After landing at Gatwick we got the third degree from immigration again. While at Heathrow on our incoming flight we got a stern but fair official, this guy was just an arsehole. I can understand that they need to control their border, but we have proof of our savings, so why not just let us spend it in your country. At least I didn’t get felt up in customs this time.
We hung around at the airport for a while (our flight got in around midnight), and caught the bus to the coach station where we jumped on another bus up to Glasgow. The coach was alright, except for a bunch of idiot Aussies making an awful din. I suppose it’s people like them that tend to give Aussie backpackers a bad name. They got out at Manchester however, and we preceded north. Once we got over the border, even the road signs on the motorway had “THE NORTH” printed at the top of them.
Once in Glasgow Proper, we headed to our hotel. Yes, that’s hotel, not hostel. The hotel was the same price as the hostels in the area, but included breakfast, so we went with that instead. A nice enough place, but it was relatively cheap so we weren’t expecting much.
We headed to Sauchiehall st and went to a proper Scottish pub for some food. Jess went traditional with Fish and Chips, but I ended up getting a burger. However, we did enjoy some nice Scottish beers. Too tired to do much else, we retired to bed.
The next day, in the spirit of Scottish thriftiness, we decided to do all of the free stuff here, which was actually quite a lot. First was the Riverside Museum, a place that is mainly focussed on the transport side of Glasgow, with cars up on the wall four stories high. There were also trams, trains, and a mock underground station. There was also Ewan McGregor’s motorbikes from Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which were shows covering him and his mate, Charlie Boorman travelling around the world, first by heading east via Russia, and in the second season, by heading south via Africa.
Next to the museum was the tall ship Glenlee, a cargo ship built in Glasgow and first sailed in 1896. You could access pretty much all areas of the ship, and it was a bit tardis like in the sense that it looked so much bigger on the inside.
The next stop was the Kelvingrove Museum and art gallery, which had more general exhibits like what you would expect in a museum. However, the sheer size of this place was remarkable, and the building itself was a magnificent structure of red sandstone. This place was chock full of interesting exhibits such dinosaur skeletons, fossils, sarcophagi and statues. One section dealt primarily with the record breaking animals. For example, there was a stuffed koala, who is apparently the most fussy eater on the planet. I never knew that. Australia had quite a few pieces in this section, mostly with titles like “The most venomous ______” or “The Deadliest _______”. Does my heart proud.
While you wander around, one occasionally finds themselves confronted with paintings from classical masters, such as Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Renoir and many others which I’m sure are quite famous.
The following day we wandered around without too much of an agenda, just mainly taking in the city. We visited the Museum of modern art, which was moderately interesting, but it was the statue out the front that interested me more. It is a statue of the Duke of Wellington, mounted on his horse.
The interesting thing about this statue is the traffic cone on it’s head. A few years ago, some larrikins, presumably after a few liquid refreshments, decided to climb the statue and perform this rather avant garde act of haberdashery. The cone was of course removed by the proper boring authorities, but the cone was promptly put back. Thus began a constant game of hats on, hats off. The council had had enough, and drew up plans to increase the height of the base to end the game once and for all, but when plans for this “I’m taking my ball and going home” modification were made, there was public outrage. So the cone remains.
The next day, we headed to Edinburgh. For a city that is only an hour down the road the difference was huge. Whereas Glasgow was somewhat sprawling and spread out, Edinburgh was ultra dense, with buildings centuries old all crammed next to each other and sometimes on top of one another.
We checked into our hostel, a labyrinthine building right next to the Greyfriars cemetery, which is reportedly one of the most haunted cemeteries in Scotland, if not the world. The cemetery was de-consecrated decades ago, reportedly due to not being able to break the ground with a shovel without hitting bones.
Next morning we took a walking tour of the city, led by one of the workers at the hostel, one of the first Aussies we had spoken to at length. The tour went through old town, and then went into the aforementioned cemetery, where our guide pointed out some of the gravestones that were used for inspiration for J.K R. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. There was someone with the surname McGonnagle, a Tom Riddel, and a Sirius Black. Well sort of. The stone itself had fallen off (or perhaps been helped) and nobody in the Black family was willing to pay to put it back up. So there was a place on the wall where someone sharpied in the name.
After this we were led past the cafe where Rowling had written the first book of the Harry Potter series, to the famous Edinburgh Castle. Near this cafe was Greyfirars Bobby, a statue of an actual dog that belonged to a nightwatchman from the area. After his owner died, it is said that Bobby sat by his masters grave for 14 years.
We then headed towards Carlton Hill, which had a fantastic view. This was the end of the tour, so from Carlton hill, we went back down to the centre of town to Scott’s Monument, a large, gothic tower with a statue of the man himself underneath.
And thus my hatred of spiral staircases began. The staircase runs up one of the legs, and leads out onto a platform about a third of the way up. It was’t entirely clear that you could ascend further than this, so Jess and I took the standard achievement selfie. It was only when we were about to go back down that we saw that you could go further up. In fact, you could ascend these seemingly endless spiral staircases almost to the very top. Each platform reached meant an increasingly petite staircase to proceed skywards. The final was so small that I had to take off my daypack, crouch and shuffle sideways, like a bad 80s dance craze that never caught on. However, we did make it and were rewarded with an incredible view of the city.
That evening we decided to join another walking tour. This one was focussed on the city vaults and the covenanters prison, which was situated in the Greyfriars cemetery. Edinburgh was a very densely populated area in the 1800s, and so the city planners built two large bridges running through old town. Underneath the support arches of these bridges, which are actually behind buildings were the vaults. These areas attracted the poorest of the poor, and was a place filled with disease and shit.
Our tour guide was rather colourful, and I suspect an aspiring actor. He played a slightly eccentric character as he walked us through the streets and gave us historical information about what we passed, as well as telling us about encounters with the paranormal that people had had. He insisted a number of times that this was a professional tour company, going to genuine locations, and that we wouldn’t have things jumping out at us, nor would there be any hidden speakers with eerie noises.
We entered the vaults, and it was pitch black most of the time, with the exception of a few dim lights placed here and there. After setting the mood with a diatribe about past encounters, delivered in a delightfully creepy tone, the guide turned out the one remaining light, and we stood there, under tonnes of rock that were placed over a century ago, and BANG. The bastard fired off a party popper, causing half the room to jump.
The next stop on the tour was the Covenanters Prison, a locked section of the Greyfriars cemetary that only this tour company had access to. The name Prison does not quite set the location correctly in the minds eye. It was a walled off section of the cemetery with no roof, and graves on either side. We were led into a crypt, and from the entrance, he begins to relate a story about the history of the place, and a about one of the encounters that happened whilst he was giving a tour some time in the past, building up the tension. At the moment when the tension was at it’s greatest, someone in a mask jumped out from behind him and scared the shit out of everyone. It was brilliant.
After having a couple of beers at the hostel bar, we retired to bed, only to be awoken at about 4:30am by some loud laughing and what I think was supposed to be singing. It got louder and louder, everyone in the dorm hoping, I’m sure, that the source of this racket would pass us by. Alas, right outside the door, this drunken idiot could be heard stumbling around. After what felt like hours (but was probably closer to 20 minutes), the noise finally died down, and I had to get up to use the WC. Upon opening the door, lying on the ground was the drunken fool, jeans around his ankles, passed out on the floor. What to do. I took a leak and considered my position. I decided to grab the receptionist, who couldn’t quite understand me at first. I think it was because of how tired I was, I went full Aussie; “Hay mate, some dickhead who’s off his face has passed out in front of my room”.
I was finally able to get my point across and he came with me up to the room. We dragged the kiwi to his feet, and brought him into the dorm room, but I quickly realised that his bunk was on the top, and there was no way he could get up there in his state. The guy from reception asked me what to do, which was a bit unexpected, considering he works there. I suggested that we dump him on a couch in the bar, he agreed with this course of action and we did just that.
The following day we travelled to Aberdeen, the city where I have some family history. The city itself, visually distict from both Glasgow and Edinburgh due to the different stone used in it’s construction was not quite as expected. My understanding, from how my mother described the city was that it was somewhat “posh”. However, the people here seemed quite rough, and at one point, right outside the bus station, we saw a guy get smashed in the face and start to bleed everywhere. Glasgow had it’s fair share of “rough” looking individuals, but even the homeless, which were quite a common sight were often entertaining in their interactions with each other. For example, after a robust discussion with a begger on the street, a gentleman left after being told that he would “Get his F___ing C___ kicked in” if he didn’t leave promptly. In Aberdeen, they were just scary instead.
My Great Grandfather was buried in one of the cemeteries there. The only question was which one. “How many could there be?” I thought to myself as I googled the possibilities. Seven. Seven is how many cemeteries were in and around Aberdeen. So, a bit of grinding through some google results, Jess stumbled across a reference to an article in the local paper from around the time of his death. At this point, we didn’t even know his actual date of death so this provided an essential clue.
Rather than paying for access to this particular archive, in the spirit of Scottish Thriftiness, we went to the central library, and used the microfilm machine to look up the aforementioned article. We had it; where he lived, the location of his business, and the cemetery in which he was buried. But not the location of his plot within it. How many graves could there be?
About 6000 by my reckoning. 6000 graves arranged haphazardly, not in a grid, and recent graves right next to 80 year old ones. Why couldn’t people have the decency to die in alphabetical order? Anyway, after three and a half hours we found it. It was quite a feeling. He was buried with his wife and his son, my Great Uncle. After taking it all in, we made the trek back to the hotel. Yes, hotel. Again. We got caught out, with the few hostels in Aberdeen all booked out, and camping not an option, so we had to spend quite a bit more to stay in a hotel that had no heating. The room itself was nice enough though.
Inverness was the next destination, although it was more of a stepping stone. It was a delightful contrast from Aberdeen, having more of a country town feeling than a city. Surrounded by forrest and the ocean, our hostel had a fantastic view from the window.
From inverness, a short bus ride and we were in Drumnadrochit, a small town near Urquhart Castle. This was the first town in the UK that I didn’t know how to pronounce correctly, and the first few times I tried to say it it seemed to come out in a Russian accent. We stayed at a horse riding place that had a basic campsite attached to it, and had the worst nights sleep camping so far. The ground must have been harder here, as we would fall asleep and a couple of hours later we would wake up with a numb arm, causing us to roll onto the other side and repeat the process.
On the day we arrived, before the unsatisfying sleep mentioned earlier, we visited Urquhart castle, or what was left of it. This castle has changed hands numerous times over the last 1000 years, and was finally blown up for fear of the Jacobites taking it over and using it to their advantage. Since about 1920, in state care the castle has been stabilised and opened to tourists. The result is a bit of a tourist trap, but it was interesting nonetheless.
After the previously mentioned bad nights sleep, we caught the bus to Fort William. This bus trip was incredible, driving next to Loch Ness and through the surrounding forrest. The town itself was nothing to write home about, but the next day, we set off to do one of the more touristy things we had planned to do: Ride the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig. This train and journey was actually used in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwarts Express.
We boarded, and were subjected to some gorgeous scenery, and the atmosphere was quite good. I quickly discovered that the doors at the end of the carriage, behind the toilet, was able to be opened, so I spent much of the trip trying to get that iconic shot of the steam engine from the rear of the train. The Glenfiddich viaduct however caught me by surprise, so I didn’t get a chance to get a good shot there sadly.
Our stay in Mallaig was short, as we were to catch a ferry to the Isle of Skye about an hour after arriving. We had some excellent fish and chips while one of the ludicrously large seagulls watched on. We had seen these things in action in Aberdeen. They would wait for people with food to come through the doorway of the train station, and then they would swoop at them quite violently. We get the same thing from the seagulls in Australia too, but these gulls, and in fact all the gulls we have come across in the U.K. are at least three times the size of the Aussie gulls. It was one of the primary sources of entertainment in Aberdeen while we waited for our bus.
The ferry ride was quick; only 30 minutes on a large car carrying ferry. We landed at the Armadale ferry terminal, where our campsite lay. This campsite was run by a couple of rather eccentric ladies, who were really into eco-somethingorother, which basically meant the amenities were cold running water, and dry composting toilets. If one wanted to do, erm, number one, they would piss into a bucket and throw it on the vegetable patch just outside the toilet. Number two, and you would use a more traditional long drop type apparatus and cover it with the provided mulch.
Needless to say, both Jess and I were a little uneasy at the prospect of using these, so we decided to hold out on that aspect of business until we re-joined civilisation.
Aside from the toilet situation, the campsite was incredible. The pitch we selected for our tent was easily the most beautiful we had stayed at so far. Up on the side of a hill, nestled amongst foxglove plants with purple flowers, birch and pine trees. The view was out into the bay over some rock formations. It was worth all the other downsides of the place.
The next morning we both woke up feeling quite relaxed, and I think the location had something to do with that. After breakfast, we walked around some of the short trails in the campgrounds, we spotted a couple of seals swimming around in the bay.
We packed up camp and walked down the driveway from the campsite, which connected directly to the ferry terminal carpark, and we were surprised to find about 80 people milling around the couple of souvenir shops (which were the only shops at the terminal), having just disembarked. We would have had no idea, as the campsite was so isolated we didn’t hear a thing.
The bus collected us and we headed for Portree with no accommodation booked and no idea if any was available. This had become our modus operandi as of late, but things had always worked out, as having the tent meant we had many options available to us, even potentially wild camping, which is perfectly legal in Scotland.
As we almost expected, all of the accommodation that was within our budget was booked out in Portree, so we caught a bus to Broadford, a small town about half an hour away back the way we came. Our hostel was a short walk away, and we met Hamish, the hostel cat. We got to our room and started chatting with a fellow Aussie. She was far more adventurous than us, and had walked from Glasgow to Fort William, a good 160 miles, over about 10 days.
The next day, the weather was a bit overcast, but only raining a little bit. We decided to go for a walk on one of the numerous walking tracks in the area. About a kilometre down the track we were struggling with gail forced winds, and were being reminded of our time near the waterfalls in Iceland. Our jeans were dripping wet, because our fantastic waterproof jackets let all of the water run down onto them. Not to mention the fact that the rain was coming in horizontally anyway, so we had no chance.
Then, on our return, we wondered what to do for the next four hours until our bus came. We wandered around town a few times, as the wind wasn’t as ferocious away from the hills, and slowly but surely we dried off as the sun actually came out. However, by the time the good weather looked like it was here to stay, it was too late to attempt the walk.
The bus trip from Broadford to Glasgow was incredible. The scenery was even nicer than the train trip to Mallaig, and was almost reminiscent of parts of Iceland in it’s grandeur.
We stayed at the same formula 1 style hotel where we stayed a night back in Glasgow, and booked an overnight coach for that evening. It seemed like a good idea at the time; we would save on a nights accommodation, and have a chance to see a bit more of Glasgow. However, we were rather tired from the walking the day before, and the bed in the hotel was terrible, and hence so was the quality of our sleep.
We did manage to get to the Necropolis. Third times a charm it would seem. The Ncecropolis is a large cemetary that is directly adjacent to the Glasgow Cathedral. Having attempted twice to gain entry, we turned up earlier in the day. It was as spooky as I had hoped, especially inside some of the crypts.
We wandered around aimlessly, regretting for the second time in as many days that we had booked the late bus. Finally, it was time to board the bus, and it was almost totally full, and Jess and I didn’t get to sit next to each other until a stop three hours later. Sleep was unattainable from the 10 minute coughing fit of someone up the front to the guy using his full sized laptop next to me.
This was the end of our time in Scotland, and left us wanting more. The country is full of natural wonders, and while not on the same epic scale of Iceland, were incredible in their own way. The people, for the most part were kind, and finding out some more about my roots, walking the same streets my Great Grandfather and his father before him was very special. I would love to come back and spend more time camping and hiking here. I’m already thinking about how long it would take me to do the Glasgow to Fort William hike, what things I would need etc. Now, however, we must head south and see at least some of what England has to offer, and though I did try and float the idea of just spending the remainder of our time chilling out in Edinburgh, we couldn’t justify it. We must move on.
-- Thomas, 2015.06.09