Scotland, Sixteen Years After My First Solo Trip
I remember as though it was yesterday. The heat of the sun. Crowds of locals relaxing, reading books, napping or having a picnic in a large public park. It’s a Sunday and as I sit down in the park, overlooking Edinburgh castle, a solo bagpiper starts playing, sending chills down my spine and bringing tears to my eyes. I was in Scotland (Edinburgh to be exact). Alone. And it was glorious.
I fell in love with Scotland during my two-week trip. The people were so friendly. And the rail system made it very easy to get around. Sure, I misread the train schedule and took a train all the way to Fort William, only to discover that I would have to return to Edinburgh. And then there was the steep mountain (Okay, it was just a very big hill) I had to walk to get to the castle in Culrain which is now a hostel. Oh, and then the train forgot to pick me up at Dunrobin and stopped down the tracks, which meant I had to jump down from the platform and run down the tracks to get onto the train. And I doubt I will forget running out of money and having to sleep in the Glasgow airport the night before my flight home.
My first trip to Scotland set the standard for my future travels. This is where I had complete freedom to be as independent and adventurous as I wanted. I could change my mind at a moments notice and nobody cared – which I did when I decided I didn’t like Perth and cut my time short by two days. It was all about me. Gone were my wallflower days when I wanted nothing more than to melt into the background.
It was… intoxicating.
My first trip to Scotland was so romanticized in my mind that I was afraid to return. What if everything was different? What if I ended up hating Scotland?! I can’t risk that! This is my ancestral homeland!
Sixteen years later, I found the answer.
Walking into the arrivals hall at the Edinburgh airport I greeted the man holding a sign with my name on it and followed him to a van in the parking lot. My flight from Toronto had been a rather dull red-eye thanks to a $10 charge to use the in-flight entertainment system, and my refusal to pay said ten dollars. With sleep deprived eyes I looked out the windows of the van, taking in the scenes of Edinburgh in the early morning light. Nothing looked familiar. As we drove through the suburbs, through the city centre, and towards the neighbourhood of Leith, where I was staying, I realized just how naïve and cautious I had been sixteen years ago by staying within a couple blocks of Princes Street.
Edinburgh is crawling with tourists, but only in the main city centre, which is partially due to the fact that it’s festival time, but thankfully I’m not staying in the city centre, I’m staying out in the charming neighbourhood of Leith with its waterways, 17th Century houses, and delightful pubs – which I couldn’t check out as it was still morning!
My afternoon was spent with a guide, Ross, from Black Kilt Tours, visiting the National Museum of Scotland, and then exploring the streets of Edinburgh.
In a way, I began to fall in love with Edinburgh, but in a totally different way than before. I’m no longer a naïve and innocent solo female traveler (well, I hope I’m not!), my eyes are a little more open, and my tastes have definitely changed. As Ross drove he explained that we were driving on a bridge, but as I looked out the window and saw we were surrounded by houses, I was doubtful. This is not my definition of a bridge. Naturally, Ross was right (as if there was a doubt), and I soon discovered for myself the various layers of Edinburgh.
We explored the labyrinth of streets in the old city, glancing at pubs that have been built in the bridge viaducts, and finding quiet little corners that almost make you forget that you’re in a city. In those moments I could imagine what 18th or 19th Century Edinburgh would have been like.
I remember walking out of the train in Perth, catching a taxi, and heading off to the hostel I had booked. The hostel was in a residential area and when we drove past the Safeway I remember being shocked, “They have Safeway in Scotland?!”.
I also remember thinking Perth was ugly and boring. So much so that I changed my hostel booking from three nights to just one night. Clearly, this was not an interesting place. I wanted to see Scotland, not places that looked like home!
Fast forward sixteen years.
“Oh, wow!!”, I exclaimed as we drove across an old stone bridge, “That’s Perth, but I cannot stop on the bridge”, replied Ross.
Hang on. Perth is adorable?! How did I not know this sixteen years ago?! Oh. Yeah. I bailed before I gave it a chance. Bad traveller!
Parking the car down by the river, I jumped out, ran across the bridge, and took photos of the buildings along the river, thinking to myself, “This is Perth?!”. It was an exciting moment, and slightly discouraging as we were merely driving through on our way to Dunkeld and then to Culloden and Inverness. In those few moments I realized I had robbed myself, and I desperately wanted to make up for it, except I couldn’t. All I could do was take a couple photos, and realize that Perth looks utterly charming and definitely worth more than a night’s stay (or a drive by visit).
Walking out of the train station sixteen years ago I hailed a cab to take me to the hostel where I’d be staying. I was carrying a 70L backpack, it was insanely heavy, and in my mind, I had a long way to walk.
I’ll never forget the look of “Seriously? You’re taking a cab?!” the driver gave me, and the embarrassment I felt when I realized I was staying a five-minute walk from the station. Yeah, that was a lame move on my part.
My days in Inverness were spent wandering the cobbled streets. I remember an evening walk where I encounter a man in full Scottish tartan, drunk as could be, and signing at the top of his lungs. I still smile when I think of that night. It was a part of Scotland’s charm, and yes, a tad cliché.
I barely recognized Inverness when I returned. The village I had once loved has turned into a full blown city, and I felt a twinge of disappointment in those first few moments. Until Ross drove us into the city centre and I was greeted by the same streets I had wandered all those years ago. Sure, there were a lot more tourists, and some big brand stores like Marks & Spencer, but in essence, this was the Inverness I remembered, and a smile stretched across my face.
Same, same, but different.
As we grow older, our personalities and outlooks on life change. We become more perceptive. And hopefully a little smarter as well. While I still make silly and absolutely ridiculous mistakes when I travel (and in life in general), I like to think that the person I am today is slightly better than the person I was all those years ago when I set out on my first solo adventure.
I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to return to Scotland. It was ridiculous of me to think I would hate it the second time around. I’m a different person now. I have different goals and views. Did I have spine-tingling moments that made me cry like I did sixteen years ago? No, but I had plenty of awe-struck moments that left me speechless and wanting more.