Doing life right, at home and away

Tag: scotland

Of rough bus rides back to civilization

I often dream of living in a remote place. I’m sure I romanticise it quite a bit, especially given since I grew up in the city.

Today was a steady reminder of the bitchings and challenges of “living behind the God’s back”, as we say in Finland. This is the story of how we traveled South again with W & Musti.

We were supposed to head back to Inverness and South with the last train of the day at 15h (there are usually three trains in a day).  Unfortunately, the trains were cancelled between Thurso and Inverness because ScotRail didn’t have a driver for their train. Indeed, this particular line apparently has literally two drivers. If one of them is sick and the other one drunk, there is no-one to take you South.

When we arrived at the station, a small mini bus was waiting for us to hop on. Have you ever driven a vehicle in Caithness? In many places, the road infrastructure isn’t really made for efficient travel. Caithness has quite a minimalist approach to building roads – they build the least they can get away with (straight quote from W, btw). “Ok”, we thought with W after the initial exasperation had calmed down, “this probably won’t be so bad. We have loads of time – if we drive straight to Inverness we’ll get there with plenty of time to shop and spend a lovely evening”. Little did we know, there was just absolutely no chance of this happening.

Into the Caithness void

Into the Caithnesian void

The minibus driver sent to drive around fucking Caithness countryside in complete wilderness, was not just English – but also visiting Caithness and Thurso area for the first time. We didn’t really find out how he had gotten there in the first place.

So, once we got to the road, the driver spent a good amount of time calling both his minibus company and ScotRail about driving straight to Inverness. Turns out, they expected him to drive by every train station on the line to check if there are passengers.  Now, the people who decide on crap like this, are not Caithnesians – the ScotRail management he spoke to are probably based in Edinburgh. The whole bus full of Scots were enraged and one passenger at a time went to the front to tell him what a ludicrous plan it was. I actually felt quite bad for him, he obviously had agreed to do a job that he had no idea what it was going to entail and it was obviously a shit deal for him. Poor English dude with a bus full of angry Scots and one Finn. He said he’d have to follow the orders or he’d get into trouble. Oh well…

Our bus driver getting lost

Trying to navigate with a GPS in Nothingness

This idea of following the train track by car is so laughable it’s unbelievable, as the problem with this scenario is many fold:

  1. It takes twice??? as long to reach a train station by car – and that is if you know where you are going. We spent one hour going back and forth on this forgotten dirt road in the middle of a  field trying to find the right way to the station, asking for directions from random farmers who happened to be on a walk with their dog.
  2. There is no way to communicate to potential passengers on the stations that a minibus is coming to pick them up instead.
  3. If you’re waiting for the last train of the day and it doesn’t come and you don’t know a minibus is “on it’s way” you probably won’t stick around for an extra hour just for fun?
  4. There probably wouldn’t even be space for them as the minibus was already quite full when we left.
  5. At one point, it also started to chuck down rain and you could hardly see the road. So driving takes even longer. Also, not a likely weather for people to travel and definitely not likely for them to wait around for nothing.

Driving the wrong way through Caithness and Sutherland

Since it was a minibus and not a real bus, there was no bathroom. We had one bathroom break –  which was literally on a muddy road, next to a field and some farmhouse. Everyone had to crouch behind a bush or in a ditch and do their business in cold, wind and rain. The heater in the bus was broken somehow as the whole bus was freezing cold. The curly and bumpy roads were a bit much for us, but they were exceptionally much for Musti – he vomited in the bus, twice. It’s also worth noting that the Caithness countryside doesn’t boast very good mobile connections, if any. Most of the time we had absolutely no network to: call ScotRail again, load up Google maps, call a local, or even let our friend down in Inverness know we were going to be late.

Unhappy dog on a bus

Musti not being very happy about our arrangement

After the night fell and the heavy rainfall showed no signs of stopping, when we were already two hours late from the schedule and far away from even being half way to Inverness, in the pitch black Scottish January night, we happened to run into another minibus on one of the train stations. Luckily for us, this guy was local and told our driver that the instructions he had gotten were completely insane and made absolutely no sense. We wouldn’t be in Inverness before midnight, if even then, as the weather was so unpredictable.

We actually didn’t find out why this other minibus was just hanging out at this random station two hours after the official train time – I guess he was also a bit lost. His bus only had a couple of passengers and he said he had been instructed to drive straight to Inverness.

Going up a mountain in a minibus

The drivers negotiated so that all of our bus transferred into his and we were finally actually on our way to Inverness (instead of eternal perdition) and eventually we did arrive, though three hours later than was at any point necessary.

The fate of our English driver remains a mystery.

Of aching jaws and nuclear power

Man, I’ve seen some windy weather in my life. I have.

Me and Musti on a windy hillside

Me and Musti almost blowing away

Never have I seen windy weather like yesterday.

We had been putting off going on a hike for the last couple of days as the weather was so wild and unpredictable. The rain and the hailstone showers had stopped for the moment so we called up a friend of ours, Kenny – a local hike connoisseur, who’s always up for a good stroll.

Musti and Kenny at Sandside Harbour

Musti and Kenny at the harbour

We decided to go somewhere relatively close and easy access, so we headed towards Sandside – a small beach in the village of Reay, just across from the mainly decommissioned Dounreay nuclear site.

While the weather had calmed regarding hailstones, the wind had gotten worse. I’m not sure I can even explain it better than saying that “it was just really, really windy”. The sea was throwing itself in raging, periodic attacks on the cliffs and the slippery black shale rocks, almost as if trying to escape its own temper.

Half of the photos are so shaken up I can’t really use them!

A rather interesting curiosity is, that the rather lovely Sandside beach is in fact a radioactive beach. We have a friend who’s involved in the off-site radioactivity measurements though and she said that so far it’s all gravy.

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Some british cheddar

Of British food and unfortunate history

I actually don’t really understand why Britain has a reputation for not having good food. Traditional British food is wonderful!

I’m probably a bit biased, having a Scot as my lover, but I genuinely think that the “bad British food” rap is quite unfair and not even true. (I don’t mean to diss, but come on – Germany & the many variations of the dreadful Wurstsalat, the Swiss who mainly just melt cheese and the Dutch with – I don’t even know what any of that is)

In my opinion, if compared to France, nobody comes off too good in Central/Northern Europe. That is regarding contemporary cuisine – during Edwardian era Britain, gastronomy and the culinary arts, particularly amongst the upper class, were at an all time high. You might be familiar with this, if you’ve watched these guys eat & dine & drama all the livelong day:

The cast of Downton Abbey

What changed the course of British gastronomy were the World Wars. Accoring to Ivan Day, a British food historian who runs historic cooking classes (!!!), the cook books of the Edwardian era are high quality with stunning and complex recipes – for the middle- and upper-classes, of course.

My personal favourite being these “fancy ices” – as in ice cream cakes (???) in ludicrous forms, made with copper and pewter moulds, without any electric refrigeration.

Edwardian fancy ices

Ta-daa! I want the pineapple for my birthday. Picture courtesy of

Due to the strict British class society, much of the culinary mastery and special skills vanished already through the casualties of WWI. With lack of skill and shortages in imports and thus supplies (Britain is an island, after all), many of the lavish foods prepared just a couple of decades earlier throughout the country, disappeared completely from the tables of the British upper-class. And of course, rationing both during the war as well as during the aftermath for the whole of Europe and the US, shrunk the post-war menus even further. (buh-bye, sugar and cream!)

And although Britain was not the only country rationing during the wars, after the Second World War they kept rationing longer than most of continental Europe: the scheme was lifted slowly and gradually after the wars, finally ending entirely in 1954. (In France it ended a couple of years earlier and in Germany in year 1950 – naturally excluding the DDR, they kept on trucking with their rationing cards until 1958) 

Somehow, through earlier implications from the industrialisation, the wars and undoubtedly some series of unfortunate events, Britain did not really recover and regain the skill, flavour and complexity it had before – and the reputation of bad British food is actually a remnant of the bland and poor, austerity ridden post-WW era. If you want to read more about this, NPR interviewed Mr. Day in 2012 about this topic.

Beyond the aristocratic food bacchanals, a heart breaking example of the impact of the Wars in British food culture is the case of the British cheddar and artisanal cheese. The whole artisanal cheese scene was completely wiped out due to rationing: most of the milk produced was directed to making “Government Cheddar” (as ALL other cheese was banned between 1940-1954!!!), leaving Britain stranded in the 70s with only 33 farms making quality cheddar, down from a whopping 514 farms before the war. 

Anyway, today in Kirkwall, we ordered meals which incorporated two of the possibly most misunderstood staples of British cuisine: fish & chips and haggis (served as part of a chicken supreme, though). The actual haggis is even better, or deep fried as a drunken snack from a Glaswegian hole-in-the-wall and surprising as it may be, even the canned haggis we have back in Karlsruhe, isn’t half bad!

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beautiful colourful heather

Of Sunday hikes and sunsets

Caithness is breathtaking.

Sunset in Caithness

We were laughing yesterday that the Scotland map W has imprinted in my head is quite different from the map people generally have. Scotland is often reduced to the biggest, Southern cities: Glasgow and Edinburgh. Or even cities in general. However, I dare to say the best of Scotland is out in its nature and wilderness. I know this can be said about practically any place, but there is so much more to see and experience than the cities: the mountains, the fields, the hills of heather and ferns. The farm houses in the distance and fluffy sheep. The majestic cliffs, raging waves, silly little puffins. Fishing boats. Over 180° horizons. Windy, secluded towns, made of flagstone. Standing stones, cairns – almost mystical, inexplicable history. Castles, too. And VIKINGS.

The second time I was travelling to Scotland, almost four years ago in April, I took the Caledonian sleeper from London, and I was woken up by the sunrise peeking through the train curtains. The first sight of Scotland I had saw a bright purple, never-ending fields of wild heather, as far as I could see, on both sides of the train. I fell asleep again before the heather fields reached their end. So, let’s have a little reminder of Scottish geography:

map of scotland

There’s plenty North of Glasgow and Edinburgh. I also love Scotland in the winter. Generally not showcased as the best season to visit, I think it has a very particular feel to it during the winter. It emphasises the forces of nature, the wild weather and the wilderness. There’s the foggy darkness in the evening. There are no tourists, no attractions and many areas are just shut down and deserted. It’s windy and quiet. Near the sea, you only hear the sea and maybe the seagulls.

We went on a Sunday afternoon hike to Dorrery (according to Wikipedia, it’s a “small hamlet”) and Ben Dorrery hill.

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Dry stone wall in Thurso

Of Thurso: sea-sides and small-town boys

Thurso is a fascinating little town.

W is from Thurso – the Northernmost town of mainland Scotland. I actually challenge you to check on Google Maps where it is. Nah, nevermind, I’ll just add a link here.

Caithness coastline

I cannot get enough of these views, their majestic rawness, their almost inexplicable beauty. Brace yourselves – there will be plenty of adjectives in this post. There is something to the smell of the sea in the air, the distant yet distinguishable Orkney silhouette in the horizon, the wild grey sea and the overarching grey sky.

Drystone wall with lichens

Every time I walk out to the street from our friend’s place and get a view to the sea, I feel a sense of relief. I could live for these landscapes – maybe that’s why people stay here, or come back. Quite a few of W’s friends who left to big cities for university, eventually came back. Quite genuinely – I can understand why. How do you get used to not seeing this every day? Do you not feel completely suffocated in a land lock city?

Thurso beach

When we go for a walk closer to the shore, where the river meets the sea, it’s hard to tell exactly where the sky begins and the water ends.

I’m not gonna lie to you, there isn’t much to do or see in the traditional sense of touristic activities. But that’s sort of the beauty of it: you walk at the beach, you stare in the distance and breathe in the salty air, you have a pint or ten in the pub. You go home. Rinse and repeat. You can go to the movies though. And to the only night club in town. (they’ve got a wikkid  website, too) There are also quite a few standing stones you can visit.

I have a sense for rugged aesthetics. I choose a winter holiday in northern Scotland over a beach holiday in Southeast-Asia any day. At face value, Thurso is this grey, grim looking windy town made of  sandstone. But somehow, there is just so much more to it. Probably the best people I know come from Thurso. I often wonder, if the nature and our surroundings shape our characters.

So what should you do once in Thurso?

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Inverness near the castle

Of taking trains north (to Inverness)

We left Portsmouth with a Southwest train heading to London King’s Cross, with Inverness as our final destination.

We had gotten a fabulous deal with an early booking and travelled first class from London to Inverness. Though it’s perfectly okay travel in the standard class with a dog, we thought that investing in both our and other passenger’s comfort was well worth the extra 20 quid and it turned out to be an excellent decision when travelling with a woofer.

It also turned out to be generally the best and the smartest thing ever, as Network Rail had been working on the tracks over Christmas (when the railway is closed) but had not gotten it done on time. All trains from London to Scotland were cancelled on the 27th, meaning that nobody who had to go north that day was able to go north that day.

These rail work delays were actually anticipated beforehand, so for two days we stalked some wonderfully, painstakingly detailed train discussion forums to get some insight on whether we should even bother going to London. I mean, if there was a chance that our reservation wouldn’t be valid due to the cancellation.

seat reservation ticket

Well, everything turned out just fine, reservations were valid and all – though even first class was fully booked. I don’t want to know how it would have been in the standard class with a dog. Someone probably would’ve punched us in the face.

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