Inverness and Back Again: A Highland Tale

Day One

I’ve avoided writing this post because, frankly, I have no idea how to distill my experience of the Highlands into a short blog post and a few photographs. I know that anything I write cannot hope to capture a fraction of what I saw and felt. But the dreaded time has finally arrived. The demand of my devoted followers (Hi Dad!) is simply too great, and I must appease the masses before they take to writing angry comments on social media. Here is the short version of the story: last weekend I climbed aboard an enormous bus full of University of Edinburgh exchange students, and then we were whisked away on the busiest and most beautiful weekend of our lives.

Our tour guide, Graeme, was born and raised in the Highlands, and his passion for his native land was infectious. He had intimate knowledge of every geological and geographical landmark, every historical figure, every detail of the clan system, and could tell us exactly how accurate each Hollywood depiction of Scotland is. (Braveheart, unsurprisingly, did not get high marks). But more importantly, Graeme was a captivating storyteller, and the completely silent bus of fifty-odd college students, hanging on his every word, was testament to his talent. I’m currently in a class called Scotland and Orality where we’re studying storytelling and oral culture in Scotland, and Graeme’s stories absolutely match the quality of any recording I’ve heard in the archives. It was incredible to bear witness to an unbroken storytelling tradition that up until now I’ve only studied academically.

Our first stop was at the Wallace Monument in Stirling. The monument sits on Abbey Craig, where William Wallace was said to have watched the advancing English army before the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The monument rose out of the early morning mist, and from a distance was an impressive sight. We scaled Abbey Craig to get a closer look, and Stirling was laid out below our feet. Although, in typically Scottish fashion, the landscape was so enshrouded in mist that we couldn’t see a thing.2013-11-01 16.54.57 2013-11-01 16.34.112013-11-01 16.33.33

Next we stopped at Kilmahog, the home of Hamish the Hairy Coo. I was very excited to meet my first Highland cow, and he did not disappoint. He and his friends were exceptionally fluffy. One thing puzzled me, though—how do the Hairy Coos see anything? Does anyone think to trim their fringe? I suppose cows don’t need to see very much, after all, besides grass, and irritating tourists who stick cameras in their faces.

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Our long drive through Rannoch Moor and Glencoe was undoubtedly my favorite part of that first day. What struck me the most was the incredible variability of the Scottish landscape. We plunged down valleys and barreled up cliffs, and more than one person complained of nausea as a result! Waterfalls coursed down the bare rock faces and huge boulders loomed like crouching trolls in the moorland. One minute it would downpour, and the next moment the sun would shine out so brightly I could hardly see a thing. Fierce winds rocked the bus too and fro, and then died away just as suddenly. I am used to the severe hills and valleys of Edinburgh, and the indecisive nature of the weather there, but I had no idea that this drama was a nation-wide phenomenon.

Scotland is restless. Scotland is moody, and will never make up its mind. Even the beauty of Rannoch Moor is deceiving. The snow-capped hills in the distance and the waterfalls rushing down the cliffs were of course beautiful, but the closer I looked, the more barren the moor seemed. It made me think of the desert, of all places. There were no trees, and no birds or animals that I could see. There was only the curiously orange heath, and the scattered boulders. When you imagine the beautiful Scottish moors, you will probably picture lush green landscapes, teeming with life, but the reality is a much harsher beauty.

We reached Glencoe, often hailed as the most beautiful glen in the Highlands, in a freezing cold downpour. Graeme’s rendition of the story of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, in which dozens of members of the MacDonald clan lost their lives, had put us in a solemn mood. I braved the wind and the cold and the rain long enough to take these pictures, but it’s amazing how poorly pictures represent the beauty of the Highlands. I’ve grown frustrated with my camera, because the pictures I took in no way represent the majesty of the landscape that I saw. So just try to imagine that every picture in this post is at least 200X more beautiful than what you see, and that will bring it closer to accuracy.

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We reached Loch Ness by mid-afternoon, and promptly set sail to have a look for Nessie. By this time, the sun was shining again, and the autumn colors on the shore were impressive. I enjoyed a whiskey coffee on the boat, but it would have been better without the whiskey. Or without the coffee. I was astonished by how long and skinny the loch is—although it’s twenty-two miles long, it’s only two miles across at its widest point. Loch Ness is so deep that it contains more fresh water than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined! Which makes perfect sense—that’s where I would hide too, if I were a shy monster. Speaking of which, I NOW PRESENT PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE OF NESSIE, THE LOCH NESS MONSTER!

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However, it turns out that Nessie is just a sticker on the window of the boat. Another childhood dream, smashed into pieces.

At last we arrived in Inverness, the northernmost city in the UK. By this time it was already dark, and a good ten degrees colder than it had been in Edinburgh. After checking into our student hostel, we moved en masse into city center, where we found—nothing. There was an absolute lack of people in the streets, which I found very disconcerting. There was also an absolute abundance of Christmas decorations in the streets, which I also found disconcerting. I guess if you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving is over, why not spread the cheer early?

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We ate at Wetherspoons, a rather grim British pub chain (sort of the equivalent of an American diner), before finding our way to Hootenanny, a renowned live music pub. And that’s when I realized: this is where all the people were! Approximately the entire population of Inverness (which isn’t much) was crammed into this one little pub. There was traditional Scottish music on the ground floor, and a decent cover band playing on the second floor. On the third floor was a strange, empty room full of couches, and that’s where most of the students hung out, getting to know each other and trying (unsuccessfully) to pronounce each other’s names.

When we were drunk enough to brave the cold, a group of friends and I ran down the river, past the obligatory castle, over the bridge, and then over another bridge. We decided to all jump at once on the suspension bridge and were terrified when it actually moved. River Ness was beautiful in the moonlight, and bunnies ran rampant on the banks. Eventually, we trudged back to the hostel in the dark, exhausted and cold and drunk and excited to wake up early the next morning and do it all over again.

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Stay tuned for Day Two: Whiskey and Waterfalls and Why Do I Have to Leave?