Family holidays: London and Edinburgh

London by night
London by night


I’ve been calling the UK my home base for the last year and a half (even though I’ve spent about 6 months away), and since last year’s plan to spend Christmas together with my parents in Switzerland fell through, we decided that this year we were going to spend the holidays together.

When I travel on my own I usually tend to go in various neighbourhoods to see what the local life is like. I do visit the touristy sites too, but my favourite thing is to get lost in different areas, stopping for coffee and doing some people watching. With my parents coming over, it was the perfect opportunity to revisit the numerous attractions in London that I hadn’t taken the time to visit since moving here for the housesits.

Mother and daughter, with lovely Tower Bridge in the background
Mother and daughter, with lovely Tower Bridge in the background

Vibrant London

The morning my parents landed in London, I was ready to go meet them. Or so I thought.

I had bought my bus ticket to the airport, looked up how long it would take me to get from the flat to the station. Even adding a few more minutes to my planning to make sure I would be there when they would land. Little did I know I had forgotten to take some rather important information into account. I had looked at the time to go from the flat to Victoria station. The train station. And I was catching a bus.

Now if you are familiar with London you know that the Victoria bus station is not far from the train station at all. But when you come out the wrong exit, and you only have 10 minutes before the departure of the bus you end up walking really quickly.

I arrived at the station with about 7 minutes to spare, but when I looked on the departure board I couldn’t see which door my bus was leaving from. I thought I would walk around the station and surely I would see it. I made it to the very back of the room and quickly noticed I couldn’t see it anywhere. I came back, starting to think I wouldn’t find it in time and would have to catch the next one. That’s when I knew I had done the exact same mistake as my first time in London, trying to find my bus to Scotland. The bus station is actually divided up into two buildings. And of course, I was in the wrong one. I quickly made my way to the other half of the station, and sure enough, my bus was there. People were slowly getting in so I joined the queue and took a deep breath. I would be on time to greet my parents.

Tower of London
Tower of London

When I arrived at the airport, my mum sent me a message from the other side of customs telling me that the line was really long. I wasn’t going to spend my time waiting by the door so I found a quiet spot, relaxed, and enjoyed some delicious coffee. A while later my mum texted me it was almost their turn to go through customs. Knowing they would be in desperate need for caffeine in order to be somewhat coherent after their red-eye flight and being such a good daughter, I went to buy them some coffees. The queue was quite long and when I finally turned around with the coffees, hurrying to get by the door, suddenly they were right there, in front of me. So much for my great welcome to London I wanted to give them… but at least they didn’t have to wait for coffee!

My parents first view of London: Marble Arch and double-decker buses
My parents’ first view of London: Marble Arch and double-decker buses

After all the morning emotions, we got back to the city to drop the suitcases in our AirBnB flat and get exploring. I knew I wanted my parents to see all the touristy sites, and since we had an underground pass for the day, I decided to start a bit further away and make our way back slowly. I took them to Marble Arch, an area I really like next to Hyde Park. The surprise on my dad’s face to come out of the underground right next to the massive arch, with all the double-decker buses around was amazing. I couldn’t have picked a better place to start.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

For the remaining of our first day in London, we enjoyed a walk through Hyde Park, following the lovely Serpentine lake. The nature break was really needed and it made me realise that as much as I like cities, I do need some large space and some fresh air regularly. Later on, we headed towards Harrods, trying our best to avoid the herds of last-minute Christmas shoppers. We then moved on to Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and obviously Big Ben and Westminster Bridge. I don’t think a first visit to London would be complete without seeing the iconic Big Ben and the London Eye. We ended our first day together by celebrating Christmas Eve back at our flat and enjoy a non-traditional vegan meal.

Really happy yo have found coffee next to St. Pauls Cathedral
Really happy to have found coffee next to St. Paul’s Cathedral

The next day it was Christmas day so all the buses and undergrounds were not working. It was a perfect day to go explore Tower Bridge and the areas around it. We clearly were not the only tourists in this part of the city but it was not as crowded as I had expected it to be. We did some exploring, this time seeing St. Paul’s cathedral and finding a Starbucks that was open for a much-needed coffee break. On the next day, we returned to some of the sights and added a few more like Covent Garden and came back on Millenium Bridge, enjoying the colourful views of London at night. It was already time to pack our stuff and get ready to leave for Scotland.

Beautiful Edinburgh

Staying in beautifully hilly Edinburgh meant that we had to visit the castle! It was my third or fourth visit, but I still found it quite interesting. And the views of the city are quite nice. We also went to the always busy Princes street to have a look at the Christmas Market.

View from Edinburgh Castle, Arthurs seat and Salisbury Crags in the background
View from Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s seat and Salisbury Crags in the background

I really enjoy rediscovering some cities I called home for a while with people who see it for the first time as they notice many things that are now normal for me. Being in Edinburgh involved more shopping, and eating out which was quite lovely. Even though we had rented a flat and were able to make our own dinners, relax and talking about our days, it’s always nice to eat out when there’s plenty of options for a vegan traveller. I even had my parents try some Haggis, but of course, we opted for the less-traditional vegan version at Henderson’s!

Like father like daughter
Like father like daughter! On our way up Arthur’s Seat

The next day, we went up Arthur’s Seat. Every time I’ve been there it’s always been so windy and cold, it made me feel like I was back home. While I do like Arthur’s seat, the place that really feels like home to me, is the Salisbury Crags, located right next to it. I love walking along the cliffs, and usually, it’s a little bit quieter since everyone aims for the bigger hill. The views over the city are simply gorgeous.

Calton Hill
Calton Hill

On our last day, we explored Calton Hill, and the surrounding streets, and spent the afternoon shopping for souvenirs. It was quite funny to be doing this as it’s something I haven’t done in a long time. I used to love shopping and bringing souvenirs home, but now that I carry all I own on my back, I rarely buy anything (unless it’s a really cute dress or jewellery). First of all, I don’t want to add weight to my bag and also I don’t have a home to display souvenirs in!

National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill, Edinburgh
National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill, Edinburgh

Lovely family time

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, being back with my parents 24/7 can be challenging. It’s easy to fall back to our old habits and get upset when our parents tell us how to do things. They clearly have our well-being at heart, but sometimes being told how to cook when you’ve been living on your own for years can be slightly infantilising, and frustrating. But luckily, this time around, we were all in a good mood and none of these unnecessary tensions was there. So I enjoyed every single minute spent with my parents. Seeing them discover what has been my new normal for a little while now was great. I started to notice things I had never seen before. All you need sometimes is to see your own city through new glasses, or a new point of view to realise how interesting or pretty it is.

We shared stories, discovered new areas together, laughed, and overall had a great family holiday.

Family selfie on Arthurs Seat. Watery eyes and red faces were due to very cold wind!
Family selfie on Arthur’s Seat. Watery eyes and red faces were due to very cold wind!

Quieter New Year celebrations yet

After dropping my parents at Edinburgh airport on Dec 31, I came back to the city, only to find it filled with way too many people for my liking. I had time before catching the bus to my friend’s place, so I decided to go have coffee. The coffee place I picked is always fairly busy, but on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, it was packed with people already celebrating. I was definitely not in the same mood; it’s getting harder every time to say goodbye to my parents as I never know when I’ll get to see them next. As soon as I finished my coffee I left and decided to go wait at the bus station, a much quieter area in the city on that afternoon as most people were arriving and quickly joining the fun, and very few were leaving.

When I arrived in Dundee at my friend Aurelie’s, I discovered that I was not the only one fighting a cold. So much for our plans to go out! We ended up watching movies and barely made it to midnight. It had to have been the quietest New Years Celebration of my life so far. I must be getting older as I felt really good to get a good night sleep and I started the New Year feeling much better!

I will be in Dundee for the whole of January, so if any of you guys fancy going for a walk, coffee, drink or something, let me know!

Family holidays can be hilarious. Laughing at one of my dad's terrible jokes
Family holidays can be hilarious. Laughing at one of my dad’s terrible jokes

A short visit to Fort William and Glasgow before leaving Scotland

I was in Edinburgh when I decided to leave Scotland to head South to England. I knew I would have to go see some of my friends before leaving. So I went back to Perth, my first home in Scotland, and Dundee.

A few days later, while sitting on the Megabus from Dundee to Glasgow, it felt like I was closing a loop. Unknowingly, I had picked the longer bus run, the one that stops in Perth and in Stirling on its way. Seeing Perth and Stirling castle with blooming flowers made me think maybe it was time for a new beginning. Although I was excited to discover new areas before heading South, I was a bit sad to be closing this chapter of my life.

Highland cows with mountains lost in clouds of rain
It doesn’t really get any more Scottish than this

Glasgow

My first night in Glasgow I met up with a friend I had worked with in Calais while volunteering for Help Refugees. We had planned a quiet night, meeting for a drink after she was done working, but, of course, it didn’t go as planned! We ended up touring a few vegan places in Glasgow, including the Flying Duck and Stereo. I had a great time and it felt so good to be able to talk to someone about what we had experienced in Calais and how it had changed us. Something we both felt most people in our lives could not quite grasp.

View of the city
Glasgow from The Necropolis

Fort William

The next morning, slightly hungover, I took the train to Fort William. I had trouble staying awake so I alternated between sleeping and waking up to great scenery.

I arrived at the hostel late in the afternoon. While waiting for the receptionist to do the check-in, I met Farah and Benny, a Canadian-German couple. We got along so well, everybody else thought we had been travelling together for a while. They had a rough idea of what they wanted to do for their Scottish holiday but were flexible. We ended up spending four days together day and night, hiking and sharing the same dorm.

Snow covered rolling hills surrounding a plain
Gorgeous view from the train

Being back in a backpackers was quite funny. It did feel like I was back in Pitlochry (the hostel is part of the same group) and when I woke up the next morning, I was very confused for a few minutes as I had that weird feeling of deja-vu.

The Fort William Backpackers is bright and colourful, with lovely staff, just like all of the backpackers run by the same owner. The best part of the Fort William hostel is its common room. With a fireplace and great views of the mountains, it’s the obvious place for travellers to gather and chat. When I travel, I always pick smaller hostel as I find they tend to still have that ”hostel” vibe I like so much whereas, in larger  cities, I find it to be more impersonal.

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Highland cows on well-named Cow Hill

Cow Hill

On my first day in Fort William, the weather was typically Scottish. The clouds and the light drizzle made me look for a shorter walk. Following the recommendations from the hostel’s staff, we decided to have a look at Cow Hill. Farah, Benny and I enjoyed lovely chats about a great range of subjects, distracting us from the rain. When we arrived at the top of the hill, we met a group of highland cows. It’s always a bit unsettling when they look straight at you with their big horns, so I admit I went off the path to give them a bit more room and to feel more comfortable. Just in case they decided I was not friendly enough.

Highland cow staring back
Not quite sure yet what to think of me

The weather wasn’t that great but nobody cared anymore. Another thing I really appreciated in hiking with that couple was that we were all in the same mood, going off the path when we wanted to see more of something and taking our time to admire the nature. After our walk, we had dinner, and later on, everybody from the hostel decided to go to the Maryburgh Inn. It is a very small pub with a well inside. There is a plexiglass cover on top of it with a small slot and a thin beam crossing the well. The goal is for people to drop coins in the slit and have them land on the beam. If someone manages to do it, they get a free beer. It was hilarious to watch people convinced they could do it. They ended up spending a lot more money that they would have if they would have gone to the bar and buy a pint on their own, but it was a lot more entertaining this way.

Benny crossing a small river on rocks and fallen trees
Benny using one of the ”shortcuts”

More walking in Fort William

The next day we went for another short walk. We went up the beginning of the trail to Ben Nevis and then down in the valley and along the river. The scenery was gorgeous and as it had been raining for a few days, it was quite wet. We met numbers of highland cows and just enjoyed our day in the wilderness before heading back to the hostel for some reading and relaxing in the warm and cozy common room. It was a lovely day with great conversations, superb scenery, and nice people.

path with mountain views
Path to Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

On my third day in Fort William, Farah, Benny and I decided to go up Ben Nevis. The weather was nicer so we started going up. We used yet another ”shortcut” which turned out to be longer and more challenging, making sure we were keeping in touch with our recent traditions. Every day, we would find shortcuts, only to realize they were not shortcuts at all! We had been told the day before that people going up Ben Nevis still needed crampons and because we didn’t have any we decided we would still go, make it as far as we could safely and go from there.

Mountain view
Lovely view

When we reached the snow, we kept going for a while, but eventually, the thick melting snow was getting too slippery and challenging to walk on. And with a large cliff on one side, we didn’t feel like taking chances. We took a short break to enjoy the views and started our descent. A few minutes after we started descending, the clouds came in. They came in right behind us, and I was quite happy we had decided to turn around when we did as we could no longer see the path. As always, the weather was very unpredictable in the mountains.

Path covered in snow with two people ahead
When it started to be covered in snow

At night, we decided to return to the pub. It was Karaoke night, which I am definitely not a big fan of. But with lovely people, it was still a great evening overall.

I’ve met really cool people in my short stay and I really enjoy the kind of people that end up in Fort William. It is called the outdoor capital of Scotland with good reasons. There’s so much to do and people that come here are very fit, active and handsome…

bridge leading to the Necropolis
Bridge to the Necropolis, Glasgow

Returning to the city

People sometimes ask me how I meet so many cool people. And I always answer that it’s easy… I go talk to them! A good example of this is when I was on the train back from Fort William. Someone was sitting in my seat and because the train was far from full, I chose to sit at one of the seats with a table. I could have easily decided to sit on my own but I wanted to use the table so I sat with a seemingly nice guy. Sure enough, he was actually quite lovely. He was from Hungary and had just walked the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William. We chatted for part of the way and it was nice.

Now this happened because I decided to sit where there was already someone. Should I have decided to act more like ”normal” people, I would probably have picked another seat. And the reason why we chatted is because I struck up a conversation. It’s not always easy. It actually takes some effort to go and talk to someone, yet it’s always worth it. By that, I’m not saying that I always become good friends with people I meet or that I even want to get past the first few exchanges. Half the time I’m okay with small talk or short conversations. It does however always make me feel better to interact with people, and sometimes you end up making great new friends.

Organist performing
Organ recital in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

In Glasgow, after many of my friends had recommended it, I decided to spend part of the day at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. It was very interesting to see all the different exhibitions. I was getting ready to leave when I noticed that an organ recital was starting 15 minutes later. It’s an interesting sound and quite the technique to use hands and feet. I was glad I didn’t rush through the museum and I got to see the recital.

Afterwards, I was hungry and undecided on what I should do next. The 78, another vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Glasgow is located just a few minutes walk from the museum, so it made my choice very easy! This was one of my favourite things about Glasgow, there are so many options to eat either very crappy food or very healthy. A good balance, and something for everyone! I spent the remaining of my day in Glasgow wandering about in the city, people watching and generally just having a good time.

Artwork on a building. A man with a small bird perched on his finger
Great artwork, Glasgow

It was a great conclusion to my Scottish adventures. I didn’t know then that my English adventures would come to an end much quicker than anticipated, and that it would force me to change my plans once again and hop on a plane to Moldova and have a really cool cycling trip.

While I was happy to move on to somewhere new, Scotland was still one of the places I liked the most during my travels. It’s small enough to be able to easily get around, yet the scenery is very varied, with everything from mountains to beaches. And with lovely outdoor activities, lovely people, and great whiskies, it’s a good place to call home. I will go back eventually, but until then, new adventures await me!

selfie in front of the Glasgow Cathedral
Glasgow Cathedral

Perth, former capital of Scotland, and my new home for a while

As scary as it sounds for me, I can say that I settled for a while. After my job interview, I went travelling in Northern Scotland for about a month, before coming back to Perth to start working at VisitScotland as a Seasonal Visitor Services Advisor. I moved in with my nice Polish flatmate.

There’s obviously a few things to visit around Perth, and working at the Information Centre, it was my duty to discover them all (unfortunate I know!) One of my first days out was to Scone Palace.

Scone Palace and the couple who gave me a ride
Scone Palace and the couple who gave me a ride

Scone Palace

Scone Palace, pronounced Scoone, was the crowning place of the Scottish Kings. We decided to walk to Scone Palace as it’s only two miles from the centre and it was a nice day.

We took different ways to come in, I used the VisitScotland pass and he went through the gardens while I visited the Palace. On my way to the gate, an elderly couple was driving past and offered me a lift to the gate. I visited the palace, learning about the history of the illegitimate Belle. It sounds like something of a Disney or Pixar movie really. After learning about the place, I joined my flatmate outside of the palace. We could hear peacocks in the trees so we spent a little bit of time watching them moving from one branch to the other. They are massive and yet they somehow manage to stay up in the trees. Impressive.

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Peacock at Scone Palace

We had a look at the chapel and, of course, at the replica of the stone of Destiny, on which the kings were crowned. The original stone is now in Edinburgh Castle, after having been moved around a lot over time.

The park is quite extensive and we spent the afternoon walking around, meeting a white peacock and some horses. When we passed the kid’s playground and I saw the small zip line, I couldn’t resist and got on it. Let’s just say I’m not child size anymore and I think I went a bit faster than one is supposed to go!

Entrance to the maze
Entrance to the maze

Later on, we walked past the old cemetery and entered the Murray Star Maze. We might have cheated slightly to get out as we noticed a small shortcut leading to the stairs and the platform. Once on the platform, it’s a lot easier to find your way out! On our way back to the city, someone offered us a ride back, which was very nice.

Perth Museum and Ferguson Gallery

A few days later I decided to have a look at the Ferguson Gallery and the Perth Museum. They are both free entry so it’s worth having a look, especially on a rainy day! The Ferguson Gallery is located in the old water tower, next to South Inch park. The museum shows the work of John Duncan Ferguson and his wife on the first level and on the second level, there is some artwork from local artists. It was interesting to see, but I’m not really the gallery type so it was a quick visit.

Perth Museum and Gallery
Perth Museum and Gallery

Afterwards, I went to the Perth Museum and Gallery. The museum has different exhibitions on display and when I visited they had an interesting exhibit about the history of the city. I learned a few things, but as I wasn’t really in the mood to read much that day., I moved on to the other rooms. They have a pretty big collection of taxidermied animals on display which I wasn’t very comfortable around. They creep me out. So I decided I had had enough museums for one day and went for a stroll in the park instead.

Black Watch Castle and Museum

On my next day off, I managed to build enough motivation to go visit the Black Watch Castle and Museum. It is a museum dedicated to the Black Watch Regiment. It covers the history from 1725 to pretty much now. I really don’t understand the appeal of war. The domination of other humans to claim territories… Fighting with people simply to convince them your way of life is the only valid one, instead of joining each other in peace and seeing the culture differences as a plus. I don’t know that I’ll ever understand the propaganda, but regardless it was interesting to read about the history of the regiment and see the many items on display.

The river Tay becomes a playground in the summer
The river Tay becomes a playground in the summer

Highland Games

One thing not to be missed by anybody coming to Scotland between May and mid-September is the Highland Games. The games are held in various places throughout the summer and in Perth, it was on August 9th. The Highland Games were pretty fun to watch. There was a competition of pipe bands, dancers, individual pipers, bicycle race, running, tug of war, and my favourite: the heavy weight!

Perth Highland Games, man in kilt throwing something heavy
Perth Highland Games

They sure like to throw stuff around! They started with the 16 and 22 lb shot putt followed by the 28lb for distance. Throwing two different hammers as far as possible, throwing a 56lb kettle bell for height and my ultimate favourite, tossing the caber! Caber tossing is basically picking up a tree trunk. Running with it to create momentum, stopping quickly and throwing it in front of you. The caber needs to flip and land on the bigger end before falling to the ground as close as possible to the twelve o’clock position. The caber is about 18ft long and weighs about 150lbs. All of that wearing a kilt, of course! So entertaining!

Scotsman ready to toss the caber
Caber tossing, Perth Highland Games

The day of the games, I was joined with an international girls team. My two couchsurfers, Ziska and Anne from Germany, Aurélie, my French friend and Sara, my new Polish friend. We had a great time walking around from one event to the other. The weather was also great, not very warm but sunny for part of the day. Enough to come back with a red face. It’s so easy to forget to put sunscreen on in Scotland. The sun (when present) is often hiding behind clouds and it’s never really warm enough to feel like summer, so it’s quite easy to get a sunburn in Scotland. Not what one would expect giving that the local tan shade is mostly paper white. But it does allow me to blend right in!

Highland Games bands
Perth Highland Games

Kinnoull Hill

I went to Kinnoull Hill a few times during my stay in Perth. Kinnoull Hill is a Woodland Park located just a few minutes walk or drive from the center and it boasts great views especially next to the tower. On one of those few glorious summer day where it was even warm, I went up Kinnoull Hill after work. On my way up there I somehow got lost, well not lost but I didn’t take the road I had meant to take. But I did find raspberries on my way up so it made up for the wrong path. The views from the viewpoint and the tower are truly gorgeous. It so relaxing to get up there and just sit still for a while. There are many paths one can choose and even some wooden sculptures scattered along the paths. Apparently there are 10 different sculptures, but I have yet to find them all.

View of the tower overlooking the river
Kinnoull Hill

On that gorgeous summer day, when I was ready to come back down to the city, I followed a different path, going through a very dark forest, a perfect setting for a horror movie! It was still very sunny out, but that forest was so dense it was almost pitch black. I was glad to be there during day time and I tried to focus on something else than the Blair Witch Project and other movies of the kind until I got back on the streets.

Perth Sculpture Trail

One of my favourite walks to do in the city was to go across the river on the railway bridge and come back through the park. There’s a lot of sculptures and gardens and it is a lovely walk. I did bring all my couchsurfing guests and friends on that walk. The views of the city make up for a great picture opportunity, and you get to feel like you are in nature. At least, away from the cars. Until you come back over the bridge that is!

Railway bridge and river Tay
Railway bridge and river Tay

Perth has a lot to offer and it was a good place to be for a few months, especially with a great flatmate and nice coworkers. I had settled back down into a routine, which I oddly found nice for a short while. At the end of my contract, as I had obviously done a decent job, I was offered an extension in Pitlochry. I took the job and decided to move a few miles North for another couple of months.

Perth Bridge at dusk
Perth Bridge

Climbing Ben MacDui and rediscovering myself after ending a long time relationship

After ending an 11-year relationship, I find myself struggling sometimes. Not because of the end of the relationship per se, but mostly because I forgot how to think only for myself.

When going through any major changes in life, you need to figure out if the thoughts in your mind are your own, or still tainted by what you used to think or who you used to be. Even simple things as deciding where to stay when travelling. Should it be a hostel in the center, outside the center, AirBnB, couchsurfing etc? There are tons of options out there and it’s not easy to know what the single me enjoys now. This is one the example of the small but constant challenges I’ve been facing in the last month.

stony pathway and snowy mountain
Before reaching the plateau

Another example of when I had to decide for myself, was when I took the bus from Aviemore to the Cairngorm Mountain Railway. I had planned to walk up Cairngorm, but I had also found information about a path to climb Ben MacDui, the second highest mountain in Britain. I opted for this one as there were already people ahead of me on the trail, and I always love a physical challenge.

Beginning of the trail, looking back on the valley
Beginning of the trail, looking back on the valley

According to the map and directions I had found online, approaching it from Speyside involves crossing the exposed Cairngorms plateau, a rolling arctic wilderness. It is a popular route but it requires excellent navigation skills. It all turned out to be true.

As I started my ascent, I was following a path made of rocks. The trail was well marked, easy to follow especially because there were still a few people ahead of me. There were some patches of snow but they were still manageable.

After a while, I arrived at the plateau and the weather changed drastically: it was raining and it quickly turned to hail. The visibility was greatly reduced, and as there was a couple in front of me, I was following their footsteps. Little did I know they were not actually following the right trail, but thanks to my GPS system on my phone, I could see I was slightly off, so I corrected my trajectory and found the trail again. There was more and more snow on the ground.

Mountain party covered in snow, with a path no longer visible
”There’s got to be a path in there somewhere…”

The thoughts of turning back down came to me, and I had to make a decision. Did I think it was worth going up there even if the weather was difficult? Being by myself, I had to make my own decision and live with it. I decided to keep going, knowing that I could always turn around later if needed.

The stormy weather quickly passed, and I kept following the path. There was more and more fresh snow on the ground, and I was not sure I could even do this. (I tend to fall into thinking that I can’t do something, and wanting to quit as soon as it gets somewhat difficult.) I remembered the SEALFIT Hell Week challenge I did a while back during which I truly did not believe I would be able to make it to the end, but obviously managed to in the end. Looking back at that time, I decided to push through, go for it and enjoy every minute and every misstep while I was there.

Footprint in the snow leading to the top of the mountain
Not always easy to find my way.

By then I had passed the couple and was just following the steps I could see in the snow, which now felt like walking on a beach. Minus the warm weather of course! Eventually, there was some cairns, which made it a lot easier to see where I was going.

Last stretch before the very top!
Last stretch before the very top!

I kept going up and finally arrived at the top. I was awarded with a great view and the skies clearing up. I was quite proud of myself, and I finally allowed myself to go ‘crazy’ or at least not worry about what people would think for once, and do exactly what I felt like doing in this precise moment. I started running from one end to the other of the small plateau, laughing like a kid, and enjoying every second of it. I even sang out loud, something I would never dare to do when there are people around. And you know what? It was liberating. And because I was able to push through the first challenges, I finally enjoyed exactly what I wanted to do and appreciated every feeling at that very moment.

Lovely view from Ben MacDui. 1309m
Lovely view from Ben MacDui. 1309m

I enjoyed the view for a while longer, but as the wind was picking up I was getting cold, so I started to make my way back, running in the snow and having child-like fun. Every single time my feet would go down to my knees in the snow I would smile and laugh my way out.

I met another couple on the way down, chatted with them for a few minutes before each resuming our walks. Going down was quite easy, even though it was getting very slippery. The snow had already started melting, and puddles started to form on the path. I got back to the confusing part, once again slightly off, but knowing where I was trying to head out I could easily find my way back. I arrived back in the parking lot at 4:30 pm after a great day!

The plateau on my way back. I didn't think of taking a picture in the stormy weather.
The plateau on my way back. I didn’t think of taking a picture in the stormy weather.

I’m not saying that it’s a done deal now and that I am never scared of making a decision on my own but I do know now that I can do it! I can push through the discomfort. I can make mistakes as I go and maybe make decisions that turn out not to be the best, but as least they are my own.

Being with somebody is great, and being able to share everything when we experience it is even better. But the ability to be able to be comfortable with your own company is a great skill to develop. Not an easy one, but worth all the efforts.

Made it to the top!
Made it to the top!

Inverness and Aviemore

Time to leave Aberdeen. This morning I walked to the train station and as it sometimes happens, I had trouble figuring out which platform to wait for the bus. I must not have been quite awake yet, but being used to travel now, it didn’t bother me too much and did not stress me at all. I just had a look around and finally figured out where to go.

The bus from Aberdeen to Inverness, was uneventful like they should be. The scenery consisted of a lot of trees, which was very different than the scenery I admired for the last couple of weeks. I was expecting to see the sea, but unfortunately, the bus took the inside road.

River Ness and walking path next to it
Ness River, Inverness

When I arrived in Inverness, it was overwhelming. The city didn’t look that big, but after the quietness of the northern islands, everything, and everyone was in the way, moving fast, being loud etc. And because I was tired, it made everything worst. I asked the bus station attendant to learn where I could find a left luggage area and was told it was £4 per bag, which I thought was too much. I decided to try my luck next door, at the train station to see if they had lockers. The small lockers there were £3 and the large ones £5 for 24 hours. It was a much better deal than the bus station, plus it needed the paper with the code to actually open the locker instead of just leaving bags unattended in the bus station office.

Inside the Cathedral
Inverness Cathedral

I wasn’t feeling too great, but decided to find the visitor information center and see if I could get advice on what I could do for a couple of hours. I must have looked like someone who would not be interested in shopping, history or anything including noise and people because the girl from the information desk suggested I went for a walk along the Ness river, crossing over the Ness Islands and walking in front of the Cathedral. It was the perfect option for my mood. Seb called while I was walking and we talked for a while. I got very emotional, and expressed feelings I hadn’t truly realized yet; I am worried about not having enough cash to survive knowing that it will be really tight until I get my first paycheck… and probably after as well…

Great view of the city and the river from Inverness Castle
Great view from Inverness Castle

The walk got me thinking and stressing out even more. When I walked by the Cathedral, I wasn’t feeling like visiting, but decided to go in anyway. It was a wise decision, because Iit made me feel instantly better. It forced me to think about something else, and when I walked out, I felt a lot calmer, in control and more positive. I kept walking and decided to have a look at the view from the Castle. It was great and as soon as the wind truly picked up, I felt like I could breathe again. In the last two days in Aberdeen, I had been missing the nature and the wind. The islands seemed to have changed something in me. I’m curious to see where it will bring me.

Inverness Castle
Inverness Castle

I went back to the bus station to buy my ticket to Aviemore, back to the train station to pick up my stuff and waited for 5:30 to arrive to get on the bus. The bus was great, very clean, and I was very surprised to learn it was a bus with service to Glasgow, stopping in Aviemore. There was a bus attendant handing out muffins and drinks. I now understood what the difference was between the different bus types!

When I arrived in Aviemore I had to wait for Zoe, my Couchsurfing host to be done work. I followed her suggestion and waited for her at the Old Bridge pub. It’s always interesting to hear barking when entering a pub or entering a pub, choosing a table, and almost stepping into a bowl of water… I liked the idea and I think it should be like this everywhere. But it is definitely not something you come across often (or at all) in Canada.

Zoe and I spent a nice evening, chatting and trading travel stories. It’s was a great couchsurfing experience.

Ruins of the Loch an Eilein Castle
Loch an Eilein Castle

The next morning, when Zoe was ready to leave for work, she dropped me off at the beginning of the trail to Loch an Eilein. The first part of the trail was in a forest that looked very much like Canada. A small part was on the road, and after a short while, I arrived at the loch. A lot of people were in the parking lot, but lucky enough, because there is a trail all around the loch, it was not too crowded. I started walking along the lake, passing in front of the remains of a castle on an island in the middle of the loch. The castle ruins are now home to many birds and ospreys.

walking path and mountain in the background

I kept walking and I eventually arrived at a crossing point. There was a sign pointing to Gleann Einich. And further down, Loch Einich. I had a great time following the jeep track, going through some lush forest before the scenery changed drastically and it looked more like Orkney. I was following the trail on my phone’s GPS and the loch didn’t seem too far so I kept going. As there was also a smaller loch on the map, I thought that worst case scenario, I would only see that one. I had to cross the river a couple time, much easier to do in a jeep, but I still managed to stay dry! (yeah me!) After a while, though, I didn’t seem to get any closer to the larger Loch, and I realized that the smaller loch was in fact on the other side of a hill, so I wouldn’t be able to see it.

One of the many river crossings
One of the many river crossings

I stopped to eat a snack and have another look at the map on my phone. As I was definitely not getting any closer to the loch, I decided to turned around. On my way in, I had seen what looked like a very skinny cow far away, but this time, it was much closer and I could see it was not a cow but a very adorable skinny reindeer. I stopped walking and looked at him. It didn’t seem too scared of me to start with, but was still moving away slowly as I was trying to get closer. After doing a short reindeer photoshoot, I headed back to the Loch an Eilein.

Adorable reindeer
Adorable reindeer

I finished the tour of the lake and was hoping to find people to give me a ride back to Aviemore, but unfortunately, the parking lot was pretty much empty at the time so I had to walk all the way back to Zoe’s flat in Aviemore.

Meall a' Bruhachaille path
Meall a’ Bruhachaille path

I spent a few days in the Aviemore area. Zoe and I shared some great moments, involving lots of laughter, a great walk in the Glenmore Forest Park and up Meall a’ Bruhachaille , a few bottles of wine and some very interesting conversation.

Zoe and I sitting at the top of the mountain
Zoe and I

I like what I have seen of Aviemore so far, and it makes me think it would probably be a great place to settle for a little while, as there are plenty of places to walk around and explore. People are also quite nice; it reminded me a lot of Meribel in France, a mountain village targeting active visitors where I went to work for a summer season during my student years.

Meall a' Bruhachaille path
Meall a’ Bruhachaille path

Aberdeen and Stonehaven

Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle

Arriving in Aberdeen on the overnight ferry from the Shetland Islands, I was very early showing up at my childhood friend’s place. During the short walk to Vero’s place, I made a new drunk friend on the sidewalk. He absolutely wanted to show me pictures he took on the top of the building next door… Véro opened the door a few minutes later and after saying my goodbyes to my new ”friend” she let me in. It was so nice to see each other once again after so many years apart. Knowing that Véro had lots to do with her wedding planning as well as organizing the Alaska dig (she’s an archaeologist), I had made plans with Lilian, my new French friend, to meet up later. We had planned to spend the day in Aberdeen, exploring the city, but Véro told me about a nearby castle so we changed our day plan over coffee.

Green hills and cliffs
Nice walk to get to the castle

After our breakfasts, we headed to the station to catch the bus. While in line to buy our bus tickets, there was an older couple asking the cashier how to get to Dunnottar Castle and then they ran off towards the platforms. The bus being scheduled to leave at 10:20 and seeing it was already past that, we assumed we would have to take the next one, so we walked slowly towards the right gate. As we were approaching we could see people still getting in, so we joined the queue, and were the last ones to get on the bus before it left.

Ruins overlooking water
Dunnottar Castle

It took about 30 minutes to get to Stonehaven, the village located next to the castle. The bus almost emptied in the village so we decide to follow them being, once again, quite lucky into finding the coastal path right away. The walk to the castle was stunning, and with the beautiful sunny weather, we enjoyed every minute of it.

Family dressed in kilt posing for a wedding photographer
Spying on a wedding celebration

We arrived at the castle, paid our £6 entry fee, and started wandering around the castle ruins, looking through all the windows and fireplaces. We took the views in, and once we arrived in a different area of the castle, we stumbled on a wedding celebration including lots of nice dresses and kilts.

toes with a beach and cliffs in the background
Beach break!

After exploring the castle ruins, we walked down to a pebble beach we had seen from the top and decided to have lunch there, sharing all the food we had brought with us. We even put our feet in the cold water for a few minutes. It was all very relaxing and a much better way to spend the day than walking around in Aberdeen. The transition between peaceful Unst, relatively busy Lerwick and Saturday morning Aberdeen, was good even though it made me realize I don’t really care for cities anymore, and I would rather be lost in the wilderness, surrounded with amazing views, wildlife and nature then concrete, traffic, and people.

Stonehaven marina
Stonehaven

Once we were done eating, we walked back to Stonehaven, discovering a very adorable town, with a port looking a lot like Croatia. We kept seeing locals and tourists alike eating ice cream cones, so Lilian decided to treat himself with one of the biggest cones I’ve ever seen, but definitely the most beautifully presented, with candies, chocolates, cookies and marshmallows decorating the cone.

Marina of Stonehaven
Sunny Stonehaven

We took the bus back to Aberdeen and went our separate ways; Lilian trying to find another book to read during his night bus to London and me walking up to Vero’s place to met with her and Paul for a few drinks in her favourite pub. After the pub, we went back to her place and had dinner. We ended up talking all night, catching up on the last 10 years of our lives.

Polaroid of my friend and I
Catching up with an old friend

The next day we went dress shopping. I hadn’t been in a shopping mall in a very long time and somehow did not miss the  feeling of looking inadequate that usually creeps on when I see people who obviously follow fashion trends.

That part of living in the city always gets to me, even though most of the time I am ok not wearing the latest fashion. Sometimes, though, I do feel like everybody is judging me, when they are most probably not even seeing me, and most definitely not caring about me and what I look like. I keep telling myself that I don’t have to care about that, but it’s much easier said than done.

beach with Stonehaven castle in the background
Great view for a lunch break

Exploring Shetland – Unst

Bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus to the Northernmost island of the UK

After leaving the hostel to get to the Viking Bus Station, I met a few fellow tourists waiting for the bus to the other end if the island. It took about 1.5 hours to get to the first ferry. Luckily, one of the guys on the bus (who had a Sea Shepherd backpack!) was a local going back home after 2 weeks of work, so we were able to follow him and know where to go. The first ferry was pretty quick, and once on Yell, we hoped on the bus. This time it was not a city bus but a big comfortable coach. The driver was really friendly and he pointed out things to see along the way. When we arrived at the other end of Yell, we had to wait for a few minutes because the original ferry had troubles. While we waited for the second ferry to come pick us up, the local guy and us tourists, were wondering if there was still going to be a bus on the other side as we were now very late. But somebody had called the driver and he was waiting for us. The quiet driver of the minibus dropped us off to our different destinations.

One of the two ferries to Unst
One of the two ferries to Unst

I checked-in at Saxa Vord Resort and as I was going towards the restaurant to use the little internet available, I met Jim,the Irish guy from the reception. He was driving down to Baltasound and he offered me a ride.

Northernmost UK post office
Northernmost UK post office

I got dropped over at the Baltasound Hotel and started to walk in the village. The views were amazing and it was very quiet. I saw the northernmost UK post office and the adorable Unst bus shelter, decorated with a regularly changing theme. This time, the theme was puffins. I walked back to Haroldswick enjoying the very sunny day.

Bus shelter decorated with puffins
Loveliest bus shelter

On my way, I stopped at the reconstructed Viking ship. Later on, as I was taking a picture of an abandoned house with lots of flower in front of it, a small cat came out. At first, I wasn’t sure if he was going to be friendly, but it turns out, he was very friendly and cuddly and I ended up petting him for a while.

Petting a cat, blue flowers in the background
New furry friend

I came back to the hostel, relaxed for a few minutes and because it was still sunny, I decided to go to Norwick Beach. It was amazing. And so relaxing. The whole day was actually very relaxing, and I do understand now why in one of the booklets it said that it was good to get away from the bustle of the city of Lerwick. Lerwick is not that big of a city, but when you arrive on an island where you can very easily not see anybody all day, it puts things into perspective! All the islanders were very friendly and waved hello to everybody.

Norwick Beach
Norwick Beach

Haroldswick, Unst

I woke up this morning to a rainy day but when I was done preparing my breakfast and sandwiches, it was sunny again, the joy and unpredictability of Scotland’s weather! I left the hostel and started walking towards Hermaness National Nature Reserve.

small road leading to the visitor centre
Hermaness Visitor Centre

It rained on the way there and I was hoping somebody would pity me, but nobody drove by except for a minibus already full. I must have been too late for locals (or more likely going in the wrong direction) and too early for visitors. It took me about one hour to get to Hermaness Visitor Centre.

Bonxie protecting her nest
Cozy Bonxie

I took a few minutes to read about the birds I could see in the Reserve, and started my ascent to the cliff. It was fairly easy, and I got to see a lot of Great Skuas, or Bonxies, as they call them here.

puffin flying off the cliff
Flying puffin

The views from the cliffs were amazing. As I was heading north it was very windy and so cold; I had to add a layer of clothing. I saw lots of gannets and fulmars. I also saw one lone puffin flying around. He must have had other friends but because they nest in old rabbit warrens and fly by fast, they are especially hard to see from the top of the cliffs.

Rolling green hills and cliffs
Beautiful cliffs

I found myself an almost dry area to sit and have lunch while enjoying the never-ending flying ballet of the gannets. The soil on the island is made of bog with deep peat. In the old days, the peat was collected, dried and burned to heat houses. Peat is mostly water with just a little bit of partially decayed vegetation, so when you step in it, you can lose your footing easily, while getting your shoes wet of course. I had read about it, but my feet decided to try it anyway when I lost my balance and almost fell right in. It was indeed very wet and soggy!

selfie with cliffs and gannets
Sweet smell of bird poo and very strong wind!

I walked for a while and eventually I smelled what reminded me of Antarctica, the ‘sweet’ smell of bird poo! I knew I was onto something. Little did I know I had just walked in on a huge gannetrie, with the odd fulmar and another puffin. It was amazing to watch the gannets fly by, at great speed, using the wind to their advantage. Their wingspan can be up to 6 feet, making this a fairly big bird! The adult gannets are very stylish and it looks like they wear makeup. Their chicks are dark grey and can take up to five years to get the white plumage!

Gannets hanging on to the side of the cliff
Gorgeous Gannets

Haroldswick, Unst

It was a rainy morning again, but I decided to go for a walk anyway. I ventured towards Burwick, but this time, I decided I was going to walk until I reached Skaw, as recommended by the guy at the hostel reception. Skaw was a radar station during World War II. On my way there, I stopped in the last bus shelter. I thought it might be a good idea to wear my rain pants for once… What a great idea it turned out to be! They are great against the rain but also very good against the wind and made my walk much more enjoyable.

small road, fence with Danger Road Closed sign
Road Closed

The road to Skaw was marked as closed, but I decided to go over the fence and see if it was really that dangerous. A few minutes later, I understood why it was closed for vehicles, as there is a good chunk of the road that had fallen down.

small road with holes and grass poking through
Understanding why the road is now closed to vehicles!

On foot, it was great and a very nice shortcut. I followed the cliff, looking at the birds and accidentally herding some sheep as I walked along. I kept telling them not to be scared of me, but they didn’t seem to trust me!

sheep walking ahead of me on a small flat road
Herding sheep

I entered one of the buildings that had been used during the war, and because I didn’t have my flashlight, I was slightly scared. The first building had boats, table and lots of tires in it. I kept walking along the cliff and entered the second building on my way back. I was nervous to walk in the dark, not knowing what I could walk on when I heard a noise. It startled me, to say the least. I waited to see what it was, heart thumping. It turns out, I had scared a bird by coming in, and in return it scared the hell out of me, by swiftly moving around in the dark! I quickly went back outside, preferring the safety of the open space and light to the dark and wet unknown building.

Some of the buildings used in World War II
Some of the buildings used in World War II

I had a quick bite to eat before heading back onto the closed road. When I arrived at the bottom of the hill, a tiny Shetland pony came rushing towards me, hoping I would give him something to eat. I let him smell my hand and he quickly realized I had nothing to offer, so he, unfortunately, went back to where he came from no even waiting long enough for a selfie!

Little black and white poney. walking away after he realized I was not going to feed him
Little pony. after he realized I was not going to feed him

Bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus back to Lerwick

I woke up the next morning after a very exhausting night. For some reason, when I know I have to wake up in the morning, and I have put my alarm on, I get so scared of not waking up on time, that I barely get any sleep at all. It’s not logical whatsoever but happens every time. And it pisses me off, and I can’t sleep because I’m mad at myself… A never ending circle!

So after my almost sleepless night, I went in the hostel kitchen and met a family. I had talked to them a little bit before, and it was interesting to learn that they had lived on Unst when it was a military station. The kids (my age now) had actually grown up there, so it was very interesting to hear about how life on the island was back then, what had changed and what hadn’t.

little lake with a small boat
Lovely view waiting for the ferry

A good thing to know before getting to Unst is that the combined bus-ferry is actually much cheaper than the individual ticket. When the bus, or any vehicle, gets on the ferry, the price is only for the vehicle regardless of the number of people actually on board. And when you walk on the ferry, you have to pay for the crossing by itself. Odd, but once you know it ends up being half price.

Village view, cliffs in the background
So gorgeous and peaceful

I was very sad leaving Unst. I have liked it so much there and relaxed like I hardly ever do. I really wanted to stay there for much longer. I also did realize it was the last stop before the mainland, and it meant that I will start working very soon. I’m far from being sure that I’ll know how to readjust to the working life and the routine that comes with it. A lot of things were going through my mind as I sat on the bus this morning, which probably explain why I was feeling so sad and out of it for most of the day.

entrance to the main chambre of the Broch of Clickimin
Broch of Clickimin

After getting back to the hostel in Lerwick, I used the internet for a while as I was in no rush to get back outside. Later on, I went to see the Broch of Clikimin, conveniently located between the older part of the city and the newer part, and also right next to Tesco, where I was planning on buying some food. The broch is well preserved, but it lacks a little bit in interpretation, which makes the walk around quite quick.

sail boats in the marina
Can you spot the Canadian flag?

Later in the day, I decided to go for a short walk in the city as it was sunny and ‘warm’. When I arrived on the pier, the sailing boat with the Canadian flag I had noticed the day before was there, so not thinking any further, I went ahead and talked to the two Norwegian men (one of which is married to a French-Canadian, hence the flag). They had to leave for a few hours but they told me to come back later for a chat.

I came back to the hostel and about one hour later went back out there, and sure enough the nice Norwegian guys were waiting for me. I had expected to spend an hour or two on the boat, but I ended up spending the whole evening with them talking about sailing and the long term travelling life.

quiet sea with clouds reflecting in the water
Far from the hustle and bustle of the city

I had laughed at the ‘bustling’ city comment I had read, but after a few day on Unst, I can say, it was true and I felt like I was coming back to the hustle and bustle of a big city. And I did not like it. I was craving more silence, birds, overall quietness. Looking back, it was a wise choice to stay for one night in Lerwick instead of taking the ferry the same night, as Aberdeen would have definitely been a bigger shock right after Unst!

Scalloway and Ferry Lerwick-Aberdeen

I took my time in the morning and decided that because it was yet another mostly sunny day, it would be worth going to Scalloway and see the ruins of the castle. I went to the bus stop right in front of the hostel and met one of the Australian ladies with whom I was sharing the dorm. When I got on the bus, I saw Lilian, a French guy I had talked to earlier that morning so I sat next to him and we chatted on our way to Scalloway.

small marina with sail boats in Scalloway
Scalloway

All three of us ended up visiting the village together and having great conversations. The castle was already open so we did not have to go and fetch the key in one of the local businesses. The ruins of the castle were very similar to the ones I had visited in Birsay, on Orkney, which made sense as they were all built by the same Earls.

houses on a uphill street with a bench on the street corner
Scalloway

In the afternoon, after picking up my backpack from the hostel left-luggage room, I walked to the Shetland museum. I had liked the Orkney museum, because of all the artifacts, but this one was much better, with a more finished look. At around 4:15, I walked toward the ferry where I met again with Lilian. We watched the islands slowly disappear as the ferry left, and it was once again truly beautiful. Seeing the length of the island of Bressay, it made me realized why it took me so long and why I was so tired after my walk a few days back!

view of the island from the ferry
Sad to be leaving. One day I will return

We came back inside and settled into our seats on different sides of the ferry. There was a very loud snorer for the first half of the trip, but luckily enough, he moved to the other side of the ferry later on, so I got to get some sleep, regularly changing positions in order to try to find a suitable one. I had a much better night then my first time on the ferry, even though the sea was quite rough from Lerwick to Kirkwall. Many people looked like they were going to be sick but lucky for me my body seemed to be readjusting very well to rougher conditions, which is great giving that I do dream to buy myself a sailboat eventually!

three sheep staring
Curious little fellows

Exploring the Shetlands – Lerwick and the main island

Cinema room on board the ferry
My bed and ‘private’ room for the night

On the ferry from Kirkwall we were joining the people that had left from Aberdeen a few hours earlier so there were already many people on board. I found the cinema and settled in one of the seats, expecting other people to enter. Nobody did so I ended up having the whole cinema to myself! The seats were somewhat reclinable, but I still had a hard time finding a comfortable position.

Lerwick, Jarlshof and Sumburgh Head

The night ferry arrived in Shetland at around 7 in the morning. After cleaning up in the bathroom, I made my way out of the boat, waited for my bag to arrive on the trolley, and headed for the Islesburgh Hostel. It was a 15 minutes walk with just a little bit of rain, so it was actually pretty good. I hadn’t really looked at the directions, but I found it easily.

Islesburgh Hostel
Islesburgh Hostel

I entered the building at the same time as a couple from New Zealand. Some people were already waiting to check in, so the reception guy decided to take us on a tour of the building, showing us everything we needed to know. After the 2-3 check-ins that had arrived before me and what felt like forever, I got my key and went to my room. I was exhausted and barely coherent but managed to talk with one of the girls in my dorm. I took a shower, had breakfast, and once I felt like a human being again, set up for a walk to VisitScotland offices to gather information on where I wanted to go and the ways to get there. The guy was very useful and he knew exactly the answers to my questions.

Archaeological site of Jarlshof
Jarlshof

I walked in the older part of the city, going from shop to shop trying to find a raincover for my daypack, but oddly enough, nobody seemed to keep them in store. I went to the Viking bus station to catch the bus to Jarlshof. Jarlshof is another area of the northern islands that had been inhabited for over 4500 years.

view from the top of the tower, overlooking the ruins of the different areas of the site
Jarlshof and some of the different ruins

Over the years, the different arrivals shaped different building, sometimes stacking them onto what had been previously built. Even nowadays, there is still a village of farmers nearby. These ruins were discovered when they were exposed after a great gale. The site provides a very interesting audio tour and takes visitors around, from the first settlements to the 16th century Laird’s house (now in ruins). During the audio tour, we actually get to go inside the buildings, and it felt like a much more complete experience than Skara Brae. I was lucky, it was sunny during my tour, very windy but quite sunny.

inside one of the houses
Jarlshof

After visiting the archeological site, I decided to walk to the lighthouse. Instead of walking on the road, I followed the advice of the guy working at the reception of Jarlshof, and did the coastal walk.

Fenced bull area to go through in order to get to the lighthouse
Bull area to go through in order to get to the lighthouse

The beginning of the walk involved going over some fences and in a bull area. Fortunately, there was no bull in sight in the fenced area at the moment I was there, but I was still quite nervous going through the field. The fact that I couldn’t see a bull didn’t mean he was not there somewhere!

shags on a rock
Shags

The wind was becoming much stronger and the rain started. I saw a lot of shags, cormorants and other water birds nesting on the cliffs. The wind was so strong that I would hide behind the stone wall, standing up only to take some pictures of the many birds. When I arrived at the Sumburgh Lighthouse the sun came back and while I was enjoying the sea views, I looked down and was pleasantly surprised to see my first puffins!! There were right on the other side of the rock fence, and I spent a good amount of time taking pictures and struggling to restrain myself from picking one up, cuddling and bringing it back as a pet! They are simply so adorable! And they sure know how to fly. For such clumsy looking creatures, they are really well adapted to the area.

puffin posing for the camera
Simply adorable!

After a short break from walking, I decided to head back with a little detour on the hill overlooking Jarlshof and the lighthouse. I followed an older man as he went up. I had never experienced so much wind!! I understood the guy’s earlier advice not to stand too close to the edge when it’s that windy because it would be easy to fall off into the ocean. It was so hard to walk straight that I had no problem believing him.

View from the top of the hill, rolling hills and water
The windiest place so far, the top of the hill!

After a while, I had enough and cut through the land in between the sheep and back to the main road, towards the hotel and bus stop. I went to the bathroom in the hotel and as I was getting ready to head back to the bus and wait for 45 minutes, the older men arrived and offered me a ride back to Lerwick. I gladly accepted once again. He had gone for another walk in the morning and had learned about a very scenic little detour, where he took me. It was absolutely stunning and totally worth it. We chatted the whole way back to the city and he dropped me off next to my hostel.

People dressed as Vikings getting out of a car
Strange sighting

The next day I walked to the port. There was a huge sailing vessel, which looked more like a cruise ship. I encountered a strange sight: some Vikings getting their stuff out of the car! While waiting for the ferry to return from Bressay I enjoyed the stillness and quietness of the place. At 10 am, I got on the very short ferry ride to Bressay and headed north. I was thinking I would run into the standing stone according to the map, but they turned out to be fairly far out of the way. I did, however, see Old Haa of Cruster, or at least I think that’s what I saw!

Ferry arriving in Bressay
Ferry arriving in Bressay

I turned around and decided to head back south. I walked all the way to Bressay Lighthouse and was looking for the Natural Arch next to it (according to the map once again). I couldn’t see it from the lighthouse so I decided to climb a small cliff, instead of going over some wired fence, and walked on the cliff for a while, looking for the arch. When I was ready to give up, I turned around and obviously the arch was right behind me… next to the lighthouse.

The lighthouse... and the arch!
The lighthouse… and the arch!

I enjoyed watching the seabirds fly around their nests for a while, before heading back to the ferry. When I was almost there, reaching the main ‘road’, a guy going in that direction asked me if I wanted a ride to the ferry, which I said yes. It wasn’t that far but it did save me a lot of steps.

Bench overlooking the sea
Nice spot to have lunch

A day later, after doing travel research on my laptop for most of the morning. I met Astrid, a Norwegian girl who had just arrived from Bergen on the amazing huge sailboat I had seen the day before. We walked around Lerwick for most of the afternoon, going to the ferry terminal to book our upcoming ferries. We arrived there at 2pm only to see that the office was open from 7:30 to 9:30 and 3 to 5pm. After walking around some more we went back to the ferry and booked our places. It was a quieter day, which felt pretty good.

Baby Shetland pony
Doesn’t really get any cuter than a baby Shetland pony!

Discovering Orkney

Stromness to the Brough of Birsay

Second day of biking in Orkney. This time I knew where to go: away from the ferry towards the Co-op on the main street. My legs remembered the day before right away but I kept going. The road was pretty, and pretty hilly as well. Some parts were really challenging, but I pushed through, using my Hell Week mentality and it worked! Soon, after seeing countless sheep and a few cows, I arrived to Skara Brae.

Skara Brae
Skara Brae

The visit started with a short movie about Skara Brae, and then we moved on to the actual museum, where artifacts were exposed and explained. Skara Brae is one of the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. They were uncovered in 1850 when a storm removed part of the ground and uncovered the ruins. They date about 5000 years ago, before the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge, and because they were well covered by sand, they kept very well. Every house in the village is about the same size, so it is believed that every villager had the same status. The houses were all set-up the same as well.

Inside of the house. Heart in the middle, beds on either and a shelving unit to show important possessions
What the houses probably looked like

A hearth in the middle, which provided warmth and cooking facilities. A small corridor to enter, ensuring not too much sand and wind would get in. Right in front of the door was a dresser where they probably kept food and valued items. On both side where beds made of stone, which were hopefully covered in hay and fur. There is even evidence that suggest they may have had some kind of sewer system. The small room attached to the main room may even have been a toilet. The houses were also linked all together with a roofed corridor to keep all the inhabitant protected from the elements.

pebble beach next to the site
The sea now coming right next to the ruins

It was a very interesting visit to see the ruins of the village and also to try to imagine why they would have picked that specific area. Back then food was abundant, and there was even a small loch of fresh-water between the village and the sea. The sea has since claimed its right and now the water comes right up to the village.

During the summer time, the ticket includes a visit to Skaill house, the house where Laird William Graham Watt lived when he discovered Skara Brae. The house contains artifact collected by the family over the years.

Ruins of the Earl's Palace
Earl’s Palace

After the visit of Skara Brae, I got back on my bike and kept going until I reached the Earl’s Palace and St. Magnus Kirk. The palace was built by Robert Stuart, Earl of Orkney in the late 16th century. He was pretty mean to the villagers, and after his death his son Patrick succeeded, being even more tyrannical. Both Earl Patrick and his own son, young Robert ended up being captured later on and executed. The Earls’ story is actually a lot longed and more complicated than that, and after their deaths, the Palace was abandoned and it quickly became in ruins.

St. Magnus Kirk
St. Magnus Kirk

St. Magnus Kirk was built in 1064. It is a very austere church, but it was worth a visit, especially the cemetery, as it had an amazing view of the bay.

Brought of Birsay, accessible only at low tide
Brought of Birsay, accessible only at low tide

After a quick lunch at the Earl’s Palace, I got back on my bike once again to get to the Brough of Birsay. It’s a tiny island accessible only at low tide. There are also ruins of another Earl’s Palace, and a lot of birds nesting on the cliffs. I walked around, unwillingly scaring a lot of bunnies away, while taking in the views of the cliff and the turquoise water. I even saw an orange cat who looked terrified by me, but he must have thought he was in heaven with all the birds and nests. It must have been like an all-you-can eat buffet for him!!

Orange cat hiding between rocks
Not exactly what you expect when going birdwatching

After such a demanding day, I was not too enthusiast to get back on the bike, but I did so anyway. The way back turned out to be slightly easier than the way in as it was mostly downhill. The part along the Loch of Skaill was very good too, mostly flat, with lots or birds and swans.

Straight road with bicycle

When I arrived back in Stromness, I brought back the bike to the bike shop, and again nobody was there. I went back to the hostel and called it a day after about 46 km on my bike!

Stromness to Kirkwall

The next morning I woke up to heavy rain. I was very happy I took the bike the day before as I definitely would have not enjoyed my bike ride as much! I was not in a big rush as my sole mission for the day was to take the bus from Stromness to Kirkwall. I decided to call to Maeshowe to see if I could join one of the tours that day, and luckily there was room for the 12:00 tour. I was in the kitchen of the hostel taking things slow when 2 French girls arrived. They saw that I was looking at bus schedules and seemed to believe I was an expert, because they relied on my very recently acquired knowledge and decided to join me for the tour. It was nice to visit something with people instead of being all by myself.

green hill with an entrance to the inner room
Maeshowe. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to take pictures inside

Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn built around 2800 BC. It was later on discovered by the Vikings, who wrote graffiti on the walls. The funny thing is that all they decided to write was things that people today still write on bathroom stall all over the world. Mostly in the lines of ”So and so was here, 2015”. The tour was interesting, even though the guide seemed quite grumpy at first. In order to get in the chamber, we had to walk with bended knees through a long tunnel. The stones used for the tunnel and the walls are very big, and were brought as one piece in order to make the tunnel prettier. Another interesting fact is that during midwinter, the sun shines through the passage right into the chamber.

After the tour, I went back inside the main building to grab my bag, and as I was checking when the next bus to Kirkwall was, the lady showed me the outside camera where we could see the bus had just parked in front to unload and load passengers. I precipitated the goodbyes with my new friends and ran toward it.

View over the city
View from my host’s flat

When I arrived in Lerwick, I knew that my host for that night was not home yet, and thanks to Google, I knew there was a left luggage at the bus station. The left luggage was quite expensive, (£4 for about 2.5 hours) but I decided it was worth it for not having to carry my backpack.

Lerwick viewed from the top of Earl's Palace
From the Earl’s Palace

When I started walking in town, there were tourists everywhere, most of them speaking German. I had heard that a cruise ship was in town, but I had not expected 3,300 people to be in the streets of the village, which usually has a population of about 9,000 people. I started looking for a place to have a coffee, in order to avoid both the rain and the crowd. I had almost picked a place that looked fairly full when I saw that the ice cream shop had a sign saying Cafe upstairs. I walked in and had a lovely chat with the older owner and a lady who may or may not have been his wife. We exchanged niceties and spoke about the tourists and the weather. Weather on the island and in Scotland in general is a topic of choice, and a great conversation starter. After my coffee and a talk with the sweet girl working there, and as the rain had mostly stopped, I walked towards St. Magnus Cathedral. The cathedral, built in the 12th century was constructed using red stones and it gives it a special look. It was obviously pretty crowded, but I took my time and enjoyed the woodwork inside.

St Magnus Cathedral made with red bricks
St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall

As I walked outside of the cathedral, I met again with the two French girls I had visited Maeshowe with. We spent more time walking around Kirkwall together.

Rasta sign on door
Reassuring sight!

Later on, I picked up my bag from the left luggage and walked towards my host’s flat. It was located on a very tiny street and because they don’t tend to put the numbers on all the doors, I wasn’t sure if I was in front of the right building. He had told me he lived in a place with multiple flats, so as the door was left ajar, I walked in and looked for flat no 5. As soon as I saw the rasta sign on the door, I knew I was in the right spot!

Broch of Gurness

Small road leading to a village
Slowly making my way to the Broch of Gurness

A day later, I decided to head to the Broch of Gurness, another archeological site of the island. In order to get there I had to take the bus no 6, to one of the closest village (Evie), but unfortunately, the only bus running when I was ready was for Tingwall, another village located a little further away. I took this one anyway, knowing I would have to walk about one hour until I reached the Broch of Gurness.

Different birds flying away from a rock
Unwillingly scaring the birds away

When I arrived at the Broch, a man that had passed me with his car not long ago offered me a ride back to Kirkwall, which I gladly accepted! We visited the site together and had a chat on the way back. He lives part time in Scotland and part time in Sydney, Australia, enjoying summer in each country. He also had visited and worked in many countries so we had a travel-filled conversation!

Ruins of the Broch of Gurness
Broch of Gurness

The Broch of Gurness is an Iron-Age building style unique to Scotland. It is basically the ruins of a village which had a tower in the middle. It was again very cool to see, and because it is more open than Skara Brae, you can actually walk around and within the structures, as long as you don’t break anything obviously!

Very smiley me, exploring the ruins
Very happy to be exploring ruins!

When we arrived back to Kirkwall, I thanked my good Samaritan and went for a visit of the Bishop’s Palace and yet another Earl’s Palace next to St. Magnus Cathedral. The Bishop’s Palace was built in the 12th century while the Earl’s Palace was built by Earl Patrick Steward, the son of the other brutal earl, in the 17th century.

Standing in front of the Earl's palace
Yet another Earl’s palace

Northern Highlands and ferry to Orkney

Pitlochry to Thurso

I woke up slowly this morning, had my breakfast and said my goodbyes to Alana and Maeve, my new Irish friends before checking out and walking the very short walk to the station. The train was 10 minutes late, and the controller took the time to say that he was going to get information on the platform, and advise the next train that we were 3 people going there.

View from the train on the way to Thurso
View from the train on the way to Thurso

Finally they were able to catch up and we arrived on time. I went to platform 5 quickly as I had only 1 minute in between trains. The train had just 2 wagons, but for some reason they were not (or at least I didn’t see it) marked which wagon was A and which one was B. My place being A14, I obviously entered in wagon B, and because the train was going to leave soon, I decided to walk inside instead of outside in case it would decide to leave while I was changing wagons! I found my seat in a very quiet wagon, and enjoyed the scenery until Thurso. It was sunny for most of the way, we met a lonely shower for about 2 minutes right before arriving. Tomek, my couchsurfing host had asked me to let him know when I would be a few minutes away, so I called him and he told me he would be able to pick me up, but might be a few minutes late. I was very happy to have a chance to get a ride, not that it was very far from the station, but because it was so much colder than I expected. The weather in itself was not that bad, but the wind!!! It looked like and felt like true north when I got out of the train!

Lovely sun and waves in Thurso
Lovely sun and waves in Thurso

Tomek arrived soon, and within minutes we were at his place. I was lucky enough to have my own room with double bed and all!! Tomek and I had dinner and we went to see if we could access the caves. Unfortunately, it was high tides, so we could not, but I got to see why it is a popular destination for surfing. The waves were great.

Small black and white lamb relaxing in the grass
My adorable new friend

He told me about a walk starting right behind the lighthouse. It was sunny so I decided to go. It was definitely worth it. I had my first close encounter with some sheep when I went through the first gate as a bunch of them were there with their babies. Adorable!!

Fence and a few steps to go over it
A few steps away from the sheep

I walked slowly through the first area, letting the sheep and little lambs enough time to move around so they would not feel threatened. I then made my way to the cliffs of Holborn Head. I enjoyed the view and the wind for a while before walking back to my house for the night.

Sitting on a flat rock, looking at the sea
Enjoying the view

Ferry to the Orkney Islands

The ferry from Thurso to Orkney actually leaves from a part of town called Scrabster, about 30 minutes walk from Thurso.

When I arrived at the ferry, I was following two girls with huge backpacks, so I assumed they were getting on the ferry, but no, they were just waiting with a bunch of people for the bus to the city. I was glad I asked right away as I could have waited for a long time! I made my way to the ticketing area, picked up my ticket and was told I could put my bag in a luggage storage, getting it back on the other side. I gladly obliged and went upstairs to the waiting area. I was the first one in.

The NorthLink ferry at an angle on the wave
The ferry, the day before I went on. the sea was much calmer during my crossing.

When we were allowed on the ferry, I kept going back and forth between the deck 5 and 6 (the only two allowed) as the 6th had the outside deck and the 5th had a lot less people in the sitting area. I enjoyed the waves and realized how much I had missed the open sea.

When I arrived in Stromness, I was a little worried about finding the hostel, but I soon realized that it is such a small place that there is no way I would have missed it!

Stromness
Stromness

Biking on Orkney

Once I put my bag down in the small three-bed dorm, I left to find Orkney Cycle Hire. I followed the main road, which changes names a few time, and found it easily even though it looked like somebody’s private yard. Three biked were parked there. Nobody was there, but I had received an email saying if they could not make it there would be a bike with my name on it and instructions for payment. Sure enough, there was a paper on one of the bikes with my name on it, the code for the lock, and a small brown envelope for money. It said on the paper 10 pounds per day. Having booked the bike for 2 days, I put £20 in the brown envelope and followed the instructions. I had to put the envelope in the mailing trap, on the brown door number 45. At that precise moment, it sure felt like I was in a small village!

I hoped on the bike and set off in the wrong direction. I had been hoping to talk to somebody or get a map about directions, but I was on my own. I decided to make the most of it, thinking that worst case scenario, I would end up biking around town, enjoying the view and the activity and best case scenario I would actually find my way!

lake with view of the sea and mountains in the distance
Not exactly where I was trying to go, but lovely view nonetheless

As I was leaving towards what would become the golf course, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, but I found a viewpoint. I walked there, took a few pictures and got on the bike again. This time, I decided to follow the direction of most of the cars. I kept going uphill, and it was not easy. I found a brown sign saying something Brae, so I went up the stairs and up the never ending hill to an amazing view over the island. I had left my bike unlocked and was worried that it would not be there when I came back. Not because somebody would have taken it but because it was a hill and the bike could have easily gone downhill by itself.

selfie with the quiet small road in the background
Finally heading towards the Standing Stones

I finally decided to use my GPS on my phone to get an idea of the itinerary, which turned out to be very easy… main road until you see the signs and even the standing stones from the road…

Standing Stones of Stenness
Standing Stones of Stenness

Once I knew where I was heading to, it was going well. I got pretty comfortable on the bike, and it was mostly flat and downhill. I made my way to the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Barnhouse Neolithic Village. The ring is quite similar to Stonehenge, but might actually be older. It consists of 12 stones from 3000 years BC. The interesting fact about this ring is that archaeologist found what looked like the remains of a village dating approximately the same period. The Barnhouse Neolithic Village is a partly reconstructed Stone Age village dating 3000 BC.

A short walk away from the Standing Stones: the Barnhouse Neolitihc Village
A short walk away from the Standing Stones: the Barnhouse Neolithic Village

I walked around the stones first and then to the remains of the village before getting back on my bike to see another circle of stones; the Ring of Brodgar. This time the circle was much bigger. Unfortunately there were no interpretive sign over there, so I do not have much information on how, when and why this was built. It was originally a sixty stone circle with 36 now remaining as standing or as broken stones.

Some of the stones comprising the Ring of Brodgar
Some of the stones comprising the Ring of Brodgar

After this second short walk around the stone circle, I got back on the bike, and returned to Stromness. The road was not as easy as on my way there, partly because it was uphill, but mostly because I was getting very tired as it had been forever since I had last biked somewhere.

small road with water on both sides, leading to a white building with red roof
One of the easier sections of the road