A road trip to Scotland in an old Royal Mail van- Part 4

“Loch Ness, trivia nights and Edinburgh ghost tours”

There is something about visiting famous locations that holds an element of anticipation, like buying your first car or stealing alcohol from your parent’s fridge. Waking up at the side of a loch in Scotland, knowing I was going to see the famous Loch Ness that day, was one of those moments.

Loch Ness fascinates me. How a large body of water can become famous based on a creature one bloke might have seen one afternoon after a couple of beers, intrigues me. It’s like me spotting a tall hairy bloke on the walk home from the pub and proclaiming I saw Bigfoot. But Loch Ness remains a site of tourist attraction based on a grainy photograph of a long necked creature taken in the 1930’s. When we arrived we stopped to take it in. It didn’t feel like we were looking at anything important. In fact some of the other loch’s we had seen were far more impressive. We stood at the edge, looked out at the vast expanse of water, waiting for signs of a monster, before exclaiming, “Must be up the other end,” and walked away. We even stopped into a Loch Ness Monster information centre- otherwise known as a cheap gift shop with a model monster out front- but failed to obtain the actual whereabouts of the big beast.

We were heading towards Inverness. Our reasoning for heading there was more out of necessity rather than a desperate need to see the town.  (That night we accidentally got locked in a pub after hours as a group of men celebrated something with the bar owner. They hadn’t noticed us slip in and forgot that we ordered a few beers. So we relaxed and watched their festivities until they noticed us and begrudgingly told us we would have to leave.)

A newlywed couple the boys knew from their university days were going to be there and had asked to tag along with us for a couple of days. Considering we were already breaking the law anyway, we weren’t too concerned about the extra passengers. We were now five people in a two seat van. In Southeast Asia this ratio is not a problem- actually it’s quite spacious- mini vans and buses are regularly overloaded. One time I witnessed friends of mine travel on the roof of a truck. The same can be said for African nations. In Tanzania the rule is the more the merrier (I’m sure the laws are not worded that way but I never saw anyone get pulled over- ever). But in Scotland, we were pushing the boundaries. We would sit in the back, behind a wall of bags now nearing the roof. It was like a secret compartment and we were smuggling human cargo. No more ducking to hide from sight, we couldn’t be seen. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t see anything either, we relied on asking the driver where we were.

“Where are we now?”

“Still in Scotland.”

“Smartarse.”

Our new companions wanted to venture out and take in the Isle of Skye, an island on the North Western coast of Scotland. It wasn’t a terrible idea, it is an amazing part of the world after all, but it did require some backtracking. So off we went, driving past Loch Ness one more time, still no monster to be seen.

The beauty of the drive was that it travels along the edge of the great Loch. It’s a peculiar experience. I spent the vast majority of the time with one eye on the water and the other on the highland cattle in paddocks on the opposite side of the road. There is something strangely amusing about those furry cows with fringes that cover their eyes as if they are the hippsters of the bovine world. for those who don’t know what highland cattle look like, imagine that a sheep had a forbidden dalliance with a cow and consummated the relationship. All I knew is that my grandparents were dairy farmers and their stock didn’t look half as hairy.

The Isle of Skye is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Ocean views with vivid green slopes that meet cliff faces are trademarks of a ruggedly windswept landscape. So beautiful, in fact, that somehow I decided that it was impossible to accurately photograph it in a way that could do it justice. So I didn’t. It’s a kind of stupid logic, like never eating spaghetti again because you ate a delicious bowl of it once and didn’t think it could be recreated, so didn’t want to ruin the memory.

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Before leaving Australia, I was acutely aware that highland midges, a small irritating insect, were something I would have to keep in mind. I seem to attract all manner of bugs that like to bite and irritate at the best of times but surely on a cold day, at a windy outlook, I would be safe from the clutches of winged beasts. The reality is that midges are more annoying than a politician at election time. Within minutes of disembarking the van, I was descended upon. Hundreds of tiny bugs attacked me in waves, presumably coordinated from a control centre in the hills behind. As I flailed my arms around swatting insects, I must have looked like I was inventing a new dance move or having a seizure. To compensate, I covered my skin with enough insect repellent I could have kept large mammals at bay.

After camping the night in the midge stronghold, we headed back towards mainland Scotland and our final target, the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.

As we left the ‘remoteness’ (I say ‘remote’ but nothing in the U.K. is remote. It’s a short drive to the next town in all directions, usually connected by a highway) of the Isle of Skye I discovered something about the United Kingdom; you can always tell how important the current events of the world were by where the ‘Page 3’ girl was located in the tabloid newspaper, The Sun. Football in particular takes precedence over everything here, especially the national sides and championship matches. On this particular day the girl was on page 16, roughly, due to a deranged cabbie going on a shooting rampage in the Lakes District of England. It says something about English tabloid traditions that the only way to dislodge a scantly clad girl from page three of a national newspaper is sporting prowess or mass murder.

It became clear we weren’t going to make it all the way to Edinburgh in a day so we picked a town to stay for the night. It had a name I cannot remember and probably cannot pronounce. Little Scottish towns have a knack of having quirky names that sound like they were made up with the leftover letters of a scrabble game; Strathmashie and Ardverikie are solid examples.

That evening we went to a trivia night at the local tavern. Being worldly, we figured we were in with a chance of winning, not to mention we could really do with a free bar tab, but apparently a trivia night in Scotland revolves around the knowledge of football championships, the teams involved and all of their players. Every round had several questions regarding such information, of which we had no clue, so we decided to play our own game. This attracted the attention of the team on the table next to us. The roughest looking chap slid over and said, with a beaming smile:

Dun che knowl da quek shon, eye?” or something of that effect.

“I’m sorry, what?”

Dun che knowl da quek shon, eye?” he laughed again.

“Sorry, I missed that, again.”

Dun che knowl da quek shon, eye?”

“Ha, ha. Yes.”

I don’t know what he asked me. I assume it had something to do with trivia, drinking, soccer or all of the above. What I do know is that a drunken Scotsman is far harder to understand than a sober one. That’s if he even was drunk. If he wasn’t I was scared to meet one who was without a qualified interpreter present.

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That night, we drove out of town and into the national park to sleep, coincidentally directly under a ‘no camping’ sign. I stayed awake the whole night paranoid, waiting for someone to knock on the window of the van and move us on. As soon as it was day light, I was up and out. Looking around, I realised what we missed the night before. We were on the edge of a small lake surrounded by large, luscious trees. There was a walking track around the edge so I went for a stroll to take in the early morning sights. However, I noticed a few people walking animals so decided to head back to the others to rouse them with the aim of moving on before the local authorities got the chance to. There is nothing like the threat of a fine in a foreign currency that has twice the value of your own to get you moving.

Edinburgh was the final jewel in the random crown that was our Scottish road trip.

I had no picture in my head of what we planned to do. To the surprise of some, I had no real knowledge of what Edinburgh had to offer, with the exception of a big castle in the middle of town and a café that advertised itself as the birthplace of Harry Potter.

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Edinburgh, Scotland.

I quickly realised that I loved the place. The whole city had a very pointy skyline due to the medieval architecture the buildings contained, spires dotting the horizon. It had such an old style feel which made it easy to wander around aimlessly with your head in the air taking it all in. This works in theory except the cobbled streets made for excellent tripping hazards. Not to mention the rain. I have never seen the sun shine in Edinburgh. Not once. I came to the conclusion that summer there actually meant soul sapping drizzle. Everything that Scottish weather stereotypes tell you.

One afternoon, after returning from a day trip to Stirling, for the sole purpose of saying that I went to Stirling (the sun does shine there), I decided to do a ghost tour in the Edinburgh city centre after seeing some adverts the day prior as we explored. As if in on cue, it began to rain. As I waited another tourist wandered over to join the tour. We began chatting and he turned out to be another Australian. He was not as well prepared for the elements as me, he wasn’t even wearing a jumper, but had a appeared to make up for it by attempting to give himself a beer blanket.

“I’ve been over at that pub for most of the day celebrating,” he told me, pointing towards a raucous bar across the road.

“What are you celebrating?” I asked.

“I just got engaged.”

“Congratulations. When did that happen?”

“Today.”

“And you’re going to do this tour now?”

“Yeah.”

“Is your fiancé going to come?”

“Nah, she wasn’t interested so she’s still at the pub drinking with my parents.”

“So your family is here as well?”

“Yeah. They flew out for it.”

“And you’re still going to do this tour, in the rain, by yourself, in a t-shirt?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Your partner is a very lucky girl.”

“Cheers. Hey, do you think I can go take a piss around the corner of that building?”

“That’s a church.”

“Hmm. I’ll just nick down that alley over there instead. Don’t let them start without me.”

Ghost tours are based purely on perception. If you want to believe in haunted buildings and graveyards, you will see dead people. If you think it’s all utter bullshit, you will be bored out of your brain. The tour guides know this as well, hence they do it at night in a cemetery, warning you to stay close, telling stories of people murdered in horrible ways whose tortured souls still haunt the grounds. It’s so easy to be scared when you can’t see anything. To be fair, the scariest part of the whole experience was being told that there were some homeless people who live in the dark corners of disused tombs, who often jump out at tour groups who wandered too close. It’s natural to fear assault and robbery over seeing an apparition of a dead person. All that being said, I learnt more about Scottish history on a ghost tour from a guide trying to scare me than I did from any guidebook or information centre.

It felt like the perfect way to end the trip; in the rain, at night, walking around a cemetery, fitting perfectly with the random approach we had taken. Over the space of ten days we had walked the streets of Glasgow unscathed, been offered tickets and accommodation to a music concert in Dublin by a drunk Irishman, camped illegally, climbed Ben Nevis, drove past Loch Ness twice and been attacked by midges. We had travelled from East Scotland to West Scotland and back, explored the Isle of Skye, had a lock in at an Inverness bar and came last in a Scottish trivia night.

Nothing about our trip had been textbook, as any good road trip should be. Wearily, we began the trip back to London, ready to get back to a normal life of proper beds, public transport and planning the next trip.

 

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