Sassenach in Scotland

After many years of traveling, I crossed a couple of “firsts” off my list on my trip to Scotland:

  • My first true solo trip (versus a few days solo before meeting up with friends)
  • My first group tour (oh, the stress that goes into the decision to share your vacation with a group of strangers in a van)
  • My first fangirl, geek tour (the tour had an Outlander theme, visiting the filming locations)
  • My first time falling in love on a vacation

Scotland had been on my list of places to go for a long time, specifically the Scottish Highlands. Every time I watched a movie that took place there, and more recently, watched the TV show Outlander, I thought it looked like the most wonderful, breathtaking place.  And so, in a moment when I was feeling stretched thin and worn out, I decided to go on an adventure by myself, and I booked the tour.

As my departure got closer, I started to panic a bit, worried over what I was about to do. I thought about canceling. But with the impending season three premiere of Outlander, I knew that as soon as I saw the opening credits with the striking scenery, I would kick myself for not going.

So off to Edinburgh I went. The morning I arrived from my overnight flight, it was rainy. To be expected, I thought. And it kept raining. Jet-lagged and groggy, I made my way to my hotel, then walked around, struggling to get onto the correct time zone. It rained some more. A lot more. It was gray and rainy, I was tired and borderline delirious, and I wondered if I had made a mistake in coming.

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DAY ONE – EDINBURGH

The next morning, I awoke, showered, and headed outside into sunshine. I started the day with a brief city tour by bus, then walked over to the Royal Mile. I had planned to visit museums, but it was such a beautiful day that I decided to stay outside instead. I went up to Edinburgh Castle, then strolled all the way down the Royal Mile to Holyrood; the funky Scottish Parliament building; and the base of Arthur’s Seat. I stopped at a Starbucks in between, and drank my latte while watching a bagpipe player and other street performers. Heading back towards my hotel, I passed the Scottish National Gallery, and heard a band playing.  Veering in that direction, I saw a crowd gathered around a three-piece rock band, with guitar, drums, and bagpipes. The sun was warm, the crowd was excited, and the band was fun. As I took it all in, I began to feel a strong affection for Edinburgh.

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DAY TWO – THE TOUR BEGINS

The next morning, the true adventure started. I made my way to the Edinburgh bus depot to await pick-up for the Outlander tour. As I walked past stall after stall of large tour buses, I was happy that I had chosen Rabbie’s, a company that specializes in small group tours. When the Rabbie’s van arrived and a number of people in the waiting area stood up, I quickly scanned the crowd to assess my fellow Outlander fans, wondering who I would get along with. But then a second van pulled up, and the two guides approached, decked out in full Scottish attire. As the list of passenger names for each van was called out, the crowd became shuffled, and my focus turned to making sure I got to the correct van.

Waiting to put my luggage in the van, I struck up a conversation with the woman standing next to me. Paige was also a solo traveler. We were among the last to get our luggage on, and so ended up with seats in the back. A few other women joined our section – two best friends and another solo gal – and we quickly established a warm rapport.

And then our guide introduced himself. Mac (full name: Mackenzie Dalrymple), an experienced Rabbie’s guide, told us that he likes tweaking the tour based on any new places he’s discovered. He said to forget the printed itinerary we brought (which I had forgotten to do), make sure to be on time in the morning so that we don’t risk missing anything, and always wear a seatbelt.

Then we were off. Close to the outskirts of the city, we made our first stop. It was Lallybroch Castle (real name: Midhope Castle), a key location in Outlander. The fans on the bus jumped up – there were a few husbands, and one teenage son, along for the ride – and Paige exclaimed, “That was so fast!” A swarm of photos followed as we all posed on the front steps. Returning to the van, our back of the bus gang (as we came to call ourselves) was ecstatic. With that first stop, whatever doubts I had about doing a tour were gone. This was going to be fun.

Our next stop was Culross, the setting for the town of Cranesmuir in the show, where Geillis Duncan lived. It is also where they filmed Claire’s herb garden. With ample time to stroll through the town, our group scattered amongst their interests. My first interest was a restroom and coffee, which I found via a cafe down a cobblestone side street. Latte in hand, I made my way back to the town square, where I saw Mac with a trash-grabber and trash bag in hand, picking up garbage around the square. An unusual thing for a guide to do, I thought.

After Culross, we went to the town of Falkland, which stands in for 1940s Inverness in Outlander. Mac told us that this was his hometown, and that his father’s place makes an appearance in the show. Some key scenes were filmed here, and there was more geeking out from the group (especially the Back of the Bus).

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As we made our way into the Highlands, Mac began to tell us stories of Scottish history, and of the Jacobites. I realized that everything I knew came from Outlander, with a dash of Braveheart. I appreciated learning more, or as often was the case, learning more accurately.

Our last scheduled stop for the day was the Highland Folk Museum. The museum features replicas of 18th century Highland dwellings, and was featured on Outlander in the episode “Rent”. I qualify this as a scheduled stop, because along the way and then after this, we stopped other times. The great thing about being in the 16 passenger van was that Mac was able to easily pull over many times so we could get out and walk a trail, or cross a pedestrian bridge, or run across the street to photograph Highland cattle we unexpectedly came across. It quickly felt less like a group tour and more like a road trip with friends.

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At each stop, Mac would collect trash while we took pictures, and I began to understand why he was doing it. With so much natural beauty all around us, it was in fact upsetting to see the occasional empty bag of chips or discarded water bottle along the side of the road. I thought about times when I’ve come across the same sight in my own country, and felt guilty that I never attempted to clean it up. “Isn’t that what we pay taxes for?” or “Somebody should clean that up,” was usually my thought process.

We ended the day in the real Inverness, the largest city in the Highlands. Everyone stayed in different hotels or B&Bs, and I was happy to see that my hotel had a restaurant. The excitement of the day had left me exhausted, and with an early pick-up the next morning, I enjoyed a nice dinner then went straight to bed.

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DAY THREE – SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS

Once again, Mac started the day with a bang. We went to Clava Cairns, a prehistoric burial site with standing stones. While not the same stones used in Outlander (which were built by the studio for the show), the similarity was enough to have our BOB crew (you know what that means by now, right?) channeling our inner Claire to pose for pictures.

We next went to Culloden, site of the significant 1746 battle that effectively ended the Jacobite uprising of 1745. I knew a little bit about Culloden from the show, but I was grateful that Mac had spent most of the previous day telling us about Jacobite history, and listing the events that had led up to this final confrontation. The visitor’s center at the battlefield (I hate to even call it a battlefield because it’s such beautiful land, reminiscent of Gettysburg) had a very detailed display delineating both sides of the conflict. But I was glad that I had enough of a background by the time we arrived that I could skim through and head outside to spend time walking the grounds, reflecting on the events that had transpired.

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After a few more stops that deviated from the itinerary, we then went for a hike up to Rogie Falls. Mac had told us that we didn’t need to cross the pedestrian bridge, because we would be going down the same way we came up. But the bridge proved irresistible, as the view was stunning, and had the best spots to take pictures of the falls (and some selfies). I felt like I was in a fairy tale, with water the color of beer (due to the peat, Mac said), magical mushrooms (don’t even touch them, he said), trees that stretched upwards forever, such that I couldn’t even see the tops, and woodland creatures in raincoats bobbing up and down (actually, those were people in our group helping Mac pick up trash – we were now committed to the cause.)

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I feel like I need to point out that there is not that much garbage in the Scottish Highlands. I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s akin to New York City streets. But with the rise in tourism over the years, an increase in visitors inevitably leads to an increase in debris.  One of my biggest frustrations as my travels have reached more exotic destinations is arriving at natural or cultural wonders of the world and finding them jammed with tourists and the mess we leave behind. So I thought it was wise of Mac, and Rabbie’s, to work so hard to ensure the tourist rush doesn’t result in irreversible damage to the natural beauty of Scotland.

Back to the tour. After our nice hike, it was time for a well deserved whisky. At a distillery. Whisky played no part in my decision to go to Scotland. I had never been a whisky drinker, aside from a brief time in my late twenties when I was good friends with this glamorous Indian scientist who always wanted to do shots of whisky. She weighed about eighty pounds, yet always managed to drink me under the table. When she eventually got married and moved away, my whisky drinking days were over. For the best, I thought.

But after a visit to the Glen Ord Distillery, and getting a proper lesson in whisky-making, I was willing to try a dram. A single-malt, aged twelve years, sipped among new friends, was like a golden elixir of bliss. Warm and happy, I felt like I could stay in Scotland forever. As we departed, our BOB crew tried to figure out what a dram was exactly. Was it a measurement? Was it a type of glass used to serve whisky? Paige finally asked, “Mac, what is a dram?” His reply: “A dram is a measure of a man’s hospitality.” And we all got it.

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Returning to Inverness for a second night, the sun was still out and the town was alive with activity on a Saturday evening. My hotel was a bit of a walk from the main part of town, so I asked Mac to drop me off in a more central location so I could find dinner. As I walked along looking at options, I came to the river Ness. I strolled along the river taking photos, then decided that it was such a lovely evening I would just keep walking around town. It was nice to see the neighborhoods of Inverness and get a feel for the city. I ended up back at my hotel bar, enjoying the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, along with a pint of Scottish beer and soccer (football!) on TV.

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DAY FOUR – LOCH NESS

I was enjoying everything about Scotland. Each day was so full that I should have slept soundly at night. Except I didn’t get much sleep. Between looking over my photos in bed, processing the day’s events, thinking about how much I loved Scotland, and worrying about missing my alarm early the next morning, I was getting by on about four hours of solid sleep a night. On some of our drives, rolling through the lush Scottish countryside on a rainy day, it was easy to drift off for a wee nap. And some people did, but I couldn’t. Either Mac was telling a great story about Scottish history or folklore that captured my full attention, or he was playing Scottish folk music and as I looked out the window I didn’t want to close my eyes for a second.

Leaving Inverness the next morning, we would end the day at Fort William. Our first stop was Glen Affric, a national nature reserve featuring ancient Caledonian pinewoods. It was a misty morning, with occasional light rain, and as we hiked up to an overlook with stunning views of the river and mountains, it couldn’t get more romantic. And then Mac pulled bagpipes out of his case and played the Outlander theme, and it got more romantic. We all paused in astonishment before grabbing our phones to record him. Two days in, and in addition to being an encyclopedia of Scottish history and a bard of Scottish tales (all while driving a stick shift van), he now reveals that he also plays the bagpipes? I was captivated by him.

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After a few more stops within Glen Affric, we arrived at Loch Ness. As iconic as it is, I had no idea what to expect. Perhaps I didn’t do enough homework, but every image I conjured of Loch Ness was a grainy black and white photo of what was supposedly the Loch Ness monster, courtesy of the National Enquirer. The actual Loch Ness is quite large. And beautiful. We took a boat across the lake, and in between taking selfies I looked for signs of Nessie, but had no sightings.

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The boat dropped us off at Urquhart Castle, which was essentially the ruins of a castle that had been attacked numerous times. Because it was so open and exposed, it was a great place to from which to stare out onto the majestic Loch Ness.

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Continuing on, we made one stop after another, as we would drive pass a beautiful view and Mac would pull over to let us explore and take pictures. We eventually reached Glenfinnan, and hiked up a path leading to a view so stunning that Paige exclaimed, “Oh, come on! It just keeps getting better!” She was right, it was almost comical that the beauty was never-ending. It blew my mind that this was a place where people lived and not something created on a Hollywood lot. Fans of Harry Potter were excited to see the “Harry Potter bridge” in the distance, and I vowed to finally watch the movie when I got home.

We ended the day in Fort William, the gateway to Ben Nevis, which is the highest mountain in the UK. Our back of the bus gang decided to meet up for dinner. With only one night in Fort William, dining out was a fun way to see a bit of the town. We all tried the Haggis, fortunately as an appetizer. Unable to describe what we were eating – “it’s not terrible, but it’s not great” – I finally decided that it tasted like school lunch from my elementary school cafeteria. Everyone agreed.

DAY FIVE – BACK TO EDINBURGH

I woke up on the last morning of the tour feeling sad.  I couldn’t believe this would be our final day together. I decided to not take as many pictures, so that I could just absorb everything and impress as much onto my memory and senses as possible.

After a few more scenic stops and a visit to the town of Killin, Mac decided to take us to the gravesite of Rob Roy. We were once again treated to bagpipes, as a tribute to this legendary figure in Scottish history. Then we headed to a group lunch at Mhor 84, a charming roadside motel and restaurant that could have easily fit into a California wine country stop. I ordered a cheddar and chutney sandwich, and was tempted to walk back into the kitchen and ask for the rest of the cheese, as it was so good.

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By this point, I had become so engrossed in Scottish history that I had forgotten about Outlander. And of course the itinerary I never brought was long forgotten. So it was actually a surprise that our next stop was another pivotal Outlander location. We arrived at Castle Doune, which in the show is Castle Leoch (and can also be seen in Game of Thrones as well as Monty Python and the Holy Grail). My fangirl came back out as I explored the castle, enthralled by Sam Heughan’s commentary on the audio guide.

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Like a back to back Outlander binge, our next stop was the location for the Duke of Sandringham’s estate. Mac said that we were the first group he had brought to Hopetoun House, and it was his first visit as well. Unlike the other places we saw, the estate was still partially used as a residence, and throughout the home there were recent photos of the family. It felt kind of weird to walk through, as if I was snooping through someone’s house, but I enjoyed the outside photo op. I also found it extremely interesting that the docent referred to the Jacobites as primarily Irish and French mercenaries, saying that they didn’t really represent Scotland. After everything we had learned over the past four days, and knowing that this was Mac’s first visit, I wondered what he must have been thinking. Or perhaps it wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard before. It reminded me of the ongoing perspectives on the American Civil War.

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Returning to Edinburgh, we made a final photo stop to see the Forth Bridges. The three Forth Bridges cross the Firth of Forth (you know you want to say that ten times fast). I had never heard of them before visiting Scotland, but they are an unusual and strangely beautiful sight. In a display of architectural history, each bridge comes from different centuries. The original, an UNESCO World Heritage site, was opened in 1890, and is presently used as a railway bridge. The other two were opened in 1964 and 2017.

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And then, just like that, it was over. Like when you’re having a blast dancing the night away with your friends during Eighties night at the club, and the music stops and the lights come blaring on, and you turn to your friends in a daze, wondering what time it is and how did you get so old, and then sadly realize you have to go home.  (Is that just me?)  Mac dropped us off in downtown Edinburgh, which at 6pm was a busy scene. We quickly said goodbye and thank you, and then he drove away.  I felt an ache in my heart and turned to the BOB gang, “Ladies, let’s go get a dram.”

After getting settled into our accommodations, we met up at the Royal Mile Tavern for dinner and a whisky. Completely by coincidence, a few other people from the tour walked in the door, and we had a nice evening discussing our time together. Sipping my Monkey Shoulder, I was so glad I had gone through with this trip and joined this tour and met these people. I was especially grateful to have had a guide like Mac. The Highland scenery is stunning on its own, but to have someone narrating the trip, explaining Scottish history, and what role a small bridge played in a pivotal event, or which river a Jacobite warrior jumped into while making his escape was so much better than reading a guide book or pamphlet. He made Scottish history come alive in a way I have never experienced before.

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Our BOB gang said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch. Paige and I were both in town for another day, and so planned to meet up for dinner the next evening. With a heavy heart, I returned to my hotel and at last feel into a deep sleep.

DAY SIX – HEARTBROKEN

My last day in Scotland, I forced myself to get up much earlier than my body wanted to. I didn’t want to waste one minute of the day. I ordered the “detox breakfast” at the hotel restaurant – poached eggs, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and smoked salmon. I was amused that this would have easily been a typical breakfast at any California cafe.

My mission was to buy souvenirs. But with a small suitcase allowance for the Outlander tour, my bag was packed full and I actually didn’t have any room for souvenirs. So my first mission was to buy a duffel bag, which I found at TK Maxx (which looks exactly the same as TJ Maxx in the US). Once found, I loaded up with goodies to bring home, but was sure to leave enough time to visit the National Museum of Scotland.

The National Museum was super cool. Like a Victorian exploratorium, it was full of display upon display upon display. It was as if every Smithsonian museum had been condensed into one building. Which I thought was a very efficient thing to do. You could find science, history, fashion, design, and fossils, plus a cafe in the middle.

I met Paige for dinner at The Last Drop, in the Grassmarket area. I was happy to have the chance to explore one more part of the city before leaving. As we enjoyed our dinner, an American couple sat next to us and ordered the haggis. I chuckled to myself at this cycle.  Just a few days ago, we were the ones taking pictures of our haggis and counting down that first bite, having no idea what we were about to experience.

I was glad to be leaving early the next morning. I needed a quick goodbye. I couldn’t linger any longer or else I might cry. I didn’t want to leave but it was unavoidable. Why was it so hard? I’ve been to other amazing places, and yet this one was different. This one was special. I felt like I was leaving a piece of my heart here, and that’s when I realized it. I had fallen in love. No, not with Mac. Well, okay, maybe a little bit with Mac. But I had fallen in love with Scotland. And just like 1960s Claire, I knew that I had to go back.

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