Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Highlands

In England, they call fried potatoes “chips”. In Scotland, they call fried potatoes “salad”. Maybe not literally, but we had been warned the Scottish diet might not be the healthiest before reaching leaving Edinburgh for Inverness. It seemed like a good start, but despite being the unofficial capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness didn’t really feel very “Highland-y” to us. We caught an immediate connection to the West side of Scotland and the Isle of Skye.

Now we must preface this with the fact that we live in one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world with the San Juans off the coast and the Cascade Mountain range in the background. The first place the bus took us after leaving Inverness was Loch Ness, which seemed like a nice little town, but the hills didn’t seem that high, so we decided to keep rolling towards Skye. We knew that we’d reached the Highlands, but it didn’t really feel like it. The whole thing reminded us of home, except completely logged and more sheep. It didn’t feel like the Highlands.
After a couple of hours we found ourselves back on the coast, taking a bridge onto the actual Isle of Skye. Again, it was beautiful, but didn’t look that different. When we finally got to the two-horse town of Portree, we were a bit underwhelmed. We got directed to the nearest Bayfield Backpackers hostel by the bus driver. It was a clean, functional place with a friendly host named Bill; a gray-haired Scotsman with a penchant for stories and a reputation for hospitality that has gotten him personally named as a useful resource in our guide book.
The next day we used a map we received from Bill to give ourselves a tour of Portree. Fifteen minutes later we were done. We found ourselves walking along the road out of town, eventually finding a little pub with an outdoor beer garden, a bouncy castle and a view that was very much like home.
We were frustrated, and worried the “Highlands” we were looking for just didn’t exist except in the movies.
Then, in a forehead slapping moment we realized that “The Highlands” were likely up.
A quick stop by the grocery store and we had ourselves a picnic and were back at the hostel talking to Bill. I asked him about a hike and he showed us the walking-path outlined on the topographical map he had given us. (Yes, this is the only time a hostel has given me a topographical map).
“That’s about an hour though, right?” I asked.
“What if we’re looking for a little more?” He whipped out a pen.
“Right here, there’s a whole in the gate.” A few minutes later, he had drawn a line on the back of our map outlining a hike around a nearby hill and we were off.
It began with us making our way along a nice trail along the bank of Loch Harport. There were islands, water and a nice view, but still nothing incredibly different than home. The difference being that all of the trees have been logged and everything’s covered with grass that could be on a golf green.
Then a hard bank to the left and we ran into sheep.
There were three old, rock walls, separating three herds of sheep, but part of the closest one had fallen down, allowing the sheep to escape and cover the hill. A mother led her lamb away from us and back through the fallen wall. Baby sheep are cute. On the other side of slightly inclined sheep farms was a 200 meter cliff.
We’d reached the Highlands.
We continued along the trail, up a rather steep hill consisting of stairs and switchbacks. Upon reaching the top we realized the trail was beginning to head east, as opposed to the westward line that Bill had put on the map. I turned and looked back down from 100 meters above, and ever so faintly, you could see a slightly-worn trail through the sheep.
We went back down the hill and followed the sheep through the partially fallen wall. We ended up making our way through sheep before coming face-to-face with the 200 meter cliff.
It became very steep, very quickly, earning us a new found respect for the sheep, who could deal with any sort of steepness with no problems. In fact, as we became closer to the top of the cliff, we started scrambling, putting a hand down.
Then two hands. Then two hands and a hip. Then we looked down and realized we had gone the wrong way. If we slipped, we would have had a very long fall in front of us. About twenty feet away, a lamb and it’s mother were having no issues at all. Baby sheep on steep hills are cute.
A crab-walk returned us to safety when we took another look at the scraggy line Bill had drawn. It showed us another way up to the 200 meter cliff.
Heading away from it we realized the 200 meter cliff was nowhere near the top of the hill. There was a flat spot with a rock in the middle of it another 100 meters up. Fortunately, the path to the top was not as steep and perilous as the rest as we headed towards the flat spot with the rock.
It was beginning to get cold and windy as we approached the flat spot.
At this point, Leslie asked, “When did our looking for a nice picnic spot turn into a hike to the top?”
“But it’s right there!” I said. “We’re almost there.”
When we got about forty yards away we realized. . . that’s not the top and I’d earned myself a nice little look. The next top was only a 100 yards or so away, and it looked easy!
So off we went to the next “top”, but this time, when we reached it the wind whipped into our faces. We turned around and could see the sheep farms a couple hundred meters below. Off at an angle was the city of Portree, looking like civilization compared to the green hills around it and Loch Harport dominated the southeastern skyline. We could see for miles, but reaching the top of this hill made us realize; this was nowhere near the top. Around us were six or seven hills of similar sizes with a couple out-rising the one we had climbed. The largest was actually across Loch Harport on an adjacent island.
We may had made it to the top, but the temperature and the wind had made it a terrible picnic spot, so we climbed down about halfway and had the picnic about 50 meters above the sheep. Two lambs were playing, running around while their mother rested.
Baby sheep are cute.
We spent another couple days in the Highlands.
We traveled to the other side of the island and stayed in Skye Walker’s Hostel where we met our friend Hugh. It had some wonderful hosts and really funny storytellers, Brian and Lisa. Skye Walkers had a “solar dome” out back that was a globe-like structure providing 80 degree weather in the middle of the biting cold. Within walking distance, there was one pub, one cafe and about ten thousand sheep. The pub served dinner between six and nine and the cafe served breakfast and lunch. That was it. We went to dinner with Hugh the first night.
The second day at Skye Walkers we went to the cafe for breakfast and the cafe-owner helped us find a ride to the Talisker whiskey distillery with a couple guys in the cafe. The distillery was fun and also taught us a bunch about how the distillery workers help take care of the sheep. Unfortunately, we failed to get a ride while hitch-hiking back. Hitch-hiking is the norm on the island. We ended up in the pub that night watching the FA Cup Final with some Scotsman. They knew a bunch of Seattle bands and played in one themselves. Leslie decided they had good taste in music. After the match we ended up singing and hanging out with them as a bunch more Scots on vacation from Perth joined us, and we ran into Hugh again.
We rented a car the following day and drove around the island, picking up some hitch-hikers from Belgium to increase our hitch-hiking car-ma (lol). Neist Point and Fairy Glen were the highlights of that day. They were both covered in sheep.
The last day was one of the best, as Hugh offered to give us a ride to Glasgow, meaning we hung around with him that morning. We headed to a peninsula that jutted out into the Loch to look for otters. The peninsula was covered in sheep, but we were having no luck in the otter hunt. Unfortunately, Leslie had great luck finding a puddle with her foot, so we sat down to watch some sheep and dry out. Looking down from the hill, we saw Hugh, making a diving-type motion. Leslie put on her shoe, and we ran down the hill to catch up as Hugh led us back towards the otters.
Hugh had found a family, a mother with two nearly-grown cubs.
We all snuck up to the edge of a precipice, making sure to stay up-wind. We crawled up to the edge, staying on our bellies and poking our heads off the cliff so we didn’t create big shapes on the skyline to spook them as they’re easily scared. Hugh told us about how old the otters were. He pointed out that the mother was feeding the kids, but wouldn’t be doing so for much longer. He discussed the territoriality of otters and the fact males are rather solitary. Hugh was a fount of information.
On the way back to the car, Hugh told us he had studied otters while earning his masters degree, but didn’t want to tell us until he actually found the otters. We spent the next four hours or so solving the world’s problems as we left the Highlands and headed to Glasgow.
We had returned to the Scottish Lowlands. There were no more sheep.
As we write this, we’re on a ferry between Scotland and Ireland. Next stop, Dublin.

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