Before we knew it, the home stretch was upon us.
There was an itinerary planned for our final day with shorter timed stops since Richard had to return us to Edinburgh by mid-afternoon.
After breakfast, we crossed the Skye Bridge back to the mainland. The most enchanted isle of Scotland slowly sunk towards the horizon the further away we drove.
But it seemed as though Skye’s supernatural beings left a curse upon me once I departed their lands. Throughout the morning, my throat began to sting followed by persistent chills and almost insufferable fatigue. During the first few hours, I was fighting a tenacious battle to force my eyelids open, even as Richard’s voice filled the coach. I did fail a few times.
But I powered through enough to catch the sun’s rays through my window, revealing golden mountain peaks and bright blue waters below. To reach our first stop, Richard steered the coach around sharp 180-degree bends along the road that snaked up the hillside.
We were parked at a lookout point directly facing the infamous Five Sisters of Kintail, an imposing bluff over the head of Loch Duich. I raised my finger and counted five grooves tracing the mountain, some sharper around the edges, others softer and darkened by the brooding clouds above. This was one of the best landscape shots I captured from my dismal camera phone:
According to legend, two of seven daughters of the King of Kintail fell in love with two Irish princes who washed ashore during a storm. Those Princes married their Princesses and brought them to Ireland. A subsequent promise was made to ship their remaining five brothers to Scotland to match up with their doting sisters, like some archaic premise for a TLC program predating reality television. Unfortunately, the princes failed to appear while the five sisters continued to wait in vain. Eventually, the women turned to the Gray Magician of Coire Dhunnaid to request that he extend their beauty beyond life. So he turned them into mountains.
This begs the question: Were they deceived by a sorcerer who punished their vanity by throwing salt to their wounds? Or were their wishes granted through the lesson of subjective beauty? I had the notion that turning into solid land wasn’t quite what these sisters had in mind.
After snapping some pictures, we hopped back into the coach, crossing back into the heart of the Highlands.
During the drive, we asked Richard about some of his most memorable tours. He often led the seven-day trips, including their special News Years “Hogmanay Hootenanny”, which required a full-length coach. And the willpower to handle the shenanigans of frivolous revelers welcoming the new year away from home in excessive ways. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Richard’s most riotous crowds composed of mostly Australians. Drunken stupors and spats in the hostels, followed by hangovers the next morning and repeat again with secret flasks. It was times like those when Richard’s role as a tour guide blended with parental guardian.
But he also had his fair share of the complete opposite.
“I like you guys,” he said, “I’ve had some people who barely spoke the entire tour! Once I’m done talking it was completely silent, everyone was just staring out the window. It was boring as hell.”
To him, this group was a breath of fresh air. We were the perfect mix between lively yet responsible, engaging and interested in Richard’s dialogue but willing to pause and bring awareness to our natural surroundings. He enjoyed learning about us, and likewise about him. We talked about more than just Scotland – things like music tastes, cultural characteristics, and even politics. I sensed that Richard admired our company best because it felt like taking a holiday with friends.
Speaking of responsible – our next stop was a whiskey distillery. Dalwhinnie is perhaps a familiar name to all whiskey aficionados. It’s also one of the highest distilleries in Scotland, producing whiskeys as old as 35 years (or maybe older). A white building decorated with barrels and old-fashioned street lamps, it rests in seemingly the middle of nowhere with surrounding hills from all sides. Richard recommended a whiskey and chocolate tasting tour for us to further lighten our spirits. Behind me, our American friends’ faces lit up immediately at the word “tasting.”
Unfortunately, my stomach and taste buds have always been too feeble to withstand the potency of liquor. So, I had to forego the tasting session, including the chocolate – despite whiskey’s potential benefits as an antidote to my chills. One minor sip of even the finest liquor would have me bracing for regurgitation and risking public embarrassment.
Instead, I browsed their collections, looking for travel-sized spirits to take home as Christmas gifts. My family on both sides often savoured the taste of single malt Scotch Whiskey during the holidays, perhaps harkening back to our Scottish ancestry (I was once told that my last name, McKenna, is a misnomer from McKenzie thanks to a distant relative). But sadly, no bottles were small enough for my luggage nor modest enough for my budget. Even still, I was eyeing their exclusive, brand new Winter’s Gold collection but deterred by the size and price tag of £40 – 70 per bottle. I bought a tumbler for my Dad’s Christmas gift instead. But I would later return home, only to find Dalwhinnies all across the LCBO – so there I had it.
We returned to the coach with our haul, some of us in higher spirits than before. And before we knew it we were nearing the fringes of the Highlands, eight miles away from Fort William and the shadow of Ben Nevis. For lunch and window-shopping, our final stop before Edinburgh was in a quaint riverside village called Spean Bridge.
It was getting near the end, something we all silently regretted for most of the day – at least I was. I was eager to find a bed, a hot drink and a quiet dinner outside of the Royal Mile, but couldn’t imagine going solo again after acclimatizing to an itinerant lifestyle with six others for three consecutive days.
We were silently listening to the shrill of bagpipes from Richard’s music. At one point, he allowed us to play our own iPods to diversify our musical countries and genres. So we put on some Canadian music – in the form of Arcade Fire and Metric.
Overall, our quietness over the music echoed a calm but mellow sadness, like an understanding of moments passed leading to the final endpoint.
But before this happened, we had one last stop. This was a moment that Richard was waiting for: approaching Queensferry, the proper way.
He turned off the highway and parked the coach down a side street along steep incline. We were in the suburb of North Queensferry, overshadowed by the bridge. The neighbourhood rested on the shores of the Water Leith and underneath the older Forth Road Bridge situated beside Queensferry and its red metal beams.
Queensferry is about 2.7 km in length and was initially supposed to replace Forth Road, but ultimately remained as a public transport link. The construction took about six years, and it is UK’s tallest bridge, standing almost 680 feet tall.
For the third and final time, we crossed the bridge. Once we reached Edinburgh, Richard dropped off two people first at their hotel before unloading everyone else at my hostel where we first departed.
And that was the end. We said our thank yous and shook Richard’s hand, promising him a glowing review on their website. A week later, I did just that through the operator’s customer survey.
The sad part was that amidst the bustle of us grabbing our bags and looking for accommodation, we parted ways with barely a goodbye. That was our last time together. Eventually, it was just us two Canadians in the lobby, as I lined up to re-check in. But she was staying elsewhere, and after becoming Facebook friends, we agreed to meet up afterward. We never did.
Of course, I’ve experienced this kind of thing many times. I once lived in a different country for six months, and the separation from constant familiar faces was so sudden. It’s one of those moments where traveling places both yourself and your affinities towards others into perspective.
Most of the time, travel facilitates those fast, ephemeral friendships – a momentary bonding glued together by shared experience. When it’s over, the virtual connection may last for a few days or weeks, but later fizzles out. They become an obsolete “Facebook friend” or Instagram follower that you’ve mostly forgotten, or you only keep tabs on their subsequent journeys. I know it can seem depressing. Meeting new people and having those quick friendships are things I love the most while traveling, but I’ve had to learn and accept the cycle of meeting and moving on.
I admit it isn’t always the case for some people. Few connections remain and materialize into future travels for visits and meetups. You sometimes read those inspiring stories where hostel mingling blossoms into romance, and lifelong travel partners. There is certainly a danger in travelers adopting an infatuation or expectation of such sentiments. However, it would be a disservice to fixate on the conclusion after every travel buddy you make. Focus instead on the experience itself, what it meant to you, and withhold a specific feeling in your memory, unique only to yourself.
I dragged my bag upstairs, past the same armoured knight as before, and checked into the same room. The moment I found my bed, a girl who was also unpacking greeted me. It was her first time traveling alone and wanted a friend to explore the city with. I whole-heartedly accepted.
And so the cycle continues.