I have indeed managed to get all the way up to John O’ Groats, but my way there was somewhat different from the route I had planned. After Newcastle I got up to Edinburgh on the good old National Express bus, but orientation there was a little more difficult. After managing to find my way from the drop off point to the railway station, I eventually managed to find the now-closed tourist information but was somehow still able to locate a few hostels near-by, in one of which I ended up staying. I hadn’t been aware of it, but it now was the time all the students came to Edinburgh so most beds were actually “reserved” for them.
Anyhow in the hostel I had the chance to chat with two guys staring out at the University of Edinburgh this September, one of which was going to study English and the other, an older guy from Lithuania, who was first doing a prep-year and then going to do some post-grad in something so strange I cannot even remember. They were speaking really good about their first days &c. and it all sounded like a good place. Being out and about the next two days was not so much to my liking though – forget what I said about Land’s End – Edinburgh High St is like a Scottish uber-Land’s End with the most commercialised castle to one side and the Scottish parliament and Holyrood Place to the other. Still, the castle was good (apart from the way they extract money from visitors) and I spent an afternoon in the Parliament’s gallery, listening to the several discussions, one of which, co-incidentally, was about the unhealthy balance and more healthy ways to further increase tourism in Scotland. Quite interesting, if not always a painful realisation for a liberalists heart, to see important decisions being made with an almost empty house and the low interest many politicians seem to have in matters personally not relevant to them. On the last day in Edinburgh I climbed Arthurs Chair, just outside Holyrood Place and the Parliament, which offers splendid views over all Edinburgh and let me realise that there must be much calmer parts to the city than what I had seen (Thanks to Nic for the hint!).
From there I went to St Andrews, but again was turned away fairly quickly as it seemed the whole Kingdom of Fife had been completely booked out by the arriving student’s parents. So there was nowhere to sleep and I marched up to Dundee where I arrived by nightfall. Here I found a hostel where I could stay for a couple of days and rest my bones. I went back to St Andrews by local bus for a day and took a walk all around town and the golf course – oh what a wonderful place. You don’t need to know it – you can literally feel instantaneously that St Andrews has the lowest crime rate in Britain.
The couple of students I saw arriving in their halls were all buzzing around like little lost bees but I got a little glimpse of the uni none-the-less and when it was time to go back to Dundee by dusk I felt quite set on wanting to study here; or at least try my chances. Dundee itself was not excellent to say but the least, Dundee city centre by dark was scary, and it soon occured to me that here I was staying in a crime hotspot, oppsed to St Andrews where I planned to spend these two nights. I joined the library to get done with half a day which I had to wait for the next bus to leave for Perth, as I had thought about getting up to Aberdeen by bus and then taking the train to Inverness but couldn’t afford it. The local bus to Perth was at £1.60 about £84.20 cheaper than the previous option and although it took half a day the journey was well worth it. I saw the whole spectrum of towns, villages and hamlets throughout the way and all the people getting around. From those wearing suit and rolex right to those with unwashed muddy track suit bottoms and once-a-month-combed hair who had bartered some goods behind an inconspicious hill half way to Perth.
In Perth I didn’t do much but have a walk in the park, a good night’s sleep and discover that the a ticket on the train to Inverness from here was only around £25. What a bargain. I took the ride and was amazed to find this the most romantic railway journey I have ever had. The beauty of the scenery we passed by far surpassed the childhood memories I have from many a railway journey up the black forest and set me into the romantic mood with which I used to dream of a ride on the Canadian Rocky Mountaineer train through Alberta and British Columbia.
When I arrived in Inverness it was clear that instead of heading straight up to John O’ Groats I had to revisit some of that spectacular landscape afoot. So I set out the next morning and walked the Great Glen Way back to Fort Augustus on the far end of Loch Ness. Some locals I met made me say Drumnadrochit (a village on the way) a few times in the hope to get some laughs but I left them disappointed when my Alemannic heritage let me at ease with all the rolled Rs and CHs. The walk was spectacular! Loch Ness was beautiful, though I didn’t spot the Nessie, and the backland off the mountains surrounding the loch even better. I never knew we had these vast and empty, untouched lands so close to our doorstep here in Europe! It was clear for me that I would have to come here again and walk the whole of the Great Glen (Glen being geographical “split” or “break” that divides Scotland). Inverness itself was quite alright as well, a sleepy little “city in the highlands” as they say (without the sleepy bit I believe, for that’s just my opinion). The next day I spent preparing for my walking up to John O’ Groats and the hitchhike back, but by the end of the day came to the realisation that due to the layout of the roads and the absence of bridleways it was wiser to break it down in two and make camp in either Thurso or Wick.
Over the last days in the hostel I also made friends with a ginger Finn who with her son had just been west by Ullapool. She told me of a little segragated community that she visited there, where apparently there are neither roads nor maneuvrable paths leading to the community. They reach it either by boat over a largeish, mountain encapsulated lake or by a day-long walk through the forested mountains surrounding it – if the weather permits. She told me how they had a little school none-the-less and still relayed all messages by postal boat. Since she had been there the first time half a decade ago they had installed wind turbines on all the houses for wind energy but otherwise were still quite unevolved, if that word seems appropriate. She made it sound like a romantic little place full of to-fantastic-to-be-true the-first-Glastonbury-remembering society-opt-outs. A definite on my must-visit list. Friendly as she was she left me with two jars of self-picked and -made cowberry jam. So rich in acid it doesn’t need preservatives if I may believe her words.
Well, off to the north then!