The plan. Or the lack of it.
In 2016, a friend invited me to go to Scotland on a holiday. It was so casually mentioned that it seemed like nothing more than tea-time conversation. Unknown to this friend, however, my ears went all pointy like a mastiff’s at the mention of the country. Many fantasies had been played out in my head in the past – men in kilts playing lilting music atop cliffs with steep drops into blue-green waters… the incredible moors and velvety moss covering it… the food… the near-musical Scottish accent… remembering Skyfall sort of sealed the deal for me. The catch? I only had two and a half weeks to put the plan in motion.
And so came the last-minute rush for the visa. My friend and I decided to leave the stays and places to visit for when I would get my visa – I didn’t know if I would make it, till the last minute. (Big mistake, this lack of planning. An impromptu holiday in Europe is the worst thing that can happen to your savings, especially if you’re Indian, because everything is expensive when you don’t book in advance.)
I waited in anticipation for my visa. Packed my bags. Had multiple conversations with people about where to go and what to do. Kept looking at travel websites for cheaper return flights. Bit my nails till my fingers were tiny stubs. Kept telling myself to not get overly excited because I’d be super-disappointed if the visa fell through. Until finally, my Dad called me at work two days before I was scheduled to leave: “There’s a VFS parcel that’s arrived for you.”
Later that evening, I went home and tore open the package even before saying hello to my parents, preparing my mind for the worst as I did so. I removed my passport with shaky hands and turned the pages one by one, searching, squinting, dreading… where was the darn vi…
There it was, my permission to enter the country, alongside my goony-looking mug shot. I was going to Scotland!
Dreamy, like the setting for Wuthering Heights, minus the intense, deeply messed-up characters. A bitter-sweet gloominess, with grey clouds overshadowing a bright blue sky in patches.
Drizzly. It’s not the hard-hitting kind of rain, but just a constant murmur from the sky in the background; you grow oblivious to it pretty quickly.
Nippy. Wonderfully, exhilaratingly nippy. Some would call it cold and chilly, but I was so excited to just be there that the cold didn’t affect me.
It was around 5:45 a.m. when I stepped out of Edinburgh airport. I couldn’t be happier with the early start – I had 10 days in Scotland and was okay with early mornings. Well, some of the time! Question was, with so much to see and do, how could I make the most of its beauty? So here’s the list of places I went to.
Edinburgh, the hilly capital of Scotland, is one of the oldest cities in the world – and it shows. Everywhere you turn, there are beautiful buildings and monuments that have stood steady over time. The Royal Mile is full of mesmerising churches, offices, hotels and towers. By-lanes are full of restaurants serving everything from Scottish specialties to Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, French, Italian and Indian cuisine. If you do go, don’t forget to visit the Camera Obscura close to the Edinburgh Castle. It’s full of quaint little optical illusions, art pieces and souvenirs to take home.
The Edinburgh Castle itself will take you an entire day to explore. We didn’t reach it in time to view the crown jewels, which are supposed to be magnificent, but we pretty much covered everything else. The view of the city from the castle walls is simply stunning. You’ll see modern structures sprinkled between ancient architecture; the densely populated areas start thinning towards the edge of the water and merge into the sea. The sight, quite frankly, is magnificent. Pick a guided audio tour and explore at your own pace.
Street performances abound. We caught a fire show, musicians and living statues performing. Towards the evening, my friend decided to head to Arthur’s Seat – a viewpoint atop a hill – and I decided to sit in a park close to the castle and soak in the vibe of the city. A squirrel apprehensively approached a group of teenage hipsters who chased it around. Pigeons pecked, gurgling away. Sea gulls ventured into the park as well. Shops started winding down their shutters. One by one, the lights in the Balmoral Hotel came on. The Scottish monument lit up and like moths drawn to light, people started clumping on benches around it, deep in conversation, cuddling, enjoying a smoke after a long day, eating or just sitting and watching the world go by. Like me.
As the sun sets, though, Edinburgh takes on a slightly spooky air. You hardly see people milling about after hours (which would be 6:30 p.m. their time). Most move towards the pubs and eateries, but even those places get quite deserted by 9:30 p.m. on weekdays. Friday nights are when the city comes alive, with a rampant and diverse party scene. And those times, it’s like everyone’s oblivious to the chill – there are shorts and fishnet stockings and teensy weensy skirts and spaghetti tops and leather jackets and slit jeans everywhere you look. Edinburgh maybe one of the oldest living cities in the world, but it’s pretty young at heart.
Inverness and Loch Ness
If you’re a nature baby, head to Inverness and Loch Ness. The drive to both places is soul-soothing. I mean, what person wouldn’t be moved by massive rolling mountains generously dusted with rich brown and green wilderness, all set against a backdrop of a crystal blue sky and cotton candy clouds? It’s like being in a fairy tale, I tell you.
It kept drizzling as we drove through the highlands. At one point, the road snaked into nothingness between two parallel mountains; as we took a turn, a huge rainbow greeted us – one of the biggest I have ever seen. It was like an archway in the sky connecting the two mountains, and we were crossing under it. Think of the first magic trick you ever saw as a little kid and how it blew you away, mouth agog, eyes wide, completely enthralled and pulled in by the feeling of witnessing something so marvellous. When I saw that rainbow, that’s how I felt. It was the most magical moment I had ever witnessed. Words failed me. They still do, because it’s impossible to describe. And the magic just didn’t stop. There were rainbows everywhere we looked. To me, they’re now just synonymous with Scotland.
We stopped at the Achnambeithach cottage in Glencoe and caught a glimpse of the three sisters. The cottage is protected by giant mountains on three sides, with a small loch flowing past it in the front and a red bridge connecting it to the highway. This part of Scotland is exactly how you see parts of the Scottish moors in Skyfall, sans the snow. (It was September when we went.) If you’re into trekking/walking, this trail is probably going to take your breath away. (The mere idea of walking/trekking takes my breath away, so you would be accurate in your assumption that no, I didn’t trek through the trail.)
And the hairy coos just add to the whole setting! These massive highland cows with intimidating horns and shaggy hair that give it a wild, unkempt look can only be described by one word: adorable. Personally speaking, their cuteness quotient comes pretty close to cat videos.
Loch Ness, however, is the complete opposite. The loch is so deep (700 feet, I believe) that the water’s the darkest, blackest blue you can imagine. And the surface shines like a mirror. Contrasting this is the sky – at the time we went, it was a crisp blue, with clouds travelling across it. Everywhere else, you would probably see the sky reflected on the surface of the water, but not at Loch Ness. It was almost as if the water swallowed up anything that came close to its surface, despite its mirror-like glaze. I wouldn’t want to fall into the water, for sure.
Take the Loch Ness cruise – you’re not likely to spot the monster unless you’re very, very lucky, but you’ll see the glorious ruins of Urquhart Castle and the fields on either side in all their beauty. And don’t forget to pick up souvenirs of Nessie!
Because we didn’t plan in advance, doing a whiskey tour and stay on one of the Isles was almost impossible. So we decided on Oban – it was by the sea and not too far from the isles, in case we decided to go over for a day trip. Being a sea-side town, Oban was wet and rainy from the moment we landed there, with McCaig’s Tower, a tower that resembles the Roman Colosseum, overlooking the town.
The winds are mighty in Oban and the seafood is divine. I overdosed on Fish and Chips everywhere I went, so much so that my friend got sick of it by the end. The view of the sea is mesmerising, with the blackness of the waters evident here as well.
Oban is also home to one of the oldest whiskey distilleries in Scotland, circa 18th century. In fact, it pre-dates Oban town and is most likely what gave rise to the settlement around it. The distillery is not too big, but it is quite impressive. Every time I go on a whiskey/wine making tour, my respect for the process and ingenuity of man grows. Oban was no different; the tour began with a quick history of the distillery and then we were taken into the heart of the place. We were requested to switch off our mobile phones because the alcohol content in the atmosphere insane. And boy oh boy, was it! One whiff of the place and you’re high – that’s how potent the smell was. They use recycled oak casks from other distilleries to age their whiskey and once done, pass it along to other distilleries for reuse. So the taste of whiskey, we were told, was quite unique. My friend concurred after taking a sip of the tasters. The barrels aren’t thrown away when they’re done serving their purpose as casks; they’re used as garden planters instead.
We walked around town for a bit and went for dinner by the quay at Eeusk, a highly recommended restaurant serving local seafood. The catch of the day is what’s served as food and because it was fresh, it was one of the best meals ever. Quite expensive, but worth it.
Oban didn’t quite give us the weather we were looking forward to, so we spent just a day there and moved on to Lake District, an hour and a half’s drive out of Scotland and into North West England.
Also known as Lakeland, Lake District is a national park area full of breath-taking sunsets and scenic mountain views. Staying at the YHA in Ambleside, we had the advantage of being close to picturesque walking routes, local restaurants (the.best.chicken.wings.in.the.world) and, most importantly, the church where William Wordsworth worshipped. In fact, he lived in Grasmere and then Rydal for a significant amount of time, which is why Rydal is prominent in English romantic literature. So of course, our first day at Lake District started with a visit to this church. On the way, we encountered plenty of fluffy, woolly sheep (no hairy coos here!) and black and white cows (really!). As luck would have it, the church was closed, so we just took pictures from the outside, walked around and headed towards the mountains at Rydal.
I hated the climb up the mountain. Not because it was hard, but because one, I was tired after all the walking around; two, it was almost evening and I hate being out in the open in the dark, more so if it’s a place I’m not familiar with; three, I hadn’t exerted myself so much in a while and I was irritated with how unfit I was and how each step drove that home harder. Anyway, once on top, the climb felt totally worth it. I could understand why Wordsworth made Rydal his home and how many hours he must have spent finding inspiration in the views before him. If he ever climbed and didn’t crib like me, that is.
The next day, we walked through the forest. It was a very long, very cool walk, literally. Delicate-looking wild mushrooms grew in the shelter of tall, giant pine and fir trees. The forest was absolutely quiet, except for a heaving walker/cyclist here and there. Of course I cribbed with all the walking again, but this time, I was better prepared. So I focused on things that matter to me the most in the outdoors – trees, flowers, leaves, ducks, country life… and I ambled along just fine across the forest and later, around Ambleside.
That’s the one thing I envy the most every time I travel abroad: the cities are so pedestrian-friendly. Everybody, absolutely everybody, walks to everywhere. That’s how people go from one point to the other, most times. And it’s really satisfying to watch, because that means lesser traffic on the road and drivers respecting pedestrians, giving them the right of way, because walking is such an inherent part of their lifestyle. Of course, they have the motivation to walk as well. With every other building an architectural delight and every view a scenic one, who wouldn’t want to?
Ambleside was the last leg of our holiday. The next day, we would take the train to London for our flight back. It was bittersweet, that last night at Lake District. The experiences, the food, the walking, the sea, the environment, everything came together in a sea of emotions. I felt… overwhelmed. And grateful. And irritated. And exhausted. And exhilarated. After years and years of desiring to go to Scotland, imagining what it would be like to walk among the moors and feel the biting sea winds and be in this state of perpetual high spirits, I had finally made it. It was an epic holiday in many ways.
As we journeyed back to London by train, I didn’t take my eyes off the scenery outside my window. In my mind’s eye, every passing tree, every passing cottage, every mountain, stream and lake had a magical rainbow arching over it in a half-sphere. I carried it with me around Piccadilly Circus. Around Trafalgar Square. Around The National Gallery. I carried it with me on my flight back to Bangalore.
That magic rainbow may have bridged the gap between mountains in Glencoe for a brief moment but now, it connected me to Scotland. Forever.
Getting there: Bangalore has no direct flights to Edinburgh, unfortunately. You can choose a stopover at London or one of the Middle Eastern countries. I flew Bangalore-Abu Dhabi-Edinburgh on my way there and London-Kuwait-Bangalore on the way back. The flight times were approximately 14 hours, layovers included.
Go if: You love trekking. And the mountains. And the sea. And seafood. And people. And Scottish accents. And history. And of course, if you love rainbows. :)