Scotland! Edinburgh

[Continued from part seven.]

I had booked us an early train from Inverness to Edinburgh, and a late one from Edinburgh to London, so we’d have a few hours to see the city. I had gone to the train station to print out our tickets yesterday. We awoke early, repacked, skipped the probably-awesome breakfast that wasn’t served until 8, and went to the train station, and only now do we realize that our train tickets are for the wrong day.

We retreat to McDonalds (hey, it was open at 6am on a Sunday) to replan, and decide to find our way to Edinburgh today, stay in a last-minute AirBnb, and keep our afternoon train tomorrow. We bounce between the train and bus stations, trying to figure out the best/cheapest/fastest way to get to Edinburgh, and end up on the 9:10 bus. We’ve been trying to book a place to stay this whole time, but we pass out of data reception, and will have to wait until we get to the Edinburgh station.

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We get to Edinburgh around 1pm to find that we’ve been denied our first-choice AirBnb, so we book one that approves us instantly. So now we know we have a place to stay. Whew.

We walk our way to the place, making a seemingly-random sightseeing stop on the way, and end up on Calton Hill, with a great view of the city, and gorgeous buildings to boot. Surprisingly, we’re not the only ones up there with luggage.

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Then we lug our roller-duffel to the apartment, making only one wrong turn on the way. It’s modern, spacious, and… sparely equipped. We’re the first guests, and the host hasn’t had a chance to work out all the bugs yet. We correspond with him, sharing our expertise as hosts, but we’re not unhappy; the views are great, and the place is very comfortable. We hit up a pub for dinner, a grocery store for breakfast, get rained on more than on our entire hike, and retire for some rest after a stressful day. Cowboys and aliens shoot at each other while we sip tea and wine.

The next day we enjoy a relaxed morning, making our own Full English. We catch a cab to the train station, put our luggage in a locker, and head off to see this town. First stop: Edinburgh Castle (“The Iconic Scottish Tourist Attraction”). It’s historic, beautiful, brutal, sad, and amazing.

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This is the oldest surviving building in the castle, St. Margaret’s Chapel. It’s around 900 years old.

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We follow a 30-minute guided tour, visit the Scotland Crown Jewels (which exhibit is very similar to England’s in the Tower of London), pop into the Royal hall (which is built like an upside-down sailing ship), then set off to follow the Royal Mile. We are briefly caught in a woolen-mill tourist trap, but find our way back to the main drag. Not long afterwards, we find ourselves at The Elephant House, which is where the first Harry Potter book was written (“‘Birthplace’ of Harry Potter”). It’s the first real espresso drink we’ve had since leaving the USA, and it’s heavenly.

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Just around the corner is the National Museum of Scotland. This country really knows how to throw a museum! It’s huge, and we could easily get lost in here for a week, but have to leave after about 30 minutes.

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By the way, here’s what we look like when we’re touristing in a city:

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The bottom half of the Mile is sparse in comparison to the busy, touristy upper end (which you can kind of see in the photo above), but there’s something worth seeing: Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop. This feels like the center of a country full of whisky. We leave with 3 small bottles of straight-from-the-cask regional whisky, and a huge smile on my face.

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Through a tiny portal on the side of the road, we find this charming little square of houses. It’s totally the wrong country, but this reminds me of something I’ve seen before

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It started raining on us, and we were hungry, so we ducked into Clarinda’s Tea Room for a delightful lunch.

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Having finished our walk of the Mile, we unfurled our wee umbrella and walked to the train station. We find our luggage (which, by the way, was free to store, but cost £9 per item to get back), grab some dinner supplies at the handy M&S, and board our train.

Actually, we try to board the first train, but it is cancelled; apparently there are some power lines down, disrupting train service all up and down the eastern coast. Becky is freaking out. We manage to get seats on the next train, though; first-class tickets are totally worth it. You get a meal and a power outlet, and since the cabins aren’t as crowded, you’ll probably get a seat if this happens to you. The rest of our 5-hour journey was not smooth, however; after 30 minutes of sitting in the Newcastle train station, we are switched to a diesel train. We end up sharing a table with a man whose valise is filled with printed-out emails. There’s a glimpse of the stack on the left:

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We finally arrive at King’s Cross around 10:30pm, and catch a cab to our lodgings near Earl’s Court. The room is wee, but we do our best to settle in; we’ll be here for 5 days. Sleep.

[Continued: Part Nine!]

Scotland! (Part 7)

Day 7: Blackfold to Inverness, 17km (10½ miles)

[Continued from day six.]

Becky has slept poorly, dreaming of water-soluble zombies. We bid adieu to the Bridgend, the only place we’ve stayed two consecutive nights since we started this trip, and catch our ride to Blackfold again. After catching our last glimpses of Loch Ness, we are dropped at exactly the same place, but this time we head the other way.

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The first two miles of today are on tarmac, and we are pattered with the first rain of our hike.

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We reach the place where the trail breaks from the road. There’s a woman here with two dogs and a tennis racket. When we get close enough, we find that she isn’t hitting tennis balls; the dogs are just chasing rocks.

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We stop for a snack around 11, on the first bench we see. The rain has quit, but the sky is still full of drama.

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Very quickly after, we enter a quiet, misty wood. There are interesting mushrooms.

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The trail continues alongside a stone wall for what seems like miles. Well, actually, it is miles. We stop for lunch when we spot a log to set on, around 2pm. As soon as we stop moving, the midges swarm us. Our apples taste of DEET.

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Again with the crisps! I’m having a hard time imagining crisp flavors that don’t exist in the UK.

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In the distance, the Beauly Firth. That means we’re nearing Inverness.

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Mushrooms. Photographer for scale.

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Upon emerging from the woods, we find this gorgeous pond (which is apparently nameless), with a perfectly smooth surface.

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Just around the bend, we catch sight of Inverness! Of course, we also find a signpost that tells us we have 4 miles to go.

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Onward through cultivated woods, always downhill.

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We trek through a suburb, in the green space between apartments, along the edge of a golf course…

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…and finally reach the canal again. This is a very familiar sight by now.

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Then we walk straight through a car park (that’s parking lot to you Yankees).

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And through an amazing city park, set atop islands in the River Ness (yup, the one that Loch Ness drains through).

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We finally meet the monster face-to-face!

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By now we’re exhausted, nearly out of gas. We find a bench to sit on for 10 minutes, gathering strength for the home stretch.

We follow the river for about a mile.

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Then climb the hill to the castle, and there it is! The end of the trail! It’s a bit anticlimactic – the Hadrian’s Wall trail had a whole gazebo – but we’re glad nonetheless.

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The endpoint is in the front yard of Inverness Castle.

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We take a few breaths, then hie hence to find our lodgings, which are nearby and very comfortable. Also nearby and comfortable is the Castle Tavern, which feeds us well (cider-battered onion rings, bubble and squeak, Drambuie cranachan, and a local beer flight), and awards us a certificate of completion!

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We head back to our room, too exhausted to repack for a train trip, and fall asleep quickly. Today ends one adventure; tomorrow begins another.

[Continued with Part Eight.]

Scotland! (Part 6)

Day 6: Blackfold to Drumnadrochit, 15km (9½ miles)

[Continued from day five.]

The stretch between Drumnadrochit and Inverness doesn’t have convenient lodging available, so our itinerary has us hitching a ride with our luggage porter to the halfway mark and walking back to the same place we stayed last night. George is friendly and knowledgable (and apparently on the parliament for a whisky distillery), and drops us off high up on a plateau.

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After maybe a quarter-mile of hiking, we spy the entrance to this campsite. It’s a bit early, otherwise we’d TOTALLY pop in for tea.

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The trail meets up with a rather nice park with a sweet playground and public bathrooms (yay!), and then follows logging roads for a while.

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Today we reach the highest elevation of the entire trail! Turns out that huge climb yesterday wasn’t even to the top! Fortunately we climbed most of the way here in a car, and it’s mostly downhill today and tomorrow.

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There’s the northern end of Loch Ness in the distance. Today will be our last day to spot Nessie, so we keep our eyes peeled.

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We descend into the woods again, and there’s a place where we can fill out a survey about the trail! We leave a suitably glowing review.

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This seems like a perfectly serendipitous spot for elevensies. We crack into our generous lunches, and more awesomely weird crisps.

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The woods are strangely silent today. We can’t even hear any birds.

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A few miles later, we’re 500 feet lower, and out of the deep woods, and we spy the ruins of Urquhart Castle (“urk-it caw-sull”) across the bay!

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Back into a wood, but this one is much less dense and spooky.

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After trekking alongside some houses and farmland, we emerge onto the major road that will take us all the way back to Drumnadrochit.

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…which is good, because right on the way is the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition! Not only is there a VERY 90s multimedia exhibit, but they have a whole room full of stuffed Nessies!

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Today we also found out what the dogs have been up to. No good, that’s what.

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[Continued: Part Seven.]

Scotland! (Part 5)

Day 5: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit, 23km (14¼ miles)

[Continued from day four.]

We sleep until 7:40 (I failed to set my alarm), and rush to breakfast at 8, where we find out that the US government shutdown has just ended.

Today, our itinerary called for us to catch a ride from our hosts to a point about 2 miles from here, but our map doesn’t show a gap in the trail. We ask our host; he tells us there’s no problem with the trail, this way is just easier.

Humpf. We ain’t yella. We decide that skipping parts of the trail would be regrettable, and we pack with the intent of doing it all. We leave the inn at 9:45, and we’re probably the last guests they’ll see until next spring.

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The trail goes uphill for a mile, probably ascending 500′.

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Then it descends 400 of those feet, to the place where we would have been dropped off. From here, we start ascending again. Now it’s clear why the itinerary was written that way. The path turns gently uphill.

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We pass through a 3-foot gate in a 5-foot-long stone fence.

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There’s a small stone hut here, with room enough for six adults to wait out a storm.

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The path turns uphill again, switching back through about 1200′ of elevation over 2 miles. We stop about halfway up for elevensies and a badly-needed rest.

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The top at last. We stop for a breather and a last look at Loch Ness. The trail turns inland from here, and we won’t see her again until tomorrow.

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Where we’re going…

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…and whence we’ve come.

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The trail reenters the woods, and the bracingly cold wind stops. We strip off some layers. The rain that was forecast has failed to materialize.

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Okay, maybe we get one more look at Loch Ness.

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Luncheon is on stumps, at the end of a driveway. The path follows roads for a while here, across moors, descending into Lewiston and Drumnadrochit.

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None of that weak cheese and onion you find elsewhere. These crisps are strong, like a rugby player.

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We saw an amazing assortment of mushrooms along the side of the trail.

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Swampy, grassy plateau. We gather this is what most of the Highlands looks like.

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We enter a wood, turn off the road onto a footpath, and after a mile of dodging horse droppings, we catch sight of our destination.

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Lewiston and Drumnadrochit are tourist destinations, so there’s a lot of infrastructure here.

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It’s the largest settlement we’ve seen since Fort Augustus. We trek through the tarmac jungle and find our adorable little B&B. Most of our hosts along the way seem to be tired, and ready for the season to end, but this one is chipper and friendly, in the way your favorite aunt is.

She settles us in, and directs us to Fiddler’s, which seems perfectly engineered for us. We eat three courses (including smoked haddock chowder, and silky chicken on haggis with carrots and neeps), and drink things that would probably be good even if they weren’t aged in whisky casks.

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The place is full of tour-bus friends, and the eavesdropping is excellent. We head back to our room, do a bit of laundry, and get some rest.

[Continued: Part 6]

Scotland! (Part 4)

Day 4: Fort Augustus to Invermoriston, 15km (9¼ miles)

[Continued from day three.]

We pop into the tiny Fort Augustus market for lunch supplies on our way out of town. The first part of the hike is a 100-foot ascent, winding through small-town parks and glades.

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We finally emerge onto the logging roads that will take us most of the way to our destination for the day. We see the loch occasionally, but mostly the woods, which are lovely, dark, and deep.

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Our elevensies stop is on a halfway-finished stone bench overlooking the loch. Some birdwatching ladies pass us by, and ask if we’ve put the kettle on. They are adorable. We are charmed.

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Also: the British have way better chip flavors than we do.

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We may have carefully engineered this shot for the purposes of an elaborate hoax. Some of you may have been taken in. It’s okay, you don’t have to admit it openly. We know.

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We start to notice that Scotland is completely covered in scenic waterfalls.

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Luncheon is on stumps again. The view’s pretty good, though.

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We start to descend as we near our destination. The trail goes up into Glenmoriston, detouring around some private estates.

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We pass some construction where the trail is being improved (including a guy working an excavator with an off-leash-but-apparently-very-well-trained dog), and find our way to the beautiful bridges in Invermoriston.

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We even watched some grizzled kayakers go down this falls.

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Passing through town, we find a historic well with its own legend. Becky forces me to climb down and pose for a photo.

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Half a mile later, we find our lodgings, and tuck into the tea tray. We even made a little fuzzy friend!

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We stroll back into town for a lovely 4-course dinner (including pigeon) at the Glenmoriston Arms. Back in the first king-size bed we’ve ever seen in the UK, we do some research and pass out around 10.

[Continued: Part Five.]

Scotland! (Part 3)

Day 3: Spean Bridge to Fort Augustus, 14km (8¾ miles)

[Continued from day two.]

It was too dark for a photo by the time we reached our lodgings the day before, but here’s where we wake up. It’s even more charming in person.

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We take our customary gigantic breakfast, pack our pack, and hit the trail. There’s no packed lunch today, since it isn’t far to our endpoint. The first stretch follows an old rail bed (dating to the dawn of the age of rail), and includes an abandoned station platform.

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The trail wends through dense temperate rainforest at the edge of Loch Oich.

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It takes some doing, but we finally do get a good shot of the Invergarry Castle ruins across the loch. Fun Fact™: prefixes like inver and glen modify a placename to mean things like “river outlet” and “river valley” (respectively). So this castle is at the mouth of the River Garry, which flows through Glengarry. Dun dun dun dun.

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We start to notice signs that this trail is even better-maintained than we thought. There are official campsites for people packing their lodgings on their backs. We’re not crazy like those people, so we just pass by.

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More evidence of the railway, which was in operation from 1896 to 1947.

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More sheep, and a ruined farmhouse. Becky is charmed.

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Another of those primitive campsites.

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The end of Loch Oich. It took us at least six tries on two cameras to get this shot.

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Not long afterward, we take a break at the locks. It doesn’t last long, since we don’t have anything to eat, and the bathrooms are only for use by kayakers.

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The rest of our journey to Fort Augustus is along the canal, which seems to go on for ten miles (it’s actually more like 1).

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Civilization!

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We head to the town chippie, and sit in the sun for a traditional Scotch lunch. Loch Ness sparkles at us at the end of the locks.

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About a mile down the road is the Sonas B&B, which features at least three carven animals in the garden, and a ridiculously frilly purple bedroom. It just seems wrong to not have a cup of tea.

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It’s only about 3pm, and we don’t want to spend the rest of the day in our room, so we stroll down to the village to see what we can see. We pick up a book of Scottish fairy tales for the kids, and spontaneously end up on a RIB, cruising Loch Ness at 45 knots. This is getting to be a habit with us.

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It still being only about 5:30, we head back to our room for tea and laundry, then stroll down the pub for supper – haggis with Drambuie sauce, steak pie with peas and carrots, and a disappointing “cheese plate” (the cheese is Scottish, but on the level of Laughing Cow), and lots of great people watching; this is a tourist town.

[Continued in part four.]

Scotland! (Part 2)

Day 2: Gairlochy to Spean Bridge, 22km (14 miles)

[Continued from day one.]

We begin our day, as always, with the Full English. Our host provides us with gigantic lunches, we pack up, and catch a ride to our starting point for the day.

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We soon reach the shores of Loch Lochy (which, as far as we can tell, is Gaelic for “Lake Lakey”). The scenery is very much like the pacific northwest. Out in the open, the wind tears at us; in the woods, we unzip all of our layers.

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This is the old foundations of a WW2-era amphibious assault training dummy. This is the first place we notice the midges (“if you kill one, a thousand more will come to its funeral”), and apply bug spray. Liberally.

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Here’s where we took our elevensies. I phoned our host to plan our pickup, but since we were ahead of schedule, he advised us to just take on a couple of extra miles. We agreed; this will make tomorrow easier, and we’ll avoid the awkward necessity of asking for a ride to dinner.

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Who doesn’t love pictures of people taking pictures? Nobody, that’s who.

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Hey, it was worth it.

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The scenery starts to look less like home. Those furry hills are called craigs on our map.

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Much of our path today is along logging roads, and there are areas of clear-cut periodically.

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Time for luncheon! This was the best spot for sitting and looking, but it was really windy. Our lunches are huge; we’re wondering if we’ll even need dinner.

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Not much further on, we walk pretty much straight through a sheep farm. It’s not lambing season now, but there are still some smallish ones. Becky is charmed.

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This farm is called Kilfinnan. I love the names around here.

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Civilization! This is Laggan Locks, which would normally be our stopping point for the day, but it’s only 3pm.

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…and this is The Eagle. The first boat you see is a pub, the second is a little hotel, and they’ve been converted from barges. We decided to stop for a couple of half-pints, and we’re glad we did. The place is a kitsch palace, and looks to be the work of a lifetime. Our table is made from reclaimed beams from a 1700’s mustard mill!

By the way, my favorite quote from their Facebook page:

With great regret I’ve got to cancel the Pirate Night set for Wed 21st due to the attacking Pirate’s ship having run into mechanical problems and will be unable to attend with it’s crew.

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Back on the trail. There are only a couple of miles left to go along the canal.

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We finally reach the Great Glen Water Park, which is not (as you’d expect as an American) one of these. It’s an adorable set of A-frame cabins on Loch Oich, and there’s a pub/restaurant here. We decide to eat an early dinner (it’s 4pm), rather than have our host drive us to the lodgings, back here, and back there again. There appears to be a family reunion going on, and we’re the two people of the twenty in the place that aren’t related.

After dinner, we call for our ride. The Craigard Guest House is so charming and adorable. We settle in with the wi-fi and the tea, and fall asleep around 9pm.

[Continued with Part Three]

Scotland! (Part 1)

Day 1: Fort William to Gairlochy, 17km (10½ miles).

We’d been looking forward to this trip for a very long time. Normally we start packing about a week in advance of something like this, but this time that didn’t happen. I dropped the kids off at school, and started stuffing things into other things.

It should be noted that what you see below is a triumph of space efficiency. In those three bags are supplies and entertainment for 30 hours of flights, camera equipment and hiking gear (the hiking pack is inside the duffel), and everything we needed for 5 days in London. Becky is really good at this.

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We left PDX around 2pm, and three movies later, we had a brief layover in Amsterdam. The airport there is huge, but apparently not huge enough; we took a bus to a plane that was parked, valet-style, on the open tarmac next to ten others.

We reached Glasgow at 10am the next day, put that giant duffel in a locker at the bus station, and head out to see the city. PRO TIP: there are lots of mobile phone stores in the UK that sell an unlimited-data-on-3G SIM card for £18. Verizon charges about the same amount for international data roaming, but you only get 100MB. Plus, now I can say I have a UK phone number.

We’re huge fans of the Rick Steves touring books, and the one for Great Britain includes a self-guided walking tour of Glasgow! We didn’t have time or energy for the whole thing, but we did manage to stop by the Tenament House (an apartment-sized time capsule from the early 1900’s), and The Lighthouse, an architecture museum and possibly the best viewpoint in the city. The catch is that you have to climb all these stairs to get there.

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But the payoff is rather nice.

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We made our way back to the bus station, and rode 3 hours north through the highlands. The scenery here is gorgeous. We try desperately to stay awake, but both of us end up snoozing for about 20 minutes. We reach Fort William, and set out to find our lodgings for the night, about a 10-minute walk from the bus station.

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Settled in, we stroll under an amazing sunset to a pub for dinner. Here are some things we’ve missed about the UK: local taps, brown sauce, and the butter. Oh, the butter. After dinner, we head back and collapse into bed. It is 8pm.

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Here’s another thing we’ve missed about the UK: the Full English Breakfast. Scotland has its own variations on this (like haggis and porridge), but it’s reliable, filling, and paleo-friendly if you avoid the toast.

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We stop at a grocery store to buy lunch, and find the starting point. 79 miles from here, we’ll be exhausted and grinning. Until then, it’s one foot in front of the other.

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The trail wends through Fort William for a while. It’s the second-largest town in the highlands, but it’s only about the size of Riverton, Wyoming.

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These, you’ll remember, are called “kissing gates”.

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We found this motley assortment of porcelain pets in someone’s front garden. Only a little creepy.

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We stop for a break near a playground on Loch Linnhe. We like to keep a sort of journal on these hiking trips, so we can remember some of the more fleeting details. Last time it was paper; this time, we’ve decided on an iPad. Good decision.

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A bit later, we reach the first set of locks into the Caledonian Canal at Corpach. This will be a familiar sight for a while; our first three days are at least partly along canals.

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In the background is Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK, and a major destination for mountain-outdoorsy people.

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We learned on our last trip that lunch should really be two meals. Most days we try to stop for elevensies and luncheon around 11 and 1.

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These informational placards are to become a familiar sight as well, much to Becky’s delight. This one led us to take a short detour…

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…to find that this part of the canal is actually a bridge! The canal is on top, and an aqueduct is below. This is pretty impressive engineering for something built in the early 1800s.

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This is the oldest swing bridge in Scotland, and it’s operated one side at a time – you can see the dinghy the keeper uses to get to the other side.

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We reach our endpoint for the day at 2:45, and call our host to come pick us up. This is a major difference from our last hiking trip – our lodgings are so far from the trail that we need a ride to get to them – and we’re not sure how we would have done it without having a working phone. We munch on apples and catch up on our notes while we wait.

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This is our first time riding in a car in the UK, and it’s harrowing. Stevie, our host and chauffeur, hurtles down a one-lane road at high speed, and every time we see another car on the wrong side of the road there’s a short burst of adrenaline. At the end is Tigh-a-Glinnie, which offers this view out the window of the lounge:

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We catch another ride from our super-accommodating host to dinner at Russell’s, which seems entirely too nice a place for the small village in which it is located. Despite having a reservation, we are immediately seated in the lounge to order, and we’re moved to our table when the first course is ready. We choose some local whisky for dessert, a decision Becky probably regrets. We cab back to our lodgings, and collapse. It is 8:30pm.

[Continued: Day Two!]