highlanders in the 1700s to their colonies.

A quick ‘hi again’ to Hamish (I got to feed him a part of a pumpkin!), and the scenery turned unfamiliar as the bus turned westward towards Oban – known also as the gateway to the Scottish Isles. The town’s noticeable port-feel however, paled in significant comparison to hearing people converse in Gaelic – I am finally sufficiently convinced that Gaelic’s status as a living language grows the more remote it gets.

Marty waved us off the minivan in a hurry, saying that fish and chips would be an excellent choice for the cloudy and cold weather.

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Little Bay” – translated from Gaelic, is what Oban means, its smallness evident from the one single main street that appears to be the artery of the fishing town, and it seemed as if the male population town spent its entire saturday sitting along the water’s edge as the female population thronged the shops as many times as they could go.

After the lunch-hour in Oban, the next stop lasted a mere three-minutes that permitted a snap-and-go moment of Kilchurn Castle.

The ‘wee’ village of Inverary bordered by the sea-loch Fyne was the penultimate stop, whose castle was closed for the winter, but as Marty urged, had yet another tourist sightseeing option which was the Inverary jail.

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The imposition of the serene and picturesque surroundings made me a trigger-obsessed visitor intent on capturing the extraordinary interplay of light caused by the sun, mist, and cloud, but also a violator of this tranquility.

The last stop at Luss village provided the rather disappointing cheap thrill of a tiny stroll (and for the brave, a dip of the shoes/toes into the water) along the banks of Loch Lomond. Daylight faded more quickly than I would have liked, and the burgeoning darkness welcomed the suddenly sleepy tourists back to Edinburgh’s Waverley.

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DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

(Sub)urban Pleasures

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There’s much joy to be taken in the walks around the neighbouring suburbs of Edinburgh – when the weather permits, of course. They have been most welcome distractions amidst the alarming assignments that I have been given to do, and holed up in my place is not exactly the greatest inspiration one gets.

Stockbridge, the rather bohemian area that borders Dean Village, northwest of New Town, is one of those. I find myself returning there countless of times, if not just for the hilly roads, the numerous charity shops and the rather quaint layout of particular streets along the Waters of Leith.

But Edinburgh isn’t all, of course – the Weegie’s (Glaswegians) hometown was something I longed to experience and see for myself. The opportunity finally came in the form of reading week in school, where students are supposed to spend the week reading instead of taking mindless excursions that strike their fancies.

But the first foray outside Edinburgh’s soil came in the form of a minor bus accident that I was in when the Citylink bus en route to Glasgow scrape the side of a rented vehicle. Called to be a witness simply because I sat in front, the exchange was rather amusing to say the least.

“That wasn’t very clever, was it?” Clapped our favourite driver in Scottish-flavoured sarcasm as he alighted and settled the painful details with the other party who was first shocked into silence, before masterfully regained his speech by swearing every three words.

“Shockin’ piece o’ drivin’,” he commented once again when we were finally done holding up traffic. “Absolut’ shockin.”

We were really off schedule, considering the bus left the Edinburgh Bus Terminal rather late, and were made even later by the skirmish.

“Well, I hope things will be alright,” a kindly old lady hobbled off the bus said in farewell to the driver.

“Oh, that’ll be alright,” he snorted derisively.

I scrambled off the bus quickly, only to find myself disoriented about the city streets in the eagerness to see the city centre.

Glasgow – what do I say – the industrial looking, even more austere, yet more Europeanised city of Scotland – was a place that I took an instant liking to, for some inexplicable reason other than the fabulous and glamorous fashion and amazing streets.

“You’re really lucky,” said the sales lady in Lush Cosmetics (a place which I am always wont to go into in any country, state or county, given a sliver of a chance). “It’s not raining today.”

Not yet at least. I rounded Merchant’s corner, and promptly stepped into the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, situated in a peculiarly Italian looking corner of the orderly, grid-designed city, and it poured the moment I finished my rounds in the museum and made my way down Buchanan Street.

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It is difficult to rave about Glasgow in the typical way I rave about most places and being there only for a couple of hours would make this a rather hypocritical post to do so. It was however – despite the rather gritty centre and industrial façade – the vibrancy and the cosmopolitanism of the city that seemed to have impressed me the most.

More importantly, return journey was skirmish-free, and for that, I was thankful.

What I was not thankful for however, was that blasted firm alarm which went off when I was in bed later that night.

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Loch Ness Hunter

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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.

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“…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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DestinationsScotlandThe British Isles

Moving Days

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The last 2 saturdays were moving days.

On the first Saturday, the luggage and I got into a cab and grudgingly paid the £6 fare up to Royal Terrace from Richmond Place where the Adria Guesthouse is situated – beautiful, spacious Georgian Townhouses with high ceilings and Victorian-lookalike furnishing – typically lined with hotels and other upmarket guesthouses.

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Adria Guesthouse surprised me with its furnishings and the only grouse I had was that the wireless (once again!) did not function properly for Macs. Greeted by a man wearing an ‘Australia Post’ T-shirt, a quick tinker for directions had me saunter down Abbey Mount, through Croft an Righ and on straight towards the Salisbury Crags.

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The uphill, scenic climb can be a precarious one especially if one is ‘balance-challenged’ as I found out to my horror – the sheer cliff drop, though just 250m down, was enough to terrify in the onward rushing wind.  The views of Edinburgh from Holyrood Park (that stretches from Pollocks Halls all the way to near Carlton) however, are unparalleled. The only place that eluded me was Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in the crags and possibly in Edinburgh – a climb that I shall only attempt on a day when bravery and foolish impulse rule the hour.

Carlton hill, is on the other hand, thankfully less steep and takes a mere 5 min climb from Blenheim Place, recommended for those who feel lazy or are incapacitated in some way or another. At sunset, the skyline becomes threateningly dramatic.

The second Saturday saw a move to some permanent place down at the border Leith, north of the city centre and the Old Town. Though a mere 10 minutes walk from the Royal Terrace, but it seemed an eternal distance to cover when 3-4 overloaded packs came with me on foot.

Thereafter began the utter madness of furnishings and grocery-shopping.

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