Having done enough fuck-all for a while to warrant spending money, I had decided to do a short trip of the Highlands of Scotland. I found a fair weekend tour that hit Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye, and various other Highland places whose names I’d come to forget.
As a sentimental cynic, I had designed the Loch trip to fall on Friday the 13th, combining both superstition and having a something to blame the lack of monsters on. Although I’m not sure if I can actually call it a monster in 2016, perhaps an “alternative species river-dweller” is more appropriate in an age of all these cis-species out there. But I feel Nessie is a bit more old school than that.
Our tour bus left the royal mile in the morning and it was looking pretty grim, as Scotland often does. It was a medium-sized bus, less than half full to come to about 20 passengers in total, varying in nationality. There were many similarities to the Northern Irish tour I had done two years before. They too seem to have cut out the bus driver, so the tour guide had to drive the bus while organising the tour and commenting on the scenery. They too had a tour manager/driver with such a heavy local accent that it was difficult to discern. And they too avoided talking about the hostels they had booked you into before it was too late.
Despite having to do all sorts of administration on the phone while driving, our guide/driver was pretty cool. She was a wee Glaswegian lass, with an uncanny likeness to the chick in Orange is the New Black who did meth but then got her teeth fixed. Which, in my defence, may not be unheard of with some Weegies, but she was pretty solid. Like a can of Irn-Bru, she was bubbly, short, Scottish, and difficult to understand if you weren’t a local. She often seemed more taken aback by the tour than we were, despite having done this for years. Deep Scottish Love, or DSL she called it. She also had interesting choices in modern Scottish music and usually defaulted to the sound track from Brave, claiming to secretly be a 5 year old girl.
This was actually rather refreshing since Scots, as a whole are pretty miserable. I recalled visiting Portobello beach on the shores of Edinburgh. One guy had lost some object in the sand and was trying his best to find it. “You should just give up,” said his friend, unimpressed with his optimism. “And actually take that advice in general, just give up,” continued the Nihilist, in between drags of his rollie and Trainspotting quotes. So when we got a little history of the city of Edinburgh on the way out of the city, I started to get why the Scots are all so pissed off. Every story about every part of Scotland ends in horrific death for someone or many someones. I totally get the body count at the end of Macbeth, I get the alcoholism, and I get why Frankie Boyle is someone they book for charity gigs. As we leave we hear about how they used to throw witches off of a cliff and into a river, only to burn you if you survived.
We took the bridge over the Forth of Fife (the river of a neighboring town, not 1.25) which, once on the other side, we were told was crumbling. They had plans to build a new one, but apparently going over-budget is a bit of a Scottish pastime. The bridge-builder did look cool, sort of like a 3D printer combined with a set of Meccano toys. We journeyed through Perthshire, stopping by a lake and realising the limitations of our bus. Next, to the Tomatin Distillery to check some of the local flavours. I’d done more interesting whisky tours before, but this was cool because everyone had an accent. Of all my senses, the tour actually had the biggest impact on my smell, as each level of almost-whisky had a different stench, from vomit, to water after cleaning the clubhouse, to poorly brewed craft beer. All to eventually make decent-tasting whisky. The amount of science put into making different ways to fuck ourselves up will never cease to amaze me.
The tour was completed with the tiniest of samples at the end. All but two Asian girls in the group took the swig and carried on. Naturally, I went to take one of the remaining glasses but the staff caught on before I could get the third. I was mingling with some of the tour, when I was cornered by one of the staff who recognised my accent and said that she too was South African. We exchanged some stories and she asked where I was from. I said Pretoria (since saying Witbank is pissing against the wind). Of course, she said Cape Town. This made me uncomfortable, since I was beginning to like this woman, but now I had to hate her. There was a bit of back and forth that was quite enjoyable. Then she started to speak about modern South Africa, and now I was pissed. I don’t see why people who have not lived in the country for years love to tell me, someone who is 2 months fresh of spending 23 years there, the current state of the nation. The topic managed to be avoided and my patriotism went untainted.
We had made good time, so our guide/driver decided to deviate on a very Robert Frostian path to see the Loch for the first time. We took some back roads, scraped some bumper, and landed at the top of a bit of a hike. Our tour mainly didn’t mind such, it just would have been nice to have known. We descended into Highland forest, having been warned about the ever-looming threat that was red squirrels. After living in Africa, it’s funny to think that this is the most dangerous wild animal they can warn us against, especially near Lock fucking Ness. We reach the Loch shore and it is pretty damn massive. At the time, the view is a bit disappointing, but proves useful when we see the number of other ways which we get to see the Loch. I take a photo, skim some stones, drop my phone, and head back up.
This is the first of many times we find out that the tour was rather adaptable. Although none of the major spots were skipped, our guide allowed for more time at some places, alternative routes to see other things, and several summaries. This may annoy those who like a strict itinerary, and even I would have liked a better idea of what was going on when, but it worked out in the long run. If we were enjoying a spot we didn’t need to be herded out and we all trusted out guidriver on what was worth skipping. But this means a lot of the places’ names I never knew and still don’t.
Anyhoo, we chow down on some haggis, and set sail for Loch Ness. The way I had pictured it was sort of like large green picnic areas, with people congregating like at a cricket test match. I imagined the Loch to be surrounded by wooden tables, with old people sipping tea and using their binoculars to try find something interesting when they knew fuck-all was going on. But alas, it was an evening boat trip, seeing that evenings were still sunny here. But in Scotland, sunny does not mean warm. We all shivered on the top deck while our guide showed us some Nessie hunting dance moves that reminded me well of my serrie days.
The cruise was easily one of the highlights of the trip and the sheer vastness of the Loch was enough to blow you away. Turns out it’s the largest body of water in the UK, with your mom’s bath coming in close second. Now, I like to think of myself as a critical thinker, but not to the point of being a skeptic. That is, I like to mull things over in my head and try judge them against others, but I still understand and respect some things as unexplainable. Maybe it is this bizarre mix of philosophy, maybe it was the vast, deep waters of the Loch, or maybe I was just used to game drives in my home country, but I was looking out on that water and I was going to find that fucking monster. I was going to find the shit out of it. It was not enough for us to have found Nessie, she would have to have been found by me.
I did not find Nessie. But part of the trip included an explanation of the sonar/fish finder equipment that indicated that I was not alone in my failure. This peeking behind of the curtain was not as interesting as it was disappointing, but the cabin crew made it entertaining enough with some classic chirps and a fair addiction to whisky. We actually invited him back to the hostel bar but he claimed that he was not allowed back anymore. Fair enough.
Back at the bar and it didn’t take long for an Australian at the hostel to get involved sorting a pub quiz. She and a tall German chick ran the bar the whole night and so we quickly became friends. She even advised against me ordering a smaller beer for the price of a larger beer. My kind of person. Although it was all craft beer so it didn’t make much difference. The pub quiz was pretty cool, although it did go on a bit and some of our few teams did not seem too into it. The quiz was, however, livened up by a set of old Glaswegian travelers who happened to be passing by and joined us. They were difficult to understand at the best of time, and getting progressively more drunk as the evening went on, became less decipherable, and more annoying to our Canadians. But it seemed in good humour.
Quiz over and my team takes the win thanks in no small part to a pick up line I had learned in Afrikaans class in form 3. We had to deliver the line on a random patron of the bar after walking through the door. Mine turned out to be the tall German. I greeted her in German and was about to drop the “I have a magic watch that tells whether you’re wearing underwear or not. O you aren’t? Must be an hour fast” when Vrou decided to announce that she in fact did not have any underwear on. Luckily I had anticipated this and followed through by insisting that if she didn’t need underwear then I didn’t need a pick up line. Fuck I’m good. OK so I didn’t pick her up, but I helped win the quiz and that’s what really matters.
Next thing the only ones left are me, the male contingent of Team America, an Ozzie, and the drunk Weegies, one having been passed out for most of the quiz. I go into clubhouse mode and request songs at a rapid rate. Blurry end to the evening but I’m pretty sure it ended with Piano Man and some tears, which happens to be my party trick.
Next day and I wake up early to shower and try feel better. This does not work as I fall back to sleep in my clothes in my bed. Still not last on the bus though. Still a wee bit tipsy and we are take through the country headed for the Isle of Skye. We make a pit stop to meet some Highland cows, and these are some cool mother-fuckers. I feel they’re stealing my hairstyle though. Pretty much cows that are wooly as fuck with finges that they have to tilt their heads back to see through. There were two older cows and two calves and we were told we can feed the adults. One of the cows was placid, peaceful, and cheery. The other cow was a bitch. They didn’t tell us which was which. After one chick got nudged with a horn we found out which was which. I fed the right one, which was a bit much for my brain to handle at that point. It was nice to tick off the bucket list but then, alarms. The guide said that if the cow had licked our hands, we mustn’t touch our faces or we’d get herpes. Not like the re real herpes, but definitely a strand of herpes. I struggled to follow this logic, and thought that I’d struggle even more so to explain it to any chick. Them hands got scrubbed.
Then it starts to get pretty scenery, with vast valleys and hills and rocks. These are riddled with Highland folklore and history. The Highland folk are big into their fairies and witches, so there are a lot of myths going around about that. The history is more toward the clan wars and, like most things in the UK and planet earth, fighting the English. Unfortunately, the two are often tend to mesh into one another. You can be looking at the valley of a great massacre, while in the background there are 5 mountains that used to be girls, but got transformed by a witch. We later hit a river of beauty, coupled with a charming tale about how if you don’t look good your existence is stupid. I think the idea was that the beauty of the river would rub off on your face. This makes sense since after I dipped my head in, the river looked sexy as fuck. We see more hills and shit and stop at a small fishing village for lunch. The chippy there clearly know this happens often and charges extra for fish and chips. Fair enough.
Next we trek over a big hill to see the old dynamite trading spot. I genuinely have no idea where it was. Our guide said one its stories was related to Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, where I had been two years ago. I assumed since they were in different time zones I’d be able to wave at myself across the sea. Apparently I was on the wrong side of the island, so I let myself down. Some great views of the ocean though. The hill is pretty steep, and we end up hitting all fours at some sections to go both up and down. It’s also littered with sheep, and baby lambs who take no notice of us and seem confused as to why we were struggling. Way down on the other side we get to a waterfall that leads to the ocean and it’s pretty cool. The group is taking photos for days and poses in front of the falls. Some even threaten to jump into the water. Then there is a a bit of a shriek and our tour guide is giving a death stare into the pool below the fountain. Turns out the sheep weren’t as sturdy as we thought. A dead baby lamb is floating in the pool below. This is sad, but I have to admit I laughed a little. Not because of an animal that had died (although I maintain cliffs and hills are a bad spot to raise animals of any kind) but more because of how everybody’s scenic landscapes and selfies had been photobombed by a dead, swirling lamb. We then take the long road out of there and the bus does an almost unanimous “Awwww!” each time we pass a small animal, probably in lieu of the lamb who snuffed it.
We reach Kyleakin (which sounds like my mate Kyle dripping water) and get to our hostel called Saucy Mary’s. I like it already. We grab a bit of food in the en suite pub and try to figure out what the fuck Eurovision is. The Germans on the tour seem reluctant to talk about it and this worries everyone. But, the sun is setting and we were advised to check it out on the bridge, As we head out, Team America produces a small craft beer keg, and invites us to have sundowners buy the castle. Well, by the broken wall. Since there are so many of them here, the standard of what is and isn’t a castle is kind of a grey area. But it was none the less historic, and an absolute bitch to get to. But we made it just in time to crack open a luke warm one, and spray it over your humble blogger here. The view turned out to be pretty kick ass.
We head down when it’s dark and so get to the bar late. All sorts of shit seemed to have gone down. There was a local football team who fucked off of their faces, there was a local Russian dancing, a Scottish Elvis impersonator (Scelvis), and two dudes that wouldn’t leave me alone until I taught them some vulgar Afrikaans words. Easy stuff. The pub closes, people disperse, and drunk drive home.
Easier start, but similar story. Hills. Valleys. English bastards. Witches. We hear about how the Campbell Clan sided with the English, took hospitality under the MacDonalds and then killed them in their beds in Glencoe. Okes in Scotland don’t really dig the Campbells and word is that in nearby pubs they refuse to serve anyone with that name even today. Apparently one of the things that inspired game of Thrones’s Red Wedding, which I still maintain the best piece of television ever made. On the bright side go go near Loch Lochie, which is really fun to say.
We head get to a ski resort but the only thing still working is the chair lift. This take us up the mountain and gives us the backdrop to Glencoe, the setting to Skyfall and one of the Harry Potters. I didn’t see no Emma Watson so I’m unconvinced. As we head out we hear about a western pass which is a long-ass hike that okes go on in the Highlands. It’s bitterly cold in winter, full of midges in the summer (small bitey insects that fit through most nets), and all unnecessary after the invention of the train. We pass through a little homophobic town who ousted a gay couple. The couple then bought a hotel, painted it pink, called it the “Roman Camp Hotel”, and bricked up the front entrance so you have to go in the rear. Ha.
We are now cruising, and we race past the castle they used in Monty Python, where Cleese is that French soldier. It smelled of Elderberries. We are unable to see scenes from Braveheart since most of them are in Ireland. We are unable to see the bridge from the battle of Stirling Bridge, because it broke down. We stop in the distance of the William Wallace monument and get a cheering story of how Wallace was eventually brutally killed, the bit they didn’t put in the movie.
We get back into the lowlands and Edinburgh, where stuff seems a little less bleak. For now. Us tour members say almost teary goodbyes and make promises to each other that we are unlikely to keep. Normal post-tour humour. I feel better travelled of Scotland. I don’t exactly feel DSL, but I do feel freedom.