Years ago, watching a blue faced Mel Gibson sitting on a horse going on and on about his freedom, it never really occurred to me that the land which he so ferociously battles to save would hundreds of years later be the land of my ancestors. So two years ago, on what was probably about the eighth rewatch of Braveheart, I decided the time had come. I wanted to see my ancestral homeland, to see if I felt some sense of belonging, of kinship, and whether I suddenly developed a taste for sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal.
Happily, I was living in London at the time. This meant I was about 16,000 kilometers closer to achieving this goal than I would have been had I been watching Mel strangle a Scottish accent on my couch in Melbourne. So I booked a wee trip around the West Highlands.
I caught the train up to Edinburgh on a Monday afternoon and met the tour bus early on Tuesday. I’d put a lot of effort into picking the right kind of tour company. I didn’t want the ‘let’s get trashed every night till we vomit’ tour, or the other end of the spectrum, the’ ‘I’m so old I might die on this tour’ tour. I thought I’d picked the happy medium. As I walked around a corner onto the Royal Mile, I saw our mini bus parked on the street, a large dent and angry grey marks slashed across the front bumper bar. Now, if I was someone who believes in signs… oh, I am… shit.
My bus was made up of a family of six from India, a Malaysian couple in their fifties, an Australian couple and their (I’m guessing) not-quite-all-there teenage daughter, three Germans in their twenties and me. Oh and James the driver/guide/historian/botanist/web-designer/soon to be ex-smoker – “Tomorrow tomorrow, I swear I’ll give up tomorrow”.
The Indian men were lawyers, quite happy and chatty, but their wives and kids kept pretty much to themselves. Although one woman made her prescence known by belching her way around the Highlands. Every minute or so there’d come this enormous, chunky burp from her, then a second, then a third, just in case you put the first two down to exotic wildlife. None of her family batted an eyelid.
The Malaysian couple were lovely. The husband had studied engineering in Glasgow thirty years ago and was back on a small trip around Scotland, to show his wife around I guessed.
The Australians, yeah they were nice too. Everyone was ‘nice’. I of course recognised their accents straight away and a few sentences in I also guessed they were from Queensland.They were amazed at my deduction, but it’s not that hard for someone who spent a bit of time up north in her teens. You see, the dad spoke really slowly. Like. There. Was. A. Full. Stop. Between. Every. Word. And the mother had a habit of repeating everything, but with a slight edit on the second sentence, also a very Australian trait. She’d be like “So how long have you been here? Have you been here long?” and “I guess you’ve been to heaps of castles. Have you seen lots of castles?” By the end of the trip, to my horror, whenever I spoke to her I realised I was doing it too.
On the first day, whenever we stopped for a photo-op (or as I deduced – James’ cleverly disguised smoke breaks) their daughter would steal off by herself and then… well… all I can say here is ‘act like a horse’. She’d flick back her head as if she had a mane of hair to swish, lift one leg slightly and stamp the ground and then launch into a short canter across the countryside before coming to a stop and then looking at me like she’d done nothing weird. Maybe I should have offered her my apple.
When we reached the Isle of Skye, we were split up into different B&B’s. I was with the three Germans, who chose to be polite when I asked a question, but pretty much ignored me the rest of the time. Not that I minded. I can amuse myself, but I thought if I was travelling with two friends and there was a lone person on my bus staying in the same place as me, I’d at least make the effort to socialise. I mean, you can’t just ignore people willy nilly. One must speak to them, gather evidence and then make the more educated decision that they’re a nutter whom one must keep a wide berth from.
The next day, we met James for a full day’s tour of the Isle, but the Indian family chose to stay in their hotel. What the what??!!?? Why go all the way to the Isle of Skye, allllll that way north, then not tour it? Perhaps burping wasn’t the only bodily function Mamma had problems with and they were just choosing to save us from further horrors. In that case, I totally understand, and pardon me for my lack of empathy to a fellow human person with digestion issues.
Of course, the Highlands were stunning. But, let this be a travel tip for the rest of you, March is definitely not the best time to see them. Winter has still not properly broken, so it’s freezing, but there’s not much snow left and no vegetation or flora yet, so the land is a vast, brown vista. Albeit a beautiful, rugged, wild, vast brown vista, but probably not the kind of landscape Mel Gibson made you think you’d be seeing. If you want to see some of that, click here and here.
While trundling around we came across Scotland’s famously hirsute Highland Cows. James stopped for a ‘photo-op’ and told us with a thick Scottish accent, “They’re called ‘Harry Coos’”. Heh. Harry Coo. I spent a good part of the next month trying to find sentences where I could legitimately slip in Harry Coo.
Later, back in town, I escaped the main street, which was heaving with at least three locals plus our busload of eleven, and wondered down some side streets. I found a tartan shop and bought two pillows, one in the ancient version of what I’d just discovered was my ancestral Buchanan colours, and the other an authentic Harris Tweed. If it’s not made on the Isle of Skye, it’s not authentic Harris Tweed you know?
If this is all sounding a little bit ho-hum, it kinda was. About the most exciting thing that happened the second night on the Isle was that I discovered a sachet of tomato sauce which was squeezable, so you didn’t have to go through the usual tug of war to peel the top back, ending up with half the pack on your fingers and the other half over the front of your shirt. Good times!
By the end of three days, I think both James and I wanted to go score some crack just to alleviate the boredom. Not exactly the most exciting trip I’ve ever taken. But two years later and look where I am, living in Edinburgh, slowly and burplessly getting to know this beautiful country. Maybe the ancestors did have a certain power over me after all.