“Glasgow, ruins and Ben Nevis”
I had never driven over the border into another country before driving into Scotland. I wasn’t not sure if there is going to be a large monument or border force. Some kind of line marking the end of England, accompanied by a guard of bagpipers, perhaps? Some kind of sound and light show at the very least would have been sufficient. I had no expectations, but it was as though the big, blue traffic sign saying “Welcome to Scotland” should have said, “Oh, hey. Umm, yeah, you’re in Scotland now. Surprise!” instead. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I never would have known we had changed countries. It was surreal, none the less, to be in Scotland while sneaking a look back at England through a hole in the towel covering the back window. Honestly, it felt like we were smuggling people over the border.
Reaching the Glaswegian city limits, we started navigating to the hostel we had booked. With no maps, we were using a pamphlet picked up from an information centre we had stopped at. It was not the recommended method of navigation and, unsurprisingly, soon had us parked on the side of a road, in a dodgy neighbourhood as we tried to figure out why a map, clearly inaccurate, missing streets and not to scale, had managed to get us lost.
After retracing our steps, we found the correct road we needed fifteen minutes behind us. It’s a unique skill to continually find your way out of a tough spot, and we were becoming quite proficient at it. Not getting lost would have been more useful.
Sometimes cities have reputations that precede them and define your expectations when you arrive. Take Glasgow, for example. If you talk to anyone with a pulse, this city is a touch dangerous. The words “don’t wander the streets at night” and “be careful” ring in your ears from the moment you enter the outskirts. There is even a documentary by Ross Kemp outlining the abject poverty that can be found throughout. The title, Extreme World, kind of implies that there are certain concerns to take into consideration.
We knew nothing of these reputations, something of which I am grateful for. I suppose it’s like going to a prison for a party and not knowing that all the inmates are criminals who want to shank you for your belt. Regardless, we didn’t care. We happily cruised the streets, hopping from pub to pub as time dripped away. At one stage, we ended up at a bar that had clearly been a church in a previous life. All the stained glass windows were in place and the tall, steepled roof was a giveaway. It almost felt sacrilege to be there, but another pint quickly erased those thoughts.
We began to chat to some local girls, as single travellers are inclined to do from time to time. With confidence sky high, due mainly in part to the appropriate level of intoxication, we thought we were doing well- they were laughing at our jokes and we couldn’t understand much of what they were saying due to their thick accents. That was until a group of blokes arrived, fresh from a wedding. It’s fair to say that no one can compete for the affections of a fair lady with another who is wearing a kilt. It’s like an aphrodisiac. Other than not being aware that wearing kilts to nightclubs was a thing that happened, we had been ‘Scot blocked’; this means that your ability to seduce the lady you are chatting to has been skittled by a man in a dress. You can’t be angry when you lose out this way, though. Losing to a man in a kilt is a forgone conclusion.
We ended up at a house party until the realisation that we had a long haul the following day and the sun was already coming up. We wandered the streets, alone at dawn, muddling our way back to our accommodation. I have since told that story to many a traveller familiar with the streets of Glasgow and have been met with the same shocked expression. Apparently we should either be dead or, at the very least, being portrayed in a show outlining horrible crimes committed to tourists in foreign cities.
The next day we travelled further north, towards the town of Fort William. The roads followed the edge of the many lochs that regularly appear across the Scottish landscape. Intermittently, between the crags and farmland, you could see the ruins of old castles. We came across one such ruin and decided to check it out. Throughout the United Kingdom, castles are vastly accessible but often at a cost. When travelling on a budget, every penny counts. This means that shelling out a tenner to see an old, refurbished mansion is not on the cards, no matter how much you want to see a house that the rich and powerful of yesteryear had built a few hundred years ago. However, a free ruin in a farmers paddock is much more acceptable. Somehow it feels more authentic when you are dodging sheep and other livestock instead of paying a cashier. Besides, the sheep can’t tell you not to touch anything or to stop climbing on the walls.
When we reached Fort William, we decided to camp at the edge of a large loch just out of town. Earlier, we had a run in with the constabulary as we went to the supermarket for our gourmet dinner of haggis and blood pudding. They had followed us into the car park and parked directly behind us. It was like we had been stalked. After turning the engine off, we debated our next course of action.
“Chris, stay down. The police are behind us.”
“Have they got out of their car yet?”
“No, they’re just sitting there.”
“Are they looking at us?”
“Stuffed if I know.”
“Well, have a look.”
“Won’t they get suspicious?”
“I’m not looking.”
“It looks stranger with us just sitting here. We look dodgy as hell.”
“They’re still there. Right, you hide in the car and we’ll do the shopping. Don’t move around too much.”
“I don’t want to hide in here. I look like a hostage victim.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll crack a window.”
“Don’t worry, they just left and didn’t even get out of the car.”
“I have never been so stressed in all my life.”
We decided that spending as little amount of time in Fort William was the obvious choice. The amount of retired Royal Mail vans with Australian tourists behind the wheel was low and slightly conspicuous.
Our dinner had been planned out as a night of Scottish delicacies; haggis, black pudding and scotch. My knowledge on these foods was limited to knowing the ingredients included sheep stomach and pigs blood. Unfortunately, knowing these points doesn’t create much of an appetite. In fact, it is the perfect appetite suppressant. To me, it sounded more like offal and black sausages rather than something that resembled anything like food. We didn’t even know how to cook them. It’s like having all the ingredients but no instructions- you look at it, shrug and say, “Now what?” In a perfect world, we would have used a proper kitchen to prepare the food. Maybe had a side of vegetables. Hell, we could have just gone to a restaurant and got someone else to cook it for us. But instead, we cooked on an open fire using the wire grill and pot we had packed. To this day, I am unsure whether or not we had the proper Scottish dining experience and still don’t know how haggis and blood pudding should be served. Regardless, I had a packets of crisps as an emergency meal.
On the way out of town the next day, we made a snap decision to climb the tallest mountain in the U.K., Ben Nevis. It’s the kind of choice you would assume would have more thought put into it and some sort of plan attached. How long will it take? Do we have enough food and water? Where is the fucking thing? Instead our plan revolved around reading the travel guide, seeing a big hill and saying, “I think you can climb that.”
We stocked up with all the essentials- water, some snack food and large cans of cider for the summit- and took off. Information boards suggested being fit was somewhat important and recounted how many rescues were performed each year. All the stuff that legal departments insist upon.
The thing was that my fitness was non-existent. I could have walked on a flat footpath for a few hundred metres and been exhausted. So an eight mile return trip was going to test the limits of my perseverance. I felt for the other blokes with me as well. I was puffing and panting my way up a hill like it was the first hike I had ever been on, while they could have run up and down it twice by the time I reached the summit. It got to a stage, closer to the top, where they simply said, “Look, mate, we’re just going to meet you at the top. I’m sure it’s not far, don’t worry.” I probably wheezed and nodded, more because words weren’t something I was capable of at the time. This was in stark contrast to my demeanour in the lower sections. So many people attempt to get to the top that the track is littered with walkers. The thing was, so many of them didn’t make it anywhere near the summit. They would turn around halfway, and stagger on home, as if they were climbing in the Himalayas and trying to summit K2. This made me feel in slightly better shape than I was. More like thinking you’re a good drinker because it takes you longer to get drunk; you’re not a better drinker, you’ve just spent more money.
I should mention that Ben Nevis is not the tallest mountain getting around, standing at a paltry 1344 metres. Sure, it’s taller than your average grassy knoll but it’s not as though I needed crampons and an ice axe. My biggest problem, other than being a sweaty, unhealthy mess, was my socks getting wet walking through wet snow near the top. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares.
The worst part was, after reaching the top and having a celebratory giant cider can, I looked around and admired the view; fog as far as the eye could see. I thought about my hike, including all 37 pit stops, imagined what the view may have looked like on a clear day, sighed and walked back to the car.
That evening, we camped beside a loch on the other side of Fort William. We built a fire and chilled some drinks in the cool water. Scotland was living up to expectations.