My past two weekends have been dedicated to exploring what Scotland has to offer: from beach cities like Oban and Inverness to the great outdoors at the University of Edinburgh Firbush Center. Arcadia University, who is my study abroad facilitator, hosted both of these weekend trips and I genuinely would have never been able to do the things that I’ve done without them.
For the first weekend, we did lots of “tourist-y” things. Starting in Glasgow, we went to Oban, a beach city on the western side of Scotland. For spatial reference, look for the two little green and white houses near the Inner Hebrides and Skye. Because I had morning classes, I had to take the three hour train to Oban by myself, but it was worth it! We passed by towns that had actual smoke billowing out of actual chimneys, lochs (ie. lakes) that peeked between mountains, and even castle ruins. Genuinely, I would make the trip to Oban again just for the sole reason to experience the wonder of seeing Scotland through the window of a train again.
Once I got there, we went to the Oban Distillery, where we got to learn about the four flavors they have in their whiskey and how it’s made. We were supposed to taste the sweetness of the honey, the vibrancy of the orange, the saltiness from the proximity to the sea and the smokiness from the processing. In an attempt to do exactly that, I followed our tour guide’s advice and drank the whiskey properly. I sniffed it once, then twice, then took a sip and tried to keep the liquid in my mouth for 14 seconds to represent the 14 years that it waited to be opened and consumed. To this day, my body involuntarily shivers at the prospect of having to consume whiskey in that way ever again. Nonetheless, I’m glad that I was able to experience the drink in a way I’d never done before! (Whiskey sours just make whiskey taste so much better…)
Next, we went up to McCaig’s Tower, which rests on a hilltop and gives sweeping views of Oban down below. This was one of the many moments where I was struck with wonder about the power and beauty of nature. My biggest worry once I am back in suburban California is how much I’m going to miss these moments of clarity about what I’m working towards. It’s so much easier to read my school books and to do my assignments when I have weekends like these to look forward to.
Hands down, my favorite part of Oban has to be Markie Dans. A small, unassuming pub on the outside, it exceeded all of our expectations. A large group of us started with beers and ciders, taking our time in one of the booths getting to know each other. Then, Gregor Hunter Coleman, started to tune his guitar. Curious, we grabbed our drinks and headed over to the other room to get a closer look and from then on, we were hooked! It’s not just the butterfly neck tattoo, or the multi-instrument performance, or the voice – it’s a combination of all three of those that had Victoria and I dancing and laughing the night away. Lucky for us, he’s based in Glasgow and plays frequently at various venues! (we’re not Gregor groupies, I swear!…)
The next day, while on the way to Inverness, every stop brought something different! On the map, it is all the way to the right on the East Coast where there is a castle-like building.
Our first stop was at the Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the Hogwarts Express passes through in the movies! The picture is too far for you to see but the bridge is stunningly beautiful in person. I wish we were able to see a train passing by but apparently, they weren’t running on the day that we went. Scotland is such a small country but I’ve never felt smaller than when I go to the highlands and see just how far the mountains go and how the lochs are seemingly never-ending.
The lovely puppies that I am cradling in the pictures below are called sheep dogs. More commonly known as Border Collies, these animals are amongst the smartest that I have ever seen. Fiercely dedicated to their job, the older dogs barely noticed us when we were petting them but as soon as they heard the Shepard’s whistle, they were ready to do whatever the Shepard called them to do. With just a light whistle with slight variations in tone and pitch, the Shepard directed the dogs, left-right-faster-slower-forward-backwards, in a way that they would herd the sheep wherever the Shepard wanted them to be. Scroll to the fifth picture below to see him holding FOUR puppies in his arm. I want to be him.
During the demonstration, the Shepard suddenly used the hook in his hand and reeled one of the sheep in. At first, I was appalled by the roughness of the action but then he explained that this process of shearing the sheep actually really helps the animal. He laid the sheep on his legs and demonstrated that its body’s natural response to the Shepard is to lay its entire weight on his legs and to let the Shepard guide it wherever he needs it to be. With quick, precise cuts, he quickly chopped away half of the wool and wrapped it all in a wool burrito, which he tucked into his arm and continued to speak as if nothing had happened at all. I was struck by the thought that this is his job and that he does this everyday. He lives on this farm! He told us about how he only goes into town a couple of times a year, and very reluctantly. I can’t imagine being so far away.
Next, we went to the Urquhart Castle that – you guessed it – took my breath away! To think that there were people that lived here is insane. When I look outside my window at home, I see my grey car, the grey roads, the grey walls – everything is so monotonous. The view outside these windows is full of all the shades of green and blue in existence. The evergreen trees, the lime green of the grass and the steel blue of the Loch Ness River to name a few. The pictures below are of the Loch Ness river. Yes, where Good Ol’ Nessie lives! See her in all her glory in the second picture!
I’m much more of an art history fan than a king-war-conquer-nations history fan, if that makes sense. However, after being in Europe for close to two months now, history is one of the most interesting subjects to me. It’s tedious being in America and learning about European history because you feel so disconnected to it. But when I see the castles and the monuments paying homage to the lives lived and lost, I feel so much more interested in how we’ve grown as a human species. It’s no longer European history and American history. It’s a timeline of how we’ve grown as people and how we’ve solved and embraced our differences. How fascinating.
Overall, Oban and Inverness were great little towns to explore. We spent a lot of the time traveling on the bus and moving from attraction to attraction, so it was tiring but worth it!
The following weekend, we stayed in Killin. On the map, we were in the middle of Scotland, on the North side of Loch Lomond and West of Dundee. Our group stayed at the University of Edinburgh Firbush Outdoor Center, which was a massive building made to look like the coziest log cabin you’ve ever seen. The dining room was 180 degrees of windows and views out into Loch Tay. The window of my room opened up to the beautiful joining of two mountains with the sun rising right between them. If you ever have the chance to be in Scotland and want an outdoor experience that you will never forget, I highly recommend staying at the Firbush Center!
The good thing about the Firbush Center was that everything was provided to us. Hiking boots, waterproof pants and jackets, backpacks – you name it, they have it. Before our hike, they encouraged us to really dress for the elements. I looked down at my waterproof boots, which protect me well enough in the city, and up at the sky, which was deceivingly blue and thought that I’d be okay. However, thank goodness for peer pressure, everyone started to put on heavy duty boots so I did too. Thank God they had my shoe size. I asked them for the smallest pair of shoes they had and low and behold, they fit me perfectly! I had on four upper layers. A heattech turtleneck, a thick Patagonia fleece, a Patagonia down jacket and my Marmot outershell. And for the lower layer…well, a pair of black jeans, which happened to be very comfortable, thank you very much. With my “waterproof” backpack (which you will hear my qualms about in a bit….) and the hum of excitement in my bones, I set off to S’ron a’ Chlachain.
We went in with the expectation to do outdoor activities all weekend but we were perhaps a bit more “one with nature” than we hoped to be. The mountain’s name means “Ring Finger of the Nose” and what “Ring Finger of the Nose” means is lost to me, but there it is! Overlooking Loch Tay, the hill looks quite intimidating from the bottom. But I didn’t realize that not only were we hiking up to the top, but we were going to have to actually battle the elements and become mountain goats or we were going to fall off the side of the cliff.
The climb started off good. It was steep, my thighs were burning, my lungs were working overtime, but it was manageable. For the duration of the weekend, there was a group of five true Scottish mountain men that lead us through our activities. On the hike, each had a full 40L backpack with what I thought were snacks (at least that’s what they told us). Now looking back, I’m sure it was actually full of medical supplies and rain gear just in case any of us needed it.
We got up the the first of six steep stretches and that’s when it started sprinkling. Up until this point, the path was very clear to me. Now, looking up at the second steep stretch, there was no path. We were simply following one of the mountain men like a bunch of sheep. Through grass, mud, and slippery rock, we went at such a steep angle that it felt like I was lunging with every step. At first, I was keeping my cool, but then, it started to pour rain. Not California rain pour. Scottish highlands pouring rain. My hands were numb, my pants became a second skin, my lungs burned – my mental strength had never been tested in that way before. I had to test each step before I committed because the ground was growing more and more unstable and slippery as the rain continued to punish the earth.
About halfway through, we found a collection of rocks and huddled around to eat the lunch that we prepared that morning. Opening up my “waterproof” backpack, I found my plastic bag of lunch floating in a puddle of water. At this point, I couldn’t bring myself to care because I was soaking wet down to my fleece and knickers. But now that I’m reflecting on it, I’m so upset! Misadvertisement!
Also, I have a thing about algae. I don’t really like to touch, associate or even think about algae. There was algae on the rocks. I thought about standing and eating my lunch for a solid minute but then fatigue won over and I sat my wet butt onto the algae and ate my lunch. For the half hour that we sat, we all just looked at each other in confusion and utter astonishment that we were hiking through the Scottish Highlands like we were characters in Outlander. Who would have thought that our Saturday afternoon in October would be like this?
After finishing our lunch, we continued our way to the peak. At one point, at around the fourth steep stretch, we had to climb over a bunch of rocks with rivers of mud and water running down. Looking behind and all around me, I saw the thick clouds, heavy with rain with endless mountain peeking in between them. For the first time, I felt fear. Pure, unadultered fear ran through my veins. But the fear of having to turn around and go down the slippery side of the mountain that we came up on was more than the fear of going up. So up I went. I bit my tongue and continued to climb even though I almost fell more than once. Thinking back, if they had told us that our hike was going to be like this, I would not have done it.
However, once we summitted, it was incredible. It’s bringing tears to my eyes just writing about it right now. Who would have thought that I would be soaked to the bone, emotionally and physically drained, but the happiest I’ve ever been in my life – in the Scottish Highlands no less. The pictures do it no justice, but words don’t either. If you have a chance to climb S’ron a’ Chachain, don’t let my blog post deter you. Do it and tell everyone you know about it. It’s the true Scottish Highland experience that’s for sure.
On the way down, we were given the choice of either going down the way we can up or going down a different, more manageable way. Guess which one we chose? Yes, we took the easy way out. The way down was stunning. See the brief video below for our view the whole way down! We walked along side a stream, so you could hear the soothing sound of water running and wind rustling the grass while you panted your way down the mountain.
I walked along side one of our guides who kept giving me plants and telling me the story behind each one. The string-y looking white plant on the right tasted just like mushroom! I forget the stories (I swear there’s something wrong with my Hippocampus) but I remember thinking about what it would be like to actually live off the land like they did hundreds of years ago. The creativity and the trial and error that they had to go through to succeed and thrive is incredible.
As we were going down the mountain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the song that we sang during a summer camp that I volunteered at. It goes a little something like this:
Come fill my cup 'til it overflows
Come fill my cup 'til it overflows
Come fill my cup 'til it overflows
'Til it overflows with love
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was blind but now I'm found
Was blind but now I see
During the camp, I was blessed with an amazing group of boys that I think about every single day. While trekking through the grass, I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I am. To be healthy, to be happy, to be able to travel, to be able to enjoy a sandwich, to be able to laugh with my friends – I’m so incredibly lucky and I’m so full of love for the life that I’ve lived and people that I’ve met. Crazy how life throws emotions at you and then you’re crying your eyes out while singing a children’s hymm while sloshing through mud down the Scottish highlands.
Surprisingly, the next day, I wasn’t sore at all! I attribute it to all the walking and working out I’ve been doing in Glasgow. We were given a choice of activities and we chose to kayak around Loch Tay. It’s different than in California. Usually, I’d just slip on a bikini and baseball cap and call it a day. Nope. We were required to wear wetsuits, fleeces, and rain jackets as well as helmets and life vests. It was pretty bad ass.
The views were spectacular as well. As we got further away from the Firbush Center, we passed by my dream home. It had to be about three stories, with goats casually roaming in the front yard and a plethora of fireplaces with actually steam coming out of actual chimneys. (I’m obsessed!) I asked our guide about how much it would be to purchase that house and he said about only 275,000 pounds. Of course, that’s a large sum of money but that’s about 1/5 the price of a house that size in California! At least now, I know what I’ll be working towards when I’m in my 30s.
After we got back from the kayaking trip, we all took a bit of a nap before the next round of activities. You see, I go to spin classes about two times a week. Of course, that’s not nearly enough to call me an “expert cycler” by any means. But I thought that biking into the town center would be fun to do. We struggled so much. There’s just something about combining balance, hilly terrain and tired legs that does not work well together. We ended up walking the bikes 30% of the time because we physically could not handle biking in the terrain. I usually love renting bikes and exploring places but this was another animal!
In 20 years, I’ve never experienced the changing of seasons. In the past month and a half, I’ve seen the green trees slowly change and I don’t think I can go back to having no seasons. It’s so subtle that you don’t even realize it’s fall until you’re ankle deep in yellow leaves . While we were biking, there was just enough wind that you could hear the leaves lightly scraping the pavement before they flew up into the air again. What an experience it was to bike with this view.
Both weekends with Arcadia University were incredibly worth it. We got to see and do so many things for a fraction of the cost it would have taken for us to plan it on our own. I’m so happy that we were able to fit in all the historical sites into one weekend during the Oban and Inverness trip. Though I felt my emotional and physical limits tested during the Firbush weekend, I’m so glad that I was able to make it to the top. Excited to continue to explore what else Scotland has to offer! It seems that the adventure never stops here!