Sat 13 May 2006
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Here is the narrative for my trip to Scotland. I’ll start by saying that this was probably the most interesting and stimulating trip I’ve been on—perhaps this is because it was concentrated in one country, and I began to get a feel for Scottish people and culture, more so than I could have after spending two or three days in a capital city. At this point, after all the traveling I’ve done in such a compressed amount of time, I realize there is more to a place and can be more of a point of a trip like this than I had been exposed to before, and I begin to ponder the question of why I take these trips, what I can do differently, and what more I can get out of them. This trip came about not in the normal, ‘hey let’s go to such-and-such a place’ way, but out of an idea, a goal or two, a quest for fulfillment to stretch the concept lyrically (however modest the goal might have been). I am being more expansive in this post than I ever have been, perhaps because, like the great Romantic poets, I am moved and inspired by the sublime landscape of the highlands, or, like the anti-hero in Mann’s Death in Venice, the change of place triggered a need for artistic and expressive release. Whatever the reason, I want to make this a good piece of writing, mostly to satisfy myself, so that, dear reader, is hopefully what you are going to get.
As I mentioned before, this trip came about with a goal in mind, specifically, to see a heavy metal concert. I have gone to several concerts with my friend Ian this year (with whom I went to Ireland and Munich-Luxembourg-Brussels as well), and he was disappointed to learn that Katatonia, one of his favorite bands, had scheduled a concert in London on a night that he could not make. They would be playing only two other UK concerts, including one in Glasgow. Neither of us had been there before (though he has been elsewhere in Scotland), and cheap flights and hostels were available, so we decided to make our way there for the band. Ian would return to Norwich the next day to go on a field course trip for his geochemistry class, and I decided I would pick some other destinations in Scotland to explore. There was no way I would pass up this opportunity. My friend Krista had gone to Scotland in March with two friends, and on returning had told me how she wanted to go back some day. It had snowed the day they visited Loch Ness, and subsequently Urquhart Castle and all the shops in the nearby village were closed, dampening their experience. So I asked her if she wanted to come back to Scotland, and she did, with Loch Ness a priority destination for her. I wondered if she might not want to go back, but she said that she’d be most excited to return to a place she’d been before. We agreed that we would start in Edinburgh, then travel to the village of Drumnadrochit by the Loch via Inverness, and then cast about for a third destination. From Scotland’s excellent tourist website, we got the impression that there would be a good number of things to do in and around the city of Aberdeen, and we could discover them best once we arrived there. From a cursory search I found that there were several castle tours that started from the city, along with a tour that explored megalithic sites like stone circles and hill forts, which looked particularly interesting. From Aberdeen, Krista planned to fly to Malaga in Spain, to visit a friend in the Dickinson study abroad program based there, and I would take the train back to Norwich.
Ian and I set out early Thursday morning, and had a relatively quiet and uneventful trip to the airport. The flight itself was routine as well. When we landed at Prestwick airport the air was grey and dreary, which suited me fine, as it seemed fittingly Scottish. The airport is right on the sea, with the isle of Arran just visible, and I was very excited to see this along with green rolling hills and mountains in the distance, a welcome change from Norfolk’s unbroken flat fields. The train trip to Glasgow Central was jam packed, but unexpectedly free. When we got into the city, our impression was of a cramped, bustling, and dirty urban center, and Ian likened the darkness to Edinburgh. The hostel was huge but decent and clean. We put our things away in the room and then left to explore. We walked up one of the main streets, and tried haggis for lunch, which we were both surprised at and liked. Later we walked through the pedestrian and shopping areas, George Square, and the cathedral area. The cathedral was rather interesting, as it had several lower, crypt-like rooms and a very gothic feel. We also walked around the Necropolis, a large, elaborate cemetery on a hilltop overlooking the city where rich citizens of the past couple centuries had been buried. Next we headed back to the city and got in line outside the club for the concert, just down the block from the hostel. Ian was very excited and became even more so when we saw the band emerge from their tour bus and walk in the club. The club was tiny with a very underground feel, and it wasn’t even full. But both bands put on great performances and Ian was ecstatic. We both managed to get the opening band’s setlist, a good souvenir. It was a very satisfying evening. The next day was grey and misty, and we cast about for things to do before Ian had to leave for the airport that afternoon. We decided to see the People’s Palace, a free museum about Glasgow and botanic gardens. The museum was pretty exhaustive, and the message we took away from it was that life in Glasgow was historically harsh and dreary. After that we walked around the city a bit more, by which time the sun had come out, and went to see the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, also free. This museum is devoted to Scottish art from the last ten years—it was fine to fill up some time but neither of us was terribly interested in it. Finally we walked around the pedestrian areas a bit more, and then went back to Glasgow Central, where I saw Ian off and wished him a good trip back.
Now I was on my own until the next afternoon and it was a funny feeling. By this time the weather was lovely and the city center was packed with people. There was no rush to catch a train to Edinburgh, so I did a little more walking around, and on a whim, decided to go into the concert hall. Looking at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s concert schedule, I noticed that they would be performing Verdi’s Requiem—a piece very close to my heart—that night in Edinburgh. I had a quick brainstorm and realized this would be a good activity for the evening, and I asked at the ticket office if any tickets were left for the performance, which there were, but only a few. Thus my mission was clear: I would get the next train to Edinburgh, check in at the hostel, and rush over to the concert hall in hopes of obtaining a ticket. The train journey was only forty minutes and featured more lovely mountains in plain view to the north. Edinburgh Waverly station is in a little gorge directly in the city center, and once I arrived, I was assaulted by many wonderful sights, with the old buildings on the Royal Mile, the castle, and Arthur’s Seat in the distance on one side, and the bustling Princes Street, the lively Princes Street gardens, and the Walter Scott monument, on the other. I neglected to check the directions before setting off for the hostel, so I had an annoying setback after climbing the huge staircase up to the Royal Mile. I realized that the hostel was actually on the other side of the train station, so I scuttled off in that direction. The hostel itself is on the top floor of a building set back from Princes Street, reached by climbing an interminable spiral staircase. The day was warm and I was sweating after my climbs, and was anxious to find the concert hall. I checked in, put my things away, and then set off west along Princes Street to the concert hall, taking in the sights and atmosphere of the city along the way. It was a welcome change from the drear of Glasgow, coming off as much more cheerful aesthetically pleasing. I made it to the box office precisely at the 5:30 closing time, and breathlessly asked if there were any tickets left, which there were. I was overjoyed, and just had time for a sandwich in the gardens for dinner before the pre-concert talk. That was given an English music professor (I noticed a good number more English accents in Edinburgh than in Glasgow, where the ‘patter’ accent prevailed) and was insightful, despite the fact that most of the story about the piece was familiar to me. My seat was high in the upper balcony and I had a decent view of the orchestra. The performance was quite thrilling, as any of this work should be, and while the soloists were not perfect, they were interesting, and overall the concert was extremely satisfactory. After it let out I walked around city and took some nighttime pictures. I got to bed early in hopes of waking early and exploring more. Unfortunately at around one AM an earsplitting alarm went off and awoke everyone in the room. Some hostel staff burst in and said that everyone had to get out of the building immediately. Quite peeved and incredulous, I threw on my clothes and followed the stream of guests out the fire exit. It wasn’t too late so many of the guests had been awake and weren’t as annoyed as me at the disturbance. We waited outside for about ten minutes until the fire truck arrived. Firefighters streamed into the building and soon turned off the alarm, after which we were allowed back inside. I trudged up the stairs quickly and headed straight for bed, uninterested in why the alarm went off. Incredibly, one of the hostel employees asked to see my pass for entering the hostel, but let me go when I told him I left it in the room.
The next day I decided I wanted to do things that Krista might not appreciate before her arrival at three PM. I spent the morning in the National Gallery of Scotland, examining their extensive collection of Old Masters. Next I took a look at St Giles’ cathedral, much of which was undergoing renovation. I had lunch in the park and texted Krista to find out when her train was due so I could meet her when she arrived. She answered that it would be around three, so I returned to the gallery and examined what I had missed. I was anxious for her to arrive. When it was time, I made my way to the station and stood at the platform. The massive Flying Scotsman hurtled in and I couldn’t help but feel exhilaration. I quickly picked her out of the crowd and greeted her. She said the journey had been fine, and we soon checked into the hostel. That’s when we found out that someone had gone through a fire exit and set off the alarm the previous night. We put our things away in a new room and talked to some other American students staying there, who tipped us off about a Tesco ‘Taste of Scotland’ showcase where we could get enough free samples to make a meal. Krista said whatever I thought was worthwhile doing was fine with her, so after she had lunch we walked up to Calton Hill, Edinburgh’s ‘acropolis’. The sun had unfortunately disappeared by this point but we enjoyed the views anyway, and we climbed to the top of Nelson’s tower, leaving when the wind became too strong. After that we walked down Princes Street and looked in a couple souvenir shops, during which it started to rain. After dinner we were both tired, so we took it easy that night and got to bed early.
We had been warned about long lines to get into the castle, so we awoke early to dead Sunday morning streets. Fortunately the weather was much nicer. It turned out that we had gotten to the castle an hour before it opened, so we walked around a bit more. Finally we got in and explored. It is certainly a typical royal castle, but I am excited by any castle, and we had excellent views of the surrounding area. Once we finished with the castle we walked down the Royal Mile to the Hub, a converted church where the Tesco showcase was happening. We were hungry so we pushed through the crowd, and as we emerged into the main hall I knew I was in paradise. Free samples everywhere! I was overwhelmed and started grabbing everything I could. Krista looked at me and gave an accusatory ‘what are you doing??’ But I circulated through the hall several times until full, and stuffed my pockets with whatever else I could get. I expressed to Krista that this sort of thing might be too popular to work in the United States, as opposed to the British, who were polite enough to talk with brand representatives and buy complete products. Satisfied, we walked the rest of the Royal Mile to its end at Holyrood Palace, and immediately started our ascent up Arthur’s Seat, starting on the Radical Road by the Salisbury Crags. Krista was a little skeptical at this activity, but said she would be fine as long as we took breaks. When we got to the southern path to the top, she was incredulous that it was the proper way, but I urged her on and we made it to the top with only one stumble, where we learned that there was a much smoother path on the other side. We took plenty of pictures of the magnificent views, the weather about as clear and perfect as it could get. After the wearying trek up we took our time getting down, and took a leisurely stroll back to the hostel. Our hostel gives a free dinner every Sunday, in which we gladly partook, and then went out to a pub, predictably barren, for the rest of the evening.
The next morning we awoke early to check out and catch the train to Inverness. That journey was decent, and I was delighted to see the mountains so close while heading up the Spey River valley. ‘This is why I wanted to come to Scotland’ I breathed when I saw them. We arrived in Inverness, and Krista was excited to be back, pointing out places she’d been on her previous trip. First she led us to the bus station where we got the timetable for the bus to Drumnadrochit, and then we went to have lunch. She expressed dilemma over whether we had time to sit down someplace, but finally decided we should have fast food, the buses being too infrequent to warrant getting a later one. But we were in time for the bus, which was packed with heavily-accented locals (I was pleased to hear it) and high school kids going home. Krista kept pointing out how gorgeous the area was, and I kept agreeing, as we proceeded south along Loch Ness through the Great Glen. I kept my eye on the water’s surface. Finally we reached the Drumnadrochit village crossroads, a collection of farmhouses and tourist shops, and we walked down the road to the hostel. It was quite a striking change for me to be inhabiting a place in the countryside, rather than just passing through. It was a lovely, peaceful atmosphere. The hostel owner was a hoot. She greeted me by name when we walked into the hostel, which was basically a cozy little farmhouse with bunk beds in the rooms. Before we even got settled Wendy gave a full rundown of the village, explaining the restaurants and pubs (‘and that one’s got a yunger croowd’), and got out a nature trail map showing the way to the loch and nearby waterfalls, along with an overlook thought to be an Iron Age hill fort, which excited me greatly to hear. She explained the way to Castle Urquhart, and informed us that ‘if ye wait till after 7:30 thaat’s when the security guard gooes hoome, ah know because he’s me neighbor, so ye goo up thaar and jump the fence, and ye’ve just saved tharteen quid!’ It was a cool idea but we most certainly wanted the full tourist experience at the castle, not least because Krista had a need to see it after being snowed out before. We put our things away—I noted the comfy beds—and hit the trail to the loch. Krista was thrilled to be back, noting that we took the same path she had in the snow before. The sky was grey but the loch, bay, and mountains were still beautiful. We walked around the woods, then walked around the village after dinner. Along the way a packed little car pulled up to us and the driver asked how to get to the Loch Ness Backpackers Hostel, and we directed them as best we could. But when walking back we saw them stopped, so we tried again. Once we walked back to the hostel we found that they had made it. It was a group of five students studying in Liverpool, originally from Germany, Norway, and France. We conversed with them and they were very friendly. We spent a cozy evening in the living room in front of a warm fire and watched a movie. The only thing that marred the experience was the monstrous snoring from the Finn in our room.
The next day we awoke early to attack the castle. A sign on the road advertised it as closed, which momentarily alarmed Krista—‘I am not letting that happen again!’—but we assumed that it would open at nine, and sure enough, we were the first visitors when we arrived. Krista was of course excited to get in finally, and we explored thoroughly. We went into the village for lunch and visited the requisite gift shops, but skipped the cheesy Loch Ness 2000 exhibition, figuring it wasn’t worth it. Next we examined the nature trail map and took the hike to Dhivach Falls, and then made our way to Craig Monie, the suspected hill fort. It had rained on and off along the way, and at the top we were rewarded with a great view and the full span of a rainbow. We were rather tired after dinner, so we relaxed that evening like the previous one. Thankfully our roommate had left.
The next day we arose early to catch the bus back to Inverness. I was pleased to see a red deer that Krista pointed out from the bus, though I later learned that they’re considered a pest like in the US. We had breakfast at a little café that was special to Krista, as she had eaten there on her previous trip, and then we walked around Inverness a bit. We walked up to the castle, which was unimpressive as there was no trace of the original building, and the current one was built in the mid-1800s. The journey to Aberdeen was only alright, as we were both a little moody and the scenery wasn’t too interesting. We arrived in Aberdeen, and discovered that the hostel was a considerable walk out of the city center, and it seemed like we trudged down the street interminably. When we finally arrived, it turned out that we had a room to ourselves, while on the booking website it appeared that we would be in separate rooms. Our spirits and burdens lightened, we returned to the city center, and predictably the walk seemed much shorter. To plan our activities for the next day, we stopped at the tourist office, and I enquired if we could book a Sacred Way tour, the company that I had found online and was anxious to try. The woman I spoke to expressed doubt, saying ‘Jason is very hard to get in touch with’ and that he didn’t give tours on Thursdays, but she called him anyway. She left a message and said we could come back before closing to see if he called back, but wasn’t confident, conceding however that ‘his tours are fantastic because he really makes you believe that aliens are going to come out of the sky or something’. I then enquired about castles we could get to with public transport, to use as a contingency plan. I was disappointed but held out hope. After that, we walked down to the beach and had ice cream. The scene was lively for late April, though there was no swimming and the Fun Beach rides weren’t open. We strolled along the beach and then to the harbor area, and then returned to the tourist office, where we were informed that Jason had, of course, not called back. I got his phone number and we returned to the hostel, where I called him again and left a message. We then returned to the city, where Krista saw a movie she wanted to see, ‘American Dreamz’, was playing. After a little hesitation we went in to see it. The movie was funny—I imagined many of the jokes were lost on the Scottish kids in the audience—and a good break from walking. We had a late dinner, and I was overjoyed to receive a call at around 10:30 that evening. It was Jason the tour guide, and he said he could do a tour for us the next day starting at 10:30 AM. I couldn’t have been happier that the tour was going to happen now, as it had seemed so improbable before, and I felt that it would make the perfect end to our Scottish adventure.
The next morning a lovely day dawned, and at the meeting point Jason appeared in a beat up Toyota van and jumped out with a big smile on his face, explaining that he was so surprised to get a call for a tour before the tourist season started. The northeast of Scotland is home to more stone circles and megalithic sites than anywhere else in the country, so we decided that Jason would give us a general overview of the variety of sites. The first thing he took us to see was a Pictish symbol-stone depicting the ‘Rhynie man’, thought to be a deity. Jason was an intense talker and I could not possibly reproduce an idea of what his expositions were like, but he pointed out many details of the stone and talked about various theories of the reasons for creating the symbol-stones. Over the course of the day, it emerged that Jason seeks to differentiate himself from the archeologists, who don’t try to speculate on what purpose these artifacts had for ancient people. His own theory about the symbol-stones run along the lines that they were sign-posts to let travelers know whose territory they were entering, which is bolstered by the fact that they are usually found near rivers. Obviously, throughout the day I drank in all of his words. Next we headed out toward the airport and Jason started to talk about theories of stone circles. He explained how particular kinds of granite stones were selected for the circles, particularly ones with certain colorations, sizes, mosses, and quartz veins. He also got into his spiritualist/shamanistic ideas, which were also interesting, dealing with radiation and ‘stone memory’, vibrations in ourselves and atoms, and other things I can’t recall. Many of his customers come to him so they can meditate in the stone circles, and when we arrived at the Dyce stone circle, he encouraged us to do a little ourselves, and ‘experience’ the site rather than just looking at it. I have to admit I felt some sort of tingling sensation, and Krista reported that she felt something even more. Here Jason talked about the layout of the site and started to explain the importance of the landscape to the ancient people. The stone circles were always built on a middle shelf, never in a valley or on a mountaintop. Northeast Scotland is also the only place in the world where recumbent stone circles are found, which feature a large stone on its side flanked by the two tallest stones of the circle. We spent a while there, and then drove off to see another symbol-stone, this one in a churchyard. Along the way Jason got into some ideas about demonology, the Freemasons, and the Pentagon. I don’t remember how we started talking about that. When we reached the symbol-stone he explained the ‘Pictish beastie’ symbol, apparently a mythical creature, that some people believe is an elephant, and others the Loch Ness monster, an idea that I like better. Next we traveled to the Broomend of Crichie henge, along the way passing the remains of two other circles on either side of the road. A henge is a circular area surrounded by a ditch with a causeway entrance, often with a stone circle in the center. This site, Jason explained, would have been the ‘Stonehenge of Scotland’ had not most of its stones been destroyed or moved. Now there are only two remaining, and only one stone from an avenue leading from the entrance to the nearby river. A symbol stone moved from the river during the building of the railway is also, incongruously, in the center. Next Jason took us to a particularly interesting symbol-stone, one that had been created around the time that Christianity was becoming more popular in this part of Scotland, as it features a Christian side and a Pictish side. It is much larger and more elaborately carved than other symbol-stones. The Christian side shows Celtic knot-work and a ringed Celtic cross, and the other has typical Pictish symbols, including the ‘beastie’. It is thought that this stone was part of an effort to integrate the new religion into the existing culture. While we were examining it, several men from Historic Scotland arrived and started discussing ways to preserve the stone, possibly by putting it in a clear plastic box. This was encouraging to hear, as the images are weathering away, particularly the Christian side. Once we drove on, Jason pointed out features of the historic landscape, especially the Bennachie and Dunnideer hills, which sport hill forts on their peaks. We stopped in Archeolink, a living history park with reconstructions of ancient architecture that aims to recapture the way people lived in various eras of Scottish history. Jason is a passionate advocate for the attraction, as he explained how it is a great idea but wasn’t executed well, being too out of the way and has succumbed to poor promotion. Indeed, it was only us and the employees when we got there. It was very interesting but we didn’t spend too long there, and we moved on to the Dunnideer hill fort. It was extremely windy climbing up. This site has been used for many centuries from before the Picts, to the Romans, to medieval times. Jason pointed out the several rings of fortifications, and then brought up perhaps the most intriguing mystery of the day. The fortifications were constructed with ‘vitrified’ granite stone walls, which according to one theory means that the walls were constructed and then set on fire, and the extreme heat caused the stones to melt together. But Jason pointed out that the fire would have been so hot it would have been almost impossible to tend to it, and when we examined the walls he pointed out something else. The stones in the walls are not melted at all but intact, and are held together by a solid black bubbly substance, resembling hardened lava. It seems that this substance was poured between the stones to hold them together, but incredibly, no one has ever analyzed this substance to determine what was used. This was just one of the many instances when Jason exclaimed ‘I want to know!’. At the top of the hill, which is also topped by the remains of a medieval castle or tower, we took some pictures, and Jason pointed out the surrounding hill forts and some of the several stone circles visible in the area. By that point it was getting late so it was time to head back to the city. Along the way Jason talked about his other work in youth centers, and a stone circle festival he was organizing for the summer. He also pointed out a final symbol stone built into a farm wall, and a lone standing stone in a field. He graciously took us back to our hostel and we parted ways. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the experience—Jason was the perfect tour guide and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Though Krista did not share my intense fascination with the history, she said it had been fun and she really enjoyed the tour. I was very satisfied and felt that we had done everything we set out to do.
The next morning we said our farewells, and I spent most of the day on the train back, which was a nice enough journey. It felt strange to finally return to Norwich.
Congratulations for making it to the end! My interest in rhapsodizing has run out, so suffice to say that this trip will live on in my memory for a long time as one of the most satisfying things I’ve done during my time abroad.