16.03.2009 - 22.03.2009 11 °C
That's pretty much the scottish equivalent of G'day. Yup, I've picked up quite a few words and perhaps even infinitesimally improved my scottish accent, which was really the whole purpose of my travelling here! I've had countless other essential cultural experiences too - I've ticked off the two essential (and most feared) menu items - Haggis and Black Pudding. For the record, I was treated to Haggis in a whisky sauce (it just tastes like a spicy mince pattie) and I braved the Black Pudding in "on a roll" form. It just tastes like an even more flavoursome mince pattie. For potential travellers, the secret is not to ask the burning question of "What's In it?" and just eat the damn dish. Who knows, you might just like it.
I arrived in Edinburgh for my first rag-tag experience of hostel accommodation. Or so I thought. What I got instead was an immaculately clean room with friendly, interesting roommates, a cosy common room, and most importantly - free freshly ground plunger coffee. So perhaps I still haven't had the genuine hostel experience - we'll see what happens in Dublin!
The plan was to stay in Edinburgh for a week, but after nary a day, I'd already explored Edinburgh central and been on a ghost tour - I had the nagging feeling that I'd overbooked my stay. The problem was soon solved though as I chanced upon a coach tour flyer while strolling The Royal Mile, and on a whim decided to book myself into a tour of the Scottish Highlands. I cancelled the rest of my accommodation and rose at 6am to board the coach the next day, albeit a little blurry-eyed after a night out in Grassmarket. It sure helps to have someone show you where to go - props to Lloyd Valentine (yes, Megan's son) for pointing me in the right direction - both for my hostel accommodation and the best pubs in town
In the preceding paragraph I said "coach". I'd be considerably more accurate if I said "van". It turns out that by making a snap decision to go on the tour I became the fifth member of our little traveling party and the saviour of the tour, as it would have been cancelled otherwise! Nice. It also meant I had a very small party with whom to explore The Highlands, and as it turned out, people with whom I became good friends. The best part about having such a small vehicle is that we were able to take detours down the small, winding roads that are plentiful in Scotland and get off the beaten track a little. Needless to say, it meant we arrived at each of our daily destinations much later than expected, but no-one was complaining about a little "added value".
We visited Sterling, site of the infamous Battle for Sterling Bridge and immortalised in the movie that defines Mel Gibson's career - Braveheart. Will, our tour guide, took great pleasure in dismissing various historically incorrect aspects of the film, and it made for interesting listening. For instance, did you know that "Braveheart" actually refers to Robert The Bruce, portrayed in the film as a somewhat evil character, but who is in fact the man responsible for defeating the English and regaining Scotland's independence! I just thought it was an interesting Hollywood inflection.
We continued north-west past Fort William and Eilean Donan Castle, and arrived at the Isle of Skye by nightfall, to stay in Kyleakin, a tiny village on the coast. That was one of the best parts of the tour, actually - the operators made a point of supporting local hotels, pubs and cafes - no Burger King on this tour.
With much trepidation, the next morning I peeked through the curtains to check out the weather for day two of the tour. Miraculously, the day was perfectly clear and the winds were still - even the locals couldn't believe it! Apparently the usual weather around here is blustery gales, lightning storms and snow - what can I say, I'm a good luck charm. You really need to look at the photos to get an appreciation for how beautiful the Isle of Skye really is, and even then the photos just don't do the landscape justice.
But when in Scotland - drink like the Scottish, eh? So I have embarked on a long, difficult journey to develop a taste for Whisky. To date, I'm still in the "I think I just burnt a hole in my throat" stage, but I'm told perseverance is the key. Not that I've set a noble goal to become an alcoholic, but more that you need to discover the right type of whisky for your palate and then use that as a starting point for choosing similar whiskeys, as each whisky is influenced by the water source, peat, fermentation process, climate, cask storage etc. All rather fascinating for me, but scary for my liver. Another interesting fact is that the by-products of distillation are a primary source of fertilisation for farming in Scotland - so if you think about, Scotland is only green because of all the Whisky! Classic.
This entry would hardly be complete without mention of "Tipsy the Sheep". While climbing the cliffs around Skye we chanced upon a sheep grazing near the cliff edge. All very picturesque, so of course, one of our party took a photo. Unfortunately, the noise of the camera shutter so startled the sheep that she fell off the cliff! Yup, thirty metres down to a rather solid and unforgiving end. Woolen coats just don't cushion that sort of drop! Our tour group were distraught, but apparently that sort of thing happens all the time. Sheep are quite dumb, you know - you should have learnt that from my New Zealand blog
Well, that's about it for Scotland, for tonight I move on to Ireland, living the luxurious life of a traveller - I'm typing this in the departures lounge waiting for a first class flight to find my pot o' gold. Well, actually I'm typing it at 10pm in a nearly empty tiny airport on the outskirts of Glasgow, to fly cattle-class between two rainy, cold locations to arrive after midnight and try and navigate an entirely unfamilar city to find my lodgings for the evening. Far more romantic!
In general travelling terms, I think my maternal genes have kicked in. Not in a nesting sense you understand, but more in a thrifty, make my own vegemite sandwiches for lunch kind of way. I find myself weighing up and tracking every purchase, looking for cheap deals, packing my suitcase neatly so I know where everything is, and letting my friends and family know where I am at all times. I suppose I had to become sensible eventually.
I've also developed a true appreciation for the generosity of strangers. So many times in my trip sofar I've been blown away by the unthinking, utterly selfless generosity I've been shown. Off the top of my head I can remember "pooling food" to share breakfast with an Irish couple, Lloyd Valentine (a Novacastrian) letting me stay in his room instead of the hostel, and buying rounds with strangers in many, many pubs in Scotland. There's something pure and old-fashioned about it that is at odds with the modern, detached, selfless attitude that one often thinks is on the rise in the world. I guess I started travelling suspecting everyone as a potential bag-thief, but to instead experience nothing but genuine companionship with your fellow man is a very powerful thing indeed.