The Young Man from Canada

A Canadian exchange student in Scotland

Monday, June 13, 2005


Well, not quite, but almost. I spent today (Wednesday, June 8) just lying around the flat, recovering from the West Highland Way. After 47 miles in two days, my feet were covered with blood-blisters, and I actually had bruised the underside of my left foot. As well, I was getting sharp, burning, shooting pains through my shoulder every now and then.

If you put it together, I essentially did the WHW in 5 days, but I’m not sure that I could have continued much further at the pace that I had been keeping. Not without training for it.

Perhaps there is a reason why the fastest suggested schedule in my guide is for six days.


West Highland Way

West Highland Way

After a brief debate as to whether I should attempt it or not given that my alarm didn’t go off (I’d set it to 6:45 PM as opposed to AM) I packed my big backpack, nipped into Sainsbury’s for some provisions, and boarded the train to Milngavie (pronounced Mill-guy) to hike the lower half of the West Highland Way.

I felt obligated to do this for in Fort William I had bought a patch that said West Highland Way 92 Miles from Milngavie to Fort William, even though I’d only done half of it. That, and I wanted to see the southern portion, because it was the first part of the Scottish countryside I saw when I arrived (when Jim Wilson took us on a trip to the Glengoyne distillery and Balloch). I ambitiously had planned to cover the distance in two days, and booked my bed in Scottish Youth Hostel in Rowardennan from the train station in Partick, and after being given directions from the conductor on the train headed to the cairn which marks the beginning of the West Highland Way.

The way at first goes through a pleasant park and forest before coming out into the open at the Blane Valley. At this point, I had started walking along with a couple up from London, who had two weeks in Scotland and were going to do the West Highland Way and whatever else they could fit in. We were walking along, chatting about this and that, admiring the view, and being generally thankful of the nice flat stretch along the old Blane Valley Railway. Along the way I heard my first cuckoo. The man said that it was the first one he’d heard in the wild this year. I pointed out that aside from clocks, it was the first one I’d ever heard.

Before we knew it, we had reached the Peach Tree Inn, where we stopped for a wee rest, and they each had a pint – walking in Scotland is very civilised you see. Looking at the map, we were surprised to learn that we had covered 7 miles and according to the man’s global positioning system, we did it at an average of 3.9 mph. Not too bad.

I left them at the Inn as I had to be on my way. They were only heading as far as Drymen, but my destination loomed ever-so distantly on the horizon in the form of the hazy outline of Ben Lomond. The remaining four miles to Drymen was quite pleasant, although due to the earlier rest break, and my having started walking at 9:30, I wasn’t able to go to The Clachan, a pub recommended to me as being not only a good stop for a pint, but also an old coaching inn once owned by Rob Roy’s sister. Instead I pushed on to Balmaha. The path to Balmaha splits in two, one going along the road and being reasonably flat, and the other going up 1000 feet over Conic Hill. I opted for the latter, more strenuous, but certainly more rewarding option. The views were quite spectacular and it was geologically interesting as Conic hill is on the Highland Boundary Fault which is easy to follow as it takes the form of a number of islands marching straight across the loch.

On the descent from the hill, I met up with two people from outside Seattle who were climbing the hill and we walked and chatted on the way down and ended up having a pint in the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha as they waited for their ride. The older man had just purchased a derelict castle, and was on a tour of restored castles in Scotland to chat with the owners and get ideas and advice on his own restoration. A rather interesting prospect.

After about an hour of chatting, their ride eventually arrived and they drove off, and headed up the loch on the last few miles to Rowardennan. Stopping for that long was perhaps a mistake as these ended up seeming like the longest 7 miles I’d ever hiked in my life. I think I stopped and looked at the map to check my agonisingly slow progress every quarter of a mile. The one highlight was my seeing an oystercatcher and marvelling at how much it was chirping. Then, hobbling over the stones, I saw her two chicks; two balls of grey fluff. They were incredibly cute, especially when one tried to hop up onto a stone, misjudged the distance, and ended up sliding back down on its breast. I reached Rowardennan and had a pint and a bowl of soup, and a whisky. Eventually, at about 9:30 I arrived at the youth hostel in Rowardennan, after having set out at about 9:15 that morning.

Distance covered from Milngavie to Rowardennan: 27 miles

Highest Climb: ~1100 feet (Conic Hill)

Average Speed: 3 mph

Knackered: yes

After a quick shower and a brief breakfast of some food I’d picked up the previous morning I set out once again on the trail. It was rather slow going at first, and it took a couple of miles to work the considerable stiffness from my joints, and it was just outside Inversnaid where I began hitting my stride. This was not to last, however.

After a brief rest stop at the Inversnaid Hotel and something cold to drink, I headed off for what is perhaps the hardest section of the West Highland Way, the seven-mile section between Inversnaid and Inverarnan on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. The trail south of Inversnaid is a forestry road (at least the higher path which I took was) but the roads end north of the hotel. The path becomes very narrow and winding, going up and over hills, burns, rockfalls, with roots in convenient tripping location everywhere. At one point a trail branches off to an area marked Rob Roy’s cave. My guidebook suggested that it was a difficult clamber over some large stones, and described it as requiring surprising strenuous effort to reach a rather modest crack in the rock. As I arrived there, I met two Germans who had shared my room in Rowardennan and I asked if it was worth the effort.

”He must have been very small,” was all they said, and I continued on.

Despite the effort, and my legs which hadn’t quite fully recovered from the day before, I was still able to enjoy the stunning scenery along the loch. It was a little grey and misty, but it added to the atmosphere. And eventually the sun did come out and grace me with its presence. In fact, it did so enough that I managed to get sunburned. Sunscreen was not something I packed to come on exchange to Scotland, you see.

Eventually I reached the highlight of this section, The Drover’s Inn in Inverarnan. The West Highland Way follows the route of an old cattle drove road where crofters from the Highlands would bring their cattle to the markets in the lowlands. This inn has pretty much remained untouched since it was built to serve those drovers 300 years ago. The serving staff were all kilted, and one was wearing a shirt that read “Scotland’s pub of the year 1705”. I thought that was cute. I spent my late lunch talking with an English couple and a man from Florida who was doing a number of long-distance trails in Britain whilst on holiday. The food was excellent, and I indulged myself with a pint and dessert. The couple offered to buy me another pint, and as I was keen to stay off my feet and the fire was now going in the fireplace, I said yes. Needless to say, the next six miles went slowly.

Almost reluctantly, I put on my pack, and headed back to the Way and north to Crianlarich. The going was slow as my joints had been given time to stiffen up again, and just as they were being worked out, I had to slow down due to a traffic jam – cows. I was heading through a farmer’s field at this point and as I was walking a very large bull, a cow and her calf decided that they would amble along the way in front of me. There was no space to get around, so I just had to wait as they reached the rest of the herd who, as it turned out, were lying half on the path. I didn’t have to push any out of the way, but I was a little wary of brushing past the bull, and angering any of the cows, as many had calves with them. They were pretty placid though, and I was on my way.

Coming out of Glen Falloch and into a pine forest which marked that I had about a mile to go, I heard the train south to Glasgow rumble past. This meant that I had another two and a half hours to wait for the next one. Well, once I got to the station I had a small snack, lay down and read until the train came.

The train ride home was rather pleasant and certainly ended on a high note. There are no ticket facilities at the Crianlarich station, so you have to buy your ticket on the train. That it, of course, assuming the conductor comes to sell you a ticket. He didn’t, and so I alighted at Westerton to catch the connection into Glasgow (I was on the Caledonian Sleeper train which goes to Edinburgh and thence on to London). When I boarded the train, the conductor assumed we all had tickets (there were three others with me, high school students back from camping on Skye) and we rode all the way into Glasgow Queen Street without a ticket. At any other time of the day, there are automatic ticket barriers in operation, but after midnight when the station is closing, these aren’t working so I got from Crianlarich to Glasgow for free. A pleasant way to end the day.

Distance covered from Rowardennan to Crianlarich: 20 miles

Highest climb: ~400 feet

Average speed: 2 mph

Knackered: unbelievably so.


Friday, June 10, 2005

A tourist in Edinburgh

On Monday, with my back still a little sore from the moving, I decided that I would go to Edinburgh instead of starting the West Highland Way and do the touristy thing. This was about the 18th that I’d been to Edinburgh, but in terms of the sights that I had seen, they consisted of Arthur Seat, Scott Monument, National Gallery, the Castle, Calton Hill, and the Zoo. Mind you, I’d visited the Guildford Arms on West Register Street most every time I’d been.

I got the early afternoon train from Queen Street to Waverley, and headed down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, something which had been highly recommended to me by Alison. I could immediately see why. First off, it was an absolutely gorgeously sunny day, which made strolling around the grounds a delight. The palace itself is a splendid piece of 17th century neo-Classical architecture. The interiors are just as breathtaking as it was designed for, and indeed is still used as a royal residence. Interestingly enough, it’s use as a royal residence is a relatively recent innovation.

The earliest part of the palace, the northwest tower, dates from the reign of James IV. He used the palace as an alternate to the draughty and wet castle at the top of the Royal Mile. The palace was used by Mary Queen of Scots as well, and her son James VI. After 1603, royal visits to Scotland became a rarity, with one significant event, the ‘popish’ coronation of Charles I which would spark off conflict in Scotland which would eventually spill south of the border and become civil war. During the Cromwellian invasion, the palace was badly damaged, and after the Restoration of 1660 King Charles II decided it would be rebuilt as a grand royal residence. He died before he could enjoy it, and after that no monarch would use the palace again until George IV in 1822.

Now at the risk of this becoming a history lesson (although I think we passed that point a while ago) George IV’s visit to Scotland was absolutely crucial in preserving, and indeed reviving, Scottish culture, and is worth noting here. After the 1745 Jacobite uprising – Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden and whatnot – harsh restrictions on Scottish culture were imposed. Speaking Gaelic was banned, so too was the wearing of tartan and the playing of the pipes. This remained the case until 1822, when George IV visited, a visit organised by perhaps the first great PR man, Sir Walter Scott.

The fact that a monarch was visiting Scotland for the first time since the 17th century was important enough, but imagine the symbolism of George appearing in Edinburgh, in full highland regalia. Kilt, bonnet, tartan fly, the works. The outfit, complete with gilded basket-hilted sword (similar to the ones carried by the Jacobites) cost £1300. And, to add to the symbolism, George IV was presented with the Honours of Scotland, which had been recently rediscovered by none other than Sir Walter Scott. Scottish culture saw a revival from this point onward. The modern kilt and clan tartans as we know them today came into being, Gaelic was once again legal to speak, and George IV’s niece Queen Victoria made regular trips to Holyrood Palace before she acquired Balmoral Castle in Deeside. Indeed, such was her interest in Scottish culture that every year there would be a huge pageant in Braemar, known as the Braemar Gathering, the first modern highland games.

So, to make a long story short, Holyrood Palace has witnessed some events that have made Scotland what it is today. There were some other interesting events that the audio guide recounted as well. One of which was the murder of David Rizzio, close personal friend of Mary Queen of Scots. Too close, it seemed for her then husband, Lord Darnley.

One night, while Mary was entertaining Rizzio in her chambers (get your mind out of the gutter) Darnley and a number of other conspirators climbed a small spiral staircase, opened Mary’s chamber door, and dragged Rizzio out, and stabbed him. 56 times. He died clutching a shred of Mary’s dress which had ripped as he was dragged from the room. The tour follows the same staircase, up to the same room. Rather eerie. Lord Darnley himself was then murdered, a man believed to be the same man who shortly thereafter became Mary’s third husband. All this scandal occuring at the same time as the Scottish Reformation meant that Mary was forced to give up the throne in favour of her 18 month son James VI. She would spend the next 19 years of her life in prison, until England’s Queen Elizabeth, decided her to be too much a threat to the English throne, and had her executed at Fotheringhay Castle outside of Peterborough. This may all seem a little boring to those who might not share my passion for history, and indeed written out it isn’t much different from a textbook, but actually being there, being in the room where all these things happened is quite different, and marvellous.

Holyrood Abbey, which is just next to the palace is, as described aptly by my guidebook, an evocative ruin. Legend has it that King David was walking in the woods when an enraged stag blocked his path. Fighting off the stag, he grabbed one of its antlers but instead found himself holding a cross. Believing this to be a sign from God, he built the Augustinian monastery, and gave it the name Holyrood, a holy rood being a fragment of the original cross. That was in the 11th century, but most of the present abbey, or ruined abbey, dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. It was badly damaged in the Reformation, but rebuilt in the 17th century, but the rebuilt roof collapsed in the 18th century and it has been ruined ever since. It really is quite a stunning ruin.

After a walk through the gardens around the palace, I walked up the Royal Mile to the High Kirk of St. Giles. Many people know it as St. Giles Cathedral, but this is a misnomer. It has been a Cathedral twice – first when it was built up to the Reformation, and second from 1660-1688 when the Scottish kirk was episcopalian. However, Cathedral refers to the catherdra, the bishops seat, and as Presbyterianism does not have any bishops (they’ve fought wars over this) it is known as a High Kirk. Just a word of warning in case you come across a Scot easily offended by this sort of thing.

St. Giles really is quite a magnificent building from the outside, and I had walked past it many times, so finally I decided to go in a take a look around. There are a number of interesting tombs, including the 8th Earl of Argyll, and a plaque on the floor marking the approximate spot where Janet Geddes threw her stool at the minister when he began to read from the English Book of Common Prayer introduced to the Scottish Kirk by Charles I and sparked the so-called Prayerbook Riots – a copycat riot happened in Glasgow Cathedral as well. (Note: I have know idea why Glasgow Cathedral is known as a Cathedral. I shall have to find this out)

The organ was playing as I wandered through the kirk, and the sun was streaming in through the stained glass windows, creating a rather nice scene. I learned something about the history of the building too. Now while I know a fair bit about the history of what went on in the building, I didn’t actually know how old it was. Well, the guide said they just got back a date from the columns supporting the main tower - 900 AD. That’s old.

After finishing up in the Cathedral, I headed up to the castle, where I took in the view of the city. I was going to see the Royal Honours of Scotland, but the castle was closing so I headed back down the Royal Mile. Now I was stopped by some people handing out brochures for a tour of Mary King’s Close. I had meant to go on one of these tours before, and since this was perhaps my last trip to Edinburgh on this exchange (I will be back) I figured I might as well go now.

Now mediaeval Edinburgh had many houses on narrow side streets branching off the Royal Mile named closes. Now as the city grew in size, and the buildings along the Royal Mile became bigger, gradually these mediaeval closes were bricked over so as to provide a level surface for the buildings above, in the case of Mary King’s Close, the City Chambers. Essentially this created an underground city, which although noone lived there after it was covered, a few did work down there, and it has essentially preserved a piece of mediaeval Edinburgh.

The tour itself wasn’t overly impressive, compared to some others that I’ve been on. There was the requisite ghost story, and a room where there is supposedly the spirit of a little girl who’d lost her toy so people bring her toys, and other nonsense. But there are some fascinating bits and pieces too. The butchering slab, complete with drain grooves can be found in one of the old rooms. Remenants of a 17th century block printed wall; a common practise where paper was expensive was for the less well to do to simply paint patterns directly onto the wall. And various little things like that. It was a nice tour, and interesting, but not one that I would highly recommend for people to go on. And if the tour guides were right in telling me that this was the most historical of all the Edinburgh tours, then don’t expect to learn much, that’s all I can say.

After the tour I headed down to Waverley to catch the train back into Glasgow where I went to bed in preperation for the following two days adventures.