My first visit to Scotland had been a brief trip with my dear friend Carol in 1986 during which we drove up from London to see Yorkshire and the Lake District of northern England, and then crossed Hadrian’s Wall to see a bit of southern Scotland. Though brief, that trip held memories of rolling green hills, rainbows, more sheep than you could shake a stick at, afternoon teas and a hospitable people with a wonderful sense of humor and irony.
I think Carol and I laughed from the time we crossed the border to the time we headed south again. One of our favorite memories involved a mad hunt to find a place to have our afternoon tea and scones, as the clock was nearing 5:00 PM, at which point tea time would be over. Desperate to make it there before closing time, I’d pulled over to ask a wee man along the road for directions. (OK, I don’t really recall whether he was indeed “wee”, but it adds flavor to my story, so work with me here, people!) We pleadingly asked if he could tell us the quickest way to get to the place we were looking for.
He drew back a bit, seemingly pondering our predicament. With a furrowed brow he said in a heavy Scottish brogue, rolling his r’s to the point that it sounded like a parody of the accent, “Ah, but don’t you know, you’ve passed the rrrrroad you needed to take! Oh my, what can we do?” He thought long and hard as the second hand on my watch moved ever forward.
“Well, what you’ll want to do is take this rrroad a wee bit further toward town. But at the firrrst stop sign you’ll want to go rrright. Don’t go left! Go rrright! And after a bit you’ll come to a wee, white church. At the church you’ll want to make a left. Don’t go rrright! Follow that rrroad strrraight into town until you see the town squarrre. At the sqarrre you’ll want to go rrright. Don’t go left! And in another mile or so you’ll see the place on your rrright.”
As the man spoke, it took everything we had to keep from laughing, because his directions and accent were hilarious, but he was so earnest and sincere in trying to help us that the last thing we’d want was to hurt his feelings. I looked at Carol tentatively and asked if she would remember all of this, and while her voice said yes, her eyes looked frantically into mine and said, “No! No!”.
I thanked the man and began to pull away, but then he called out, “Wait!” and leaned in to my window again. He said, “Or…” and after a slight pause he began, “…what you might want to do is turn arrround up ahead and go back down this rrroad until you see the wee stone church. At the church you’ll want to go left. Don’t go rrright! Then perhaps a mile – no maybe it’s only a half a mile further along – you’ll see a rrroad coming in on the rrright, but you don’t want to take the rrright. Just go strrraight on…” I honestly felt like we were trapped in a comedy skit. I assured the man that we would try the first route he’d suggested and that we would be fine, thanking him profusely for his “help”. We laughed until we cried, but I believe we did finally reach our destination in time to slather some Devonshire cream and raspberry jam over our warm scones.
Flash forward about 22 years and here I was heading back to Scotland in 2008 as part of a longer summer trip in Europe that also took me to Italy and Iceland. I was flying from Venice to Glasgow with a stop-over at London’s Gatwick Airport, but Easy Jet Airlines threw a gigantic monkey wrench into my plans when their flight to London scheduled for 11:30AM actually didn’t take off till 5:45PM, which caused me to miss my connecting flight in London. Like a row of dominoes my day’s schedule toppled piece by piece: first a $200 penalty for missing my Glasgow flight and getting rebooked on a 9:30PM flight with British Air, then had to call the rental car company in Glasgow to beg them to wait for me to arrive, as the office closed at 11:00PM and my flight was due at 11:05! They said they’d do their best, but there was no guarantee. Then I called the owner of the bed and breakfast where I was to stay north of Glasgow and told her my sad tale. She said that my cottage would be left unlocked and that I could just let myself in whenever I arrived. Crisis averted.
On the plane, I got a much-coveted exit row seat, and the funny, red headed flight attendant pointed out the diagram of how to open the emergency door if need be. The diagrams featured the silhouette of a young woman with long hair pulled back into a ponytail, and the flight attendant joked, “It would go much easier opening the emergency door if you can get your hair into a pony tail as it shows on the diagram!” I needed that laugh.
I arrived in Glasgow at 10:55 PM and ran straight to the rental car place, where they were patiently waiting to hand me the keys to my car. I got my luggage, went out to the parking lot, marveling at how light the sky was at this hour given that it was June, and then started from the airport for my bed & breakfast, 2 hours away via some rather complicated directions. Of course the car was a stick shift, and you must sit on the right side and shift with your left and drive on the left side of the road, and I was exhausted. But I did it. I did it all. I cruised on up the A82, thankful for the light traffic, grateful to be in Scotland, happy that I had a bed waiting for me even thought it was two hours away…or so I thought.
About 45 minutes out from Glasgow, the A82 was closed to traffic. A workman sat in a truck, blocking the way. I wearily got out and approached him, and asked how I might be able to get to Glencoe with the road closed. He responded in the famous Glaswegian accent that is known even among the British to be the most difficult accent to decipher in all of the Isles. It was so heavy that I understood only three concepts: turn rrright (My mind inserted, “Don’t go left!”), then turn left at some point (“Don’t go rrright!”), and then follow signs for a town called Tyndrum. Off I went and though this little detour added at least 45 minutes to my trip I eventually found Tyndrum, and got back on A82 just 25 miles south of Glencoe. And then… amid flashing lights I pulled up behind a line of maybe 8 cars that were stopped with their engines off. Soon a redheaded policeman came to my window to tell me to turn off my engine for a bit. A mobile crane had gone off the road ahead and workers were attempting to get it back onto the road. They’d been at it since 9:00 PM and I think he said that they were likely to be able to reopen the road soon. (Yes, he had that Glaswegian accent too!) I sat for an hour and thirty minutes before the road was finally reopened, noting that the sky was already getting lighter in the east. At 3:30 AM I pulled into the Signal Rock Bed & Breakfast, stumbled from the car and let myself into my unlocked cottage. The total travel time from when I’d left my Venice hotel: 20 hours! I collapsed into the bed and instantly fell into a dead sleep.
I woke up several hours later and for the life of me, I did not really know where I was. The three prior weeks of traveling I’d been doing, the nightmarish travel delays I’d suffered, and my extreme fatigue conspired and I honestly felt like I was awaking from a coma in a bad movie or soap opera. I lay in bed and tried to guess what place this might be. I heard people talking softly behind the door of my bedroom. Ah yes, I was starting to remember… I’d come in at 3:30 AM and opened the unlocked door of a cottage in the woods, and found a note with my name on it attached to one of the doors of what seemed like a small house. More voices outside my room. Was that Italian I was hearing? Was I in Italy? No. Definitely not Italian. Wait…maybe it’s the Neapolitan dialect? I heard strange sounds that resembled the way people speak in Naples, Italy. But no, that wasn’t it either. Then the fog cleared and I remembered that I was in Scotland! So was that English being spoken in the almost unintelligible Glasgow accent I’d heard? No, I couldn’t understand a word, and never heard the word “wee” uttered at all. Could it be Gaelic? Well, there was only one way to find out.
As I headed toward bathroom to wash the sleep from my eyes I had a momentary flashback to the time the character Pam Ewing on Dallas woke from a disturbing dream to find her dead ex-husband Bobby in the bathroom, casually showering and leaving her speechless. Well, Bibby was not in my shower, so at least I knew I wasn’t in Dallas. I threw on some clothes and ventured out into the living room, where I met a man of about 30 who introduced himself as Sleweg.
Sleweg? Was that Scottish? I’ve heard of names like Seumas and Hamish and Gwyn and Gareth, but this was a new one. The mystery soon was solved when Slewig explained that he is the on-site host at the B & B and is from Poland. Soon his wife Luisa appeared, also Polish, but fluent in Italian, so I began to get my linguistic bearings again. They cooked me a huge breakfast and gave me a warm welcome to Scotland. Sleweg told a humorous story about the time when he’d first come to Scotland, four years prior and was trying to learn English. One of the guests at the B&B was talking to him, and Sleweg’s heavily Polish-accented English was unfathomable to the guest. Finally, the exasperated guest exclaimed, “I’d heard about the Glaswegian accent, but I never dreamed it would be THIS hard to understand!” Sleweg had had a good laugh over that, and so did I.
And so after a hearty egg and bacon breakfast I checked out of the B & B, as I was heading further north to the Isle of Skye. Since I’d driven in near darkness last night, it was nice to see the countryside in the light of day and found myself in an emerald green, heavily forested landscape, with peaceful and still waters of small lakes (lochs) reflecting beautiful, barren green mountains. I’ve actually never seen any of the Harry Potter movies, but evidently one of them was filmed in this very area near Glencoe, Scotland.
I was soon out on the road and heading toward the Isle of Skye, about 3 hours further north. I was driving a vehicle called a Skoda – a car made in the Czech Republic. Europe is indeed a melting pot these days. I kept entertained on the drive by listening to a lot of bagpipe music on the radio on Radio Gaelic. The DJs on that station might as well have been speaking Polish, as Gaelic sounded just as foreign to me. But the real treat was a BBC radio program that was a comedy play set during WW II. It involved hilarious characters including British and German soldiers, an English double-agent posing as a prim matron, and my favorite, Minka, the Russian spy. Minka loved to torture Germans and in one memorable scene, when the group captures a German soldier, she regretfully realizes that she’s left her thumbscrews behind. Undaunted, she says, “Oh VELL, I VILL just have to improvise – a sort of JAZZ torture.”
I arrived on the Isle of Skye in the late afternoon, just in time for check-in at my B&B which was set up on a bluff with a wonderful view of the of the sea, nearby islands and far-off mountains. I met my hosts, Ron and Pam and settled into a very comfortable room with a private bath. Unfortunately, the other guests at the B&B were French and spoke no English and to my consternation, after studying French for more years than any other language, I could barely remember how to say hello and thank you! It is amazing to me how having studied Italian for three years has pushed other languages completely out of my head.
I wanted to explore the area, but also needed to stay fairly close by, as the B&B locks its doors at 11:00PM (luckily I wasn’t staying HERE last night… they would not have reacted kindly to my 3:30 AM check-in!) So I drove down one of the many peninsulas on the island, heading south about 20 miles toward Elgol. The scenery along the way was nothing short of spectacular. Sheep everywhere, glassy blue lochs, gorgeous mountains, and periodic sea views. I finally came upon a parking area for a trail and decided to try and hike from here to a place on the top of the small mountains around me from which I could try and catch the sunset. Not terribly hungry for dinner and unsure how long my hike might take, I fortified myself with a bag of Scottish shortbread cookies and a basket of fresh raspberries.
I started out on my hike at close to 7:00 PM, and since it doesn’t get dark here until almost 11, I had time. It was a fairly strenuous uphill trek, but I did pretty well. The guideposts said it was 2.5 miles to my destination and within an hour I could tell I was getting close to the top of the ridge. At one point I caught a beautiful, lone deer staring at me intently before bounding off into the distance. The sky to the west was very cloudy, but the sun was peeking through and causing rays of light to strike random patches of the mountains, lighting them up in beautiful emerald green. And then I reached the top. I’d have to say that the view I was treated to at the top of this ridge of hills was among the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. To the south were beautiful green hills and cliffs overlooking the sea and far off islands. Straight to the west, across a narrow bay, there were rugged shoulders of mountains, looking almost black because they were backlit by the sun. And toward the north… the magnificent and stark Cuillen Mountains loomed in the distance, while closer to me was a deep blue loch and more green hills, dotted with white sheep. Many of the hills had waterfalls cutting down their slopes, and even from probably a mile away, I could hear the sound of the rushing water. I just sat there for perhaps an hour, not seeing another soul, and just drinking in this amazing panorama. This was worth the strenuous hike, the 20 hour ordeal of trying to reach Scotland, the sums of money I’d spent to get here. This, I thought was what Heaven must or should be like.
The next morning I met the French group that was staying at the B & B and it was painfully awkward, as they spoke no English at all, and I could barely manage to put two words together in French. Additionally, they didn´t speak very much amongst themselves, and so I was dining in awkward silence until the hosts would burst in for a moment to bring us something. They did try to speak some French to their guests, but with horrible accents! (OK, I couldn´t remember my French vocabulary and tenses, but I DO know how to pronounce BONJOUR. Ron and Pam, who are English, but who have lived in Scotland for 6 years now, mangled even that easy word, making it sound like BONJER!)
I dined on a beautiful platter of fresh smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, and there was great coffee and some toast, so I was happy. The French folks had ordered the Scottish breakfast, which featured eggs, ham, sausages, soggy cooked tomatoes and black (blood) pudding. They kept looking over and eyeing my eggs and salmon with obvious envy. I suspected that the hosts had not clearly communicated to them that the salmon and eggs was available as a breakfast choice! I smiled and mustered at least one phrase: “Le saumon est tres` bon!” Meanwhile, two of them had left their sausages and ham on the side of their platters and I heard them say something to the effect that the meat was only fit “pour les chiens” – for the dogs. Note to self: order the salmon again tomorrow.
I spent a leisurely day just driving and exploring the Isle of Skye, and I think I covered almost every mile of the roads there. Nothing I saw quite rivaled the beauty of my hike the night before, but it is a beautiful place with strange, brooding mountains, and lots of dark, volcanic rock covered in greenery and sheep. Actually there are parts of the island that resemble the north coast of Maui, and if it´d been 25 degrees warmer, I´d have thought I was there!
I need to say a word about prices. “Ouch!” Italy at this time was expensive for sure, but Britain was really bad. Given that the British pound is worth almost $2 American, I almost had to go into a state of denial so I wouldn’t freak out about how quickly my money was dwindling. So if something costs 10 British pounds, I’d just sort of pretend I’d spent $10.00, but the harsh reality was that I’d really spent over $20.00. So that Frappucino I’d ordered for 4 pounds at Starbucks in the airport in London was well over $8! Again, “Ouch!” And while I am on the subject of money, there was the cost for gas. In Italy I was paying about $8.50 a gallon, but according to my calculations, the gas in Scotland was almost $11.00 a gallon! My car was a compact and a diesel, which got better gas mileage than a regular car and I drove it almost 600 miles before needing a fill up, but when I finally had to fill the tank it cost me about $140! I wanted to pour myself a Scotch and just weep. I really don’t know how people get by here, since it’s such a rural area and I’d imagine that one would need a car, though I must say there´s a pretty good bus network even way out here.
One of the highlights of the day was an hour long hike to Coral Beach on the north coast of Skye, a series of beautiful white sand beaches that made the water aqua blue. You’d almost think you were in the Caribbean except for the presence of cattle and sheep on the sand in some places! Though the weather was very overcast, by the time I climbed the bluff overlooking the beaches, the sun appeared and lit the water up beautifully for photos. On the hike I overheard a familiar language being spoken by some people ahead of me on the trail. Glaswegian? Polish? No, ITALIAN. They looked shocked when I said, “Buongiorno” and began a conversation with them, and kept asking me why I knew Italian so well. So that was fun, and made me wish I could do the same with the French people back at the B & B.
I had an early dinner in a hamlet called Stein (pronounced STEEN) at a seafood place that had been recommended to me by some English diners at a restaurant back in Italy. They told me not to miss it, and they were right. I had a delicious slab of halibut, caught only hours before, along with potatoes, vegetables and a sun-dried tomato soup, all very tasty. Don´t ask how much it cost. Suffice it to say I didn’t drink anything, I didn’t get dessert, and I still winced at the price. Denial… denial is a very good thing.
When I got back to the B & B that evening Ron and Pam sat with me in the lounge and offered me a glass of amazingly good Scotch Whiskey. I´m not much of a drinker, but this stuff was very smooth and tasty and Ron said it is the best in Scotland. They were pleasant hosts, though both seemed to be strung a little too tightly, if you know what I mean. They just seemed on edge and nervous all the time, not relaxed and calm. But they were great hosts and provided me with great maps of the area, let me use an electric adapter so I could recharge my camera battery, and fed me smoked salmon and good whisky, so I am not complaining.
On Friday I reluctantly left Skye and took a ferry to Maillag, deciding to head for Edinburgh on a different route than the one I’d taken when I arrived. I stopped for a short and contemplative hike at the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, built in the 1400s near Glencoe. It was mid-morning and I had the entire place to myself, which allowed my mind to drift to thoughts of who’d lived there in the past and what types of things had happened within its walls. I would have loved to be able to linger, but I needed to get to Edinburgh and unfortunately, I’d already encountered major road work-related delays all the way down from Skye.
I stopped at a wonderful organic food restaurant near the town of Tyndrum that afternoon, where I had possibly the best fish and chips I have ever tasted in my life. (I ordered the half-size portion and it was huge, but so good that I wished I´d ordered the regular sized version!) One of the very young guys working behind the counter looked over at me and said something. I didn’t get one word of it, and I asked him to repeat himself. It sounded like, “A WHO YA BUSHTA GRET IN A WHORE DAY”. Hmmm. This wasn’t French, nor Italian, nor Gaelic, nor Polish… it was English… the Glaswegian accent strikes again! I was so embarrassed, but I didn’t know what he was saying to me. Not even a clue. Finally another worker, who had a far less pronounced accent, saved me. “He´s asking you if you´re here on holiday”. Ahhh! First contact! I smiled and said yes, and told him where I was from and after that I had absolutely no idea of what else he said to me for the next three, uncomfortable minutes as I waited for my order! But he seemed quite friendly and jolly.
Because of the closed roads I got to Edinburgh later than I’d hoped, but as I have so often done in so many parts of the world, I simply drove right into town without the help of a cell phone or GPS and found my way to the bed and breakfast with very little trouble. The B & B was in a very nice townhouse, and my room was beautiful, with a double bed and a view of the street. The place was run by a young guy with the very Scottish name, Gareth and he and his mom made me feel very at home.
I didn’t have as much time to explore Edinburgh as I might have liked. I managed to find the location of an apartment where my elderly friend Maggi had lived just after WW II. She is originally from Northern Ireland, but she lived in Edinburgh for several years and adored her time there, so I got a picture of her old building for her. I found Edinburgh not quite as nice as I’d remembered it 22 years ago. The New Town where I was staying was actually a bit run down and grubby, while the Old Town, while beautiful, is very touristy, with bagpipers on every corner and guys made up to look like warriors from the film “Braveheart” posing for pictures with people.
The following day I had to return to Glasgow to catch a flight to Iceland, and I recount that journey in another of my blogs. But in summary, it was nice to return to Scotland and to rekindle the love I’d felt for this place so many years ago. And so, I will leave you with this thought provoking Scottish saying and I hope many of you will find some wisdom in these words: “A WHO DIN YA GOT TA BA DUSHTA.” Didn’t understand that? Well, neither did I, but now you’ve had just a little taste of Glasgow!