The following morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at what seemed like the crack of dawn. We had about a mile’s walk to get to the Wild in Scotland office – which was located about halfway up the Royal Mile – before the 8:30AM start of the tour.
I’d had the pleasure of doing Wild in Scotland’s 3 day Isle of Skye trip during my 2007 trip, which started in Scotland. At the time, I had been incredibly impressed by the company. Utilizing 16 person mini-buses and hostels for evening accommodation the company is designed to cater to backpackers and experienced travelers who want the history and convenience of a quick guided tour – but are eager to maintain the backpacker feeling.
Most tour companies use large 60 person coaches, ferry you from tourist trap to tourist trap and are geared towards luxury travelers and retirees. Wild in Scotland on the other hand focuses on delivering a down and dirty experience that blends the basic structure and framework of an organized tour, with a flexible schedule allowing the driver to personalize the experience with their own detours and discoveries. All the while, the size and approach also allows you to stop at any point you want for photos or to explore. Even if it’s not on the itinerary.
Case in point. The itinerary for our 5 day, 4 night voyage into the northern reaches of Scotland was scheduled to move counter clockwise across the island. Instead, our driver elected to do it in reverse and to toss in some new places he’d discovered along the way.
The other thing I really like about Wild in Scotland is that they charge two fees. How’s that a plus? The first – 150 British Pounds or $225 covered the tour itself and went to the company. The second 120 British Pounds or $180 went into the kitty. The kitty cash covered our hostel each of the 4 nights, entrance into several attractions, a few drinks, our ferry crossings and the purchase of food each of the 4 nights. The pot luck food purchase works great as a way to bring people together, and ensures that you eat well during the trip. Combine the kitty cost with the limited number of tourist traps the company strands you at – and you get a more enjoyable and far less expensive experience than the standard super coach tour.
Having made better time than expected, we arrived at the office around 7:40. The rain was coming down in a light mist which was pleasant and hardly noticeable. We settled in and waited for the office to open. By 8AM they opened the office up where we paid our kitty money, set down our bags, and stepped next door to the Subway which had just opened for breakfast. We also bought a half sub to take with us on the road.
By 8:30 we had all arrived and piled onto the 16 person bus. Our driver and guide introduced himself with a bright smile and thick Scottish accent and then we were off. Weaving tales and explaining Edinburgh’s history we wound through the city’s streets and found our way out into the countryside. There we were greeted by gorgeous rolling green hills, dam roadways, pastures full of sheep and large patches of blooming foxglove – a beautiful pink-purplish flower you’ll see in many of my photos.
Our drive took us towards Sterling. We drove past Sterling Castle and wound up past the city of Sterling to the Wallace Monument. A large medieval looking structure that has been built on top of a nearby hill. We parked and began the first stroll of the trip. Up a rather steamy hillside, winding through ferns, trees and wild foxglove I paused briefly to pick several ripe raspberries. Once at the top we gathered around, dodging the Scottish thistles, with the monument to our backs and an incredible view of the valley surrounding Stirling laid out before us.
There Martin explained the true story of Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Debunking the mythology and creative re-write of history in Braveheart. He explained Wallace’s role and that the monument itself should actually have been dedicated to Robert the Bruce – a character who was almost vilified in Braveheart. He also explained that there had been a statue of Wallace located in the car park by the visitors center, which had since been destroyed.
It turns out, it was the famous statue of William Wallace with “freedom” engraved in it. I say famous, because a photo of the statue has been circulating the web for a year or two showing the statue of Wallace – a freedom fighter – encased in a large steel cage. As I chuckled, Martin explained that the locals hated the statue (which looked a lot like Mel Gibson) with a passion and had taken a sledgehammer to it. Undeterred the government had re-commissioned the statue/repaired it, and then encased it in a large steel cage. Thus the famous photo. Equally persistent and in true Scottish fashion the locals apparently traded their sledgehammer in for a shotgun and blew the face off the statue – which is no longer on display.
After the Wallace monument we wound through stunning countryside, before pausing at a small castle ruin. The castle itself was not particularly incredible, but was an exciting stop for those of us who love Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Don’t recognize it? It’s the same very same castle ruin used in this clip:
Imagining French taunters and flying cattle, Nate and I wound around the castle and enjoyed the natural beauty of the area. Now well manicured the castle sits on a hill, in the midst of a small clearing surrounded by trees next to a beautiful moss adorned stream.
Chuckling, it was back onto the bus and onward to Kilmahog where we snagged a quick bite of lunch. How’s that for a name? From Kilmahog we hopped back in the bus for a quick 3 minute drive down the road to see Hamish the world famous hairy coo. What’s a hairy coo? Why it’s a hairy cow. Having trouble picturing a hairy cow? Well, believe it or not they exist. Not only do they exist – but they’re relatively common in Northern Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland. Most are Red but some are black. As it turns out one of the Queens (I believe a red-headed one) decided that the cows should match their herders and worked to selectively breed them, so that they are almost exclusively ginger colored.
After feeding Hamish sliced turnips, apples and carrots it was back onto the bus and down winding 2 lane roads with low hanging trees, stone fences, and thick underbrush.
As we rounded a bend, in a light Scottish drizzle, the road began to wind along the shores of our first sizable Scottish Loch. With still water gently lapping a small sandy beach and small stands of foxglove dotting the shoreline we made a brief unscheduled stop to snap a few photos and watch the clouds lazily roll over the mountains.
From there it was onward to Balquhidder. No, that’s not a spelling error – though I’m not sure how you’d even go about pronouncing it. I’ll leave it to the Scots!
We parked at a community center, before walking up a small lane that looked more like someone’s driveway than an actual path. The driveway eventually diverted over a moss covered old stone bridge. Our path split off and wound – sandwiched – between two properties. With an old stacked stone fence on our right, we were delighted to find the small path hedged by ripe raspberry bushes on our left. With red fingers, we skipped along up a slight incline, before curving right and encountering a wet wooden bridge over a small stream, which ran by the gorgeous waterfall shown above.
From there it was up a small muddy footpath, which dumped us out behind the old stone church we’d come to see. Well, to be more specific, we’d come to see a specific gravestone – one among many, all worn by years of harsh weather and rains. There, with a beautiful view of the countryside was Rob Roy’s grave. For those unfamiliar with the movie, or story attached to him. He was a clansman who many believe was the basis upon which the Robin Hood myth was born. Buried in another clan’s cemetery as a passive aggressive act, the famous bandit and swordsman’s grave is the only one facing the opposite direction. Apparently, tradition was to bury the dead facing one direction – to ensure they were able to enjoy the sun’s first rays every morning. Poor Rob Roy however, has been deprived of that otherworldly pleasure.
After a brief story recounting the circumstances of Rob Roy’s death (blood poisoning from a self inflicted wound received as an act of charity during a sword fight with a young man) we set to scaling the hill at the foot of the old Church. Legs pumping, breathing heavily and with a grateful grunt, we walked through a light misting, stripping down to our t-shirts as we went. Grateful for the cool weather, we paused briefly by the moss covered stone wall pictured above, before climbing the last (and steepest) part of the hill to the lookout. I’ve included the picture of the wall to help convey what I’m talking about when I say a moss covered, stacked stone wall. Something that green and that covered in moss is without a doubt a foreign concept to those of us who spend most of our days sweltering in the dry Arizona heat.
The path was lined by ferns, blooming heather, Scottish thistles and gorgeous foxgloves in blossom. By the time we reached the top of the hill we could smell and see smoke rising. Someone had started a small traveler’s fire at the summit. Huddled around the fire warming their hands they relaxed as a gentle rain fell. We walked past, said friendly hellos and then took in the vista that stretched out before us. With a gorgeous loch fading away into the highland mists to our right and the gently rolling farmland sandwiched between majestic mountains winding away to our left, it was truly an incredible view.
You’ll see me mention rain quite often as I write. Most places, it would be a pain. When in Scotland – it’s part of the experience. In fact, without the clouds the place loses some of it’s magic. There’s something incredible about the way the clouds drag slowly across the countryside, lazily pausing on mountaintop after mountain top. It pulls you in, hugs you and shares a story.
From Rob Roy’s grave it was off towards Glencoe. Easily one of my favorite spots in Scotland. The sheer scope and majesty of the valley is breathtaking.
Once at Glencoe we paused and walked down to a small grass hill in the middle of the valley. With sheer cliffs skyrocketing towards the heavens in every direction our guide began an introduction to the highlands and recounted the tragic story of the Glencoe Massacre. A pivotal point in highland history which occurred in 1692. As he recounted the sad story, with a light rain falling and gentle gusts of wind tossing our hair the story wound to an end – he paused – and then began another.
This was the story of Highland Scotch. As he introduced what has become a famous part of Scottish culture, he reached into his small backpack and produced a bottle of single malt Scotch. With a quick cheers it began it’s away around the circle as we each took turns taking a swig, while Martin explained the various differences between Whiskys, Whiskeys and proper Scotch.
From there it was down into the lowlands once again as we wound west, where we paused at a Tesco and sent in a small group to pick and gather the goods we’d need to cook that evening’s dinner.
With food stuffed into every spare nook and cranny in the bus we took advantage of the long summer days in Scotland and paused at the ruins of an old castle. The castle was beautiful, but made far more impressive by the huge stands of violet flowers that surrounded it.
From there we paused at the canals used to connect Loch Ness to the other great lochs/ocean. The small town was gorgeous and every bit what you’d expect. After taking in the great docks used to manage the different water levels between lochs we hopped back into the van and made our way towards our hostel.
Located just off Loch Ness – the small backpackers hostel was perfect. We settled in and set to cooking a large bowl of pasta with meat sauce, potatoes, stuffed mushrooms and garlic bread before heading over to the local pub where I tried a delightful 18 year old Highland Park Scotch. Each sip had a different flavor, each whiff a different aroma.
Amazed by all we’d seen, it was finally time for bed. With a contented smile on my face and an exhausted sigh I crawled into my top bunk and began to snore contentedly.