Last weekend some friends and I decided to escape the familiar and take a tour through Scotland! We got home sleep-deprived, sore, and thoroughly happy to never sit on a bus again. Basically it was a glorious 4th of July weekend!
Natalia, Erin, Chloe, Miranda, Sam and I left late on Friday evening, July 2nd, to catch our 11:15PM night bus from Victoria Coach Station in London. (All of the girls live in the same building as I do with the exception of Natalia.) The trip to the coach station was extraordinarily stressful, since we left late, stopped to get groceries, and then discovered that the tube lines were experiencing severe delays (!). By the time our train arrived in the Victoria Underground station we were so strapped for time that we grabbed a cab and drove to the coach station rather than attempting to run and risking the possibility of getting lost. Even though this was a much more costly method (£6 for 3 minutes!) it paid off in the long run since we made it to our bus in time and were able to board without much difficulty.The overnight bus ride to Edinburgh took about 9 hours and made me seriously appreciate my not-so-comfortable mattress back at Redcliffe Gardens. The blazing heat of the coach (the driver refused to turn on the air for more than 5 minutes at a time) mixed with my noisy Portuguese-speaking neighbors who leaned their seats into my lap and snogged the entire way there, on top of my inability to lean my seat back or find a comfortable sleeping position in my aisle seat definitely made for a memorable and tiring trip. Ergh! (/rant)
We arrived in Edinburgh at 8AM Saturday morning and ran straight from the coach station to the Haggis tour office (Haggis being the company we booked with). After much hustling and bustling about in the street along with the million other tourists we finally boarded our 30-something-seater bus and were introduced to our tour guide for the next day or so, a rather sarcastic, caustic Scotswoman with a bite to her (have you figured out she was someone you didn’t want to mess with?). Our tour was to take us all over Scotland over the next two days – beginning in Edinburgh we drove north to Dunkeld, then further north into the highlands stopping at Killiecrankie, Kingussie, Culloden, Clava Cairns, and Moray Firth before settling in for the night at Carbisdale Castle in Sutherland. The next day we were to drive south towards Loch Ness, then continue back down through the highlands to visit Bein Nibheis, Glencoe, and the Wallace Monument before finishing off back in Edinburgh. We missed St. James and the northern islands, as well as Glasgow, but that’s about it! Definitely a worthwhile and whirlwind trip :)
On the bus
While on the bus our tour guide Carol kept us awake with a never-ending stream of information, stories, and music. Among the gems were the lessons about the three types of Scottish weather (Glorious, Atmospheric, or Dramatic – and don’t you dare sound negative about it!), as well as the correct way to pronounce ‘Edinburgh’ (apparently, “embra” – said very quickly). Also, very important Scottish words like ‘bonnie’ and ‘munter’, the latter of which refers to a person so ugly you can barely stand to look at them. (Apparently some tour guides play a rather mean-spirited game called “hunt the munter” in some Scottish towns as they drive through – ouch!) We also learned the acronym DSL, short for “Deep Scottish Love.” Along the way Carol insisted (only half-jokingly) that all people of any importance in world history have come from Scotland or have some Scottish heritage, and her music choices for most of the trip represented this belief in the form of a healthy dose of Scottish bands such as The Proclaimers:
Dunkeld, Killiecrankie and Kingussie
The first stop on our tour was Dunkeld, the smallest city in Scotland. It is also home to Dunkeld Cathedral, a lovely old half-destroyed church which houses the grave of Alexander Stewart, who spent his time destroying churches and having illegitimate children (over 800!) out of spite that he never made it to the throne due to being an illegitimate child himself. Apparently, legend has it that if you touch his gravestone you will either have bad luck for the rest of your life (if you’re a man) or will become immediately pregnant (if you’re a woman). Good thing we couldn’t actually get to the gravestone since it was hidden behind the pews at the front of the cathedral!
After leaving Dunkeld we passed Killiecrankie, where the Jacobite army had a major victory against troops supporting King William of Orange in 1689. We learned about how the Highland Scottish clans utilized the steep incline of the hills to put momentum behind their infamous battle charges, which involved hordes of Scotsman running down from the hills as a unit, screaming bloody murder and using the sheer force of gravity to surprise and overwhelm their opponents. We ate lunch in a tiny town called Kingussie, and while none of us tried the haggis (I know! Scotland fail), we did see some entertaining artwork such as these gems inside the pub and down the street:
…I don’t know that I would trust Scottish Chinese takeaway!
After lunch we continued our journey northward to Culloden, the scene of the bloodiest and most infamous battle in Scottish history. It was on a field here in 1745 that the Jacobite army was slaughtered in less than 45 minutes by an army led by the Duke of Cumberland in support of William Stuart, effectively ending the Jacobite uprising and destroying the Scottish clan system. The history of the Jacobite uprising is one of typical Catholic v. Protestant conflict, in which the Jacobites were attempting to overthrow the reigning Stuart monarchy and return the Hanovers to the throne. Bonnie Prince Charlie had returned from Italy to attempt to reclaim the throne from King George II, and gathered a massive of army of 1500+ Highlanders – however, he chose a typically European battlefield, a flat wide open field, which effectively ruined his army’s ability to use their signature Highland charge method of attack. This meant they could barely use their huge, heavy weapons (which were designed for use in close contact) and the entire army was promptly slaughtered. King George had had enough of the Jacobite rebellions by this point and cracked down hard – he ordered every single Jacobite soldier murdered (including the wounded lying on the field of battle), made it a crime to aid or abet a Jacobite on punishment of death, and outlawed playing bagpipes, wearing kilts, carrying weapons, and living/farming in the Highlands in general. This effectively destroyed the Highland way of life and in turn the Scottish clan system. The Jacobite defeat also meant that the Hanovers controlled the English Isles, and their emphasis on empire-building resulted in the world we live in today (the African diaspora, India and Pakistan, American independence… you get the idea). Had Bonnie Prince Charlie succeeded and the Stuarts (who believed in the divine right of kings) taken the throne, they would have effectively kept to their kingdom and we wouldn’t be here. Quite a big “what-if,” huh?
Here’s a brief video I took of the battlefield – the quality isn’t so great (it’s really, really, really windy in Scotland!) but at least you get a better idea of what it looked like. The girl in the video is my friend Miranda :)
After walking through Culloden and being sufficiently awed at standing on what was effectively a mass grave, we took a short diversion to see Clava Cairns, a neolithic stone site similar to Stonehenge that you actually get to walk through and touch! The site is absolutely gorgeous, tucked away in a wooded glen in the middle of fields of sheep, with sun shafting down through the trees and the wind rustling the leaves. Like Stonehenge the purpose of this site is unknown, and the stones (rose quartz) used in the building of three round igloo-like structures came from over 25km away. While the structures are half-destroyed now, two of the structures have pathways into them – when archaeologists covered the tops with tents, they discovered that on the winter solstice the sun aligns directly with the openings and the insides of the structures glow red due to the quartz. The three structures are also aligned with the three stars in Orion’s belt. This was probably one of my favorite parts of Day 1.
Here’s a short video of the site, too. Again the quality kind of sucks but at least it gives you more of a 360° view!
Moray Firth and Carbisdale Castle
After exploring Clava Cairns for a little while we got back into our tour bus and headed further north, past Moray Firth and up to Carbisdale Castle, where we spent the night. Moray Firth is a large area of northern Scottish coastline considered one of the most important places in the UK for observing dolphins and whales. What an upsetting thing to see things like this in the middle of all that beauty, especially considering the current situation in the Gulf:
After passing through Moray Firth we arrived at Carbisdale Castle, which sits right on the edge of the Sutherland in a region called Ross-shire. The story behind the castle is especially interesting since it has to do with the Sutherlands, whose name/ancestry I am (indirectly) a part of! The castle was built for the Duchess of Sutherland after the death of her third husband, the Earl of Sutherland. Apparently she was considered a bit of a gold-digging black widow, so much so that the family of the Earl was desperate to keep her from claiming her entitlement. To assuage her they offered to pay for her to build her dream home so long as it was not on Sutherland lands. She agreed, and built her ‘Castle of Spite’ on a hill exactly on the border, directly overlooking the main road into Sutherland! She didn’t stop there: the castle has a clock tower with only three faces – the fourth side, facing Sutherland lands, is blank since she didn’t even want to give her Sutherland neighbors the time of day. How’s that for a grudge!
The nicest thing about the castle is that it was entitled to the Scottish Youth Hostels Association, which meant we got to stay in castle for the night! The view from the castle overlooks an outrageously gorgeous valley with a river winding through it, and the entrance is full of white marble statues and Renaissance paintings. I don’t think I will ever be able to stay in a nicer place. After getting settled in and eating our supermarket-bought dinners (we’re cheap students!), Erin, Chloe, Miranda, Sam, Natalia and I headed outdoors to enjoying the gorgeous weather and take pictures of the valley from what our tour guide called the ‘Bridge of Death’ – a huge stone bridge over the river which has a see-through metal pedestrian’s walkway underneath it. We petted horses and sheep along the way and also found a red phone booth in the middle of nowhere which I am now convinced is another entrance into the Ministry of Magic. After we got back to the castle the group of us sat in our room talking the night away until about midnight (it was still light outside!), at which time we were happy to fall asleep after a long day of touring and bus-riding.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Loch Ness, Glencoe, Edinburgh and more!