Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Loch Ness Monster. (Speed, bonny bus.)

As charming as Edinburgh is, I didn’t want to fully exhaust its charms before my sister and her crew arrived. So I booked a bus tour of the Highlands. At twelve-hours in length, it was billed as “the longest one-day bus tour in Europe.” Not that this was exactly a come-on to me. It’s just that the shorter one-day tours – one to Loch Lomond, one to St. Andrew’s – were both booked. So…

I figured that, on a 15-seat tour bus, I would find a couple of fellow American (or Canadian or English or Irish or Australian or New Zealander) tourists to chat with, but my bus turned out to have a combo of Chinese and Japanese tourists. And me.

The tour guide, Steve, was a gabber with an odd vocal tick: he added an “ay” to every sentence. Perhaps it’s the Scot’s version of “um.” He also used the descriptor “sexy” to describe everything about Scotland, and everything we were seeing. He also told the most outrageously corn-ball jokes, and I was the only one who appeared to get them. After listening to him for about 15 minutes, I was thinking that this was going to be one 12-hour nightmare, when Steve announced that he was not going to be talking all the time, but would only narrate when there was something to see and/or when we were nearing a point of interest. I was sitting in back of Steve, and, when he made this announcement I patted him on the shoulder and whispered ‘bless you.’

On the way to the Highlands, we made a stop at the small town of Callendar, one of the many stops we made so that everyone could stretch their legs and use the toilet. (This tour company certainly knows their middle aged tourists.) I would have liked a cup of tea, but it’s actually unwise to take a diuretic when getting on a bus that doesn’t have a toilet on it. And I’d already had a breakfast pastry – not the scone I wanted, which the tea shop I’d gone into at town didn’t seem to offer – but a date square. When I ordered it, a couple of tea shop workers exchanged a glance. (Was it a dog treat?) Anyway, it was fine, but I didn’t need anything else.

As it turned out, the very nice Japanese lady sitting across the aisle had gotten scones and shortbread for her party of four (husband and two granddaughters, I’m guessing), and offered me a piece of her nice warm scone and a shortbread cookie. Very nice.

The Highlands were gorgeous, and I actually enjoyed Steve’s narration on the great battles of Scotland’s history, although keeping track of all the Jameses confused me a bit. Ay. Since I knew next to nothing about Scotland’s history, other than a few words of “Over the Sea to Skye” ab
20150608_111305out the boat speeding Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety, it was all new and interesting. Especially the part about the massacre of the MacDonalds at the hands of the Campbells. (I would NOT have wanted to be someone named Campbell on that tour. Perhaps they tone it down when that happens.)

If I didn’t know anything about Scotland’s history, I didn’t know much about its geography/geology either. So it was interesting to be reminded that we all used to be just one big plot of land, and that the mountains of the Highlands are same-same as the Appalachians. Which explains why the Scots-Irish found themselves so at home there.

The theoretical highlight of the trip was a long stop in Port Augustus, which is on Loch Ness.

I opted to take a one-hour cruise of the Loch, which was quite informative. Don’t want to burst any bubbles here, but other than St. Columba’s mythic ramblings about rasslin’ with monsters – some of which took place in Loch Ness – there really weren’t many reported sightings of any monsters until the 1930’s, when the first real roads were put in in the area. Once the number of visitors started to increase, so did claims of seeing a monster. Right now, the scientific explanation is that what people have actually seen are exceedingly large sturgeons, which can live over 200 years and grow to enormous size.

Maybe someday the Loch will be fully mapped, but for now it’s way too deep. As for draining it, it’s way to long, way too wide, and way too deep. If drained, if I got this correct, the entire population of the world would fit in the empty tub. With room to spare.

Anyway, the mega-sturgeon sounds as good as any.

Because I was the only fluent English speaker on the tour, I had a few rest stop chats with Steve and with his driver, a charming recent university grad named Gordon who was the spit and image of Prince William. (Should have taken a picture of him!) Although his mother is American, Gordon is a native Gaelic (pronounced Gall-ach) speaker, so we talked about my attempts to learn Irish Gaelic (pronounced Gay-lig-ah). Although the words look the same, the dialects are entirely different, so I wasn’t able to understand a thing he was saying. Not that I would have been, anyway. I did point out some words on signs that I recognized and told him how they were pronounced in Ireland. But Gall-ach or Gay-lig-ah, this is one impenetrable language.

We made a few stops on the way back – another quaint town, a big monument to commandoes who’d trained in the Highlands – and everyone got a bit of a doze in. (In truth, everyone got a bit of a dose in on the way up as well.)

By the 11th hour, I was singing, “Speed, bonny bus…over the road to Edinburgh…”) to myself. So I was happy to get back “home” (and fortunate that the pick up and drop off was just across the street from my hotel).

Don’t know whether I’d be in a hurry for a 12-hour tour again, but – ay - a day well spent!

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