Dunfermline, Scotland: May 16, 1991...
knew I'd be traveling the Continent, now. The experience at Kathleen's was transformative. All my earlier uncertainties about the summer ahead were gone - and with them, momentarily, much of my enthusiasm for the rest of this preliminary journey. I wanted to cross the channel and take on the year's real challenge.
But why waste opportunity? I still had three precious weeks on British soil, and far too much of village and countryside, right here, that I might never again have the chance to see. Scotland, especially, for I'd been too occupied by quest and qualm to give it any fair attention. I wanted to reach its wild northern shore and get a taste of the highland country.
Scotland's rail system offered the best solution for covering territory too thinly populated to support hitch-hiking. A Rail Rover Pass, at the relatively reasonable cost of $55, would allow me unlimited travel north of the border, on any four of the eight days after its purchase. Scotland was so vast - very nearly as great in length as England below it - that I should have little trouble getting my money's worth of mileage; and eight days were just about all I could devote to it, at this midway point in my journey. In fact, I'd have to forego any further time for exploring Edinburgh - for the moment, at least.
I had a last and hurried look at the city as I was taken to the rail station by a young associate of Kathleen's, a Canadian-American named Sarah who had come to Scotland as a GN traveler, herself, and decided to stay and work awhile when Kathleen offered the opportunity. In the brief conversation as we drove in, I found out that she had also stayed with David and Vanessa, in Mickle Trafford. It was fun to compare our impressions, and I had a sudden sense of being part of a grand worldwide network. A lingering, almost plaintive look in Sarah's young eyes, peering up at me as I said a hasty farewell in the underground drive-in zone of the railway station, left me regretting the rush of my schedule.
She had driven me south across one of the two great bridges that span the Firth of Forth, to reach the city, and now the train took me north across the other bridge, toward Aberdeen. I expected to find my night's host there, with the option of going on to Inverness, the last northward outpost of populous settlement. At high speed we clicked along the rails, first to Dundee and then up a crystal clear coastline, reaching Aberdeen about four in the afternoon. Of five possible hosts there, not a single one materialized for me. I took the six o'clock train for the further hundred miles to Inverness - a commuter run making every stop. But the oak and gently rolling hills of an increasingly barren countryside shortly took over.
It was table-seating in this coach car, and for most of the way I sat opposite a stunning young woman apparently headed home from a day at work, the two of us alone at this particular window, each absorbed in our private reflections - my own largely on her. The perfect picture of cool, flaxen-haired Scottish beauty, well-dressed to a level of simple elegance, she studiously avoided any eye contact, in the proper fashion of British train travel. I was so intimidated by the energy of that avoidance, and the very weight of this `protocol of reserve,' that I found it easier to contain the urge than try some small talk which might have opened a conversation. I could hardly help but reflect on the irony that hitch-hiking, which bears such a heavy stigma of societal distrust, is so much more fluidly friendly and gregarious than rail travel - in a world that suffers all too much alienation. She got off the train at a village called Huntly, and the sense of futility in me was so strong that it came out in a short bit of doggerel scribbled on a blank page of my GN host list.
To the lady from Huntly I wanted to say,
"Might we casually pass the time of day?"
But the lady from from Huntly would not have replied
with anything more than a turn to her side.
It's the way, don't you know, of a British train ride.
We passed within a few miles of Findhorn just as dusk was closing in. I had already given some thought to the possibility of seeking my night's shelter there, but I suspected - rightly or wrongly - that after many years of fame they probably ask a fee too stiff for me. Inverness, however, sitting astride the river that links Loch Ness to the sea, was a sufficiently satisfying alternative. Its charm quite surprised me. I had somehow anticipated a primitively simple community this far north . . . very likely because of a thoughtless association with just such a village in California that bears the same name.
I quickly exhausted the host possibilities in Inverness, which were slim to start with. Scotland's Good Neighbors, like the Lady from Huntly, were not proving at all hospitable to me. I'd have to start relying on youth hostels, which would put a further strain on my already `railroaded' budget. The hostel in Inverness cost almost ten dollars for the night. But, filled with young folks, this one had at least a more cheerful atmosphere than the hostel back in Monmouth. High on a hill, it also provided a magnificent view of the river Ness, festooned by street lamps like Christmas ornaments, as it twisted through town, and reflecting the light of a perfectly placed moon.
The next day's plan was for hitching - such as the rarified traffic would support. It was a much longer wait than I had become used to, but eventually a ride came along - a courier driver who took me some 35 winding miles into timber country, to a village alongside a rushing, foam-flecked stream. It was a whistle-stop sort of place - on the rail line, in fact - with plenty of roadside space to wait for my next ride, but little else. I needed only fifteen more miles to reach Lairg, from where a postal-service bus made scheduled daily runs up to the coast. But I might more quickly have walked it, for the scarcity of traffic at that place. After a useless hour standing in the sunny but chill noon air, my options were clear and simple. A train would soon arrive that could get me to Lairg in time for the bus, or I could remain the night in this tiny village, with likely nothing but the same pair of choices on the morrow.
I really hated to take the train, at this point, and throw away one of my four days of use for just fifteen miles, but it was the only sure way to reach the coast that night. Once aboard, however, I made a brilliant discovery. The Rail Rover pass carried its days-of-use information on the back side, and not all conductors (not this one, at any rate) bothered to turn it over and check the dates. The passenger was expected to honorably enter each date of use into one of four boxes on the back. I took full advantage of this windfall gift and didn't bother to enter the date.
In my rulebook, anything one can get away with is fair game, so long as no one is hurt in the process. Life is full of streetwise opportunities affording one a bit of extra economic leverage, and quite often at no displaced cost to anyone at all. In this situation, for instance, I was using a ticket already paid for - merely neglecting the rigid fixture of its four-day limit, for which no one would ever suffer. Perhaps a bookkeeper in some hidden cubbyhole of the rail system, concerned about per capita accountability. But loopholes are there for the needy and bold; and the gods, alone, are the provenance of such happenstance gifts. Or angels wearing railroad uniforms.
The post bus is something of a quiet secret in Britain, a way of back-country travel that reflects the rather quaint old idea that government should serve people's needs in every way possible. Dorothy, back in London, first alerted me to it. Mail is delivered to outlying areas by small vans with room for several passengers who pay a modest fee for passage. Routes are run to a timetable, usually once each weekday. I was the sole passenger on the 45-mile run from Lairg to the coast and it cost me four dollars.
The bumpy road, one lane with passing space every few hundred yards, sloped down out of the barren hills to the coastal village of Tongue. I had no difficulty spotting the hostel there: a lonely sentinel on a tidewater inlet, in earshot of the surf . . . a two-story Victorian, looking as incongruous in its solitary situation as the civilized strip of paved road beside which it stood . . . both intruders in this setting of pure, wild nature. The village, almost a mile back from the shore, was only a bit less intrusive: a loose cluster of shops and barns huddled over a sleepy junction of country roads. Seaside mountains stretched to the very end of visibility; and the silence, except for surf and gull screech, was simply immense. I dropped my pack at the hostel door and set out toward a hill beyond the village with stone ruins at its crest. I never reached them because the trail bogged into marsh from recent rains, but the few hours given to the attempt, in that surround of unsullied nature, were some of the most peacefully satisfying of my entire journey.
Choosing hostels over the possibility of sleeping out was another part of that resolve to take better care of myself. I had to be a little more flexible and willing to accept their cost, at least until the weather became more supportive. This old frame house, the onetime manse of some reclusive Scot, was large enough for fifty travelers, though only a few besides myself were there so early in the year. Emptiness gave the entire structure a cavernous quality that matched the vastness of space outdoors and made for an unusually quiet and restful stay.
In fact, I hardly saw any of the others. Sunrise on Saturday morning streamed into my private dorm room, splashing the wall with unreal color. I had my fruit and tea in the dining room in utter solitude, and took a morning stroll on a cove shore that was all mine. I might even have stayed another night, but for the fact that a layover would require an additional third night - there being no Sunday post bus - and my 8-day rail pass was ticking away. Tourist conveniences invariably prove to be tourist fetters.
THE LONG JOURNEY back to London began with a quick circuit, by post bus, of the outermost settlement on this desolate but beautiful tip of country: primitive cottages at the seaside's very edge, linked by yapping dogs and wide-eyed children - like some half-forgotten National Geographic image - with the wild, tumbling surf nearby sending acres of mist into the air. We picked up two young Canadian fellows on the way, whose vocal enthusiasm shattered the morning's reverent mood. Like a discordant voice in a choir, it proclaimed their lack of attunement to the land's character.
At the Lairg terminus, I waited the hour and a half to train time in a frontier-type cafe, savoring a hot bowl of tomato soup that cut through the morning's frigid chill, and smiling dubiously at the red-bearded, leather-booted mountain climber across from me as he commented on the newly arrived "warm weather." Considering that our latitude was something north of the Aleutian Islands, he may not have been kidding! We talked a bit about the highland region to the west, and next on my agenda.
Getting there from Lairg, however, was a roundabout journey, and I don't think I could have managed it without the remaining five days of my four-day rail privilege. I had to go all the way back into central Scotland to get a train out of Glasgow, which meant a night's stay down there, somewhere . . . and it turned into three nights, before I finally got to the northwestern coast.
All the rest of Saturday I was on the train from Lairg, watching the countryside unfold . . . from the barrens of the north, up into the Grampian Mountains, rocking along beside tree-sheltered streams and sheep that gazed at us with passive disdain, to the rolling, farm-spattered hills of Scotland's rich heartland. Other Americans came aboard and I found myself in an unlikely conversation with a North Carolinan on a golf circuit - hearing of courses compared, and why Scottish greens are the very best, and nodding in vague appreciation of golfing glories that concerned me not at all. Along the way, we paused briefly at a town decked out in holiday style, with marching bands and kilted paraders who were celebrating something, I never knew what. The whole day's journey, from its start on the wild north shore, was a potluck of visual overload - right up to and including our arrival at Stirling.
I meant to go all the way into Glasgow, but in the day's waning light, yet thirty miles out, we came to the fanciful, fairytale architecture of Stirling. At least it looked that way in the glint of a setting sun, and on pure impulse I left the train, figuring I could always phone for a Glasgow host from there, if it came to that. I had no real concern about finding a host in the region, for the bulk of Scotland's population is concentrated here in the axis between Glasgow and Edinburgh. But the mysterious Scottish curse would not turn loose of me and I met with the same old failure as before. Hosts were not at home, or could not take me at such short notice. There was another youth hostel in Stirling and it seemed again the easiest way out.
I found it up a steep avenue lined with wonderful medieval stone architecture: a great old multi-tiered structure with central courtyard, itself a vestige of ancient times and former use as a nunnery, with passageways and dead-end nooks that a first-time visitor could easily get lost among if not careful. At $7.35, it was as cheap as the one at Tongue. But my week had already soared beyond the budget.
The place was full of guests, yet I felt more isolated here than I had at Tongue. The case of a solitary traveler among cheerful groups of people who already seem to know each other. I was in a crowded dorm, this time, and weary enough to doze late into Sunday. But not as late as a fellow in the corner, who slept through all the noise of morning cleanup. He sat up with a start, as I was about ready to leave, and wanted to know where he was. With that opener, I got into a friendly conversation with a young Turk, in Britain to learn English, and before I left I had his address in Istanbul with a promise of hospitality if I ever got there.
I took the train into Glasgow, not exactly sure what my Sunday course would be. It's not my favorite day for travel, or for much at all. Stirred by the morning's conversation, perhaps, I suddenly wanted to `be someplace' and not on the road. I wanted to find a host. So I got busy on the phone once again. But once more - as ever, in Scotland, it seemed - I drew a blank. I turned to the outlying area, and finally connected with a retired librarian down the coast in a beach town named Troon, which is Gaelic for `nose,' a reference to the spit of land on which the town sits.
Vera lived by herself in a duplex apartment just a block from the sea. The beach was rimmed by a quiet neighborhood street of homes, as though it hadn't occurred to anyone that sea-front property might be especially valuable. The boardwalk mentality had somehow bypassed this little town.
Vera hadn't received many travelers and was so delighted with my arrival that she insisted I stay the preferred two nights - would have encouraged a third and a fourth, I'm sure, had I been willing. So I lingered, soaking in the somewhat rare warmth of sun and good conversation - realizing, after three nights without a host, that the conversation of intentional hospitality cannot be matched by casual encounter. As to the peaceful ambience of Troon, nothing could portray it so well as the Monday incident when I lost my glasses while walking along the beach front to get a bus into Glasgow for some sight-seeing. I found them seven hours later, on my return, exactly where I had dropped them on the sidewalk.
Tuesday's train north from Glasgow took me into the western highlands. It felt like being on top of the world: great humps of lumpy mountain, mostly barren but with some superb overlooks as we'd slant down the side of one `lump' to cross a trestle and slowly angle up the next. It was still the Grampian range - at one point, less than twenty miles distant from the parallel section of Saturday's train ride, but no tracks crossed the rugged gap between the two. When we reached the rocky Atlantic shore, close to the end of the run at Mallaig, the scenery became spectacular.
I intended to catch a ferry at Mallaig to Skye Island, where I was somehow going to make it to a hostel somewhere on the other side. But the train, while exactly on schedule, reached Mallaig five minutes after the last ferry for the day had left. I can only assume it was a schedule `coordinated' to the convenience of the local lodging trade. It left me once more out in the cold, quite literally. There was no hostel here in Mallaig, and nothing but tourist prices at the nearby inns. I could take the train immediately back forty miles to Fort William, where there was a hostel, or else submit myself once again to wind and stars - and hopefully nothing worse.
It really wasn't such a bad evening for sleeping out: cold, but quite clear. I'd need some shelter from the wind and prying eyes, but that usually turns up with a bit of search and I had several hours before darkness to find it.
It wasn't so easy, as it turned out. But I had committed myself, with the departure of the last train for Fort William. Mallaig is essentially a fishing village with a good deal of round-the-clock dock activity going on. Around every corner, it seemed, and in every cranny I sought, rusting equipment of one kind or another took up every bit of space. I tried to look inconspicuous, probing casually from place to place, and ultimately found my way to some dockside processing buildings that seemed fairly well deserted for the day. One among them had a recessed corner sheltered by an overhang at the top, with enough light-weight gear strewn around that a rude protective screen could be set up, and even a bed of netting to cushion my sleep.
But as careful as I had been, I hooked the curiosity of some of the town's kids in my wandering search. I caught a few furtive looks directed my way, and words in hushed whisper as I went by. They were pre-teens for the most part, so it didn't really worry me, but I had no intention of letting them see me head back to my chosen campsite. I took, instead, another casual direction and returned around the water side of the building, fairly sure I had eluded them. I put a sweater on and sat down at the dock's edge for the hour of chill sunlight that remained, to enjoy the marvelous view. Skye Island was a black silhouette that lay like a crumpled shroud on the shimmering dark blue water. The sky itself, clear and deepening in hue, outlined the hover and dip of gulls, while an occasional fishing craft made its distant throaty way toward the sea. I couldn't have picked a better spot or found a better moment for it.
Then, with every bit of affected innocence, three young girls that I recognized at once as part of the curiosity crowd came around the corner of the building to gaze at the sea . . . and sidewise, at me. The only way to deal with it was to break the ice, and I said a cheery "Hi."
Once they learned I was American, all their shyness dissolved and they chatted with me like we were old friends. I was perfectly honest about intending to sleep out "somewhere nearby," and they became very solicitous about my welfare, but I assured them I'd be okay. The most talkative of the trio kept telling me I must be sure to visit Borra Island, where "...all the MacNeills are." I made the surprisingly correct guess that she was a MacNeill. Eventually, a few of the boys came by and joined in, but they never overcame their shyness as readily as the girls. And after that, they all left me entirely alone.
By any standard, it was a successful campout, even though I could hear the noise of work crews, not too far away, during the night. I was up at daybreak to catch the six a.m. train. It would mean another night out here, somewhere, to see Skye Island now, and I wanted to get back to Edinburgh for my last night in Scotland, with a chance to see the city this time. And perhaps to see Sarah again. I had two more days to use the rail pass - if I could manage to preserve the last remaining open box on the back of it.
But that possibility seemed to vanish as the train picked up momentum down the coastline. A very conscientious conductor stood over me while I carefully penned "May 22" into the final box on the back of my pass.
EDINBURGH FULFILLED all my expectations the second time around. Kathleen was happy to have me for another night in that now familiar Dunfermline apartment, and thanks to the very early train out of Mallaig, I had most of that afternoon to enjoy the ambience of the big city. Edinburgh has a nice cosmopolitan flavor, lively and easy at once, rather light-hearted for a great urban center . . . a sense, almost, of music in the air. The heart of the city is actually an open area, a space of parkland and mall, with its south flank rising suddenly in a great embankment surmounted by the old Edinburgh Castle. To the north of that central area, along any cross street, is a view of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh's inlet from the North Sea. Looking across to its far shore, I was instantly back in San Francisco, gazing at the hilly shoreline of Marin from Pacific Heights - a view that was once an everyday part of my life. I think it was this, more than anything else, that put me completely at home in Edinburgh.
Sarah was there for me, too, validating the intimation of a possible friendship between us that had lingered after my hurried earlier departure. Mature friendship across the double generation gap has only been possible for me within the past decade or so, and I consider it a rare blessing. Not easily attained, I might add, for there is so much `preconceptional baggage' to be overcome - particularly with respect to cross-gender friendship. But the unique interactions that evolve - when they do - are worth the effort.
There was one more thing to do before leaving Scotland - one last reason for my return to Edinburgh. Eighty miles up the coast toward Aberdeen, standing alone on a cliff by the sea, a few miles from the town of Stonehaven, was ancient Dunnottar Castle. It presented the perfect combination of easy accessibility and isolated grandeur. Ever since I passed it by, on the earlier run toward Aberdeen, in the rush of that day's agenda, it had been on my mind to come back if I could. And this last day in Scotland was perfect for it in every respect. I timed it so that I could spend three hours hiking out to it and back, and then get the southbound express that would return me all the way to the border.
It was a magically perfect finale. The trail went cliffside above the sea, across fence stiles and through sheep pasture, under the bluest skies imaginable. The castle itself, an unreconstructed ruin, stark and magnificent in this isolated setting, could have been a film-set for Hamlet with lifelike realism. It was a delicious last taste of Scotland. I even had time, back in Stonehaven, for tea and shortbread at a sidewalk cafe before my 2:11 express came through.
And all of this at no extra transportation cost! For I hadn't yet exhausted my survivor's bag of tricks when I signed-off the last box on the rail pass under the eagle-eye scrutiny of that dutiful conductor out of Mallaig, one day shy of the full eight. In writing May 22, I had carefully shortened the final `2.' Using the same pen this morning, I neatly made a `3' of it.
It should only have carried me to the border - that's as far as I could legally get with the pass - but I squeezed an extra bonus out of it: the express made no border stop. I was supposed to change trains at Edinburgh and taken a local. Instead, I stayed with the London-bound express, ready to pay a surcharge if required. But nobody asked to see my ticket before we reached Newcastle, sixty miles further down the coast. All in all, I guess I got about three times the transportation value out of that $55 rail pass.
"...worth the effort" Those brief initial contacts with Sarah resulted in a correspondence friendship which continues today. I wasn't entirely sure it was solid until our third exchange, when Sarah responded with a wry humor to my concern about her honest reaction to my many more years than her own twenty-seven. She silenced my self-conscious ageism with a casual "Oh...I hadn't noticed it!"
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