A Travellerspoint blog

Day 4: The Highlands and St. Patrick's in Scotland

in which your author finds neither the loch ness monster nor the holy grail

semi-overcast 50 °F

Scotchy, scotch, scotch. Down in mah belly. Staying up til the wee small hours in dimly lit pubs, chatting up strangers and hearing stories about life in this rich old town. All are fantastic ideas at night, but the sun comes up and the morning toll must be paid; this time it took the form of a 7am wakeup to make an 8:00 call for a pre-booked bus tour to the Scottish Highlands.

A rush to get to the Castle, about 2/3 of a mile away, in 10 minutes. No time for food, and the realization that I had no more cash, nor time to find an ATM, and the looming possibility I might go the entire morning without food. With a rough rider, kilted Scotsman behind the wheel taking no prisoners on the bumpy, windy country roads, 350 miles of which we are about to cover.

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I recently learned that “I feel nauseous” is incorrect; the proper phrase is “I feel nauseated.” I also recently learned I have great personal willpower to resist nausea when seated in the back row of a tour bus, and that Excedrin (aka manna from the Gods) is second in importance perhaps only to my passport on a Scotland packing list.

As my body recalibrates its relationship with existence, I write about Day 2 and start to enjoy the vivid scenery mere miles outside of Edinburgh. Our tour guide is another rogue straight from Scottish Central Casting – “Youse think eyyye havv a funny accent? Noo, I’m from herr… YOUSE are the ones who have accents!” We pass a McDonald’s which he introduces as “the American embassy,” and indicates a large field on which “legendary Scottish battles have been lost miserably”… it’s a rugby field. “No food, no drrrrink, no talk, you listen to me, I’m the teacher… breathing is OK but don’t breathe too much – this is good Scottish air and we don’t like to waste it on tourists!” He has this funny manner of repeating phrases twice for emphasis and ending almost every sentence with “Yah?” and there's even a touch of DeNiro amidst the thick brogue. Although the tour is mostly young couples, they’re not a particularly participatory bunch (the couple in front of me switched off headphones on some insipid heavy metal), but the guide does his best to keep things lively.

We pass Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Stuart in 1542, sacked by the British – that appears to be true of practically every old fortress in this much maligned country. One particular treat for me is passing by the castle used in the filming of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. (“What, the curtains?”), a film I’ve probably seen at least 32 times. (35, sir. Yes, 35.) We don’t get a very good look at it from the windy road, but I can at least see the building. No luck finding the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch at any of the gift shops nearby though.

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The Highlands are as advertised; gorgeous and green, expansive and packed with mountains. This region constitutes 85% of the land mass of Scotland, but only 10% of the population reside here (90% of the land is owned by a wealthy 100), not including the many visitors, who include skiers, hikers, rock climbers (15-30 are killed every year on Glencoe Mountain alone), and bikers following “cycle paths for psychopaths!” We pass by Ben Nevis, at 4,600+ feet, the highest mountain in the UK; I recall my father told me he climbed it years ago.

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We make a few quick stops for photos and at the first rest stop I’m pleased to find a cash machine; all the food at the rest stops is overpriced, though I was pleased to indulge in a delicious Scottish pastry called a “caramel flapjack,” which are fairly common to find. It’s also somewhat depressing to see “Made in China” on some of the cheaper items! Outside the first stop, there are two friendly Highland cows (allegedly celebrating birthdays) named Hamish and Honey, who both look like stouter, shorter Snuffleupaguses. (Shockingly, MS Word doesn’t recognize that last word.)

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After about three hours of stories set to Scottish music, we arrive at our major destination, what our guide describes as “maybe the most famous body of water in the world,” the impressive and legendary Loch Ness, which at a mile wide and 22.5 miles in length is truly monstrous in size. (Sorry.) We disembark at Urquhart (“Urk-heart”) Castle, a ruined fortress sacked by the British numerous times; the ruins date back over a thousand years. After watching a brief film reenacting some of the castle’s violent history (featuring the equivalent of “industrial work” for Scottish actors, presumably) I walk down and climb around the ruins, taking seemingly thousand of photos in the hope I’ll get at least one worth printing and framing. A Red Sox fan from Cape Cod takes my photo in front of the ruins.

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Staring out at (and videotaping) the waters, I can’t say I didn’t try to coax Nessie out of her dark depths. (I believe there was a Six Nations rugby match on which probably explains her absence from the surface.) Waiting for the boat at the shore, (slightly ironic after being read the riot act to not show up late for the boat lest we want to swim back to Edinburgh!) I taste a bit of the Loch water and the guide described, it’s completely clean; apparently it’s purified by the presence of the ancient peat.

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I think there’s at least the shadow of a monster in this photo?

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Our “cruise” across the Loch is fairly uneventful but it is nice to be out on the water. It’s one of the few times I actually feel lonely on the trip, as it appears to be almost all couples, families, or groups of friends and I wasn’t feeling the chatty vibe from the group.

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I make it through the most treacherous part of the journey – the gift shop – with my funds (mostly) intact, and we begin to cross the Highlands for the trip back south, accompanied by a gorgeous setting sun and musical selections from “The Last of the Mohecans” (once filmed in the area) and some truly wretched bagpipe and electric guitar hybrid music featuring the guy from Dire Straits.

A worthy trip nonetheless, and at 38 pounds certainly a better plan that it would have been to rent a car (which started at 60 pounds not including gas) and navigate the mountains on the wrong side of the road. Next time I’d love to actually visit a distillery, though I’m rather happy to stay away from the golden liquid on this particular day!

We arrive back ahead of schedule and I stop for some pub food, which unfortunately takes waaaay too long and is fairly bland (microwaved mac and cheese?) and pushes back my plan to drop off my things (including my battery-dead laptop which I didn’t want to lug around on amidst drunken St. Patrick’s revelers) and meet George at the Sandy Bell sometime between 8 and 9. By the time I actually make it there it’s about 9:20 and he’s not around. I’ll have to drop him a postcard.

The Sandy Bell is packed and seems to contain quite a lot of overflow from the Irish pub across the street, and it’s mostly greened up college students who are putting the “bro” in “brogue.” The musicians finally start up in the back but they’re mostly tuned out. I chat up the friendly guitarist, who teaches flute and traditional music at Glasgow Conservatory, and decide to walk around a bit more before possibly coming back later, with a fervent desire to sing my Irish pub song on the holiday in an actual trad music pub. And importantly, to take my annual St. Patrick’s Day photo of a pint of Guinness balanced on my head.

I walk in the direction of Greyfriars, snoop in on a ghost tour in the much-spookier-in-the-dark–and-allegedly-haunted cemetery for a minute, then down a street where, upon eying a pub from the outside, I’m literally pulled in by a guy yelling “come on in here, it’s so much fun!” He introduces me and the entire pub shouts hello. This sort of thing only goes on in Europe, I swear. I chat with a few Americans, but quickly decide the vibe is a bit much for my energy, and leave after a few minutes, walking down streets I hadn’t been down previously. One thing I’m enjoying about Edinburgh is that after only three days here, I’ve already got the geography mostly down; the Castle is a convenient landmark.

I walked a good deal on this night, probably as much as any other time on the trip: past the Grassmarket (the spot where Coventers were burned now used as a styrofoam container disposal area, sadly) and all the way around to Lothian Road, which extends to the east of where my flat was. I eventually located Bennet’s, another British pub recommended by @hipharpy, and stopped in for a quick malt, which confirmed for me my satisfaction with Benromach.

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As it was still fairly early on a weekend holiday, and not wanting to turn in my Irish card, I make the large loop around in the direction of the Sandy Bell, making a quick stop into The Brauhaus, which claims to have the largest beer list in the city. It’s a welcoming, small-size pub with a truly impressive selection; I enjoy a half pint of local American-style IPA and continue on my way.

The musicians are on break when I get back to the packed Sandy Bell, I order my half pint of Guinness, which a drunk local woman makes fun of me for at the bar – I’ve finally met an unfriendly person in Edinburgh! I take the self-portrait in the men’s room and return to perch by the musicians.

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The fiddle player, who is quite extraordinary, and the jovial bass player, the spitting image of Samuel Beckett, start to trade back short bits of music. There’s clearly a lull and the other players aren’t joining in yet, so I summon the courage to ask her if they’d play “Raglan Road” (which the intentions of my singing along) to which she blurts out “NO” even before I finish the question. The bass player leans over to me to say “she’s married!” and I say no, I was just asking for a song; he says which one, I say “Raglan Road” and he starts playing it, impishly following my lead as I join in singing. The fiddle player (reluctantly, haha!) starts playing along, and though the pub is loud, I’m able to sing at full strength and be heard in the immediate vicinity. We do three verses and the bass player shakes my hand vigorously. Victory! That was a goal and I remember regretting chickening out on this when I was in my last trad pub in Dublin, so it’s a great way to celebrate the holiday and close out the day. My trip is more than half over and I’m still collecting highlights by the hour!

Posted by coolmcjazz 17:04 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland edinburgh

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Comments

Amazing photography! Thank you for sharing!

by Conexus International

wow amazing pics.
thanks for share with us.

praveen
mytravelodotcom

by kumarpraveen

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