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Two Miles and Two Hours to Thurso

July 9, 2019

At the tippy-top, most northern part of Scotland, the first ferry of the day from Stromness on Orkney Island arrives in Scrabster on the mainland at 8am.

I had taken this early morning service, which had given me the option of staying the night before in one of the cabins on the ferry (see my previous post, Savoring the Local Hero Vibe in Orkney), where I got the best sleep I’d had in months.

So I was full of vim and vigor as I strapped on my big backpack and stepped onto the dock at Scrabster. Adding to the spring in my step was the weather: it was a stunner of a day, with sunshine, an occasional wisp of a white cloud, and a hint of a coastal breeze to keep the temperature right at perfect.

My plans were to travel back to Inverness that day on the first available train service – a dainty two-car affair departing around 1pm, a good five hours after my ferry docked. Which, in this remote area of Scotland, is ample for what the populace requires.

The train service itself runs not from Scrabster, but from the neighboring town of Thurso. Three days before, I had taken a bus – the one bus of the afternoon – over from Thurso to Scrabster on my outbound journey to Orkney. From this, I knew the distance between the train station and the ferry port was only two miles, making it possible to walk from one to the other.

It was a sublime day, I had five hours before my train arrived, and the first bus wasn’t due at the Scrabster dock for another hour and twenty minutes. “Why not make the walk?” I thought. Sure, there was a hill to climb, and the weight of my big backpack to consider, but with loads of time on my hands, I could take it as slowly as I needed to. The idea of the hike rather appealed to me, though I wasn’t overly keen on the route – from what I remembered of the bus ride, we had traveled along a main road which may or may not have had a sidewalk for the entire trek.

Before I set off to take the hill with my big backpack, I thought it might be a good idea to check with the locals about the walk. Popping into the dockside café (where, very importantly, I’d had a divine ham and brie panini a few days earlier), I told one of the waitresses what I was thinking of doing, and she informed me that, yes, it’s possible to take that main route, but that it’s much nicer to do the cliff walk, which runs along the coastline. Pointing out the window in the general direction of Thurso, she gave me the name of a road to turn onto, and a description of the entrance to the path I would take from there.

This sounded far more picturesque – and quieter – than the main road, and with that settled, off I started up the hill. As I was nearing the top and beginning my lookout for the road I was to turn onto, a man came towards me from the other direction, walking his dog. I stopped and asked him if I was nearing the road for the coastal walk, and he pointed to a small street just up the hill. He then asked me where I was from, and all of the usual “tourist questions” while I petted his friendly mixed-breed pup. We chatted about the beautiful weather and the joys of living where he does, and pretty soon twenty minutes had passed. I thanked him for his help, and he said that he would be passing along this way later and if he saw me looking lost, he would stop and give me a ride to the station, which I thought was exceptionally kind.

Fortunately, I didn’t lose my way. The coastal path, once I located it, was very straightforward. Following the contour of the coastline, it runs along the top of the cliff above the rocks and beaches, and isn’t nearly as treacherous as it sounds. It is a beautiful walk, completely paved, and is traversed by the residents of both Scrabster and Thurso, who take the path to go to the market or into town for dinner at one of the quaint, tantalizing restaurants.

The waitress at the café had given me a gift, I soon realized, when she told me to go this way. With its stone walls, high grasses and spectacular views of neighboring islands, the cliffside path was utterly enchanting, to the point I completely forgot about the backpack on my back. I was aware of feeling only blessed and grateful to be in the sunshine and the beauty of it all, and I delighted in every step.

But it was the people along the path who put the whole experience over the top for me. Every fifty to a hundred yards or so, I would cross paths with one of the locals and we invariably would stop for a chat. Some were coming back from doing errands in town, others were walking their dogs (naturally, I had to stop and speak with every single one of these folks), while others were simply out to enjoy the gorgeous day.

Though I had been up in the highlands for a while, and was getting accustomed to their captivating, thick Scottish accent, I still caught myself thinking, as I was conversing with one of the locals, how strange it is for us to be speaking the same language, saying the same words, yet we sound so very different from each other. What is really remarkable is that we can actually understand each other’s pronunciations well enough, at least most of the time.

Even stranger than that, I realized I was starting to pick up some of these Scottish pronunciations, when I heard myself talking about biscuits. Naturally, when speaking of the British digestives and shortbreads, one uses their term, “biscuits” instead of the American word “cookies” (just as Oreos and Nutter Butters are always cookies and never biscuits). But saying “biscuits” here in northern Scotland, I was startled to hear it come out of my mouth with a proper Highland brogue, as “BESS-ketz.” When did this language gap start closing?

In the end, it took me over two hours to walk those two brilliant miles. Yet I still had hours left to kill before catching the train. I spent that time sitting in the picturesque little square opposite the church, where my backpack enjoyed resting on the benches, alternating between sunshine and shade, while I had some takeaway lunch and did some reading until it was time to catch the train.

It was such a small moment in my travels – a mere few hours between destinations – but that dazzling day has stayed with me, and promises to be one of my favorite memories of the entire journey.

 

Photos below:

Top row: The start of the cliffside trail: view to Hoy on a splendid summer day;

Bottom row: Visitors staying in the cliffside campgrounds enjoy a stroll along the path; relaxing in the village square.

People Places Things

The Magic of Mythical Inverness

July 5, 2019

The remains of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness.

After the weeks of exuberant fun in beautiful Edinburgh, I’ve come farther north in Scotland, my first stop being Inverness – another city, with another vibe. Smaller, a bit chillier, with the scenery of a river instead of a beach. Though it’s a city, Inverness has the spirit of the highlands and the enormous sky which surround it. There is a crisp, simple certainty to everything – the folks here are warm in spirit, and unflappable.

It’s far enough north now that Gaelic words have begun creeping into conversations, and road signs are printed in two languages, with Gaelic often taking precedence over English.

On the bus ride up from Edinburgh, I hit it off with an engaging, intelligent young woman from Germany named Sophie. She and I were staying in different hostels (for this, I had hostel envy of her, as the one she had chosen was directly across from the bus station, whereas mine was a fifteen minute walk away… up a hill… with my big backpack…). We connected through Instagram and made plans to meet up the next morning to go do some dolphin watching as the high tide came in. Sophie had given herself only one night in Inverness, so she was determined to do as much exploring as she could.

I, on the other hand, had arranged to stay for four nights. For me, at least, one or two nights isn’t long enough to get more than a glimpse at a place, and soon it all becomes a big blur. Of course, I have the luxury at present to take as much time as I like in a place. And I’m finding that I prefer to focus on just a few places over trying to pass through many.

There’s also the element of fatigue which factors into this. As much as I loathe to admit this, I just don’t have the stamina to put my backpack on my back every thirty-six hours and take off for somewhere new. Now, I’m not about to accept that this is due to my age, or that I’m “slowing down.” Rather, I blame it on the fact that both my backpack and I could stand to lose some weight.

Given the amount of daily exertion I’ve been getting, coupled with the slow whittling down of the toiletries and essentials I’m carrying around, I do believe we’re both starting to shed a few ounces.

Back to the other morning…

Sophie and I met with little success in spotting any dolphins, but we had a lovely time sitting on the shoreline talking about life, priorities and courage. We also decided that we caught a glimpse of Nessie (a.k.a. the Loch Ness Monster, though I believe that term has fallen out of favor, at least with the locals, who speak of their most famous resident with great affection).

Then again, it was probably just some seaweed floating in the water. But you never know…

After Sophie and I said our goodbyes and parted ways, I hopped on an afternoon boat tour of Loch Ness which traveled from Inverness to the ruins of Urquhart Castle. It was cloudy and cool, with not even a hint of sun, but there wasn’t any rain and the winds weren’t terribly strong or cold –  which, in the Highlands, you have to take as a win, weather-wise.

Cruising the expanse of Loch Ness is a beguiling experience. The slopes are sparsely dotted with homesteads, with more cattle and sheep than humans residing along the shoreline. Occasionally there is a fine stately manor to be seen, dating anywhere from the 18th century to the 21st century. It’s all very quiet and serene, and feels as if it has remain unchanged for untold centuries, that the Vikings and the Highland clans who claimed this place as their own would recognize it today. The only thing missing on the day I visited was a nice, mystical fog rolling in to cover the hillsides.

Once again, no Nessie, but no matter. After all, it’s the possibility of her, of just maybe seeing her, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Leaving the boat tour, I meandered over to an ancient cemetery residing at the base of a sizable hill. At the top of the hill, there were more gravestones and memorials, a few of which could be seen from the boat as we were docking. I was curious to climb up and investigate them, but the boat tour operator had cautioned me about wandering up through the wooded hillside.

“There are mischievous fairies which dwell up there, and if you encounter them, they will be very friendly and invite you to come sing and dance with them at a party in their cave.

“But don’t go,” he warned me. “At the end of the party, the fairies give you a bag of gold and a bag of silver, and you think it’s all been lovely. But when you leave the fairies’ cave, you discover a hundred years have passed, and you have only twelve hours before you turn to fairy dust.”

Armed with this intel, I made my way to the top of the hill without incident, where I had the captivating weathered headstones all to myself, save for two other visitors stationed on a bench at the far end of the cemetery. I grabbed a few pictures, took some time to enjoy the panoramic vistas of Inverness and the Highlands, and then was able to get back down the hill without encountering any fairies.

Walking through the lower cemetery, it occurred to me that I might have ancestors buried here. My family tree is rife with at least a few dozen folks whose surnames begin with “Mc” or “Mac”, not to mention a host of other Scottish names. I hadn’t done my research, though, so I couldn’t be sure who might be here. So I spoke as I walked through the lines of graves, saying who I was and when I was, and that if anyone there shared my DNA, they should know I was here, I was their American descendant — if they knew what that was — and that I wished to say hello to them.

Heading back into town, I decided to take the scenic route through the River Ness’s Five Islands. This is the prettiest walk, along connecting footpaths through a series of small dollops of land in the middle of the river, which are linked together by graceful iron bridges. The ground beneath the covering of trees has been cleared of the undergrowth, giving one the feeling that they have stumbled into a secret glade. The paths are lined with old-fashioned streetlamps, with long chains of string lights running between them. What an enchanting little world this must be in the evenings.

As I was strolling along one of the paths, I came across a man riding/walking bikes with his daughters. We talked about the islands, and they told me how there are events on the islands all year round, including a big Halloween shindig. The daughter explained that the best part was that they have a smoke machine to make the woods look foggy. Ah, a kindred spirit.

Something led me to mention my visit to Tomnahurich Cemetery and the hill, and the dad asked me if I’d run into the fairies, in a tone which implied I had accidentally wandered into a bad neighborhood which was beset with ne’er-do-wells. With this confirmation of the tour guide’s warning, I could only conclude that the fairies story is true.

And to think, at the beginning of this journey, I wondered if there would be any magic along the way.  I needn’t have worried.

 

Photos below:

Top row: Road signs in Gaelic and English; Sophie and I make a quick stop in the marina.

Middle row: Aldourie Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness (there is a terrible story associated with the current owners of this home, which I found too sad to include here); monuments at the top of Tomnahurich Hill.

Bottom row: Oh, no, Nessie?! No, just a petrified fallen tree; charming Inverness.