Part 2… The Highlands
The next stage of our “All around Scotland Tour” was to go all around Scotland in the Stuart-mobile. We packed the car full of all our luggage, every warm jacket I had and snacks from Sheena till the car was at bursting point and set off for the Highlands. I quietly was in hope that I would be able to see some snow for the 2nd time in my life and boy did I see some. Stuart was charmingly offering jokes on to be careful what I wished for but I was blissfully unaware for the reality of highlands.
Our trip took us quickly out of the city and into the countryside where I was able to see old barns and little villages that would have had heritage listed in Australia for how old they were.
We soon left the farms and fields behind as the lands slowly rolled up in the start of the hills. And what hills they were. Not the small gently rolling hills that I’m accustomed to back in Australia. No no these where giant snow cover rock giants which surrounded us on all sides as we drove our little car windingly in-between their feet. The hills quickly grew into mountains which were covered in heather and grasses which gives them a purple and light brown tinge to their sides. Add to this the dark rocks and the white snow and it an impressive site from the car.
Opening the car door for the first time and venturing off my heated seat cocoon to the fridged outside world was an eye opener for sure. The winds were arctic as they whipped between the mountains and tore the heat from my body so I decided to retire back to heated seat and complain like a whinging pom about
the weather. Our next stop on the journey was the hidden meadow and the steel falls. We got out from the car to be greeted in the car park with sign warning if our timing and imminent death- this place was starting to remind me of Australia. With several explanations that we wouldn’t die but others have because they were ‘eejits’ ringing in our ears we set off to for our first hike. We quietly didn’t mention that Jennie is prone to her own personal little earthquakes and has the balance of drunken duck as we set off up the track which was picturesque and beautiful.
As we found our way up the rocky path following the side of a river which would become the Steel falls Stuart entertained me with horror stories how people climb the frozen waterfall in winter- but then die. Are you starting to sense a pattern of death here? Sounds very similar to the story where people fall in the lochs in winter- and then die. Their new advertising campaign should be “Scotland- Beautiful till the end of your life!”
As we emerged from the short walk in to the valley we found a gorgeous little
meadow. Fun fact on the Scotland/Hollywood tour of the stars. Did you know a Harry Potter dragon scene was filmed here? Once we made our way past the camera crews we found a great little water fall and a steel cable climbing bridge. Stuart assured me that I had a good chance of making it back to the car and not dying of hypothermia if I fell into the water. Such a reassuring man. In an attempt to prove my bravery to the family I conquered my extreme fear of heights and bravely made it across the bridge which was a full 3m! above the water. Even under fear of imminent death I managed to make it back over the bridge despite the serious rocking my new sweetie filled stomach caused to the bridge.
While we were waiting for our turn on the steel bridge Stuart struck a conversation with the university tour guide. The conversation quickly turned to death again as they both looked at the looming giant in the background- Ben Nevis (tallest mountain in UK). The guide told Stuart of his plans to take the group up the mountains soon even though it was advised people take climbing gear and safety equipment. Unfortunately for that group their guide didn’t think he needed all that malarkey about them. I’m surprised Stuart didn’t lose his tongue with the effort he was taking to bite it and not educate this poor fella. Such is life, and as we left the steel falls and our soon to be dead brethren I could only wish that I had a dragon to ride through this valley.
On the way back from the hidden valley we were lucky enough to find some Highland cows. Now Highland cows look like normal cows but they need to get a haircut and get a real job. Honestly I really enjoyed giving these cows a good rub behind the ears and they were super friendly although they did not respond to perfect cow calls.
After my time bonding with the locals we went to discover my ancestral lands that have been in the Batten family since Jennie bought them for my birthday a whole week before. Since I have land in Scotland I am entitled to call myself ‘Lord Batten’ or as the Scottish say it ‘Laird Batten’. As we traveled to my land I
inquired whether or not my land would be suitable to build my manor on. After the laughter had died down I was told that the land purchased for House Batten was 1 square foot in size. So I had to either build a very creative stilted house or choose to just leave a symbol of the new Laird in town. When we arrived in Glencoe I was not met with cheers from the locals of their new Laird but on the positive side they didn’t have pitchforks and brands either. Unfortunately we couldn’t work the GPS to exactly find my land so we found the nearest road to some vacant hill side where I proudly planted my Australian flag and declared this square foot of land property of Australia.
Next stop on the tour was Urquhart castle on the banks of Loch Ness. Now for those of us not from Scotland, Loch is not some magical pixie stream it is the Scottish pronunciation of “Lake”. So while travelling along the side of Lake Ness I gathered a few facts while looking for the monster. Did you know that in winter the waters of the Lochs get so cold that if you fall out of your boat you will go into shock and surly die from drowning? Also did you know that Loch Ness is the second deepest body of water in the British Isles at 230m deep? After we drove the banks for a while we happened across the ruins of Urquhart castle. Now this is particularly special to two of our party as this ruin is the middle name of Miss Jennifer Urquhart McKie and Sheena. After a quick photo stop we headed off to our base camp for the next few days, Aviemore.
We pulled into Aviemore late in the evening around 9 o’clock. For those not familiar with the highlands it was quite strange for me because it was still light at this time. We were lucky enough to have the use of a small bungalow from Jennie’s Aunt and Uncle which formed our base for the snow part of the tour. The next morning we woke up to a massive range of mountains with snow capped tops with snow filled crevasses.
We decided that it we would go up the funicular (snow lift) to the café at the top. From here on there was 400m climb up to the summit. Walking up was hard for two reasons. First it’s quiet steep and second it the ice on the ground is very slippery. Not to mention that it was cold. Now I mean really, really cold. Like my man bits have journeyed inwards cold!
Despite having all amounts of jackets and hats the strong winds were still getting in. The wind was so strong and cold that when we exited the funicular that it was almost able to hold my weight while I leaned into the wind.
Despite my early onset of hypothermia we decided to try and climb to the
summit of the mountain. Again we were reassured that even though three people had died here recently we would be fine. Stuart pulled out his handy compass as a way of rallying the team and we started the walk. Up we went on the ice and snow between two set of poles a meter out of the ground that showed the path up to the summit. The poles told their own story. They had icicles stuck to them but they were going horizontal as a tribute to the speed and coldness of the winds at night on the mountain. About half way up the wind started to pick up and the with Jennie’s dodgy back and the slippery ice the girls decided to go back down because, if the wind really picked up they wouldn’t get off the mountain quick enough. The girls retired to the cafe and the let the young brave explores kick on to the top.
As I tramped my way to the top I found out how unfit I was and how hard walking up snow and ice is! I felt like I was taking a hard jog despite the fact that I was just walking. Stuart on the other hand looked like a nimble mountain goat jumping to and fro while waiting for me to catch up. When we reached the end of the guiding poles Stuart took a compass bearing, just to be safe, he said with a laugh as we headed up over the plateau to the weather station at the top which symbolized the top.
As we kept walking on wards I started to notice that the snow was starting to come in sideways and it was starting to sting my face like sandblasting. The forceful winds we experienced at the cafe were starting to become serious winds indeed. As I looked around I asked Stuart if that was snow coming in and the uneasy look on his face told me that we might have bitten of a bit more off than we could chew. Within the space of a minute I was in cased in my first white out blizzard. Stuart told me later that the temperature was close to minus 20 and the wind speeds were around 40 to 60 miles per hour. As Stuart gave me the “time to quit” signal I was reminded how that signal looks very similar to the “dead/cutthroat” symbol. He yelled in my ear that we needed to get off the mountain NOW.
I was really surprised how worried he seemed and the speed with which the snow was reducing visibility. After a quick photo opportunity of an unaware tourist by a flabbergasted Scotsman we started our decent. I don’t think anyone has been so happy for their compass before as when we turned around to go back down we could see no more than 5 or 10 meters. This was a problem because if you come off the mountain at the wrong place it’s a bit of a drop to the bottom!!
The snow and wind was really starting to pick up now and I myself was starting to feel scared as Stuart led the way down. After a few minutes we found the marker poles and I think we both relieved to see them. However now instead of them being 1 meter poles they were half sunk in snow. The ice path had been blown over and filled in fresh snow. Still the wind and the snow increased in ferocity as we started to walk off the mountain. As I looked up from the path I noticed that Stuart was now taking big jogging steps and the then turning around every now and then for me to catch up. I got the signal and also broke into a jog. Soon I noticed that my legs were starting to feel a bit wet and numb on one side as my jeans had been soaked through by the horizontal snow. I was now quiet worried but lucky we legged the last of the track and the cafe came in to view.
We hurried through the shop and I was surprised how my eyes couldn’t focus so well and how I was seeing stars a little. Stuart told me that it was the start of a bit of snow blindness caused by the freezing temperatures. As I walked through the gift shop I was a little alarmed of how red and strained my face looked in a passing mirror. However we made it back to the cafe and met the girls with the bunch of kittens they had had while waiting and worrying for us to come back down. I think off all the experiences I had in Scotland this one, while being the most dangerous, is the one that I will remember with fondness the most.
After we recovered from our experiences on the mountains and our tales grew with each telling we had a nice dinner and a few drinks. The next morning we checked into our next death sport. We had selected to canyoning. Canyoning is defined as an outdoor activity which includes walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling and swimming. Now why we decided to do this on the edge of the longest Scottish winter in 20 years I will never know. Maybe the McKie clans were trying to show me a really good time or maybe they had taken an insurance policy out on me I will never know!
Anyway we loaded up in the minivan after putting on 2 wet suits, a jacket, helmet and boots. In casual conversation we found out on the way here that we were the first visitors this year and no one had been up here in 6 months. How long had the guide been working here? Only one season. His experience here we guessed= None. Good start to the day. Anyway we walked to the top off the water falls as we watched the minibus drive off. The water was cold and I mean your hands go numb within a minute cold. This was the water that had been snow the night before! We climbed into the water a waded and swam our way to the first slide. Seemed simple enough. Go down the rock slide and swim over to the guide. Jennie volunteered to go first after the guide. After a few moments under the water after getting sucked under the waterfall she popped out and the guide signaled for Sheena to come down. She slide down the waterfall and bobbed back up like a cork then was spun back under in reverse. Then she popped up again and went again! Stuart and I were quiet worried now as the guide didn’t seem to have any idea she was stuck in a washing machine water trap. Sheena unfortunately went under 5 times before (mainly) Jennie and the guide got her free of the trap. Sheena came up spluttering and ghostly white. She had had a very nasty experience on the first step and had come close to drowning. This kind of wrecked the experience for everyone as the guide had no idea what had happened, did not even check to see if Sheena was okay or how to run this kind of trip.
Unfortunately the rest of the experience wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been for anyone as the whole experience was mismanaged and unprofessional. After we emerged from the water which was the second highest category you could do, it was our first time; we had to wait for 40 minutes for the bus to return in wet suits filled with freezing water. Much of this could have been avoided if the company had just checked the route they took us on BEFORE they let us go to check that it was at least safe. Ie. The last slide was missing a major rope and if you went to far you could go right over a big waterfall!! Our guide said he wouldn’t do it but we can if we want?! Nether the less it was a great day because of the company however there was much complaining done over the dinner’s meal and drinks. Well that was then end of the Avimore leg of the trip.
On the way back to Glasgow we stopped off at the home of Golf – St Andrews. Here we got to see the old course and the classic beach. Did you know that the famous Chariots of Fire scene was filmed there? I was horrified to hear how expensive the game and hotels were here. We were to play a game of mini golf where I was destined to dominate the game. Unfortunately a horde of grannies had hired out the whole complex and we had to leave the matter of who was the best for another time.
A few more hours driving and we were back in good ole Bishopbriggs. That was the end of our great Highlands tour and it was much appreciated by me for the great effort that Stuart and Sheena put in for us (despite trying to kill me off!!)