I made for a hostel as soon as the bus let me off in Inverness and then out along the eastern end of the Great Glen Way. It ran beside the Ness River, then out onto it. A string of small islands split the river in two, and their miniature forests provided a beautiful escape from civilisation for a short time before I was dumped onto the opposite bank near a sports centre. I’d have liked to see the locals out playing on the fields, but it was still work and school hours so it was no surprise to find it deserted, and I guess they wouldn’t be acting any differently to Aussies anyway.
A little further along, the track took me over a bridge designed to let boats past. The cars were stopped stop while its great metal bulk swung round parallel to the river and canal boats chugged by. On the other side, I started to follow the GGW along the river again, but spotted a manor on a hill behind me. I abandoned the path in favour of a chance to see such a grand building up close. Back on the highway, I found that every turn took me further from the manor. A side road seemed to go more in the direction I wanted, so I took that, but soon it too was heading away. I then took a dirt track which headed up the hill almost directly towards it, but then found myself wandering along below it, with a barbed fence announcing my unwelcome. Finally, I came to what looked like the end of the track, with a boulder in the middle of the road at the top of the rise I was on. I almost turned back – there wouldn’t be light for much longer – but after walking for an hour since seeing the manor, I let my curiosity get the better of me and walked up to the rock.
Two metres beyond the rock was a road with a sign clearly marking the GGW. If I’d stayed on the original path, I would have come here anyway. I laughed at the irony, then snuck up the road – even as I fretted about time – and there was the entrance to the manor, now some sort of mental asylum. I’m not sure I was meant to go so close, but there weren’t any fences this time so I got a few pictures of the building and turned to look at the view it had. I could understand why a lord would choose this place for his home. Even now, it looked over a long hillside of fields and scattered villages, stretching out until it reached the Ness River. Looking left, you could follow that river for miles until it ran behind a hill and presumably ran into the Loch Ness just out of sight. It was a view I’d be happy to see each morning. Likewise, its prominence was a reminder – of protection or fear – for the peasants who could see the manor from anywhere in their serfdom.
Light was already failing, so I hurried down the GGW – this trip taking barely 20 minutes – and along the river to the bridge. This time, something was wrong and the technicians were running all around it while the lights and bells above the boom gates flashed and chimed irritatingly. It soon became apparent that the bridge was stuck. One of the men brought a big winch handle out and together they began to swing it manually. It was a long and strenuous process, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was a rare occurance or whether it indicated the general state of infrastructure in Scotland. I don’t have the answer, but it’s another question I’ll have when I come back. Time was not quite as tight as I’d believed, and the sight of Inverness in fading light was a welcome homecoming.
The next morning, I wandered around town trying to find interesting people to watch. Nothing stood out, so I went into a tartan shop and began looking at the selection. They had both Murray, Angus and Gunn on the racks – kilts, ties, scarfs – and as I searched, the shopkeeper came over to help. “Oh, with a name like that, you have to buy one,” she said when I told her of my heritage. She showed me that a full set – socks, kilt, belt, shirt, jacket, pin, hat, and purse – could be bought for as little as 200 pounds – ‘only’ A$600. In euro it was slightly better, even tempting, but I couldn’t see any occasion to wear it. “Oh, you can wear them for weddings, parties… anything,” she said. In Scotland, perhaps.
Finally it was time to catch the bus back to Glasgow, ready for the flight home the next day, but I couldn’t resist one last stop in Stirling. I’d been told that the castle there was worth a look and I had to agree. The city itself crawls up a narrowing ramp to where the castle perches at the peak. The land falls away sharply at the edges of the ramp so that the castle has cliffs on two sides of it’s roughly triangular borders. It’s been set up beautifully to give you a real feel for how the residents must have lived in its prime years. You’re able to walk on the walls where the sentries marched. The kitchens are set up with all the noise and bustle of a working restaurant, complete with dogs. They’ve left some of the gardens intact, but they’re now bordered by highways. Off in the distance, standing proudly on a pointy hill, is a large monument to
William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace for it was here that he defeated the British in 1297.
The sun set as I wandered through the last courtyard, set a level below everything else and used to store the gunpowder. It brought home how dangerous life was, or could be, in those days, but I still find the romance of castle life alluring. I followed the road back down to the bus stop and caught one back to Glasgow. I’d heard about a hostel out of town a bit, so I caught a subway to get there. I was surprised to find it as old as the New York subways yet as small as the London tube. Surely they can’t have been short of room when it was built. In this hostel, I found where all the backpackers had been hiding. There must have been thirty in this place, all with interesting stories. An Irish pair had come over to make a documentary on the slums of Glasgow, a Kiwi was there living day by day off labouring work on the other side of town, a couple of Nova Scotian girls had come to see their homeland and a Japanese girl taking a break after suffering burn out. One of the Canadians took me to a local pub to try a single malt whisky, but I have to say that I was disappointed. I preferred Famous Grouse, though I coudn’t say why, and it was a third of the price.
After a few of those, the last night and the trip home became a blur. Though I somehow ended up with a new pack more appropriate for backpacking.