Tales from the Great North: Volume Two

27 Jun

Yes, I have in fact returned to American soil after six eventful months in Europe; but before I write about my return home, I still have to cover my last two travel destinations: Scotland, and Provence, in the south of France. However, this post will be entirely dedicated to the beautiful country of Scotland. We left off somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall.

It was a clear, sunny day as the train departed Carlisle for Edinburgh; I could see for miles over the beautiful, green southern uplands. If I hadn’t been confined to a speeding train, I would have jumped out and just run through the fields to my heart’s content. The landscape was just wonderfully open and pristine, until we reached the central “strip” of urbanized land that runs across Scotland from east to west. Edinburgh is located at the eastern end of this strip.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from Edinburgh. It had been my original choice for studying abroad, so of course I’d seen some pictures and everything, and I knew it had a good reputation, but I was quite impressed by the city’s appearance when I arrived. Stunning architecture left and right, complemented by lots of hills. It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, so the green spaces were covered with picnickers.

I headed to my hostel, located right in the Old Town in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. As if the location weren’t enough, the hostel soon proved to be one of the best that I’ve ever stayed in. The two girls working at the reception were extremely funny; they instantly establish a very casual rapport with the hostellers and start telling jokes and the like. Their friendliness was most welcome, and it seemed like the whole building was permeated by a sense of humour.

Unlike most hostels, where the rooms and beds have numbers, here they had names. I was assigned to the “Virgin Room” and my bed was named “Cliff Richard.” After entering the room, I soon realised that there was an obvious theme — paintings of the Virgin Mary adorned the room. The other beds were named “Madonna,” “Sandra Dee,” “Airlines,” “Brooke Shields,” “Immaculate Conception,” “Jesus,” and “Records.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see inside the other rooms – I was very curious to see what the beds’ names were in the “Scottish slang” room and the “Underwear” room.

The hostel also had two large lounges, one of which was decked out with fancy furniture and antiques. My only complaints about the place were that 1) they only had one computer, and I had to wait for ages late at night for two Australians to finish using it before I could check my travel itinerary; and 2) breakfast wasn’t free. But no hostel is perfect.

Since I hadn’t been expecting Scotland to be so warm and sunny, I changed into shorts and headed for the city’s main attraction, the castle (practically just outside the door). Despite being very inconveniently priced (with no student discount), I knew I couldn’t pass it by. When I arrived, there was a wedding going on in part of the castle, which was drawing quite the crowds of tourists (myself included). I think we were all entranced by the bagpipe music and captivated by the kilts. Scots, teehee!

I explored the castle, saw the sparkly Honours of Scotland, and eventually decided it would be best to get going — although I could have taken more time, my time in Edinburgh altogether was limited, so I had to make the best of it. Unfortunately, the warm, sunny weather had changed dramatically, and after nearly getting blown down the Royal Mile by wind, I had to return to the hostel to change back into pants.

There were various attractions to be seen within the Old Town, but since it was already evening, I couldn’t go inside any of them – so I decided to hike my way over to the monument-laden Calton Hill for an excellent view of the city. Overlooking Edinburgh as the sun began to lower:

There was a group of rowdy Scottish teenagers who kept throwing rocks indiscriminately in my general area, so ultimately I decided to leave the hill before the sun set and avoid any serious injuries. Besides, I wasn’t prepared to stay up for the sun set – given Scotland’s northern latitude, the sun didn’t set until after 10pm, and the sky was light until nearly 11. Pretty cool, though.

I do regret that I didn’t have more time to see Edinburgh, but I certainly don’t regret visiting it. A very fine city. To see all of my photos from Edinburgh, click here.

The next day, I took the train north into the Highlands. While waiting on the train in Edinburgh, I was next to a group of rather obnoxious American tourists — the kind that make you mad that they are representing your country abroad. Judging by their accents, I’d say they were from Chicago; so imagine the “Da Bears” guys traveling Scotland. The worst part, though, was when the conductor asked them where they were going; as if they had no idea at all, one of the women replied, “Innerverse.”

Of course she meant Inverness, but that’s not even an excuseable mispronunciation. That’s just sheer stupidity. Fortunately, not every representative of your country abroad is an idiot; you just tend to notice them more.

Anyway, the train north followed the coastline for a bit, and I remember seeing two little dogs playing on a beach (at least one of them was definitely a Scottish terrier). I also recall seeing lots of lupine along the edges of the train tracks — I knew that lupine wasn’t exclusive to New England, but I wasn’t expecting to see New Hampshire’s most famous flower in Scotland. There were lovely purples, pinks, and whites, as well as fields of red poppies, which I’d also seen in Brittany.

As the train made its way into the Highlands, I was amazed at the wild, open scenery — which looked somewhat eerie in the dark, cloudy weather. Unfortunately, this meant that I couldn’t really see any of the mountains in the area. At any rate, the treeless hills covered in heather were unlike anything I’d seen before, although I was disappointed that the heather wasn’t in bloom. One of the reasons I waited until June to go to Scotland was because the dental hygienist at my dentist’s office had raved about the lovely purple heather when she went in June — but she must have gone late in the month, because for me it was completely brown, save a few little buds that I saw.

I alighted at Aviemore, normally in the shadow of the Cairngorms, but on this day it was simply under the clouds. It did feel somewhat like the middle of nowhere, however, and I had no idea what I was going to do there, especially considering the weather. I eventually consulted with a woman at the tourist office who recommended a walk in the nearby village of Rothiemurchus. I hurried to catch a bus to the village and then set off on the trail with the simple map that I’d been given at the tourist office.

As I began walking, I soon realised that the map wasn’t entirely accurate. I retraced the same area twice, looking for a particular fork in the path, but with no luck. I eventually decided to take an alternate route, which led me in the right direction until I took the wrong path and got lost for a while; but I eventually found my way. Poorly marked trails are a major annoyance. But it was along one of the minor roads in the woods that I saw a parked car with an “Écosse” bumper sticker – the Franco-Scottish connection is ubiquitous.

The trail brought me through interesting woodland, dominated by the pine trees which covered Scotland in ancient times, and to a loch, where the path circled around its entire circumference. In the middle of the loch was a small island housing the ruins of a castle. It was a fine walk, considering that the weather was crap and there wasn’t much else to do, although the forest wasn’t particularly interesting — I think Britons are much more drawn to forests since they don’t have that many.

After completing the full walk, I realised that I would have to wait some time before the bus returned to Rothiemurchus, so I just walked back to Aviemore, and, after checking in to the youth hostel, decided to get some supper. There was a fish n’ chips place down the road — I entered, took a look at the prices (2-5 pound range, which is good in the UK), and decided I’d eat there. I noticed a door leading to the “restaurant”, so I assumed that I was at the take-away counter, and I wanted to sit down. So I went through the door, where I was greeted by a hostess, seated and given a menu.

I took a look at the prices, and quickly realised that they weren’t the same as those at the take-away counter. The cheapest fish n’ chips was over 6 pounds – gah. I decided to just relax and splurge, since I don’t normally eat at restaurants when I’m traveling, and even got dessert – an ice cream and fruit combination called the “Tongue Tickler.” It was quite good.

The next day, I took the train to Inverness, where I was forced to buy yet another overpriced memory card (I had forgotten to bring a second one, and took way too many pictures in the Lake District). I had some downtime in Inverness while waiting for my coach to Fort William on the west coast of Scotland, but I made the mistake of not exploring the city very much — the area along the main river, including the castle, would have made for a good photo. Alas.

The coach traveled through the Great Glen along the banks of mighty Loch Ness (sorry, no pictures of Nessie). By this point, the weather had begun to clear up, and the Highland scenery was more visible. To see all of my photos from Aviemore and Loch Ness, click here.

As we approached Fort William, Ben Nevis — the tallest mountain in Scotland and the UK – came into sight. I was a bit surprised to see some snow on its summit, although the weather in Scotland was certainly the coldest I’ve experienced in June. And I suppose it is possible for Mt. Washington to have snow in June as well, although it is a bit taller.

After arriving in the town itself, I retraced my route by bus and headed to the Nevis Range ski area, where a gondola took me to the slopes of Aonach Mòr. Here, the views were quite stunning; a couple of trails led to wonderful panoramic viewpoints. I snapped this shot looking towards the peak of Ben Nevis:

(I have now seen each highpoint in the UK – Skiddaw (England), Snowdon (Wales), and Ben Nevis (Scotland / Britain). :))

After descending the mountain and returning to Fort William, I visited the small remnants of the old fort along the banks of the scenic sea loch, picked some thistle, and decided to get supper. I bought some food from the supermarket and sat on a bench in the town’s common area, hoping to eat in peace. However, a certain dog had other ideas for me, as he sat down right in front of my bench, staring intently at my food. I gave him a few pieces and then made him go away, after which he bothered other diners. The problem was that the dog wasn’t skinny in the least, nor even a stray; in fact, later his owners sat down on another bench and called him over, but they didn’t stop him when he tried to get food from more people.

At any rate, I later checked in to my hostel, where the first backpackers I came across were from, of all places, Quebec. I listened to the pair of Québécoises talk, but never interrupted as I had in Brittany — for some reason, I felt that asking “vous êtes canadiennes?” would have been too odd this time. I suppose it’s mostly odd because I am not Canadian myself, but rather just have a bizarre ancestral fascination with Quebecers.

That evening, Fort William was crowned by a brilliant full-arc rainbow. I spent the remainder of the evening watching two Americans and two Germans playing charades in the hostel’s lounge, which was quite entertaining.

In the morning, I took a coach to Glencoe, situated near the glen of the same name, where I alighted at the official Visitor’s Centre. The drive to this area provided some stunning views, particularly of this misty loch with still, mirror-like water:

Looks like a painting, doesn’t it?

However, the glen itself was fairly overcast, which took away from the beauty of it but reinforced a certain sombre mood…Glencoe is infamous for the massacre of the MacDonald clan at the hands of the Campbells. I was particularly interested in walking to Signal Rock, the location where the Campbells gave the signal for the killing, but I was to discover that the area wasn’t very walker-friendly. I had to walk along the main road for quite a while, which brought back frightening memories from Alsace. At least there weren’t any vineyards this time.

There was, however, a German Shepherd. In order to reach Signal Rock, I had to walk through a small car park in the glen — there was only an RV and a small trailer in the park, with no humans in sight — just an unleashed dog. And not the cute kind. I tried to walk as casually as possible towards the other side of the car park, but soon the German Shepherd spotted me and ran towards me, barking his head off. Of course the logical reaction was to stand still, lest he chase me like the vulnerable rabbit I am, and let the dog sniff the back of my hand when he got close (although I was half-expecting him to bite it off).

The dog just kept barking, moving back and forth, and admittedly I was a bit afraid, mostly because nobody was calling him. I was, after all, in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish highlands. But, seeing as how I had a mission ahead of me, I started walking slowly, just ignoring the dog’s nasty growls. I made it into the woods, crossed the river Coe and reached general safety.

Once in the woods, I followed the signs (thank God) for Signal Rock, although the rock itself was somewhat underwhelming. Still, there was a certain eerieness about the place, not the least of which because I was all alone with nobody else in sight. Unfortunately, I had to retrace my steps in order to return to the Visitor Centre, which meant confronting the dog again.

This time, I decided to avoid the car park itself and trudge through some rough vegetation around it — the whole time, I could hear the dog barking at me, but I think he had been put inside one of the campers (I guess his owner finally got some sense), or was just not willing to come at me. Either way, I came out of it unscathed.

To see all of my photos from Fort William and Glencoe, click here.

I ended up having to walk to the Glencoe Visitor Centre, and then to Glencoe Village (on a forest path, thankfully) in order to catch a coach going north. I told the driver that I was heading to Dornie, and asked whether my Freedom of Scotland Travelpass would be valid; he said yes, and so I sat down and enjoyed the ride. After stopping back in Fort William, however, the coach changed drivers, and the new driver said that my pass wouldn’t be valid (which was confirmed by an official-type person). So I was charged over 11 pounds for the remainder of the trip to Dornie. So much for “Freedom of Scotland.”

Still, the price for the journey to Dornie, through the northwest Highlands (Lochalsh region), was well worth it — the scenery was stunning. I was amazed at how empty and wild the landscape seemed — that kind of wilderness is pretty rare in Europe; even the Alps were more densely populated in places. Dornie was just a small oasis of civilisation, but fairly popular thanks to a particularly picturesque castle – Eilean Donan.

Although an early 20th-century reconstruction, the castle was still full of history, and surrounded by truly epic scenery:

To see all of my photos from Lochalsh, click here.

After visiting the castle, I found myself in a sticky predicament. Having expected to be able to use my travelpass on all coach services, I hadn’t withdrawn any cash recently, and had run out when paying for the ticket to Dornie. So I set out in search of a cash machine in the village, which proved to be a fruitless endeavour. The only building that seemed to be open, besides the pub, was a small grocery store which also housed the village post office. I asked inside if there was any place that I could withdraw money, and they told me that the nearest cash machine was in Kyle of Lochalsh, some 7 miles away.

Eventually, the two women working in the store helped me to figure out a way to get cash — I bought some food, paid with my credit card (with a 50p charge for the small amount), and they were kind enough to give 10 pounds cash back. I think the affair was a bit of a hassle for them, but I couldn’t have been the only castle-visiting tourist to wander into their village store in search of money.

I was stuck in Dornie for a few hours, however, while waiting for the coach that would take me to the Isle of Skye. At this point, it began to rain and the weather turned quite cold. I was confined to a bus shelter next to two German backpackers; we must have waited for 2 hours there before the coach arrived.

The warm bus was a relief, and I was dropped off not far from the youth hostel in Broadford, one of the main towns on the island. It lies in the shadow of the Red Cuillins, one of the principal mountain chains on the island, along with the Black Cuillins. Both were very impressive – the Red Cuillins were giant, smoothly rounded lumps of reddish rock, while the Black Cuillins were tall, shadowy, spiky peaks — actually a bit terrifying in appearance (something out of Mordor, perhaps), and considered one of the most challenging climbs in the UK.

I walked along the edge of the bay at Broadford towards the youth hostel, and I must admit that I was practically freezing. The cold wind off the ocean didn’t help things much…it was certainly the coldest I’ve ever been in June. Needless to say, I was very happy to sleep in a warm bed that night, even though I shared a room with a bunch of Spaniards who kept talking and laughing in the room after I went to bed. Oh well.

When I awoke the next morning, the weather was still quite overcast, although fortunately not as cold. I walked along the bay for a while, perhaps trespassing onto private property at one point (it wouldn’t be the first time…). Then I decided to take a bus to Portree, the largest town on the island.

The scenery was instantly amazing – the road winded along the coast, providing views of the Cuillins towering over inlets, as well as the mainland Highlands in the distance. The best part, however, was the sunshine that began to break through the clouds. When I arrived at Portree, it was quite clear and sunny. I quickly found a short circular walking path on the edge of the town, with some great views of the coastline:

The path continued with a steep ascent towards a small wooded area at the top of the hill. Here, I saw my first bluebells — these lovely British flowers are known for growing on forest floors, making blue carpets in the month of May; I had meant to go searching for some in England, but never had the time, and figured that I’d missed my opportunity. Well, I suppose the bluebells bloom later on the sub-Arctic Isle of Skye!

After completing the walk, I returned to the Portree central square and decided on where to go next. Since I could use my travelpass on all local bus services on Skye (one of many reasons that prompted me to go there), I decided to make use of it and take a bus ride around the northeastern part of the island. There was a lot that I would have liked to see but simply didn’t have the time for, largely the western side of the island.

Among the attractions in northeastern Skye were the Old Man of Storr rock formation (which hasn’t fallen down), and the Kilt Rock Waterfall, which cascades into the sea. When the bus arrived, I got on and couldn’t wait for a relaxing trip around the island. There was only a handful of other people on the bus, most of whom were speaking Gaelic. It was the first time I’d heard it spoken in Scotland, and I was very excited. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying, but I should have at least tried out my “Ciamar a tha sibh?” Nonetheless, I’m still fascinated by the Celtic languages, and I loved listening to it as much as I love listening to Scottish accents.

The bus set off for the scenic journey, but first it had another stop in Portree: the high school. I quickly realised that it was around 3pm, meaning that school had probably just gotten out, and things weren’t boding well for my relaxing bus ride. In fact, this school day was particularly special – from what I gathered from the conversation, the middle school children were also riding the bus this day for some reason. Soon, hordes of loud, rowdy barbarian Scottish children began invading the bus. I was this close to hiring some Anglo-Saxon mercenaries for protection.

Given the ages of the kids, their bus conversation was typically crude, although it was fairly amusing to listen to with their Scottish accents. There was even evidence of the Franco-Scottish connection; one kid was talking about his Capri Sun as if it were a fine French beverage — which sounded something like, “Look, it’s Frrraynch, like: Capri Suné” (with one of the most convincing French accents I’ve ever heard). However, the children were quite loud and I was just glad when they started getting off the bus (at scattered hamlets around this part of the island). One of the kids summed it up best when she described the bus ride as “too hectic.”

The scenery along the bus route, however, was absolutely wonderful. The mountains of the mainland Highlands in the distance, across the sea, provided one of the most incredible and epic backgrounds I’ve seen. Although I wasn’t able to see the Kilt Rock Waterfall from the bus, I did snap a few shots of the Old Man of Storr, which was simply amazing:

Even the colour of that little loch seemed surreal. The bus continued through the wild and beautiful scenery, crossing the Quiraing, an unusual but impressive rocky formation in the landscape, past ancient castle ruins looking out over the sea and towards the mountains of the Outer Hebrides. The bus then passed through the port town of Uig, before crossing an open plain that offered inspiring views of the Cuillins. By the time we returned to Portree, the bus must have had driven for two hours. I took one last photo of Portree’s colourful harbour buildings before getting on a bus back towards the southern end of the island.

To see Part I of my Isle of Skye photos, click here.

I bypassed Broadford and got off in Kyleakin, where the bridge from the mainland reaches Skye. From there, I was able to get good photos of a lighthouse and castle ruins near the harbour, with the Highlands in the distance. As the sun began to lower, the light on the mountains across the sea created a truly sublime sight.

After my second night in Broadford, I got up early and headed for Armadale, the southernmost town on the island and the principal port for travel to the mainland. Fortunately, the ferry passage was included in my travelpass. The sky was clear and the sun was shining on the deep blue sea, making for a very pleasant and scenic boat trip.

To see Part II of my photos from Skye, click here.

We arrived in the port of Mallaig on the mainland, from where I had a great view of Skye, with the Cuillins towering over the gentle southern shores, as well as some of the smaller nearby islands (including the flat-topped Isle of Eigg). I marveled at the seemingly crystal-clear ocean water at Mallaig (comparable only to certain areas of the Maine coast, I think). Here, I got onto a train that would head south towards the village of Glenfinnan. Another very scenic, relaxing journey…right?

Another invasion of Pict children.

These kids were probably in 3rd or 4th grade, which meant even more energy, and more headaches for me. Actually, they weren’t that bad; they just kept running into the corridor behind my seat and hiding under the baggage racks. The conductor walked by several times without noticing them. At one point, one of the Scots attempted to converse with me, which went something like this:

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Don’t tell teacher, but this is our secret hiding place under there.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“No but it really is quite good, ’cause they just walk right past and don’t see you.”

The secret hiding place didn’t last long, because the kid’s teacher soon found him and scolded him, saying, “I know what you’ve been up to, Mr. [insert Scottish name here].” Man, I love Scottish people.

Fortunately, I got off only a few stops after Mallaig, so I didn’t have to endure the entire journey with the school field trip; but the train passed some lovely coastline, with secluded coves with white sand and light blue water — apparently this unusual but lovely area has been used in UK films. And my destination, Glenfinnan, was recently used in one of the Harry Potter films.

More specifically, the 1897 Glenfinnan Viaduct, a giant archy curvy bridge, set among some brilliant Scottish scenery. For a truly authentic experience, you can take a Victorian steam-engine train over the viaduct as it travels between Fort William and Mallaig. Oddly enough, when our train arrived in Glenfinnan, the steam engine train happened to be there at the same time, on the opposite tracks.

Unfortunately, this meant that the big ol’ 19th century train was blocking the footpath to the station exit; the conductor advised us (myself and two foreign tourists) to walk towards the front of the steam-engine train and speak with the crew to see if they would let us cross the rails. However, we couldn’t see anyone in front of the train; and the other tourists, who probably didn’t understand what the conductor had told them, just started crossing the tracks; seeing as how that steam engine wasn’t about to take off and crush anyone, I crossed with them.

When we reached the other side, there was a crowd watching the train, which took off just a minute later. I don’t think the crew were very happy with us, but there should have at least been someone concerned with letting the passengers of the modern passenger train leave the station.

Besides the viaduct, the other main attraction in Glenfinnan is the monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Rebellion, which stands at the shores of Loch Shiel. A hill behind the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre gives a good view of the area:

I paid 2 pounds for an interesting exhibit on the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie and for a chance to walk up to the top of the monument (although nobody was checking for tickets…); to reach the top, I had to ascend a narrow spiral staircase with a tiny opening at the top; I shouldn’t have been wearing my backpack.

While I arrived at Glenfinnan in the late morning, the next train wouldn’t be arriving until 5pm; so I had a ridiculous amount of time there. I decided to use up some of it by going for a walk near the viaduct. Using the map I’d gotten from the visitor centre, I set off in search of what was described as “a very rough trail.” Indeed — it was practically invisible. I’m pretty sure that I did find the right path, however. The only problem is that it led me straight to a gate that was firmly locked. Do the mapmakers even walk these trails?

At any rate, I decided to go back to Loch Shiel and just sit for a while. I passed a bunch of Germans near the viaduct, who I believe were part of a filming crew, based on their equipment-filled vehicles and a little food stand. There was also a chic-dressed guy who I assume was the director. I figured that they were probably filming a commercial with the viaduct in the background or something.

After I returned to Loch Shiel, I noticed that a whole bunch of people were standing at the summit of the hill behind the visitor centre; I had no idea why until I heard the steam engine train in the distance. Everyone was gathered to watch it cross over the viaduct. I presume that the Germans were there to film it as well. Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly in the best position to capture the moment but I still did my best. Of course, you could always just watch Harry Potter instead.

To see all of my photos from Mallaig and Glenfinnan, click here.

After returning to the train station, I waited for a while for the train to arrive; during this period, I was mercilessly attacked by midges. Midges are small flying bugs that are common in the West Highlands and Isles, and they are incredibly annoying. Sure, they don’t suck your blood like mosquitoes, but they swarm around you like crazy. Needless to say, I was overjoyed when the train arrived, except that I almost didn’t get on it. The first door I tried wouldn’t open; then I saw the conductor motioning me towards another door. Phew.

For some reason, the train was full of elderly sightseers. The West Highland Line *is* considered one of the most scenic in the world, however, and it lived up to its reputation. As we continued south along the west coast of Scotland, we passed back through Fort William. I snapped a shot of this interesting building (no idea whether it has any significance) with Ben Nevis behind:

The scenery along the West Highland Line was quite awesome. The train crossed Rannoch Moor, a vast isolated landscape…which looked somewhat foreboding. All of the mountains, valleys, and plains were beautiful. At one point, the train circled around a giant herd of sheep, which fled en masse towards the bottom of the glen, away from the railway. It was perhaps the most impressive sheep stampede I’ve seen.

I would highly recommend the rail journey for anyone who has the opportunity to take it. The west-facing side is undoubtedly the best, except for the stretch along Loch Lomond.

To see all of my photos from the West Highland Line, click here.

The terminus of the train was in Glasgow. I had about an hour before my coach for London departed, but I passed on doing any sightseeing — it was raining and very cold, and Glasgow isn’t exactly the most picturesque city anyway. When the coach pulled up to the bus station, I was disappointed to find that it wasn’t a double-decker with reclined seats, but rather a regular uncomfortable coach. And so I attempted to sleep during the long overnight journey down south.

And thus ended my great Scottish adventure.

I’ll try to write my post about Provence when I have the time, as well as my return to America; it’s already been busy, and I haven’t exactly had the desire to sit and write blog updates in the humid, 90-degree weather… fortunately, a thunderstorm is on its way in at this very moment, which will bring nicer weather. But I should probably turn my computer off.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Where are the four corners of your world? « Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously - 13 September 2008

    […] went the farthest north I’ve ever been in June of 2007, as recounted in a previous blog post (right after the picture of the Old Man of Storr). This was during a bus ride around the […]

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