Tam snaps a familiar shape. Yes that’s right, John Belushi.
Tam and I don’t fight often; rather we have spirited discussions which are usually resolved with the intervention of Wikipedia.
Now, in theory Travel Rule No.1 prevents small arguments blowing up into Fukishimas. It’s kind of an antagonistic handbrake or a CTL-ALT-DLT when a relationship undergoes a temporary crash. TRN1 allows either party to call a temporary one hour time out before agreeing to meet in a pre-arranged spot.
But the problem with TRN1 is that it’s often required in situations where it cannot be invoked. Like when Tam is driving and Ben is navigating through the wild and sexy roads of the Scottish Highlands, where 3G is a back tattoo and not a standard for data exchange.
Thus we have the setting for the first blowout of Ben and Tam’s big trip.
Like most fights of some proportion, what triggered this particular verbal stoush is not entirely clear. We were talking about the merits of planned tour vs. car hire; I wanted to the do that latter while Tam preferred the former. In lieu of a professional guide, Tam expected (apparently I agreed to this months previously) for me to provide all the history, anecdotes and quirky commentary of a guide. I insisted this was widely unrealistic.
From there it just snowballed. The highlight was when Tam softly suggested that perhaps I would find the remainder of my journey more comfortable if I exited the vehicle and proceeded on foot. I thanked her for the kind offer and replied I would be more than willing if she would be so kind as to bring the vehicle to a stop. I’m paraphrasing, of course.
After several minutes of “spirited discussion” we arrived at the William Wallace monument and walked up to the tower celebrating Scotland’s greatest hero in silence.
Some might even call it a reverential silence.
Eventually the ice thawed and apologies were exchanged; the show was back on the road and with renewed enthusiasm, we hit the gift shop. Five minutes later and £6 lighter we had the tools to make Tam’s in-car tour dream a reality: a mix CD of Scottish bagpipe music and a children’s book on Scottish cattle thief Rob Roy. As the enchanting wailing of bagpipes filled the crisp Scottish air, I regaled Tam with the entire story of the 18th century cattleman, thief and vagabond. It was brilliant.
Leaving The Gibson monument in our vapour, we made our way towards Fort Augustus and Loch Ness. Despite already visiting Fort Augustus – and the famous monster that keeps the tour buses coming – years ago, I was more than happy to return as a chaperone for Tam’s maiden journey. Night tours of the Loch were cancelled this weekend due to Rock Ness (had I known in advance I might have petitioned Tam for a change in itinerary), so we opted for a night in, with chicken stuffed with haggis on the menu, and a few drinks with some lovely randoms who were on a Haggis tour.
Our first full day in the Highlands began with the much anticipated Loch Ness tour. The little I did know about the Loch which I tried to convey to Tam was rudely interrupted by a pre-recorded tour guide on the intercom, but the day was pleasant, albeit too early to make use of the fully stocked whiskey bar. No sightings of Nessie, unfortunately, about which Tam was most displeased. No refunds, mind.
Loch Ness done, we revved up our wheels for a trip the “nearby” Isle of Skye, some two hours by car, but well worth the trip. Needless to say the craggy mountain ranges were stunning and the fish and chips we had for lunch in Portree were ridiculously portioned. In a move of insane logic that would have done a latter day Elvis proud, I ordered a side serving of onion rings that alone would have been enough for lunch, but when paired with the Titan-sized serving of cod and potato was truly colossal.
The fish and chip sweats didn’t really kick in until about 30 minutes later, when we ventured to the top of the Old Man of Storr, a large mountain that, suffice to say, we completely underestimated. At the base of the mountain, Tam and I scoffed at the hard core mountaineering crowd, lacing up their Mountain Designs boots and unsheathing their hiking poles. “Look at this guy,” I said to Tam as we opened the gates to the trail, “thinks he’s climbing the Andes”.
I should have taken note. Nearly an hour later, dehydrated and exhausted, we finally reached the summit and if not for the blurry vision, I’m sure the views of the countryside would have been spectacular. That’s when it started to rain.
We scrambled down the mountain with the sure-footed finesse of mountain goats. What took us an hour to climb took 15 minutes to descend. The threat of being caught in a mid-afternoon Scottish downpour provided ample motivation to get back to the car as quickly as fecking possible.
We escaped the worst of it and after visiting a few other sites – I think one had dinosaur footprints? – we arrived back in Fort Augustus in time for Morag’s quiz night. Everyone just assumed we were part of a Haggis tour so we went with the flow and made some new friends, including a Geelong actor who had taken to the Scottish accent with a ferocious dedication I’d not seen before. He kept saying “Aigh” to everything I said, so for the first 15 minutes I thought he was a local.
Our final day in the Highlands began with some castle hopping before making a detour via Inverness and heading south to the quaint town of Pitlochry, a Lonely Planet suggestion I strongly advocated. Here lies Scotland’s smallest distillery, not some sort of Gulliver’s Travels micro world, but a small scale facility that makes as much whiskey in a year as some of the larger distilleries make in a week.
Before hitting the distillery, we took lunch at the Moulin Inn, a pub dating back to 1695, where the meals are simple, the beer hearty and the wall paraphernalia always entertaining. One such poster read:
Rules of the Inn
No thieves, fakirs, rogues or tinkers
No skulking loafers or flea-bitten tramps
No ‘slap an tickle’ o’ the wenches
No hanging o’ tankards on the tables
No dogs allowed in the kitchen
Essentially no fun.
After my final haggis of the trip and a pint of Braveheart gold ale we made for the distillery. Tam likes her scotch, but as designated driver she also values her life, so all of the whiskey passing through her hands eventually made it to my lips. Two shots included as part of the tour, plus another two shots (including a 13-year-old, 55% single malt) left me feeling very Scottish indeed. We made our purchases and returned to car, after which Tam asked, “Hon, can you call Ali and tell her we are on our way?”
“I don’t know babe, I’m feeling pretty relaxed. Happy to call her though.”
“Maybe I will call her.”
The aforementioned Ali was, if you can follow, Tam’s cousin’s partner’s cousin. We’d arranged a somewhat unplanned stopover in Glasgow a few months ago after Tam’s cousin’s partner Gordon mentioned his cousin and her partner Harvey – keep up here – would love to have us stay. Ideally, we would have preferred two or three nights in Glasgow, but our schedule just didn’t allow it.
I’d been through Glasgow before with my good mate Brent for a May bank holiday weekend in 2008. The highlights were being recognised as Aussies in a Walkabout and nearly getting into a fight in West Glasgow after a girl accused me of stealing her money (for the record, she actually owed me money after I offered to buy her and her friends a round, but that’s another story). Suffice to say, my initial impressions of Glasgow were not glamorous. But a night of pasta, white wine and lively conversation – most of which I understood – certainly turned my view of Scotland’s industrial heartland on its head.
Leaving the next morning, we made haste for Edinburgh for a train connection to Bury St Edmunds, where we would be staying for the next five days with Tam’s cousin Nik, her husband Chris and their adorable rug ruts Lauren and Joseph. I’ve previously written of the difficulties inherent in lifting a 20kg bag up 200 flights of steps. With our arrival into Edinburgh now delayed by traffic, I was now experiencing the sheer thrill of running at full speed to Waverly Train Station, suit case clutched to my chest. We made our train with barley minutes left before the doors closed and I keeled over.
The next five days in Bury St Edmunds, a small village outside of Cambridge, were brilliant, and just the sort of downtime required before the onslaught of Amsterdam, Bruges, Paris and the Running of the Bulls festival. We have now arrived in The Damage feeling refreshed and ready for our week of activities and getting ready to meet one of Tam’s physio friends.