Return to Scotland, Part 2: Glasgow & Skye

Continuing from Return to Scotland, Part I: The Lake District……

From the moment I got off the train in Glasgow, I was hesitant.  I loved Edinburgh, and knew these two cities had a bit of a rivalry, but I wanted to give Glasgow a fair chance.  I had no idea what to expect.  Making my way out of the train station, I felt like I was coming out of Penn Station in New York City.  I immediately knew this was going to be very different from Edinburgh.  The city felt younger, the buildings more modern yet still aged.  Much like New York, there was a blend of historical architecture and utilitarian structures.  The streets were more littered than Edinburgh, and the pedestrians more intense.

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I checked into my hotel and set out in search of lunch.  Close to my hotel I found a sandwich shop called “Where the Monkey Sleeps.”  Curious, I walked in and was greeted by a friendly young man in a “McCain/Palin 2008” t-shirt.  It amused me enough that I decided to stay.  The man told me that his uncle lives in Texas and sends him lots of Americana items.  He then turned on some Delta Blues music for me to enjoy while I ate my lunch.  Okay, so Glasgow has some personality, I thought.

I decided to go on a hop on/off bus tour of Glasgow in the afternoon, to orient myself and hopefully find some places that I’d like to visit over the next two days.  I had a tour scheduled for the next morning, but that still left me with a day and half to fill.  Aside from a traffic stop near the auditorium – called the Armadillo – where Susan Boyle auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent and became a viral sensation, nothing I saw got me particularly excited.

By the time I returned to my room that Friday evening, I was concerned that I had allowed myself too much time in Glasgow.  My Rabbie’s tour to the Isle of Skye departed from Glasgow on Monday morning, and with my Saturday plans essentially covering my checklist, I was afraid that Sunday would turn out to be a bust.  But then I came up with a plan.

SATURDAY

Before leaving home, I searched Trip Advisor for walking tours of Glasgow, and came across an Outlander tour that would take me to filming locations around the city.  These locations matched what I wanted to see anyway, so I signed up.  On Saturday morning, I met my guide Andrée outside of the Glasgow Cathedral.  I learned that Andrée was from Tasmania, and had taken a sabbatical from her job to move to Glasgow for a year and work with the Outlander fan community.  It was to be a private tour for me, and I felt lucky to have her all to myself, as I enjoyed sharing stories with her and listening to her adventures.

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Our tour took us from the gothic Glasgow Cathedral and onto the Glasgow subway, which follows a simple, circular route around the city.  The subway car was tiny and tubular, like a pneumatic tube, and for a few moments I felt like I was in a Kubrick movie.  It was interesting, but a bit claustrophobic.  We arrived in the neighborhood around the University of Glasgow, and visited the street in Outlander that was supposed to be Boston in the 1950s and 1960s.  We then went on to the university and its famous Cloisters.  It was a beautiful sunny day, and as we walked through Kelvingrove Park on our way to the Kelvingrove Museum, the park was full of students, families, bagpipe rehearsals, and an art exhibit.  I enjoyed taking it all in.

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When the tour ended at the Kelvingrove, my original plan was to spend the afternoon visiting the museum.  But the lovely weather was too tempting.  I said my goodbye to Andrée and wished her well on bagging her first munro the next day, then made my way over to Ashton Lane for lunch.  The bars were packed, but I found a cute spot called Dixie Chick offering fried chicken sandwiches and sweet potato fries.

On my way back to the museum, I made a detour at the Mackintosh House.  I had heard of the Mackintosh style and how Charles Rennie Mackintosh was connected to Glasgow much the way Frank Lloyd Wright was connected to Chicago and Gaudí was connected to Barcelona, but I was unfamiliar with his work.  So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tour the home he lived in from 1906-1914, which had actually been relocated to the university campus.  It was a cool experience, and ended up complementing my visit to the museum, which featured more of his work.  I was hoping to find a piece of artwork to bring home from this trip, and in the gift shop I found a print he designed for a publication that was exactly what I was looking for.

Not wanting a return trip on the subway, I made the long walk back to my hotel.  But the streets and parks were full of people, and I enjoyed my stroll through the neighborhoods as I made my way into the city center.

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SUNDAY

Ah, the Sunday dilemma.  With everything on my Glasgow list accomplished on Saturday, I was at a loss for Sunday plans.  But having checked the Rabbie’s website Friday night, I found a half-day tour of the Kelpies available on Sunday morning, and signed up for a trip out of the city.  What are the Kelpies?  See for yourself.

The Kelpies are fascinating steel sculptures located about 30 minutes outside of Glasgow.  It was cool to see them up close.  The tour then went on to the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift.  Our group was lucky enough to see it in action shortly after our arrival.  But at this point we were two hours into a four hour tour, and had seen everything.  I again wondered what to do with the rest of my day.  When by chance our guide Stuart discovered that nobody in the group had been to Stirling Castle, he decided to go rogue and take us there.  We wouldn’t have time to tour the castle, but we could drive through the town and see it up close.

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Stirling Castle is a famous part of Scottish history, but having seen Edinburgh Castle, and with it again being a beautiful sunny day, I was totally fine with not having time to tour it.  But the town was charming, and when we arrived at the top of the hill to get out and see the castle grounds, I made a beeline for the ice cream truck parked just outside.  With a strawberry ice cream cone in hand, looking out over the glorious Scottish countryside, I was perfectly happy.

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Returning to Glasgow in the early afternoon, the city was packed.  I found an open seat at a pizza place and made my plans for the rest of the day.  Glasgow has a number of large murals, some of which I had already seen and thought were amazing.  So I went to the tourist office nearby, grabbed a map of the murals, and spent the afternoon locating as many as I could find.  Some were hard to photograph as they were in alleys, but I did manage to locate half of them.  It was a fun challenge for myself and an interesting way to see more of the city.  But by the end of the day, I was ready to leave Glasgow and head out to Skye.

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SKYE – DAY ONE

The departure time for the Rabbie’s tour to Glasgow was 9 am, but we were asked to be there 15 minutes early.  Approaching the mini-coach at 8:45 on the dot, I didn’t see any other travelers and so assumed I was one of the first to arrive.  But when I got on board, I saw the coach was almost full.  I grabbed the first available seat, greeted my fellow passengers, and quickly got settled.  Just as we were about to depart, one last passenger arrived.  He took the open seat next to me, and as we drove out of Glasgow, I wondered how he would set the tone of my trip.  Either we get along and have a good time, or he drives me crazy and dampens my experience.

Our first stops out of Glasgow were actually places I had been before on my Outlander tour.  In fact, it almost seemed like the Outlander tour in reverse, as we stopped at Glencoe and then Fort William for lunch.  I remember being sad on my last visit because it was the end of the tour, so I was able to better appreciate Glencoe in particular this time as I was not on the verge of tears like before.  Plus, our awesome guide Fraser played the song Skyfall as we drove through the part of Glencoe where they filmed Skyfall, and I was too busy imagining myself cruising through Scotland with James Bond to be wistful.

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By now my seat mate Zain and I had begun chatting, and we ended up having lunch together in Fort William.  He was an American graduate student enjoying a vacation after his finals, and we got along well.  Following a stop at the Commando Memorial overlooking Ben Nevis, also seen on my Outlander tour, we headed west towards Skye, and everything from then on was new to me.

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There is a very nice bridge to the Isle of Skye, but Fraser told us we couldn’t go “over the sea to Skye,” as the song goes, without going over the sea to Skye on the ferry.  While technically a ferry, the Glenelg Ferry is tiny.  It ended up taking two trips to get our group across, which worked out nicely by allowing time for everyone to stretch their legs and watch the ferry crossing.

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We made our way to Portree, our home base for the next two nights.  I checked into my hotel and decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant.  Afterward, I went for a stroll along the waterfront, and while the main square of Portree was hopping with tourists, the iconic waterfront was tranquil and quiet.  On my way back to my hotel, I ran into three of the solo guys on my tour, including Zain.  They invited me to join them for a drink, but with an early start the next morning, I suspected that I would regret not continuing my journey to my bed, and so I passed.

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SKYE – DAY TWO

Let me just start by saying that Tuesday turned out to be my absolute favorite day.  We began with stops at some dramatic – and windy – views.  It was quite majestic, and at times felt like we were on the edge of the world.

After some breathtaking heights, we drove down for a stop at Staffin Beach.  The beach was dreamy and romantic, with layers of sand, water, and mountain all blending into each other, obscured by the mist, and occasionally punctuated with blasts of green algae.  I was having a hard time getting a good picture of myself, and spotted Zain taking pictures with Simon, another tour mate.  They had become friendly, frequently taking pictures for each other, and I could tell they knew what they were doing.  So I asked for their help, and at last got a picture that captured how I was feeling.

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On our way to our next stop, the Quiraing, Fraser told us the folk legend of the faeries.  He said to beware of what appears to be a ten-year-old child befriending you, as this is usually a faery ready to snatch you away to the netherworld.  Once there, you end up on a journey that may feel like it’s fifteen minutes long, but when you return home you discover that years or even decades have passed since you left.  We all had a nice chuckle as we stepped off the mini-coach and into the light rain.

And then “the incident” happened.

There was a short path leading to the overlook of the Quiraing.  Fraser couldn’t find a parking space near the start of the path, so he told us to go ahead and he would drive further up to park.  Our group made our way, laughing about the wind and reminding each other to hold on tightly to our camera phones.

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As I reached the top of the path, I realized that the rain had intensified and that, while my rain coat was keeping most of me dry, my jeans were starting to get soaked in the lower leg.  We still had much of the day ahead of us, so after getting a few pictures, I decided to return to the mini-coach.  On my way down the path, I ran into Celia and Maren, two sisters on my tour.  Not wanting to be the first one back on the coach, I asked if they were ready to go back.  The three of us trekked back together.  Fraser had ended up parking a bit far away, or possibly it only seemed far when walking in the pouring rain and strong wind.  When we got on the coach, I was surprised to find that most of our group was already there.  Just three were still out in the rain – Zain, Simon, and Ryan.  The same three guys I had passed up for drinks the night before.

As we waited for them, Fraser mentioned that this was the location of Harry Styles’ music video for “Sign of the Times.”  He then played the song for us, which fit perfectly with the rainy atmosphere.  But once it ended and we sat in silence for a while, I began to worry.  The rain was intense, and I knew Zain did not have on rain gear, and had only been wearing loafers.  How could he possibly stand it out there?  What if something had happened?  I imagined him slipping and falling down the hillside, unable to get back up, and Simon and Ryan trying to help him.  What if it was worse than that?  What if he was injured, or worse?  On my Lake District tour, our guide told us that a fellow guide had fallen to his death just weeks prior while losing his footing trying to get a picture of a tourist.  What would happen to our tour if we had a similar tragedy?

We continued to wait.  There was an uneasiness to the group, a mix of anxiety, frustration, and fatigue. Eventually, Fraser turned off the engine and put on his rain coat.  “I’ll be back,” he said, and headed out into the fog to find them.  More time passed.  With the engine off and the keys with Fraser, the lack of air conditioning that had kept the windows clear quickly led to a loss of visibility.  I got up and opened the passenger door a few times to see if I could spot anyone in the distance.  But I saw nothing.  I was sure something bad had happened.  More time passed.

Then, at last, I spotted a blur through the foggy window.  I jumped out of my seat, opened the passenger door and looked out.  Four blue dots eventually transformed into four bodies, and soon enough four soaking wet men were heading our way.  When they got back on the mini-coach I expressed my concern.  Ryan seemed baffled.  “How long were we gone?” he asked.  We told him it had been a very long time.  “It only felt like fifteen minutes,” he replied.  And that’s when I understood.  They had been with the faeries.

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Following this episode, what we all needed was a stiff drink.  Now a whisky drinker following my Outlander tour, I was in the mood for a single malt.  But our next stop was to the Isle of Skye Brewing Company, where we enjoyed a tasting of this Skye specialty.  While not initially in the mood for a beer, it was a delicious and comforting treat after our previous episode.  We returned to Portree for lunch, then it was off on our afternoon adventure.

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We had two options for the afternoon, either tour Donvegan Castle, or head on to Neist Point for a hike to a lighthouse and more scenic views.  Fraser stopped at the castle, and half of our group got off.  The rest, myself included, went on to Neist Point.  Maybe it was because our group was suddenly smaller, but the energy on the mini-coach changed.  With more seating available, I went to sit near Simon and had a nice conversation with him.  He was from Sweden and on a Eurorail vacation for a few weeks.  There was a Chinese family with a father and two grown daughters in our group.  The father went to the castle, and the daughters stayed for Neist Point.  Zain and Ryan were also still in the mini-coach, as well as Brian, an older Canadian man traveling solo.  I suppose we were the more adventurous of the group – all the solo travelers plus the Chinese sisters – and that’s why we developed a camaraderie.

Once again, Neist Point provided us with stunning scenery.  By now the rain had cleared, and the sun was out.  But it was still windy, of course.  After I requested a few photos from Simon and Zain, the guys took off on their eternal mission to find the best spot for the perfect picture.  Brian and Ryan had quickly disappeared.  I took a few photos of the sisters, and then the three of us headed towards the lighthouse.  Fraser joined us for the part of the way, and I enjoyed our conversation.  He asked me about my quick return to Scotland after my last trip.  “I came last fall because I like Outlander and wanted to see where it was filmed.  I didn’t expect that I would fall in love with Scotland,” I told him.  He smiled, then told me that he had better keep an eye on Simon and Zain after “the incident,” and went off in their direction.

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Eventually, we all made our way back to the mini-coach and then picked up our fellow passengers from the castle.  Returning to Portree, I freshened up in my hotel room and set out in search of dinner.  I ran into Celia and Maren, who invited me to join them.  I had a lovely dinner with these ladies.  They had great stories to tell of their adventures traveling together, and I hoped that my own sister and I could someday be like them.  Returning to my hotel, I found Zain, Simon, and Ryan at my hotel bar watching a soccer (football) game.  While I was done drinking for the night, I joined them.  Zain was not drinking, either, but feeling thirsty, we decided to try the popular Scottish soda Irn Bru.  It looked like Gatorade but tasted like cotton candy.  An acquired taste, I guess.  I had a fun evening bonding with the guys, Simon and Zain in particular.  Brian showed up at the bar, and eventually Fraser as well, dropping by with a fellow Rabbie’s guide from another tour.

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SKYE – DAY THREE

Our final day in Skye was alarming, literally.  I was just finishing packing up my bag to check out, when the fire alarm went off in the hotel.  I took all my stuff with me, and as I lugged my suitcase down three flights of stairs, fellow guests ran past me, some in their bathrobes.  “It’s a fire alarm!” they yelled at me, trying to get around my suitcase.  “Yes, but I’m still checking out,” I replied.  I was not going to be late for the tour.

In getting out of there earlier than I expected, as I waited in the town square pick-up spot, who should drive up in a Rabbie’s van but Mac, my beloved guide from my Outlander tour.  He was leading a Skye tour from Edinburgh, and greeted me with a big hug.  I thought how funny it would have been if I had taken this tour from Edinburgh.  I might have had Mac as my guide again.  But I stayed in Glasgow that extra day and ended up on this tour, with Fraser and Zain and Simon.  And I was having a great time.  So I wished him well, and he was off.  When Fraser pulled up a few minutes later, I was happy to see him.  Our first stop was Sligachan, with breath-taking views of the Cuillin Mountains.

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Then it was over the Skye Bridge, after a brief stop to take a photo and say our proper goodbyes to Skye.  We next stopped at Eilean Donan Castle.  I had seen this castle in photos, and looked forward to seeing it in person.  But when Fraser mentioned that this was the castle used in the movie Maid of Honor (which he disparaged and I tried my best to defend as a cute romantic comedy), I was excited to check it out.  It’s a beautiful castle, but I found it to be a bit claustrophobic inside, between the narrow passages and other tourists filling up tight corners.  So after a brief walk through, I made a quick exit to admire it from outside.

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From the castle, we drove along the edge of Loch Ness to the town of Fort Augustus.  This being my second trip to Loch Ness, I felt compelled to recreate the pose from my previous visit.  We had our lunch break here, and Zain, Simon and I got some take-away and enjoyed our lunch al fresco next to the lake.  There was a dog frolicking in the water, and I told the guys that if it had a tail and was in Loch Ness, we could technically say we saw the Loch Ness Monster.  Although, the dog was barking quite intensely at something in the water, so I’m not sure we weren’t actually in the presence of the mythical creature.

Our last stop was the town of Pitlochry, where Fraser promised I would find delicious ice cream.  I had been so lucky with the weather the entire time.  I know people who have been to Skye and saw nothing for days, as the rain and fog were so heavy.  Aside from the brief episode of rain Tuesday morning during “the incident,” the sun had been shining brightly and the weather was warm enough for a whisky ice cream cone, which was as amazing as Fraser said it would be.

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Making our way toward Glasgow, I got my final soundtrack wish, as Fraser announced the unofficial anthem of Scotland, and put on The Proclaimers “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”.  Blasting this song as we drove through the Scottish countryside was awesome, and I’m grateful to my seat mate Zain for indulging my carpool karaoke moment.  When we returned to Glasgow, Zain was quickly off to the airport for an evening flight to Belfast.  We hugged like old friends.  I was sorry to see him go, but hoped we would keep in touch.  Simon and I walked a bit before our paths split.  I was full of emotion.  Here I was again, after an amazing adventure in Scotland, having to say goodbye to people with whom I had shared experiences and bonded.  Simon gave me a big hug, and I hoped our paths would cross again someday.

I checked into my hotel, then went out for one last dinner in Glasgow.  Having had such a fun time in Skye, I now viewed Glasgow through a different perspective.  It’s not so bad.  I might even miss it. I will forever associate it with the trip to Skye and my fortune in meeting great people.  The next morning, making my way to the train station back to Edinburgh, I hesitated again.  Would I feel the same way about Edinburgh now?

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EDINBURGH

Of course!  I love Edinburgh.  As the train slowed into the station, we came underneath the Castle, and I felt like I had come home.  My hotel was in the Grassmarket neighborhood, a place I had discovered the last evening of my previous trip and thought was really cool.  I knew I wanted to spend the final two days of my trip to Scotland in this area.  I passed the afternoon exploring and eating ice cream, returning to my room in time to watch my new favorite British reality shows.

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The next day I had one mission, to climb Arthur’s Seat.  Fortunately, the weather was beautiful.  With the whole day free, I took my time climbing up and stopped to enjoy the views.  I don’t even know how long I stayed at the peak, as my mind surveyed the horizon and drifted down memory lane.  I saw Calton Hill, the Forth Bridges, the Royal Yacht Britannia, the Castle, and the road we had taken down towards the Lake District.  What a fabulous way to sum up my adventures in Scotland.  I appreciated that I did this hike last, so I knew what I was looking at.  I could have stayed there all day, but the yellow gurse flowers enveloping the mountain smelled of coconut (seriously), and I found myself craving a fruit smoothie.

I spent the evening back in Grassmarket, and prepared for my final day in Scotland, which happened to be the day of………..THE ROYAL WEDDING!  I discovered that a bar near the university was showing the wedding of Harry & Meghan (ahem, Duke & Duchess of Sussex) on a large outdoor screen, so after a quick breakfast I made my over.  I got there before the scheduled opening time, but they were already letting people in.  It was a smart decision, as the place quickly filled up.  I had a blast drinking a gin & tonic and watching the wedding with the local crowd.

Once the wedding was over, and the screen turned to football (soccer), I went over to the university to find my final souvenir, a gift for my nephew.  It was a fun atmosphere on a Saturday afternoon, with students, skateboarders, and a reggae party.  I kind of hoped he would consider attending the University of Edinburgh someday.  I decided that my final meal would be a return visit to my favorite pizza place, Pizza Posto, for a repeat of the best meal I had eaten in my two weeks in Scotland.  I walked in and was greeted by the same waiter I had before, a sweet young man named Simon.  It was meant to be.  After a final whisky ice cream cone on the walk back to my hotel, I chose to spend my last night in my room.  It had a great view, and with the TV on and my feet up, I could imagine I was hanging out in my own apartment in Edinburgh.

I returned to Scotland so soon after my previous visit because I felt my first trip was incomplete, like there was more waiting for me to see.  I figured one more trip would get it out of my system, and I would direct my focus to my next travel destination.  But when I later received this picture from Simon of Zain and I walking towards the mountains, I couldn’t help but call to mind the line from my father’s favorite movie: “I think this is beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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