‘There are two seasons in Scotland. June and Winter.’ – Billy Connelly.
Hang on. We were there in June. Did we miss something? Or is twelve degrees and raining just how it goes? We overheard another camper one evening make a similar observation. ‘Scotland, nine months of winter and three months of bad weather’ he said.
It’s no wonder the Scots love a good pub. They’re warm, with cheery lights, a stiff drink to occupy (and probably dull) the senses and company to boot. It makes sense. Not that we saw the inside of one. They’re not really budget friendly, especially in a country where the exchange rate doubles the cost of… everything.
So after a day and a half in Edinburgh gearing up with camping equipment, to take the edge off the exchange rate mark-up, we occupied most of our time in the great outdoors. Where it was twelve degrees and raining most of the time. The weather was so bleak on the day we drove out of Edinburgh I begun to have doubts about why I had dragged us all the way up here.
I have had a fascination with Scotland for many years, for reasons that are not entirely apparent, even to me. Maybe it’s because it’s dark, brooding, moody and beautiful all at the same time. I like that, but dark and brooding and beautiful is one thing when you are dreaming of far off lands from the comfort of your living room and something else altogether when confronted with the practicalities of camping in the wet and cold and long hours in the pub is not an option.
My mood however may just have been effected by the preceding four and a half hours spent in the windowless Europcar office at the Edinburgh train station where we were locked in heated debate over rental insurance. Europcar refused to acknowledge the third party insurance we had purchased in conjunction with our booking, requiring us to purchase their own insurance as well, at four times the price!
Were we going to take that lying down? We were not! Just as surely as no self-respecting, whiskey drinking, beard toting, kilt wearing, caber tossing Scotsman would yield to British rule! And a bit like the thousand years it took for the Scottish and English to come to terms, we too are still seeking justice with Europcar!
When I return to work in the distant future it will be with a new found respect and sympathy for the plight of the common man in dealing with large institutional bureaucracies. At one point on our Scottish adventure I found myself in a phone booth (who knew they still existed) on the side of a noisy road discussing the fine print of our insurance policy with a woman in the United States while Emma quizzed Amy and Oliver on their times tables in the back of the car.
Methinks the whole experience was a deliberate plot on behalf of the universe to enhance my capacity to separate ‘administrivia’ from the rest of life. At this I am still a student, progressing steadily under Emma’s careful tutelage.
It was with ‘rental car madness’ fighting ‘delight at being in Scotland’ for space in my frontal lobe that we set off for the Isle of Skye. We started out a day later than planned given the Europcar fiasco. I quite like an all-day drive and Europcar aside the Scottish countryside was everything I wanted it to be which soon ensured that delight won the contest in my mind, even though it was twelve degrees and raining.
The drive didn’t quite last all day, but by the time we had procured lunch and groceries, stopped on the road side a couple of times to take photos and found somewhere to buy a SIM card which provided coverage nowhere except where we brought it… there wasn’t a lot of day left by the time we reached the Eileen Doonan Castle, just before the bridge to Skye.
I love a good castle, and Eileen Doonan is a good castle. Children of the eighties will recall the film, Highlander. ‘There can be only one!’. It was filmed at the Eileen Doonan castle. I am starting to think there must be one or two lucky souls whose job it is to scout the world for places to bring Hollywood to life. I think that would be a fine job.
Along the way we pulled up in a carpark near the start of the Rannoch Moor. Isn’t that a great name. I could just say it over and over again. Rannoch Moor. Rannoch Moor. The ‘och’ really catches in the back of the throat if you work at it. So Scottish. Anyway, we stopped and found a man in full traditional Scottish regalia standing there bellowing away on the bagpipes. Really, we thought? A bus load of tourists appeared a minute later and the riddle was solved. Bagpipes in the highlands must have been part of the sales pitch.
By the time we made Skye bright sun was shining down on green hills dotted with white walled cottages and a gorgeous blue wind streaked sea. By 10pm we had the tent set up and Amy and Oliver were playing soccer, sorry ‘fitbaw’, with a couple of English kids like it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. This far north the sun sets around midnight, before waking again around 4.30am. Circadian rhythms go out the window as does melatonin to the brain. Lack of sleep follows, but you don’t feel tired because your brain is tricked into thinking the day never ends.
Three days of touring, walking, camping and cursing midges in a bad Scottish accent followed as we explored the many wonders of Skye. We walked the ‘Quirang’ on a splendiferous day of glorious sunshine. Sunshine, oh how we love thee. You never know what you’ve got til its gone. Isn’t that what they say? Scotland wouldn’t be Scotland unless there was ‘winter and three months of bad weather’, but Scotland under lights is a sight to behold. We were happy campers as we strolled along soaking in a view which extended all the way to the Outer Hebrides.
A short distance from the Quirang is the Old Man of Storr. We knew we should have kept our boots on and walked the extra kilometres that same glorious day, but we didn’t. Instead we frittered the sunlight away (which was also very pleasant) and went back the next day when it was back to twelve degrees and raining.
The Old Man of Storr is a 48-metre-tall rocky monolith that we hiked up to and touched, but couldn’t see! Aye lads and lasses, ‘twas Scottish weather tu be sure. It was a straight forward walk, but would only have taken three turns with a blindfold on to become totally disoriented and walk off in the wrong direction, maybe off a cliff!
It was still twelve degrees and raining the following day, after being ten degrees and raining all night, so we opted for a visit to the Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Clan MacCleod for more than 800 years. I wanna be in a clan. How fine it must be to be a man with a clan. It was a nice castle, though more of a stately home, occupying a very fine piece of real estate on the shores of Loch Dunvegan.
The best part of the visit though was marvelling at the beards of the chiefs throughout the ages. Life sized paintings adorned the walls with clan chiefs sporting some mighty fine muttonchops. Oliver’s journal entry for that day confirmed that beard admiration was not his favourite experience. ‘… the castle had a lot of shiny things and we watched a video that wasn’t very interesting so we went to the garden that was not very cool so do you get why I called it the ‘all boring Dunvegan Castle?’’.
At the Southern end of Skye is the mighty Cuillin range, mountains that rise over a thousand metres from a standing start. At the base of the range are the Fairy Pools, a series of cascading ponds of, ‘unusual clarity and beauty’. We visited on a day when it was 6 degrees and raining… and really windy. The Fairy Pools were a raging torrent as mountains of water slid off the mountain. Dark, brooding, moody and beautiful. It was Scotland all over.
By early afternoon it had warmed up, twelve degrees with passing rain squalls interspersed by sunshine. We left Skye and went in search of Loch Ness, where we found more than we bargained for. Yep we found the monster. Don’t believe me? Look at the photo. Emma got her head caught in its mouth!
The pretty little town behind Emma and the monster is Fort Augustus. It had a series of locks which form part of a series of waterways which mean you can actually sail clear through the heart of the Highlands from sea to sea. Heavy set grey stone buildings look as if they were built in deliberate defiance of the weather, fortresses against the wind and rain. They sit as though they are a part of the heavy, green, water logged foliage. Dark, brooding and beautiful. The rain even adds a certain something. Nah who am I kidding.
Just up the road from Fort Augustus is Urquhart Castle. It lies in ruins, after being kicked back and forwards between the English and the Scottish for some hundreds of years, but it is still a very fine spot, perched on a small peninsula jutting into Loch Ness with wildflowers strewn through grassy hills slowly reclaiming the abandoned fort. It had a gift shop with helmets and swords, so Oliver and I had a fight. I won. Just saying.
In an effort to redeem ourselves in the eyes of our children after the visit to the Dunvegan Castle (the boring one), I picked up a brochure for a ‘Highwire adventure’ from the Cumberlands campground office. Once Amy and Oliver clapped eyes on it momentum for a visit slowly but surely built up steam. Fortunately, it was strategically located on our route back to Glencoe, but was closed when we got there. Amy and Oliver’s disappointment was matched only by their excitement when we went back the next day and it was open. They had the whole thing to themselves and I’ll gamble it will be their favourite memory of Scotland.
24 hours later in Glencoe you’ll never guess who showed up? None other than those globe-trotting, fun loving Canadians that we have now caught up with in 5 different countries – the Douglas Grants. It was so good to see them again I forgot it was just 12 degrees and raining. We huddled under the cooking shelter at the campground and caught up on travelling tales. It had been all of two weeks since we saw them last and there was much to discuss!
When one meets the Douglas Grants one goes walking. It’s just what you do, so we picked a trail from the endless supply on offer and headed up towards the Lost Valley. It’s a perched valley where the MacDonald clan used to hide their rustled cattle. Like everywhere else in Scotland, it was gorgeously beautiful with tumbling waterfalls tall mountains and more of the thick green water logged vegetation.
When we made the Lost Valley, the high ridges beyond called Peter and I on and so we more or less raced up to the top in a little under an hour. As we started the descent, Peter started to trot and my heart skipped a beat in excitement before we raced back down in around 15 minutes of adrenalin filled fun, running over the steep scree slopes and rocky ground. It was twelve degrees and sunny. At least for a while.
We bid the Douglas Grants farewell the following morning and parting was sweet sorrow even though it’s only a short while until we meet again in Iceland. The forecast looked… poor. Three days of 12 degrees and heavy rain. We left them to their Scottish Highlands fate (I think it later involved retreating to the dry interior of a B&B) while we headed to the Edinburgh airport. Copenhagen, Denmark was next.