Travel

My Scottish Road Trip

Last year, after a brief time in Ireland, some friends and I took a plane to Glasgow to start a ten-day trip that would forever transform everything I thought I knew about traveling. Although I had loved Ireland, a couple of bad experiences had dimmed my excitement for the Scottish adventure— what if the mountains were not as impressing as I imagined them? Anyhow we made our way north, leaving behind rows of green hills and castles, to come across… more green hills and castles. In Ireland I had noticed some thorny shrubs with small, bright yellow flowers that grew everywhere (they’re called gorse). They were heavily abundant in Scotland too. I had expected similarities between the Irish, English and Scottish landscapes, but nothing I had seen before prepared me for the northern parts of Scotland.

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Photo: Julia Karmel. Arms open to adventure.

I had being in Edinburgh before, but Glasgow was new to me (everything I knew of the city came from ABBA’s Super Trouper). Our plan was to get a car there and start driving north, through Oban, Kyle, Skye, Inverness, Cairngorms, Perth and, finally, Edinburgh. We had listed some places we wanted to visit, mostly mountains, lakes and castles, and we had made an itinerary of the Youth Hostels we’d spend a night or two in, but the road and how that would turn out remained a mystery. In the first place, none of us was used to driving on the left side of the road; in the second place, none of us had much money to spend; and to top it up, we had known each other for just some months (I had never even met one of the guys before), so how we’d get along remained a mystery too.

After doing some exploring in Glasgow, we finally hit the road. That first day was mainly a familiarization with the road, buying supplies and leaving the car every time a landscape seemed interesting. Once we made it to Cairngorms National Park, the stops became constant, we explored the areas around the lake, walked without a fixed direction, talked and ate under the trees, took pictures. The park is beautiful, cool but sheltered from April rain.

Loch Ness

After that we kept going north. We had planned to spend a few hours in Inverness and take a look at Loch Ness. The little Airbnb we got at Inverness smelled like curry and we didn’t spend much time in it, except for sleeping and preparing food. The weather here was a bit cruel, winds blowing strongly and freezing nights, although Inverness Castle and the cathedral, lighted up with yellow lamps, gave the city certain charm. Our nights there were calm, there were many pubs and restaurants, but they closed early and those we managed to find open were almost empty. I believe the most exciting night was when we had the terrible idea of buying Chinese takeaway and eating it on the banks of the River Ness. Fifteen minutes after we had sat on some monuments we couldn’t feel our hands, so we decided to go home. The food was no good either.

The same river, though, guided us next morning all the way to Loch Ness. That day was clear and the wind blew playfully, strongly when we arrived tho those silvery black waters. A lake that seemed to extend towards the horizon, indefinitely, and could have been mistaken for the sea. On the opposite bank, visible from where all the visitor points and shops are, stands a small castle, or I should say what remains of a castle, Urquhart, some ruins from the 13th century. To get there we got on a boat called The Nessie Hunter, whose owner told us a great deal about both the Loch Ness Monster and the history of the castle. Once we were on the boat the wind became colder and stronger, the water looked pitch black, reflecting the sun’s light with little, cold white circles that fluttered with the waves, almost hypnotically. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look for Nessie in every and each one of those ripples of water, that strangely dark water, impossibly cold.

Eilean Donan Castle

When we left Inverness we made our way to Kyle, driving along the shores of Loch Carron and Loch Alsh, and found another fortress dated back to the 13th century, at the shores of Loch Duich: Eilean Donan. As it often happens with many castles in Scotland and Ireland, Eilean Donan has been restored and it is now a museum with tea rooms and restaurants, you can even hire the place for a wedding. We obviously were satisfied with just sitting next to Loch Duich and eat the sandwiches we had brought with us, looking towards the castle.

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The days in the road were long and both tiredness and the lack of alone time made us want to spend some time in silence, wearing headphones in the car or, in my case, find some time to read. The only book I kept from my trip to Ireland was Joyce’s Dubliners, and I read a story every once in a while. I was not upset I barely had time to read though. The long drives with no phone signal, the harsh democracy when choosing what we’d play in the car and the short nights in hostels made me aware of many different kinds of company, besides of that of books, to which I was accustomed to. We listened to each others stories about our countries or our plans for the future, about places we had been to, bands we had seen live, stupid things we had done. We listened, too, to the stories of anybody who wanted to tell us theirs; the boat owner from Loch Ness, the hostel workers, the barmans from those little local pubs specialized in whiskey. We talked much and listened even more, during brief stops on the road, on some broken boat at the shores of some lake, covered in scarves and sweaters, our pockets full of Cadbury chocolate.

Isle of Skye

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Photo: Julia Karmel. Neist Point, Isle of Skye.

After Kyle we crossed the Sound of Sleat channel to get to the Isle of Skye. The fascination that Scottish landscapes had awaken in me was exacerbated there. Wide extensions of land, all the shades of green and a new one for use, a lighter green than that of the main island, gigantic stones of an almost black grey, washed white at parts from the roaring sea. One day we made our way to Portree to spend a couple of nights there. Portree is the largest town in the island and it wasn’t hard to find a hostel near the bay. The hostel was the perfect location between Neist Point Lighthouse and The Storr, the two things we most wanted to see in Skye.

The Storr is a mountain located in the north of the island, in an area known as Trotternish, some twenty minutes by car from Portree. The name of the most famous pinnacle of the mountain is “The Old Man of Storr”, because its gaunt, tall structure resembles an elderly can with a cane. The walk to the top takes around an hour and it becomes more and more challenging as one ascends. We were there in the last days of April and we didn’t find more than five people there. I had a brutal cold then, but the view from the top pinnacles was something I will never forget. Land, water and clouds spread before me, mixing, melting, the deepest green, indigo and grey. I thought then I must have been at the very top of the world.

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The crew at The Storr.

Skye exemplifies the intimidating majesty of nature, a grandness that inspires both admiration and fear. After  days among mountains and lakes, I could not but realise that we often misunderstand nature— we read the the creases of the land, the waves of the water and murmurs of the wind through the trees and bend them to our docility fantasies. Here though, I had before me a hostile land, a dangerous land, with its own will and a stout refusal to be tamed or even understood. And it was much more beautiful than the best tended garden.

After Skye we got back in the car, this time west bound, hoping to find something like The Storr there. Neist Point is in Durnish and the walk towards the lighthouse begins near Glendale. The first part of the way is a path surrounded by ligh green hills and from there we had our first view of the lighthouse: a simple white structure on top of which rests a small column, all on top of a cliff against which the waves crashed violently. The closer one gets to the lighthouse, the more dangerous it is to approach the sea, the path disappears and gives way to a series of rocks of different sizes, some half submerged, from which we hopped to see a bit of the lower part of the cliff. The lighthouse itself is around a hundred years old, filled now with old furniture. From the top of the cliff the islands that are between Skye and the Atlantic are invisible, so it looks as if an infinite extension of sea divided Neist Point from America. On the way back we stopped over the giant rocks to rest, taking advantage of the little sun we had that day, lulled by the sound of the sea and the occasional squawks of the seagulls.

Glenfinnan Viaduct and the end

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Photo: Julia Karmel

Then we made or way back to the Main Land, where our first stop was Glenfinnan, specifically the viaduct, close to Loch Shiel. We stopped there because that’s where the Hogwarts Express goes through in the Harry Potter films. There is actually a train passing in mid May, sadly we were too early to see it. After Glenfinnan we drove along the banks of Loch Eli all the way to Fort William, were we rested before making our way to Oban, where we would sleep.

Oban is a little town close to the Islandof Kerrera. It was our penultimate stop of the trip, afterwards we’d make our way to Edinburgh, from where each of us would continue our separate ways. In Oban we walked around the town and learned to drink Scotch in a small distillery where dozens of Scots had gathered to watch a soccer match. What I remember the most about the town is the bay, a half-moon on whose shores were piled up boats in all conditions, of all sizes and colours. Even when Edinburgh was the last stop, Oban was the end of a way of traveling, with no big cities to go to for comfort, a way of traveling in which a lake or a mountain was never too far off and in which we could look at the stars every night.

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