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How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day


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Duration: 21 Days

Can you travel through mysterious Scotland over 21 days, climb the mighty Ben Nevis, say I've been to magical Orkney, and do all this solo? Don't believe me? It's true and it's all here...

[ VITAL SCOT-ISTICS ]

STAY -- at Youth Hostels -- £500

TRAVEL -- by buses, trains, taxis -- £300

FOOD -- mostly cooked in self-catering kitchens at the Youth Hostel -- £200

Grand Total: £1000

EDINBURGH

Days 1 to 4

An early morning start and a smooth 4 hour train journey later, I am back in Edinburgh around 11 a.m. on June 5, 2017, after a whirlwind and impromptu tour earlier in April. It feels great to return to this Athens of the North, where the buildings are still made of solid stone and the air hangs heavy with mystery. After paying £4 (!) for the locker to store my bag before checking into the Youth Hostel after 3 pm, it was time to visit the National Gallery. Last time, due to a packed schedule and the visit being so sudden, it had been impossible to visit this treasure house of art, even though it lies just off Princes Street gardens, where I love to spend time doing nothing.

The National Gallery is loaded with art from across the ages -- Pre-Raphaelite, Romantic, Classical and others -- with mind-numbingly beautiful paintings by Guilio Cesare Procaccini, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Nicholas Poussin, Ponsonelli, Testa, Veronese, Calvaert and Vasari, to name a few. 'The Monarch of the Glen' commands attention and competes for best display with the 'Mother and Child' and 'John the Baptist'. Depending upon your level of involvement and interest, it is possible to spend anywhere from 4 hours to 4 weeks here, studying every one of these breathtaking works of art, marvelling at brushstrokes and choice of colour, analysing composition of landscapes and treatment of natural light. But I had to rush back and make a wholesome meal for myself at the centrally-located and aptly-named Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel. And so, the National Gallery will see me return with ample time on hand to explore its timeless art pieces some day soon.

Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 1/72 by Shalini Rai
'The Monarch of the Glen'
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A beautiful marble sculpture
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'The Skating Minister' :) That's really the name of this painting
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It’s Day 2 and it has been raining since morning, a dull, dark grey spreading through the skies around the Firth of Forth, which is visible from my third floor room. It’s time to go down to the kitchen in the basement and get down to the business of cooking, which became impossible in my flat where the kitchen is tiny, the cooks too many and their attitude stinks of more than just spicy chicken tikka masala. Among the several strangers in the kitchen is an American ex-Navy guitar player, pining for the Spanish girlfriend he had just left behind in, where else, Spain...! With heavy rain and the possibility of minor flooding, there is nothing to do except stay put in the hostel and make the most of it. So, there is a long chat with the nameless American soldier-singer and lots of good, home-heated, store-bought food consumed in a leisurely manner on a non-productive but thoroughly-enjoyable day.

Edinburgh Castle is one of my most favourite sights in all of Edinburgh. It is sometimes impossible to believe that such a historic complex sits right in the centre of town, offering unparalleled views in all directions, right upto the Firth of Forth and from just above the Princes Street Gardens. But then, this should not come as a huge surprise because here not one, two or 10 monuments are World Heritage Sites, the entire city holds UNESCO World Heritage Status…!

Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 9/72 by Shalini Rai
Main entrance to Edinburgh Castle
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Looking out over the city of Edinburgh from the Castle walls
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Inside Edinburgh Castle Complex
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Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 14/72 by Shalini Rai

Crossing the Royal Mile and heading up the slope towards the Castle entrance, it feels like stepping back into time. With a slightly active imagination, it is easy to convince yourself that nothing has changed here in 700 years or more. Replace 21st century clothes, shop signs and electronic noise with medieval attire, less people on the streets and more horses than houses and you can ‘teleport’ back to the 1300s in no time…! Although the ticket price is a bit steep at £15, there is no way I am in Edinburgh for the second time in 3 months and DON’T VISIT the Castle, which is a lot of work -- to watch, walk and engage with. There are the most famous Crown Jewels in a transparent casket in a dark room, there’s Mons Meg -- the biggest gun/cannon of ‘em all, breathtaking views of Edinburgh, museums of war and warfare along with those long queues at the ticket counter and tourists everywhere. That’s the only bit that rankles, with the hope (raising its eager head inside the heart) that there is more space to roam freely and be far away from the crowds.

Calton Hill is my next destination and the approach might seem a little puzzling at first but once you see Chinese tourists and students going somewhere in 2s and 3s, it is safe to assume it must be a tourist spot and sure enough, the chatter of Oriental voices and clatter of Oriental feet led to the steps going up towards Calton Hill. The hill itself is a deeply calming place, its magical peacefulness seeping into you within minutes of setting foot there. Difficult to explain the hows and whys of this seemingly-esoteric feeling, it is something that can only be experienced and never adequately-expressed in human language. There are 03 main grand structures that form part of it -- the Nelson Monument, the Observatory and what is called Edinburgh’s ‘Folly’. Lord Horatio Nelson died in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, fighting the French and the Spanish and left behind a legacy of statues and monuments spread across Britain, with this 105-ft-high, castellated structure which looks very much like a lighthouse to me, sitting at the highest point on Calton Hill. The other impressive structure is the City Observatory, also called Calton Hill Observatory and was established in 1776 but faced closure in 2009. Designed by James Craig, the Observatory complex has a Greek temple-like building and large domed structure (City Dome) housing an astronomical telescope. In the early years of the 20th century, the City Dome housed a 22-inch refractor and still makes for quite a sight, with the emerald dome a good contrast to the azure skies over Edinburgh.

Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 15/72 by Shalini Rai
Calton Hill
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View from Calton Hill: 'All along the Firth of Forth'
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Left to right: Edinburgh's Folly, Nelson Monument, City Observatory
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Edinburgh's 'Folly' :D

And now for what is intriguingly-called Edinburgh’s Folly…! Some might say this is what you get when, in 1822, you propose to ‘erect a fascimile of the Parthenon at a cost of £42,000’. Its foundation stone was laid in 1826 but funds ran out in 1829 and the building still remains incomplete a few years short of its 200th commencement anniversary. While the proposal to raise this Greece-inspired structure was met with massive support from Edinburgh’s prominent residents, its unfinished status is as much of a puzzle as the other lingering one centred on a certain triangle which sounds like a pair of shorts…! I stay on Calton Hill for a long time, soaking in the sun, laying on the grass, doing nothing more than watch other people like me lazying in the warmth of a clear day or cooking on open-top stoves; a group of athletes working out strenuously, dogs running after frisbies, one shade of green foliage complementing the other 5 in the vicinity; magpies, seagulls and ravens gliding on mild thermal winds above the hill and basically feeling deep bliss at being able to just Be. And then there are the magical dark-green-brown shrubs on the side of Calton Hill that looks out at Arthur’s Seat, but that is a story for another day. . .

Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 19/72 by Shalini Rai
Edinburgh Botanical Gardens
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Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 21/72 by Shalini Rai
Lotus Pond in 01 of 11 glasshouses
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It’s raining again today and ‘sightseeing’ in the general sense of the word is just not possible. So, I am going to the Botanical Gardens today, where they have 11 glass-houses, each of them dedicated to flora of a specific region. Spanning rainforests, deserts, tropical forests and now largely-extinct fern forests, these glasshouses are one-of-a-kind. Although in need of repairs and a facelift, most of them are filled with flowers, shrubs, ferns, cacti, the very distinct smell of flowers and vegetation in general. It keeps raining, pouring rather and the sound of heavy raindrops on glass roofs above is enhanced by high ceilings. With no scope to explore the grounds where there are many attractions, I head back to the Youth Hostel to cook another hearty meal. In the kitchen there’s a cyclist in her 50s and she’s been travelling around the world, solo…! Now that’s exciting and we get talking and carry on way into the late evening, but since both have an early start tomorrow -- Stirling for me, France for her -- we reluctantly call it a day and head upstairs.

STIRLING & GLASGOW

Days 5 to 8

I took the 11.05 bus from Edinburgh to Stirling and after a 90 minute drive through a green highway dotted with farmlands, reached Stirling bus station, which is adjacent to the train station. At the taxi stand, I got into the one first in line and on being asked, told the driver, “The Youth Hostel…” At this, the driver shook his head and muttered under his breath, “For fuck’s sake!” What followed was me stuck in a taxi being driven at breakneck speed, with a visibly-agitated driver who stopped at an old building on top of a hill, took out my bag from the boot of the car, took his fare and went off in as much of a rush as he could manage…! To call this experience ‘weird’ would be too much of an understatement, and I hoped this would be an isolated incident but it was not to be.

After dropping off my bag at the Youth Hostel, I walked down to the market at the foot of the hill, bought locally-made bread, some ready meals and the day’s local newspaper. I wish I hadn’t had coffee at Nero’s because although the coffee was standard fare, the loo was so filthy it had to be seen (and smelled) to be believed. Climbing back upto the Hostel via the old, cobble-stone street makes for a steep trudge up a narrow path and there’s lots of ‘atmosphere’ here in Stirling. The Hostel building dates back from the 1800s and is situated next to the Old Town Jail, which is yet another complex with so much ‘atmosphere’ it can put the Tower of London to shame. Even the rooms are quite dark and mildly-damp. I am beginning to wish I had stayed somewhere else. But gentle wind in the trees next to the Old Town Jail boundary wall, a magpie and a wood pigeon sitting side-by-side and the promise of sleep are enough to lull me and afford a good night’s rest.

Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 27/72 by Shalini Rai
Scenes from 'atmospheric' Stirling
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Inside Stirling Castle Complex
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By 7.30 am on Day 6 of my Scotland tour, I was up and awake, and let me tell you that doesn’t happen daily ! At 10 a.m., I was at the ticket counter of Stirling Castle and was in for a big shock when the woman at the counter was unnaturally rude (I had asked for a student discount). This is when it occurred to me that the Scots were a different sort of people, Quite different ! Since it was raining very heavily, there was nothing to do but wait for it to subside and so I decided to spend some time with a steaming cup of hot chocolate at the Unicorn Cafe, inside the Castle complex.

Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 31/72 by Shalini Rai
Doing the 'wall walk' in Stirling Castle
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Haunted? I think so
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Aliens meet Scots

Housed in a converted stable or guards’ quarters, it’s a unique structure and has been put to good use in modern times. Stirling Castle is located on top of a hill and reminds me of hill forts in Central India, particularly Raisen in Madhya Pradesh and Sinhagad in Maharashtra. Although a world apart geographically and culturally, there are similarities in structure, layout and location. It is a very powerful and ‘charged’ site, not least because the Church of the Holyrood is located nearby. I spent nearly 5 hours here, visiting all the ‘tourist attractions’, from the Heads Gallery to the Great Hall, and including Tapestry Exhibition, Wall Walk and Argyll’s Lodging.

Photos of How I travelled solo around Scotland over 21 days for less than £50 per day 35/72 by Shalini Rai
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On Day 7, a Sunday, with not much else left to explore in Stirling, it was Glasgow that seemed the next obvious destination. About an hour’s journey away by train, Glasgow is a city that must have been grand once. But now, it seems well past its prime and has the look of an old Hollywood heartthrob spending his last days in seclusion inside his art deco mansion in Miami.

Photos of Glasgow City, United Kingdom 1/4 by Shalini Rai
Photos of Glasgow City, United Kingdom 2/4 by Shalini Rai
Photos of Glasgow City, United Kingdom 3/4 by Shalini Rai
Photos of Glasgow City, United Kingdom 4/4 by Shalini Rai

The City Tour bus is a good way to explore Glasgow as it takes you to 22 ‘points’ and you can stay as long and as little as you like. I chose to visit St Mungo’s Museum, Glasgow Green and Riverside Museum. The first is a museum of religion and incorporates artefacts on world religions, the second is a large public park with a pretty fountain and a building meant to resemble the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the third is a museum of transport vehicles -- from the world’s oldest bicycle, largest steam engine, rudimentary flight apparatus and thousands of bikes, cars, trolley cars, trams and horse-drawn carriages -- truly a traveller’s delight !

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On the train ride back to Stirling, there were violet foxgloves and shiny white lady’s lace sprouting from bottle green earth flanking the tracks. Just what you need to get through another day in haunted Stirling.

DAY 9

GLEN NEVIS

Days 9 to 11

On June 13, I took the 10.23 train out of Stirling to Glasgow and from Glasgow, the connecting train to Mallaigh. This train divides into two half-way through the journey but no one seems to figure out which coaches will separate and go towards Oban, and which will stay on course for Mallaigh. Fort William is the station I must get down at, to travel another few miles to Glen Nevis. On the train, there was a tall Asian-looking man with a big bag and a small dog with sad eyes. The dog looked very tired and later the man said he was 12 years old, so he was more old than sad and that made things easier.

Photos of Glen Nevis Youth Hostel - SYHA, Fort William, United Kingdom 1/5 by Shalini Rai
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At Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, there were many hikers and climbers and the place had the feel of a summer camp, only one peopled by strangers. It is the starting point of the climb to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain at 1345m/4411ft. I did one rough climb half-way up Ben Nevis on June 14. This was to get acquainted with the path up the mountain, factor in weather, my stamina and the possibility of ‘strange’ occurrences during the climb. So, the best place to start, I figured, should be the Visitor Centre but it was not to be. Because at the Visitor Centre was an obnoxious woman who acted snooty when I asked her if there was a map and compass for sale, to take with me on my planned solo climb tomorrow. But then I remembered this is common to people in Scotland. They seem wary of strangers, forget their good manners and just want ‘these people’ to go away as soon as alien-ly possible.

I must thank that woman though, for it only made me want to make a success of my climb. And I am happy to report that I did climb Ben Nevis on June 15, finally reaching the summit plateau at 2.52 pm, after 6 hours of back-breaking and spirit-testing trudge on a path that goes up, up, up -- over boulders, through windy terrain and a magical mountain landscape. With this, I became the first-ever south Asian woman to have achieved this feat SOLO..! Do read my travel blog exclusively focused on this record-setting climb of Ben Nevis here.

Thank you, all of you, who have over the years mocked me and ridiculed my decision to go it alone in life. Had it not been for your unending criticism bordering on abuse and unrelenting flurry of attempts at ‘reining me in’, I may never have done this…! THANK YOU !!

INVERNESS

DAY 12

Days 12 to 14

There are two ways to look at my stay in Inverness. One way is to focus on the negativity that permeates this entire town and its people, to the extent that as a solo traveller I began getting worried about my safety even while having a sip of coffee during the day. The other way is to remember that in this same town are people who stood up to those acting weird and helped me out. So, in many ways, Inverness proved to be a metaphor for life in Britain, for tourists, travellers and ‘immigrants’. Now, what remains to be seen is which side will reach the so-called ‘critical mass’ and tip the balance for or against bigotry masquerading as nationalism and paranoia and violent opportunism posing as tribalism and ‘closed border’ policies.

Photos of Inverness, United Kingdom 1/6 by Shalini Rai
Photos of Inverness, United Kingdom 2/6 by Shalini Rai
Photos of Inverness, United Kingdom 3/6 by Shalini Rai
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During my stay in Inverness, on way to the last stop -- Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands -- I spent a lot of time getting out of the Ben Nevis frame of mind and working off the fatigue from a 10-hour-climb to the mountain and back. After sorting out laundry and getting adequate rest, it was time to get going again -- on the Loch Ness Cruise. It always feels good to be back on Loch Ness. Despite all the stories floating around about there being an alien base on the Loch ! and monsters under it, all I could sense was the not-so-gentle rocking motion of the boat, excited chatter of tourists -- mostly Japanese and Chinese -- and some great views of villages on the banks of the lake. There was also Urquhart ‘Castle’, which lies in ruins and makes it really tough for you to time travel back to its glory days. Then, after shaking my head in despair at the self-destructively-overpriced merchandise -- the SAME things, whisky, woollens, heather tea -- I headed back to the bus to take us into Inverness town.

It was in the centre of town that things get really weird for visitors. I felt uneasy for most of my stay here, and still do not know why. Two incidents stand out, with the first being at a leading coffee chain, where I spent an hour, on my own. This is when a family of 5, on the table next to me, kept commenting, giggling and laughing while looking towards me. Now, the Scottish accent may be thick but I am not. So, after 30 mins of putting up with their cheap jibes, I called in the store manager, who was as perplexed at their behaviour as me. Once they left, she apologised on their behalf but that perplexed look on her face stayed on. The second incident occurred on the same day, in another cafe. Here, the behaviour was the same as described above, only the couple was in their 50s. This time, on reporting them to the store manager, the burly man decided to come over to my table -- theirs was across the room -- and tried to intimidate me. He could have tried to physically hurt me had the young woman at the counter not intervened in time. In a clear indication of just how much love lost there is for ‘outsiders’ in Scotland, this man then began shouting ‘Go Home, @@#$$# Foreigners!” but was soon escorted out of the cafe. The other customers were shocked into silence and it made me think of the wonders of ‘assimilation’ and the pleasures of taking a ride on the ‘Go Home’ bus.

KIRKWALL, Orkney Islands

Days 15 to 19

To get to Kirkwall, there is a bus from Inverness to John O’ Groats and from there, a ferry to Burwick; from Burwick, there’s another bus to Kirkwall. On June 19, I set out from Inverness on the ‘Orkney Bus’ around 2.30 pm and reached John O’Groats -- land’s end -- by 5 pm. The drive is beautiful, through green farmlands, water bodies every few miles, sheep dotting the farms and an azure sky. The ferry to Burwick takes an hour and from Burwick, it is an hour’s drive to Kirkwall. After 7 pm, when I finally reached Kirkwall, it seemed like a ghost town, with there being just 1 taxi for atleast 5 different passengers. When I finally stepped out of the taxi in front of Kirkwall Youth Hostel, it seemed to be an out-of-body experience, but it may just have been fatigue and disorientation !

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Over the next few days, I visited Stromness, Skara Brae, the Ring of Broadgar, the Tomb of Eagles and Cairns Broch, an archaeological excavation site. Skara Brae is a Neolithic site and is situated right next to a clean sandy beach. It is ancient and fragile. The Ring of Brodgar is a henge, much like Stonehenge but even older. It is still non-commercialized and makes you think how different Stonehenge must have been before rude tourists with their loud chatter and obscene habits descended over it.

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Orkney is a special place and the easiest way to experience this special-ness is on the open top bus that leaves for a nearly 4-hour trip around the island twice a day from the bus station. The scenery is breathtaking, the sky palest blue and hills covered in a gentle shade of bright green. You can see for miles and not get bored, of those brown and white and 'red' cows, of many many sheep and not a few of these black, some freshly-shorn and some with thick hides still clinging to their rumps (too cute). There are several thousand bird species here, from starlings to seagulls and of course, those crows and ravens but no magpies. There are swans, gliding over freshwater ponds which are surrounded by marshes, heather and countless flowers. There are whole fields covered in yellow buttercups and below the buttercups, pushing their way out of the brown earth are tiny, violet-blue flowers. Then there are the wildflowers -- in all shades of the most enticing purple -- these are long and thin, and compete for attention with purple heather, purple foxgloves and purple wildgrass. I saw a few thistles as well. It’s a sight like no other. If you are lucky, you might even spot five black horses in a field of buttercups. That’s like a permanent brain tattoo and if you are not careful, it might get imprinted on your DNA ! So much pure natural beauty...

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Back to EDINBURGH

Days 19 to 21

It’s been an incredible 03 weeks, being on the move every few days, and travelling across the length of Scotland, from capital Edinburgh in the south to windswept Kirkwall. Now, it’s time to make the journey back to base, starting with the bus-ferry-bus back to Inverness via John O’Groats and from Inverness to Edinburgh on a 4-hour train ride. I can never get enough of Edinburgh :) There were times on this trip when I wanted to call it off -- cramped rooms, choked bathrooms, moronic racism, overbearing travellers. At the same time, it was a memorable trip with several eventful occasions and one historic moment. Some days were tough to get through, others were easier and left a lasting imprint on the mind. Unforgettable doesn’t even begin to cut it.

Photos of  1/1 by Shalini Rai
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