11 August 2010

Sun, Sea, & Sheep: A Scottish Adventure

Oban Town Center as seen from the train station
Welcome to Oban. This is the Scottish version of Ocean City...except without the sandy beaches. And the kitschy tourist attractions. Or the sun for that matter. OK, so it is not really like Ocean City, but a trip to Oban was my highly anticipated vacation for the summer. I first visited Oban in 2005 with my father. We were on a Timberbrush tour of castles in the lower Highlands and made a stop in Oban. I remember it being very  cold, very rainy, and not much was open. Despite this initial first impression, I made a pact with myself that I would one day return. Five years later, this pact was fulfilled. Monday, August 2 was a bank holiday in Scotland and so I didn't have to go to work, which is always nice. With three entire days to my self, I decided that this would be the perfect time to go to Oban.
View of distant islands from Oban
I traveled to Oban via the CityLink bus, which left St. Andrew's bus station at the fairly obscene hour (for a Saturday anyways) of 8AM. It is not actually an unwelcome hour for me because I can't sleep past 7:30AM these days anyways. The trip from Edinburgh took close to 4 hours and I arrived a little before noon. By this time I was starving and so I set out for the first cafe that I could find. By some strange coincidence, I ended up at Spinnaker's, the same cafe that my father and I ate at in 2005. The primary reason we ate their last time was because it was one of the only places actually open in November. The food was much better than I remember -- but this could also be because I was absolutely famished.

Oban is a very popular holiday destination for the Scottish and so the streets were crowded with tourists. With the 'staycation' being the latest trend in these recessed economic times, I imagine that Oban is currently experiencing more of a surge than usual. (Considering the number of guest houses that had 'no vacancy' signs posted on their doors, I believe it.)

It was still too early to check-in to my hostel after lunch, so I set out to tackle my list of 'must do' activities that I had planned for my holiday. First on my list was visiting the Oban Distillery. For those of you who do not know, I am a big whisky fan. There is nothing finer than a dram of nicely aged whisky, gently sipped so as to taste the different notes. (Yes, I am an old man at heart.) Such is my dedication to the drink that I have been to the Scottish Whisky Heritage on three separate occasions. Still, I had yet to go to a working distillery and so a trip to Oban's was a must. One of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, it was started in 1794 and has been in (mostly) continuous operation ever since. It is located in the very city center and so remains a source of pride for Oban. Despite this, it is a very small distillery, having only two stills, and produces only around 1 million bottles of single-malt a year. The tour was quite interesting and I feel even more knowledgeable about the whisky production process than before. Well worth the visit.
Dunollie Castle

Afterward, I tried to climb the hill to McCaig's Folly. McCaig was a businessman from Oban who visited Rome in the late 1800s and was so inspired about by the architecture that he hoped to build a version of the Colosseum in Oban, which was to house an art gallery. Unfortunately for McCaig, he died before it was completed and so the shell has remained on the hill as a testament to Oban's semi-eccentric past. My visit to the structure was thwarted by the fact that a wedding party was leaving the church at the base of the stairs that provide access to McCaig's Folly. Not wishing to disrupt them, I decided instead to head across town to Dunollie Castle.

Dunollie Castle is a ruin of the seat of one of the West Highland clans. It sits perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the sea. Oddly enough, I ran into the wedding party again as I reached Dunollie and the Oban War Memorial. I will probably appear in dozens of their wedding pictures as a result. Anyway, Dunollie Castle can only be reached via a steep dirt path through the woods. As I traveled up this path in my dress and boots (non-climbing boots), it occurred to me that Scotland, and the UK in general, is not a very handicapped-friendly place. Monuments are often unreachable to anyone incapable of walking stairs or long distances. But then again, I've only ever seen perhaps a dozen people in wheelchairs throughout my numerous stays in the UK. Most people, even those missing limbs, use crutches. Either way, the view from Dunollie Castle was absolutely amazing.

McCaig's Folly
On the way back to the city center and my hostel, I passed the Oban War Memorial (thankfully wedding party-less at this point) and the Dog Stone. The Dog Stone is a large upright freestanding stone in the middle of a field. Legend has it that this is where the giant Fingal would tether his dog Bran. The narrow base of the rock is from where the leash rubbed away the stone. I checked into my hostel, Corran House, and found that I was assigned to a 4-bed mixed dorm with ensuite bathroom. Luckily for me, I had the entire room to myself during my visit. Somewhat unluckily, the room was located immediately above the bar, which boasted live karaoke until 1 am each night. That was not so fun.
I enjoyed a salmon and mixed vegetable dinner at Cuan A Mhor restaurant after which I climbed to McCaig's Folly. Then I walked passed the ferry terminal to the other side of town and sat in a park drinking my Diet Coke, drafting a letter to my boyfriend, and watching the sun set over the harbor. Quite pleasant.

I woke up early next morning and went in search of breakfast. It was a Sunday so Tesco (the grocery store) did not open to late and most cafes were closed for the day. Luckily, I found a panini place that was open and so grabbed a mozarella and tomato breakfast panini. Then it was off to the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry terminal to begin my tour to Mull, Staffa, and Iona. The ferry ride to the Isle of Mull took 45 minutes. I managed to stay on the outer deck for about 10 minutes before I started to freeze. That said, I still managed to catch some incredible photographs, including that of this white stone lighthouse.

When the ferry landed in Craignure, I boarded a bus that took us across Mull. The bus driver lives on the island, which has a population of only 2,000 or so, and provided hilarious anecdotes of everyday life. For example, the population is so small that there is no grocery store on the island. All shopping must be done at the Spar convenience stores or in Oban. As a result, most people grow their own food. Also, no babies have been born on Mull for the past 14 years because the hospital is only equipped to deal with emergencies. When women are due to go into labor, they are taken to the mainland for delivery. It took an hour to travel to Fionnphort, where we caught the ferry to Staffa.

Rock formations at Staffa Island

Staffa, which means 'stave' or 'pillar' in Old Norse, has been uninhabited since 1800. It is located 10km from Mull and can only be reached by ferry on days with good visibility. One of the main attractions is Fingal's Cave, a large sea cave that provided the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. Tourists can actually climb into the cave; however, it is only accessible via a long narrow path along the rock face. I was quite happy to scramble away from the rope tethered to the wall and had fun jumping from rock to rock to get to the cave. Others looked like they were about ready to pass out and fall into the water.

Fingal's Cave, Staffa
After entering Fingal's Cave, I dashed (literally) to the other side of the island in the hopes of catching sight of the island's puffin colony, which was due to depart from the island for the sea any day at that time. Let me tell you, it is quite taxing to 'dash' anywhere when dressed in jeans, climbing jacket, hiking boots, and a full backpack. That said, I did a pretty good job of it and was as happy as a lark running over the hills and across the rocks. Sadly, the puffins had already departed.

After an hour on Staffa (on which I could have remained for a considerably longer period), I boarded the ferry to Iona.
Iona Abbey, Iona
Iona is well known for its abbey. The seat of Christianity in Scotland, the abbey was founded by St. Columba in the 6th century. Legend has it that over 60 kings, several of which are supposedly my ancestors, are buried in the Rèilig Odhrain, the cemetery

Other notable sites on Iona include the Celtic High Crosses that date from the 9th century, the abbey itself, and the ruins of the Benedictine nunnery. After roaming on Iona for several hours, it was back on the ferry to Fionnphort, the bus to Craignure, and the ferry to Oban. I did not arrive home until 8pm, by which time I was thoroughly exhausted.

Once again, I woke early on the third morning. I grabbed breakfast from a local cafe and a sandwich to eat at lunchtime later in the day, and set off for Pulpit Hill. McCaig's Folly provides an excellent view of Oban, but so does Pulpit Hill on the other side of town. I climbed the hill, enjoyed the fine early-morning views, and then started on the public footpath to the Kerrera Ferry in Gallanach. The public footpath consisted little more than a dirt track which quickly deteriorated into a muddy trail and, finally, a sheep pasture. This would set the tone for the rest of the day. 

Kerrera Island is a small island less than a mile from Oban. It has a population of 40 and is not exactly the most popular of tourist destinations. The ferry, which was little more than a tugboat, reflected this. A handful of me and my fellow passengers climbed into the back and enjoyed the five minute trip across the bay. I then began my 12-mile trek around the island. The entire island is essentially a giant sheep pasture punctuated by a few farms. Two hours into my hike, I had seen more sheep than I had in my previous 22 years of life. Indeed, by the time I reached Gylen Castle, I had seen more sheep than humans (the ratio was roughly 20,000 to 1). Reaching Gylen Castle once again required a hike up a cliff face and involved a nasty encounter with some stinging nettles. Suffice it to say, I emerged slightly worse for wear from this encounter. Gylen Castle was an impressive sight with magnificent views over the islands beyond, but I can't even imagine how isolated it must have been to live there during the 17th century when it was in its heyday. 

The next stop on my trip was the Hutcheson War Memorial at the completely opposite end of the island. It took several hours to get there, during which time I spent an hour or so afraid that I had gotten myself completely lost. I didn't have a map of the island and was relying on directions that were of such stellar caliber as: 'Follow the grassy track until you reach a sheep gate. Go through the gate and continue down the boggy track. Turn left at the stony beach.' (Prior to my trip, I had no idea what the difference between 'boggy' and 'muddy' was. Now I know. Boggy tracks will suck the shoes right off your feet.) Incidentally, I was not lost, but it was not until I found the slightly paved sheep path that my mind was finally set at ease. Prior to reaching the memorial, I encountered countless sheep, a few rams, several Highland cows, ducks, swans, a very friendly cat that followed me for a mile, pigs, and chickens. Most memorable was a horse that was lying flat on its side in a barn yard and, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be dead. Indeed, its eyes were closed and it did not move at all during the two minutes I stood staring at it. In fact, I was silently accepting the fact that this was life, when it sat up and looked at me like 'What? You thought I was dead?'.Very strange. 

I eventually reached the memorial and then made the long trek back to the ferry landing. It dropped me back at Gallenach and I made the additional 2-mile trek back to Oban city center. So in the end, my journey was about 14 miles. I was exhausted and it was all I could do to drag myself to the nearest bookstore to kill time before catching my train to Glasgow. The train ride took 3 hours and was on a train that could best be described as 'creaky' but could more aptly be considered 'falling apart'. Indeed, I almost hopped off at Crianlarich (a station I know well, having stopped at it on two occasions when in the Highlands with my boyfriend and his family earlier this summer) for fear of impending disaster as it coupled with the train from Fort William. I arrived in Glasgow shortly before 9:30 and caught the 10:00 train to Edinburgh. I arrived home at 11 and was almost dropping from exhaustion. A good trip to be sure.
Oban at Sunset
Gylen Castle, Kerrera

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