The interminable bagpipe playing continues unabated as you move from one corner to the other. Some pipers clearly know only one piece. If you stand in the same place long enough you hear them play it again and again.
My last stop in Scotland is Edinburgh. I am glad I didn’t come here first, it would have swayed my opinion of this wonderful place.
The sun is shining down on the people sitting outside one of the authentic Scottish pubs. Authentic, except everyone there is not from Edinburgh. Not even the staff.
Some of my melancholy may stem from the fact that I fly home tomorrow and my big adventure ends. I think some stems from the fact that this city is in danger of losing itself. Losing itself up the arse of overtourism. I wrote about this in a previous post and here I find myself conflicted again.
I am a tourist.
I am in Edinburgh.
I’m part of the problem.
There is absolutely no doubt that this is a place to visit.
The architecture? Sublime!
The history? Incredibly long and intriguing.
The winding streets and narrow closes (laneways) a photographer’s delight.
But the people? So many people. Jostling and bustling.
Selfie after selfie. In front of the castle. In front of the Kirk. In front of the shops with the fake wisteria.
We’ll all have the same photos. I retreated to the Galleries and the breathtakingly magnificent Scottish Museum.
I wish I could have been here 30 years ago. (But with the same digital technology I have now!!) Then, it would have been truly spectacular!
What do we do? What do we do? There is obviously too much money sloshing around in the collective travel bucket of the world, including my own. I feel badly for the people who do call this place home. They have lost their city. AirBnB has taken up most the properties nearest the city and people can not find places to live. Their pubs are crowded, their streets noisy. I apologize for the contribution I made.
Next big adventure? Definitely most definitely, has to be in Australia.
It was a case of a proverb being lived out in real life. As I stood with the bright hot sun shining on my face, I watched the hay baler wrapping up the cut silage like a spider wraps up a fly. Even from this distance you could hear the black plastic peeling off its spool.
The liquorice log plopped onto the field and the tractor moved on. In the neighbouring paddock, the slasher was busily mowing down the long stalks of green and leaving them in neat trails behind. A mass of seabirds wheeling above catching any insects that were trying to escape the blades of the tractor. A case of out the blade and into the gulls mouth.
I had seen this process back in Australia and in Canada and the US. The only differences here were that the bundles left behind were black rather than pink or green and the birds trailing behind were a different species. I surmised the black was to allow greater absorption of heat and hence faster fermentation of the silage.
Same same but different.
Walking on a little, we moved out of the way of the tractor carrying four bales to the ever growing pile that was up against an enormous stone farm shed. The shed was an impressive structure with a curved roof. Rich farmers I thought to myself.
I was surprised when our guide took us into the shed and we discovered it was filled with another stone building. A much older one. The outer more modern building was there to protect the crumbling ruins from the elements.
The Midhowe Chambered Tomb is surrounded by gantries so you can look down into it rather than walk through it. These types of ruins are in as much peril from scrambling humans as they are from the fierce weather. The interpretive sign gives you context and the deduced purpose of the building. A burial chamber with individual stalls and shelving for the bodies. Twenty five skeletons were removed and taken to XYZ Museum. (Research needed! 😃) Your mind can make a good picture of what it may have been like 5,000 odd years ago.
A few more metres along the shore line is a broch – a circular dwelling with rooms, dividers and built in cupboards! The ancient story continues with a Norse dwelling and a very ruined medieval church.
“They say if you kick the ground in Orkney, it bleeds archeology” our walking guide tells us as we look over the trail of ruins behind us.
Ahead, are much more modern buildings, the actual farm sheds and the tents of an active archaeological dig at Swandro . The lead archeologist greeted us at a big sign board which showed an aerial view of the dig. She explained to us in detail, what they were doing and what they had found, before taking us to view the shovel wielding, brush dusting students and volunteers who were doing the actual digging. They too were basking in the lovely sunshine and light breeze. This dig is a race against time because it is right on the beach and is being rapidly eroded. The site is of particular significance because of the metallurgical evidence they have found which shows the Smithy was using zinc. This was well ahead of the expected time frame for zinc use in these parts. Her talk ended with a plea for much neededdonations to continue their work.
In the afternoon we walked across a patch of typical Scottish moorland with the heather just beginning to bloom. The boggy ground caused a few slips and falls. The descent brought us back to the ferry wharf, a tea house, Orkney Icecream and a much needed toilet!
Perhaps because the walk had not been so physically challenging, I decided to push myself by ordering Haggis and Claptrap for dinner at the Ayre Hotel. Claptrap is a mash made from potato and turnip. Haggis, well you know what haggis is. I have a violent aversion to offal but decided to step up to the plate and be a brave old chook! I’m afraid it was a challenge too far. After 3 – 4 mouthfuls the offally flavour became overwhelming and I could go no further. I should be content in the knowledge that at least I gave it a go and it was a one in a lifetime occurrence.
Culloden Moor Inn carpark was full, yet when I walked into the Keppoch Bar there were only two people other than the barmaid. They eyed me warily. I asked the barmaid if I could get a drink and some food.
“You might be more comfortable in the restaurant?”
“No” I said “I’m happy to sit here in the bar”
The “crowd” relaxed
The older fellow struck up a conversation immediately picking up on my Australian accent. The usual questions. Are you on your own? Where have you been? Where are you going?
“Don’t hang aboot there too long” the young bike rider quipped as the barmaid chortled.
I laughed nervously, this was the second group of people who suggested Fraserburgh was a less than desirable place to stop. Mutterings about a drug culture and a depressed economy since the end of the fishing.
“Ummmm, It seemed like a good place to stop and … and it’s got a Lighthouse Museum.”
“Och, Aye” with nods that could be interpreted as sympathetic. Had I made a bad choice based solely on geographic location and a museum? Only time would tell.
It was my intention to hug the Moray Coast east (across the flat bit of northern Scotland), turn right at Fraserburgh and drop down to Aberdeen. I discovered that this was called the Coast Trail (east) and it was well signposted. Since being here I have discovered lots of signposted routes. The NC 500 (I knew about that one) but others. The Rock Route, The Pictish Trail, The Castle Trail to name some which all take you to themed points of interest. I followed most of the Rock Route by chance and most of the NC 500.
The drive from Forres to Fraserburgh was grey and wet. The bright colours of the sweet little towns of Buckie, Portessie, Cullen and Findochty muted by the rain. The ocean steely blue and the beaches, dull despite the light coloured sand.
I spent a while at Lossiemouth in the Museum of Fishing and Community. Run by volunteers, it was small but had some fabulous model boats and quite good archival material if you were looking up family who may have lived in the area. I found the 14th April 1912 issue of the Daily Mirror interesting. The front page news was about the Titanic. The the page 3 banner proclaimed that all passengers were safe!. Goodness! Was that a bit of false news or what? It would take another day to reveal the true story.
As I had arrived in Fraserburgh in the late afternoon, I went directly to the Lighthouse Museum and just managed to join in on the last tour of the day with one other fellow. The guide gave us his undivided attention and it was inspiring to go right up to the lens room and see how the whole mechanism worked. (Ok, ok so I’m a bit of a nerd in that respect!) The Kinnaird Head Light is built over a castle and therefore has some unique features. It is no longer operational. The museum exhibits have a large collection of beautiful glass lenses which are fun to look through.
As to the rest of Fraserburgh? It was bleak with ALL the buildings made from the same dull grey stone. The dark skies adding to the gloom and things were quieter than the other places I had been too. It had obviously been a prosperous town with its public buildings and monuments reflecting more opulence than it now had.
The large harbour was filled with fishing boats that ranged from tiny dinghys up to huge trawlers.
The lovely host of the AirBnB had recommended the fish market as a place to take good photos, so in the morning I went in search of them. I asked for directions at a cafe and a very hospitable young fellow, Mathew, who works on his dad’s trawler, gave me a private tour of the selling floor, despite the fact he had a cup of tea going cold!
So yes Fraserburgh was bleak, it did seem gloomy but the people I meet added a little sunshine!
It’s been 21 days since I flew out of Sydney. I am now in Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast, listening to the calls of the giant seagulls which have followed me for the last 2 weeks as I hugged the coast. I covered 1572 miles or 2530 km. I didn’t think Scotland had that many kilometres to do! Criss-crossing along the single track roads has added up.
I have stayed in 11 different AirBnBs, 2 guest houses and one youth hostel. I did 5 ferry crossings, one chartered boat voyage, one overnight train, 3 buses and 1 taxi ride. I witnessed and gave first aid at one serious road crash. I have lost track of the number of castles and castle ruins I have seen and I have been to 5 museums. I have walked 285 kilometres. I lost one travel mascot and found another.
I am not going to add up how much I have spent, but it’s been a lot!! Things here priced the same “number” but cost twice as much. I mean it might cost $4 in Australia and £4 here, so in effect $8AUD.
I have met some wonderful people and become Facebook friends with one. (AMcL – that’s you!)
My overall impressions of Scotland have been very positive. I have felt comfortable going into pubs on my own and chatting with the locals. I have promised a postcard from Wollongong to Willy at the Culloden Moor Inn. He wants to show it to his mate who has been to Australia at least six times but wasn’t there on the night.
The main topic of conversation revolves around me traveling alone.
One fellow at the Red Lion at Forres declaring that it took some balls to travel solo and even he would be too scared to travel in another country alone.
I don’t feel brave. I have said before in another post that I don’t take stupid chances. I am usually tucked up in my room well before dark and don’t lurk in places that seem a bit dodgy. Although, that is sometimes a bit hard in cities you don’t know and you accidentally witness drug deals and prostitute haunts.
I did feel very brave staying in a youth hostel though. A first for me, and I must say I was a bit worried about a number of things:
1. Not being a youth,
2. Sharing a room with four women I didn’t know
3. Bed bugs and
4. The prospect of people throwing their shoes at me because I snore!
It turned out fine. I only chatted with the French lady who was about 10 years younger than me – the three others came in later after I was already in bed and no-one threw shoes at me! I had no red welts in the morning, so it seems my worries may have been unfounded. I sat in the community lounge after dinner editing the day’s photos and watched some other “mature” youths (average age 40) doing a whisky and chocolate taste testing party and teasing each other unmercifully, after a wreck diving expedition. They invited me to join in. I tested the chocolate but not the whisky!
Given that the youth hostel was less than ½ the price of everywhere else I have stayed it makes good sense to try them out more often. The French lady says she really likes travelling on her own but stays at youth hostels because she can find someone to talk to in the evenings so it was a nice compromise for her.
The next phase of my adventure is with a small group walking tour in the Orkney Islands.
I recently did the 14km Culloden Battlefield’s Circuit which included the Culloden Moors, the Culloden Visitors’ Centre, and the Clava Cairns. It’s an easy walk, physically. Flat (for the most part) with made paths that are either gravel, forestry trails or footpaths next to the road. In that respect it’s easy. No physical challenge.
There is, however, some emotional challenge.
Like most of the world, I knew nothing about Culloden or the history of the Scottish people until I watched the first series of Outlander. While it may not be an accurate historical representation, it has certainly piqued the interest of millions, including myself.
On top of that, both sides of my family hale from Scotland. Some of my blood started here. I was drawn to Scotland, by my own history and partly by Outlander. (And to be honest, partly by Neil Oliver, the simmering historian!)
On the 16th April, 1746 the Battle of Culloden happened in this place. Lasting less than an hour, it led to the deaths of 1500 Jacobite men and 50 Red Coats. It was not a battle of Scottish against English. It was not a battle of Protestants against Catholics. It was a battle for Scottish independence and for the personal vanity of a would-be King.
For me, the emotional challenge started at St Mary’s Well, where the Jacobite Troops got their water and where they retreated to after the short-lived battle. The trees around the enclosed well are covered in bits of material. These strips are “wish rags”.
Rags tied with a prayer for healing and good luck.
There are ghosts here. You can feel them. I cursed my crunching boots and squeaking backpack buckles, I needed to be quieter.
“I am sorry” I thought “Sorry to disturb your rest.”
I don’t know who I was speaking to, but I felt it. Like you sometimes feel the change in air pressure before a storm.
You feel it when you stop to listen. You feel it when you stop to take notice.
People had died here. Badly.
A few kilometres on, I passed onto the “official” battlefield. I expected more ghosts, but none appeared to me. There were too many living people here. The air was disturbed with the conversations of the now. It was too noisy. The ghosts were hiding, looking for peace. Perhaps if you came back at night, they would be here. If you came back after the buses had gone, after the Visitors’ Centre had closed, perhaps they would be here then.
Even so, without the ghosts, it was a sad, bleak and windy place. No trees, just low shrubs. The wildflowers should have packed up and gone home, because even their bright colours failed to cheer things up.
There may be no ghosts, but my rational self imagined what it must have been like. I thought “Are there bones under my feet? Am I stepping on someone’s corpse?”
The ground would have been covered in bodies, blood and flies. By the 19th of April it would have been a stinking quagmire of gore, with human scavengers picking the pockets of the fallen.
The loud laughter of a group of women on a private Outlander tour disturb my imaginings.
Go slowly. People died here.
The Visitors’ Centre was excellent, a very good balance between entertainment and sorrow. The walk continued for another 8 kilometres or so after the battlefields, well sign posted and level, it remained an easy walk. Along the way, the Clava Cairns take us back to an even more ancient past. Perhaps 4000 years old, these rocks, arranged in slotted rings, take us back much, much further than the battlefields.
There are no ghosts here. The ancients made sure their dead were at rest, unlike those who died on Culloden Moor.
The Cairns are peaceful.
They are just another brown signposted ‘place of interest’ on the road.
This video shows you what to expect on thecircuit trail.
I am having all sorts of trouble uploading videos with the mobile version of WordPress! I will post the video on my public Facebook site – Old Chook Enterprises.
This walk is well worth the time. It took me around 5 hours but that included a good stop at the Visitors’ Centre. I used a map from Viewranger which you can access from the Walking Highlands website (https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/lochness/culloden-clava.shtml) but it was very well sign-posted and it would have been possible to do it without the map. I would recommend the Culloden Visitor Centre, although you can walk right on by it if you chose to.
Scotland is surrounded by little islands, some more famous than others. The Isle of Skye for instance, would be a place recognised by most travellers. Some of these islands are so close to the mainland (hmmph the whole of the UK is an island in itself but let’s not get into semantics here) that they are connected by bridges. Others, can only be accessed by boat. Unless of course you have your own light plane or helicopter!
CalMac (Caledonian McIntyre) have the game sewn up in this respect. Their distinctive black and white vessels ply the routes regularly. The more popular routes have several crossings each day.
As a first time car ferry user I was a bit nervous about going from Oban to Craignure in Mull.
Here are a few tips that may help allay any anxiety you may have about ferry travel if you are not used to it.
You can book your passage easily on the CalMac website (LINK). They offer lots of different packages that bundle together several sequential island crossings. You should have a good idea of where you want to go before you start. However, their packages are no cheaper than booking single tickets. I booked each of my trips separately because none of the packages fitted what I wanted to do. The advantage of the packages are that you only have to enter your details and pay once. If you do it one crossing at a time you have to do all that as separate transactions. You have to buy a ticket for the people and the vehicle. The ferry from Tobermory to Kilchoan does not require a booking. You pay on board or at the ticket office if it is open.
2. Get there on time
There is a scheduled departure time and a last check-in time. Make sure you know when the check-in finishes. Although in my limited experience, there is a lot of hurry up then waiting. You will be directed to wait in various queues (depending on car size I think). First on does not mean first off.
3. Wear warm clothes.
Even though the sun may be shining it will be windy out on deck so make sure you are rugged up with layers.
4. Will you be with your car?
Some of the ferries have an enclosed car deck. For instance, from Oban to Craignure the cars are underneath. Others have an open car deck in the centre of the ferry where you can see your car at all times. When you are sailing on the ferries with the below decks car deck you can not return to your car until you are directed at the end of the crossing, so make sure you have everything you need before you go to the upper decks. The ferry opens at both ends. I wondered how there was room to turn the cars around inside!! You drive on at one end and drive off the other end.
5. Do not lock your car.
If you have a car with an alarm system, don’t lock it or activate the alarm system. The vibrations from the vessel will set it off. Again and again, until the friendly staff realize it’s you and come tell you to unlock it.
6. Relax and take it easy.
Listen to the safety instructions. In the unlikely event that something does happen you need to know what to do. The ferry travels at a very even slow speed. On the days I travelled, the sea was calm and quiet. I am sure this is not always the case. If the weather is too bad the crossing will be cancelled, so don’t worry too much. If the ferry is sailing you’ll be OK. The larger ferries have a bar, cafe and both indoor and outdoor seating. The smaller vessels have at least a vending machine and a small passenger saloon. They all have toilets.
If you are sensory sensitive there are a few things you might want to prepare yourself for
It’s noisy.. There are loud bangs when the doors are opening and closing and a siren sounds when the doors are about to open or close. The cars make a lot of noise comin on and off the ramp. There are safety announcements which are heralded by chimes.The ferry makes a low churning sound when it is sailing.
It’s smelly on deck, especially near the funnels. The ferries use diesel based fuel so there is some smoke and fumes.
There are people of all ages and lots speaking languages that you may not understand. There are also people with pets. You can sit in areas where pets are not allowed (unless they are service dogs). You will be in a confined space and you won’t be able to get away from everyone but there is generally more space out on deck then below decks in the cafe area etc.
It is windy. Even if it was fine on land the movement of the ferry will make it windy outside. You can stand behind things to reduce the wind or go inside.
After the tragic loss of the original Iain, I would like to introduce his wayward son Iain mac Iain. Wayward, because he has abandoned the family tartan, has a tattoo and is wearing shoes, and a utility belt.
He has cast aside family tradition and decided to wear mostly black. Perhaps it’s just an emo stage?
Despite his careless disregard for tradition, he is valiantly searching for his lost father.
Sheer igneous escarpments surrounded by velvety green slopes,
Outcrops and boulders interrupting the grazing sheep’s progress.
Slushy bogs and deep lochs. Tiny wildflowers and soft grass.
Rocky beaches with brown seaweed and driftwood (and unfortunately blue plastic bags, plastic ropes and packing straps).
Single track roads. Sailing boats. Craft shops and cafes with modern cuisine.
Lots and lots of people.
I spent three days on Skye at the end of June, crossing from Oban and from there I travelled on to Lewis and Harris.
Apart from the city of Glasgow and the Harry Potter Bridge (oh sorry the Glenfinnan Viaduct) Skye was the most crowded place on my road trip. Neil who has a blog Travels with a Kilt) recently wrote a post about how places like Skye are being drowned by the weight of tourists and I would concur even though I’m one of those tourists.
It becomes obvious in a number of ways, firstly nearly every homestead is a B&B, you need to let 4 – 5 cars pass at each passing place on the single track roads and you get yelled at by people in car parks. I decided to give Syke’s “must sees” a miss after such an experience at the Claigan Coral Beach carpark. I opted instead to head back to the small bothy I was staying at and spend the time sitting in the sun and staring out over the fabulous view I already had.
I trudged across the rocky beach to the pub at Stein, had coffee and posted some cards back home. I lit the fire for effect rather than warmth, as it was a comfortable 18oC. I rested and wrote and contemplated how grateful I was to be able to afford to do this. I pondered on how little we need to be content if we let ourselves. I made porridge for breakfast and smiled at the shared culture that meant I knew exactly what that jar of brown sugar was for.
Brigid’s bothyin Waternish, is a small stone, single roomed building about 4 x 12 m with a tin roof and double glazed windows. Facing directly west it is bathed in soft light. Sitting literally a weak-arm’s stone throw from the rocky beach you could spend the whole day looking for shells and sea glass. (It would make a fantastic writing/artist retreat!)
Brigid runs the bothy as an AirBnB and I began to imagine it is magical. Judging by the comments in the visitors’ book, others before me agreed. It’s quiet, secluded and there is no easy access to the internet.
In the 10 days before arriving there I had been relentlessly pushing myself to see and do as much as I could while in Scotland. I was tired. The long, long days had meant my sleep patterns were out the window. Being there around the solstice meant it was still light at midnight and the sun returned at 4 AM. I was emotionally drained after losing my travel mascot, Iain. First world problem perhaps, but nonetheless, I was honestly upset.
After taking on the Quiraing Hill Circuit I slowed right down, sorted out my suitcase and took fewer than 100 photos. The decision to take it easy for two days was well made. I’ve wrote three blog posts, created two short little videos and edited some photos ready to upload when I did get internet. I contemplated about whether to try and replace Iain and decided what will happen will happen. I read a short book – Brokeback Mountain and watched the tide come in and out.
I discovered that unlike Australian sunsets which are over in twenty minutes, the twilight lasts for hours. The red streaks lingering and deepening. It did not get truly dark and my intention to photograph the night sky was thwarted by the biggest light polluter around – the sun.
I checked out refreshed and recharged.
If you come to Skye, take Neil’s advice, come in the quieter times of the year. Judy at the craft shop in Stein summed it up. “We have the place to ourselves in the winter and autumn. No-one comes then.”
Come then, the mountains will still be here. The snow, if it falls, will add another dimension and the stormy weather will give you more stories to tell. Best of all you won’t be arguing with other tourists about parking spaces.
P.S. I ended up going back to the coral beach early the next day and there were only 3 other cars there. I would recommend this strategy for the “natural” sites which don’t require a ticket. In summer, it’s light from around 4AM and it seems most people don’t get on the road till around 10. You could get an early start and be back in a cafe for a late breakfast and miss the crowds.
When I packed my suitcase to come to Scotland, I went out and bought another pair of fleecy Gortex pants because I was worried I would be wet and cold. My research of the weather said I could expect temperatures in high teens at best. I didn’t pack any shorts and only one t-shirt. That plan was sorely tested.
On the day I did this walk, The Outer Hebrides put on a summer day to rival summer in Wollongong! Not a cloud in the sky and at one point my car told me it was 30C!
After 5 km of walking, I decided to cut down my jeans with the little scissors in my trusty first aid kit!
After a thorough cost benefit analysis I deemed it worthwhile.
1. It’s 30 C (86F)
2. The jeans are not expensive ones
3. It’s 30 C (86F)
4. I’m sweating like crazy and I am only carrying a litre of water. It’s a health issue!
5. It’s 30 C (86F)!!! In Scotland!!!
2. Still thinking of 1!
(Video to follow! Ackkkk not sure why but they won’t load)