There’s a lot to be said for taking a multi-day tour with a group of people. You become, at least for a time, a community, a family of sorts. The close quarters, 24/7 experience is a crash course in each other’s personality as you learn people’s habits and quirks. Real personalities emerge. Will someone give up the front seat to the woman who recently had knee surgery? The answer on our bus: no. The same people are late back to the bus at each stop. Then there are the people crushing on other people and trying to get their attention, and still others ignoring the attempts. Some people want to stop at every distillery, others want to be outdoors, others want to shop. Some want one kind of music and other people want a different kind and some could do without any. Someone’s always complaining, but generally in a good-natured way. Still, I don’t know how tour guides do it.
But I loved it all. It was a blast and I would do it again. The cool thing is you ‘live with’ people from all over the world for several days. At night we stayed in a hostel on the Isle of Skye and would go to the local pub. Matt from Australia and I partnered up in pool, playing the locals, and we’re both very competitive so we took great, and I’m sure annoying, pleasure in our repeated wins. For the solitary traveler, I feel that these tours give you the best of both worlds—alone time and community time. Our MacBackpackers Highland tour (which I can highly recommend—best price, great tour) had 26 people so it was a mid-size tour. It could have been a little larger but I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed a tour twice the size as some tour groups run. But I’d have to try one to know for sure.
Our tour was flexible and changed based upon requests from the group. I liked that—we still got to see all the big things that were scheduled but our tour guide got us into a distillery that wasn’t on the schedule and spontaneously arranged guides at some of our stops to give us more of the history and story.
I found myself fairly contemplative throughout the process. It was a lot to take in—spending time walking in the footsteps of a proud and brave people who fought and died for what they believed in, beginning to understand as you stand on a high point with the wind as your only companion why they would love this land so much and why it broke their hearts to be driven out from the Highlands so the land could be used for sheep grazing and other profit-driven motives. Some things humans just never seem to learn to stop doing.
I appreciated being driven around and not being lost for once. We had a couple of crazy drivers come our way but our guide expertly maneuvered the bus and kept us safe. (I’m a nervous passenger sometimes; ask Stefan.) I liked getting off the bus and out into nature and as one woman shared, I was like a billy goat, taking off up the mountains each time like a shot. I think hiking with Marie in France prepared me to hike steep inclines more quickly as I’ve never been much of a hiker; I would always choose cycling over hiking… still do generally. Sometimes someone would catch up to me and climb with me but mostly I was alone. I would climb as high as I could in twenty or thirty minutes and then rush back down. I had to hurry as we didn’t have a lot of time at each stop, which was okay because I saw more of the Highlands than I could ever have on my own.
When I was on the bus I would look out the window at the stunning, legendary and sometimes mysterious landscape and listen to the music, which was a mix of traditional and contemporary Scottish artists, or sometimes American music, as one (American) didn’t care for the Celtic music. When we weren’t listening to music our tour guide, Graeme, would tell stories. He was the best storyteller I’ve ever heard. The stories themselves were really interesting—some were history and some legend—but he told them with such detail and passion you felt as if you were there. I think it made a difference that he was from the Highlands and still lived there. He told the story of the Battle of Culloden, a significant and bloody turning point in Scotland’s history and the history of the Highlands, using a personal perspective, ‘we’ and ‘us’… and it was true for him. This wasn’t just a historic site; it was part of his past, his family’s and his clan’s past.
I learned more about the places I want to return to. I would like to cycle around the Isle of Skye and hike longer and farther, maybe hiking at least part of The Great Glen Way, a 73-mile/117km walk that takes 5-6 days with plenty of options for overnight stays along the way. I met a guy from Israel in Doolin, Ireland who was coming over to Scotland to walk on his own from village to village, staying overnight and then walking on, ending up in Edinburgh for part of the festival. I thought something like that would be a really memorable way to experience Scotland. I’m considering it but need to get further on my writing for now.
One thing I’ve learned is that I enjoy being near a city, or in a small city that is highly walkable, but I also need to be close to off-road cycling paths and hilly hiking. Wait, that sounds like where I came from—Portland, Oregon.
I think in the future I may choose a more remote location to live, away from the familiar comfort of a city. The south of France helped prepare me for that and, although I don’t want to be as remote as I was in France, I can find something that is close to a small town or a large village and near public transportation to other parts of the country. I think it would be nice to find a place with spectacular scenery and hiking and which is cozy with a fireplace in the winter, in or near a small to mid-sized town where people spend time together but where I also have time and space to write. Where should I spend the winter? Go warm and beachy, maybe Australia? Or go cold and hilly or mountainous? I’d probably get more writing done in a colder, mountainous area and that’s what I have to think of first. Well, and wifi access.
Scotland Highlands: Part Two