Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Driving Scotsman

The adventure began the night before in an underground bar called Frankensteins (Not Dracula's as previously posted) which had a toilet that played creepy sound effects. We were introduced to our fellow MacBackpacker tour companions by way of a meet and greet drinking session. It was here that we met Neil, a kilt wearing Scotsman with a hereditary gift for story telling. He was to be our bus driver, our tour guide and our entertainment for the next three days as we toured the Highlands of Scotland.

Neil would later explain to us that his family came from a Highland Clan renowned for its Bards. This was self-evident for as soon as the Bus has set off gliding down the icy hill he had switched on his mic and set about telling stories with as much humour and as many tangents as a Billy Connoly joke. He even began the trip with an apology for his use of profanity, but he explained that this was unavoidable as he was Scottish there was nothing he could fookin do about it.

We headed out into the frozen country side with every surface blanketed in thick white snow, the bus dug in or veered menacingly across ice patches, which added a slight alarm when Neil would interrupt himself from a story with a "Oops Shit!" especially alarming as we crossed the Forth Bridge, a massive suspension bridge crossing the ocean and completely concealed by thick fog which gave the impression that we were surrounded by a vast empty void, our only tether to the living world was the frozen bitumen around the bus and the vague shadows of railings through the fog.

We wound our way northward as the plains turned into rolling green hills, or at least we assumed they were green, somewhere deep underneath the snow. Scotland had been lavished with snow like a spew is lavished with sawdust. The further north we travelled, the deeper and whiter it became. The trees drooped as the burden of snow pulled every branch downwards. The snow even piled up on fence wire creating thin lines of white. The snow even covered the sheep, the sheep covered the fields and the fields were covered in snow. It was like a fluffy white layered cake, but Scottish... and not cake.

The snow was so deep that several times early in our trip Neil apologised that we may not be able to get to some places as the roads would be closed. Never less he would still try his best to find some "cool stuff to look at". The first "cool stuff" was the small town of Dunkeld, which is famous for being the muse place of Beatrix Potter and also for some very elaborate and violent story about Vikings and Scottish bravery that may or may not have been embellished a little for entertainment purposes by our Bus driving Bard.

Dunkeld was our first glimpse at a quaint little village in Britain, and very far removed from the mountain villages of South East Asia, the similarity was only in the name (It must also be mentioned that referring to a Scotsman as a Brit could find oneself being led to the carpark or shown the underside of a barstool). Dunkeld was also our first indoctrination into paying for a ticket to use a public toilet. But after two hours on a bus it was a necessary expenditure.

We explored the town a little and tried our hand at snowballs, but the snow was so cold it wouldn't stick together and was as useless as throwing balls of sand. The store in the village should have been called the "Mother Hubbard" as the cupboards were bare and on the way back to the bus I found myself ducking and weaving to avoid the patches of yellow snow behind the public toilet block, obviously not everyone thought it was a necessary expenditure.

Throughout the following days, the snow decided to prevent us from going to a lot of places. The first of which was Culloden, the site of the final battle in the Jacobite uprising. Unfortunately the road was snowed over and we travelled around it, missing out on visiting the battlefield but Neil treated us to a good yarn about it regardless.

Our next stop was Ruthven Barracks which was prefaced by Neil telling us we couldn't get there as the road would be snowed over, which was followed by a collective "ohh" from the bus to which Neil replied "fook it lets give it a shot". We arrived at the Barracks and set out to explore the old stone ruins. I was a bit of an excited little kid as this was the closest I'd come to a real Castle so far. Although it wasn't really a castle, it was still cool and could've have looked a bit castle-ish if you squinted and tilted you head to one side.

From the Barrack's hilltop we watched with amusement as Neil tried to turn the bus around on the narrow road and managed to get it completely stuck in the snow. With the help of the group he managed to get the bus free from the snow, moved it around a bit, got it stuck again and then got it out and turned around. I watched safely from the well guarded position of my hilltop castle, deciding to leave my garrison to help exactly one second before they finally got the bus free.

From Ruthven we headed into Aviemore where we stopped for lunch. Aviemore is a ski resort town, and was bustling with holiday makers. I found the place a little strange as there weren't any visible mountains on the horizon, yet there were skiers and snowboarders filling the lines in the cafe's. I reached the conclusion that Scottish people are known for being drunks, which of course distorts their vision making the ground seem uneven, they then ski down the slanty bits. This probably meant that the ski lifts would be no more than a few well spaced bar stools.

It would be an understatement to say that our next stop is the most well known point of interest in all of Scotland, but before we could reach the gift shop we stopped the bus on the side of the road and headed down to the icy shores of Loch Ness. It is fair to say I have a fair portion of scepticism regarding the myth of a gigantic dragon like sea creature living in the deep water of Loch Ness. Especially one with such a girly name.

But, being a little wise to possibility that Scottish people are occasionally sober, I decided to keep one eye Loch-ward and of course the camera was waiting in anticipation of getting a million dollar photo, or at least a soon to be discredited one. Loch Ness was beautiful, especially when flanked by snow covered hills and covered in whisps of mist, it is also fookin huge, so it was nearly half an hour before we reached the gift shop.

It was mid afternoon and night time was upon us. While still travelling along side the length of Loch Ness we turned off the road at Urquhart Castle. From the hill we could see a real Scottish Castle on the banks of Loch Ness, lit up brightly with yellow flood lights and mostly destroyed by time, war or lazy caretakers. We didn't have long to stop, as Neil was becoming nervous about the number of hours ahead of us driving on narrow and windy icy roads in total darkness. I was becoming nervous that he kept bringing it up.

Driving through the darkness was an eerie experience, Neil had gone quiet (well mostly) to concentrate on driving, so we listened to his favourite playlist of obscure songs while I stared out the window watching the trees and hills fade in and out of the darkness, illuminated by the moon reflecting on the snow and ice. Occasionally the lights of a small (and no doubt quaint) village would flash past until eventually we wound our way alongside another massive body of water, The North Atlantic Ocean, or Loch Alch, if you think lakes should be allowed to be connected to Oceans.

We had one last stop before crossing the Skye Bridge over Loch Alch (and the North Atlantic) to the Isle of Skye. There can be only one, and that is Eilan Donan Castle. We trudged from the bus into the bitterly cold night air to cross a short stone foot bridge leading to a small but mostly intact Castle which featured in a couple of wars, a whole bunch of romantic comedies, but most importantly, it was in Highlander.

At the time none of us knew that like Connor McLeod of the clan McLeod, who was an immortal, we too would be facing our own chance at immortality a small distance away on the other side of the Skye Bridge, but let's not get ahead of ourselves, as for now we have a bigger issue to face. Arriving in Kyleakin on the isle of Skye we quickly noticed that there was only two pubs in town, and one of them was closed. Luckily the open one was next door to our Hostel.

The hostel was pretty cozy (read: small but comfortable) and after grabbing one of the private rooms for an extra £7.00 we headed off to feed and water ourselves at the pub as quickly as possible. Our plan was well rewarded after finding the pub only had one cook, was already full of locals and didn't have enough available chairs for 20 or so hungry backpackers, especially after another bus full of more MacBackpackers arrived shortly after us.

We had to wait too long for meals that wern't really worth waiting for, however those on the bus that took their time in the hostel, were told by the bar staff they couldn't take any more food orders for an hour. So we ate our meals as slowly as they came out while a few hungry backpackers stared longingly at our forks and checked their watches.

While having a cigarette outside the pub I was interrupted by a young local Scotsman who had heard me say the word "dollar" and assuming I was American was ready to have a fight. Turns out he didn't like Americans and he definitely didn't like the English who denied the Scottish their right to be a republic by way of a conspiratorial voting manipulation and were a bunch of no good oil stealing bastards.

I didn't realise Scotland had oil, so I assumed that my drunken Scottish friend didn't like Americans because they would start a war with Scotland for its oil. Or maybe he didn't like Americans because he had common sense... and maybe he was sober, hard to tell with him being Scottish and all. Fortunately he had no negative opinion about Australians or Kiwis and encouraged us to spend money in their tiny island economy. I made a mental note to tell the couple from Chicago not to say the word "dollar" and headed back to the bar.

Back at the Hostel we settled down by the fire in the common room, where I managed to rid myself of my guitar withdrawals and have a nice cup of hot chocolate. Unfortunately time away from playing guitar hadn't improved my ability to play it, and any ability I had previously attained seemed to be content hibernating. Later on after pulling myself away from the coal fueled fire and the book I was reading I returned to our private room to find a fat ginger and white cat asleep on the bed.

The cat's name was Hemorrhoid, or Hemmy for short. Prue had been unable convince him to leave the room, so after filling the sink with water for the cat to climb into and drink out of, Hemmy nestled into the end of the bed and dozed off. Prue, who was suddenly missing our own cat Lucy was soon also in the land of nod. After a massive day of seeing the Highlands of Scotland, I too found myself heading for dreams, thankfully my dreams were enriched with more colours than just white. I like that...