Scottish Highlands

Vacation! As much as living in Zurich is a dream, I was excited to get out of the city and really experience some unaltered nature (or at least unaltered in the last 100 years or so). So my boyfriend and I headed into the Western Highlands of Scotland for 2 weeks of camping and hitchhiking.  The people, the views, the hiking, the porridge- all made it a truly unique experience, and I’ll try to explain as much as I can here, but more pictures are posted elsewhere (just e-mail me if I didn’t send you the link). So…

Scottish Highlands July 2010

This title shot was taken at Sandwood Bay, in the far North, at the very end of the adventure. But I’ll back up to Edinburgh, where we began. We went to the old pubs where with live musicians play the traditional songs in the corner with their beer within arms reach.

Ambient celtic tunes
Singing of his long lost lady/ ship/ sheep/ whiskey

We explored Edinburgh’s main sites, the castle and high street. I was taken in by the old architecture, particularly the rooftops.

Edinburgh castle
Old town by night

Edinburgh is on the Southeast coast so we packed our backpacks and headed all the way to the west coast to a namesake town, Wemyss Bay. Not where the family comes from, but named after a salmon fisherman by the same name who was keen to get the town into a trading port. Now there is a picturesque train station, ferry pier, and not much else except many melancholy holiday homes.

Train and Ferry station

One ferry and many car rides later, we began our first big walk, doing the last 2.5 days of the West Highland Way footpath (though some of the locals do it on a rainy Sunday). The views were wonderful- rolling green hills that gleamed in the sunlight (when it was around) and were accented with dark purple heather, white fuzzy sheep, pink sandstone, grey granite and the black remains of the slow burning peat fires.

West Highland Way at Glencoe
The sheep were as common as the rain

In Scotland, you can camp wild (anywhere you please as long as you are respectful), so we tented along the route. For the efforts of carrying our tent and food, we were rewarded with amazing sites in remote valleys and bays. However, that also meant that we kept our food supply light. I am a huge fan of oatmeal, especially when camping and it is not new to me, but apparently it is called, through a rough translation, ‘wheat slime’ in German and would not be eaten by a rational person. However, it is decidedly British and lightweight, and perhaps that helped make it palatable for 10 straight days.

porridge!

Moving up the coast towards the famous Isle of Skye, we stopped at one of the popular coastal caravan holiday sites with beaches and coves. We found our own little  bit of land to camp on, and had the first rainless day for a while and a beautiful sunset.

Sunset over our private bay

Oh and I need to mention that ‘summer’ in Scotland means only 80% chance of rain everyday (I guess instead of 100%)… what a treat. So rain pants (thanks for the tip, mom!) and backpack covers were always on hand for the coming rain shower. But it wasn’t cold, and you get used to it quickly, sort of. 🙂

Off to Skye, where as we headed deeper into the highlands, we saw more and more Gaelic. Most of the locals from this part and the outer islands (the Hebrides) grow up speaking Gaelic first, English second. The language was dying but has had a strong comeback through government interest, and from the young people who have taken a keen interest in their heritage. Now there is BBC radio and a college in Gaelic. (FYI, I recently learned that the CBC radio broadcasts into 9 Native Canadian languages). Gaelic is fun to listen to but impossibly hard to pronounce correctly.

Gaelic at Skye Ferry

On Skye, we explored the ocean cliffs and poked around tide pools for anemones. It was especially rainy which created an interesting effect as everything became connected by the water- where it landed, connected, saturated, flowed, and ultimately ended up in the ocean in front of us.

Attempted geology lesson

The cliffs were fascinating with flat and smoothed-out layers, vertical drop-offs, and caves.  And I’m hoping a geologist I know has some answers to their formation (hint hint).

tide pool exploring below the cliffs

We moved campsites everyday to try to get as far North as we could. So we left Skye and arrived at a very cool castle on a spit into a freshwater loch (lake) which we took over for the night. Beautiful speckled sunlight helped to ease overactive imaginations about spirits living in the castle ruins…

Castle and chapel in back
The castle looked a little sturdier than the tent

A few more adventures on the way North, including a random stop at a fishing town, Sheldaig, to find a campsite on a very rainy night. To dry off we headed to the local pub, and ended up having the most amazing experience. In short, the locals got us up and dancing to the live cover band, brought us into their home for the after party where we sang, drank whiskey/tea (depending) and passed around the hand-smoked salmon and cheddar cheese with 1/5th of the town (that would be 20 of the 100 locals) until past 4 in the morning. And this was with the 20-somethings to the 60 year olds. From the 26-year-old who has travelled the world but came home to Sheldaig where he plans to live the rest of his life, to the 57-year-old who has been fishing the same waters as his father off of Sheldaig. We could not have felt more welcomed, and as we left the next day we were greeting people on the street like we had always lived there. Very special.

And finally we come full circle to our final destination in the very North, Sandwood Bay. An unexpected and unbelievable white sand beach amongst the hills. Not only was it like a small oasis in the Highlands, but the weather even turned around and was hot! I got to wear shorts (yah something other than rain paints!) for the first and only time on the trip.  We camped in the sand dunes and had a very fun day at the beach! Which is a phrase I would never have expected to say in this part of the country, but surprisingly the North coast has quite a few of these little spots, which was apparently known by John Lennon as it was a favourite vacation spot.

Beach and dunes and sun
Dazzling sunset

Hitching our way back down to Edinburgh was slightly exhausting and the necessary trial to impress upon us the significance of the experience we just had. We had come over 500 km by foot, ferry and car (carbon neutral to boot), kept smiling through days of rain, licked our lips after 45 packets of oatmeal,  drank the peaty spring water, fought off the midges and horseflies, navigated the twisty coastal roads, were saturated with every shade of green, interpreted the thick accents, connected with the land every night and the people every day. I would not say it was easy, but it was certainly worth every effort as I was continually astounded at each new location.

Coming back into Edinburgh there were only 3 plans in mind: hot shower, (veggie) haggis with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), and sipping whiskey while listening to live folk music. So I finish with the last…

golden warmth
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Schluein

This is the town Lisa (my Aunt) lives in with the gang of Freddi, Mia, Nora and Ruby. I go up (about 2-ish hours from Zurich by train) whenever I feel the need for some family time or a little open space.

It is the ideal place to get to know Swiss living (this last weekend we had fondue and made our own pasta!), take some fantastic walks through the surrounding hills with my Uncle Frederic who is a mountain guide and play with my cousins, Mia and Nora, and the dog, Ruby.

The town is in the area of Flims and Laax which are famous ski resorts in the area. The summer hiking on the ski hills makes for dramatic vistas onto the surrounding Alps.

Some photos for you to get the idea… 

View from Lisa's Living Room
View from Lisa’s Living Room

The big trees on the left are walnut. Lisa and I went out to pick them as the tree drops them over the fall. In a month or so, they harden up and develop their lovely buttery taste.   

Lisa and Nora
Lisa and Nora
My lovely Aunt and baby cousin.
The Mountain Hut above the town of Laax
The Mountain Hut above the town of Laax
The mountain hut that was built by Frederic and his friends. They go up here for three weeks a year during the legal deer hunt. At dawn and dusk they are 30 feet up in the air suspended from their favourite strategic tree waiting for the elusive Red Deer… this year was a bad year (blame it on the hard winter, was what I heard the locals whispering) and only 3 deer were shot amongst them. We hiked up to the hut once to meet them when they came down for lunch. Sitting around over wild mushroom (that they found on their way down) risotto with a bunch of smelly, unshaven, and deer-obsessed mountain men was a funny experience. As I sat there listening to Lisa translate with my eyes wide, I must have looked a bit like a deer myself. It certainly blew away any previous notions about Swiss hunting that I had.
The Flims Stone, the local area is known for this formation
The Flims Stone, the local area is known for this formation

 Taken from the town of Flims, this outcrop is the backdrop throughout the town and is instantly recognizable once you have caught a glimpse.

Flims Ski Hill
Flims Ski Hill
We made our way around the open face of the ski hill with the Flims Stone in the background.
Cool mushrooms everywhere
Cool mushrooms everywhere
I could probably do a whole post only on mushrooms…
Blueberry picking with a sleeping Nora
Blueberry picking with a sleeping Nora
Our path went through a huge blueberry patch. We ate our fill and talked about our safe escape from scurvy. Nora did not partake.
Freddi and Ruby
Freddi and Ruby
The distant mountains just started to clear out of the fog as we finished the hike.