Saturday, April 19, 2014

[The Life of Shaun #498] The Highlander

It's an experience I am glad to have had.  

Last weekend, I checked off a few far-flung items from my UK list: Loch Ness, Thurso and John O'Groats.  Loch Ness and its monster are something every American hears about from childhood, so it's on the list as it's one of those things you just do as a tourist in Scotland.  

John O'Groats is also fairly popular with Brits - especially the crazy cycling kind - as it is one terminus of the end-to-end journey across Britain, from Land's End in the Southwest, to John O'Groats in the Northeast.

Thurso is more obscure.  Many British people don't even know where it is, and most who do have never been and will never go.  It sneaked into my travel itinerary as I've been curious about it ever since reading Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island.  I have a longstanding interest in these edge-of-the-world towns, and Thurso is certainly one of those.  In the book, Bryson ends his picture of Thurso with a story about how the ladies of the town wake early each Saturday to catch a train down to Inverness, where they do their shopping, and then head back that night.  It seems so laborious to modern sensibilities, but what he notices is how happily expectant and content they all seem.  It sounds so quirky and charming, so I wanted to see this place for myself.

The first stop on most trips to the Scottish Highlands is Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, and as close as you get to a city in those parts.  It's pleasant enough: a compact city centre, with few glaring scars from the 70s, and a castle, all straddling the River Ness between rolling hills.  There were few noticeable chains, but the town's heart is dominated by a giant ill-thought shopping centre.  Still, the streets were lively, and there are enough restaurants and bars to pass a day, which is important as the wind never stops blowing in the Highlands, so you need sufficient indoor diversions to take shelter in.

The River Ness runs through the centre of town.

The riverside from the castle.

Handsome city-centre blocks.

Several small islands dot the river just West of the centre, which they have weaved together with bridges and paths.

I travelled all the way to Inverness to see my first 
desert bighorn sheep
, the state animal of Nevada.

Good-bye double rainbows from Inverness.

The next day, being a carless tourist in a sparsely populated region, I took a package boat-castle-bus Loch Ness tour for my shot at spotting Nessie.  The loch is huge; stretching far out in front of you, there's no way to take it all in at once.  The waters are deep and broody, it's squeezed between lush hills on both sides, and dotted with the occasional village, stately home or ruin, and the Highland winds churn the water, causing a bumpy ride, and occasionally throwing up a sheet of water, dowsing unsuspecting tourists.

On deck, battling the winds.

The ship's wake trails off into the distance.

Ruins of the castle along the shore.

This is why no one ever spots Nessie - she's hanging out in the much more agreeable sea monster spa in a nearby village.

The following morning was the four-hour train ride through the Highlands, which was actually quite beautiful.  Two years ago, I went to Norway and took the Bergen Railway, connecting Oslo to Bergen, which calls itself "Europe's greatest railway".  However, I thought this ride was much more impressive, and certainly more varied.  And it has the added advantage of not bankrupting you should you decide to have a drink along the way.

Quaint patriotic platform at Invergordon.

The tracks literally run just a few metres from the sea along long stretches of the journey.

And once you get inland, the scenery is changing and beautiful.

At the end of the ride, you arrive in Thurso, an outpost of nine thousand or so windburnt hearty souls at the edge of the British mainland.  The footprint of the town is actually larger than you'd expect of such a small population, as it has a proper city core and substantial residential neighbourhoods stretching out in all directions.  Its centre is walkable and austere, with monolithic lowrise grey buildings, bracing against the ceaseless winds, which got stronger the farther North I went.

Thurso is one if the oddest towns I've been to in Britain.  I've never been anywhere with streets that were so devoid of both people and cars - and I have been to some pretty desolate places.  You walk around the town, and it feels as if you pretty much have it to yourself.  However, go into a pub or a restaurant, and it is likely to be lively and full of happy, chattering patrons.  I don't know how they get from place to place without being seen.

I had the most pleasant part of they journey in Thurso, at a very unexpectedly lovely dinner at Le Bistro, an unassuming restaurant in the city centre.  After popping into several nearby venues, I decided to have dinner here based on a positive initial impression and vegetarian options that extended past the standard fare.  The venue is cozy and warm, the staff were authentically friendly, and the food interesting, honest and flavourful, the wine was fantastic, and none of it pretentious.  It's everything a restaurant should be, and to find it at the edge of world made it all the more special.  I was happy and smitten, à la Bryson, and left Thurso with a literal and proverbial good taste in my mouth.

Central Thurso, with a veritable traffic jam; Le Bistro on the left.

Even up here, you're never far away from a curry house.

Lots of rules for one bathroom.

And finally to John O'Groats - the end of the line.  There's not much there - a signpost, so you know you've made it, and various tourist cafes and shops, whose trade depends on bored tourists with an hour gap between busses and people waiting on the passenger ferry to the Orkney and Shetland Islands.  Which is just as well - with the worst wind of the trip, there was no desire to stay for more than the obligatory photo.

And there I am!

The local pub keeps toys on hand so children don't get bored while their parents drink.  How thoughtful those Scots are!

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK |

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