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