Over the Hills and Far Away: David

Posted on November 25, 2011

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Over the Hills and Far Away: Pictures

Over the Hills and Far Away: Video

Jenny drove into Scotland, which explains why we have so much video from the drive. It’s difficult for me to passively enjoy scenic drives because if I just watch, I feel like I should be recording the view. Typically when we pass a scenic spot, instead of thinking “Wow, that was beautiful” I think “Crap! Missed another shot.” Lucky for me, I have an understanding wife who did not kill me when I asked her to pull over or turn around for the twelfth time.

Scotland had me constantly worked up trying to capture its unique beauty. After we dropped off Jenny’s dad in Manchester, we started the seven-hour drive to the tiny west coast port town of Oban. The border of England and Scotland was nondescript, but the scenery changed once we left Glasgow and started on the national roads into the countryside. The stress we felt after Sir Tellingsworth’s wild ride through Glasgow slipped away as we drove along the treed shores of our first loch. Traffic thinned and so did the trees- forest was replaced by rock-studded fields and farmland. The strange light common to the northern European countries illuminated spots on the expansive greenish yellow grasses. Huge swaths of tiny purple flowers covered acres, and on the horizon the rounded peaks of mountains faded into the grey clouds miles in the distance.

As we drove through a valley as practically the only people on the narrow road, I spotted an ancient stone bridge spanning a shallow rocky creek. Of course, I asked my driver to pull over, and I leapt out to investigate. There in the light mist, among the wild grasses and gurgling water, a helpful plaque indicated the British built the bridge back in the 1700s to help transport soldiers to subdue the wild Scots. Amid all the natural beauty and fascinating history, I breathed in deep and hoped that the rest of the Scottish tour would be this atmospheric.

The road continued to deliver picturesque vistas. We repeated the above photo deployment process several times at lochs, panoramas, and quaint villages. Miraculously, we got into Oban on time for check-in at our Rick Steves recommended bed and breakfast. I admire the passion and attention to cultural sensitivity Rick Steves conveys in his books, and we listen raptly when we are lucky enough to hear him on PBS. However, we had not used his guidebooks yet this trip, preferring the less detailed, thousand-foot view information from other travel guides such as Lonely Planet- we liked making it up as we go along instead of following prescribed itineraries. However, Rick had recommended an outstanding B&B and we had to give him credit for an accurate description of the place and the hosts.

The owner Jim’s cell phone number was listed in the guidebook, and when I called to reserve, he was a few pints in at the pub but promised to email me back. Mr. Steves had described him and his wife as “chatty” and they certainly were. I felt bad for Jim because he obviously wanted to interact, but his massive neck brace held him back (he had just suffered a severe bicycling crash- a helicopter rescue was involved). He didn’t let it slow him down too much- each morning at breakfast he would quiz us about what we did, what we were going to do, and trivia regarding famous Scots. His very sweet wife Liz made us feel at home and served up a delicious, calorie intense breakfast every morning. The room was decorated in grandma and grandpa style, and we felt like we were staying in a guest bedroom at a relative’s house. Hopefully they didn’t mind us using the room as a Laundromat- washing in the sink and hanging to dry anywhere available.

Oban was a terrific place to experience Scotland. Shops and restaurants surrounded the tidy harbor, and seagulls flew overhead as locals and tourists bustled about. On the first day we took a ferry to the nearby tiny island of Kerrara. It was only about ten kilometers long, with maybe a dozen building scattered through its hills. We didn’t see on car on the entire island. People were considerably scarcer than the sheep that spent their days grazing stone-fenced fields. Everywhere was green, and we took an hour to just lie in the grass looking at the ocean before continuing our trek to the southern end of the island. Eventually after a leisurely walk, picnic lunch and plenty of relaxed conversation, we arrived at our destination: a lone castle standing on the highest point on the dramatic rocky shoreline. A quick tour of the ruined castle (replete with its bloody history detailed on plaques), and we headed back to catch the last ferry home that day. My impression that the Scots were unfailingly affable remained as we took in dinner (a haggis burger for me) and a pint at the local pub that night. Conversation with the locals was easy and friendly.

The next day was to be further immersion in Scotland’s natural bounty as we headed to Glencoe valley- another place with rugged beauty and a violent past. Known as the “Weeping Glen” for its many springs running from the valley walls (supposedly crying for the cowardly massacre of Scottish hosts by their English guests back in the 17th century), I was a little concerned when we arrived at our trailhead. A busking bagpiper and crowded parking lot filled with tour buses did not suggest the idyllic tranquility I was hoping for, but luckily once we got on the right trail, the crowd disappeared. The steep trail ran along a mountain stream and ended up in a boulder-strewn hidden valley. A rescue helicopter taking practice runs provided entertainment but broke the quiet. We watched it circle the valley and then land and take off again before heading back to the car. It was chilly but not quite cold yet- the perfect weather for hiking, and I hoped that we would have a chance to come back some other trip for a couple of nights camping in the Highlands.

The next day we dedicated to driving along the Great Glen fault line that slashes hundreds of miles diagonally from the North Sea to just above the Irish Sea. The ancient fault line created bays, rivers, and some of the world’s deepest, and most famous lakes including Loch Ness. On a map, the nearly perfectly straight line of water looks almost artificial. About a third of it is; where nature did not connect the bodies of water, man filled in by digging the Caledonian Canal for a shortcut around the northern tip of Scotland.

Sometimes I am hesitant to dedicate a day’s activities to whatever a drive along unknown roads will yield. It can work out great if there are obvious interesting places to stop, but can also be a bust if the roads don’t pass anything interesting. On paper, it’s hard to tell what you’ll get. Lucky for us, along the series of roads we took from Oban to Foyers, plenty of places presented themselves. Multiple pullouts provided gorgeous views across the brownish, peat-stained water of the lochs. We luckily happened across a series of locks (not a spelling error, actual locks) on the Caledonian Canal and spent some time walking there. After stopping for cozy coffee at a fancy hotel we took their private trail down to the shores of Loch Oich where we tossed stones into the dark water. All the while the rainclouds loomed, constantly switching from drizzle, to off, and mixing in the occasional serious downpour. The clouds, mists, dark forests and mysterious lochs all worked together to provide a deliciously foreboding atmosphere. The perfect place for a lake monster to make a happy home.

Through more Highlands’ back roads we finally arrived at our home for the night, a B&B in Foyers on Loch Ness. From our elevated room high in the hills we could see across the dark water of the loch in the distance. We had a few hours of gray daylight left so we hiked down to the water, stopping at the famous waterfall on the way. Waves lapped at the shore, and a few boats were moored out in the water. Across the lake the mountains stood impassively, covered in clouds. It was very quiet, we were alone both during our walk through the town and at the lake. Foyers had once been the site of an aluminum plant during the war, but now it was mostly empty. The trail back home through the woods was steep and crisscrossed by roots, so we reluctantly turned back before darkness could settle in. I had definitely gotten the tour of the lochs I was looking for- an authentic Scottish experience.

Estimates on the time it would take to get from Foyers to Edinburgh varied by an hour. The next morning we left according to the worst-case scenario and still ended up being thirty minutes late to turn in our car. Jenny had the privilege of driving downtown Edinburgh while we frantically tried to find the completely unmarked rental car return. After circling the station and parting through waves of foot and car traffic we finally found the spot. We were glad to be unburdened of The Big Blue Butt, though we would miss the independence a car provides. The lack of concern Europcar demonstrated with our late return conflicted severely with the frantic attitude of the woman we were renting an AirBNB room from for the night.

We informed her over the phone that we’d be an hour late, and she sounded concerned. We ate a quick lunch, and struggled through dense traffic looking for a bus stop we never found. We called again to ask for directions, and she freaked when she learned we were not yet on the bus. When we finally gave up and took a taxi to her apartment, she was much more relaxed and apologetic for scolding me over the phone. We picked up a city map during a quick walking tour that afternoon, but both of us were tired and we went to bed shortly after sunset.

Thus recharged, we set out the next day to explore the city. The combination of nicely preserved character-laden buildings among many green spaces and rolling hills make Edinburgh’s personality shine. Of course, there were plenty of pubs and tourist traps, but monuments and statues dotted the many squares and churchyards- famous thinkers such as Scott, Hume and Burns lived on in stone and metal. All across the skyline, multitudes of intricate spires created a Gothic feeling.

We began our walk along the Royal Mile (a couple of streets leading through historic downtown) at the south end. Here was the old royal palace and the new Scottish parliament- a modern organic looking building which stood out against the dark stone buildings and imposing towers. We took time to eat lunch under the cliff faces on the massive Arthur’s Seat. Off the steep gravel path we found a soft blanket of grass to lie on and enjoy a bit of sun and people watching. Having a miniature mountain within easy walking distance of the center was a nice feature for a city.

Off the Royal mile we meandered through various neighborhoods for chance encounters with random points of interest. We stopped at two free museums that weren’t spectacular, but nice enough to hold our attention for a couple of hours. In the national portrait gallery, kids were seated in circles at the base of paintings working on their own masterpieces in crayon and markers. Plenty of people were in attendance and the museum seemed to be fully alive with people really enjoying themselves. There is a difference between museums that people want to be in, and museums where people feel they ought to be there.

After a dinner at The Elephant (the café where Rowling wrote Harry Potter) we moved down to the square by the train station to get ready for fireworks celebrating the end the Edinburgh city festival. It was good timing, but we couldn’t really take credit for the coincidence- sometimes you just get lucky. We rested our feet in the square for an hour before the fireworks started above Edinburgh castle. The initial wave of excitement slowly wore off over the hour that the fireworks fired. By the time the grand finale was done, we were ready to go. I never thought I would get bored of fireworks, but I think the combination of frequent pauses separating the actual explosions, cigarette smoke and our aching feet distracted us.

Back in bed that night I felt very pleased with our trip to Scotland. Our host had told us that many people experience Scotland in the summer when it’s nice outside and end up moving here only to find out that the rest of the year is pretty dismal. I wasn’t sure I’d want to relocate to Scotland and find out, but I definitely would go back in some future summer.

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