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25 September 2007

Braveheart: The Scottish Highlands

Day 2 in Scotland: Friday, 21 September
On our second day in Edinburgh, Nicole and I took a day trip to Loch Ness! The day before we had found a tour company offering tours into the Highlands for £30. Since we had come all the way to Scotland and had the time, why not see the Highlands?!

The tour left Edinburgh at 8 am, which meant waking up early, scarfing down our breakfast (cereal and bread with jam) and jogging down the Royal Mile to the tour bus stop. We got there just in time, but the bus didn't end up leaving until 30 minutes later.

And we were off into the countryside! Fields and farms began to give way to rolling hillsides. We passed many historic battle sites associated with William Wallace (whom you might know from Braveheart!). If you don't know, the Scottish people are very proud of being Scottish, and William Wallace, who is immortalized as having fought the hated English, is prominently one of Scotland's defining figures.

Our first stop, mainly to stretch our legs and get a few snacks, was a touristy restaurant and gift shop whose main attraction was its Hairy Coo (if you don't know, a Hairy Coo is a highland cow... with long brown hair covering much of its face).

I stepped inside the gift shop, just to browse. Soon, a guy who worked there called me over casually. As I was looking at the beverage case, he said that he could get me a bottle of water for free.

"Um, okay" I said. The only thing was that I had to wait outside so the manager wouldn't see. Okay, why not. I sat at a table just outside the empty restaurant and he brought me my water bottle. Then he asked me where I was from, and told me he'd really like to sit down and talk with me. Clearly he had no reason to, and he was staring at me quite oddly. So I got up and left, saying that my tour bus was about to leave. It was odd, and frankly just creepy.

The bus then departed and headed into the hills, and it was official: We were in the Highlands. The scenery soon became less familiar, as farms and trees faded into barren wind-swept mountainsides. It's a chilly, rainy, deserted land, with few signs of civilization. I had never been in such a spectacular environment before. I was impressed.

We stopped at Glen Coe. Incredible scenery. The "weeping hills" there refer to the massacre of a local clan who refused to become loyal to the English king. Another tragic chapter in Scotland's history. Nevertheless, unforgettably gorgeous views.

The bus then departed, and we were on our way to Loch Ness! We stopped at the small town of Fort Augustus, which had several restaurants, and suddenly I felt back in civilization. Nicole and I bought tickets for a boat ride onto the Loch. We munched on grocery-store sandwiches as we waited. (We're poor students! No room in the budget for restaurant food!)

The boat soon departed, sailing half the length of the Loch (it's a long lake!). All the while there was a recording pointing out sites and describing the history of the lake.

Inside the ferry was a TV screen with a "state-of-the-art" radar scanning for any unusual creatures in the lake. There was also a man on board, whom a crowd soon gathered around because he had firsthand "proof" of Nessie (and 18 other creatures that exist all over the world!). It really was a boat ride for tourists; however, the Loch's natural beauty makes it all worthwhile. As we got off the boat, the skies parted and the sun began to shine through the clouds, and there it was: The brightest rainbow I had ever seen!

We were soon back on the bus headed toward Edinburgh. We stopped at Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in Britain) which, as usual, was shrouded in clouds.

The drive continued, past more barren mountainsides and more frequent periods of sunshine as the afternoon wore on. The bus stopped in the late afternoon in a small town called Pitlochry. Nicole and I walked around and had a quick dinner of fish 'n' chips. Heading back into Edinburgh, we saw the Firth of Forth bridge, which is supposedly the sexiest bridge in the world (according to some authority on sexy bridges?).

We arrived in Edinburgh around 8 PM. Exhausted from sightseeing, Nicole rested in the hostel. I went out on my own to meet a friend from California who was studying in Scotland. We were both in Edinburgh at the same time, so of course we had to see each other! The two of us ended up having a mini-pub crawl through Edinburgh (mostly around the Grassmarket). She was with a group of fellow study abroad students who left as the night wore on. It's so fun to meet friends while traveling!

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