In search of the rare, endangered Flying Haggis

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 21, 2006

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I'm sure it's no surprise at this point to say, that how I spent my time in Scotland was going to be completely haphazard and improvised. For whatever reason, Scotland had never factored into my grand plans when I initially dreamed up my European itinerary. But I had heard enough excellent things and had collected enough couches to crash on (I thought) to make a trip there worthwhile, so I crammed it into my plans along with Ireland in the two weeks I had to spare between leaving the European continent and meeting my parents in London. In my ideal dream scenario I planned on spending a couple nights in Glasgow with Jen, the girl I met in New Zealand way back in my first week into the trip. At the time, (though who knows if she made the offer assuming I'd never take her up on it) she offered me a couch to crash on complete with a weekend tour of the Scottish Highlands. How could I pass it up, right? Unfortunately, Jen was in London doing job training so I was forced to scramble. But what came of the scramble turned out to be spectacular, so settle in, this is going to be a lone one -- I have a week to cover, and a lot got crammed in.

At the last second, I got a stroke of luck and Ari (as part of the Jamie and Ari couple I hung out with in Sarajevo) emailed to tell me that not only had she just moved to Glasgow to start uni and had no problem offering me the couch in her dorm's kitchen/common area. I was genuinely pumped. I had a friend to stay with -- for free -- and another friend, Gordy (from Balmer's Hostel in Interlaken -- you really have to be a devotee to keep up with this whole cast of characters) to show me the famed Glasgow nightlife with all his crazy RAF buddies.

I was genuinely excited for Glasgow. It's not the most typical tourist city, mainly an industrial place that sits on Scotland's 'iron belt.' It also has an alarmingly high crime rate. Apparently, if you're ever have the desire to get stabbed, there are any number of Glaswegians more than happy to fulfill your fantasy. Drugs are also rampant in the city (think Trainspotting). But Glasgow is also the cultural capital of Scotland. Basically any Scottish band to ever hit it big either is from Glasgow or made a name for itself in the city (i.e. Franz Ferdinand). It is also home to one of the most intense soccer (football...) rivalries in the world. Rangers and Celtic play in stadiums five minutes apart (from one bridge you can see both) but the rivalry goes beyond sports and injects itself into Catholic-Protestant allegiances. Basically, it makes Yanks-Sox, Carolina-Duke look like amateur hour. And not necessarily for the better. The city is also home to one of the best accents you'd ever hope to hear. I was looking forward to walking the city streets merely to walk past people and hear them speak. Everybody basically sounds like Fat Bastard, but there's something unsettlingly sexy about it (on women of course). It's one of those things that you feel the need to admit it only in hushed tones with trusted friends, yet everybody agrees.

Sadly, my time in Glasgow didn't go off according to plan. After a delightful sleep-in upon my arrival (and all too eventful search for Ari's dorm), which was much needed after a week of carousing in Ireland I woke up to my first real sickness of the trip. It started as back pain and then spread around to overall crappiness. I'm not sure if that's a symptom you'd ever find in a medical book, but it curtailed my plans to explore the city, and later its nightlife. I did my best to make what I could of my one healthy day in Glasgow before I had to depart for Edinburgh, where I'd be joining my Haggis Tour of the Highlands (once it was obvious I wouldn't be going with Jen, I signed up for the tour if for another reason than to appease Adrian, who'd been singing Haggis' praises for well over a month). I met Gordy downtown for lunch and a quick tour of the city, getting shown places I never would've normally walked to and actually learning about the places he showed me. Why does it seem like every European knows so much more about their home cities than the average American? For my last act in Glasgow I met up with Ari and Jamie (freshly arrived from Edinburgh) and a bunch of Ari's uni buddies at a local pub for happy hour. This was noteworthy for two reasons. First, one of Ari's friends had just moved back from Park Slope, and had lived maybe three blocks from where I grew up. Second, I got treated to another food-themed tirade from Jamie. Normally, Jamie is a very calm, quiet guy, but gets stirred up over the goofiest things. My last impression of Jamie in Sarajevo was him, over his second bottle of wine, delivering an invigorating diatribe on the virtues of McDonald's and the evils of Burger King (such a virtuoso/hilarious performance that it was the only thing I could talk about with the two Norwegian girls -- who had also witnessed it -- the next day on our bus ride). This time he was delivering an impassioned rant on feta cheese. I never thought such a thing was possible, but I assure you dear reader, it is. If ever there was a cue to leave a city, that was it.

Bright and early the next morning I was stumbling through the cobblestone streets of Edinburgh to meet my Haggis Tour. As mentioned previously, doing the Haggis was kind of a last second audible, but I was willing to splurge on it based on Adrian's recommendation. And boy am I glad I did. I'm normally not one for tours, but by all means, if you want to see the Highlands, go Haggis. Guaranteed, it's the way to have the most fun and learn the most at the same time. For one thing, I was the single guy on the trip along with Katie, Kaitlin and Alicia (three University of Denver girls studying abroad in Glasgow), Ali from Perth, a couple Canadians, a crazy Chinese family that didn't speak a lick of English and a few couples that we don't need to concern ourselves with for the sake of brevity (we'll take it where we can). Most important was our exceptional tour guide, Ped -- as in Peter MacKenzie Marshall. Ped not only had the completely off-the-wall essential for any memorable tour guide, but he also had a curious resemblance to Edward Norton with long hair. For three days, Ped didn't shut up, good for the fact that he was entertaining and informative, but bad because I have an uncanny ability to fall asleep in any sort of moving vehicle and missed a healthy chunk of speeches.

We set out toward Stirling with the help of Ped's GPW (as in Global Positioning Wand -- a goofy wand, complete with odd sound effects that he would waive at his map to show us where we were going) as he told us the history of the term shit-faced and introduced the first of his many enjoyable shticks. Basically, in old Edinburgh, people would dispose of their, ummm, bodily waste by chucking it out the window. For good manners, people would shout 'Gardi loo!' allowing passersby sufficient chance to flee from flying feces. But the drunker types instead would hear the shouts and look up to be met by an unpleasant surprise, thus... Ped would finish these stories with, 'Can you imagine?' He would allow for a dramatic pause and then finish, 'I just did. And it wasn't pleasant. Smelly too.'

As I mentioned a tangent ago, Stirling was our first stop. Being a low-lying town at the base of the Highlands, Stirling has been the site of numerous, gory and famous battles. But I didn't need to tell you that, you've all seen Braveheart. Speaking of which, Ped isn't a huge fan. While the movie piqued the interest of many Scots on their history (keep in mind, Scotland, for the time being anyway, is part of the UK and therefore education curricula can take on a bit of an English angle) it's also a poor form of education, as Ped told us as he shredded one part of the movie after another. In summary: the movie was actually filmed in Ireland, Robert the Bruce was the real 'Braveheart,' not William Wallace, Wallace was a lowlander so he never would've run through the hills wearing a kilt, the First Night rights that set everything off in the movie were never enforced and the French princess who Mel knocks up was 3 at the time.

As we pulled away from Stirling we passed by Doune Castle, a nondescript Scottish castle that only became non-nondescript when it became the filming location for the 'I fart in your general direction' scenes in Holy Grail. As you might imagine, it's now attracted a bit of a cult following, including renditions of sorts that I would think are somewhat of a cross between Star Trek conventions and Rocky Horror viewings. From there we moved to one of the absolute highlights of the trip -- a visit with Hamish, the famous Scottish hairy cow (pronounced cooo, or the official spelling according to Ped: c-o-o-double o-double o-o, the final 'o' being silent).

Invigorated by the visit with Hamish, we visited our first loch, complete with a newly uniformed Ped and the legend of Rob Roy, including the origins of 'blackmail.' Loch Linaig, as it turned out, would be our launching point into the landscape of what you'd expect from the Highlands. There were rolling hills of brown and green everywhere, with streams and rivers splitting the scenery. We crossed through our first few glens (Gallic for valley, not scotch distillery as some of you might be led to believe) and were introduced to more juicy Highland history, namely the massacre of the MacKenzie clan by the dastardly Campbells. Basically select members of the Campbells entered the MacKenzie camp, earned their trust and started sleeping in their homes...up until the time the attack signal was unleashed and the MacKenzies were slaughtered. We then stopped in Glen Finnan where we were treated to some dramatic sun spraying through the clouds onto the statue of Bonny Prince Charlie in front of the lake. Our final stop for the day was at Ben Nevis, the UK's highest 'mountain' where we learned the origins of 'going commando.'

And that was all the first day. We refueled for the night at our hostel in Fort Augustus, on the shores of Loch Ness. We had an excellent feed of all-you-can-eat pasta (or as the Scottish delicately put it, chew-till-you-spew) and then hit the hostel bar. No need to go into messy details, but there was 2-quid double vodkas, Kings, another whole tour group and a karaoke machine involved.

Our second day was the day to go to the Isle of Skye and we couldn't have had better weather for it -- certainly as good as you could hope for in October, and maybe at any time of year in Scotland. As an added bonus, I was sitting next to Kaitlin, who was the brunt of every joke once word got around to Ped that, how to put this lightly?, she had an encounter with a one-eyed Loch Ness Monster the night before. The drive started in a heavy, gloomy fog that seemed foreboding for the day. But we climbed into unadulterated sunshine and stopped for a view of the lake shrouded by the mist. It looked as if the basin was a giant cup of hot chocolate and someone had spread a gray marshmallow across the top. It was absolutely incredible, as the mist totally engulfed the lake but was cut off basically at the level we were standing on.

From that point we drove along another loch which perfectly reflected the hills it sat along -- maybe even more visually stunning. I was starting to really like the Highlands. As we drove toward Eilean Donan, Ped gave us the legend of the Five Sisters mountain range that involved seven beautiful sisters (the most beautiful girl you've ever seen, times 1000, plus nine and you're still not close), Irish suitors and a witch. We finally reached Eilean Donan, maybe my favorite castle I've been to. The castle, where the opening scene of 'Highlanders' was filmed, is right near the Isle of Skye and sits on the lakeshore with mountains on the other side of the lake. The castle was built in the 1300s but what we got to walk around was built in the 1900s.

The tour we were given had such goofy, ridiculous guides that I was too busy laughing at to take seriously. The first was one of those guys who gets into character a little too much, getting really intense and raising his voice at random times to sound more serious and important (imagine Tim from the Holy Grail). The other was the complete opposite, boring and monotone even as his most excited. The rest was self-guided with hokie mannequins in the bedrooms and kitchens looking like they're doing real people stuff. But the scenery more than made up for the absurdity. Once we were done with the castle, it was on to the Isle of Skye, across the obscenely expensive bridge (thanks to Bank of America -- U-S-A! U-S-A!) and the legend of Saucy Mary (basically she was sort of like the Sirens, except instead of singing she would act as if she were auditioning for Girls Gone Wild). Our first stop on Skye was at a legendary bridge where two clans were set to unite but the beautiful princess Heather knocks her eye out crossing the river. Legend has it that if you your face in the river for five seconds you become beautiful. I guess I needed much more than five seconds. From there we took some scenic drives out to the best walking spot on the island, as far as I could tell. Sheep turds aside, the landscape was spectacular. Green hills leading up to rock faces that kinda sorta looked like Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. We were on high ground and could see the island full of green fields and lochs stretching out before us. Our finals stop was one most people on the bus probably would've preferred we didn't make. The scenery was nice but not spectacular. But the trail back was treacherous. Those of us who made the decision to walk back via crossing a brook at its narrowest were in for a few surprises. As we made it downhill back toward the bus the ground became increasingly softer and mushier. All that led up to a giant leap of faith, that if you cleared it would have you safe and dry on the road side. If you didn't, you'd have an extra hard crash down into a small boggy river. The girls insisted that me being the guy I should test it out first and see how it goes. This worked out for me well since being the first one I had the best footing. But with each additional passer-byer, the ground got more and more worn and many were not nearly as successful as I was.

We pulled back in the hostel riding high on another rousing rendition of the Scottish national anthem (The Pretenders' '500 Miles') where I finally had my introduction to haggis. As disgusting as haggis might sound, it actually tastes really good. When I was told what haggis was, I wasn't exactly in a rush to get a big plateful. But I figured, if I was in Scotland it would be a travesty to not at least try it. So I dove into my plate of sheep's innards wrapped in sheep stomach. And as I said, not bad. The night once again consisted of a healthy mix of 2-pound drinks, Kings and the karaoke machine. Since this would be our last night together, everybody was in it to win it and it was an excellent night (complete with crowd-pleasing versions of Piano Man and It's Not Unusual and a nightcap duet with Ped of Sweet Caroline).

The next morning started with heavy fog again, but since we were going to be spending this day along Loch Ness we were never going to rise above it. And from the looks of it, the fog didn't look like it was going to be rising anywhere anyway. We braved the cold and the wind to go to the lakeshore and learn some fun facts about the lake (in summary, it's really fucking deep) and the legend of the monster. Sadly, Nessie never made an appearance, in spite of our Nessie Haka call. As we made our way slowly back toward Edinburgh we stopped at the battlefield that was basically the end of the Highlanders. So sad. Especially since they were surprisingly close to storming London and winning their freedom. But eventually the evil government forces (damn British) prevailed. We made another short stop at some Stonehengey type spot with large rock kearns that you can walk among and carry all sorts of religious importance to the pagans who built them how many every centuries ago. We then drove through Inverness, which Ped very excitedly told us was voted the ugliest city in Europe. By ugliest, he's referring to the people. Whenever we drove past a random pedestrian he'd demand we stare and revel in their hideousness. He even wondered aloud if he should help take some of them out of their misery by just hitting them with the bus.

And that for all intents and purposes was the end of my Haggis Tour (deep breath...). OK, now I can keep going. We arrived in Edinburgh in the late afternoon, when I was meant to get in touch with Jamie who would put me up for the next two nights. It was at this point that I learned a) text messages in Britain are completely unreliable and b) as I might've suspected my phone's mouthpiece was no longer working. So I was in the bad position of sending texts that may or may not be getting received and also being unable to talk into the phone so people could hear me. This is a bad combination. Long story short, I never touched base with Jamie and I was forced to re-book into Budget Backpackers, with it's creepy, awkwardly unsocial common room and showers devoid of hot water. Thanks to receiving the wrong key, at the very least, I learned that Holly, Alisha and Belinda, my crazy Aussie roommates from when I stayed at Budget before Haggis, were still there and I'd have three Australian woman to hang out with for my day and a half in Edinburgh.

I got my orientation to the city via a free walking tour put on by Haggis. Basically the tour goes up and down the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare of the city. Basically, we were told many of the same Scottish legends I had just learned with Ped, while checking out the Parliament (an important step in Scotland's move toward independence from the UK), the cemetery that hold Roberts Burns (and one of his mistress's) and Adam Smith and up toward the castle with an extra from-behind view that illustrates the extent to which it was built out of the rocks. We passed a few churches (this is Europe after all), including St. Giles and it's famous spitting stone (which now has to be partitioned off since everybody spits on it as they pass). With the rest of the day to myself, I planned on checking out the castle, but at 7-pound-50 I wasn't that curious. The weather was too crappy to make climbing Arthur's Seat (the hill that overlooks the city and is meant to give superb views) worthwhile, so instead decided to pass the time before my Mary King's Close tour with the greatest nap in the history of naps.

Before the tour I set out to find a pub where I could have a real haggis meal. The previous night's haggis was part of a potato bar, but this was a proper plate of haggis -- a heaping portion of sheep organs with neep and tateys (turnips and potatoes for the non-Scottish). Fully fed I went to my Mary King's Close ghost tour with the Australians. The tour takes you into the old city, which is a series of long narrow alleyways, called closes. The crazy thing is present day Edinburgh was built on top of the old city and where we were presently taking our tour. The whole tour is kinda corny, but well done, and this time it's for the better that Agnes, our tour guide gets way too into character, even managing to legitimately scare some people during her ghost stories of murder and plague in the squalid old city.

Our final act together, once the tour was complete, was to go over to Frankenstein for their quiz night. Nothing like a good quiz night. Considering we were a team of foreigners, we held our own. Up until the picture section anyway. How the hell are three Aussies and an American gonna know what random British politicians or Scottish rugby players gonna look like? We ended up second-to-last, but thanks to my insistence that we say that some random old lady in the picture section was Queen Elizabeth, we won 'most interesting answer' and a bag of candy. Sometimes it's good to be ignorant.
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