Eilean Donan on the shore of Loch Duich. Apparently the most photgraphed site in Scotland
"Phew!", I struck lucky.My first Youth Hostel experience for about a decade, 8 tired men in one enclosed space and NO snoring.Result.I think I’m pretty much first up.Time to explore the facilities.Communal showers! Cool.“Good morning ladies.” Well, ok, they’re not THAT communal, but I’m already warming to the general “all get mucked in together” vibes of hostelling life.
Not too many signs of life downstairs yet, but I have an enjoyable chat with Simon the resident handyman.
Me. The second most photographed sight in Scotland... maybe :)
He’s been and got the muddle of bread, jam, cereal and croissants that can be your breakfast for the princely sum of £1.90.Very nice.He’s a useful lad, and when my face draws a blank when he asks how I’m to spend my day he kindly offers all manner of suggestions for beauty spots’n’walks in the area.We are joined by ‘A’ at the table who’s down from Inverness to meet her father and hike the Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye later today.She’s letting her hair down in difficult times as she’s closely involved with training the Royal Air Force pilots for the RAF fleet of 14 or so Nimrod planes that only days ago have been ordered grounded by the Coroner in the National Courts after one leaked fuel mid-flight and burnt up 14 servicemen over Afghanistan a while ago.
The one...the only... JEAN! :)
I guess she’s got time on her hands while the politics sorts itself out.If I say anymore I could be shot... possibly.
We are now joined by Jean who is an extremely friendly, and charming middle-aged American lady.Ok, later I will learn she’s long-term expatriated from the U.S. having ended up in Belgium via social work in Kenya, and some of Belgium’s former African territories and marrying a Belgium lad 30 years ago.After breakfast, a (solo :(( ) shower etc,etc I meet Jean again in the communal sitting room reading a book on ‘spirituality’.
I mention that following Simon’s recommendation I intend to drive up to and around the Isle of Skye for the day.Her eyes widen, her mouth drops and a finger is raised in an exciteable hint of impending enquiry :“Oh wow!, well if you really don’t, if you wouldn’t, d'ya think?...if you really think it wouldn’t be too much trouble, if you really don’t mind” I pick up the sublte hints of sheer hope and cordially invite her to join me for the day. Ok, so I was hoping to get me lucky and hook up with some enthusiastic, all-alone’n’far-from-home nubile twenty-somethin’ Japanese girl or somesuch, yaknowhaddImean situation during my first Hostel breakfast in 10 years… but ok Jean my friend, you’ll do.It would be more than a pleasure…'love' can wait another day. Dammit.
My joking and mild libidinous disappointments aside, Jean SERIOUSLY proves to be the best thing that could’ve happened to me for this trip to the beautiful Isle of Skye.
She’s a fascinating lady obsessed with the Scottish Highlands, and who until 6 years ago would NEVER have contemplated walking anywhere at all if she could help it, but apparently “one night, just got a calling in my sleep” that told her she must go to Scotland, (where she has distant genealogical connections with the MacDonalds, one of the two famous and bloody feuding clans of Scots history) and do precisely that… walk extensively and reconnect with the landscape.She has duly done this for some years past now (whilst hubby stays in Belgium) and so is very knowledgeable on the local areas, and particularly the history of the Isle of Skye and the feud between the MacDonald and the MacLeod clans etc, etc… a lady of many thoughts, life philosophies and strains of spirituality, she also believes herself in ways inexplicable even to herself to be connected to past lives both in the Scots Highlands and with the Cathars, a persecuted French 12th Century sect of her former religion Catholicism who were harassed and forced into mountain refuges in the 13th Century prior to their eventual eradication by The Inquisition.
The post-card perfect harbour bay at Portree, the 'capital' of Skye.
As with yesterday, the drive to Skye is astonishingly beautiful.Continuing along the fantastically scenic A82 to the south-westerly shore of Loch Oich before we veer west onto the A87 at Invergarry and past the tree-lined shores of Lochs Garry, Cluanie and Duich respectively.The weather is slightly greyer and overcast today, but this only adds to the perfectly rugged, sullen moodiness and beauty imparted to us by the surroundings we pass through.
Just before we reach the bridge at the Kyle of Lochalsh over to Skye, we pull over to admire Eilean Donan, a little loch-side castle that is so perfectly positioned to keep infinite generations of vista-hunting photo-snappy tourists happy for all time you have to admire the economic foresight of it’s 13th century builders.
A water way wends its path back to the sea on the Isle of Skye.
This is apparently the most photographed spot in the entire of Scotland and I’m happy to oblige by adding a few more snaps to this quota.Whilst availing myself of the toilet facilities at the tourist centre, a deafening “VOOOOOOM….CRAAAAAAAAAAACK!!!” of a double sonic-boom blasts down from the air announcing the passing of two jet fighters overhead, an unfortunately timed reminder of the substantial military presence in the Highlands that I’m told often break the scenic idyll of the lands in this manner.The shock of the sonic boom mercifully does not put me off my own target practice too much, and there is no collateral damage to my clothes whilst standing, shaken but not too stirred at the urinal… “phew!”.
Until not so long ago the only way of crossing to Skye was on a small car-ferry, however much to the chagrin of the island’s population it was umbilically connected to the mainland in 1995 by the Skye Bridge.
'The Old man of Storr' on Skye.
This controversially carried a £5+ crossing toll (each way!) which in more recent times has thankfully being scrapped so Jean and I toddle along in m’Fiesta for free and are introduced the ‘Misty Isle’.The weather aids the island in living up to this nickname with wreathes of what look to me like dragons' breath encircling the peaks and folds of the high-rolling Cuillin Hills as we drive through the island’s centre.Jean is as excitable as a little school girl to be back in her “soul” lands and even talks out loud and expressively to the Island at large as if conversing with a much missed friend.I wonder to myself how ‘A’ (the RAF lady from breakfast) and her father are getting’ on up in them there mountains?
We stop in the island’s ‘capital’ a small fishing port called Portree and sit and have lunch and a coffee together.
Somebody's left this amusing flash of public art... nice one! :D
This is Jean’s treat for me, as I am chauffeuring her around her island today.We both try the classic Scottish dish of Haggis with neeps and tatties (potatoes and swede/turnip) for the first time ever, and both declare it to be delicious.Extremely herby and flavoursome.I feel slightly guilty as Jean’s a vegetarian who feels on this “special occasion” she can renege on her habit in the name of culinary enquiry. My sister gave up vegetarianism some while ago with greater permanence… I refuse to be held responsible for lapsing veggies! :)
Over lunch I recall that my the teacher I remember most fondly from Primary School, Mrs Taberner, retired many years ago from the south coast of England to Skye, and it would make the most fabulously random moment to find her and drop in unannounced for a cup of tea after 20 years… however there’s no reception here on my mobile and lots of expensive pay phone enquiries back to friends and connections at the school later and I am sadly unable to track down her address on the island.
Following a wet walk around Portree, it’s back to the car and for Jean to give me a great guided tour of the northern and western peninsulas of the Isle if Skye.We take in the ‘Kilted Rock’ a cliff-face that geologically resembles this famed Scottish clothing garment, with water cascading down its rocky pleats into the ocean below; The Old Man of Storr, a peculiar geological rock phenomena viewed from a distance standing aloof like one of the giant rock Menhirs that would be hewn, and carried by one of my favourite cartoon characters Obelix in the Asterix adventures I would read as a kid. Also we pull off the main (single, often one-track) road around the island to walk up to the graveyard and stone that marks the burial place of Flora MacDonald.Flora is famous for assisting ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie of Scotland in his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to achieve unity within the Scottish clans and foment rebellion against the English Crown.
The 'Kilted Rock' ... tricky to get a decent angle on this geological sight without risking dropping over the edge of the viewing platform.
She assisted him with refuge and disguise. She later emigrated to the British colonies of America where she and her husband backed the British Loyalists against those fighting for independence… again opting for the losing side, and returning to her Scottish homeland in 1776 following their defeat. I wonder with her success in chosing the winning side if she was always the last to be picked for teams in Physical Ed lessons?
All of these insights, sights and moments of history would have passed me by without having Jean along for company.Much more of the pretty island is seen along our way but after some several hours, and another coffee stop it’s time to return to FortWilliam, where my friends are shortly to arrive.
Jean shields herself from rain whilst paying homage to her 'ancestor' Flora MacDonald's grave.
On the way back we miss a turning and skirt the south-western tip of Loch Ness(“HEY, what are 6.7 billion people doin’ swimmin’ in there?!”)Jean is profusely thankful for the day’s escapade upon her return, and I am glad to have had such engaging and well-informed company.
In to town now to meet the boys. The England football team commiserate themselves on not having qualified for the upcoming European Cup by beating the USA in a friendly whilst in the appropriately titled Ben Nevis pub several pints and whiskeys are imbibed whilst discussing our planned ascent of said mountain the following day.
The Ben Nevis posse (L-R : Sunny, Gurps, Danny, 'D', Me, Avi & Raj. Kieran behind the lens)
Everyone seems happy, eager and unphased by the challenge ahead.As it happens, their B&B is literally a minutes walk around the corner from my hostel where after midnight I return, slightly tipsy, to find that most of the people at the hostel are even MORE tipsy than I am and the “paaaaaarty’s just getting’ started!”.
It’s carnage… on a small scale… but carnage nevertheless.It’s gone .Jerry the site manager is out of his tree and babbling incomprehensibly in his endearing South African accent.There are drinks, drinks and more drinks flowing.Having been provided with no other receptacle ‘M’ the rather attractive Australian hostel-assistant has just thrown her innards into one of the kitchens communal cooking pots (DON’T use the cooking pots if you ever stay here!).
It's not big and it's not clever... Chris and Tom work on that "special relationship" we all hear exists between the UK and the U.S.
What the hey, with a few pints an’ whiskies down me already I’m ready for action, and join Kenny (Scottish), Alice and ‘M’ (Ozzies), Doshant (Indian), Alex (Argentinean), Chris, his wife and his mother-in-law (Americans), Tom (Welsh), ‘D’ (South African) and Simon the handyman in a protracted session of “what drinks can we mix with what and with what results?"Predominantly this means pints of canned draught Guiness mixed with Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum (which I DO highly recommend!)… soon the desperate stuff is being called for and some liquid foulness by the name of Jaegermeister is being added to the mix… meanwhile discussions are getting increasingly surreal (the virtues of Veggie-mite Vs Marmite spread for example) and ‘beats’ are tinnily pumping from Alex’s laptop (backpackers have laptops these days!?!)… one too many Jaegermeisters later and yours truly has to duck out momentarily for what’s known in the trade as a TC (Tactical Chunder) before carrying on with the fun… but everything’s getting a liiiiittle hazy now… it’s 3.
Alice & Doshant chew the fat... and drink the Guiness!
00am… I feel dizzy… Guiness-guiness-guiness… aren’t I supposed to be up early tomorrow??...Kenny and I are far too interested in the hostels state of the art toaster (it has lights an’ everyfink!) to be sober… rum-rum-RUM… hang on…aren’t I supposed to be fit’n’ well and climb the highest mountain in Britain tomorrow?!!… ”I know lets all take photos of our bellies!”... why-oh-why?...because....why did I have to be re-introduced to my Chinese takeaway damn you Jaegermeister?!...“Another Guiness'n' Rum Steve?”…why thank you, don’t-mind-if-I-dooooo.. “Doshant… Kenny…wannaclimbabigmountaintomorra?”… yeah? cool… mobile phone’s dead… charge up… I feel half-dead…need phone alarm… feel alarmed… rum-rum-(is rumbling in my tum)… sittin’… readin’… mobile battery chargin’… my battery fading… I am sat on a seat… 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea …hey everybody look at me… no more Guiness thanking you from me… Captain Nemo swims… the fishes and The Nautilus swim… does the Loch Ness Monster wim?.
Some of the boozers back at the hotel (L-R : Alex, Chris, Tom, Kenny, Doshant, Me, 'D')
.. the words on the page begin to swim before me too… I really ought not to have got drunk tonight. Too late…goooooodnight.
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