“Where are you headed?” asked the British customs agent when I arrived at the Manchester Airport in England.
“Scottish Highlands for two weeks,” I told him.
“Ah, the land of men in skirts. Where are you from?”
“United States,” I vaguely remembered after the 12 hours of flying.
“Didn’t we burn down your White House?”
I’m thinking, “oh shit, did we start a war with England while I was in the air???”
He adds, “You know, during that little rebellion…”
I’m thinking he’s still talking about now, but then it hit me, the Brits never let that Revolution* thing go from TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO (geeze, people).
“Yes you did, but we rebuilt it in a new city so it’d be harder for you to find,” I finally answered.
Yes! U.S. history points for me (I’ll Google my accuracy later).
“Will Scotland stamp my passport, too?” I asked.
“You’re going on a domestic flight next and anyway I don’t know what the Scots do up there. They do their own thing.”
He stamped my passport and sent us along.
Annie and I flew into Edinburgh (Ed-in-BUR-uh), Scotland with the intention of driving around the Scottish Highlands for two weeks. We tend to travel off the beaten path, avoiding most tours, landmarks and prescribed trips while also heavily researching recommendations for authentic experiences.
There’s a trade-off to planning international trips that way.
On the one hand, we choose our adventure, learn as we go and decide what is important. On the other hand, we sometimes miss all the fun trivia, history and narrative a country has built for itself.
We try to mix in some of the touristy stuff so we don’t come back with stories like “We ate a bunch of stuff and spent a lot of time driving,” although that is invariably the part that we tell people because we find it the most exciting.
For that reason, the trip feels more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive narrative. It’s more fun to talk about poignant experiences and compare new cultures to familiar home experiences. It helps give us a sense of place while also reminding us that we are all inherently similar regardless of where we live.
History is everywhere, time is meaningless
In Reno, there is a battle to rescue historic structures — historic meaning older than 50 years ago. That usually comes across when preservationists (who don’t always like being called that) in Reno pitch a last-ditch effort to save something from demolition even though it’s been there for much longer and all value and life has been squeezed from it.
But Reno is only 150 years old and few of those original building are left. Most of our historic structures are from the 20th century.
In the UK you’ll find cathedrals, castles, apartment buildings, office building, everything really, from the 9th century through the 19th century. And much of it is preserved unless the local city council can be convinced to replace it.
In Glasgow (Glaz-GO), Scotland, that was exactly the case. The city council wanted to replace a lot of Victorian-era buildings in downtown — for which there are hundreds — with new development (sound familiar?). And they started to until they ran out of money, according to a sight-seeing tour guide. The result of that is a fascinating mix of post-modern office buildings and hotels next to history. It’s quite cool.
In addition to that, the new architecture generally plays homage to the historic buildings, but when they don’t, they get out of the way.
One of the most beautiful examples of this was the Buchanan Street mall in Glasgow. A previous roadway lined with 17th century and earlier buildings, turned into a pedestrian-only walkway with three different indoor malls and 100s of contemporary shops and restaurants. There were a few of these throughout the country.
Could Reno have that on Virginia Street? I’d say no.
Unparalleled beauty that kind of resembles the Appalachians
The predominant color: green. The predominant feeling: burning eyes.
I have allergies, so what started out as epic greenery, ended with me taking way above the recommended dosage of allergy pills. I missed my arid desert but only because scratching my eyeballs didn’t relieve the pain.
Everywhere you go, there’s green, but not in the “miles of corn fields” way but more because of sweeping grasses, trees and mountains. I’ve never thought of grass as natural.
But really this is more of a picture explanation than a word picture thing.
And also water
The temperatures in Scotland ranged from 40° to 75°F. Scotland experiences a lot of rain and some snow up north. We managed to go when it was sunny or at least not raining (overcast). One shop keeper told us she hated the — what we call — nice weather. She wanted it to rain. Was tired of the sun. She lived on the Isle of Skye, which pretty much rains all the time.
We got lucky.
The result of all this rain is streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes (lochs) and beautiful wonders that I’ve never seen in the United States.
The island also has many shorelines, fishing towns and seafood (more on food later). Some of the coastal cities were beautiful, almost stereotypical in their picturesque ports and architecture.
Again, pictures will tell it better.
How to drive on tiny roads
In the UK there are Motorways, A Roads, B Roads and city streets. Motorways are like Interstates. A Roads are like state highways and B Roads are like…terrifying country roads. We spent most of our time on A Roads and B Roads. Meaning we spent most of our time on two-lane or fewer highways. Yes, two or fewer.
Because Scotland is so small, people don’t drive long distances. Some people told us four-hour drives were too much for them. Most places are 1-4 hours away with tons of stops in between. I think this contributes to their less-than-stellar lane widths. Also historic walking/horse trails and unwillingness to cut into nature to create roads.
The A Roads we drove are two, small lanes. I had to learn to hug the center line otherwise I kept falling off the road because there are NO shoulders on any of these roads.
B Roads are single tracks of asphalt that vary in width. There are no lines. There are “passing places” sometimes, that are small bulb outs. If a car is coming toward you, one of you pulls into the passing place and waits for the incoming car(s) to pass.
On top of that, none of the roads use yellow lines to separate oncoming traffic. You just guess (sort of). It’s mental.
All of this makes drivers extremely careful and courteous. Everyone waves at each other. There’s a lot of respect for the road.
Meanwhile, I come home, start driving (on the right, mostly) and almost get killed because someone can’t merge correctly. So I guess those little lanes aren’t so bad after all.
The food of Scotland
When researching the trip, we used Visit Scotland and its food section said, “We’re just going to come out and say it: Scotland is the best food country in the world. It’s true! … Scotland is a culinary heaven for foodie lovers.”
This is definitively not true (sorry). It wasn’t bad, but there is a very singular approach to traditional Scottish food: meat with meat on it followed by sugar and butter. Often fried.
The Scottish breakfast is on every menu (see picture). I would eat this every day because it means I could skip lunch. Back bacon is amazing and belly bacon is a lie (strip bacon that we eat).
Haggis, neeps and tatties, while good, kind of sums up the traditional food. It’s lamb innards mixed with oats, stacked on top of or next to mushy turnips, mushy potatoes and topped with an onion gravy. Sometimes you can order “mushy peas” on the side.
It’s all very mushy.
Desserts and chocolate in particular, somehow manage to taste sweeter and milkier than anything in the United States.
But the Indian was superior. See below picture.
And finally, the seafood is excellent like in most coastal regions. Fish and chips are not really any better than your local pub in the U.S., but the baked and non-fried fish and mussels and shellfish are extremely fresh, packed with flavor and taste of the sea.
Like, this fresh.
PS. They include tax and tip in meals and food is still less expensive.
America, you’re doing it wrong. Figure. It. Out.
A quick word on tax free tea
We walked into the East India Company store to buy tea, because it seemed like there’d be no better tea than from the company that basically almost destroyed India and China. LOL, but seriously, why do you think Tikka Masala was invented in Glasgow?
The first tea on the shelf was “Boston Tea Party blend.”
Seriously. It’s an authentic blend of the teas that pre-Americans tossed over the side of the boat in protest of untaxed teas.
The saleswomen in this Edinburgh store is from Massachusetts.
We purchased some not-that blend teas.
She reminds us that there’s no tax on tea.
No shit there’s no tax on tea! See: Boston Tea Party blend.
Anyway, the ironic imperialism blend tastes pretty good. They’ve got that on lock.
An even quicker word on Scotch
It’s pretty much the best. We drank 45 whiskys in two weeks. In fact, I might go get one right now.
Total Wine and More carries a significant selection of Scotch, making it hard to find anything not available in the U.S. But we did, and we drank it. But dang, go explore Scotch at a local whisk(e)y bar.
Seriously, go, right now. Learn about the six-now-three regions and why they matter.
Also, we’ve all been pronouncing everything wrong all this time. And so do they, so don’t feel bad.
I heard and said the word “Thank You” more than ever. It puts Kentucky to shame. And “Sorry” was second, making it a close second for nicest country behind Canada.
These door hangers at our Edinburgh, Scotland hotel pretty much say it all. That wonderful feeling of being appreciated was immediately broken the moment I returned to the Las Vegas airport (but like, it was Las Vegas).
But, if you don’t go to Scotland for its food, castles or greenery, go for the people. They are so willing to improve your day.
The accents are intense and varied. But even the people from Scotland have trouble understanding each other so “What?” or “Say again?” was not unusual. They have just as much trouble understanding our accents, which are at least several centuries removed from Middle English.
Their history and culture runs deep in a way that bubbles to the surface in so many ways. For example, while there are no pictures here of kilts, there is not shortage of shops and men and women wearing them in new and remixed ways, particularly in Edinburgh.
The language and environment holds onto that history. So many mixed of Middle English, Gaelic and modern English infiltrate their daily lives, not to mention there’s a castle or cathedral on every corner, that have even been converted to coffee shops and bars.
If you ever have a chance, you must go.
Thank you for reading. Sorry it was so long. Cheers.