In the beginning, Scotland was just a place to go that I hadn’t yet been, but it turned into much, much more. I had no idea I would fall so deeply in love with it, so much so, I plan to return in August after I skip around England and Wales. Though I am still married to America, I think I’ll take Scotland as my mistress.
As with any decent relationship, you should learn from each other, even if you don’t know what you’re learning at the time. A week in Ireland helped me process the bits of (useless?) knowledge Scotland must have secretly placed in my pocket to discover later, happy reminders of what was, bits that will no doubt come in handy moving forward in this Game of Life.
Always get a second opinion. I actually thought twice about climbing Ben Nevis, because Fiona at the information desk in Glen Coe said I would basically die if I did. She also told me the climb wasn’t even pretty, you needed a topographical map (assuming you could read one) to do it, the trail was difficult to see and not marked at all, and the chances of simply walking off a cliff were extremely high. Luckily, as I sat in a pub in Fort William, sipping on Laphroaig waiting for my Harry Potter train to Mallaig, I got to talking to Tony and Ian, two been-around-the-block-more-than-a-few-times locals, who assured me the trail couldn’t be more obvious, the view was fantastic, and I would probably not die. In fact, Tony and his little old terrier, Ben (who had made his way into my lap), had climbed it 102 times in their lifetime and would be making it 103 tomorrow. Well, that settled that.
Dogs should be allowed in all pubs. They pretty much make everything better.
Servers in America should make minimum wage. I’m the kind of person who feels guilty for using shop bathrooms without buying anything, or for writing in a pub for hours, taking advantage of the free WiFi, without having some sort of constant food or beverage to buy my time, justifying my waste of space. By the time I leave a pub, I am usually over-caffeinated, over-stuffed, drunk, or all of the above, simply in efforts to be a good patron. I sat at The Seaforth in Ullapool from 10-4, swimming in WiFi and stealing electricity to recharge my electronics after being without for a week, and became friendly with the staff as I apologized repeatedly for squatting, to which they replied, “Aw, shame, you’re fine. No worries.” Why did I feel so guilty? I was a waitress/bartender for eight years, and as a server in America, you get paid less than $3/hour, relying on tips for most of your wages. More stuff ordered = higher bill = higher tip percentage. More turnover = more tip opportunities. So generally speaking, servers in America care about how much you order, and how fast you leave. Servers abroad get paid at least minimum wage and don’t always expect a tip, so they don’t give a crap how long you stay or what you order. In fact, the longer you stay and the less you order, the easier their job is.
Strangers are the best. When you sit at a pub for six hours, you’re bound to get friendly with the staff, and eventually the girls at The Seaforth and I exchanged stories. I learned four servers were all from South Africa, and came over together to get jobs, make money and travel some more. When I packed up to leave, I asked where the nearest campsite was, as I was in desperate need of a shower, and they immediately offered their flat. I was over the moon with my good luck as Kris walked me back to her flat and made me some tea (tea and a shower?!?!?) as I washed nature’s filth down the drain. As I thanked her again, she just said, “Aw, shame man! We know what it’s like to be on the road! Happy to help.”
Apparently “aw, shame” is a common expression in South Africa, at least Johannesburg, and you can pretty much use it in response to anything. I’m definitely going to try to bring that back to the States.
When you become a traveler, you share this automatic empathy for other travelers. I passed some hitchhikers as I scooted over the bridge to the Isle of Skye; two college-aged girls definitely not dressed for the long hike ahead, dragging awkward bags behind them. Equipped with new confidence in my driving skills, I was zooming by too quickly to stop, but immediately knew I had to turn around to get them. Because that could be me someday. Today I was lucky. I had a car, and four extra seats (though covered with the vomit of my backpack and camping gear). And the look of gratitude on their faces when I rolled to a stop was totally worth it. So was the look on their faces when I realized they were American and said, “Ooo, sorry guys, I only pick up non-Americans,” and started to pull away. Obviously I was joking.
Airbnb is amazeballs. If you don’t know what it is, let me explain. People live in cities other people want to visit. They might have a free room, or an entire flat available for someone else to rent for varying prices depending on the city and time of year. It’s a different, less generic way to get to know the city you’re visiting, gives you more flexibility and privacy than a hostel and more character than a hotel. Which is how I found Dave and Tokes in Edinburgh, pretty much the best hosts in the history of Airbnb. The night I arrived, they invited me to join their BBQ and fed me wine and beer, and included me in conversation as if I were an old friend. Over the week, they shared their whisky, pointed out their favorite places in Edinburgh and Glasgow, gave me a free ticket to Edinburgh Castle, loaned me a sweet umbrella with dancing lizards, and helped me plan a tentative route through the Highlands. I don’t think all hosts are like this. I’m sure there are plenty of creepy weirdos too, I just haven’t found them yet, arguably because I am more creepy and weird than them.
Sleepytime? Find a lighthouse. It’s getting late, which means it’s getting dark…eventually. Still no place to camp? Check your trusty paper map for the nearest lighthouse. Turns out, islands have a lot of them. Then hope your navigational skills are good enough to get you there before darkfall. Waves crashing against rocky cliffs, sheep (aka life’s natural lawn mowers – I’m thinking about getting one for my yard at home) grazing, suns setting, suns rising, seagulls flapping, wind whispering (or yelling). You won’t be disappointed. And if you’re lucky, when you wake up, you’ll meet someone like Leigh, who fell in love with Scotland like I did, quit her corporate job in England and moved up to Stoer to open a food truck for visitors to Stoerhead Lighthouse. And now, she’s living her dream.
Ask the locals. And then listen to them. Leigh told me about this amazing open air church next to the white sandy beaches of Durness. Gerry, owner of Redburn Cafe, said I couldn’t come all this way and miss the scenic road to Applecross. Edinburgh Dave sent me to Neist Point Lighthouse to camp. The ladies at the Seaforth told me about their favorite drive from Ullapool to Alchiltibuie. They know what they’re talking about.
If there is an award for best street signs, Scotland wins.
These handcrafted with love signs were littered all over the countryside, and while the words varied, the message remained the same: Watch out for those adorable little lambs, and their moms. Because they aren’t all that into moving off of the road. They are super into laying extremely close to the road and/or nursing in the middle. Coming in a close second, though I also find it slightly offensive and unrepresentative of the elders in my life, was a picture of a man and woman holding hands, hunched over and supported by a cane, walking over the words: Elderly Crossing. I don’t know what it means to be elderly anymore, but whatever beings this sign is supposed to represent, Scotland has loads of them, and they spend most of their time crossing all of the roads.
Wisconsin and Glasgow are kindred spirits. In 2004, Landon Lueck joined the cast of MTV’s Real World: Philadelphia. Within three days, all of his housemates were concerned about his drinking “problem.” Confused, Landon tried to explain he didn’t have a problem, that he was just from Wisconsin. This was normal behavior, he assured them, and wasn’t everyone like this? People watching in Wisconsin were just as confused as Landon. Because it was normal behavior, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Landon (and I) went to college. We couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. He seemed A-OK to us. I think that’s the first time I realized that Wisconsinites were…special. And now I’ve discovered a whole country where Landon’s idea of a good time is acceptable and normal, but one city especially embraces it. I walked into a cafe in Glasgow on a Wednesday, really in the mood for a cider, checked my watch and asked the barkeep if it was too early to have a drink. Not in Glasgow, he replied. It was 10:57 am. Well done.
Dial-a-Booze then Irn-Bru. Not only is enjoying a pint or five a part of daily life, according to Glaswegian David, doctors used to recommend eight pints a day to stay hydrated because the water was so nasty. Obviously this was a very long time ago, but I am not sure Glasgow got the memo that the water is good to go now. Find yourself at the end of the night and out of booze with all the shops and pubs closed? No worries, call -A-Booze and order anything you fancy for double the price! Which you will pay because you are drunk and Logic stranded you at the pub hours ago! Besides, where else can you get booze at four in the morning? You might as well order a bottle of Bucky (not Bucky Badger stuffed into a bottle), a highly caffeinated tonic wine Glaswegians drink to keep the party going, as if any party actually needs to continue at that hour. You curse Logic and drink the Bucky anyway. In the morning, don’t be surprised if shop owners ask if you want magic dust on your bacon roll; paired with a bottle of Irn-Bru (Scotland’s national soft drink), the hangover should clear right up. After a week in Glasgow, I was not totally surprised to learn the city has the lowest life expectancy in the UK. I guess that’s what happens when you deep-fry basically anything edible, including pizza (so delicious) and weren’t born with the ability to say NO to ‘just one more pint.’ Sound familiar, Wisconsin?
English as a second language. Practically. You can’t drive 15 minutes in Scotland without encountering an entirely different flavor of Scotland’s version of the English language. The people of Edinburgh are fairly understandable. But just 45 minutes away, Glaswegians straight up have their own secret language. It’s not just the accent, it’s the actual phrases and words, some that exist in real life, so many that don’t. Even after I started to understand what they were saying, I had no clue what they meant. Here, c*nt is a term of endearment. Messages are groceries. When you’re drunk, you’re guttered. They use rhyming slang, so instead of going out for a smoke, it’s something like, “Ah’m gaun fora artichoke.” Uh, what’s that now? And I loved every minute of it.
A long time ago I figured out Chicago O’Hare International airport is where dreams go to die. Scotland is where dreams go to play. And I will be back.