By Stuart Everett

This piece first appeared as a featured article in volume 95, issue one of Pelican. You can view our print archive here.

Winding south through the glens and past the burns, I’d always had rose-tinted glasses for Scotland. This single taxi trip in November fog both encapsulated and resolved the inexplicable sense of want that had been welling up in the back of my mind for years. My personal connection to Skye itself was non-existent. I’d strained for a legitimate claim among my friends to justify my obsession with the music, literature, and history of a place I had the most passing of passing connections to. It strikes me now that there are some emotions and connections that have no basis in reason but are somehow stronger than even the most forensic. In my case, studying south of the border allowed a good pretext for escape, and the final vindication of a long-held desire. This week was a revelation for me, leaving an impression of the warmth and humour of Scotland’s people and the stark beauty and strange dignity offered by its nature and architecture.

That week in November became a transformative experience in my young life. Surviving an inauspicious start, I shunted myself and my bag from Edinburgh up: through small towns and villages, and back south to Glasgow, to Edinburgh and then back to the books in Leeds. Strengthening the pretext for my trip, my cousin Reagan had established herself in Edinburgh, giving me a good excuse to reexamine the great sights and delicacies of that historic capital. Having been to Edinburgh on family trips once or twice previously, I was too quick to overlook its many hidden gems. In my one night I needed to confine myself to the city centre. I was filled with a sense of wanderlust a thirst for more. I loved what I saw but, embracing the trope of wanderlust, I had a calling for more. Swapping the World’s End, St Giles and the castle for the two-carriage single-track railways and stark, stunning heartland extolled in millions of postcards.

The first stop on this burgeoning journey was Inverness. As an Australian, the comparative ubiquity of rail infrastructure and ease of use both in the UK and in Scotland especially was an immense help in facilitating my wanderlust. Rushing to Waverley to make the train, I soon settled in for the long train ride north. In what seemed like seconds, I had been taken under the wing of Mike and Helen, two locals headed up to Inverness to see family. Mike proved an amazing host, indulging all my obscure questions about the titbits of politics and history that I had absorbed over the years. After observing from a distance, living and breathing the place that had fascinated me for so long in my childhood was a powerful experience. Stepping off the train almost five hours later, I felt a redoubled sense of excitement and hope in the prospects of my trip. The people I met had welcomed me, and I was keen to see something more of the Scotland hidden away from the cities. My first experience in Inverness was a revelation for me. This was a place of the movies: despite the rough early weather, I found a place brimming with the warmth and spirit that I was all too eager to experience. My one night in Inverness passed in the Highlander Bar, it was a blur of fiercely welcoming community, with a seismic performance by the band Tartan Paint, offering me a barnstorming induction to the fiery independent soul of the highlands and islands, and again leaving me keen for more.

After a peaceful night at the dated (yet extremely convenient) Royal Highland Hotel, located right outside the train station, I upped sticks and moved on. After the powerful welcome I received in Inverness, I was more than keen to get further from major urban areas. During a slow two-carriage train ride to Kyle of Lochalsh, I took in some of the most stunning views I have and possibly will ever have seen. I was apprehensive about the isolation of the place, especially given my reliance on public transport. I had managed to book myself into one of the few pubs in the village, which turned out to my own advantage. Even in the smallest of places throughout my travels, both the regulars and my fellow tourists were just as welcoming. I had a great night in the bar of the Skye Bridge Hotel, met a few locals and found out about opportunities for the remaining stops on my trip.

The next day, I changed up my mode, catching an hour-long bus to Portree on the Isle of Skye. The island portion of this journey was one that I was extremely keen to experience. These slightly more isolated parts of Scotland played host to some of the most stunning natural beauty in Europe, with the Old Man of Storr and Portree Bay as some of the highlights. In Portree, I found a village of authenticity and beauty. At the Heritage Centre, I dove into the island heritage of the classic comic strip Angus Og and its creator Ewen Bain. The relative lack of size of the village offered a sense of peace almost unseen, and rare in cities that many visitors will be more used to. I again found the greatest of hospitality with the locals. I stayed at the Royal Hotel, finding it adequate if expensive, understandable given the demand and lack of supply for accommodation on the island. After an extended half-day stay in the village roaming the shops, cafes, and restaurants, I took a taxi to the ferry terminal at Armadale, on the southern tip of the island. The ferry from Armadale is a quick one, 45 minutes. Unfortunately, as it was a Sunday, I was forced to take the crossing at night, losing some of the standout views daytime passengers would get. CalMac service was outstanding, allowing good time to manage vehicles and baggage. Following the ferry trip, I stumbled off the gangway to find the sleepy fishing village nearly deserted. In anticipation of my train to Fort William, I sheltered from the cold in the Marine Hotel, greeted by the resident dog and some extremely surprised locals. Anxious to make the only train that night, I contended myself with camping in the weather shelter at the single-track station.

Being staffed by Fort Williamites, the service ran impossibly fast. Arriving late, most of the bars and restaurants were closed. I did manage to get to Macari’s fish and chip shop for a delicious meal. For this leg of the trip, I chose the Garrisson Hotel. Formerly the town jail, the Garrisson is a very well-presented place with a full bar and a restaurant. In comparison to the small village hotels I had become used to, it was a slightly jarring return to a more urban environment on the mainland. With more than one night in the town, the hotel’s facilities can be better explored and enjoyed. with several trains available to get myself to Glasgow, I roamed around the town for much of the morning. With several bakeries and cafes, the town has plenty to offer both the solo traveller and a decent-sized group. After exploring the high street and indulging in some of the tourist shopping (which I claim to disapprove of), I visited the town’s war memorial and investigated the West Highland Museum. I found the museum a great insight into the medieval, Jacobite, and Second World War eras, and the history of both the town and the wider Lochaber region. A new exhibit on the importance of Achnacarry Castle for commando training was especially illuminating given the transformative effect that the program, its staff and graduates had on both the area and the progress of the war itself.

Luckily, there were several trains running between Fort William and Glasgow. Arriving mid-afternoon, I found a vibrant city, free of much of the noise and touristic appeal of Edinburgh. Glasgow seemed to me a more lived-in place, with less of the polished exterior. The city does offer an impressive range of attractions. Among these, some of the best are Kelvingrove Hall and the Riverside Museum. Kelvingrove Hall stands as a marker of the history of the city itself, having hosted massive events like world title boxing matches, imperial exhibitions, and concerts by the likes of the Animals, Mike Oldfield and even a crusade by evangelist Billy Graham. The riverside museum is a major asset for those keen to investigate the history of the city. It offers visitors a detailed look at the importance of Glasgow as a transport hub, major shipbuilding centre and industrial hub, even displaying the nostalgia of the great city’s former tram system.

Following an amazing half-day in such a historic and authentic city, I made my way back to Edinburgh by train. The train came in about twenty minutes late, leaving me to sprint to make the platform for my return to Leeds. Despite the disappointment of the end, I came away from the trip with a reaffirmed love of the land and the people of Scotland.

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