Edit Blog Post
Published: March 5th 2015
Stunning valley in the Scottish Highlands.
It's fair to say that I have done my fair share of travel while living in London - yet unlike a lot of my friends, I had never managed to see Scotland properly despite its close proximity. Therefore by the time I had got around to it, everyone had already been there, done that. Famed for its rugged yet beautiful landscapes, to see Scotland's best bits isn't easy either - it is definitely road-trip material and while I'm sure it would be a nice solo drive, I thought it'd be a bit more fun with some company.
So the solution to this was a budget bus tour, despite my tender age. I had a great experience doing this last year in Ireland
so there was no reason that the same couldn't happen this time around.
Rather typically, my tour was full of Aussies and rather surprisingly, I was the only Kiwi. The antipodean theme was only broken up by a team of four Taiwanese ladies ("Team Taiwan", of course), three Canadians and a Saffa.
The tour was led by a proud and passionate local, Andy. Humorous and informative, just occasionally Andy was a little controversial and risqué with some of his comments -
No monster, but it is a beautiful lake.
but that all added to the fun. He also hated cats and Harry Potter.
To get everyone to know each other, Andy got us to do a speed dating exercise where we had to talk to a stranger on the bus for a few minutes at a time.
The first person I talked to was Elly from Canberra. She was a nice enough girl, doing a trip around Europe with her friend Jacinta. She had a slight whiff of body odour though - perhaps she didn't have time to shower in the morning so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.
Next up was Carly from Sydney, who was also travelling around Europe, with her sister Lauren. Carly was fun, but she definitely hadn't showered that morning - eugh.
I then talked to Amanda, also from Sydney. I liked Amanda, she was funny - but man, she stunk even worse than the others! What is it with Australians? If you're not homeless, how is it possible to smell this bad first thing in the morning?
When I got back to my seat, that was when I realised the smell had now spread all over the bus and that
Highland Scenery #1
Stunning. Also, near Dornie.
it wasn't in fact any of the girls. Was it me? I had a quick sniff. It wasn't, thank God. But man, if it wasn't so cold I would've spent as much time as possible outside of that bus.
There was five days left of this...
The first stop on the tour was Dunkeld - resting place of the cruel and notorious medieval ruler, "The Wolf Of Badenoch" and where I tried the Scottish delicacy of macaroni pie. It's not that tasty to be honest - just macaroni cheese in a pie.
It was also on the way here that Andy told us about a game played by young Scottish males called "Hunt The Munter" - known in England as "Pull A Pig". Not sure how the topic came up to be honest.
After stopping at the first charming waterfall of many, the first serene loch of many, a dam and a war memorial, we were on our way to Inverroy. On the way, Andy offers 10,000 points to whoever can name a track he starts playing on the bus's sound system. It takes me a good thirty seconds but when the chorus comes on, it is unmistakeable.
Isle Of Skye
Looking out to sea from the coast near Staffin.
Club 7!" I shout.
"Correct! You get 10,000 points", says Andy.
Looking around the bus, everyone seems pretty nonplussed.
"Never heard of them", shouts someone.
Feeling old = when you're the only one on the bus to recognise S Club 7.
Once we arrive in Inverroy, we visit a clan museum where the owner gives us a talk about what medieval life was like in the Highlands. Basically, it would have been farkin miserable. Living in cold, damp, smoky, smelly huts and wearing clothes that you never have the chance to wash in the winter - no wonder life expectancy back then was so low.
He then asks for a volunteer to help him demonstrate how to use the battle weapons of yore.
"I'll kill you", he says to Arpit, our brave volunteer. The owner was a bit awkward and a little creepy - so although we all knew he was joking, we weren't quite sure...
Some of the weapons used back then were brutal - there was one weapon designed to scythe you down and then lift you up via a metal hook to the groin in two swift movements. We were also told about the treacherous Campbell
clan and how they became the enemy of every other clan in Scotland after they colluded with the English. Gentlemens' agreements and clan etiquette went out the window when it came to the Campbells.
We stay at a hostel in Fort Augustus for the night, which felt like the middle of nowhere. But we were served a hearty, memorable Scottish dinner of haggis
-stuffed chicken which put most of us to bed early that night!
The next morning we were taken down to one of Scotland's famous attractions for some monster spotting - the mysterious lake of Loch Ness.
Now we didn't see the famous monster unfortunately but Andy believes that there is something down there. Apparently, about 1,500 tons of fish goes missing every year from the lake which appears to support his theory. Other facts that add to the loch's mystery; it is not known how many sources the loch has; the loch stays at a constant temperature of between 4-6 degrees (C) all year round and never freezes over; the loch is home to flesh-eating trout. MYSTERIOUS LOCH, I WANNA GET CLOSE TO YOU
We stop for a lovely stroll through the woodlands and for photographs of scenic old bridges and river rapids in
Eileen Donan Castle
Famous loch-side castle which featured in the cult classic film, Highlander.
Glenmoriston, before we pass Inverness on the way to Culloden. Inverness doesn't get a lot of love according to Andy - apparently it is a hole that has been voted Europe's ugliest town four years running and has the continent's highest rate of teenage pregnancies to boot.
Culloden is the site of a major battle between the Jacobite rebellion and the British, where the Jacobite army was massacred and the rebellion crushed. The on-site museum charts the developments leading up to the battle and includes an audiovisual installation that chronicles the battle itself. I found the museum incredibly interesting; because of the major world powers at the time backing each side (essentially the French supported by the Irish and many Scots backing the Jacobites against the British Empire), a battle in Scotland I had never heard of in the 1740s was to have profound effects on global developments - a world-changing battle. I concluded my visit with a walk on the battlefield itself, which is marked with a memorial cairn
to commemorate the dead. It was all rather eerie.
The museum as well as the Andy, also delivered a lot of detail about the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie,
Got a bit worried when this thing started walking towards us, but he was harmless.
who led the Jacobite rebellion. While many revere him as a hero, many others consider him a coward for fleeing the battlefield and leaving his men to die, rather than dying on the battlefield with his men - an unforgivable sin.
Our next stop was one I was very much looking forward to - the Tomatin whiskey distillery.
Like Culloden, it was another interesting educational experience. I do like whiskey, but have to admit that I didn't know a lot about it. Our friendly guide at Tomatin took us through the basics - for example, teaching us the difference between blends, malts and liqueurs - as well as taking us through the distillery and explaining each step of the process.
We got a free tasting at the end of the tour and I have to say that it probably isn't the best whiskey I have ever had - but it was a curious experience as it seemed that all the the smells and tastes I had encountered at the distillery coalesced and then emerged as I tasted the whiskey. Rather than buying a bottle, I settled for a box of whiskey-infused fudge. Delicious.
After leaving the distillery, we stopped
for another walk through the woodlands and over a suspension bridge to Rogie Falls for a few pictures. It was then back to Fort Augustus.
That night was our first 'night out' of sorts, at the hostel bar. There was a box of costumes that was resident at the bar for some reason and inexplicably, we all put them on. I think it was Andy's idea. Anyway, we had had enough to drink to do it.
We then engaged in the classic backpacker drinking game of Ring Of Fire / Circle Of Death / King's Cup. It never fails to entertain and Saffa Rob and Amanda were the unfortunate souls to draw the fourth king and thus had to consume a pint of a nasty concoction made up of all of our different drinks.
After fleeing the Battle Of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped to the Isle Of Skye where he hid and effectively lived in exile. It was our next port of call the next morning.
On the way out there, Andy tells us a bit about life up here and the economy. There aren't too many jobs available and many young Scots from the area end
Resting place of the "Wolf Of Badenoch".
up heading to the cities to find work. Forestry is an important contributor to the economy up here but it comes with the cost of deforestation, a real conundrum which has to be tackled by finding the right balance. Not easy. It is a scenario that can be applied to much of the world - economics vs the environment.
Our first stop on the Isle Of Skye was the town of Portree, home of what Andy reckons is the cheapest bakery in the world. He wasn't wrong. Almost every item was under £1 which is just unheard of in London - such items including bridies
(similar to pasties but without potatoes), pizza bread, sponge cakes and scotch pies
, which became my personal favourite. There is a chain of bakeries called "Gregg's" in the UK and there is a game sometimes played amongst friends called the "Gregg's £10 Challenge" where you buy £10 of baked goods from Gregg's and eat everything you have bought. I would say that challenge would be impossible to complete at this bakery in Portree, as £10 would buy you the entire shop!
After a pit stop in Staffin, we then arrived at the highlight of the
Black Linn Falls
Inside The Hermitage, a woodland park.
day - the Quiraing. The area is a landslip which has resulted in some peaks, plateaus and unusual rock formations. At the top of the winding access road, Andy leaves us to climb "The Table" a hill that flattens out at the top and which affords stunning views over Staffin Bay. While Saffa Rob went all Bear Grylls and climbed to the very top, the rest of were happy enough with the panorama from the first "table".
The scenery was spectacular...yet I was still a little underwhelmed. Call it high expectations or that fact that I have already seen so much but I wasn't blown away. As I told a few people on tour, I thought that Ireland blew me away more - I perhaps didn't expect Ireland to be so striking and perhaps I also prefer the lush greenery present in the Irish landscape as opposed to the rugged brownness of Scotland.
We spend the night in Kyleakin, right next to the Skye Bridge at a place called "Saucy Mary's". Legend has it that a Norwegian princess called Mary charged tolls here for any boat wishing to pass through - when the tolls were paid, she would then flash
Stunning loch opposite the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
her tits to the sailors as a reward. Thus she became known as "Saucy Mary". Conversation at dinner and drinks that night followed the same theme - among the stories told were tales of kilts ripped in the throes of drunken lust, poorly disguised strawberries being beaten up by angry neighbours and fornication with watermelons. Seriously, don't ask.
One thing that Andy loves is a good ballad. All day, every day on the bus we would be listening to Westlife, Boyzone, Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys etc. - it really took me back to my high school days. It was against this soundtrack that we visited some Scottish film locations; Glenfinnan Viaduct, which appears in the Harry Potter films (the stunning loch right opposite is definitely also worth a mention); Eileen Donan Castle, dramatically set on the side of a loch and which appears in the film "Highlander"; and Glen Nevis, where parts of Braveheart were filmed - I made sure I got my "FREEEEDOM!!" photo taken here with the saltire
We spent the night in the biggest town we had stayed in so far, Oban.
According to Andy, Oban is home to the best fish & chips in the
Mealt Falls, Isle Of Skye
In the distance is Kilt Rock, which has an interesting formation and colours.
UK - which to be completely honest with you, is not much of an achievement.
Again, Andy was true to his word - this was definitely
the best fish & chips that I have had in the UK, hands down. The batter was crispy and not too thick, and the fish was fresh. There are several chippies in Oban so you need to make sure you visit Oban Fish & Chip Shop, which is endorsed by Rick Stein no less, as the "best fish and chips I have tasted".
On our last night together, we all signed up to take part in a ceilidh
- traditional Scottish dancing. We also had the honour of being led to ceilidh venue by a bagpipe player in full regalia - so basically the whole tour group was following a bagpipe player through the streets of Oban.
Quite similar to Irish set dancing, which I did last year, you and your partner have to complete a number of moves in time with the music as part of a group - if you can't keep up, then the whole group will fall apart and the dance is ruined. You end up running out of
A bridge that the Jacobite takes on the way to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
breath pretty quickly in a ceilidh
and it's a great way to keep fit. I have to say however that I was a bit worried that the three older ladies of Team Taiwan were going to get heart attacks - they were looking pretty exhausted by the end of it!
There was one dance called the "Flying Scotsman" where you had to duck while a pair of dancers ran their arms over your head. There was one lady who was a bit slow to duck and got completely taken out! She was down for a good two minutes too! In typically Scottish fashion, the band leader was more concerned about completing the dance than the lady's welfare.
"Can we have a substitute for the young lady please?" was the first thing announced straight after the incident. I have to say though, that it was the highlight of the evening - not the fish and chips, not being led through the streets by bagpipe - as it was one of the best clotheslines I think I have ever seen. She was taken clean out!
All in all though, the ceilidh was great fun - less complex than Irish dancing but faster
He certainly didn't seem to mind us feeding and snapping his posse.
and more tiring.
The DJ started spinning some more club-friendly tunes once the ceilidh had finished and some of the group were throwing some mean shapes! The place was really empty though, so we took off not long after and enjoyed some cheaper alcohol back at the hostel.
On our last day of the tour, Andy ditched the ballads on the bus in favour of some Scottish music while we admired the Scottish scenery one last time. The first photo stop was at Glencoe, a location for Bond film "Skyfall" (I can tell you the exact scene that was filmed here). Funnily enough, the scene filmed in Glencoe was such a beautiful advertisement for the Scottish Highlands, that I credit it with my decision to come here. Just like movie, the scenery was stunning.
In the same area, we stopped at a countryside hotel where some deer had congregated to graze and generally chill out. They weren't afraid of us at all and were more than happy to let us feed them. Those things were cute.
We stop again at Caillin to see the Falls Of Dochart before we pass through Callandar, which like Florida, is famous for it's
View looking over the access road into the Quiraing.
large elderly population - or as Andy likes to call them, coffin-dodgers
. So humorous and mean, in equal measure.
There is even a game you can play with them called "Who's Next?" - I'll let you figure that one out.
We visit one last castle in Doune; one thing I have noticed about Scottish buildings is that the bricks use to build them are bigger, darker and greyer than their English counterparts. There you go, a useless, tired observation. But by the time we had got to our last sight, the Wallace Monument, we were all
tired. I remember when we were all in the cafe afterwards - it was pretty quiet, as we were all spent.
The Wallace Monument of course, is dedicated to William Wallace, the iconic Scottish national hero. Anyone who has watched Braveheart will know why he is so revered - I studied the film in detail at high school and it subsequently became one of my favourite films. Interestingly however, there are many historical inaccuracies in the film, including; the fact that Wallace was born into a rich family and not a poor one; that Isabelle of France and Wallace could never actually have met;
View From The Quaraing
Looking across towards Staffin Bay from the Quaraing.
and that "Braveheart" was actually a nickname for Robert the Bruce rather than William Wallace. Braveheart however, is not the first film to distort history for dramatic effect and it won't be the last - it is still an inspiring cinematic portrayal of one of Scotland's greatest heroes.
It was then time to turn the bus around and head back to Edinburgh; it has been a fun five days where I got to eat Scottish food, dance Scottish dances, learn about Scottish culture and history and to see the amazing Scottish scenery. Much credit must go to Andy - the best tour guides are the ones who are passionate about the country they are showing you and who really give you an insight into lives of the local people, and Andy certainly did that.
Last but not least, every good tour needs a bunch of fun, sociable tourists - I wanted some fun and company to go with my tour of Scotland and I certainly got that.
Overall, I couldn't have asked for anything more.
Actually, some air freshener would have been nice.
See ye efter,
Tot: 0.925s; Tpl: 0.082s; cc: 49; qc: 171; dbt: 0.1008s; 1; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 2.2mb