Becoming Extraordinary at St. Bonaventure University
Five college-age kids scrapping together the mutual funds to rent a car and embark on a road trip would seem to be the kind of thing that only happens in desperate daydreams and forgettable R-rated comedies. I was lucky enough, however, to actually live this stock college fantasy in an anything but forgettable 5 day trek across the whole of Scotland.
The reality of leaving for Scotland didn’t quite set in until I actually set foot on the streets of Edinburgh. The early morning flight from Belfast to Edinburgh seemed like a groggy reprise of my first flight into Belfast—it seemed as if I should have been getting on a plane to head back to Buffalo instead of a city I knew almost nothing about. Once we took to the streets of Edinburgh, however, the reality of our impending adventure was as clear and immediate as the bitter cold in the air.
One of the main delights of Edinburgh (and, as I would soon come to find, Scotland as a whole) was the surprising degree to which it fit so many of its positive cultural stereotypes. I was aptly prepared to not be greeted with the ridiculously stereotypical expression “top o’ the mornin’ to ya!” when I came to Ireland nor was I surprised when I encountered houses that did not have thatched roofs and college students who eat more microwaved pizzas than potatoes. That isn’t to suggest, however, that potatoes are unpopular over here. With an expectation to encounter the unexpected, I was absolutely astounded to see men in kilts, dozens of restaurants with a focus on haggis and meat pies and even a lone Scottie terrier being walked down the street in a tartan dog sweater. Our taxi driver who took us from the airport to the general area of our hostel had such a thick accent that it took me a good portion of the ride to find discern if he was even speaking English. Luckily, my Australian travel mates had an easier time of understanding him than I did. This would, unfortunately, not be an isolated incident.
After a quick breakfast that featured me and all of the Australians chickening out on haggis (for the first time), we wandered our way through the streets until we found our way to Edinburgh castle. The massive castle sits atop a towering, rock-sided peninsula—the only object in the city big enough to blot out the forms of the snowy, far-scaling mountain ranges in the distance. I was overwhelmed with the thought that I wouldn’t like to try and scale them with men firing down boiling oil and arrows at me.
The castle itself was a bit touristy, with a rather lame information-focused tour and ridiculously expensive gift shops at every turn of a castle corridor. All it took to find the more noteworthy aspects of the castle, however, was the effort to wander around for myself after the unremarkable tour. The amount of historical artifacts the castle harbored was astonishing. The Honours of Scotland, a sword, a scepter and a crown that are symbols of the original Scottish Monarchy, were only a few inches of glass away from me. Although this particular version of the Honours was about 500 years too young to have been used in the coronation of Macbeth, the English major in me was nonetheless excited to imagine Macbeth, the giant of a Shakespearian tragic hero, wielding them with the regal ambition of his fictional self.
Another point of interest the castle offered were its dungeons, which dated back hundreds of years and were even used to hold American prisoners in the revolutionary war. A small sign next to an informational exhibit about the dungeons said that the American prisoners were only given small portions of bread and water because they were considered pirates by the British government. The St.Margaret’s Chapel was also particularly impressive, a tiny stone chapel with stained glass windows at the top of the castle that dates back to the 12th century. I may be a bit biased, but I’d have to say that the view from the top of the castle, however, may have been its most memorable feature:
After the purchase of a beautifully stereotypical Scottish wool sweater and an impressive trip through the Edinburgh-based Scottish National Gallery, we picked up the rental car and made our way onward to Inverness and from there onwards to the popular tourist sight of Loch Ness. Though the amount of “Nessie” tourist bait was astonishing—there was everything from Nessie coasters and mugs to sandals and pajamas—it wasn’t difficult to imagine something like that living in Loch Ness with its deep waters laid out before me, carved mountains surrounding it on all sides. To the confusion of the friends I was traveling with, I made sure to take the time to stroll along its shore and decorate my mind with the picture. I walked along the thick grass and even hopped a small fence to get as close as I could to an uncaring group of fat, shaggy sheep. Monster or no monster, it’s almost a shame that the stories exist because of what they overshadow—I’ve always associated the Loch with the legend, but nobody ever brings up Loch Ness in America for the sake of its incredible, ancient beauty.
The rest of the Highlands did not disappoint either. Traveling by car proved to offer all kinds of advantages—we were free to go wherever we wanted to and stop wherever we wanted to. And there were no shortage of places to stop. We pulled over onto a patch of dirt on the side of a lonely little highland back road. We were at the bottom of a deep bowl, or so it seemed, as the mountains and trees rose high around us. We milled around for a bit, appreciating the landscape we would have never associated with Scotland before, and took pictures. We joked amongst ourselves that our rental car, which was in pristine condition like most rental cars tend to be, would have been a perfect car commercial as we zoomed through striking and dangerous Scottish back roads. Our wanderings found us on the non-roads of an isolated “deer park” that offered a cinematic view of the surrounding landscape. The cold was sharp and set in as soon as we exited the car, every time we exited the car. Even though it pierced through the woolwork of my new favorite sweater, it wasn’t enough to deter me from spending as much time as I could leaning up against the closest pile rocks and taking it all in. My Australian friends, accustomed to a much less forgiving climate, were always back in the car before me. But it wasn’t just my tolerance of the conditions of the Highlands that kept me outside. No matter how long I looked out into the mountains and the forests that framed them, it just didn’t feel like enough.
We stopped for a meat pie (not haggis) at a small family-run pub on the return journey. The man running the place also lived there and drank casually at the bar with his friends and customers. He served us personally and his wife was the cook. His two dogs warmed themselves by the fireplace while we ate. It was just that kind of place. The Highlands, for that matter, were just that kind of place.
The long drive to the Isle of Skye the next day offered similar visual opportunities, but the town itself was an impressive little place. The stone streets and buildings seemed like the perfect home to the tiny pubs and cafes that popped up along the way. It must have been obvious that we were tourists, but local folks greeted us heartily every time we had a chance to interact with them. Lunch in the town of Skye saw another broken promise to try haggis, but our attempt to justify it by trying the traditional Scottish smoked haddock and potato stew “Cullen skink” was still a good one. Just before leaving, I decided to pop into a small wool sweater store. This decision hit me right in the budget—I couldn’t help but leave with another sweater. I had to—because it was so cold—or so I told myself.
We stayed in a tiny, mountain-cradled hostel in Glencoe on our last night of the trek. Though the surrounding area had a quiet majesty to it, the hostel had a bustling local pub for a neighbor. There was no longer time to make excuses. It was time to chow down some haggis.
I ordered a venison casserole and a homemade Scottish ale with, of course, an appetizer of haggis to share with the group. Normally individual meals wouldn’t make the cultural cut to be worthy of mentioning in a recap of a trip, but this was an exception. All of these were brilliant decisions—the haggis almost tasted like some sort of Mexican version of a hamburger helper. Though, of course, it definitely wasn’t…but if you’re curious about what actually goes into haggis, a quick google search should do the job. The venison casserole was cooked in some sort of blackcurrant sauce, a Scottish recipe. Eating out for every meal was definitely a budget stress but for this one, I wasn’t complaining.
After an exhaustingly early flight back to Belfast, I was ready to sleep for weeks—I could appreciate the brilliance of the things I had seen in the past week once I was rested and fed with a decent home cooked meal. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on which way you tend to see things—that wasn’t an option. We would leave for a sister trip across the Republic of Ireland the next morning. Needless to say, the individual day in between was perfectly uneventful.