Tuesday, June 14, 2011

4-07-11 Last Day in Scotland-Touring the Highlands

Welcome, have a...seat...careful it's dusty in here.  I know you're all hacking up cobwebs and dust-bunnies and I swear I'm clearing it all out as fast as I can.  Its been quite a while since I've been in here...wait don't move.  You've got an aragog on your shoulder.

K it's gone now.

So as anybody who is Facebook friends with me(sigh) may know that a while ago Google deleted my most recent post "Exploring Edinburgh: A day of Thrones".  After weeks of sequestering to Google for it's return I'm done waiting.  I will continue to post trip blogs while the trip is still fresh in my mind.  And I will back them up on my hard-drive.  Not just on Google.  Lesson learned.

One full day left in Scotland.  Knowing ahead of time that I would only have three and a half days to experience the whole of Caledonia, I decided to follow a lead that Tony from my Stonehenge tour had given me.  He said that Rabbie's tours were a great starting point for highland adventures.  They were also cheap.  And Hilarious.  Day three was a full, 12-hour Scottish Highlands Tour.  And it sealed the deal to make Scotland the most memorable part of my vacation.

Started out in Edinburgh at around  8:15ish.  Had a stressful time getting on a bus to arrive to the departure point on time and, once again, was about the last one on.  Our tour guide was Yali.  Another Gaelic Badass, born in the Highlands, who has worn a kilt in lieu of pants most every day of his life. I've really been having good luck with my tour guides.

Dude can rock the plaid.
As we rolled out of Edinburgh, Yali informed us that today was, in fact, his last day as a tour guide.  He had just purchased a bed and breakfast in Glasgow and was preparing to run that full time with his wife.  As it was his last day, he asked us all if we had any pressing plans for the evening.  When general silence was heard, he said "Good.  Cause we're goin off the beaten path today.  To hell with the plan, I'm taking you to my favorite spots so we'll be a few hours late.  They can fire me if they want. Oh wait..."
As close to a plan as we can get.
Here's a vague estimation of where we were supposed to go, taken from the Rabbies website.  It was quite a full day.  I got so overwhelmed with Scottish history and geography that I feel like I should have taken notes.  But I didn't.  So I'm gonna hit the highlights. 

First thing of note we saw was Stirling Castle.  Quite an important crag-fortress that has seen it's fair share of royalty crowned over the centuries. 
We just flew past Stirling, so I didn't get a chance to explore the town, though we were given  a few quick history lessons from Yali.  He pointed out the Wallace Monument and Stirling Bridge, the site of the aforementioned Wallace's famous victory over the English(behind some trees damn it) in 1297.  He also cleared up some common misconceptions caused by Mel Gibson. Turns out Robert the Bruce was the real Brave Heart and not the sad, conflicted traitor King that is presented in the movie.  And apparently Wallace was a bit more of a brute than a brilliant strategist.  Oscars be damned.

After stopping for a quick coffee in Calender, we had reached the very edge of the highlands.  The landscape began to shift pretty damn dramatically.  Rolling plains and farmland quickly gave way to rocky, barren hills and wooded valleys separated by long slits of lakes called Lochs. Watch the movie Rob Roy for a nice little tour.

Keep your eyes out for Liam Neeson!
That Scottish wind is a fierce lady.  Cold and biting...
Here's a fine example: Rannoch Moor. Odd, rocky hills raise like massive beasts from the boggy Lochs.  Strange, but with a rugged beauty.  And cold.  God that wind was cold.  None of the hills rise too far above 3,000 feet, so I can't really call them mountains, being from the cascades myself.   You would get the occasional natural forest(or glen I guess) caught in the valleys between the hills, though the tree farms were a lot more prominent.  Very striking to see ordered squares of green standing amidst the barren rock and heather.  According to Yali the whole of Scotland was once covered in trees.  But over a couple thousand years most of the natural forests had been cut down.  Today a few remain, and they're a pretty stark contrast to the ordered farms we saw early on the trip.  Yes I saw one.  Yes it was awesome....be patient you'll see it soon.  This landscape was pretty epic, but it was about to get epic-er.  

Driving through Rannoch Moor we approached some truly stunning bits of highland.  Amid the stormy clouds and evergreen tree farms rose jagged peaks that evoked an adventurous spirit of an older, harsher time.

Buachaille Etive Mor...Go ahead now you say it.
Prime real-estate. Nice and exposed to the brutal winds, dependably terrible storms and marauding Scottish clans. This is not a happy place.  This is an awesome place, but not happy.
Felt like I was smack dab in the middle of Gondor.  Gondor in winter.  But Gondor none the less.  Just beyond this fair...mountain...range...lay the fabled "Weeping Glen" Glencoe. 

"You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the McDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have a special care that the old Fox and his sons doe upon no account escape your hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man escape."
 This place is pretty damn stark.  Now imagine climbing these rocks barefoot running from murderous enemies.  When Alastair Maclain of Glencoe arrived late to sign his allegiance to the new king of Scotland, King William signed an order authorizing the massacre.  On February 12th, 1692, 38 men were killed and another 40 women and children died being exposed to the elements shortly after.  What made the act extra douchey was the fact that the soldiers who did the deed had been staying with the McDonalds for two weeks and killed them in their beds.  Low Campell, that's low.
After Glencoe, we continued down the highway to Corran Narrows for a quick rest stop.  More beautiful landscapes and one more place I need to revisit later on my own.

From here we drove through Fort William and diverted a bit off the planned path.  We stopped near Spean Bridge to see the Commando War memorial; a striking statue dedicated to the British Commando forces that trained here in WWII.  A cool statue, with some damn impressive scenery to boot.

That's Ben Nevis in the background, the tallest mountain in Britain.
Yali said that on one of his tours, he met one of the soldiers this is based off of.  Then the whole company bought him a beer.

 Next we headed toward Loch Ness, arguably the most famous stop on the journey.  Fort Augustus was a tiny little collection of houses and shops set up around the loch. 

Here we stopped for a brief (like 10 minutes) lunch of Scottish fish and chips.

Suckin down some brew and fish with me new tour buddies Susan and Isabel.
The next boat to tour the famous "Lake o' Nessie was leaving soon so we had to book it with fish in hand.  Then we stood in line for ten minutes so I guess we could have hung out for a bit.  We finally got onto the horribly crowded boat and set out down the Loch.

The Massacre of Glencoe was sad but this tour was sadder.  The only part of the day I didn't enjoy.  The boat ride was un-exciting and the tour guide, while nice enough, didn't really have much interesting to say.  He basically summed up the various theories about the Loch Ness Monster, told us about that one time he saw a seal and thought it was a dinosaur, and drove us back to the shore.

See the fun? Do ya see it?
 The day was over half-way done, but we still had sights to see.  From Fort Augustus Yali really threw the map away.  We headed down Loch Laggan toward the town of Pitlochry. 

Laggan dam.  Pretty dramatic, it kinda just jumped out of nowhere.
It's the house from "Monarch of the Glen!"
 The last place of real note on our tour was Yali's favorite. A natural Scottish wood surrounding the beautiful Pattack Falls.  Our group got out and did a bit of exploring.  Some of us even drank from the Scottish spring.  Tasted like mineral water.


After this last diversion, we set off to our last stop, the town of Pitlochry.  A nice little Victorian tourist town.  After a quick coffee (and some awesome carrot cake!) we headed back toward Edinburgh.

The harsh landscape of the highlands faded away into the rolling hills and plains of the lowlands.  We got back into Edinburgh about two hours later then we planned but to sweeten the deal by dropping us off at one of his favorite pubs.  The Queen's Arms. 

Beer, Books & Friends.  No better way to end an evening.
 After we said our goodbyes to Yali, my new friends and I hit the town, going from pub to pub to club to bed.  I was damn sad that It took me so long to meet these people, but even sadder that the next day I would be leaving this fair nation.  Four days was not nearly enough, yet I feel that twenty years would still leave me wanting.  Of all the places I visited in this month abroad, Scotland is first on my list of "Places I must revisit before I get a steady Career/family/future."

The next morning I had breakfast with one of my new friends and then sped through town with luggage in tow, late for my train.  

Then I stopped.  I stopped on the Royal mile and took it all in one last time.  I missed my first train so I could listen to the bagpipes and the flutes, to laugh at the Scottish old ladies gossiping and breath the damp peaty air.

A summation: Scotland is awesome.  The people are warm and friendly, the history is vast and fascinating, the sights are many and won't cost you the kidney you paid in London.

Next is my weekend with Jessica in York. It's all down hill from here.    

Thanks for joining.  See ya soon.
Here's the link to my album for this blog:
4-7-11 Scotland Highlands Tour

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Call of Caledonia...

Welcome back fair blog-viewers.  A thousand manly handshakes and chewy pints to you that have stuck with me this long.  To those that joined in now out of curiousity or boredom...

You get one free shot of cheap whiskey.  Now go back to the start and read my other blogs.  I ain't touchin your grubby hands till then.

Oh keep the heid, calm down.  Have a seat.  All worthy gentlemen and bonnie lassies, and everyone else, pull up close to the peat fire. I've just returned from the most wondrous of countries.

Where the barren hills are awash in the purple flame of the heather, where the sounds of drum and pipe echo down the glen, where the stories of ages past are as bracing as the wind under your kilt, where the gift shops and bus passes are a third the price of everywhere else, and where the people are warmer than the warmest fire.

If anyone has ever told you that Scotland was worth visiting, you should punch them because they lied to you.  You shouldn't visit.  You should stay for as long as you can.

Up to this point my tours through the UK had been fantastic.  I had found some truly entrancing places, heard some enthralling history and met some really helpful people.  Everything was beyond my expectations because I didn't really have any.  However up until now I hadn't found any place where I could see myself living long-term.

That changed pretty rapidly.   

But lets take this one day at a time.

On the 5th day of April in the year of our Lord 2011, I set out by train from Ely to Edinburgh.  Armed with Alpha(camera), Ratatosh(laptop) and a couple pairs of pants, I had given myself four days to explore this supposedly epic place I'd heard of and seen Mel Gibson try to save.  Not much research had been done ahead of time.  I knew a few highlights that I was supposed to see. I knew it had some neat castles, I knew I had to eat haggis and scotch.  Maybe buy some wool.  I heard it was cool.  That's about it.

The train ride was almost five hours, which is the longest I have sat in a train in my life.  However It was also the most comfortable I've been in a train.  I didn't even have to shuck out the extra 20 quid for first class.  They just make those cross country trains a little more posh I guess. And It was practically empty. No screaming scottish children. Nice.   I could enjoy "The Time Machine" in relative peace.

As the sun rose and the latitude increased, the countryside became pretty damn pretty.  Northumberland reluctantly gave way to the Scottish borderlands.  Purple far-off mountains rose on my side of the train with a flowing tartan of green fields, blue rivers and millions of white sheep. 

Beyond the sleeping Chinese man to my right I caught my first views of the North Sea.  Mixed with the incredibly clear skies we had that day, the waters somehow seemed a lot bluer than I expected it to be.  

No Vikings to be seen.  Damn.
Pulled into Waverly station.  The place was largely under renovation, which made getting around fun for me.  The parts left uncovered by plaster and tarp were at least more visually interesting than any I'd seen in the UK so far. 

I couldn't see the city so much as feel it around me.  The angle of the train's entrance hadn't allowed me many good views of the capital, but as I grabbed my taxi to find my b&b the city's unique character grabbed my attention.

At first the old cobble streets and grey-gold stone buildings seem grubby.  Everything is a bit rougher here, there's less plastic and metal covering things up than in London or even York.  However the streets aren't really that dirty.  In fact I'd go as far as to say they feel a bit cleaner than most big cities I've visited, London included.

After a five minute taxi drive I arrived at my home base for the next few days, the Alexander Guest House.  A very vertical b&b that continuously reminded me of Faulty Towers.  The stairs were long and the place was nearly empty, but the room was nice and Heather my host had lots of travel advice for me.   She even gave me a free upgrade to the room on the top floor facing the street.  Uh...winning.

Next I caught a ridiculously cheap bus to the city center.  This is a stretch of cobblestone called the Royal Mile.  Turns out that Edinburgh is actually built on a dormant volcano.  This street runs from the top, starting at the castle, and goes all the way down to the edge of the city center close to a nearby mountain called Arthur's seat.

They city's "rough around the edges" quality had made me apprehensive at first, but I was quickly getting to like it.  They weren't hiding any thing.  And another thing.  The people walking down the main street actually gave me eye contact.  It's a real struggle to get someone in a British city to look you in the eye.  Getting them to smile takes even more work.  I got more waves and toothy grins in these first few moments on the Royal Mile than in an entire weekend in London.

My first bit of awesome this trip happened to be waiting for me on the street.  I had arrived just in time for a free tour of Edinburgh's main streets.  A local student named Mark from Manchester led us up and down the city streets, sharing the city's history and telling us all about the ways they used to kill people in this city.  I didn't absorb half of the information given, but it was a damn good time and a perfect way to become better acquainted with the city. 

Mark's telling us about that one guy who got his intestines tied around a tree. 
People used to pay taxes to the man here.  Now they spit on him here for good luck.  
This is the market square where thieves got their ears pierced...into the stone walls...

 Occasionally we would happen upon a building that would be black as pitch.  Several of them poke up out of the skyline like foreign obelisks.  Come to find out that the city used to be heated by peat, a substance taken from the ground in a bog and used as fuel in a fire.  The smoke stained the stone after countless years, and even after it's use has been abolished within the city, the stains still haven't come off all of the buildings.  It makes the buildings in question much more striking.  Especially since they tend to be cathedrals or monuments that look a bit like black citadels.

About halfway through the three hour tour(sigh...those poor, poor people) we caught our first clear views of Edinburgh Castle.  A truly imposing fortress springing from the black volcanic rock beneath it; I feel sorry for the soldiers who had to try and take it over the years.  Pretty drafty up there I guess, which explains why the royalty usually stayed at the Abby at the other side of the mile.   

"Oh hey this is a cool wall.  What's it made of Mark?" "Witches Brian. Witches."
 This is a city of levels.  Any of the large streets will have many alleys or closes branching off of it, like many other cities.  However, take a turn down an alley and you could find yourself in a completely different part of town many tens of feet below where you just were.  All the levels connect in really cool ways, leading you on journeys you don't expect.  Also some of the cemetery walls use dead witches as mortar.  Mark told me that after he made me lean up against it. 

Have a drink Mr. Hare!
 We went down into the original market square, which was once a miserable slum.  Now it's a nice if not a bit touristy collection of shops and cafes.  I totally geeked out when I saw that Burke and Hare's favorite pub is among them. Google those two.  They killed people and sold their bodies to science.  Great story.

 Past the witching wall we found ourselves in one of the many graveyards within the city.  Twas quite creepy cool, with more graves and mausoleums than I could possibly count.  We learned about the many haunted spots within that particular graveyard.  One particular mausoleum held a murderer whose name escapes me...he was a benign spirit until some sleepy bum broke into his tomb and tried to cuddle.  Now he's super cranky.  Gotta give a ghost his space.  We also heard about a dog named bobby who refused to leave his masters side, even two years after he died. Sad. 

Apparently that's Hogwarts in the background there...
 Also we spotted a lot of Harry potter references.  I guess she wrote the first book here so it makes sense.  Still it's weird to see Tom Riddle on a grave stone.  Weird...but cool.

After that we took some quick turns, went up and down numerous alleys and somehow ended up in a glorious park beneath the castle.  This was the image i had seen on a thousand postcards about Edinburgh and it was cool to see it first hand.

After a couple more cool stories were told in the grass, our group dispersed.  A few of us followed Mark up the street to his favorite pub.  There we tried Haggis.  Tasted like Liver.  Then I gave it back and ordered a Scottish hamburger.  Much better.

The day was spent but the night was young. After a quick refresher at my b&b, I joined some of my tourmates and Mark on a pub crawl.  Details become fuzzy at this point.  I know that several bars came and went.  One of which had a life-size frankenstien's monster fall out of the ceiling at one point.  Our tour ticket gave us one free drink at each bar.  So many jager-bombs and pints and whiskeys were had.  Those Australians really love to party.

And I know that there was a club at the end of the night.  However I felt like I had not consumed the right type of drug to enjoy said club so at about 1:30 a.m. I called it in. 

Didn't bring my camera...hate myself for being paranoid...
Anyway Kudos to Kim, Angus, Nate and Georgia my diverse bunch of pub-mates. This was the most fun out I've had since college.

4-5-11 First Day in Edinburgh

So there was my first day in Scotland.  Next came a day of castles and hikes, followed by a tour through the Scottish Highlands.

Come back quick!! Or I'll have to drink all this nice scotch on my own.  That should make the next blog more colorful...