Scotland - Edinburgh and Isle of Skye

Trip Start Jul 01, 2007
Trip End Nov 25, 2007

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

I flew from Gothenburg to Glasgow on RyanAir for a cheap price - only about 35 pounds, and the trip takes only a little over an hour, then it's a short train ride to Edinburgh.
My first glimpse of Scotland is not favourable - low, dark clouds and rain - what did I expect? Amazingly, there were people out playing golf in the rain near the airport.
The Fringe Festival is on in Edinburgh and the city is absolutely packed with people. When I was in Lima I met Marjan and, together with some other people at the hostel we were staying at, we went to dinner and finished up drinking Pisco Sours until about 3am, before I went straight to the airport. Marjan unwisely gave me her email address and here I am appearing on her doorstep.
Marjan is a climate researcher and lives in Edinburgh and has very kindly invited me to stay at her lovely apartment, which she shares with Oana, who is from Rumania. From her apartment there is a beautiful view across the city to the famous castle.
The first afternoon we wander the streets of Edinburgh in the rain, Marjan constantly apologising for the weather as if it's her fault, and we drink a half pint of beer in one of the dark old pubs. We go and see Bob Downe at the Famous Spiegeltent - he is an Australian performer who does a campy act in which he dresses in polyester outfits that are too tight and short and in pastel shades, and sings cheesy songs and flounces about on stage - but with great flair and quite hilarious. Although Bob is from Sydney his band members are from Melbourne, and I know his pianist, John Thorn, who is also a composer and has been to my old house in Kew (playing me some of his tango compositions on his computer - what a small world!). I go up and see John after the performance and he is certainly surprised to see me there. His wife, Pastel Vespa, is part of the stage act as Bobās girlfriend. To make this even more spooky I was introduced to John by another friend, Meow Meow (stage name only - can't give real name), who I am seeing next at the Fringe Festival. Meow Meow does her act of the dissolute, cynical songstress with her usual great energy, picking a couple of blokes out of the audience and making them her slaves for the performance, which they seem to enjoy immensely - yes ladies, these men seem to enjoy a scantily clad chanteuse sitting on them and making them carry her around while she sings tragic songs.
I catch up with Meow Meow after her show, and she has already changed and ready to go off to her next gig. I can tell you that all these fabulous performers at events such as the Fringe Festival really work hard, and I believe are unfortunately not recompensed for the amount of talent they have and the work they put in. It seems that mainly the bland and the mainstream are popular and can make a decent living out of performing, which is an indictment of our society.
The next day I catch up with Brenda, a friend from Melbourne, who came to Scotland to attend a wedding in Dundee the previous night - again, what a coincidence. Brenda is with her friend Ann (also from Melbourne, but living in London for many years), and we spend a day in Edinburgh sightseeing, tasting whisky at a whisky bar (I think we tried 6 different ones), and going out for dinner at a Tapas bar. It's funny, but in my whole life I've only tasted whisky 2 or 3 times, but in Scotland I end up having a wee dram or three a day.
They invite me to come to St Andrews the next day so I catch the train across the Firth of Forth (I just had to put that in because of its sound), and they pick me up in a Mercedes owned by John and Mary, who run the luxurt B&B they are staying at (they are shortly moving to the Bahamas and will run a guesthouse/B&B at Cable Beach - another place to visit). St Andrews was up until the Reformation the main religious centre in Scotland, and it has impressive and beautiful ruins of the Cathedral, Cloisters, Castle and city walls.
At lunch I have my first taste of haggis - I order chicken breast stuffed with haggis and I enjoy it. I can't actually describe the flavour but it's rich and flavoursome. We drink it with a NZ Pinot Noir from Hawkes Bay. After lunch we go to see the famous St Andrews Golf Course, which is just above a huge, wide sandy beach. The setting is beautiful and we are lucky with the weather as it is a fine, warm, sunny day.
Edinburgh is a lively city and has not been ruined by development. The centre has a real consistency in its architecture, with fine grey stone buildings, lots of little pubs, etc and I could spend days here exploring.
However I also want to experience the Scottish countryside so hire a car and head north for the Isle of Skye. I drive through places with familiar names from Australia - Perth, Blairgowrie, etc (I didn't realise so many Australian place names were Scottish). Soon I reach the highlands and climb up to the moors, then follow a narrow single lane road near Balmoral Castle (the Royal Family's Scottish residence), and eventually come out at Culloden, the last battle on British soil in 1746, when the Scots finally lost their independence (which still rankles with many). It's sad and atmospheric as I walk around the peaceful fields, trying to imagine the death and tragedy that happened here.
Along the way there were places selling fresh, local berries and I buy a big punnet each of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, which I nearly demolish in only a couple of hours. I also buy a locally made icecream, which is excellent.
I still have a way to go so stop at Inverness and have a great meal (though very expensive, but as usual my justification is that I may not come this way again) - entree of red mullet and chorizo with couscous (yes, I know not very Scottish), then a fillet of deerwith crispy fried potatoes, potato mash, wild mushrooms and black pudding).
I drive on through the night along the windy road next to Loch Ness and finally reach Skye. As soon as I cross the bridge to Skye there is a thick fog, I am nearly out of petrol and when I call the hostel to tell them I am late, no one answers. I am trying to find the Flora McDonald Hostel near Armadale - not as easy as you think, as everyone seems to be called McDonald around here, judging by the signs by the road.
I eventually find a hostel (not sure if it's the right one) at nearly midnight and just plonk myself down on a bed in the dorm and will sort it out in the morning.
I spend the next few days driving around the island, sampling the food and drink, and walking in the mountains. There are some incredibly scenic spots on Skye, and the atmospherics are helped by the low, brooding cloud, through which sometimes there is a layer of bright light from the sun. I walk up to the Old Man of Storr, a spectacular formation of rocks not far inland from the north-east coast. It's late in the afternoon and I don't want to be caught up there in the dark (as it is the clouds are low - what's new?) and visibility is only about 50 metres) so I race up the mountainside, getting very hot and sweaty, and I take off my shirt and continue on bare-chested. The cliffs and rocks are spooky in the dark cloud (I can just make out the outlines) and there are rock falls everywhere. I climb up a sleep slope of wet scree - I have climbed scree before and it's very tiring as it gives way all the time and it's hard to make progress. This wet scree feels really dangerous - the slope is very steep, the scree is wet and heavy and there is the feeling the whole lot could just slide down so I climb up very carefully but fairly quickly.
I go back and continue driving around Skye and have a really nice meal back at Portree, where I stay in a dorm at a cheap hostel. The restaurant is full but they sit me down with an Italian family with 2 young boys and we have a pleasant chat. I don't know why but I kept running into Italians in Skye.
Next day I set off to climb the Black Cuillins, considered to be arguably the most rugged range of mountains in Britain. I set off in a light drizzle and mist and the track meanders along a rushing stream with many waterfalls. Once again I have started fairly late and I meet quite a few bedraggled people coming in the other direction. The track starts climbing quite a bit more steeply and at the same time the rain becomes heavier and the wind stronger. After about 2 1/2 hours I reach a high point where the wind is so strong it nearly blows my bag away when I put it on the ground for a minute, the rain is heavier and I am completely sodden (yes, heavy wet jeans again), the cloud is darker and lower, and I can't see where the track goes.
Call me a wimp, but I decide to turn back and promptly get lost on my way down. I eventually find the track again and an hour later I squelch into the Sligachan Hotel and have Cullen Skink (fish and potato soup), smoked mackerel pate with oatcakes, a half-pint of Sye Ale (made on the premises), several home-made shortbread biscuits, a Tallisker 1991 double-matured whisky (matured a second time in bourbon and sherry barrels) - which makes my lips go numb, then just for the heck of it, a Tallisker 18 year, one of their best, and buy a bottle to take back to London.
By this time I'm starting to dry out - my clothes, that is, because the ale and whisky have made me fairly squelchy inside :) and I drive on to Elgol, where 2 young Polish girls in my dorm that morning had told me that someone had told them that the best view in Britain could be seen from there, so that was good enough for me, but I was foiled again as the cloud was down very low and you couldn't see anything, apart from a couple sitting on a blanket on the ground by their car in the rain and making themselves a cup of tea.
So I left Skye and drove on to Fort Williams (because I liked the name) and found that it was at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain), but once again, guess what?, I couldn't see anything because of the cloud and rain. I stayed in a huge family apartment in the basement of a B&B and went off to a restaurant called No 4 and ate an excellent haggis served on potato and swede mash with onion and whisky sauce, grilled sea bass on cabbage and mushroom risotto, and finished with Scottish cheeses and oatcakes, and of course a whisky. At the table next to me were 2 blond women and a young black girl (what's their story?), another table has 4 Spanish-speaking people, and on the other side 2 young Italian couples that I sent in the wrong direction when they asked me the way to the restaurant.
Next day I get back to Edinburgh just in time for a going-away party for Oana (she is moving to Hamburg in a few weeks). Oana makes stacks of food and about 25 people descend on the apartment, some of her work colleagues but mostly her friends from Capoeira, of which she is a great enthusiast. Marjan shares the last of her excellent Pisco with me which she brought back from Peru, and when that's finished we have a few drams of whisky until about 3am.
Next day the girls walk me to the bus, we have a coffee and I just make the bus. Marjan and Oana have been very hospitable and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Edinburgh.
So, to sum up my time in Scotland - you can get excellent food (though it tends to be quite expensive), the pubs are small and interesting, the whisky is good, the weather is generally cloudy and rainy (but very atmospheric), and once again I feel like I have barely scratched the surface and I want to come back again and see more of it.
On the train back to London I sit behind 2 lads with a pack of 24 beers on the table in front of them and they proceed to demolish these on the trip (and offer beer to everyone nearby) and they entertain our carriage on the 5 hour trip.
I arrive in London and am immediately whisked off by Brenda and Ann to a milonga at a beautiful venue called Home House. It seems to be a private club and is done out luxuriously in a way that the English are very good at - I can only describe it as like an exclusive club, and it's a fantastic venue.
A few days R&R with my cousin in London and I will be back on the continent shortly.

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