An Ohio Yankee Rambles on Scotland’s Trails

scotland

This is the third installment in my travel-to-Scotland series. Most travel essays read like toothpaste commercials, so I’ve tried to jazz up mine with some subjective asides. After all, it’s not just about geography, food, culture, and hotel accommodations, it’s also about how all these affect each personality, and personalities are different, including distorted personalities like mine.

With Longitudes, you get the good, the bad, and the self-indulgent.

While in Scotland, I tried to mix town with city with country. I’ve already discussed Milngavie (“Mull-guy”), Glasgow, and Edinburgh, so now I’m leaving the pavement and discussing some trails. Specifically, Ben Nevis and the West Highland Way.

Ben Nevis: Mr. Nevis isn’t a person, he’s a mountain. His name is an anglicization of the Gaelic Beinn Nibheis, which means “malicious mountain.” Having summited Mounts Whitney and Washington in the U.S., I didn’t find him malicious at all. In fact, he was more like a large teddy bear. My old school friend Tad had summited him years ago, and since we Kiski boys (“Faith, Humility, Tolerance”) are a competitive lot, I felt compelled to plant my own invisible Kiski flag alongside Tad’s.

I struck out early Sunday morning with my son-in-law, Mike. We drove from Milngavie to Fort William, a several-hour-drive (see map below). Ben Nevis Mountain Path starts at a car park outside Fort William, and meanders across fields of grazing sheep, gradually rising up toward the clouds.

Big Ben is the highest mountain in the British Isles, at 4,411 feet (1,345 meters). Most hikers summit and return in a day, so there are no camping areas, huts, signs, or other evidence of man’s tinkering. Just a gentle, rocky trail and a few cairns for directional help. The only eyesore was a clear-cutted mountain slope to the southeast, but we soon left this far behind us.

ben nevis

View from about halfway up Ben Nevis

Mike was much faster than me, a Ferrari compared to my Ford Fiesta. But he waited at the top, waving me over to where he sat amongst a small crowd at the base of a large cairn near an emergency shelter. We peeked inside this shelter, intended for climbers who might be stranded atop during bad weather. Pretty dismal; nothing more than a coffin-like hole in the rock to protect from wind and rain.

Also atop Ben Nevis: “…(A) piano that had been buried under one of the cairns on the peak was uncovered by the John Muir Trust, which owns much of the mountain” (Wikipedia). Amazingly, the piano was evidently carried up 20 years earlier as a charity project by some enterprising men from Dundee. This stunt sounds suspiciously like a Monty Python skit—I picture Cleese, Idle and company with red beards and kilts—but it’s a fact. “And now for something completely different.”

We returned to our car in late afternoon, a perfect day hike. Our muscles ached for several days afterward. But it was a good pain.

whw map

West Highland Way and Ben Nevis

West Highland Way (WHW): there are many hiking trails in Scotland, but this is the longest and most well-known, with distance backpackers arriving from all points on the globe. The trail starts in Milngavie (where our daughter lives), north of Glasgow, and runs northward through western Scotland to Fort William, a total of 96 miles, or 154 kilometers (see map). It encompasses farmland, forests, lochs, villages, and mountains.

I allowed myself a good week to recover from Ben Nevis, and planned a two-day solo hike. Luckily, it coincided with the two warmest and sunniest days of my whole visit.

It was only a ten-minute walk from Holly’s house to the trailhead, located about a half-mile from the official start in Milngavie. Though my standard practice is to hike alone, at the trailhead was a young man adjusting his pack straps, we got to talking, and we ended up hiking together all day. His name is Johannes, and he’s an environmental microbiologist originally from Heidelberg, Germany. He had just finished attending a nearby conference, and wanted to explore most if not all of the WHW.

Johannes on WHW

Johannes, taking the lead on West Highland Way

Unlike Ferrari Mike, Johannes was closer to my cruising speed. Leaving the environs of Milngavie, we passed by Mugdock Country Park, the side trail to Mugdock Castle (see my August 1 post) …then practically bumped into River and Alistair (River is Holly’s golden retriever, and Alistair is a retired gent who regularly walks him). We were a good two miles from Holly’s house, and I was impressed with Alistair’s devotion to his job.

One thing I learned about the Scottish is that they not only love dogs, they love to ramble. The U.S. is one of the most corpulent societies on earth (28.8 kg/m2 body mass index), and I’m convinced we’d be a helluva lot healthier—physically and mentally—if we rambled more.

After coming in view of the Campsies Fells (hills) and passing Craigallien Loch, a small lake that looked ripe for some fishing action, we took a short break where a road called Ballachalairy Yett crosses the trail. Near the Yett is a picturesque cottage painted in brown and red called The Shire. I’d seen it earlier in the week while on a morning run. Although I think it’s a hostel of some sort, I’ve been unable to find any information on it. (If anyone knows anything, please leave comment.)

While resting and munching on snacks, Johannes and I met Timothy, who was making a delivery to The Shire. When Timothy found out we were from outside Scotland, he asked us our views on controversial Brexit, which Scotland is overwhelmingly opposed to. This topic led to Boris Johnson, then Trump, then the far-right German AfD party, then climate change, then Native Americans.

The Shire_on WHW

The Shire

In the states, I avoid verbal political conversations with people, whether friends, neighbors, or co-workers. We’re so polarized in America, these talks invariably result in blood pressures rising, or worse. So I was amazed at, not only Timothy’s cheekiness, but also how the three of us had consensus. I may have to leave my home country; there are actually people with clear heads! Needless to say, it was very refreshing. If a Scotsman, German, and American can break bread like this, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for our planet. And it’s yet another reason we Yanks need to ramble more.

(You can pay me later, Rick Steves.)

Later in the day, Johannes and I made a second stop at a collection of rowhouses along Gartness Road near a stone bridge. Someone had placed a cooler outside one of the houses, stocked with refreshments for hikers, with payment on the “honor system.” We rested here about 15 minutes, listened to the trickling waters of Endrick Water stream, and I had a refreshing watermelon ice lolly (popsicle). Not a single vehicle or person in sight. Ahh, such peace!

Watermelon ice lolly at Wilkie Watters'

Enjoying a watermelon ice lolly outside Wilkie Watters’ place on Endrick Water

After this came a long trek along Gartness Road, where we shared cramped space with several ultra-modern and ultra-large farm tractors. Then Garadhban Forest, where we lunched in a shady grove and met a winded hiker about my age from Perth, Scotland. Both Johannes and I were also feeling tired, so we decided on a shorter alternate route to the main WHW, our intended destination a public campground on Loch Lomond shore, northwest of Drymen (see map).

This alternate trail followed a boring road stretch through the small village of Balmaha, and bypassed Conic Hill, one of the higher points along the southern WHW, and which (I found out the next day) offered a stunning view of south Loch Lomond.

Loch Lomond has many irregular-shaped islands, and I’d heard rumors about an 11-acre nudist colony on one of the largest. Since I was doing an out-and-back hike, I vowed to determine the naked truth of this tomorrow.

Next time, I’ll share my discoveries.

An Ohio Yankee in Sir Walter Scott’s Court

scott monument

Last year, our daughter moved from Nashville, Tennessee to a sleepy village in Scotland called Milngavie. It’s located seven miles northwest of Glasgow. (The move was precipitated by our son-in-law’s job transfer). While my wife and I have always encouraged our kids to travel, Nashville to Milngavie seems quite a cultural shift. But Holly is comfortable over there. She’s more Vauxhall Corsa than Dodge 4×4, anyway.

Last month, I finally got to visit them and our two granddaughters. The only thing I missed, aside from The Lawrence Welk Show, was American sunshine.

One of my familial lines leads to Scotland, so it was a sort of coming home. My middle name is Scott, a family clan name traced to ancestor William Scott, who ran a deer park and salmon fishery in Scotland in the 1700s. Bill fled Scotland for County Derry, Ireland (something about papists). His grandson, James, then ratcheted up the rebel thing and sailed to the state of William Penn. Jimmy Scott then joined the Pennsylvania Line to battle British Redcoats during the American Revolution.

scott

1822 painting of writer-historian Sir Walter Scott

Coincidentally, my plane landed on July 4, which is America’s Independence Day (also my birthday). In England, some call this “Treason Day.”  Really, everything is a circle.

But I discovered both the English and Scottish were exceptionally friendly, bending over backwards to help a stupid Yank with train and bus info, directions, money confusions, etc. They all noticed my hayseed accent and were curious where I was from. To avoid apologies and embarrassments due to recent events, I just said “North America.” Fortunately, they didn’t push for details.

The highlight of my trip was spending time with my granddaughters, Avi (22 months) and Rory (4 months). But I did manage to sightsee some. Here’s a wee bit of my travels in the land of clans and kilts.  And I promise, there will be no photos of kilts or bagpipes here.

MILNGAVIE (pronounced “Mull-guy” per the original Gaelic): the Scottish love their dogs, and I saw more dogs here than anywhere I’ve ever been, and they’re all very well trained. Hikers also flock to Milngavie, because the 96-mile West Highland Way, one of the UK’s most popular distance trails, begins here. I met hikers from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Croatia, California, Seattle, and elsewhere. Early one morning I met a local man named Chris, who was doing a one-man protest to save an old English phone booth (“phone box”) from being removed. He explained that, in Scotland (or maybe just Milngavie), authorities won’t remove or destroy anything if at least one person shows up each day to protest. (Does that include living things like trees?) Anyway, I think that’s a great law.

Chris in Milngavie

Chris, rescuing red phone boxes in downtown Milngavie

The center of Milngavie, like many towns across Europe, is a brick walkway for pedestrians. Lots of quaint shops and cafés, including Fantoosh Nook, where Holly and I ate lunch one day. My friend Neil…Yeah, Another Blogger…visited Edinburgh recently and mentioned Cullen skink, which I sampled while at the Nook. It’s a smoked haddock and potato soup that has a bacon flavor. I loved it…a far cry from Campbell’s New England clam chowder. Thanks for the tip, Neil, you blogger you.

Along the West Highland Way, just north of Milngavie, I visited Mugdock Park. The park is named after Mugdock Castle, which dates back to at least 1376, and was in use until the mid-1600s. It was the stronghold of a clan named Graham. Parts of the remains of the castle were rebuilt over the centuries, but the main tower is original. When I visited Jamestown, Virginia a few years ago, my mind was boggled to think that, just under my feet, there rested relics and bones dating to 1607. But 1376?? That’s beyond boggling.

mugdock castle

Mugdock Castle in Milngavie

GLASGOW: along with Edinburgh, Glasgow is one of Scotland’s two major cities. Both have their merits. Edinburgh is definitely more scenic, with its storybook architecture. But it’s also rampant with tourists. (Tourists spend quid, which help local populations, but we also taint exactly what we’re drawn to.) Glasgow, on the other hand, is more of a working city, and the Scaw-ish brogue is more evident here. It’s said that Edinburgh is where you want to visit, but Glasgow is where you should live. Not sure this is 100 percent accurate, but it might come close.

I spent a half day with Holly and Avi in Glasgow. We visited Kelvingrove Park and University of Glasgow. Both were impressive, but I have to be honest and say that the main delight was pushing Avi on the swing, and holding her hand while strolling across the university grounds. That grandparent thing is for real. Next time, maybe Avi won’t be along to absorb my attention, and I can soak up more of this vibrant city.

Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

Avi and Holly at Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

EDINBURGH: one day I took the train from Milngavie to Glasgow to Edinburgh and enjoyed a rare hot and sunny day in this historic city. I exited Waverley Station in Old Town, and the first thing I saw was a massive blackened spire piercing the blue sky, towering hundreds of feet above Princes Street. With Ohio Yankee naivety, I initially thought the spire might be part of a castle. Then I got closer and discovered it was a monument to my “cousin,” Sir Walter Scott. It’s the second tallest monument to a writer in the world.

Speaking of Mark Twain, the bard of the Mississippi River used to, if I recall, ridicule Scott’s penchant for high romanticism. And maybe that’s why I never read him (Scott, that is). Does he really deserve such an impressive monument, even if we are related? Alfred-e-newmanMaybe one day I should put down Mad Magazine and read Ivanhoe.

Then, across a valley, I spied Edinburgh Castle, the centerpiece of the city. It sits on a rocky promontory overlooking much of old Edinburgh. It’s exact date of construction is unknown, but it may go back to the 12th century, and human habitation on Castle Rock dates to the 2nd century AD. It was the site of numerous military sieges from the Middle Ages until the 1745 Jacobite rising. Kings and queens, royal intrigue, crown jewels…you name it. I refer you to Wikipedia for a full history.

I walked all around the perimeter of the castle, and up to the front entrance, but the heat and locusts (tourists) made things too claustrophobic, so I declined joining a tour.

Edinburgh Castle_Weller concert

Paul Weller and others: appearing soon at a castle moat near you!

Instead, I was drawn toward a threatening looking man standing in a café doorway, just down from a makeshift stadium in the castle esplanade. He had a shaved head, was clothed entirely in black, and had muscles on top of tattoos on top of muscles. I walked up to him and joked that he must be the Castle bouncer. But he said (in thick Cockney) that he was security for a concert later that evening. I asked who was playing.

“Paul Wella.”
Paul Weller? Yeah, I love him! The Jam and Style Council!”
“Ass roit, mate. Stoyle Cancel.”

I couldn’t believe an ex-punk rocker was performing in a collapsible stadium sandwiched between a former church (now ticket office) and the Edinburgh Castle gates. But I guess that’s life in the 21st century. I later asked about tickets. There were only six left, priced at 60 pounds apiece. It was time to move on.

I left the locust swarm in Old Town and strolled downhill, away from Castle Rock, across several blocks to 136 Lothian Road. The premises are now occupied by a pastry shop, but in the early Sixties it was The Howff, one of the top folk clubs in Great Britain. Pete Seeger, Brownie McGee, and Archie Fisher played here, and Bert Jansch had a regular residency.

The Howff_Edinburgh2

The Howff (with inset of Bert Jansch)

Jansch is an acoustic guitar legend, a Scotsman, and one of my musical heroes—he directly influenced Neil Young, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Nick Drake, Al Stewart, Donovan, and many others—so it was cool to see the place where he first earned a reputation. My side trip here might strike some as strange, but little musical connections like this always get my juices flowing. (Wait till I discuss my trip to Liverpool.) Besides, I got to see a quieter side of Edinburgh that most tourists never see.

My search for an oasis in the locust swarm took me to St. Cuthbert’s Church, at the foot of Castle Rock. This quiet cathedral may date to 850 A.D., which makes it the oldest building in Edinburgh. The burial ground here is filled with noteworthy Scotsmen and women, and, since real estate is at a premium here, some are buried under more “important” people’s tombs (monuments).  Hey, just like life!

I climbed back onto Princes Street, then crossed George Street to a tunnel-like lane called Young Street. Here, far from the madding crowd, a cool breeze pulled me along, past discreet shops and businesses that one would overlook if not for a modest plaque mounted next to a narrow doorway. I expected any second to see a Scottish version of Scrooge, Marley, or Cratchit emerging.

Oxford Bar_Edinburgh

The modest “Oxford” Bar, on modest Young Street

I was half-tempted to wet my whistle in the scrunched The “Oxford” Bar (the quote marks are part of the name). It’s a pub established in 1811, made famous in Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series of novels…which I also haven’t read. It’s also a hangout for Edinburgh policemen—and secret agents, since Sean Connery supposedly quaffs here (although I wonder how many Scottish pubs make this same claim). But I had a mild headache from the whiskey and Brewdog Punk IPA that I’d earlier tipped on High Street in Old Town, so I kept “strolling down the highway.”

In my next installment, I’ll conclude the rest of my Edinburgh visit, discussing High Street, aka The Royal Mile, and the World’s End…which is Close.

Edinburgh Castle 2

Monolithic Edinburgh Castle, from foot of volcanic Castle Rock