Some advice for anyone considering taking the Macbackpackers Hogmanay Highland tour package: 1. DO IT, 2. Ask for Ruthie, and 3. Don’t be sick or jetlagged.
The conditions mentioned in step three rendered our journey to Scotland an ordeal. It was about five hours by train, but I could NOT sleep because of the lack of something I’m beginning to miss increasingly from home, the humble public-transport window ledge:
It may seem small, but this slight protrusion at the base of the window is in fact the single greatest invention in the history of comfort, allowing weary travellers the world over to lean and sleep in luxury. Yes, throughout the protracted period of my total dependence on public transport, from the shabby Railcorp trains to the austere trackwork coaches, I’ve come to depend on this marvel of human ingenuity greatly, and yet, in this country I find it almost completely absent. Truly lamentable.
Anyway, once we actually got there, we had to traverse the most ridiculous set of stairs in the world, that just kept GOING, and of course, the freezing cold of Edinburgh. You see, the medieval builders of Edinburgh putatively reasoned that, if they built their streets like enormous wind tunnels, the frequent subzero gusts screaming through them would carry the plague out of the city into the sea. Needless to say, this didn’t work, and they were left with the coldest city in the worldoutside of Russia.
By the time we found our lodgings, I was ready to crash. Which I did. Fully clothed. On top of the blankets. Face down. The next day we had to be on a bus by eight.
Thus commenced our fantastic Scottish Highlands tour. We were introduced to our tour guide and driver, Scottish pocket rocket Ruthie, pictured below frolicking through a highland glen or some such:
Picture stolen from Jodie Gough.
Ruthie was incredible; she absolutely made the tour. She was a great storyteller, narrating to us from behind the wheel the epics of Scottish mythology (mostly pertaining to beautiful Scottish maidens abandoned by their Irish lovers), history (mostly pertaining to struggles against the hated English), and even some of her own entertaining personal reminiscences (mostly pertaining to ‘wee jobbies’ – I’ll let you Urban Dictionary that one).
I think my favourite story was her explanation of the tale behind the famous Scottish ditty:
Oi’ll teek the haigh rrroad ‘n’ ye’ll teek the lough rrroad
And oi’ll reach Schortland befoooooore ye
Fer me ‘n’ mai treu luff’ll never meet agen
By the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Looooomond
Which for many years was, in my mind:
You take the high road and I’ll take the low road
And I’ll slaughter countless sheep before ye …
due to some secondhand cultural knowledge via Catdog. But anyway, it’s supposedly the story of two Scottish rebels taken prisoner by the English, one old and one young. The ‘low road’ is the road back home from battle, and the high is the spiritual road that the dead take. Wanting to taunt the imprisoned Scots, the English guards tell them that the next day one of them will be hanged, and the other set free, and they must decide which is which. They argue well into the night over the issue, each insisting that they be the one to die. They eventually fall asleep, the matter unresolved, but when the young soldier awakes he finds a note from the old soldier which reads:
‘I’ll take the high road and you’ll take the low road
And I’ll reach Scotland before ye
For me and my true love will never meet again
By the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond.’
When she told the story we all got shivers down our spines; it was really touching.
On the first day of the tour we visited the gateway village of Dunkeld (the ancient capital of Scotland, left), the pass of Killiecrankie (where a fierce battle was fought against the invading English, above), Ruthven Barracks (the site of the shooting of the last British wolf, below), Avie Moor (a modern, purpose-built ski village where we ate the best soup in the world), the Culloden battlefield where the last battle fought on British soil was held, and finally we stopped at Inverness.
There Ruthie had a surprise for us – a shot of whiskey each. I took mine and instantly knew I was going to throw up. My stomach can’t handle shots at the best of times, let alone just after it’s been destroyed by the dodgy Indian curry I mentioned below in ‘Some things that happened in London’, and, in lieu of a nearby toilet, I just vomited into my mouth and ran ludicrously out the front door, pretending in response to people’s questions that I was all right, that I was looking for something I’d dropped. Unfortunately this didn’t really fool anyone.
Our tour bus was literally divided right down the middle. For some reason, perhaps a Western cultural perception that the back of the bus is cooler, all the Asians were sitting at the front. Attempts to bridge the gap proved fruitless, but the cultural differences were interesting. They all seemed to really love taking photos and footage. The pair in front of us filmed the foggy fens we were driving through for forty minutes at a time which, while majestic, they are NEVER going to watch!
So that night the Australians and Kiwis on the tour headed into town for dinner and drinks, where there were a few ‘Inverness Invershnecky Monsters’ – the cougars of Scotland – to be seen.
Next day we went to Loch Ness at dawn and took the DSLR, or ‘the baby’ as we’re calling it, to great effect:
We also visited Eilean Donan castle, and Portree and Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye, the latter of which being our destination for the night.
Eilean Donan Castle
On the way to our accommodation, Ruthie stopped the bus and told us one of the abovementioned stories of a Scottish warrior princess who was abandoned by her Irish lover and showed us a river apparently formed of her tears. It is said that those that dip their faces in will be afforded eternal youth and beauty so, of course, we were obliged to try:
The place we stayed in Kyleakin was called ‘Saucy Mary’s’, after the medieval owner of a nearby castle who allegedly used to have a great iron chain wound across the river, and if you wanted to pass you had to pay her toll, and if you paid a little extra she’d flash you from her tower.
Photo by Jodie Gough.
Me being sick and Til still being jetlagged, we retired early and missed out on a crazy night:
But despite retiring at like, ten, I was still kept up till two by the noise of the craziness.
By the next day I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, as Anastasia would say, so I resolved to institute my ‘three litres of water a day till better’ rule. This is a surefire cure for flu and colds – it works for me every time; it’s just that usually I’m doing it at home, not on a tour bus winding through the Scottish highlands. Every time we stopped I had to find somewhere to go for a sneaky wee, like up a mountain in Glen Coe, where the traitorous Campbell clan committed their infamous slaughter of their hosts:
Going up the mountain for a pee.
But these stops were a bit scarce, and at one point I had to get Ruthie to pull over and let me out especially. Out I traipsed into knee-high sleet to calls of ‘yellow snow’ from my companions. But it was pure water passing through me.
It wasn’t all just urination, though. At Glencoe Russell, one of the other people on the tour, got a standard jumping pic of some of us:
Til, me, Courtney, Lisa, Emma, Jodie, and Narelle
The last place we stopped on the tour was Stirling, at the Wallace monument, where we saw the most amazing sunset ever:
That night when we returned we all decided to go to the amazing Edinburgh Hogmanay torchlight procession. After wending our way through the city for some time, I moved literally ten steps in front of Tilly and was lost. We could not find each other. I stood there for forty five minutes looking for her before I gave up and went all the way back to the hostel. That was pretty crap.
Then there was New Year’s Eve itself. We started off the night with a good old game of kings which culminated in this:
Another one pilfered from Jodie Gough.
Then we headed out to the street party pretty tipsy and causing havoc. I introduced the group to ‘the lost emu’, a tactic introduced to us by our friend Marielle at Splendour in the Grass to find people. It goes a little something like this:
Basically we danced and sang to the music and laughed at fellow tour participant Courtney’s antics, which involved going up to strangers and dancing with them.
Half the group had tickets to go see Biffy Clyro, so at some point we diverged with plans to meet up again at quarter to twelve to be together at New Year. This did not pan out. We made our way to the rendezvous point, but couldn’t find them. It was five to twelve and we were in a crap spot where we wouldn’t be able to see the fireworks or hear any music countdown, and we were absolutely sardined by everyone around us. We decided to make our way back to where we had been, but then midnight was upon us and we celebrated while squished between thousands of other revellers. And to our disappointment, no one sang Auld Lang Syne! We started it up a couple of times on the way back to the hostel, though, and were joined by some people who actually knew the words, not just vague approximations of sounds put to the melody.
The crowd behind us.
New Year’s Day was our last full day in Scotland, so we spent it seeing the obligatory sights of Edinburgh – the castle, the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first couple of Harry Potter books and the nearby graveyard where she got ideas for character names, and we started but didn’t finish a free ghost tour. Thus ended our experience of Edinburgh, the SECOND MOST HAUNTED CITY IN EUROPE, as the ghost tour sign proclaimed (verified by the International Haunting Index).