March 22, 2010
Once again, it was painstakingly difficult to pick just one photo of this day. What to choose? Another photo of food, as we enjoyed a cream team in the covered market in Inverness? The view from our hostel window overlooking the River Ness and the Cathedral? A simple photo of Inverness, the tiny city with which I fell in love? Or it's poetry-strewn sidewalks, where poets' words are inscribed. One of the many churches we visited while doing a church tour of the town? Our packs, sitting side by side on the train, heading to the coast and to Skye? The many, many breathtaking photos of the train ride to Kyle of Lochalsh, one featuring a storm off in the distance over the sea? Followed by our eventual arrival on the Island of Skye.
No. I chose a photograph which I feel encompasses the exhaustion and excitement of backpacking through Scotland without a car, during the "winter" months when trasportation in the rual area is spotty if best.
Without a place to camp, as our contact fell through, we eventually found ourselves at the only hostel in Armadale, on Skye, and this is what we enjoyed as our reward. Freezedried food from France, and wine bought in desperation at the last grocery we would see for many days. Please note the hostel's choice of glassware. Also, we were the only ones there the entire week.
Here is what I wrote one year ago about this trip to Skye and our general bombardment of travel problems while packing through Scotland:
Before heading off on our big adventure up north we surprised many a native Briton by not renting a car in Scotland and instead depending on public transportation for not one, but two weeks. After returning, I understand their misgivings. Traveling around Scotland without a tiny, European rental car is challenging, and yet I personally would not have wanted it any other way. We would not have detoured and seen York station for the first time, glanced the eastern coastline amidst the northern sunset, or detoured once again through Glencoe and it’s beautiful mountain ranges.
With this being said I would advise those who tend to worry about punctuality and the smooth carrying out of pre-planned plans to please rent a car, especially if your trip falls in those disastrous days before British summer time in the abandoned north (although I cannot for the life of me discern the difference in seasons between March 25th and March 26th, the date of which spring is apparently completely skipped over to blistery “summer,” and now that I think of it, being currently in the throes of actual British summer, March 26th is not that much colder than June 19th for one vacationing once again in the north, but that’s another story.)
All in all, we boarded 7 trains, 6 busses, 2 boats, and one slightly dodgy taxi in order to complete our two week journey. Of our original travel itinerary, only two legs of the trip were accomplished as originally designed, the beautiful journey between the Isle of Skye and Fort William by way of a brisk ferry trip with a ride over the acclaimed stretch of track connecting Malliag to Fort William and a direct train trip from Stirling to Edinburgh. During our two weeks in Scotland we rode both scenic railway lines accessing the remote and mountainous west coast of Scotland. The first, connecting Malliag and Fort William, is part of the West Highland Line, famous not only for its unparalleled views but also for the Glenfinnan Viaduct, overlooking the Glenfinnan memorial and most recognizably used as the route to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
One very drunk, elderly man made part of our journey on this line equally unforgettable when he decided on a mostly empty train car to not only sit right next to us but to also engage us in a stream of dribble, the content of which is still debated today. I can say for certain he told the tale of being unfaithful to his wife, who, upon discovering this, would certainly sick their dogs on him. He also advised Kevin to keep me in line through the use of certain domestic violence. Both fortunately and unfortunately he detrained at Arisaig. Fortunately as it was the second call on the line, thus leaving us earlier rather than later. Unfortunate because as we pulled into Arisaig, a small village placed on the map by poet Alasdiar MacMhaighstir Alasdair (but most likely is now better known in the region due to its having a railway stop and a Spar), I found it to be the most agreeable small village, lost to the beauty of the West Highlands. That is, until Crazy McCrazytown said his goodbyes, asked us to pray for his safety, I’m pretty sure made a racist comment, before detraining at the lovely Arisaig. Sorry, most adorable little town, I will surely never patron you based on this one encounter.
We arrived in Inverness late into the first day of our travels. Our original train journey between Sheffield and our first destination in the north was disrupted by “vandalism,” according to the station authorities, which caused gas leaks on certain vital points along the track. Thus we were delayed and detoured, our first of many travel adjustments made throughout the next two weeks. Besides this hiccup, and the need to hop on and off three trains instead of two, the CrossCountry service to Inverness was perfectly uneventful. We did have to sprint and jump upon an almost-moving train in Edinburgh, but that’s besides the point. The views up the eastern coast were worth the many hours sitting across from a paranoid business man who shuddered and winced each time my knee accidentally grazed his own. The staff were friendly, the train was clean, and before we knew it we were sliding into Inverness.
A few days later we were at the station again, which boasts its own old-timey barber parlor, and aboard the Kyle of Lochalsh Line, the second scenic railway, bound for the west coast with plans to reach Armadale on the Isle of Skye by nightfall. Now plans are a funny thing. So are travel advice websites, where one can read in plain, black and white English that traveling from Kyle of Lochalsh to Armadale is as easy as two swift and cheerful bus rides, one across the famous Skye bridge into Kyleakin, and another down Sleat, a peninsula on Skye on which one finds Armadale. Reality is another funny thing. Arriving into Kyle of Lochalsh, a town about the size of my thumb, finding the bus stop was as easy as walking down the only street in Kyle of Lochalsh. Finding the bus was another matter entirely. According to the schedule plastered inside the bus shelter, we had arrived within the only hour that no buses come or go within the village. And then it started pouring. Not any kind of rain with which mere mortals may be experienced, but coastal Scotland rain. We found a chippie, warmed ourselves in our new found fried delicacies, and waiting, and waited.
Soaked and aboard the bus to Kyleakin (which we could see from the bus stop and most likely could have swam there by this point and had been just as wet and cold), and being the only passengers, we discussed our options with the bus driver about getting to Armadale. We were told that without a car there was no way we would reach our destination that night. But, after our 7 minute bus ride across the bridge into Kyleakin, if we wanted to wait another hour or so, the same bus with the same driver would be back to bring passengers the 8 miles to Broadford, not on Sleat but a tiny bit closer.
Sitting in another bus shelter watching the sky pour down now on the other side of Kyle Akin (yes, the strip of water between Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin is also called “Kyle Akin”) we phoned the Flora MacDonald Hostel, as camping seemed no longer an option, explaining that we were attempting to get to the accommodation advertised as “just north” of the Aramdale pier (which was in fact a little over 3 miles north), without a car, he replied, “Well how in the hell do you think you’re going to get here?” This simple question summed up our entire car-less experience in Scotland.
Understanding now that this task may be a little more difficult than originally perceived, we were instructed by the hostel manager to hitch hike. He assured us that Skye is very friendly and locals are used to hitch hikers. Stuck in Kyleakin, hitch hiking seemed the most viable option, that is if either of us proved themselves able to successfully hitch hike. My predisposition to believe every person passing was a potential homicidal maniac based on the make and model of their vehicle, and "The Professor's"* indecisive suggestions of, “maybe them…maybe them…maybe them…” lead us to fail in our first ever joint hitch hiking experiment. The empty bus returned prompting me to wonder where it had even gone in the first place and if, as it seemed, we were the only passengers of the entire day, the driver couldn’t take a slight detour onto Sleat and deliver two wet and weary travelers to the unknown hostel awaiting us. Instead, we went to Broadford.
Broadford serves as the metropolitan center of Skye. It has a Co-Op grocery store (from which we bought wine), a gas station (at which I scoped out prospective hitchees, finding none desirable), some restaurants (all of which seemed closed), and a youth hostel (at which we contemplated stopping). Instead we hooked up with Norma, the taxi driving grandmother extraordinaire. Norma showed up in a nondescript four door sedan which had no markings of a taxi. Regardless she shuttled us the 18 or so miles to our hostel, of which she had never heard. She spoke with us candidly of how little she valued England, her belief that Scotland was much more inviting and much less racist than England, and what it takes in someone’s character to live on such a small island, isolated from most of the world. Pulling into the hostel I was a little sad to see Norma go, and even sadder to say goodbye to the car, as the next few days saw us traipsing up and down the A851 (which only took 10 years to build according to prominent signs scattered throughout) towards Armadale and back.
After some days on Skye it was time to catch the Malliag ferry and be on our way. Equipped with our heavy packs and with about a 3 mile hike to the port we made another go of hitch hiking along the A851 (the full bus service along this route started literally the next day, thank you British-Summer-Time). This go around I did not discriminate, I was an equal opportunity hitch hiker, sticking my thumb out for all who crossed my path. There is nothing that inflicts low self esteem more than being turned down with shrug after shrug, (trust me, they all pity-shrugged) of local Skye residents. My yearn for four wheels and regret at packing across Scotland stopped in that moment as we viewed a rare sea eagle taking to the sky, reminding me of all we were able to see on two feet.
The lack of a vehicle also came in handy while boarding the ferry, as pedestrian crossing is much cheaper. The Sound of Sleat must be viewed from the water, don’t let anyone tell you any different. Sailing into Malliag, we quickly boarded the West Highland Line to Fort William.
After two days hiking the Great Glen Way, I was ready for a city break. Next on the agenda was Stirling, then on to Edinburgh. First we had to return to Fort William to board our train to Stirling. We easily caught a bus near Loch Lochy and traveled down the opposite banks of the Loch up which we had just hiked. Once in Fort William, another change of plans. A piece of track was out between Fort William and Crianlarich and we detoured on a bus through Glencoe instead. The winding mountain pass was beautiful. Once in Crianlarich I was reminded once more that such detours were serendipitous as we passed by a small and unique church. The local service into Stirling provided passengers with remarks concerning points of interest along the way, and although the sound system made the mini-speeches unrecognizable, I appreciated the efforts of the elderly porter.
Our last train ride was from Stirling to Edinburgh, and was thankfully uneventful, unlike our means of transportation from Edinburgh back to England. So yes, we packed through Scotland in the cold, frost-bitten March without access to a car. But we reached remote villages of the West Highlands, islands with more sheep than citizens, and journeyed on rail lines renown for their beautiful scenery. We camped along an ancient Loch kissed by a rainbow (OK, that’s going a little overboard, but it DID happen!) I would not recommend this journey to the faint of heart, or to anyone who would rather have a seamless, perfect vacation, but for those who like to get their hands a little dirty, and maybe like to view many, many sheep, leave the car at home and take Scotland by foot.
*Name changed from original