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   fun with Norwegians
Monday, August 6 2007

setting: Cuildorag House, Onich, Scotland, UK

Last night we'd decided to strip down our travel plans after a careful analysis of the ferry timetables. There was just no way for us to get out to the outer Hebrides and return in time for our scheduled days at a B&B in Lairg (in northern Scotland). So today our goal was to penetrate deep into the Isle of Skye (a so-called "inner-Hebride"), spend the night there at an as-yet unknown location, return to the mainland, and then continue up to Lairg.
This morning, after gathering up our stuff and setting off from Cuildorag House for the last time, we found ourselves waiting again at the place (56.706 N, 5.232 W) where we'd already caught two other rides. For some reason, though, nobody was picking us up and we were gradually growing frustrated. If I recall correctly, a light rain began to fall. And at some point a car driven by other guests at Cuildorag House, a couple who had eaten breakfast with us this very morning, stopped and waited for an opening in the traffic in the road right next to us and then accelerated past on their way to Fort William, dragging their empty backseat behind them. That really pissed Gretchen off.
But then, out of nowhere (as it always seems to appear when you're hitchhiking), a car had pulled over. It was being driven by a redheaded Scotsman with a perfectly understandable accent. It turned out that he was going all the way through Skye to the Outer Hebrides. We only needed him to get as far as Portree, the largest village on Skye. We couldn't believe our luck!
At some point our driver introduced himself as John. It turned out that he worked as a freelance insurance adjuster for commercial fish farming operations, whose massive 30-meter-wide circular baskets can be seen in some of the sea lochs (equivalent to Norwegian fjords) throughout northwestern Scotland. John was typical of the people who pull over and give rides to strangers. He wanted to give us the chance to take pictures of the things we were passing. He wanted to show us the things along the way that we'd never see if we weren't with him. He took us to a memorial for WWII British commandos. Then he stopped at an overlook where the government had made a feeble attempt to restore the mixed birches, aspens, pines, and spruces of the native Scottish forest (as opposed to the sad pine and spruce plantations one normally sees). Most spectacularly, he took us on a detour to an ancient Iron Age fortress called Dun Telve Broch, much of whose dry-stacked masonry has lasted about two thousand years. Interestingly, as we were leaving the broch, I identified some maples in the distance and John said, "No, we don't have any maples here." But he was wrong; it was clearly some sort of maple, which became obvious as we approached, and I'd seen many others. He qualified his initial impression by saying he didn't know much about trees. But even so, how would he get the idea that there were no maples in his homeland? It's a little like the people who, even as adults, have never noticed that the moon is often visible in the daytime.
Continuing to show us things we'd never see as tourists making our way unassisted, John crossed us over to Skye not on the bridge, but on a tiny four-car ferry at Glenelg. The ferry's deck featured a large turntable system which allowed the ferry to always approach the shoreline the same way while allowing cars to drive on and off without backing up.
Unlike Ken from a few days ago, John had normal human needs, so we had to stop for a snack and a pint in a pub in the charmless town of Broadford (in the south-central part of Skye) before continuing north up the island.
The barren rugged green mountains of Skye were shrouded in mist, but they were nevertheless beautiful, in that increasingly-familiar way of the Highlands. Still, I had to wonder (as I had been all along), why was all this land being kept barren? Are sheep really such a valuable commodity? Why isn't there a bigger push to reforest these mountains? The benefits of timber products, natural diversity, erosion prevention, and improved water quality (both sea and fresh) would outweigh whatever value is coming from those sheep. But, as Jared Diamond teaches us in Collapse, the arbitrary values of a culture are something it will sooner die with than change.
John dropped us off smack bang in the center of Portree, Skye's largest town. The streets were bustling with tourists and it seemed unlikely we'd easily find a bed for the night. Gretchen tried the Portree Independent Hostel as a lark, assuming there'd be no beds. (Long ago she'd made a weak promise to herself never again to sleep in a hostel; she hates having to nudge strangers to get them to stop snoring.) But there were beds and so we checked in. We'd be sharing a room with another couple, two young lovey-dovey love birds who'd be sleeping together in the same bunk behind a canopy of towels.
I would have been content to kick back with a pint in Portree but for Gretchen the day was still young and there was much left to see on Skye. She wanted to see Dunvegan Castle up in the northwest corner of the island. So soon enough we were out on Dunvegan Road at the edge of town (57.41369 N, 6.202 W), thumbing for a ride. When a car pulled over for us, looked at its content and suffered a pang of cognitive dissonance, since it was violating all our demographic assumptions. The car contained three people: a young couple and, in a baby seat in the back, their infant son Patrick. We crammed into the back beside the baby. I'd never seen Gretchen be this nice to a white baby before, and I'm including her own nephew here. She was cooing over the little guy and retrieving various toys for him to paw over. Meanwhile his parents were telling us about themselves. She was a teacher and he was an orderly at a nursing home when not caring for their wee son. "It's all wiping bums, just some bums are bigger than others," he observed. The conversation grew increasingly radical and socialist as we headed north across the rolling barren countryside flecked with white stone cottages. The family had initially been driving around without an intended destination just as a way to get their baby to fall asleep, but when we said we were going to the castle, they were happy to take us all the way there.
Tickets to tour the castle were expensive, something like £10 ($20) each, and somehow I lost the tickets on the way between the gatehouse and the castle and there was only a half hour left before it would be closing. I went through all the bits of paper in my pocket and came up with nothing, until eventually the scrawny grannies staffing the place gave up and waved us in. (Later Gretchen found the tickets in her pocket, and she was eventually able to sell them at fifty pence to the pound to other tourists in our hostel!).. Dunvegan was a bit disappointing on the inside, looking like any other finely-plastered/richly-furnished museum dedicated to the memory of a Victorian or Edwardian. It wasn't too different in there from, say, the FDR museum in Hyde Park, although there were perhaps a few more swords and paintings of gentlemen in plaid skirts. Things became a bit more interesting when we came upon the castle's dungeon, a feature absent from Roosevelt's childhood home. The entrance to the dungeon was from the top, from a room amidst the otherwise-gentile world of overstuffed furniture, oil paintings, and lavish moldings. In this room's floor was a metal grate through which we could see the stone-walled dungeon below. It was presently occupied by two languishing plastic mannequins who periodically coughed and moaned through some sort of sound system. It's all very funny now, but back in the 14th Century one of the Clan elders supposedly threw his own daughters down there after they'd run away with some local boys. The boys were hung and the girls were allowed to starve to death as the smell of cooking food in the kitchen wafted into their cell through a sadistically-positioned slit in the wall. Back in those days Christians made the Taliban look like revelers at Burning Man. We later got a chance to see the kitchen and that wall slit to the dungeon, which has survived countless castle renovations.
More interesting than the castle itself was the grounds around it. Below the castle lay a harbor which, on this day, was uncomfortably blustery and occasionally rainy. But behind the shelter of the trees were various gardens and greenhouses, all of them rich with stone features, bizarre plants, and sculptures.
Gretchen saw someone getting into a car in the castle parking lot as we were preparing to hitchhike back to Portree, so she hurried to the end of the lot and stuck out her thumb. Just like that she had us a ride back to Portree, the shortest hitchhike ever. We found ourselves in a car with pair of Norwegians, one of whom was reminding us half-seriously that we shouldn't take his expensive camera from the back seat when we leave.
Unlike their ancestors, these Norwegians hadn't come to rape and pillage, and there was no dragon on the hood of their Volkswagen. Indeed, they weren't even wearing helmets with pointy horns, and there was no way we would have known they were Norse unless they told us. For his part, Sjør, the male half of the couple, was so good at affecting various British accents that we would have believed him had he said he was a Scotsman. His wife Siren was far more demure. Sjør and Siren had taken a 24 hour ferry ride across the North Sea from Bergen, Norway to Newcastle in England, and were now on a tour of the Highlands. In Norway cars are driven on the right side of the road and the steering wheel is on the left, and Sjør was still getting used to driving on the left, which isn't quite as easy when the steering wheel is there too. Sjør explained that the Romans used to drive their chariots on the left so they could more easily whack off the heads of oncoming traffic with their right arms. He said that Napoleon changed the rules in the parts of Europe he conquered just because he so despised the British, the biggest left-driving nation.
When riding with Norwegians in a land that used to be ruled by them, the subject of Norse influence is constant touchstone for conversation. The Norse found the fjord-rich northwestern Scotland a familiar landscape ideally suited to their preferred method of transportation, and after plundering it for years, gradually began to settle the place. The very name of the island we were on, Skye, is the Norse word for clouds. By the way, many English words that begin with "sk-/sc-" are loan words from Norwegian or Danish, injected into the language before 1500 AD.
The Norwegian took us to the door of our hostel in Portree and then went off on their own to find a place to stay in the town. At that point Gretchen and I went to dinner at Prince of India, a nearby restaurant serving our consensus cuisine of choice. It was the first serious restaurant meal of the trip, though being penced-and-shillinged for extra rice substracted substantially from the experience.
After dinner, as we were coming up the hill from the restaurant, we came upon Sjør and Siren again, so we decided to stay close and look for a pub with music suitable for the drinking of numerous pints. Sjør already looked intoxicated from whatever he'd drunk for dinner, but that might just have been the stiffness of his legs, whose sinews had been destroyed through the years by a combination of skiing accidents and basketball. Both he and Siren, though a good bit older than us, had a funky youthful vibe about them. This was particularly true of Sjør, who, for example, found a reason at one point to flash gang signs with his hands and talk about how "dope" something was.
We ended up at some pub where Sjør paid for nearly all our drinks (we'd been complaining about the exchange rate, and they'd been able to afford a ferry ride with their car from Bergen, so I suppose this was fair). By the end of the evening we were already planning to spend the day with them tomorrow. We'd be going up around the north end of Skye and down the east coast, and then on to the mainland and points beyond.

Dunvegan Castle.

The Norwegians, Sjør and Siren.

See more photographs from the Scotland trip.

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