Scotland - The Highlands

September 1-4

I woke early the morning of September 1 to meet my tour group, which was supposed to leave at 8 a.m. I didn’t want to just hang around Edinburgh with no companions for the few days I had in Scotland; I wanted to see more of the country, hopefully with a fun group of young people. After searching through various tour companies I signed on for a 3-day trip around the Highlands with Wild in Scotland. Usually their tours take up to 16 people in a mini bus, but we had only 8: Craig from Canada, Lauren from Australia, Annette from Ireland, Chad from Ireland, three Chinese guys studying at the University of Stirling, and myself, the only American. Except for the Chinese students (who mostly kept to themselves, hence why I didn't get their names), all of us were traveling on our own, which was a nice surprise to me. I’d been convinced I would be the only solo traveler. After quick introductions with our young Scottish guide, Dave, we all piled into the bus and were soon heading out of Edinburgh toward Stirling.

We picked up the Chinese students at the Wallace Monument, a massive tower built on a steep hill that looks ancient but was apparently constructed only recently. The monument affords a spectacular view of Stirling Castle and the entire city spread out below it. Or it would have if it hadn’t been raining and low misty clouds obscuring nearly everything. But this was Scotland – clouds and rain are just part of the landscape!

According to Dave Stirling acts as the gate to the Highlands, and we were soon passing the mountains that mark the official beginning of the Highlands. The tour required a fair amount of driving to reach all around northern Scotland, but I actually loved every minute I spent on the bus – the view outside my window was always gorgeous. I got such a thrill out of seeing the misty mountains; coming from relatively flat Michigan, I can’t help but love mountains of any sort. Then I got to see one up close when we got out of the van to climb one. Oh. I hadn’t really been expecting that. I got out the poncho I bought in Edinburgh – an umbrella doesn’t really lend itself to mountain climbing – and we proceeded to scramble along a narrow, twisting path that at times required literal climbing of rocks. Though certain I was going to break my neck at points I forged on, and at last we got to glimpse a view of the entire Glencoe valley spread out below while Dave gave us a history lesson on how the terrible Campbell clan turned against their Scottish brethren and massacred dozens of McDonalds in the valley.

The whole tour incorporated vast amounts of Scottish history, which of course I appreciated. Dave proved a fantastic storyteller, and I loved actually getting to see the sites where these historical events happened while learning about the events themselves.

We stopped in a little village for lunch. I quickly made friends with Lauren, and we ended up getting tiny steak and mincemeat pies fresh from a bakery. So fun, and so Scottish! We also rambled about Eilean Donan castle, one of the most famous castles in Scotland. No surprise – it’s gorgeous to look at.

That evening we settled into our rooming house in Stromeferry, a tiny settlement on a loch on the far western side of Scotland, very close to the Isle of Skye. It was such a great house – big and rambling and just for our group, with a warm fire and massive dining table in the common room. With eight of us and two nights, we switched off kitchen duties: each night two cooked dinner for everyone and two cleaned up. We all ate together and I really liked it – it allowed everyone to become so much closer. I stayed up late but not as late as our Irish group members, who apparently drank like champions into the wee hours of the morning.

The following morning we rose super early for a special boat trip on the loch. The loch shone pewter in the grey dawn, and we tried fresh raw scallops that our fisherman pilot produced from a trap. I’m not fond of the texture of most raw shellfish, but the scallops were very sweet. We drove several miles up the salty loch in search of the dolphins that frequently appear, and we were rewarded at last – a mother and her baby had fun leaping and twirling through the boat wake.

That accomplished, we headed off for a full day on the Isle of Skye. It began with pouring rain that blotted out everything in sight. “Oh, no,” said Dave. “We can’t walk through the peat bog in this rain; the ground will be too swampy.” My spirits lifted, for slogging through a bog was not my idea of fun, especially since I only had one good pair of walking shoes. Alas the rain let up soon after and Dave, although perfectly aware the ground would still be just as wet, was raring to go. “Hell, this is Wild in Scotland!” he said in his brogue. “Let’s go for it!”

And so we went. We walked and we walked and we walked, through a literal peat bog. The ground was treacherous beyond belief. With every step I was terrified that I would either twist an ankle or literally lose a shoe to the sucking bog. The mud – or should I say peat? – quickly slopped in and I could feel it squelching between my toes. I don’t think I have ever been more miserable in my life. At last we made it to our destination: a hidden swimming hole far upstream. Have I mentioned it was maybe 60 degrees out, at most? Probably more like 50. There was no way I was going to swimming – but Craig, Dave and Annette all jumped in. And just as quickly jumped back out. Dave said he’d been swimming there many times and had never felt the water that cold. Heh.

At last we made it out of the bog and I washed my muddy feet and sodden shoes in the river that is supposed to give you eternally youthful-looking skin. Accordingly we all dipped our faces in. I will let you know if it works. Afterward it was time for hot tea & coffee – we had a midmorning tea break every day, it was great – and scrambled up a hill dotted with sheep to explore an ancient fortification, mostly worn away but still wonderfully impressive and affording a lovely view of Skye.

Then it was off to view the Faerie Glen, a special place sacred to the people of Skye. The strangely formed tiny hills and valleys literally look like the Scottish landscape in miniature, and people leave little gifts to the faeries in exchange for wishes. Dave reported that the area would soon be shut down due to concerns about damage from tourism and scientists wanting to study the odd geography, so I’m glad we got to see it.

After another fun night in the rooming house, we packed up our things and headed for Loch Ness. I’d known that Loch Ness was an incredibly deep lake, but I hadn’t known how long it is: 24 miles. We took our tea break on the rocky shore at the very far end of the lake. I looked valiantly for Nessie but didn’t spot her, just a sailboat moving swiftly in the brisk wind.

Instead, I dipped my toes in the water – frigid!

As we wended our way south we visited the battlefield of Culloden, perhaps the greatest tragedy in Scottish history. I am always struck by how quiet sites of great tragedy are, as though a hush settles over the land the instant you step foot on it. I felt it at Auschwitz; I felt it again at Culloden. For once it was a brilliantly sunny day, a few clouds scudding before the wind that ruffled the heather on the battlefield. It was a beautiful scene – but achingly sad all the same.

Our final stop was Dalwhinnie Distillery, the distillery at the highest altitude in the world. They showed us how true Scottish whisky is made – a laborious and quite smelly process – and offered free samples of whisky at the end. Since even the smell made me dizzy (good grief is whisky strong) I declined.

After a whirlwind three days we were suddenly back in Edinburgh. Lauren and I went to get dinner at a lovely restaurant run by a friend of Dave’s, and later he and Annette joined us. Lauren and I both had tickets on the night bus back to London but Dave convinced us to switch our tickets to the next day and have a fun night out in Edinburgh. This was not hard to do. The four of us plus some of Dave’s friends had a fantastic time bar-hopping about the Royal Mile; at one point we ended up in a literal underground dungeon – I am not kidding, I swear it was at one time a dungeon – built of ancient stone with iron bars and only flickering candles for light. It was fantastic.

Lauren and I crashed on Dave’s sofas and in the morning dragged ourselves to the bus station. Under the bright sunny sky with the Firth of Forth shining in the background, Edinburgh looked just as lovely as I had first thought it. It still remains one of my favorite cities in the world and I hope I can return to it someday.

Scotland - Edinburgh

August 30-31

Out of all the trips I’ve ever taken, I think my visit to Scotland is my absolute favorite. Funny considering that I was so anxious about going on my own, but it all worked out better than I could have imagined.

I just barely made my night bus to Edinburgh, that departed from London’s Victoria Coach Station at 11 p.m. on August 30. The bus was only half full so I got a luxurious two seats to myself, but I still couldn’t really sleep. For nine hours we crawled through the pitch-black English countryside, heading ever further north. It had been an incredibly hot, almost sultry evening in London, but as the night wore on it grew colder and colder and I soon realized that I had not brought nearly enough warm clothes for this trip. Oops already.

We finally arrived in Edinburgh about 8:30 a.m., and I went in search of a hostel. Since I only needed a bed for one night I hadn’t bothered reserving a place; I just looked up some cheap hostels before I left and made sure they took walk-ins. As I reached Princes Street – Edinburgh’s main shopping thoroughfare – I got my first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle and the ancient buildings lining the Royal Mile. I think my jaw literally dropped. The whole vista was glorious and gothic and so wonderfully European. Edinburgh looks the way I had expected London to look before I first visited it, all dark, weathered stone. London does have such buildings scattered about, and of course Edinburgh’s got plenty of modern architecture itself, but I’d never seen so many authentic medieval buildings all clustered together. I still believe Edinburgh to be the most beautiful European city I’ve ever seen.

My hostel arranged and my bag dropped off, I headed back to the bus station. I was determined to visit the Carmichael Estate and Visitor Centre, located about an hour and a half outside the city. One of my major reasons for wanting to visit Scotland was to learn more about my family’s heritage; see the land of my ancestors, as it were. I knew it would be difficult to reach the centre – indeed it took two separate buses, both with limited running times on Sunday – and I was anxious about heading off into the countryside on my own, but I felt so strongly about needing to do this. How could I possibly come all the way to Scotland and not visit Carmichael lands? So I went for it.

First I rode an hour to the small town of Biggar, where we pulled up just as the next bus I needed was leaving. The driver knew I needed to catch it and that the bus wouldn’t return on its route for another hour, so we literally chased it down until the driver stopped and let me on. Then we rode for another 30-40 minutes through the pouring rain – have I mentioned it was raining? I was in Scotland, of course it was raining – passing various scattered houses and rolling, softly wooded hills. It didn’t look unlike rural northern Michigan, honestly. Several times we stopped to let people on who were just standing by the side of the road, no distinguishing landmarks in sight. As the driver pulled over at the entrance to the Carmichael Visitor Centre, I figured this would be expected of me as well.

Rather nervous I quickly hopped off the bus, realizing as it drove away that I hadn’t settled with the driver when he would be returning. I had a vague idea it would be an hour, though, so I bravely ventured forth across the muddy farmyard. The visitor centre is composed of several buildings, one of them a barn, and the lady who showed me around told me they used to have a petting zoo. She too was a Carmichael, and we chatted some about family lore as she gave me a small tour. The petting zoo was closed; the cafĂ© and restaurant were closed; but that still left the clan history room, the souvenir shop and . . . the wax museum.

“Did you say . . . a wax museum?” I asked, uncertain if I’d heard right.

“Oh, yes!” she said. “We’re so very proud of it. We have some really wonderful wax figures, including one of the only replicas of Queen Victoria on horseback.”

“Oh,” I said. Clearly this was something I had to see, so I paid the extra pound for admission. The lady led me to an outbuilding, unlocked the door, and left me inside . . . alone with a whole shed of full-size wax figures.

I don’t think words can adequately describe how extraordinarily creepy it was to wander utterly by myself, no sound but the steady pattering of the rain against the roof, through an entire gallery of wax figures on both sides who all seemed to be watching me. At one point I totally spun around at a strange creak, heart pounding, convinced they had come alive. These were very realistic wax figures. On the other hand, I found several of the exhibits truly interesting – they were devoted to showing what life would have been like at the Carmichael manor house through the centuries, and of course I love anything historical. Other exhibits were . . . not so factual or Scottish-based. Turning a corner, I was met first with the “children’s section,” with Peter Pan and Captain Hook and some Lost Children. Directly afterward came the distinctly not for children section, with a rather gruesome torture scene reenacted, and . . . Dracula and the Mummy???

I may have simply stood and stared at that last one for a little while.

Another shed led me through figures of famous Scots throughout history, including Mary Queen of Scots and Stanley & Livingston, as well as the celebrated Queen Victoria on horseback. It also included info on Carmichael Clan chieftains through the centuries, and ancient maps of clan lands. I’ve loved studying maps ever since I took a historical mapping class sophomore year of college, so those were my favorite part.

Having finally exhausted the wax museum, I wandered the picturesque farm grounds before returning to the souvenir shop. I bypassed the Carmichael beef products and homemade jams in favor of keychains with the clan crest and some watercolors of the estate grounds. Then I returned to the road to wait. And wait. And wait, shivering underneath my umbrella. I was so nervous that I had misjudged the time or the bus route and that it wouldn’t return for hours, and that I had effectively stranded myself in the rural Scottish countryside. Thankfully after 15 solid minutes of standing in the rain it appeared, and I frantically waved it down. Once back in Biggar I had another hour to kill in the miserable weather for the bus back to Edinburgh, so I hung out in a warm coffee shop with a crossword puzzle. I always carry a few crosswords cut out from the newspaper in my purse for just such occasions.

The sun came out as we pulled back in to the city, so I set out to explore the Royal Mile and the grounds around the castle. I ended up walking completely around the castle, which considering it rests on massive cliff overlooking a huge sunken park that used to be a lake, was no small feat. I ate dinner on a stone terrace overlooking the twisting medieval streets.

When I returned to the hostel, people were preparing to attend the fireworks display. It was the last day of August, and like many European cities Edinburgh was celebrating with its end-of-summer 2-hour fireworks extravaganza. I joined an assorted group from my floor – mostly Australians, I always meet Australians traveling – and we found a good spot on Princes Street to watch the show. It was magnificent. They launched the fireworks from the castle itself, perched high over the city, in rhythm with a classical orchestra playing in the park grounds. I can still picture the way bursts of color lit up the castle battlements while music swelled below. Definitely the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen.