Wednesday, November 29, 2006

High Road Low Road

After 9 years of living on the island paradise of Tasmania, moving to the filthy bustling metropolis of London town has proved rather taxing.
Despite being from the suburbs of mainland Australia, Tasmania got under my skin and I now have an endless love for the peace and quiet of nature.
I needed to get out of London for a bit, and I was interested in heading to Scotland.
I have a bit of a connection with Scotland - my father and uncle are both Scottish.
My cousin Rachel's boyfriend is Scottish (they're all Glaswegians to boot).
It took little persuasion to get Iain (the cousins boyfriend) to come with.
We made no plans other than to head north.
To get as far away from London (and back) as we could arrange in 4 days.
With backpacks full of clean underpants and socks, we left Kentish Town station for Luton Airport on the afternoon of the 23rd of November.

Australia, where I am from, makes a lot of money exporting sheep to the middle east.
It's a little controversial as they have to export them live (for religious slaughtering reasons) and conditions for the sheep can be difficult and unpleasant.
Crammed into small spaced and treated...well...pretty much like sheep.
I mention this tidbit because we flew EasyJet from Luton to Glasgow and it's the simplest way to bitch and moan about this budget carrier without going into too much detail.

When we arrived it was doing something that Scotland does very well indeed - raining.
Because of this moist reputation, we were expecting the next three days to be completely sodden, but we were to be surprised.
We spent the night at the home of Iain's mother (thanks once again) and set out early the next morning, after a brief stop at the Co-Op for deoderant, toothpaste, sweeties and Pringles.
We had to buy deoderant and toothpaste when we arrived because these are items that EasyJet thinks we can use to blow up planes mid flight.
With the correct training, toothpaste can be deadly.

Anyone who has seen the film Braveheart will know that Scotland is populated by hairy thugs in kilts who get a bit crabby when you try and take away their freedom.
It's still populated by hairy thugs, but because no one is starting fights with Mel Gibson, they spend a lot more time being jolly and a lot less time wielding battle axes and whatnot.
There are about 5 million or so people in Scotland - most of them in Glasgow.
We dealt with about 15 individuals all together, including a couple of English people.

Our first stop for the day was Loch Lomond, a short drive from Glasgow.
As you can see from these pictures, the weather was marvellous.

With few exceptions it remained sunny and delightful the entire time we were there.
The best 3 November days in Scottish history and I'd like to believe that they will create some sort of public holiday to commemorate the occasion.
Something in Gaelic like "Ochnocliahngn Day", or "Oiln Te Lainglion Gnoth Day".
Or any other phlegmy jibber jabber that the Scots think are proper words.
On this day Loch Lomond was 37 kilometres of mill pond.
In the distance you can see Ben Lomond, which is odd as I thought Ben Lomond was near Launceston in Tasmania.
Ben Lomond isn't a person called Ben.
Ben is the Scottish word for mountain.
Ben Nevis is another one (the highest mountain in Britain).
I assume that if your surname was Ben and they named a mountain after you it would be called Ben Ben.
It was here at Loch Lomond that we had the first vast breakfast of our trip and easily the worst.
There's a big visitors centre where you can buy all things Scottish - haggis, shortbread, kilts and anything covered in tartan.
It was a bit like a duty free shop in an airport.
Outside was an aquarium that I would have liked to have visited if I wasn't itching to get on the road.

Our journey through the highlands began with a quick stop off for a uniquely Scottish treat.
Square sausage and an Irn Bru.

Square sausage is pretty much how it sounds - all the most inedible parts of an animal smooshed into a rectangular block.
You then cut off thick slices and fry it like a burger.
You have it with brown sauce (why in Britain do they call it brown sauce but don't call tomato ketchup "red sauce"?).
The one we had was fried to a crispy meat crust and slapped in a roll.
It was the fourth best thing I've ever eaten.
We washed it down with a drink called Irn Bru, Scotland's contribution to the carbonated beverage.
It tastes a bit like creamy soda and a bit like Lucosade.
It has enough sugar in it to rot your teeth in about 6 minutes, and the teeth of those standing nearby in about 10.
People in nearby villages will feel a throbbing pain in their gums.
We enjoyed our fat and sugar in the finest landscape I've seen since I left Tasmania.
If anything it was a little bit better because it was bigger.

You know you are in the highlands proper, not just because of the vast, craggy mountains that appear around you, but also because there's a sign that says "Welcome to the Highlands".
The Highland Council have been kind enough to provide hundreds of little slipways where you can pull over, take pictures and have a piddle behind a rock.
Iain did this with the enthusiasm of a puppy.
Never was he happier on our trip than when he was emptying his bladder.
If humans had the nasal capacities of dogs, he could yelled "Follow me!" and his family could have trotted around Scotland after him knowing exactly where he had been before them.
And you need many opportunities to pull over and take pictures because Peter Jackson in direct consultation with J.R.R Tolkien have created a series of vistas that are simply breathtaking.
Every time we came around a bend there was a new and slightly different picture postcard from Middle Earth.

We had made vague plans to head to Inverness, in the north, but we came to a junction that gave us the chance to head further west to the Isle of Skye - and that is where we went next.
On the way to Skye stopped by a Loch for more pictures (Iain had another wee wee).
Loch is I am pretty sure the Scottish word for lake.
There are hundreds of them in various sizes all over the country.
My favourite named ones are - Loch Doon, Loch Dungeon, Loch Eck, Loch Trool, Loch Gilp, Loch Goil, Loch Snizort, Loch Oich and my absolute favourite Loch Loich.
We saw no Loch Ness monsters of any kind, although we like to think there is one.
I have no idea which loch this is but I shall dub it Loch PeePee, after Iain's contribution to the ecosystem.

Scotland is also covered in castles, both in ancient ruin and habitable models.
There are hundreds and hundreds of the things.
We saw the sign posts for many of them but only bothered with 2.
This is one you can visit just before you get to Skye.
The Spanish stole it from the British during the 1500's although I can't possibly imagine what they would have been doing there.

Skye itself is a wonderful, bleak place that we really didn't see enough of.
We found a pub to stay at called The Hebridean (because we were in the Hebrides, something that I was very pleased about).
The Heb, as it's known by locals, is run by a local Scottish bloke and his English wife.
The wife did all the talking.
She was an odd bird.
Extremely helpful in a way that showed complete disinterest, thoroughly attentive without enthusiasm.
After we got there we had some time to kill before they started dinner, so we wandered down the street to another place and chatted to some locals and drank vast quantities of good local beer.
The bartender was in a mild state of panic as the following night they were having a Cocktails and Curry night and the only cocktail reference he had was an elderly book that contained not one single ingredient behind his bar and measured everything in joules.
We chatted to John, a guy about my age who was a mechanic, a fisherman and a farmer.
But mostly we were chatted at by a local hoodlum called Ewan.
Ewan introduced himself as "Ewan" and I said "Hi Ewan" and he said "Oh - you speak Gaelic?" and then went on to explain that his name was actually spelt "EOIIGHNHN" (or something like it).
To me it sounded like he said "Ewan" - it was hardly rocket science.
Ewan had traveled the world taking drugs and beating the shit out of people.
When he left he gave us both the kind of handshake that we knew we'd never be able to give to another man.
I am just getting the feeling back in my fingertips.
We wandered back to The Heb for more beer and dinner.
Iain had a wonderful plateful of fresh fish and chips, and I had traditional haggis with tatties and neeps.
Most people know what haggis is, I think - bits of sheep cooked inside other bits of sheep.
It was marvellously peppery and delicious.
It gave me the kind of fartage that is usually reserved for dogs - considering the content of most canned dog food it makes sense really.
It was horrible.
Thank god I wasn't sharing with Iain or he'd have melted away like that bad guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It rained in the night but had cleared by the time we got up and we left the Isle of Skye (after another vast Scottish breakfast of eggs, black pudding, sausages bacon, etc etc) for John 'o' Groats.

As with the highlands, you know you are in the north because there is a big sign that says "Welcome to The North".
The drive to The North was lovely but less exciting than the rest of the journey.
It is with pleasure that I can report that the north of Scotland looks pretty much like the north west coast of Tasmania, something I've documented over on Sandwichbag.
I took few pictures in this area although here are some snaps of a castle.

The castle itself is far less spooky than I've made it look, but the grounds did have an unsettling feeling about them.
A summer garden falling into winter.
Iain celebrated his nations proud history by taking a piss against a turret.
Other dogs will know he's been there at least.
The weather remained lovely as did the scenery, although it was occasionally blotted out by fog.
It's really not a good idea to take happy snaps while you are actually driving, but you can get some good results.

We lunched in Wick and then headed up to John 'o' Groats, which is supposed to be the most northerly point on the British mainland.
We drove up to a lighthouse that we supposed was the right place to be.
It was quite a moment and when we arrived we leapt from the car and pranced about like English people celebrating our achievement.
It was quite a shock to feel my testicles and penis retract into my gullet.
Normal people would have realised that standing on the edge of Scotland, on the top of a hill, by the north sea, at night would have been a chilly affair.
But it didn't occur to us straight away.
We took a bunch of pictures then scuttled off to hopefully catch the ferry to The Orkneys.

When we got there we discovered that the ferry wasn't leaving for another 2 hours, so we drove down the coast a bit and stopped at a little pub.
The bartender, like a lot of Brits, had been to Australia to visit his daughter in Perth.
It's a peculiar thing I've noted since I've been here that many, many people from the UK have decided to go ALL the way to Australia, the most remote of inhabited continents, only to take it a step further and go to the most remote city in the country.
Not that Perth isn't a nice place - everyone I know loves it there.
One of the greatest things about the UK is that they let dogs in pubs.
I am a big fan of this and when we arrived there was a lovely boxer dog ready to for a scratch behind the ears and a long sniff at our balls (which had returned to their usual position after returning to the car).
The bartender, a Scot, was a delightful fellow with the same twittery fleepy-flee accent that many northerners have.
Less could be said for the owner of the boxer, a typical Londoner who made the usual dumbshit jokes about Australia that they were making 30 years ago.
Here's a thing England - Australia is a lovely wide country full of clean air and good people. We don't shit in holes in the ground and we don't wear hats with corks attached. We don't walk around upside down.
Australians joke about the English all the time - we call them whingers, and smelly, and pale and stupid.
It's funny when we make these jokes because it's true.
We headed back to what we thought was John 'o' Groats, and on the way turned off to the ACTUAL John 'o' Groats.
It was dark but we saw what I think were otters or perhaps seals flitting about on the surface of the sea.
Then we headed back up to the headland where we had been before and watched the beams from the lighthouse circle.
It was time for the ferry.
I spent the hour it takes to get to Orkney, the main island in the chain laying down as it was very rough and if I'd gotten up I would have been ill.

When Scottish people talk about a Highland Coo, they are referring to the creature below, not some kind of native pigeon.

In all honesty we really didn't spend enough time there.
It would have been wonderful to have caught another ferry and ventured further north but we didn't have the time.
Dinner. Beer. Bed.

The next day we took a spin around the island before the ferry at 12.
Again - I didn't photograph much.
The Orkney's are a farming community without one single tree and as I only have a crappy little snapshot camera that didn't really show off the place I didn't bother.
Here are some pictures of the remains of the Earl's Castle, on the west coast of the island.

We got a good dose of Scottish rain as we drove to the dock for the ferry.
It was both picturesque and short lived.

As we waited for the ferry to get ready for us, they unloaded a truck load of Christmas trees.
I hoped someone was making a television special "Christmas Trees for Orkney", about orphans and the REAL Santa Claus and the TRUE meaning of Christmas.
Hopefully starring Steve Guttenburg with a terrible Scottish accent.

The ride back was much smoother this time.
We spent much of the time on the deck letting the wind suck the air straight out of our nostrils and pretending to be rugged and manly.

In case of fire, reassemble fire fighting kit.

From the ferry we took a left and headed towards a town called Thurso, and coincidentally passed the ACTUAL most northern point on mainland Britain - Dunnet head.
We've actually been to the 3 most northern points now.

We drove to Inverness, a delightful city.
There we ate several vats of Indian food before going to the the Tenacious D movie, as we'd picked up the soundtrack to listen to on the way and wanted to match up the songs with the pictures.

The next day we headed back to Glasgow, back through the way we'd come.
We did go past Loch Ness.
Here is a Rock in the Loch.

As mentioned we didn't see Nessie, but we felt that cryptozoologists would agree we were a suitable stand in.

It had rained heavily since we'd been there, so that some of the landscape had changed.
The Lochs lapped closer to the roads, and the mountains were leaking streams of freezing cold water.
Iain also needed to leak some water so we stopped for that and to take some more pictures.

We swung past the same square sausage and Irn Bru guy and I took some cheesy pictures of the sun pouring through the clouds.

Then it was back to Glasgow, which was a little complex as we couldn't find the airport, then we had the the single most difficult part of our journey - finding the place to drop the hire car at.

Within hours we were back in London.
I have typed this lot pretty much in one go (with a quick break for some luncheon) and I feel pretty much like I did when I waddled into the flat at 10:30 Monday night.
I've seen so many amazing thing and chatted to some pleasing strangers.
We sang pretty much the entire way from Glasgow all the way to Glasgow.
We ate more fried fat and sugar in 4 days than I've had accumulatively in four months.
The only thing missing was the great Alex Harris, who pioneered this kind of unplanned photographic excursion in my life and who would have been in his element.
I drank several beers to you my very good and distant friend.
I had great company and a great time and I cannot wait to return.