I am in awe of Scotland, not just for its incredible natural beauty, jaw-dropping prehistoric sites, welcoming and warm people, beautiful villages, well-kept roads and outstanding pubs, but also, for its civilized, respectful, loving treatment of its dogs.
The contrast to my experience in Italy regarding the treatment of dogs was mind-boggling. It was like I was on a different planet. There was a dog in just about every pub we went into, happy to greet visitors or to lay in the pub window, soaking up the sun. There were dogs at most of the historic sites and campsites, always on leads or otherwise under the control of their owners. Even in the Traveler's campsite where we stayed in our last night in Scotland, the dogs were well-kept, and at night, all brought into their owner's trailers.
For me, Scotland puts Italy totally to shame, not only for its treatment of dogs, but also for its lack of trash throughout the countryside, the service in most of its bars and restaurants, and the genuine warmth and courtesy of its people.
In fact, I'm pretty much ready to move to Scotland. If the right job came along, I would. I haven't felt this way about a place since the first time I saw Austin, Texas. I felt completely at home there, and got teary-eyed when we had to leave.
The best parts of Scotland for me, in summary:
It's a great way to travel. It has a nice rhythm to it. It gave us plenty of time during the day to ride or hike, and we rarely felt rushed.
My top four favorite sites in Scotland:
Unfortunately, we didn't have time for any big cities. I've read great things about Glasgow, Edinburg and Inverness -- I hope to see them all someday. Here are the highlights from our trip in a bit more detail, as well as some tips if you are thinking about going. I encourage you to Google any city or site names that sound interesting to you, for more information or official photos. And I encourage you to take THREE weeks in Scotland, at least; two just wasn't enough:
I love hearing Flemish. I don't know why.
Starting with driving across Belgium to the ferry, and pretty much every day of the trip, someone would stop to talk to us about Stefan's motorcycle: two were Americans, and had never seen a Honda Africa Twin before (it was never sold in the USA), several were motorcyclists themselves, and some saw the maps on Stefan's panniers and wanted to ask him about where he'd been. It's one of the many things I love about motorcycles -- you meet the nicest people.
We were very sorry not to have time to see any of York. It looks like a great place to spend a long day, even a weekend.
What is up with the really, really, really tall stacks of hay outside of York? It was like... hay henge.
Northern England is so beautiful, it almost made me cry.
The tiny village of Acomb, near the tiny village of Wall and various sites for Hadrian's Wall, has a really great camp site, well away from any main road, with a clean bathroom, secluded camping for tents, and a pub, the Mariner's, just down the street. If you go to the pub, be sure to ask about the Mariner's Leek Club, and get a tour of the owner's prize-winning leeks out back (yes, ofcourse I did!).
The area around Wall is brimming with Roman sites, not only Hadrian's Wall. You need two full days to really enjoy them. I highly recommend the Corbridge Roman Site & Museum and Chesters Roman Fort & Museum. We had to miss the Vindolanda Roman Fort & Museum, which was a shame, because the Lonely Planet description sounds great. The best place to view Hadrian's Wall, as well as many more Roman ruins, is Housesteads Roman Fort & Museum -- but skip the museum. It's quite a walk up to the wall and surrounding ruins, but it's so worth it. I would really love to walk even part the path of Hadrian's Wall across Northern England. The wall is far from continuous, but seeing little bits of it, as well as the gorgeous countryside, must be an amazing experience (and we saw many hikers partaking of that experience).
The isolated camp site at Alwinton, in Northern England, is in a lovely location. The bathroom needs a LOT of improvement, but the tent camping has an amazing view, and the bar in the large manor next door is oh-so-convenient.
If a bar or restaurant says it has ghosts, always ask about them. You will hear some awesome stories, whether you believe them or not.
Yes, there really was a guy playing the bagpipes at the Scottish border.
The village of Braemar is outstanding, as is the drive to and from it. The camp site was the best one we stayed at (the bathroom was oh-so-clean and heated), and the youth hostel across the street looked excellent as well. The only thing missing in the village was a BAR. We never did find one. At the camp site, we met a guy who had ridden his bike all across Scotland and England, up North, then back down to Land's End, and was now back on his way home (or maybe the opposite of what I just said). Either way: zowie.
I can never hear "you don't look 40!" enough.
Stefan is brilliant. He put just a few tiny white Christmas tree lights in the tent, running a power line from his motorcycle battery. It was so awesome not to have to fumble around for my head lamp in order to look for something else. It was even bright enough to read a bit.
The Royal Lochnagar Distillery outside of Braemar, and next door to Ballmoral, is definitely worth a visit. It was a great tour, ending with a yummy taste of their whiskey. There's a great selection of other whiskeys inside the gift shop. We found out about the distillery from a brochure and map I found outside a bathroom in a rest stop. You just never know where good ideas are going to come from...
We stopped at a small stone circle near Tarland. It was so perfectly placed, and quite picturesque, centered in a valley encircled by high peaks. After looking around it and taking pictures, we noticed a large plastic envelope leaning up against a stone. It was from someone studying why people visit stone circles. We each filled out a blank survey, then took more pictures with the camera in the envelope. I hope no one took the envelope -- it looked like quite a few people had filled out surveys. The village of Tarland turned out to be a great place to stop for lunch. We had an awesome meal and fun conversation with the British guy that runs the pub in the basement of the hotel. A Scottish guy came in with his little dog while we were eating -- he's a musician who'd just had his tour of Argentina cancelled because he wouldn't check his fiddle as baggage (I wouldn't trust them with a fiddle either). Unfortunately, we weren't there on a Tuesday, as he and others played in the bar then. He let us know of a tiny old graveyard and old chapel down the road, quite off the beaten track, and what a great little side trip that was.
The heather and mushrooms of Scotland look too beautiful to be real. I thought those kind of mushrooms were just made up for movies and fairy tales.
Don't stay at the camp site in Evanton -- it's totally focused on caravans, they charge for absolutely everything, and the bar down the street plays loud rap music.
If you are going to go through Tongue (pronounced "Tong - ga"), get the burger in the downstairs bar at the hotel!! It's awesome!! We thought it was the best on the trip... until Stefan had the buffalo burger in a pub in a tiny village outside of York that we can't remember the name of (but they were blasting a Bob Dylan CD when we came in, and the two local guys drinking there were freakin' hilarious).
Dunnet Head (which I like to call "donut head") isn't really worth a visit unless you have nothing else to do. And we didn't (we were waiting for a ferry), so we went, so I could say I had been to the Northern-most point on the Scottish mainland.
Be sure to get the ferry schedule for Scrabster long before you get there -- the day we were there, there were just two ferries for Orkney, and we were just lucky enough to get the last one (with a four-hour wait).
The International Youth Hostel (IYH) at Kirkwall is AWESOME. We got a private room, and the few other visitors (since it was off-season) were oh-so-nice (most of them older than us).
Kirkwall is terrific, but the rest of Orkney is just mind-blowing. You need two full days to see everything just on the main island, and if you add a third day, you can take in a trip to the island of Rousay as well (it's packed with ancient sites). What we saw, in just one full day (by staying two nights at the IYH):
You can dive the Scapa Flow wrecks, but neither of us dive, and it was waaaay too cold to think about that. If you don't know the story behind Scapa, look it up -- it's fascinating. We did go over the bay where the wrecks are, and it had a really eerie feeling to it.
We enjoyed the Auld Motor Hoos bar in Kirkwall very much, where the bartender, a local, told us great stories about how the farmers feel about cairns they find on their land (they sometimes don't say anything because they don't want any of their land taken over by the state) and "The Ba'", a city-wide sporting event at Christmas that's kind of like a massive soccer and rugby match, except just one goal wins, the pitch is the entire city, and its not unknown for teams to take shortcuts through shops, houses and rooftops. It can go on for hours -- our bartender said her brother holds the record for the quickest goal. It's probably the closest thing to Quidditch we're ever going to get.
The campsite at Thurso, back on the Scottish mainland across from Hoy and Orkney, is excellent. If you have time, there's a great beach access nearby. And in the wash-up room for dishes, I met a woman from Liverpool who went to art school with John Lennon! I had to maintain my cool, not start jumping up and down and screaming OH MY GOD... but I did ask her what he was like, and if she knew he had a certain something that would make him famous some day. She said she was afraid of him -- that she'd gone to all-girl schools up until that point and that she had never been around intense teenage boy angst and anger, qualities he was oh-so-full of. She said he had a very large chip on his shoulder. She said he also could have been a professional cartoonist, he was that talented. She added, "But, then we all were!" I don't think she volunteers this information to just anyone; we had gotten into a conversation about traveling, and then music, and she found out what a fan of live music I am, and, well, I guess she just knew I'd really appreciate the story. And I did!
Be on the lookout for fighter planes -- we got some incredible views of such in low flight. You see them long before you hear them.
The Cairn of Get, south of Thurso, is quite a hike and a bit hard to find, but for us it was worth it, to see what cairns looked like that hadn't had much restoration. Also in the area are the Grey Cairns and the Round Cairn of Camster -- their almost right next to each other, and you can crawl inside of them, the way that was done once upon a time (yes, we did). But you will need an excellent map to find the road for these cairns (our map, produced by a well-known European company, was described by a local in Lydster, as "shite" regarding the correct location of local cairns). The Hill o Many Stanes (of many stones) is also in the area, near Lydster, and was quite interesting as well, as were the Czech new-agers there with metal slinkys -- not sure what that was about...
The camp site at Ardmair, north of the fishing village of Ullapool, on the West Coast, is bee-you-tee-full. Since it was off-season, the caravan parking all along the shore wasn't full, so we got to pitch our tent there, right above the stone-covered beach.
The Isle of Skye is pretty, but wasn't a highlight of the trip for me. If it's all you see in Scotland, it probably would be worth the trip. But it's getting rather touristy. I thought the mainland was much prettier.
The Loch Ness Caravan Park is a treat. It's the only caravan park/campsite right on the shores of the famous Loch Ness (touristis trappus) lake, and the owner is a character and a half. But don't you dare ask him if you can have a look 'round first -- he's so overwhelmed by tourists that want a good place to take pictures that he'll get very snippy at such a question (we didn't ask such, but saw his wrath when others did). The only real monster there, however, was me. There's a nice bar on site as well. The highlight of area, however, is the Loch itself. I had no idea it would be so lovely. Unfortunately, the Nessie kitsch isn't nearly as fun and cheesy as I was hoping. And don't miss Urquhart, the lovely castle ruins at the Loch (we had to because of time -- what a shame).
We also didn't have time to go into Eilean Donan, also known as the Highlander castle (it was featured in the movie). We stopped outside for a quick photo, and as I was putting on my helmet, Stefan heard some kind of food order over his helmet headset. We'd already been hearing ferries, truck drivers, and even a drive-through, via our helmet-to-helmet walkie-talkies, and I decided to do what I'd threatened to do several times before: I pushed "talk" and placed an order for coffee to go. After several seconds, we heard a woman with a strong Scottish accent say, "I think someone was just screwin' with ya." Oh, the hilarity of me. There can only be one...
Kilmartin. What a find this place is! And we never would have known about this incredible place if it wasn't for Lonely Planet Britain, which said the village and glen "is the heart of one of Scotland's most concentrated areas of prehistoric sites. Burial cairns, stone circles and hill forts letter the countryside (within a six-mile radius of Kilmartin town there are 25 sites with standing stones and over 100 rock carvings)." Some of the sites are 6,000 years old! When we told even Scottish locals we were going there, or had been there, they looked confused, and some said they'd never heard of it. Truly, it's absolutely not to be missed, and you need a FULL day, starting at dawn and ending at darkness, to see everything that's not too far off the beaten path -- and even then, you aren't going to see even a third of all that there is to see (I'd suggest two days for it, actually). We only had about six hours to see as much as we could, and we packed it in, having stopped at Kilmartin house the night before to get a detailed map of the area. First, in the very early morning, we saw the oh-so-ancient Dunchraigaig Cairn (we parked across the street), then walked over to the Baluachraig Carvings in a field nearby. Then we backtracked past the Cairn and into a sheep pasture to see the spectacular Ballymeanoch Stones (don't miss the henge nearby -- you won't see it unless you walk well past the standing stones; you can't see it until you are almost on top of it). Some of my favorite pictures from the trip came from here. Then we road on to the Kilmartin House again, which is next to a medieval church (the graveyard there is worth a visit as well). We would have been better off parking next to the Ri Cruin Cairn, as the walk to the cairns in the back of the visitor's center takes you really far out of the way and the entrance is quite hard to find. That other parking will put you close to Temple Wood, two excellent and unique stone circles that are probably a highlight of the whole area.
The library at Lochgilphead (don't ask me to say it), near Kilmartin, is a great place to use the Internet, by the way -- plenty of computers and very helpful staff. The camp site there is okay -- really nice staff and a great radio station piped into the bathrooms, but anyone can come into the campgrounds to use the laundry, and that means anyone can come into the campgrounds.
The camp site at Crawford, back near the border to England, won't be the greatest place you will ever stay, by far, but it may be the cheapest. It is surprisingly quiet at night, and the bar across the street is a treat: ask about the ghosts (the town is supposedly the most haunted in Scotland). The bartender has good advice on whiskey as well.
See pictures from this trip.
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