The month of August is traditionally Scotland's warmest, which is a relative term; average highs in Glasgow are barely 65°F (18°C), and anything over 70°F would be considered a heat wave. It is generally rainy, though much less so than during the autumn and winter months, so it seemed like a good a time as any to go. (The passport control officer at Heathrow seemed baffled, however, as to why I would want to go there.)
August also happens to be when the annual Fringe Festival takes place in Edinburgh. Fringe, established in 1947, has evolved to be the largest performing arts festival in the world. This of course means large crowds and expensive accommodations, so Brian and I chose to bypass Edinburgh and explore the natural wonders of Scotland instead.
We met up in London and boarded an evening flight to Glasgow. Public transportation in London is really great, except when it fails. All trains to Stansted Airport were unexpectedly canceled when we needed them most, and like many other souls who were used to expecting excellence from the reliable train system, we were forced to improvise. Two private shuttle companies tried to pick up the slack, but long lines (pardon me, queues) of grumbling travelers formed, and everyone appeared agitated over the real possibility of missing a flight. We managed to make it on time and breezed through security, in part probably due to smaller airport crowds, a disguised blessing from the disruption in train service.
Our first night's accommodation was in Perth, a small town an hour north of Edinburgh. Bed and breakfasts are widespread in Scotland, and the Rosebank Guest House was great. Our host, the convivial Caroline, gave us a warm welcome, suggested a nice Indian restaurant for dinner, and served excellent breakfast the next morning. Breakfast is a big deal in Scotland. And I like that.
The town is in Perthshire, also known as Big Tree Country, which happens to be home to the world's tallest hedge. This seemed a dubious superlative as the hedge in question turned out to be a mix of brush and beech. Does it count as a hedge if the two plant forms are combined?
The Scottish countryside is mostly flat, but a few steep climbs through Cairngorms National Park were a bit of a challenge for our underpowered Vauxhall, especially considering the reasonably high speed limits.
In general, roads are well maintained and garnished with some amusing signs. Some of my favorites are:
- Squirrels crossing (Squirrels be damned judging by the number of squirrel carcasses on the side of the road.)
- Queues likely (Better than stacks I suppose.)
- Road liable to icing (So, I can sue for damages?)
- Disabled people and elderly people (Ugh, couldn't they just stay home?)
- Road not suitable for long vehicles (But then how does a long vehicle abort after seeing this sign?)
- Blind summit (I would never have expected summits to have vision.)
While Perthshire was Tree Country, Cairngorms seemed like the Napa Valley of whiskey. We did not stop at any of the distilleries for a tour but had a nice lunch at the Clockhouse Restaurant at the turn-off for Glenlivet. The drive towards Loch Ness continued through what we liked to call James Bond Country, as the landscape was often reminiscent of scenes from Skyfall.
Scots apparently come up here to ski in the winter judging by all the ski lifts and signs for ski lessons, though the terrain seemed more appropriate for cross-country skiing than pistes.
Finally reaching Loch Ness and standing along its windy shores, we could not help but feel somewhat underwhelmed. Countless other Scottish lochs were more scenic than Loch Ness. Why was this one so famous? Perhaps it needed a mythical monster to popularize an otherwise unremarkable place.
Nearby, we found some good hiking spots and a stately waterfall: the Falls of Foyers. Surprisingly, hikes here and elsewhere in Britain are simply called walks, which makes it sound a lot less outdoorsy than hikes are meant to be. With strong, cold winds and rain that blows sideways, these outdoors excursions in Scotland are no walk in the park. They are proper hikes, sometimes bordering on the extreme.
Searching for Sky in SkyeScotland does not exactly have a reputation for being a sunny destination. Indeed, up until now, the weather had been mostly cloudy, with a few glimmers of sun. When we arrived in Skye, however, everything turned sour. Heavy rains dominated the next couple of days, and even the locals had trouble recalling lengthier rainy episodes in the past decade.
Elusive puny patches of pale blue sky would tease us occasionally, but the rain never really retreated. The few times the sun made a fleeting appearance, we got a sense of how this landscape is meant to be seen: green, rugged, mysterious. In the span of time between crowns of light, we simply drove, like moths, towards the light.
We stopped for coffee at a café near Broadford, whose owners had moved here seven years ago from England in search of peace and quiet. A world map hung on the wall, dotted with the origins of passing tourists. Noticing Bulgaria was wholly unrepresented, I felt compelled to put a pin on it.
Besides a few stops for food and coffee, all we could really do was drive around. On the island, the roads were narrower and seemed more dangerous with a few, sporadic “passing places” – designated pullouts for avoiding collisions with oncoming traffic on otherwise single-lane roads. Drivers are respectful and cautious, however, so the system works.
Ben NevisThe next day we left Skye for Glasgow, and little by little the weather started improving. The heavy rains over the past couple of days had a noticeable impact on the roadside streams and waterfalls. With so much water, hydropower is unsurprisingly a big component of the country's electricity production, which is currently 50% renewable. The Scottish government's ambitious but likely attainable goal is to reach 100% by 2020.
By mid-morning, we reached the foothills of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. At only 4,409 ft, it is not much taller than the surrounding prominences in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as with any highest mountain, I would have liked to scale it. Short on time, we opted for a short hike to Steall Waterfall instead, and continued on past Loch Lomond to Glasgow.
GlasgowWith a few hours to spare before our flight, we decided to explore a bit of Glasgow. Our guidebook claimed the city “disarmingly blends sophistication and earthiness” and is “one of Britain's most intriguing metropolises.” Knowing the British are the kings of euphemisms, these words should be taken with a grain of salt. To us, Glasgow seemed plain cold and depressing, and deflated real estate prices seemed to reflect that. It's not a good sign when the city's main attraction is the church cemetery.
Ignoring the fact that it is a cemetery, the Glasgow Necropolis behind the cathedral is actually quite lovely. It is the highest point in the city, offering sweeping view of Glasgow, and as such, is a prime place for a picnic, which is something the locals seemed to like to do.
Glasgow also has some fine dining of which we took a single sample at the Citation Taverne, a fusion restaurant using seasonal local Scottish produce. Amusingly, the credit card charge appeared as “CITATION” on my bill, which at first made me think maybe the speed limits were not quite as high as I had thought and that one of the many speed cameras had caught me.
On the plane ride back to London, we reflected on the past few days and agreed
that even though the skies only cleared as we were leaving, the trip was a lot
of fun. The people of Scotland are friendly, tough, and speak like Sean Connery.
Many tried to convince us that this persistent and oppressive rain was something
of an anomaly. We could only conclude we were in the right place at the wrong
time and had to return. Coming from drought-stricken California, I wished we
could channel some of that rain surplus back home.