Day One in Scotland: Hightailing Through the Highlands

When you hear Scotland what comes to mind? Rugged Highlands, shimmering lochs and forgotten isles, haggis, the screeching of bagpipes and Scotsmen in kilts? These cultural symbols have been synonymous with “Scottishness” for as long as I can remember. But some travelers, perceive them as too campy for their liking, yearning instead to unravel the hidden gems. Well, my visit to Scotland in 2017 was a perfect blending of traditional and uncommon. And yes, there was a Scotsman in a kilt. Here’s how it all began:

I grudgingly awoke at 7 am with only two hours of sleep. It’s been three years since I embraced hostel living, and the first night was my “culture shock”, trying to sleep over a cacophony of footsteps, doors, and voices. A long day was ahead of me. Although excited, I relied on more coffee than ever as my auxiliary energy supply to power through. So I stumbled downstairs, past the armoured knights and medieval tapestries to the castle’s dining hall for breakfast (fellow Edinburgh hostellers may recognize this odd place).

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A long-time hostel guest

After much needed caffeination, I waited patiently for my ride as instructed. All of a sudden, a kilt-laden Scotsman burst in and cried out: “Loch Ness and Skye tour! Over here!” I rushed forth to greet him and shook his hand. With my backpack in tow, I followed him out the door.

The man introduced himself as Richard, my tour guide for a three-day trek to Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye. He tossed my backpack into the trunk of the coach as I climbed aboard. It was smaller than I had expected, with a maximum occupancy of about 20. However, there were just seven of us in total for the trip: me, another Canadian solo traveler, a young guy from California with his Bostonian girlfriend, a man from Alaska and two women from China.

Once Richard tallied everyone together, we hit the road. Effortlessly, he weaved the bus through the narrow streets of Edinburgh. I instantly pictured Mark Renton from Trainspotting hurdling down alleyways into oncoming traffic.

Meanwhile, Richard’s brash Scots persona began to take form. He started blurting obscenities as he drove and some Not-Safe-For-Work jokes. This tour was catered for 18-30-year-olds after all. Knowing this, he unashamedly gave full disclosure of his crude humour that we’d endure for the next 72 hours.

Despite Richard’s confidence in navigating Edinburgh, the tour kicked off with a minor hitch. A new bridge was recently built called the Queensferry Crossing, which he planned on crossing only upon return. But right as he mentioned it, the bus was headed straight towards that same bridge and the completely wrong exit. While swearing profusely, Richard apologized, U-turned the bus around and drove right back across. “Well there ya go,” he said cheerily, “Now you’ll all be seeing Queensferry for the third time on Sunday!”

Everyone laughed, but some of us were mildly apprehensive. The only person who could drive through the Scottish Highlands gets lost within the first half-hour of our tour. Despite an early snafu, Richard firmly reassured us of his navigational competence.

Once he found the proper exit, it was smooth sailing. Once outside Edinburgh, Richard commenced his rendition of the history of Scotland, from the sociopolitical influence of clan structures and its many conflicts to the Wars of Independence. I was impressed with his vast knowledge and memory as he narrated it all with ease while driving a bus.

Richard’s comical rendition was like listening to an episode of Drunk History (minus the intoxication). Also, his storytelling wasn’t without chastising the English, and luckily no such tourists were present. I had forgotten that technically, a struggle for independence still lingers – with nonviolent means. This was almost achieved just a few years prior, via referendum, but narrowly defeated by 10 percent. Then stir Brexit into this stew, brewing further uncertainty for Scottish national sovereignty.

Richard’s history lesson also harkens back to my third-year university course on Medieval England. Instead of a foul-mouthed Scotsman, the course was taught by an esteemed English professor in his eighties, who sat on a chair and recited the subject matter without any visuals. He sounded just like David Attenborough narrating the Wars in Scotland.

We approached our first stop, the Wallace Monument, its namesake deriving from the doomed William Wallace. It was an imposing Victorian Gothic structure, overlooking the battlefields of Stirling Bridge. Or in Richard’s faithful description, it was also a giant “phallic” shape sticking out of the trees. Once we arrived, the trek to the monument itself was about 20 minutes uphill. Along the way, we passed some woodcarvings marking the footpath and highlighting Stirling’s history from the Ice Age to the monument’s construction.

Presumably, the internet and social media are now familiar with the historical fallacies of Braveheart. In reality, the true “hero” of Scottish independence was never ascribed to William Wallace. That honour went to Robert the Bruce, who ultimately crushed Edward II’s army at Bannockburn in 1314. Although, Wallace should get some brownie points for his revolt against the cruel King Edward I and his courage in battle. After a long fight, Wallace was eventually captured and…well, you know the rest.

We didn’t enter the monument nor the Hall of Arms which displayed Wallace’s sword due to timing and frugality. Instead, we took photographs amidst heavy gusts of wind with Stirling behind us. To appease my parents, I asked my fellow travelers for a picture of myself, which sufficed after multiple attempts to brush my hair from my face.

We met Richard in the coach and shortly afterward, he parked at our next stop, Doune Castle. From the outside, it was just a common medieval stronghold. Once you’ve spent enough time in the U.K. most castles will start to look identical. Situated near a Roman fort, Doune was the royal residence of Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany and brother to King Robert III, from 1386 to his death in 1420. But what makes Doune famous is its filmography, setting the scene for Winterfell in Game of Thrones, Castle Leoch in Outlander and to my great pleasure, nearly every castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is where the French taunter berated King Arthur and his men, minstrels sang the catchy show tunes of Camelot, Sir Galahad faced utmost temptation, and where Sir Lancelot’s bloody rampage wreaked havoc on an important wedding. My 45-minute audio tour was narrated by Terry Jones, accounting for the castle’s history and the filming of the Holy Grail. No coconuts were used, nor were any rabbits harmed in the making of this tour.

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Doune Castle – Also known as Camelot, Castle Anthrax and Swamp Castle to name a few

Shortly afterward, we stopped for lunch in Callandar, a charming small town and gateway to the Highlands. We had just under an hour to eat, and we congregated inside a small cafe upon Richard’s recommendation. With only three hours into the tour, we were still too shy to sit with one another. Fortunately, this would change.

Where Callandar sits, a distinct geographic line divides the Highlands from the Lowlands. The landscape dramatically alters the moment you cross the line, giving way to hilly terrain and narrow lochs. According to Richard, this was where it gets “really f— beautiful.” But right before we crossed, he took a quick detour, so we could get up close and personal with Scotland’s favourite woolly creatures.

At Trossachs Woolen Mill we met Honey and Dubh, two resident Highland cows – or “hairy coo’s” as locals call them. These shy bovines are distinguishable by their shaggy, orange coats and long horns. Their eyes remained hidden beneath their elongated manes, resembling the scruffy mops of 80s hair bands. One of our American travelers purchased a bag of food from inside, and to our astonishment, he beckoned a timid one – likely Honey – towards the fence. She took a few nibbles of food from his palm then walked away.

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Any leftovers?

After taking photos and washing our hands of “coo-goo”, we re-entered the coach and zipped through the Highlands. To appreciate the scenery, Richard paused from storytelling and busted out his Scottish-themed playlist.

“I know what you’re all thinking,'” he said, “‘Oh my God, this guy is going to play bagpipes this whole time.’ Well, I promise you…it won’t all be bagpipes. But there will be some.”

He then plugged in his iPod and used his dashboard microphone to amplify the sound. The first couple of songs had bagpipes. But for the most part, Richard had a perfect command of spacing apart their shrill sounds. Once at the beginning to elevate the Highlands aesthetic but never overpowering. The music complimented the liberating feeling of road tripping through Scotland’s russet, autumn landscape. The bagpipes either blended with or preceded easy-listening road tunes from Scottish indie bands (sadly, I forgot their names). I was hoping for some 80s alternative bangers from Jesus and Mary Chain or Primal Scream but didn’t hear any.

We continued north, deeper into the mountains, listening to music until Richard announced to get our cameras ready. We were approaching the valley of Glencoe, the pièce de résistance of the southern Highlands.

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Approaching Glencoe

It’s also known as Glencoe National Reserve, a series of rugged basins formed by glaciers and volcanic explosions. Like Doune Castle, Glencoe remains a popular filming location for films like Harry Potter, Skyfall, and to no one’s surprise, Braveheart. Despite its beauty, tragedy also permeates Glencoe’s history. In February of 1692, members of the MacDonald clan were massacred by Campbell-led soldiers amidst the Jacobite uprising. Hence why the name Campbell may have a bad rep here…

Now, fast forward over 320 years and a more cheerful reality. Visitors to Glencoe today aren’t murderous mobs, but awestruck tourists from around the world armed with cameras to capture the scenery.

There was a mild breeze outside around us, and the air felt damper than the city. I could hear the waterfall, which ran between the two peaks flowing peacefully, looking like a tiny stream from afar. Here, I also captured my new profile picture with success:

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We were approaching our mid-afternoon itinerary. From this point, a great chunk of Scotland’s best sights were condensed into this one region. Hardly 15 minutes had passed, and the coach came to another halt, facing a hill and footpath. After a brief climb up, we were suddenly face-to-face with a very familiar sight.

Ever wondered if the Hogwarts Express bridge was real? Well, it is, and it’s called the Glenfinnan Viaduct. To be fair, its location is no longer a secret. Harry Potter fans have been scrambling to see it for years, including myself. There’s even a real train that crosses the Viaduct, known as the Jacobite Steam Train that tourists can take. It’s almost identical to the Hogwarts Express, with its maroon colour, the loud whistle, rhythmic chugging and thick tufts of smoke. The Viaduct overlooks Loch Shiel, which also appeared in the films. The island in the middle served as **SPOILERS** Albus Dumbledore’s resting place, desecrated by Voldemort in his pursuit for the Elder Wand.

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Glenfinnan Viaduct: If only I had Photoshop, there would be a train and a blue Ford Anglia.
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Loch Shiel

Our Wizarding daydreams fizzled as Richard realized we were pressed for time. It was nearing evening and we weren’t even in Loch Ness yet. On the way, we made a stop in Fort William to pick up groceries for dinner. In fact, he often stopped the coach every hour or two for bathroom breaks – something my pea-sized bladder appreciated.

Behind the mountains, looming above us was Ben Nevis – the UK’s tallest mountain. But none of us would have guessed, because it was completely veiled in fog. After pointing in its general direction, Richard explained that it’s quite rare to see Ben Nevis in its entirety from Fort William itself.

He drove further northeast towards Inverness. We weren’t staying in the city, but somewhere better – a hostel right on the banks of the famous lake itself. Although the second largest loch after Lomond, Loch Ness is actually the deepest freshwater lake in the British Isles. Everbody – locals, historians, legend chasers, tourist sites – has retold the story of Nessie for centuries, and the theories continue to this day. According to BBC, she might just be an oversized eel. My Canadian tourmate also pointed out a similar legend closer to home – the Ogopogo, who haunts the depths of British Columbia’s Okanagan Lake.

What mattered most to me was experiencing Loch Ness the same way and hearing the same story told by Richard as six other strangers did. It brought us all together, even just for a moment. Although intriguing, Nessie’s overwhelming hype needs no further explanation. In the meantime, I’ll share a cute photo instead:

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By about 5:30 p.m. we rolled into the driveway at Lochside Hostel. It was a modest white cottage with a traditional sign by the roadside. As we arrived, we heard splashes and guests crying out from the banks…cries of shock and exhilaration from their evening polar bear dip. My Alaskan tourmate, who was acclimatized to cold temperatures, wasted no time changing right into his swimming trunks.

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Where you can BBQ and monster watch all at once

As Richard warned us in advance, the hostel’s Wi-Fi was quite shoddy, only sufficient to send quick texts to my parents from the lobby. But it wasn’t really needed anyway. From its homey atmosphere, memories of my friend’s cottage back home resurfaced. It’s where I’d go to be unplugged and removed entirely from city commotion. I couldn’t comprehend that we were staying right on Loch Ness for the whole night. It felt surreal.

My fellow Canadian and I whipped up a warm dinner followed by a couple of beers. And this was finally the icebreaker. For the first time, nearly everyone was sitting together, drinking beer and reminiscing about home. Because Americans were present, our collective disdain for their president was a hot topic. Here was one orange-coloured creature who was certainly not cute.

By 9 pm, it was dark and we were all feeling exhausted. I turned in around 11, sharing a room with three others. The ripples of Loch Ness glistened under the moonlight, shining through our windows. As we slept, the waves slowly began to ripple. A mysterious head poked out for a brief second to feel the crisp air, then dipped down towards the depths, remaining unseen.

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