And breathe. 

“To sit in solitude, to think in solitude with only the music of the stream and the cedar to break the flow of silence, there lies the value of wilderness” – John Muir

It’s difficult to pinpoint a single favourite moment or place from my European travels, but my time spent in the Polish Tatras was certainly a highlight for me. I chose to stay in Zakopane, a town overlooked by the mountains and essentially untouched by foreign tourism. Although, by this point, I was getting used to travelling on my own, my days in these mountains were my first days of true solitude yet none of my memories are lonely ones.

Currently, I’m reading ‘The Living Mountain’ – a book which truly encapsulates the idea that you can have a friendship with your surroundings. It puts forward the idea that the wilderness and the time you allow yourself to enjoy it, can be some of the most important experiences you will have, especially in our busy, bustling, sleepless society.

Maybe it was an essence of aimlessness that made my time in the Tatras so memorable. I had the gift of time – waking up each morning with nothing to do with my day but walk through the mountains. I did have big goals of climbing both Giewont (1895m) and Rysy (2499m) on back to back days. However, when I set these targets, I wasn’t aware that reaching these heights wouldn’t actually be the pinnacle of my days.

While reaching the summit of a mountain on a beautiful day, to be met with 360 degree views is an achievement to be unrivalled, its important to remember the journey that leads to that point. It’s difficult to explain the worth of climbing higher through the hills with only your thoughts for company, but it’s this part of hiking that I often cherish the most.

Sometimes the hours that you take to climb a mountain and the breathing room it gives you, is the exact amount of time and space that you need to process your own thoughts.

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Shaped by war.

It only took a failed bus journey, a few extra days in Berlin and about 9hrs on a train, but I eventually made it to Poland.

Warsaw was my first impression of the country. I knew that the city had been completely devastated during WWII and was unsure how the rebuilt capital would look. When walking out of the train station, I was greeted by a city that, as one would expect, was decidedly modern yet surprisingly metropolitan. At first glance, its skyline seemed a little confused, featuring a mixture of contemporary skyscrapers as well as communist era constructions. This contrast of new and old would become a running theme as I discovered more of the city.

The Palace of Science and Culture vs. the Old Town – which is older? 

I made my way to the area of the city misleadingly referred to as the, Old Town. While on the surface, it mirrored many of the European historic towns; it was in fact considerably newer. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 saw the remains of an already battered Old Town, almost entirely decimated. Following WWII, the Old Town was resurrected from the rubble but of course would never regain the authenticity of its pre-war design.

While Warsaw may be lacking in some of the material history we see across Europe, its modern landscape is possibly the most blatant reminder of its troubled past. Although the city’s architecture leaves a lot unsaid, its silence really says it all.

The old facade of a modern city. 

As with many other cities in Poland, Krakow was occupied by the Nazis during WWII and faced the same tyrannical rule. However, unlike these other cities, Krakow was left mainly unscathed by the war. With the intentions of making the city a base for light industry and agriculture within the Third Reich, the Nazis left much of Krakow’s infrastructure undamaged. Due to this, much of the city’s Old Town remains in its incredibly picturesque original form, with a busy and bustling atmosphere. As you walk through it, each street beautifully presents a new photo op.

Although the city may have suffered less than its neighbours, it would be wrong to say it was untouched by the events of WWII. On the edge of the city, the remains of the Płaszów Concentration Camp, as well as the Oskar Schindler Factory, can be found. These places both act as a reminder of what can amount from the cruel and cowardly ideology of one man, and what could be achieved through the heroism of another.

Having visited both Warsaw and Krakow, it was interesting to see how two major cities of a war torn country could evolve in such different ways but still hold so many memories of the past.

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The best of European history.

When I started this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t just write for the sake of it, that I would only write when it meant something to me.

My visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was the most sombre and thought provoking day of my trip, yet, I’ve found myself struggling to write anything about the experience at all. I’ve been searching for the words to describe the harrowing experience with the respect it deserves. However, the truth is that it’s difficult to put into writing what that day meant as I don’t think that there is any combination of words that can truly convey the emotions that walking through the gates of such a place will trigger.

I think that’s one of the reasons that everyone should try to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau at least once in their life. You may watch documentaries about the holocaust or read accounts of what went on at such camps, but until you walk through the gates of such a place, you’re missing the context needed to truly comprehend what once happened there. The buildings of the camp, frozen in time, watch from above as you walk through the quiet streets between them, focused on the unthinkable fact that so many innocent people once suffered and died there by the hands of man.

Poland was an incredibly captivating place, for many reasons; and one that I will never forget, for many reasons.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Berlin was a window into European culture and history; the city’s streets were both modern and historic; and my memories of them were both the best and worst of my travels. I spent a day cycling through the city which provided me with constant reminders of its incredibly dark past as well as its more recent divided history.

They say a picture paints a thousand words, so here’s a short book on my time in Berlin.

I could write about all the places I visited in Berlin, the places that everyone will visit, almost through an obligation to the city. I could write about cycling through the Friedrichshain District, where each grungy street corner was enlightened by some form of mural. I could write about how the 2km journey from the Brandenburg Gate to the victory column is made all the more picturesque by the vast and beautiful Tiergarten.  I could write about how unbelievably empty you will feel when you look through the pane of glass in Bebelplatz, into the barren library situated beneath the square. I could write about all of this and so much more, but instead I’ve decided to focus my writing on one particular place in Berlin – a hidden treasure.

Fuck it all.

On the outskirts of the city, around 10km from all the central sights of Berlin you will find a deserted US listening station from the Cold War – Teufelsberg. Being partial to abandoned buildings I decided that a visit to Teufelsberg would be worth a 40min cycle in the rain. While believe that preserving history for future generations is something that should be important to us all, there is something about a building being left to age naturally that I find particularly interesting. Standing in such buildings can be so eerie, and you can often feel the presence of those who once stood in the place where you are now.

Slightly damp, I arrived at the old listening station, expecting to find a derelict building with some stories to tell but I was met with a structure that housed a wealth of artistic expression. The walls did have stories to tell, but these weren’t the stories I was expecting. I wasn’t just visiting an old reminder of the past; I was visiting a modern day art colony. This former hub of intelligence was now a hub of creativity. Even during my visit, I saw artists sat working on their future projects. As I climbed higher up the central stairwell of the building, my path became darker and darker. With this, alighting at each floor brought a greater sense of brightness and a greater appreciation for the art on display. I climbed to the highest radome of the building and stood in the centre of the spherical structure, sufficiently awe-inspired. By this point I had already decided that Teufelsberg was one of the best art exhibits I’ve ever visited.

Edgy, arty, derelict things.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, a sentiment that was brutally true in Berlin. After a pretty phenomenal day in the city, I experienced my first case of self doubt and true homesickness.

That night I had planned to take a night bus to Warsaw, leaving Berlin at 10pm. I won’t get in to the boring details of why this didn’t go ahead, but I was assured by the operating company that a ‘plan B’ was in place, and we would be on the road by midnight. At 3am, I accepted that this may not be the case. The idea that my plan had failed made me doubt whether I could really manage on my own. I was in Germany, surrounded by a hoard of angry Russians and Poles who were shouting at the Latvian operators of our bus service – to use the term ‘language barrier’ in this situation would be quite the understatement. Not only did I feel lost and alone, but I felt as though everyone was actively conspiring against me. I allowed myself to over think, and because of this ended up feeling so much more isolated than I actually was.

€2 refills with a side of coaster collecting.

Upon discovering that it would be at least another 3 hours for a replacement bus, I decided to call it quits. It was 4am, I was in one Europe’s biggest cities and I had nowhere to go. Hopeful, I migrated back to the hostel where I had been staying, which at this hour was an experience in itself. While I couldn’t check into a room until 2pm, the reception staff kindly agreed to let me sleep in the lobby until it was light outside.  After about 4 hours sleep, I headed back into the city. I spent the majority of my day at the Berlin Beer Festival where, by chance, I met a group of fun loving Scots. I don’t know if it was the beer or the banter, but as the day went on my mood was certainly lightened.

It was only weeks later that I was really able separate the failure of my plan from the idea of me being a failure. Sometimes things that are outside of your control will happen. However, it is not these incidents that determine your success, but instead your reaction to them. It’s okay to be your own toughest judge, but don’t be too hard on yourself.

Reality Czech.

I spent two nights in the Czech Republic. During my time there I ran around various towns and cities trying to see as much as possible. It was here that I learnt some of my first lessons on the practicalities of travelling as my naive expectations were met with harsh realities. While some lessons were difficult, they proved to be vital in the weeks that followed.

Imagine.


During my time in the Czech Republic I decided to base out of Prague, with the belief that I was unlikely to get bored here – I was right. The city offered infinite things to do, but of these things, some were better than others. I had been warned that Prague’s astronomical clock was somewhat underwhelming, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and visited it with an open mind. While I could imagine the clock being underwhelming on an average day, the clock as I saw it, framed by scaffolding, was even less impressive.

While I enjoyed the idea of the John Lennon wall, the sight itself seemed a little misguided. The wall acted as a confused memorial to the influential Beetle, where genuine tributes mixed with generic graffiti. On my first visit the wall was crowded but a local busker provided some acoustic, tranquil vibes. However, it wasn’t until my second, much quieter, visit to the wall when I could truly appreciate its peaceful sentiment.

Some of the best on offer.


Charles Bridge was as busy as they say, but I think that was part of its charm. While the artistry of the bridge was beautiful, its bustling atmosphere gave it its character. Walking across the bridge as the sunset over the historic city and browsing the little bespoke jewellery stalls while the music of multiple street musicians harmonised was one of my favourite moments in Prague.

Prague acted as a great central hub for my adventures across the Czech Republic. Determined to do as much as possible, my schedule was tight and relied on a quick pace and prompt trains. I had hoped to visit the town Karlovy Vary, and while my paper itinerary allowed time for it, I soon learnt that in reality there weren’t enough hours in the day. Luckily, the streets of Prague offered similarly colourful walks with equally beautiful views.

Where the magic happens.


An adventure I did have time for was a trip to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, about a 90min train journey from Prague. I set off early and around 2hrs later I arrived. Prior to this train journey, I had been spoilt by Dutch and German efficiency, but unfortunately not all European train lines run with the same punctuality (this would become more evident the further east I travelled).

As a beer enthusiast, I felt a trip to the Czech Republic wouldn’t be complete without visiting at least one of its famous breweries. The Pilsner tour provided me with a dose of history and a taste of unpasteurised beer. It was also where I was taught my first Czech – Na Zdraví!

Ever wonder what 40,000 skeletons look like?


On my final day in the country I planned to visit the small town of Kutna Hora in the morning, before hiking in Bohemian Switzerland that afternoon, and making it to Berlin that evening – totally achievable… At 6am I caught my first train of the day heading to Kutna Hora with the plan of visiting the Sedlec Ossuary, the Jesuit College and St. Barbara’s Church. What I didn’t consider was that I would be carrying my 60L backpack. I walked through eerily empty streets for about 20mins to reach the Sedlec Ossuary. The idea of being alone in such a quiet, rural town weighed on my mind while my 12kg bag weighed on my back. It was at this point that I decided walking any further would be a task for another day.

I waited for the Sedlec Ossuary to open while seated in its surrounding graveyard. While the outside of the church was covered in scaffolding (a recurring theme of my travels), research told me that the inside would be worth the wait. When the church opened I was, unsurprisingly, the first person through the door. You would think a building decorated using 40,000 skeletons would be fairly expansive, but it oddly wasn’t. That’s not to say it wasn’t both intimidating and impressive.

Sweaty highlights of Pravcicka Gate.


Based on my previous Czech travel experiences I left myself with, what I thought was a generous 40min connection in between my train from Kutna Hora and my train to Decin. Delays meant I actually ended up madly, running through Prague main station trying to find my platform and boarding my train with about 2mins to spare. From Decin I would take a local bus to the Bohemian Switzerland National Park and take a hike up to Pravcicka Gate.

So there were a couple problems with this, the first being where to actually get the bus… Speaking English in Decin didn’t seem to get me as far as it did in Prague. A little guess work and a little good fortune meant I eventually found the right stop. When my bus reached Bohemian Switzerland, another problem occurred to me – I still had my 60L backpack. The bag was heavy and the walk was sweaty, but with a little willpower I made it to Pravcicka Gate. The landscape was unlike anything we have in Scotland with views that reassured me that I had saved the best of the Czech Republic till last.

Views like these make it all worthwhile.


In my haste to start the hike, I had actually forgotten to check the return times of the hourly bus back to Decin. I thought my best bet would be to get back to the bus stop as quickly as possible to avoid being stranded. Although, not before making a visit to the bar situated just under Pravcicka Gate. With a water in one hand, and a beer in the other I began running back to down the hill. At the bottom, I discovered I would need to wait about 30mins for a bus that would get me to Decin in time for my train to Berlin. My day ended as it started, with another train delay but I was soon on my way north to Berlin.

My time in the Czech Republic was both exhausting and enlightening. It gave me the reality check I needed while affirming that even though you can’t do it all – you can, in fact, enjoy all that you do.

 

We were all strangers once.

Around two months ago I left to go travelling on my own for the first time. I’ve been home for almost two weeks now, and its only been in this time that I’ve begun to really understand what my trip meant to me and why I needed to do it. My idea had been to write about my adventures while I was away, but as I learnt on this trip, things don’t always go to plan. Having said that, waiting until now to start writing about my travels hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing as hindsight can be an incredibly powerful tool.

My journey started in Amsterdam, a city I had visited many times during the eight years that I lived in the Netherlands. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision or not, but starting my travels in a city that I was so familiar with, seemed to settle some of my solo traveller nerves.

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Life on the water.

I had been in the city for less than an hour when I had my first chance encounter with a random stranger. It was early and the streets were quiet. As I aimlessly walked through the city towards the main square, an older man smiled at me. “Smile darling!” he said. My initial reaction was a mixture of shock and mild disgust which must have been evident as the man immediately assured me that he was, in fact, gay and not a creepy old man. He introduced himself as Ferris, as he took my hand and began walking with me, immediately demanding he found out more about me.

While the situation was somewhat unconventional, part of me was relieved. I was no longer alone in the city. I spent almost an hour with Ferris. We sat in the street, sharing a smoke and talking about life, love and our very different philosophies on both. I shocked him with my monogamous long distance relationship and he shocked me with essentially everything that he said. He was bluntly honest with his opinions and incredibly open with his stories, his flamboyant transparency made him unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.

With the instruction that I attend a live sex show and a big farewell cuddle, Ferris and I parted ways. Our encounter, while brief, somehow reassured me that everything would be fine.

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The beginning of the self timer life.

I had multiple plans for Amsterdam, most of which I executed. I hired an inconspicuous black bicycle and pretended to be a local. I trained at Carlson Gracie Amsterdam where I was welcomed like a regular. I visited the museum quarter and climbed the Iamsterdam sign. I had a beer at Brouwerij ‘t IJ and ate at Europe’s first avocado restaurant. I did everything I wanted to do, yet for some reason one of my favourite memories is the hour I spent speaking to a stranger.

A friend of mine recently wrote that its the people, not the places that make travelling so special. A sentiment which I completely agree with. Especially when travelling alone, the kindness of a stranger can mean so much.

While we can be anything, we should always try to be kind. Smile at people in the street, offer help to those who look lost and open your heart to new friendships.

Time is a gift that costs nothing but it can mean everything.

The self-fulfilling life of a loner.

Its been about a week since my return to Scotland and during my time away I felt as though I had changed. However, as I have tried to slip back into day to day life, it has been difficult to pin point exactly what this change was. I’ve always been fairly independent, but perhaps it is the philosophy surrounding my independence that has developed.

Last night I went to see the band Arab Strap at the Tivoli theatre here in Aberdeen. For those of you who are unfamiliar with their music, Arab Strap were a pretty influential Scottish indie band in the 90s and in my opinion one of the best bands in Slowcore. Their first single, The First Big Weekend, gives a pretty strong insight into what they’re all about. Aidan talks through a fairly relatable monologue in time to Malcolm’s hypnotising beats. As you listen to the song, you actually begin to feel like a part of the story.

So, nothing particularly new so far – I went to a gig. Except, last night I went lone wolf.

I had asked around the usual suspects, but for various reasons, it didn’t look like I was going to find a side kick for the night. Not wanting to go alone, I made myself comfortable in my usual seat at home. While Arab Strap had only just reformed after about a decade apart, I consoled myself with the idea that I would have the opportunity to see them again some day. But, why?

As I sat, staring at the ticket I had selected on the box office website, I thought more about the reasons I shouldn’t go to the gig. The more I thought, the fewer reasons I found… Until there were none. A band I wanted to see for years, were playing live in my home town and I had the ability to go see them. It was actually a pretty simple decision. So, I bought a ticket, slapped myself out of the miserable mood I’d created and went to a pretty great gig.

“He who delights in solitude is either a wild beast or a god” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Sometimes, there can be so much pressure to do things with people that we forget that it’s actually okay to do things alone. I’m not going to start preaching about relationships being social constructs or about our over reliance on others, but what I will say, is that occasionally by doing things alone we have the power to create our own happiness in ways that we couldn’t otherwise.

NC500 – Day Four: I’ll take a Diet Coke, thanks. 

Our days had passed quickly and before we knew it we were on the homestretch. 

It was our final morning yet for the first time on our trip, we woke up in a structurally sound bedroom. Our lodgings that night had been somewhat unconventional but more than comfortable. The boys affectionately referred to it as the trailer park, but honestly, I think it was more special than that. I would recommend Sleeperzzz to anyone looking for an affordable nights sleep with a truly unique twist. 

Our first adventure of the day was a trip to Rogie Falls, not far from Inverness. It wasn’t the first waterfall of our trip, but it was the first that we actually experienced in the sunshine which made it all the more scenic. It also meant the short walk from the car to the falls was more enjoyable, as the sun’s rays pushed through the leafy trees above us and shone a glittering light on our path.

The beauty of nature needs no caption.


Once back in the car we drove towards Clootie Well. While I had done a little research, I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, and when we arrived I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it… Said to be an old pilgrim tradition, strips of cloth were tied to trees surrounding springs and wells as part of a healing ritual. 

However, the modern day manifestation of this practice, I’d imagine, is somewhat different to what it was originally. As we walked through the woodland we saw old clothes, flags, tea towels and even shoes tied to the trees. I appreciate most of these tributes were made with some attempt at keeping the old tradition alive, but it really just seemed like glorified littering to me. Maybe I’m just a snob though. 

Eerie, hippie vibes.


We continued our drive east towards Rosemarkie and the very picturesque Fairy Glen where we took a short walk through the woods. I think it would be easy to dismiss these woods as a dark, slightly damp, almost swampy environment. However, if you really took a minute to really appreciate your surroundings, there was something quite magical about it and it was easy to see why it was called the Fairy Glen. 

After our walk it was time for lunch so we made our way to the Plough Inn, the quaint little pub we had passed on our way in to town. Here, I ordered my first Diet Coke of many that day, while the boys ordered their first beer. In a form of Karma their beers were on the warm side which wasn’t great for a hot day like this. 

Workplace of my dreams.


While in the Black Isle area, it would be rude not to stop in at the Black Isle Brewery, as they make one of my favourite beers – Black Isle Blonde. The brewery fulfilled all of my hippie expectations. At the end of a little pothole infested road we found a quirky metal building surrounded by a fairly rustic garden. It was the type of place that I just wanted to hover around long enough for them to offer me a job.

Inside, we were informed that Black Isle had actually opened a tap room in the centre of Inverness, just down the street from a gelataria. This was enough persuasion for us to put any of our other plans for the day on hold. While I couldn’t have a beer, my ice cream options were unrestricted so it seemed like a winning option all round. I was kindly allowed to eat an ice cream in the beer garden while posing with a beer for effect. 

Beer for effect.


Although we had planned for multiple other stops, time dictated that we would have to just choose one. We decided Duffus castle would be our grande finale. Much like the other castles we had visited, there wasn’t much left of it. Often with ruins, it is this that makes them so interesting as you can wander round and imagine what was once there. The planning and engineering that once went it to building such structures is quite formidable really and the fact that so many of them are in part still standing really is a testament to this. 

Forever falling into these natural poses…


We drove to Buckie, where we said farewell to Dave before beginning our drive back to Aberdeen. While we didn’t do anything particularly outstanding on our last day, it is still the day with some of my fondest memories. I guess sometimes it’s the little laughs with your closest friends that make the best memories.

The North Coast 500 was an enchanting but at times, challenging experience. However, it is one that I would happily repeat. With nicer weather and a little more time, I imagine we could greatly improve on our first experience. 

While the weather in Scotland is difficult to predict, our time is a factor we have greater control over. Making more to time to do what we love is something we can all benefit from, as it’s the memories we make in this time that will become our most valuable possessions. 

NC500 – Day Three: Did our tent just blow down? 

So while our campsite was incredibly picturesque, we learnt throughout the night that it wasn’t the most practical. Its coastal location combined with the lack of shelter left us fairly exposed to the elements. At multiple points during the night the wind was strong enough to blow our tent flat for a few seconds at a time. This, paired with the rain, meant we were essentially water boarded by our own tent on several occasions as we tried to sleep. Although we questioned it at many points, our tent weathered the storm and survived the night. We were actually quite lucky, as, if this had happened on day one we’d have ended up sleeping in the car. 

Our third day meant our third morning of starting our route in the hope that breakfast would jump out at us. We thought Durness would be a good shout as it was a bigger town, but… it was a Sunday. Luckily, breakfast wasn’t the only reason we had chosen Durness. 

You’ve been hit by, you’ve been struck by, a Smoo criminal.


High on my Pinterest hit list was the very picturesque, Smoo Cave. Pinterest can at times over sell attractions. The heavily edited photographs with eye catching captions can leave a bit to be desired when you see them in the real world. Smoo Cave was maybe the opposite of this. While the pictures I’d seen had actually been quite accurate, the waterfall inside the cave was an unreported surprise. As soon as you entered the wooden tunnel taking you to the heart of the cave, the sheer force of the water became apparent. While this wasn’t a particularly beautiful waterfall, nor a particularly large one, it’s power made it stand out. The sound of the splashing water echoed through the cave. The sheer volume of water meant it was difficult to get close to it without being splashed by water ricocheting from the plunge pool. Smoo Cave was a hidden gem with its own little secret.

Having skipped breakfast, we grew increasingly hungry. Our original plan had been to wait until we reached John o’Groats before having lunch, but our hunger was rapidly becoming ‘hanger’. The coastal views lessened the suffering but all we could really concentrate on was food. 

The fish cake of my dreams.


As we passed through Thurso the temptation grew too much. Worryingly, as we walked through the town, we learnt that Durness wasn’t the only quiet place on a Sunday. It didn’t look like we were going to have much luck here either until some good fortune meant that we stumbled across Y Not Bar and Grill. For a small town pub, the place had a fairly trendy, city like atmosphere. Brian went for his usual club sandwich while I opted for the seafood option yet again. In this part of Scotland it takes some will power to turn down seafood as it literally goes from sea to plate.

With full bellies we continued our drive east. While the scenery was very different to what we had experienced over the past two days, it was no less beautiful. The dramatic cliffs at Dunnet head were worth the wind we had to endure to see them. 

Tropical beach or Scotland.


The weather had been quite mild throughout the day, mostly dry and even pleasant at times. Naturally as soon as we got out of the car at John o’Groats, things changed. In the usual Scottish fashion, the weather took a damp turn. We had long enough to take a picture before we had to seek shelter from the elements in the first cafe we could find. So that was all we saw of the famous town… it’s sign – but maybe that’s all there really is to see? 

From John o’Groats, our coastal adventure continued. The highlight for me was Duncansby head. This is where, two almost identical rock formations, shaped like shark teeth, bite through the water just off the shore. 

That sign and the deceptively blue sky.


Now it was time to start heading south to Rogart where we were staying that night, with plenty stops along the way to keep us going. At this point, little did we know that we would spend a lot of our afternoon driving up and down the same 20mile stretch of road looking for these attractions.

Our first stop was meant to be Bucholie Castle. If anyone can actually find this then please give them a medal. As the Sat Nav began to lead us down a dirt track, we decided that maybe today wasn’t the day for that castle. With the amount of rain we had, venturing further was just asking for us to get stuck. Spending so much time trying to find this castle and all to no avail was actually pretty disappointing. After a short sulk I picked myself up and moved on as we still had plenty to do. In my head I wanted everything to be perfect so the idea of missing something upset me. However in reality, it wasn’t going to make or break our trip but my reaction could. 

Luckily Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, just outside of Wick, was much easier to find – there was even a couple of signs. As with most of the castles we had stopped at, there was not many people there. Much of the castle had eroded away over the years. As we peered off the castle walls down to the vicious sea, it was easy to sea why. What remained of the castle was still incredibly beautiful, so it’s sad to think that, soon, without more restoration and protection it may not be there either.

A castle, battered by the elements.


The Whaligoe Steps were next on our route, but before seeing them, we passed a sign for our following stop, the Camster Cairns. This should have been an indication that we maybe missed a turn for the steps. Oblivious, we headed towards the Cairns. As we drove down the road we were caught in the kind of traffic jam I thought only existed in movies. As the farmer moved his flock of sheep and lambs we pulled over to one side as we were surrounded. As a city slicker, this was surreal to me, but I think it made Brian feel at home. 

Upon reaching the Cairns, we were met with huge rock piles each with a small tunnel that lead to a hollow interior. I crawled into one, and that dark, claustrophobic experience was enough for me. 

It was at this point that we suspected we may have missed the Whaligoe Steps. We decided that they were worth a drive back, but sadly we never found out. Much like Bucholie Castle, the Steps were invisible to us. Although this was another disappointment, we both agreed that it gave us twice the reason to drive in this road again. Although having driven it about 5 times that day, maybe not anytime too soon.  

The trailer park.


The race was now on to get to our unconventional lodgings, Sleeperzzz, in Rogart, and meet our friend Dave who would join us for the last part of our trip. We had time for a drive by photograph of Dunrobin castle, before we reached our final destination for the day, Rogart, which was possibly our most rural stopover yet. 

Time to put our feet up and drink up. 

NC500 – Day Two: Scotland in July, when the rain gets warmer.

We woke up to the sound of fairly strong wind and the suspicion that our tent was probably in worse shape than when we put it up the night before, if that was even possible. This provided us with some urgency to get showered and hit the road again before our tent became more like a kite.

After cleaning up as much as you can in a public shower, our next priority was to find somewhere that opened early enough for us to get breakfast. Our plan was to start our journey north in the hope that we’d find something on the way. For a second time we journeyed over the Bealach na Ba, and for a second time we were consumed by the clouds and unable to admire any of the views which supposedly exist on this road. Having driven the road in worse weather and worse spirits the previous day, we were able to enjoy our second attempt slightly more but there was still a sigh of relief once we were through the hills.

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Views like this made the hunger manageable.

We drove for about an hour before we came across the dainty, Whistle Stop Cafe in Kinlochewe. After resisting the urge to order chocolate cake for breakfast (its a constant struggle) – I settled on the more substantial Scottish breakfast. White coffee and black pudding isn’t a bad way to start the day. As we left the cafe, the rain that had been threatening us since we woke up was in full force and it didn’t look like it was going away any time soon.

After breakfast, our plan had been to visit Inverewe Gardens. The pictures we had seen of the gardens were stunning but they had clearly been taken in much better weather than what we were given. Rather than the tropical garden experience we had planned for, we were more likely to endure a typical Scottish outing of rain and grey skies with the unusual addition of palm trees on the side. Weighing up our expectation vs reality we made the decision to save the gardens for another day (more of that ‘adapting’ stuff we’ve been practising). Onto the next stop – Corrieshalloch Gorge.

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Anthrax Island – something out of a dystopian fantasy.

On the way to the gorge, we decided to make a photo stop at Gruinard Bay which, on a good day, is said to be beautiful. While enjoying the beach on a sunny day may have been nice, the main reason we stopped was not for of the bay but instead for the island opposite and the interesting story attached to it. In the background of the above picture you can see Gruinard Island, and while its appearance is rather unspectacular, its history is of much more interest. Some pre road trip research revealed that, during WWII, Gruinard Island had been a government testing ground for biological warfare. Opposite a beautiful bay to rival any in Scotland sits an island that was contaminated with Anthrax for decades. How strange and rather eerie…

A sign on the island used to read: “This island is government property under experiment. This ground is contaminated with Anthrax and dangerous. Landing is prohibited.” However the experiment was declassified in 1997 and the island has now been declared safe, although the last confirmed case of Anthrax on the island test flock of sheep was just a decade ago. I don’t think I’ll be taking my chances any time soon.

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Bridges shouldn’t be built to sway.

By the time we reached Corrieshalloch Gorge the rain still hadn’t let up, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The rain meant that a lot of the attractions we had planned to visit were much quieter than normal.

The gorge was just a short walk down the hillside. While we had seen pictures of the sight, it difficult to know exactly what to expect. The pictures really didn’t do it justice. As I found out when trying to take my own pictures, it was almost impossible to showcase the sheer size and depth of the gorge while capturing the detail of the rock that was carved and shaped by the water.

The bridge over the gorge warned that only 6 people at a time should venture across it – a warning that many people chose to ignore. However, considering the looming drop to the gorge below, I patiently waited at the edge until the bride was slightly less congested. Standing on the bridge, it was easy to feel insignificant with those surroundings.

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Cave exploring *giggle* – I just fell like this.

From the gorge we were just 15mins from Ullapool which seemed like it would be the best lunch stop for a while. We had a quick bite to eat at The Seaforth and while I stuck with my obligatory driver’s soft drink, Brian sampled some of the local beer. We didn’t spend long in Ullapool but it seems like a small hub in the North West and somewhere that we would definitely visit and possibly base out of for future trips.

We did have some slightly longer hikes planned for the afternoon but the idea of getting soaked while walking for hours, then sitting in a car while damp for hours, then sleeping in a tent all night was less and less inviting.

We decided to opt for a shorter hike to the Bone Caves instead (we were getting really good at adapting). For some reason, instead of changing into my waterproof boots I thought I’d just wear my not so waterproof trail running shoes. This was not the best decision I’ve made. Although the hike was only a couple hours long, the rain was constant and parts of the path were flooded. By the time we reached the caves, both o us were soaked – our idea of staying dry on a shorter walk wasn’t really going to plan.

When we actually reached the caves, exploring in them gave us a small respite from the rain. It was a nice experience to be able to explore such an untouched environment. A combination of the weather and the remoteness of the caves had meant that for the entire hike we had only seen a couple of other people, it was like having a private valley exclusively to ourselves.

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Kylesku Bridge – beautiful to drive over, beautiful to look at.

Unlike the previous day, we now only had a half hour drive to our campsite and it was well before dinner time. Without the pressure of time, we were able to take a much more leisurely pace. While I still tried to drive at 60mph, we made more stops for pictures along the way.

Just down the road from the Bone Caves was Ardvreck Castle. We hopped out the car to have a look at the castle, but didn’t venture too close – still soaked from our earlier walk, we weren’t keen to add more rain to the equation. You know the rain is bad when Brian, a history major, chooses not to stand and read the information of the castle.

Luckily, as we got further north, the rain seemed to be fading. So much so, that by the time we got to Kylesku bridge we were able to actually leave the car without waterproofs.

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That campsite is tough to beat.

We arrived at our campsite in Scourie and pitched our tent all before 6pm, which was incredible considering our efforts from the previous day. We were now professionals at tent assembly and actually got our home for the night looking presentable enough for a photo, this time. By this point, the rain had completely subsided, matching our good mood and high spirits.

We ended our day with some food and beers at the Anchorage Bar. Both of us had incredibly fresh seafood for dinner, and the beers weren’t bad either. After a long day of driving and missing out, my pint of Tennents tasted surprisingly good.

Overall, day two had been much more relaxed. While we didn’t have the best weather, we still had fun. By giving ourselves less to do, we weren’t so constrained by time and actually had a greater opportunity to enjoy what we did do. I suppose we had learnt from the mistakes we made the previous day.

As cliched as it sounds, for us it didn’t matter what we were doing, as long as we were together – although it took me a little longer to realise this.

NC500 – Day One: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try… to find phone signal. 

“Scotland’s answer to Route 66”

I found out about the North Coast 500 over a year ago and have wanted to drive it ever since. With my boyfriend visiting, it seemed like the perfect time to make some new memories while travelling around the most beautiful parts of Scotland for the first time.

Anyone who has heard of the NC500 probably knows that Aberdeen, where I live, is not actually on the route. So adding in those extra miles, our four day roadtrip was really an NC750. The added distance meant even more photo stops, so if we were to make it from Aberdeen to our campsite at Applecross, we would have to be fairly efficient, even with our 7am departure.

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Auchindoun castle feat happy boyfriend and excited pup. (Disclaimer: dog is not mine, but the man is).

Instead of following the A96 (the main Aberdeen to Inverness road), we decided to drive a series of quieter roads passing the picturesque ruins of Kildrummy, Auchindoun and Balvenie castles. What these castles had in common was that they were slightly off the beaten track, meaning we had them exclusively to ourselves during our visits. There’s something incredibly special about experiencing historic buildings like these when no one else is there.

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Balvenie Castle – saving the best till last for castles on Day 1.

Before reaching Inverness we had one more stop – Old Pack Horse Bridge in Carrbridge. It wasn’t really en route but we thought the detour would be worth it. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but this old age bridge is actually in the town centre, beside all the shops and restaurants and parallel to the modern road bridge that we had just used to cross the river. The contrasting environments make it even easier to  appreciate the beauty of the historic structure and the ingenuity that must have gone into building it.

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Old Pack Horse Bridge

While we were heading in the right general direction, I’m pretty sure that the route we were following from Inverness wasn’t strictly the NC500 the hole way. However, a couple waterfalls seemed to be a worthwhile deviation and it didn’t look like making these adjustments to the route was going to add on too much time or at least that’s what we thought…

All started fine and well, we drove along Loch Ness on the road which followed the south side of the loch, soaking in the views. The weather seemed to have taken a brighter turn for the day, at points it even seemed sunny. We made our way to the village of Foyers where we hoped to see the burnt remains of Bolskine House, a manor previously owned by Aleister Crowley and Jimmy Page. Unfortunately it was gated off and you couldn’t actually see it from the road, but luckily it wasn’t the only reason we had come to Foyers.

After a bite to eat we were able to explore the dramatic Falls of Foyers. A short walk down a hill from the cafe takes you to a striking rock gorge. It is here where you find Scotland’s fourth highest waterfall. The best thing about this particular waterfall is how close you’re able to view it from. Being that close to the falls meant that their sound was almost as impressive as their appearance.

Up until this point, everything had gone to plan. We were on schedule and hadn’t got lost yet. YET.

Foyers on the left, Plodda on the right.

Our next stop was Plodda falls, and with that our smooth running day was about to change. We left Foyers around 14:45 but didn’t reach Plodda falls until 17:50… This was a journey that should have only taken just over an hour. A combination of what could only be described as a malfunctioning, drunkenly disorientated GPS and the vast signal dead zones meant that finding the pothole infested dirt track leading to Plodda falls was much harder than expected.

My only hope was that when we finally arrived, the waterfall would be somewhat worth the unbelievably long and stressful journey. At first I thought that my nightmare was about to become a reality as we were greeted by a rather underwhelming waterfall, a mere trickle compared to Foyers. However, that familiar sound of flowing  water hinted that there might actually be more to discover, so we followed the water. It wasn’t long before we found the viewing platform which hovered over a vast 150ft gorge, which was the setting to the magnificent Plodda falls. The platform was directly over the waterfall which gave an interesting perspective (especially for an Acrophobiac like myself) but its positioning also made it difficult to appreciate the waterfall which is quite ironic for a viewing platform.

Had we explored a little further I’m sure a better view was available but in all honesty, we couldn’t really be bothered – we were tired and hungry and had lost most motivation for the day but were still over two hours away from our campsite. The waterfall was beautiful but I feel our reaction to it may have been warmer had we seen it a few hours earlier as planned.

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None of the traffic, all of the scenery.

I am a planner, and getting lost certainly was not part of the plan. I think a weakness of mine is my lack of adaptability. When my plans fall through I often struggle to form that Plan B. Often instead of focusing my attention on what can be done to rectify the situation, I just become frustrated with myself to the extent that it really hinders my ability to think rationally. Luckily on this occasion, my boyfriend, Brian, was able to provide me with a voice of reason, but I won’t always have this luxury. Adapting on my own is something which I’ll need to get better with, especially with my upcoming travels. I’m sure my European tour will act as a sink or swim experience for me.

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Driving the Bealach na Ba put some hairs on my chest.

As we began our journey from the Plodda falls to our campsite, the weather grew increasingly bad, almost reflecting the mood in the car. Despite the rain, it was a surprisingly nice drive but we could only enjoy it as much as the average hungry person can enjoy anything that isn’t food. When we had signal we eagerly Googled for restaurants that were on our route. Eventually we came to the Lochcarron Hotel that provided a busy bar and restaurant, that was wall to wall with a mixture of locals and fellow tourists.

Refuelled by our pub grub, we hit the road again – we were on the final stretch. However, little did we know that, between us and our campsite was the daunting Bealach na Ba. This road is one of the most challenging I’ve ever driven – a single track through the mountains and into the clouds with sheer cliff drops, steep hair pin bends and poor visibility. It was a great experience but as we came to the midpoint of the road, a stranded car with a blown out tire reminded us of  how desperately we just wanted to be off this remote road and at the campsite.

The relief of reaching the campsite lasted only seconds as we then realised that we now had to assemble a tent that we had never seen before without any instructions. I’d have taken a picture of our home for the night but our effort was pretty poor, our tent looked a little sad and had the potential to fall over in a stiff breeze – but it would do for the night.

Time for a Brewdog beer and a good nights sleep, before doing it all again the next day.

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan and that’s okay.