Twelve degrees and raining

‘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.

New backpacks!

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!

Slightly stubborn – we almost set up camp there!

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.

Eileen Doonan Castle

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.

Our first night on Skye – way less than 12 degrees and windy but sunny
Late night games

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.

Spectacular walking
Scenery on the Quirang walk
More Quirang scenery

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!

True Scottish weather!
Old Man Storr (that 48m high rock is just there!)

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.

One of the Fairy Pools

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!

‘Nessie’ at Fort Augustus on Loch Ness

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.

Note the full rain gear we are wearing… JIC
Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle
Gift shop battles
So excited by the sunshine we made lunch in the carpark!

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.

Oliver on the high wire
Amy up on the course in the trees
Oliver about to leap

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!

An late evening at Glencoe

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.

Strike a pose – back together again!
Beautiful greenery
The Lost Valley

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.

Crazy mountain runners
On the walk back down

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.

Didn’t make the story but this is Neist Point Lighthouse – Skye


A tale of two cities

This is a tale of two cities. One of them is London, but that’s about where the comparison with Dickens’ story ends. After the lemon scented air of the Amalfi coast we were headed for Naples, to catch a train to Rome. Remarkably, we didn’t miss the Naples turn-off which may not seem all that remarkable to you, but for us was something of a cause for celebration.

At our best we missed the turn off for our home on the Amalfi three times in the same outing! Each time necessitated a five kilometre trip up a highway a turnoff over an overpass followed by a 500 metre drive to a roundabout and a repeat of the journey in reverse to make good. I want to say Italian roads are crazy, but that wouldn’t be fair. My children think my driving is crazy. One of the joys of travel is the instant feedback on your driving including random speed checks, fear factor on corners and jerkiness of gear changes.

In Naples we found a petrol station within proximity of the train station to refill the rental car but humiliated ourselves by being unable to work the pump without local assistance. Turns out that the pump will only work once you have fed cash into a non-descript looking vending machine. Who knew?

After that we located the rental car office at the train station where we were told the parking garage was right next door to said petrol station. Getting back there required a hair raising, life force draining ten minutes navigating the streets of Naples which seemed to be waging an unjust war on U-turns.

Then Oliver and I paid a Euro to go to the loo at the train station and the hand dryers didn’t work. Just saying.

The train from Naples to Rome was ear popping fun. It went so fast (about 290 km/hr) that when it entered a tunnel the displaced air couldn’t escape fast enough to avoid the air pressure wreaking havoc with our inner ears. As a result, we spent half the journey looking like cows munching grass as we worked our jaws in an effort to equalise the pressure in our eustachian tubes. Or maybe that was just me.

By the time we made Rome we were starving. The train had a special lunch time deal which made it seem likely a vaguely viable financial option but when Amy, Oliver and I went to inquire we were told the offer was only valid for the next leg of the journey, after the train left Rome. I nearly asked the man to show me where the flyer stated this to be so, but instead I sighed and Amy, Oliver and I returned to our seats hungry.

Instead we found pizza outside the Roma Termini and ate it on the footpath while pondering which bus to catch to our Airbnb apartment. It was city bus number 64, alight at St Petro’s. There was one waiting, about to depart just as our stomachs got down to the serious business of digesting mozzarella, tomato and pizza crust. We climbed laboriously on-board, weighed down with baggage, just as the doors were about to close but didn’t have a ticket. I confessed to a local jammed hard up against me in the crowded bus, but he didn’t seem to think anyone would care. He was right.

Footpath pizza

Margherita, our Airbnb host met us outside our apartment about a kilometre away from St Petro’s. Every time Emma mentioned her name images of the lunch we had eaten before catching the bus leapt to mind. I had to concentrate to stop myself from giggling when we met her, which is totally unfair, especially as she was such a friendly host.

No sooner were we in the door and the wifi on than messages were whizzing through space to track down the whereabouts of the Douglas-Grants, our epic Annapurna Base Camp trekking friends. They were to join us for two days in Rome and were on-route from Florence. It was so exciting to see them we went out for celebratory gelato… because you need an excuse.

The next day it was off to the Colosseum, because that’s what you do in Rome. I love the Colosseum. It’s a place where everything you’ve ever read or know about ancient Rome suddenly shifts from the fiction to the non-fiction section of your mind. The emperor sat there, 50,000 spectators bade for blood all around there and epic battles of life and death took place just down there. It’s the same place with the events transpiring separated by nothing but time. It’s kinda spooky, and kinda cool.

Heading to the Colosseum

The inhumanity of the spectacles that played out here is enough to give you chills. Imagine being the poor soul marched out for afternoon crucifixion (like half time entertainment at the football), about to meet an horrendous end. Not only is there no comfort, no sympathy and no way out, but the more it hurts the more the cheering crowds scream. Extraordinary.

Inside the Colosseum
Together again!


The Roman Forum – so many ruins!

What a long way the world has come since those times, most of it anyway. May the trend continue. Perhaps one day even slaughtering animals (think bull fighting perhaps) for entertainment will seem wrong. That night Peter and I sat down to watch Russel Crowe in Gladiator. I think Peter nodded off half way through, but I enjoyed it. Nothing like a bit of CGI to put the icing on a day’s outing.

A little apathy kicked in the next day, but with good company and the heavens shaking outside, why rush? We made it to St Peters Basilica by early afternoon before idly debating whether or not to brave the queues for the Vatican Museum. The spirit however did not move us in that direction, instead we aimlessly walked the streets of Rome until that wore a little thin with the younger members of our party. After that we wandered the streets with purpose as Peter set the kids off on a geocaching quest.

Inside St Peters – Vatican City (it’s a different country you know)
Good company for exploring
Geocache preparation
Geocache hunting in Rome
Found one!

We bid the Douglas-Grants a fond farewell the next morning and hope that Andrea was able to get back to the apartment after dropping us off down the street to catch our bus. Still, twas not a sad affair. We will see them again in Scotland and then in Iceland and then in Canada… Yep we’re stalking them around the world.

The budget airline Gods decided that our next stop would be London, which was fine because we wanted to go there anyway. The thing about England is… it’s green. It’s unnaturally green. No landscape can be that green. I know plants don’t have emotions, but I swear the grass in the UK is happy.

I love it. For reasons I cannot explain I feel right at home in the UK, even though hereditary birth right and privilege and all that societal hierarchy business makes me rankle, but let’s not go there. I told Amy and Oliver it was because it’s our heritage, and maybe that’s true. I felt the same way when Emma and I visited for a couple of weeks ten years ago. I just like being there.

We spent three days in London, a city in which there is just too much to do and where I felt like I wanted to be everywhere seeing everything all at once. Like a kid in a candy shop, unsure what to gorge on next, I found myself walking constantly ten steps in front of everyone else, subconsciously urging them on to make sure we could peer down as many alleys, roadways, museums and sites as possible.

We bought tube passes within hours of landing and were soon whizzing our way through the underground like Londoners. Except Emma, who got caught in the exit gates with her backpack on because she tried to sneak Oliver through with her. It was a bit funny, at least from our perspective. It was a trick for beginners. Nine year olds don’t need to pay but should exit through the disabled gate. The metro man that came to her rescue just kind of rolled his eyes and pointed at the gate she should have used.


Amy managed her own tube pass
We love the tube – our ‘local’ station

Other than that it is a marvellous system, moving squillions of people quickly and efficiently and in contrast with the system in Athens, you can’t move without paying. Just ask Emma. Amy and Oliver loved it too, although that may well be because they mistook it for a jungle gym, and spent every journey where there was enough room to swing a cat, swinging from the hand rails.

We didn’t see any other children doing this…

We covered much territory in our three days including the Science, Natural History and Maritime Museums, the National Gallery, Big Ben, Royal Observatory, Greenwich meridian, the Cutty Sark, Harrods, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. We also ticked off as many Monopoly streets as we could and took in a musical down West End way in the form of Matilda.

A few of these deserve special mention. Firstly, you should know that the ceremonial changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace takes place every day during summer at 11.30am. That’s what all the tourist info says. You can’t get much more London than watching people march while wearing ridiculous hats for reasons apparent only to them. So we went. And we waited and we waited, along with other people lining the gates five deep. Oliver cheekily squirmed his way right to the front to get a better view.

A good view of… nothing!

Then we were informed there would be no ceremony that day due to the weather! The weather! The sky was grey, but there was scarcely a drizzle in the air and if I’m not mistaken this is London. The grass is not happy here for nothing, surely they canna be serious. If that’s all it takes to keep the Queen’s guard indoors then I’m afraid she’s in serious trouble. I think the real reason is that the guards drunk to much at the previous day’s Queen’s birthday celebrations.

Attempting to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace

Never mind. We wandered up the Mall to Trafalgar Square with Emma’s friend Jo who had now joined us. By the time we got there it really was raining so we peeked into the National Gallery more to stay dry than anything else. Then I got all excited all over again. Monet’s, Turner’s, Constable’s and even a few Michelangelo’s. What an unexpected pleasure. I don’t know much about art but I did spot the Turners from 50 paces. I’d recognise those stormy seas anywhere and it doesn’t take too much to pick out a few of Monet’s waterlilies.

Big Ben from Trafalgar Square after the rain eased
Some waterlilies
Waiting for Greg (with Jo) to finish looking at the art

When everyone but me had enough, we ventured forth again to find it raining harder than before. Jo found us a double decker red bus to catch, much to Amy’s delight, and we were off on our way to that London institution which is Harrods.

In top front (of course) of the double decker bus
Harrods (with thanks to our travelling photographer Jo)


I had so much fun at Harrods and I hate shopping. My favourite gallery, for that’s what it was to us, was the fountain pen gallery. Amy needs a new one because we lost hers somewhere back in India. I thought the first one we saw was a bit pricey at 50 pounds and then the fun began. The one next to it was 200 pounds and the one next to that 1000 pounds! Oh this is great. So we started really hunting around. It just got better and better. After spotting a few at around the 30,000 pounds mark I called over the shop attendant and asked if he could direct me to the most expensive fountain pen on offer. ‘Certainly sir, over there in the Yves Saint Laurent section (I think it was the Yves section but one designer name is the same as all the rest to me) you will find one worth 50,000 pounds and we had one last week valued at 70,000’.

Diamonds on your fountain pen?!

That’s approximately $140,000 Aussie dollars for anyone who has fallen a bit behind on the latest movements of the global currency markets. We paid less for our first house. My new friend however then showed us to the really cool pens. They were only priced in the 1200 pounds ($2400 Aussie) price range but included a Star Wars X-wing fighter, thai fighter and light saber. There were also Iron Man and Incredible Hulk pens. Apparently they sell really well. How does one reconcile a world in which a pen sells for that kind of cash?

X-wing fighter fountain pen – a bargain!

Greenwich was another highlight. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was established back in the day when it was so far from the lights of London that it was perfect for mapping the heavens. Now it’s a zone 2 (second closest to the centre) London overground stop away. Here we straddled the Greenwich Meridian before working our way through the history of solving the problem of how to determine Longitude.

The Prime Meridian 0 degrees Longitude
It even showed the Latitude of Canberra!


It’s truly fascinating stuff and you should all rush off as soon as you have finished reading this and buy a copy of Dava Sobell’s book by that name, ‘Longitude’. Emma and I read it years ago. You see back in the day ships kept crashing into rocks because they sailed too far east or west, unable as they were to determine their longitude.

To cut a long story short the problem was solved by John Harrison when he built a clock able to keep time at sea. All you need to do then is compare local time, established by a good squiz at the sun with Greenwich mean time. The difference in times equates to minutes of longitude across the globe and hey presto that’s where you are! Latitude of course is a walk in the park for anyone acquainted with a sextant.

When we found all of John Harrison’s original sea clocks I nearly had conniptions of joy. Travelling the world is like progressively filling in the blanks of human history. Magnificent stuff.

A John Harrison clock
From the Royal Observatory (close to central London now)

Matilda was also wonderful. We have been listening to the soundtrack since we travelled around Tasmania back in 2014 so we all new all the songs. More than the show itself I enjoyed watching Amy and Oliver sit on the edge of their seats totally enthralled by the classy production. Thanks Grandpa Bruce for the tickets!


So, still with a to do list a mile long, we packed up our bags on our last morning and headed for Kings Cross Station. We arrived in enough time to find Platform 9 and three quarters and even stood in line for 25 minutes hoping to get our photo with the luggage trolley disappearing through the wall. Alas it wasn’t to be, or we would have missed our own express to Edinburgh. Scotland was calling us on.

Platform 9 3/4!