MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Europe”

Return to Amsterdam

It was an early morning flight that took me away from my Homeland once more, speeding towards Amsterdam with an unusually high tail wind. In fact, the flight I was on broke a record for the route, having reached Amsterdam well ahead of schedule and before I knew it I was back at the Clink Noord hostel in Amsterdam Noord. There was a totally different vibe to the city than there had been a couple of weeks prior. The weather was looking a lot more unsettled for one, but it was a Saturday, and as it turned out, there was a city-wide walking festival taking place in a city full of bikes. The crowds on both sides of the IJ river were intense. But despite this, I couldn’t come back to Amsterdam and not do it on wheels this time, so after dumping my stuff at the hostel, I hot-footed it round to the nearby bike rental office to get myself some transport for the day.

The free ferry across the IJ river was as packed with walkers as it was cyclists, and a surge of people disembarked at the Amsterdam Centraal pier. I cut up and under the railway station and immediately came out at a mass of people, cyclists, trams and cars. It took every sense I had at full alert to navigate this sea of hazards whilst trying not to get herded in the wrong direction nor fall off the bike. I didn’t want to end up in the city centre which was where the masses were going, so I cut off towards the Jordaan district to try and shed the crowds. I wasn’t always sure of the street signage to determine rights of way so at times I meandered off in random directions, doubling back or winding round canal networks if necessary. It wasn’t being lost, it was just making an interesting route. I knew where I was aiming for, but I had no time commitments and it was fun to explore side streets as I went. There were pockets of the Jordaan district that were busier than others but the main bridges across the canals were often a focal point for tourists and I could see some locals getting annoyed with those that abruptly stopped on the bridges when they were trying to go about their daily lives.

 

The crowds started to build up as I circumnavigated the main city centre and aimed for the crossing near the Rijksmuseum, marking the entrance to the museum district. This is one of the city’s major tourist zones and there were people walking, cycling and stopping everywhere. Whilst the large facade of the famous museum dominated the view forward, I was more interested in the beautiful turreted building that stood on the river opposite it. The bridge here, like many of the city’s bridges, had flower baskets along the railing and the blooms added a pretty touch to those canal views. Amsterdam has some incredibly famous museums with some incredibly famous exhibits, but the museum district was not my target destination at that stage, so after getting my fill of photographs of the canal, I cut in front of the museum instead of under it as most people were doing, and headed a couple of blocks away to the narrow entrance of Vondelpark.

 

I loved cycling through Vondelpark. From this access point, the park was narrow, and consisted mainly of the access path and a bit of green space either side, but after a long stretch of this, it cut under a road and entered the main part of the park where immediately I found myself at a lake and a route decision to make. Although busy being a Saturday, only small pockets felt crowded, and I was loving the cycling, so I started off by looping the park round the outer trail, past pretty buildings, statues and lakes. The main track was wide enough for multiple bikes to pleasantly pass each in other in both directions and before I knew it, I was back at the first lake where I’d started. The second time through, I utilised the narrow secondary tracks to snake through the park and enjoy the various points of interest. Being late September, it was autumn, so there was a variable amount of blooms and foliage. I spied a heron in a lake where some fountains sprouted up, and nearby there was a rose garden where some roses were still thinking about blooming.

 

After this second circuit, I was getting hungry and decided to get lunch at one of the cafes halfway up the park, but when I got there there was absolutely nowhere to lock up my bike. I’d noticed often as I’d cycled through the streets that every available post or bike park was often taken and in other places, especially bridges, it is not allowed to lock your bike. I certainly didn’t want to risk losing the bike, so after circling round the area looking for somewhere free, I eventually had to give up. I cut across to the more southern side of the park where a path hugged a lake across from some large houses. The sky was rather grey but the reflections of the houses on the water were still distinct. Nearby, there was an exit from the park and I headed back into the melee of streets and urban life.

 

I was only a few blocks from the museum district and turning onto the main street of Van Baerlestraat took me deep into chaos. The pavements were packed with people, the cycle lanes packed with cyclists and between all of this was a very busy tram line. I passed eateries that were packed to the brim, and struggling to negotiate the crowds, I found it difficult to get off this street, being herded by the masses in a straight line. There was definitely a knack to turning against the flow, and whilst the locals knew how to do it, I certainly did not. I ended up a lot further down than I’d planned to before I was able to cross over and double back. My hunger was driving me, so I decided to park up the bike and look for a place to eat on foot, but this was easier said than done as every possible bike park was full. Cutting down back street after back street I finally found a single bike park and quickly claimed it, only to discover that I couldn’t work the padlock. Finally sussing it out, I was glad to get walking for a bit, mentally making a note of where I’d left the bike as I made turn after turn to retrace my steps back to the main street.

The cafe that I’d eyed up from the bike was beyond crammed when I walked there and so was every other cafe within sight. Only when I found myself at the Stedelijk Museum did I realise there was a large restaurant there, so finally I could satiate my appetite. I spend a lot of time travelling solo and this means I eat out a lot solo. Even at home in New Zealand, I have no qualms about dining alone, but in different countries, this habit is often met with a variety of responses. The man that was serving me here at the museum restaurant seemed a little put out that I was on my own. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of tables, but I seemed a little unimportant to him, and I struggled to get served. If I hadn’t been so hungry I might have walked out, but eventually I got myself a coffee and a sandwich. My coffee arrived with a little Stroopwafel, a small Dutch wafer biscuit, and although the coffee was much better than the one I’d had near Anne Frank Huis on my first visit to the city, it still wasn’t as good as back home.

The weather was really making a turn for the worse by the time I was back out on my bike. The clouds were thicker and darker and there was a hint of rain in the air. There had been a few light and brief showers as I’d cycled that morning, but the afternoon was looking ominous. I’d seen photos on social media of the ‘I amsterdam’ sign outside of the Rijksmuseum and when I first saw it in the distance, it was only a hint of the red and white amongst a sea of people. The crowd here was phenomenal and for the first time I felt like was seeing the Instagram effect. As I moved closer, I was astounded by the mass of people posing on or in front of this sign, with people dictating to and grumbling about the people in and around their shot. It was impossible to get a photo without a multitude of other people and I found myself taking photos of the crowd itself rather than the sign. It was an unbelievable scene. There were some distinctive buildings around here though, so I left the crowd to ogle at these for a while before it started to rain.

 

I wasn’t interested in visiting any of the museums, so when it looked like it might get quite wet, I decided to head for the nearby Heineken Brewery. Finding a bike park round the corner from it, I joined the long crowd of people waiting to get in. If planned ahead, it is possible to book a time slot to turn up for, but on a whim, I had to wait in a queue for a space to open up. It took quite a while to get in, and the rain was just starting to get heavy as I finally made it indoors. It turned out to be both interesting and fun. In groups, we were led round an introductory section where staff talked about the history and the beer itself, and as we went deeper into the experience, the groups merged together to form a mass of people gradually meandering around the one-way system. Passing giant vats and an old cart horse, the experience became a bit more digital as we got shepherded into a large room for a CGI experience. Out the other side of that, we got our first taste of the beer with a small glass of Heineken.

 

The rest of the levels were quite interactive with the ability to film short movies, and pose for silly pictures. There was so much information about the history of and association with this famous beer, and I was amazed with how much time could be spent here. These latter levels were also completely blocked in with no windows to see the world outside, and it felt like a rabbit warren walking through small corridors and holes in the wall, up and down stairs with no idea where I’d come out. Where the route did end up was what I assume was down in a basement, in a busy and loud bar where you could claim the 2 glasses of Heineken that were part of the entry fee. This sort of thing is the one time I can feel a bit self conscious being on my own, especially as I’m introverted and won’t openly talk to strangers. Nonetheless, I found a spot with my beers to hover and I enjoyed them immensely. I’m really not into beer, but Heineken and Stella Artois are the two that I actually quite like, so I enjoyed these more than I had done the Tennents Lager on my recent trip to that brewery a week or so prior.

After quite some time in the cocoon of the Brewery, I was shocked to step outside to heavy rain. Back on my bike which was soaking wet, I pedalled back to the Rijksmuseum to discover that the crowd had thinned out a lot by the famous sign. The food trucks I’d spotted earlier were thankfully still open and I ordered some waffles to huddle up and eat under an umbrella as the workers started to pack up for the day. The rain got heavier and heavier until it was torrential so by the time I’d finished my waffles, there was barely a sole at the sign and I was able to snap a quick photograph before the cold drove me onwards. In the archway of the Rijksmuseum, there was a group of men playing classical music and they had drawn a decent crowd. It was a good excuse to shelter from the rain for a bit, but it became increasingly clear that the weather was not planning on abating. I had had a whole route planned back to the hostel to see a few more sights but the weather meant that my day was going to have to be curtailed as before long once back on the road, my waterproof jacket failed and I became soaked to the skin.

 

By the time I reached Amsterdam Centraal it was dark and gloomy and I was hungry again. I parked my bike and headed inside to eat at one of the eateries there. Grabbing a free spot in an otherwise busy restaurant, I waited and waited and waited to get served. I failed to grab anyone’s attention, and after an extended time drooling over other’s people meals and feeling positively ignored, I walked out and bought some food at the market shop to take back to the hostel. It was still grey the next morning when I made the now familiar trundle with my suitcase to the pier, across the IJ river and into the train station to head to the airport. I’d left with plenty of time and so had a lot of time to wander around the expansive terminal. The elephant parade was on display so there were several of these dotted around the terminal to look at and I laughed to myself when at the end of the terminal, I stepped outside to find another ‘I amsterdam’ sign with absolutely no-one about. The backdrop might not be as impressive as the Rijksmuseum, but that was okay. Finally it was time to leave Europe behind and head to Asia, to finally explore the city who’s airport I know so well.

Fife Coastal Path

For 117 miles (188km), the Fife Coastal Path leads the way round the coastal edge of the Kingdom of Fife, from the Firth of Tay to the Firth of Forth. Despite being officially opened some time ago, I hadn’t really heard much about it, but when my brother suggested we do a section of it on my most recent trip back to Scotland in September last year, I was happy to take the suggestion. With both brothers living in the southern suburbs of Glasgow, we set off early, leaving the dark clouds of the west coast behind for the not quite 2hr drive across to the east coast. We planned on sticking to the Forth estuary side, walking west from Crail to Elie, and with a bus to catch, we were eager to get the distance behind us. We made it to Elie and found a park with a brief bit of time ahead of the bus that took us through the various villages before we got off at Crail.

 

A long time ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I used to date a guy who had a pilot’s licence and his own plane. I remember flying over the patchwork of inland Fife and the coastal villages and it was a perspective of the coastline that most people won’t see with their own eyes. I was excited to see the coast from ground level and it had been so long since I’d explored Fife at all. Crail’s main street was compact with narrow side streets and the buildings had the village vibe going on with their brick look. Passing the distinctive Golf Hotel, we cut down Kirkwynd to find the coast and the starting point for our walk. The tide was out, displaying the sloping slabs and boulders of the coastline.

 

Just before the harbour, we cut up to the elevated path under the wall of the Watch House and this gave a great view onto Crail’s harbour, which would have looked prettier had the tide been in. As we entered the harbour proper, I was amused by a sign stating not to feed the gulls that had a big splat of bird poo on it, as if the gulls had taken vengeance. Cutting up to the road to skirt the back of the small beach, I spotted the Isle of May off the coast, an island which I’d visited many moons ago with my dad, and which is great for lovers of sea birds. The views over Crail were also spectacular as we cut round the corner and left the streets behind to rejoin the path.

 

The path remained low and gently undulating as we made progress along this long uninterrupted section. About halfway to the next village we found ourselves at Caiplie Caves, a tall red sandstone structure that had been shaped by the pounding waves after the retreat of the glaciers. More a series of inter-linking arches than true caves, they were fun to weave through and the colour of the red sandstone was divine. We’d pretty much been under a blue sky and warm sun up to now but as we continued west, the sky grew more hazy: the leading edge of the weather system that we’d left behind on the west coast that morning. Flat agricultural fields spread out to our right, and the gently lapping waves accompanied us to our left.

 

After this long rural section, we reached the relative sprawl of Cellardyke. After leaving the caravan park behind, the path became the road that lead down to the harbour and then through a maze of narrow streets lined by tightly knit brick buildings. At one point, in a gap between the buildings we spied a puffin sculpture that had been carved out of a tree stump. It’s not overly clear where Cellardyke ends and Anstruther begins, as the two appear to merge seamlessly into one another, but Anstruther is the hub of this coastline with the largest harbour of all that we would visit that day, and a tourist draw, making it a pretty busy place to be. After our solitude for the past few hours, it was a bit of a shock to be amongst the relative hustle and bustle of this harbour town.

 

Anstruther is famous for its fish and chips, being made with fresh catch of the day, and with the crowd, all of the eateries at the waterfront were busy. We were pretty hungry by this stage, but eventually settled for a sandwich out of a tiny little cafe at the far end of the harbour front. We ate them on the pier, staring out at the boats moored up and making the most of the warm day. On the opposite side of the pier was the view of the route ahead: the little beach framed by a small church and more quaint little buildings. I was enjoying walking through the village streets as much as I was the coastal views because the narrow streets felt historic and there were so many pretty and cute little cottages and inns, such as the Dreel Tavern on the way out of Anstruther.

 

We finally found ourselves back at another beach where the path resumed, taking us next to the local golf course. There were plenty of people on this part of the path as well as plenty of people out on the golf course next to us and I secretly wondered if anyone had ever been hit by a stray golf ball. At the far end of the golf course was the next fishing village, Pittenweem where we popped into a local shop for some local ice cream to fuel ourselves for the final few hours of the walk. The tide had remained quite a way out for our walk so far, which had made some sections look a little less picturesque, but past the main harbour, the lower water level had allowed for some pretty cool reflections of the nearby cottages in the water. The final section of Pittenweem took us past a row of pretty cottages which faced out to the sea, several of them with benches outside to enjoy the view from.

 

It was another long uninterrupted section that eventually brought us to a busier part of the walk by the St Monans windmill and salt works. Being a short distance from St Monans, there were a lot of locals out for a stroll here. We managed to get the windmill to ourselves for a bit before some of the other walkers arrived, but by this stage my eldest brother was getting a little antsy to be finished. The clouds had thickened up and the hours had ticked by and so we pushed on. Past yet another fishing harbour, and through more village streets we came face to face with the pretty and dominating Auld Kirk of St Monans. The first church on this spot dates from the 13th century and it commands the coastline with its little cemetery around it. Here there is a brief diversion with a high tide route and a low tide route, but we were able to stick to the lower route, skirting below the church and continuing onwards to a slightly more dramatic stretch of coastline.

 

With a few small cliffs along this next section, it was much more undulating, and a few historic ruins dotted the way. A round structure sits at a bend in the path and beyond here, the ruins of Newark Castle stand resolutely above a small cliff. Past the other side, the track cut down to sea level again meaning the ruins seemed to dominate the now grey skyline. Further along, the path cut through the middle of another ruin, this time the 15th century Ardross Castle, and past here we could finally see the structure that marked the end of our walk, Lady Janet Anstruther’s tower on a headland at the end of a long stretch of beach.

 

When we finally reached the end of the beach, the coastal path curved inland a little, and whilst I would have liked to have gone down to the tower, my brother was keen to get home and so I looked at it from afar before we cut across to Ruby Bay and then the large expanse of Elie harbour. It was the last chance to see the sea before the road cut up into the streets of the village and we found ourselves back at the church where we’d caught the bus, and back to our waiting car and the long drive home. Although the clouds had gradually moved in, the weather had remained overall pleasant and it had been a great chance to catch up with my brothers properly as well as a great introduction to this beautiful coastline. Goodness knows if I’ll ever get round to doing the other sections, but I’m sure they’ll be just as stunning.

Reunions

In 2011 I made the decision to move to the opposite side of the World. Although my official plan was to go for a year, deep down I knew this was likely to be much more long term than that, and so after selling as much of my belongings as I could, and boxing up the rest, I left my friends and family behind in December of that year for an unwritten future. I spent a month volunteering in the South Pacific before arriving in New Zealand and within the first couple of weeks of reaching Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, I knew this country was to be my new home. As I had a return ticket, I used the flight home to spend Christmas with my family in 2012, and then I didn’t see them again until 2016. The long gap in between had become increasingly difficult, and I vowed to do my best to get back every couple of years if I could. With a nephew to meet and friends continuing to move forward with their lives, I had returned to Scotland in September last year with 2 weeks and no plans, so that I could dedicate my time to reunions and family time.

After a last minute change of plans in Amsterdam meant I arrived in Glasgow a day earlier than expected, it was finally time to meet my nephew. He had been in NICU during my visit in 2016 and so this was our first official meeting at the age of 2. I’d travelled for days to get there and I was met with a look of uncertainty followed by a prolonged cautious stare before eventually he decided that I was acceptable to interact with. That was the first time that my entire family were all together with my nephew, and whilst it couldn’t be further from my normal style of holiday, this epitomised exactly what this trip was all about: family.

The next day, after having some culinary reunions with some of the foods I miss from home, several of us went with my nephew to the Sea Life Centre at Loch Lomond Shores. Having moved away from Glasgow in 2006 to seek work, this was a place I had never been to, so wasn’t sure what to expect. It was a bit of a drizzly day so we headed straight into the centre out of the rain. I’m not a massive fan of zoos and aquariums, preferring to see wildlife in the wild, but for my nephew he was fascinated, and there was certainly enough things to keep him interested. He watched the otters swimming around and we hung around for their feeding talk. I love otters, and was lucky enough to have an encounter with one on a beach in the Outer Hebrides in 2010, but as they are usually wary of humans in the wild, it is not easy to see them in their natural habitat.

Passing through a short tunnel with fish swimming past us, there were some smaller exhibits before we reached the ray pool. There were some swiftly swimming rays and a couple of giant eels in there too. Nearby were some clown fish which are always a popular find. After my nephew had had his fill and the grown-ups had gotten an appetite, we headed back outside where it was now dry but still overcast. Although tucked away towards the end of Loch Lomond, there was still a hint of the surrounding mountains and forests and the paddle steamer Maid of the Loch was moored up nearby. Even with the threat of more rain, it was a pretty prospect. We headed into a cafe nestled amongst the row of shops before heading home for some haggis, neeps and tatties.

 

My parent’s back garden is very wildlife friendly which meant breakfast was often accompanied by some visitors outside to watch. Later on that next day, we took a family trip to Calderglen Country Park in East Kilbride. The weather really wasn’t that great so we weren’t able to make use of the park itself or go for any walks. Instead we headed to the glasshouse which had some meerkats and small monkeys amidst the plants and fish tanks. The meerkats were very active, digging and foraging whilst one stood on guard and their constant activity kept my nephew engaged. There was an ant colony nearby that had a rope system rigged up for them above our heads so you could watch the ants walk above you as they performed their daily chores of bringing back vegetation to the colony. When finally there was a break in the rain, we headed outside to the aviaries where we were all caught off guard by an African Grey parrot demanding some chips in a Glaswegian accent. It fascinates me how well these parrots can perform mimicry, and hearing one talk with a Glaswegian accent was just hysterical.

 

After ending the day with a friend from school and her partner, the following day was a sibling day where my two brothers and I headed to the east coast for a day of walking. We had done a similar thing in 2016 when they had joined me for day two of the West Highland Way. It is a rare occurrence for the three of us to be in each other’s company for more than a few hours since I moved out of home. We’ve spent longer time together in two’s but it was great to have a catch up as the three of us. Walking a section of the Fife Coastal Path took a large chunk of the day and aside from never having walked it before, I hadn’t been to this part of Scotland for a long time which was an added bonus.

 

I headed back into Glasgow city centre the next day to catch up with a couple of friends. I lived and worked in Aberdeen for 5.5 years before emigrating to New Zealand, and two of the friends I made there were able to meet up in Glasgow. I was amused by a comical busker on Buchanan Street as I headed to Queen Street Station to meet my friend coming down from the Granite City. As she wasn’t familiar with Glasgow, I took her to the Duke of Wellington statue and up to the observation deck at the Lighthouse so she could get a bit of a skyline view. When our other friend arrived from down south we headed to Princes Square for lunch. Full of designer shops and posh eateries, this was never a place I frequented when I lived in Glasgow during my student days. It felt like a total novelty playing ‘ladies who lunch’. Glasgow is a city full of familiarity but yet it still feels foreign to me. After eventually seeing my friends off on their respective transports, I took the familiar route to Central Station to catch a train to the south side. There was a new statue outside and a few new shops inside since last time I’d been past, but otherwise it was the same station I remembered from my nights of socialising in the city.

 

The weather the next day really wasn’t great so I hung out with my nephew indoors at his house. That evening, my friend from uni picked me up and we headed for dinner in Blantyre. The gastropub that we went to is famous for its desserts and has a large cabinet full of giant cakes. After a delicious meal, it was rude not to get a cake, but after ordering a chocolate eclair, I was presented with a foot long eclair loaded with cream. As divine as it was, there was no way I was finishing it, so the remains came home with me for my family to help me finish.

One of the tourist things I hadn’t gotten round to doing on my trip in 2016 was visiting Glasgow’s Transport Museum. It is one of the vague memories I still retain from my childhood, and the museum was moved and revamped some years ago, now a distinctive building on the bank of the River Clyde known as the Riverside Museum. Although autumn, we were still in the season for the boat that crosses from Govan on the south shore, so whilst my brother, sister-in-law and nephew drove straight to the museum for parking, my parents, other brother and myself drove to Govan and caught the little ferry over. I recognised many of the exhibits on display from the original museum, and whilst a little jumbled and cramped together in places, it was interesting enough to keep the various generations engaged. My parents could reminisce about the Glasgow of their childhood, and my nephew was enthralled with the trains and trams.

Moored up immediately outside is the Tall Ship Glenlee, which can be boarded and explored. We’d got there later than planned so unfortunately didn’t have time to get on her before it closed, but the promenade outside meant I could get a view of the river and Glasgow skyline that I hadn’t seen for so long. Some much needed investment in the city ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games has really revitalised the river bank which I always remember as being such a dump when I used to live there. The distinctive outline of the SECC on the north shore, and the science centre with its infamous tower on the south shore framed the river Clyde. Eventually, as the museum was reaching closing time, we caught the ferry back across to Govan to head home. My brother and I later went out to see Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont talking about his cycling adventures around the World.

 

After a day spent hanging out with my school friend and her kids, my nephew was in hospital for a routine visit the next morning, so I wasn’t going to be able to see him till later on. I decided to go for a walk round the suburbs I grew up in, and knowing that my high school had been bulldozed and replaced, I walked first to there to see how it had changed and beyond there I couldn’t believe how much housing and development had occurred. When I was young, my parent’s house was about a 10-15 min walk to the edge of the city and after that was miles of countryside. Fast forward a few decades and it is now a 30min walk to reach the countryside, and the paddock with the horses is gone, and the farm where I used to milk the cows is now a housing estate. The southern suburbs of Glasgow have exploded so much that for the people who live there, there is really no reason to go into the city at all with entertainment and shopping complexes all within easy reach.

 

I found myself eventually at Rouken Glen Park, location of various school events. I found wood carvings, maintained gardens and round the edge, a wilderness area through a woodland. Hidden here was waterfalls and old stone structures, and despite being a weekday, there were many people making use of the trails that cut through. Towards the southern end, I found myself at one of the park’s more well known features: a multi-tiered waterfall that flows under a stone arched bridge. I was amused to discover that the railing on the bridge had become the local ‘love-locket’ site. Copying the more famous locations in Europe where loved ones are immortalised on an engraved lock that gets attached to a bridge, there were plenty of them here too, and I read some of the engravings with feigned interest before walking round the nearby pond and then heading home.

 

After an afternoon playing with my nephew, my mum and I caught up with my aunt and cousin for dinner at Intu Braehead. I hadn’t been here before so my cousin gave me a tour to show me the indoor ski slopes and ice climbing centre that she takes her kids to. Next to the climbing centre near the entrance, I’d been eyeing up the giant helter skelter whilst my mum and I had waited for them to arrive, so I didn’t need much encouragement to have a go on it, and my cousin joined me for a slide down before we went for dinner. I hadn’t seen my cousin since her wedding in 2010 so it was great to have a chinwag after all these years.

But all good things must come to an end unfortunately and all too soon it was the last day and we spent it as a family together. Every time I go home, I insist on a group photo and this was the first time to include my nephew. I had an early morning flight back to Amsterdam the next day, so as always it was a sad farewell, this time before even going to bed as it was too early for my parents to get up the next morning. My brother kindly offered to get up and drive me to the airport at stupid o’clock in the morning, and before I knew it I was leaving Scottish soil behind once more.

Return to Glasgow

With my last minute plans to leave Amsterdam a day early, I threw my family for a bit of a loop, but thankfully they were still able to pick me up from the airport when I flew into Glasgow in the late afternoon. It had been over 2 years since I’d last seen them, but it took no time at all to slip back into the usual family dynamics as my dad drove us home through the rush hour traffic. My visit home last September was over 12 years after I’d moved away from the city and although I will always think of Glasgow as my home town, it is almost as foreign to me now as any other city I visit. The Glasgow that I remember from my student days has continued to morph and grow in my absence, and as such I love to play tourist every time I return.

On my previous visit in 2016, I spent 6 weeks gallivanting around Scotland and Iceland and although I had a fantastic time, by the end of it I felt that I hadn’t spent enough time with my family. So this time round, with just 2 weeks in the country, I went with no plans at all in order to have quality time with them, and especially to get to know my nephew who had spent the entirety of my last visit in NICU, completely oblivious to my presence. Emigrating to the other side of the World has meant sacrificing being present in my family’s lives and I have often felt jealous hearing about their time spent together and especially missing out on my nephew growing up. But meeting my nephew properly for the first time would have to wait as my unexpected early arrival meant he had plans the day after I arrived.

In 2016, I had a cracking day in Glasgow walking the Mural Trail, and there had been some new additions to the route since then, so I headed into the city on my first full day at home to take a wander around. I wasn’t so lucky with the weather this time unfortunately, but it could have been worse, so I spent the day making use of my legs and walking everywhere. I headed first to George Square which is surrounded by some iconic buildings, and was busy with people taking breaks from their work day. The distinctive pink banners stating ‘People Make Glasgow’ adorned the many lampposts surrounding the square and nearby the entire facade of a building had been turned pink with the same statement emblazoned on it. East of here was the beautiful mural painted by artist Smug of St Mungo as a baby. It ties in with Smug’s other portrait of St Mungo which I’d seen on my last visit to the city.

 

From George Street onto Duke Street I found myself at the Tennent’s Brewery. I’m not really a lager fan, and was just here for some more mural spotting, but on a whim (partly because some rain was threatening) I decided to sign into a brewery tour. A small group of us got shown round the various parts of the site before being taken back to a bar for a tasting session. My pint of Tennent’s lager was presented with a much more acceptable head than the Heineken I’d received in Amsterdam a few days prior, and we also got to taste some specialty brews including some much stronger ales. Suffice to say I was a little tipsy by the time I headed back out on the streets, cutting down the east-end streets of Glasgow to reach Glasgow Green, a place I hadn’t been to for an incredibly long time.

 

I found myself at the large Doulton fountain which was framed by the People’s Palace, one of the city’s museums. The sun was trying desperately to break through the clouds again, and after circling round the fountain to look at the ornate depictions on its circumference, I headed into the People’s Palace to look around. I’m a bit of a museum snob: I’m easily disappointed by them, with only a handful rating highly in my mind, so I wasn’t really fussed spending much time looking at the displays. I circled through only glancing at them, heading to the conservatory to wander around the plants before stopping for a late lunch in the cafe. I was excited to find they served coronation chicken sandwiches, one of those things that despite loving, had forgotten even existed. I’ve never seen it anywhere other than Scotland, so was quick to order and shovel one down when it came.

 

I had meant to wander through Glasgow Green to see the monument that had been erected for the 2014 Commonwealth Games but forgot about it, so instead of cutting through the Green, I headed back up to the main road to head west back into the city. On route, I found a couple more murals that I hadn’t seen including 1 of 3 that depicts Billy Connolly, or the Big Yin, one of Scotland’s most famous comedians and personalities. This first one I didn’t actually like, and the paint that had been used was too reflective so it was actually difficult to photograph. The rain had arrived by now, so I didn’t linger long, continuing on to the Merchant City.

 

Whilst Edinburgh is often lauded over by many foreign visitors, Glasgow has so many beautiful buildings and is brimming with statues and monuments. At the start of the Merchant City is the turreted clock tower which is faced by a mix of old and new style buildings. Whilst the Trongate at eye level looks like a collection of pubs and shops, a simple raising of the eye to the top half of the buildings reveals some stunning architecture. Heading along the Trongate towards Argyle Street brought back many memories of shopping trips with my mum when I was a kid, as I used to get brought to this part of the city to get clothes for the new school year.

 

Nearby was another Billy Connolly mural, my favourite of the three, and past here I headed into the St Enoch Centre shopping mall which had been revamped since I’d last been there, which was when I used to still live in Glasgow. Out the other side was the final Billy Connolly mural, overlooking the beer garden of a nearby pub. Unfortunately the rain returned with a vengeance, and after taking some photographs, it was time to make a hasty retreat so I headed into some shops to wait out the rain. Eventually though, the sun returned and I found the last of the murals I’d wanted to see, down an alleyway of Argyle Street, before heading up Buchanan Street, one of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares, and another street with some beautiful buildings if you look up.

 

When I’d played tourist back in 2016, I had gone to the Lighthouse and headed up to an indoor observation room. I’d discovered later that I had completely missed a higher outdoor observation deck, so this time I headed back to the museum again to suss it out. Unlike the indoor viewing area which can be reached via elevator, the outdoor area involves climbing a spiral staircase and the outer area is quite cramped. But boy is it worth it for the view overlooking the rooftops of the city. Again, I’m totally biased when it comes to my love for Glasgow architecture, and although there are some modern buildings juxtaposed against the old, there is so much history evident looking across the older buildings that disappear into the distance, with domes and turrets poking up at regular intervals. From this vantage point, the bright pink facade of the ‘People Make Glasgow’ building could be seen once more behind Strathclyde University.

 

Finally, back in the rain, I headed to my favourite statue in the city, the Duke of Wellington, which stands proudly outside the Gallery of Modern Art on Queen Street. Famous for its permanent attire of a traffic cone, this statue sums up Glaswegians for me as well as showing that people really do make Glasgow. Edinburgh is a great city, but I will always love Glasgow more and I always wander it struggling to hide the grin that the sound of a Glaswegian accent puts on my face. Sometimes I can feel quite sad about the fact I don’t have a Glaswegian accent. It’s gone in my favour whilst abroad as people can usually understand me very well, but when I hear the Weegie patter spilling out Weegie banter, my little heart swells with pride like it does to the sound of bagpipes, and secretly I wish I sounded like I belong there.

Exploring Amsterdam

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life transiting in airports, and some airports have stolen more of my life than others. As a former resident of Scotland, London Heathrow was my often unavoidable transit stop to reach a large portion of overseas destinations. After yet more arduously long layovers at LHR on my previous two return trips to my Homeland since emigrating to New Zealand, I vowed to do my damndest to avoid this soul-sucker of an airport. So when it came to my most recent visit back to Scotland in September of last year, I had done some searching of alternate routes and decided that Amsterdam would be a great alternative, given that I had never been there before and it had great connections to Glasgow, my final destination.

My style of travel differs from one holiday to another. I stay in hostels in some places, hotels in others; and I’ve done B&Bs and motels too. Some trips are planned to the hour, others are spent winging it and making it up as I go along. I might be on a budget on this trip, or able to splurge on that trip. But I will always ensure I know how to get myself from the airport to my first night’s accommodation, and it is often the ease of transit to said accommodation that determines where I will stay. The city of canals and rivers has plenty of options and locations to choose from. The city’s main sights are spread about the city and there is a multitude of transport options to get around, so after doing some research on how I would get from the airport and which parts of the city I wanted to avoid, I ended up booking in at the Clink Noord hostel in Amsterdam Noord, an area of the city across the IJ river from the main city sprawl.

After 2 flights and my customary transit in Singapore’s Changi airport, I arrived in Amsterdam tired and eager to dump my stuff and shower. The train took me straight into Amsterdam Centraal in no time at all and then I just had to trundle my bag out to the river side, jump on the free ferry across the river and trundle across the canal and round the corner to the hostel. It was too early to check into the hostel but a shower was at least an option, so once freshened up I got straight back outside again to explore. I had 1.5 days in the city before moving onward, so with this full day, it was all about walking the city. Taking the free ferry back to the city side, it was all about my two feet and I prepared to walk until they gave out.

Amsterdam is a very busy city. The pavements are crammed full of people and the roads are as filled with cyclists as they are with cars. It took a lot of concentration to make sure I wasn’t mowed down by somebody in control of wheels. The canals full of boats begins immediately past the main train station, and following a vague route, I wove my way towards the Jordaan district. I really could not recount the exact route I followed that day. I just wanted an overview of the city and its highlights and had a rough idea of where some of the city’s more distinctive buildings were. This was definitely one of those trips where I’d done a bit of research, but was effectively making up my plans as I went. I’d missed European architecture, and although the streets can at times be narrow and struggle to remain fit for purpose in a modern World, I was in love with the style of the place, quick to acquire that grin that covers my face when I go to a place for the first time that I’ve long read about or seen photographs of. As I followed first one canal and then another, I was accompanied intermittently by the noise of a passing canal boat. They came in all shapes and sizes.

 

As I approached Anne Frank Huis, the streets got busier and busier. By avoiding Centrum, I’d managed to escape the worst of the crowds so far, but now I was in touristville and everywhere was packed. I managed to find a vacant table across the canal from Anne Frank Huis and settled in to drink some terrible coffee and consume a tasty sandwich while watching the World go by. People watching is a favourite pastime of mine. The sun was vaguely trying to push through the clouds and it was nice to feel a bit of warmth having come from the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

Once satiated, I pressed on with my wanderings. At the bridge by Westerkerk, I turned deeper into Jordaan in search of interesting side streets and photogenic canals. I had no desire to go to Anne Frank Huis and as the crowds outside attested it needs to be booked ahead. I do like historical sites and some museums, but I’m not a museumophile and don’t feel the need to go to a museum just because it’s famous. I did however stop at the Anne Frank monument on my way past as I gradually headed into the melee of Centrum.

 

I eventually found myself at De Dam near the National Monument. There was a buskers show taking place and the performer seemed to be stirring up a bit of controversy as there was some tension between him and a local man who was heckling him. This place was surrounded by distinctive buildings, and despite the crowds, I hung around for a bit taking photographs and acknowledging the immense number of tourists. Heading north from here seemed to be one of the main shopping districts and tram lines which I was quick to leave behind.

 

Nearing Amsterdam Centraal, which is prettier from this side of it than the IJ side, I picked my way via the canal system to the Red Light District. It is probably a very different experience at night, but most of the windows were inactive during the daytime. Instead it was an interesting and curious region to explore and the aroma of marijuana hung thick in the air in places. This was another busy place, full of tourists and devoid of locals. I ogled at shop windows as I went and contemplated popping into the Condomerie for some novelty condoms before deciding to pass on it. I also now know where to go if I ever want cheap sex toys whilst in Europe.

 

There are some pretty buildings here too, including Oudekerk. I really loved the Dutch churches and took detours to see as many as were nearby. The tall narrow buildings that line the canals are generally very picturesque too and I spent a lot of time looking up as I wandered. Eventually I found myself at Amstel, the large canal to the south of Centrum which was broader than all the other canals I’d seen so far and was full of boats powering along in one direction or another. I’d previously spotted a boat tour that looked a little more low key compared to some of the larger commercial canal boats, and decided I’d head back to go for a canal trip. However, I’d wandered in such a maze of streets and canals, that I couldn’t quite find it again and after a large chunk of the day on my feet, I decided it was time to head back across IJ and take a break.

 

After checking into the hostel properly, I organised a ticket for the A’Dam Toren which was almost next door. After posing for some obligatory silly photos as part of the entrance fee, I headed up to the rooftop where there was a 360o view and a bar. It was a cracking view in all directions, from the expanse of IJ either side, to the city rooftops beyond Amsterdam Centraal, and elsewhere the more industrial and residential portions of the city. There was even a glass floor inside offering a view directly down to the pavement below. After taking my fill of the view, it seemed only right to order a Heineken at the bar, but I was a little shocked to be presented it with such a head on top, accounting for around 20% of the proffered drink. In the UK, the British Beer & Pub Association states that poured beer shouldn’t be served with a head exceeding 5%, so this was a strange concept to me. I didn’t complain as I was on holiday and didn’t care enough to be pernickety but on enquiring with a Dutch friend, it turned out that this larger head was normal in the Netherlands. Eventually hunger took me back across the river again, and I joined the large queue at one of the city’s recommended fast food joints to partake in some friets, the quintessential Dutch fries with sauce.

 

My original flights had me in Amsterdam for 2.5 days, but after arriving in the country, I was worried about a short connection time on my way home so opted to split my Amsterdam trip in two. So the next day I had only the morning ahead of an afternoon flight to Scotland. As I didn’t know whether I would ever return to the Netherlands or not, it made sense to seek out a molen, or windmill, one of the iconic Dutch landmarks. Being in Amsterdam Noord, I noticed on my map that there was a molen within walking distance. About 40 minutes following the Noordhollandsch kanaal brought me to Krijtmolen d’Admiraal which was built in 1792. I’ve seen windmills before in Denmark but that seemed so long ago and I was glad that I’d gone out my way to see this one.

 

My last exploration before heading to the airport was the NDSM Werf on the bank of the IJ river. With the aid of Google Maps I took as direct a route from the molen as I could and this meant wandering through residential and industrial parts of the city. Whilst I didn’t see anything of particular note, it was still interesting to see the real Amsterdam, away from the tourist hot spots and the crowds. I saw nothing but locals going about their daily business and it was a side of Amsterdam that most visitors won’t see. My reason for visiting NDSM Werf was because I’d read that it was a bit of a mecca for graffiti art which I am a fan of. There wasn’t a lot of activity when I got there, and the place was more industrial than the industrial chic that I was led to expect, but there was plenty of artwork on the walls and even a crane that had been converted into a hotel. I absorbed as much of the art as I could, including a stunning mural of Anne Frank by the incredible Brazilian artist Kobra, before working my way back to the hostel to grab my belongings. There was still plenty of things to see on my return, but my tired legs could attest to the amount of ground I’d covered on my time in the city so far. Now, there was just a few hours between me and seeing my family for the first time in 2 years.

Na h-Eileanan Siar – Part Two

It is a strange concept to be amongst fellow countrymen and yet not to understand their language, such is the decline of the Scottish Gaelic. Once a common and widely spoken language (particularly in the north and west), it was bred and beaten out of some speakers as well as replaced for purposes of trade and commerce, first by Scots, and then by English. It hangs on for dear life in places, but aside from a few key words, place names, and the bilingual signage in the north-west of the country, most of the Scottish populace do not speak it, and so generation by generation, it seems almost doomed. As it was, I was in the heart of the Gaelic community, out in the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar). I’d spent the previous few nights based in South Uist, and now it was time to head further north to a new base.

As a lover of the outdoors, there was simply too much to explore in this bilingual frontier on the Atlantic coast off Scotland’s mainland. Although the main trunk road, the A865 carves a direct line north, there were so many side roads leading to beaches and bays and rocky coastline that I was constantly weaving my way west then east in a zig-zagging fashion as I explored these hidden pockets. I was initially greeted by a rainbow through the dark clouds, but eventually the clouds broke apart to reveal some sunshine. South Uist is linked to the island of Berneray by one of a series of causeways that link the island chain. The eastern half is pockmarked with waterways, a cluster of freshwater and seawater. Between the different islands, some of my memories are a little blurred, and I cannot remember which bay or beach was where, but one of the walks I did on Berneray was up Rueval (Ruabhal in Gaelic), the highest point of the island at a mere 124m (407ft). It was hardly taxing but the view at the top over the island and beyond was beautiful. I could still see the storm clouds to the south that I had left behind and the sun glistened on the waterways beneath me.

 

I took a side road to the island of Flodda, a small island with just a handful of buildings and the odd ruin. Back on the main road, more causeways took me to the neighbouring island of Grimsay and then onto North Uist. Dotted between the sporadic houses and farms there was the occasional ruin here and there. Some of them were old cottages or farms, others were of more significance such as the Trinity Temple. Near here was the exposed and wild expanse of Baleshare’s beach, another island reached by a causeway. On a sunny summer’s day, many of Scotland’s western beaches would rival any of those paradise-inducing photographs of worldwide beaches: pristine sand and unspoilt. But for the frigid sea temperature and biting wind that often accompanies these beaches, they are still worth the visit, and often because they will be empty apart from the local wildlife. Under the dulling sky, these places can feel wild and battered, but in fact that is exactly what I love about this part of my homeland.

 

The eastern half of North Uist is again pockmarked with waterways. Taking the A867 towards Lochmaddy, I continued past the harbour settlement to continue on the A865 that circles past these lakes and inlets. At the turn-off onto the B893, I passed houses here and there, nestled near some beautiful beaches, before reaching yet another causeway to take me to Berneray, the most northern of the linked islands. Beyond here is Lewis and Harris, linked by a ferry run by Caledonian MacBrayne. The Lobster Pot Tearoom which was closed whilst I was visiting, has a sign outside which has become quite famous and is a good indicator of the local humour when it comes to the region’s notorious weather extremes. Past Blackhill, I took the road to its end and then it was time to get out on my feet and explore.

 

Cutting first across beach and then through farmland, I ascended the hill of Beinn Shleibhe which although not particularly high gave a viewpoint across to the nearby islands of Boreray, Pabay, Harris, Ensay and Killegray. I saw one other hiker far ahead of me, but otherwise I had the whole place to myself. Cutting down the other side of the hill, I stumbled onto another of the island chain’s beautiful beaches. After following it for a while, there was a natural curve creating a corner, which as I came around it, I was stopped abruptly in my tracks by the sight of an otter running out of the sea and rolling around in the sand. This is the only wild otter I have ever seen, and I was so transfixed and in the moment that I dared not move to take any photographs. To this day, the memory is still a very clear image in my head, and I stood for some time watching it roll in the sand to remove the salt from its fur, and then it duly skipped off up the nearby sand dune. Eventually, I cut up a gap through the sand dunes myself and followed a vague track back to the road where I could reach my car from.

 

Having had a fantastic start to my last day in the Outer Hebrides, I felt rushed in the afternoon to explore the rest of North Uist. Back on the A865, I passed more beautiful sand right by the road where it was clear people took their cars onto the beach. It was tempting but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck. Further on, towards the west, I reached the turnoff to Solas beach. Out on a peninsula, this whole area was beautiful even as the rain threatened to encroach. With sandy beach on both sides, there was plenty of reason to get out of the car and go for a walk. With the hours creeping on and the weather deteriorating, I found beach after beach after beach as I continued on my way, and I wished I had had more time to spend here. Eventually it was time to leave the western coast behind, and after stopping in at the St Kilda viewing platform where I couldn’t actually see St Kilda because of the advancing rain, I returned to the guesthouse I was staying in and had a wander around the farmland and beach nearby as the sun lowered.

 

That night I treated myself to an expensive dinner at a fancy restaurant near Lochmaddy. Driving home in the dark can be dangerous around these parts and I could see why when a female red deer jumped onto the road in front of me out of nowhere and proceeded to prance down the verge ahead of me for some distance before eventually disappearing into the darkness. The next morning I had a ferry to catch and a long drive to the east to reach my home at the time in Aberdeen. I always spend ferry crossings out on deck to watch the world go by and was rewarded by some porpoises riding our wake. Returning to Uig on the Isle of Skye, it was grey and overcast. I spent a large chunk of the day taking detours and side roads round Skye, visiting Waternish, Durnish and then taking the long detour to Elgol across the water from the Cuillin Range. Amidst a break in the grey clouds, the sun shone here and I stopped often to take in the changing view as I retraced my steps back to the main road. Despite Skye not being one of my favourite islands, I could see the appeal.

 

I took yet another detour down the long road towards Armadale. Although a ferry to the mainland leaves from here, I wasn’t catching it, but instead wanted to visit a part of the island that I didn’t think I’d been to before. The area around Isleornsay was especially pretty, but eventually I had to push on. Crossing over the Skye bridge back to the mainland, I reached Eilean Donan Castle, probably the country’s most famous and most photographed castle aside from Edinburgh Castle. That evening, the water of Loch Duich was calm providing a reflection of the castle that sat regally under the grey sky. I stayed at a b&b in the middle of nowhere to break up the journey, and the following day I negotiated the competitors that were cycling around Loch Lomond in the rain. By the time I reached Carr Bridge for a late lunch, the river Carr was in good flow from all the rain that had fallen of late. Beyond here, there was just the familiar drive through the mountains to return home to Aberdeen.

 

Na h-Eileanan Siar

With around 14,000 years of known human habitation, Scotland has an extensive history. With so many events to choose from, it’s understandable that the school curriculum falls short at teaching an adequate amount of it. When I was at school, most of our history teachings were focused around the first and second world wars, and whilst I’ve extensively travelled my homeland and visited historical sites of interest, I’ve felt that my knowledge of the Scotland of the past has been very fragmented and jumbled. Even last year when I was playing tourist in my country of birth I was made quite aware of my lack of awareness of how the various historical events related to each other. In a book shop in Ullapool, I found Neil Oliver’s book, A History of Scotland, and over a year later I am finally ploughing through it. Whilst the age-old habit of naming children the same as their relatives has made it hard to follow who did what at times, overall it’s left me with a much better understanding of why Scotland is the way it is today. It is incredible to think the differences that could have been if just one or two battles had swung a different way or if one or two key people hadn’t been such a pushover or in contrast so defiant. The fate of the Gaelic  (pronounced Gah-lick) language is one sad example, a fading remnant of a once stubborn independent sector of a once ununited nation.

Reading this, I was reminded of a holiday I took back in 2010 to the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar), a wild and rugged stretch of islands off the country’s west coast where the Gaelic language is holding on for dear life. Living at the time in Aberdeen, I had to drive the whole width of the country just to get to the Isle of Skye, my stepping off point for the Uists. Ask many a tourist (and Scot for that matter) and Skye is often lauded as their favourite of the islands. But not me. I think perhaps because every visit I’ve ever made there has involved torrential rain, or maybe it’s simply that it can’t compete with the experiences and memories I’ve gained on several of the other islands. Whatever the reason, it will never be my favourite Scottish isle, not even close.

 

I ate dinner at Portree in the setting sun and pulled up to my hostel on the hill overlooking Uig in the descending darkness. I’ve stayed in so many hostels over the years that only a handful of special ones stick in my mind, and this is one that has faded into nothingness. I remember nothing of the inside but the next morning under a cloudless blue sky, I definitely remember the view from outside overlooking the harbour below. I had some time to kill before the ferry departed so I took a drive east to Quirrang, a distinctive rocky landscape that featured in the movie Stardust. Despite the sunshine at Uig, this side of the island was cloaked in patches of cloud, lending a dramatic sky to the dramatic landscape. I continued round to the Old Man of Storr, another of Skye’s famous geological features, where I took the path up to its base. Soon though, it was time to return to Uig, board the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry and set sail to Lochmaddy on North Uist.

 

My plan on arrival was to drive the chain of linked islands as far south as I could get and gradually work my way north to get the ferry back nearly a week later. And so I found myself checking into a former old folk’s home that was now masquerading as a hostel, just outside of Lochboisdale on South Uist. It had been raining the whole way down and still it rained some more. I had arrived on a Sunday, a traditionally holy day of rest here in the religious west. Until relatively recently, and against a lot of local backlash even flights to the island chain on Sundays were prohibited and at the time of my visit, businesses closed their doors (a practice long since abandoned in the cities and towns of the mainland) and the place felt deserted. With the wind and rain howling outside I felt like I was in a frontier land, wild and abandoned as it was. Eventually though, I could remain holed up no longer, and geared up with waterproofs and an Ordinance Survey map, I found a local walk to kill some time. I got utterly drenched and met just one other person but as somebody who often craves solitude away from the noise of my daily life, this was perfect. Not put off by the bad weather, I headed up another walking track behind Lochboisdale where the mist and rain swirled around me obscuring my view.

 

The following day gave promise of better weather. I headed south across the causeway to Eriskay, the most southern of the linked islands and parked up in the queue for the ferry. There’s something so endearing about this old fashioned jetty style where it’s first come, first served. I’d made sure I was there early to guarantee a spot on the ferry, and with my car holding my place, I climbed the nearby hill to take in my surroundings and watch the ferry come in. The sun was out for the crossing to Barra and it remained dry the whole day I was over there.

 

Barra is a rather small island but big enough that I was glad to have my own wheels to explore it. I went for a beach walk and passed the beach runway of the local airport, the only airport in the world that has scheduled flights land on a beach, and up to the peninsula beyond where I took another walk. The rugged beaches of the wild west coast seemed positively bustling compared to the quietness I’d experienced so far. There were so many places to stop and stretch my legs. The sky was turning grey as I continued south, taking the turning down a rural road to reach the causeway for Vatersay, yet another island in the expansive chain. The beach here was beautiful and almost empty but the wind was bitterly cold, and with lots to see, I couldn’t stay as long as I would like.

 

Castlebay is the main settlement on Barra and it was so busy I struggled to find a place to park. It was a strange contrast to the rest of the Outer Hebrides, especially as there were even coach parties of tourists here. I didn’t have time to visit the castle on its rock promontory out on the bay (hence the name), and in the end I didn’t stay here long due to the parking problems. I wound my way north up the east coast, stopping often to soak up the view, before taking the ferry back to sunny Eriskay, where I made use of the evening light to explore the coastline around the causeway and the south of South Uist.

 

There was more sunshine the next morning, and I made the most of the morning light to explore Lochboisdale’s shoreline. From there I headed to the beautiful and extensive sandy beach that spans almost the entire west coast of South Uist. It was windy but gorgeous and there was barely a soul to be seen for miles. Exposed as these islands are, the vegetation is low to the ground, exposing everything to the full brunt of the Atlantic weather. With only a handful of hills in the lower half of the island chain, they are a generally low-lying landscape, and with both salt water and fresh water in great abundance, these islands are a bird-watcher’s paradise. There’s also plenty of farmland here, as harsh as the growing would be, and I spotted the distinguishable Highland Cow which is a very hardy species of cattle, as well as the equally hardy Clydesdale horse.

 

Loch Druidibeag contains an RSPB reserve where it is possible to see a lot of waterbirds, and beyond here there was plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch my legs. The apparent desolation belies its beauty and my trip so far had firmly planted this part of the country as one of my favourite parts of Scotland. On a stormy day, I’m sure this place can seem harsh and intolerable, but on a dry autumn day, it beguiled me. It was a struggle to make it far along any road here without finding yet another spot to stop for photographs. There was so much ground to cover. I ventured east to the coastline and further north to the statue of Our Lady of the Isles, a large granite depiction of the Virgin Mary, before returning to Lochboisdale for my final night here. The rest of my trip was to be spent to the north, as equally enchanting and as beautiful as I’d become accustomed to in the last few days.

Wildlife of Scotland

It is said that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. After spending over 28 years of my life living in Scotland, it took moving to the other side of the world to really appreciate some of my homeland’s special qualities. As brimming as it is with beautiful scenery, it is also full of wildlife, both urban and rural. Over the last few years I have become a bit of a bird enthusiast, and I’ve found myself paying more attention to the feathered creatures that flit about around me. Whenever I go abroad, I’m very conscious of the wildlife that lives in that foreign land, and now when I go back to Scotland, I see the wealth of wildlife with fresh eyes. From cities to lochs, and mountains to the coast, there is something to spot everywhere. Special mention goes to the otter, red fox, red squirrel, hedgehog, minke whale, harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, basking shark, white-tailed sea eagle, buzzard, kestrel and osprey which I have had the joy of seeing but haven’t been able to photograph.

MAMMALS

Reindeer

There’s only 1 herd of reindeer in the whole of the UK and they roam the mountain tops near Cairngorm, many of them coming down daily to hand-feed from visitors.

Adult Reindeer

 

Red Deer

The ‘Monarch of the Glen’, the male deer in full antlers and rutting mode is a sight (and sound) to behold. Spotted in the mountains and moors.

 

Roe Deer

The shy and solitary member of the deer family. Much harder to spot than the other deer species. This one was spotted in Caithness.

 

Grey Squirrel

An introduced species that has played a major part in the decline of the native red squirrel, these guys are a common sighting in parks and gardens, and are easy to spot without even leaving the city.

 

Rabbit

Seen as a pest by some, rabbits are often easy to spot in farmland and open fields.

 

Common Seal

From a distance, the common and grey seal can look very similar. Usually spotted hauled out onto rocks up the west coast or on the islands.

 

Grey Seal

Newburgh beach north of Aberdeen offers near guaranteed sightings of these seals. They usually haul out on the protected north side of the Ythan river there, and can also be seen swimming in the river itself watching the beach goers and dogs go by.

Grey seal in the Ythan river

Seals hauled up on the beach at Newburgh

 

Humpback Whale

A seasonal visitor to Scottish waters, they can be spotted for a very short time in the waters around the islands of the west coast.

Humpback whale off the west coast of Scotland

Humpback whale fin slapping

 

White-beaked Dolphins

Feeding pods can be spotted around the islands off the west coast if you are lucky.

White-beaked dolphin leaping

 

Common Dolphins

These deep sea feeders are my favourite species of dolphin. They can be spotted off the west coast if you are lucky.

Common dolphin

 

BIRDS

Pied Wagtail

These are commonly spotted garden and pasture birds and are widely spread across the country.

Pied wagtail

 

Chaffinch

The colourful male is easy to spot in gardens and green spaces. The female blends in more and is less distinctive, but the species is well spread across the country.

Chaffinch (male)

Chaffinch (female)

 

Blackbird

Another common visitor to gardens and green spaces. This juvenile was trying to grab the attention of its parents.

Blackbird (juvenile)

 

Wood Pigeon

This is the porky version of the common run-of-the-mill street pigeon that plagues city centres. Although they will occasionally be seen amongst their scrawny city-dwelling cousins, they are more usually seen in the suburbs or near woods.

 

European Robin

The recognisable robin redbreast that adorns many a Christmas card is best spotted in gardens.

 

Starling

A common and easily spotted bird in both urban and rural areas. These birds often flock together in mesmerising murmurations in the evening as they prepare to roost in large groups.

Bedraggled starling parent

 

House Sparrow

Another common and easily spotted garden bird.

House Sparrow

 

Song Thrush

These are the birds that I fondly remember from my childhood, singing away in the trees behind my parent’s house. They have a beautiful song, and are best spotted in areas with trees, but this includes many public green spaces and gardens.

Song Thrush

 

Carrion Crow

One of the county’s most diversely spread birds, they don’t seem fussy with their habitat and can be spotted in both urban and rural areas either singly or in groups. They are adaptable and have a varied diet, and are also known to be intelligent.

Carrion Crow

 

Swallow

Less spotted than the more common and similar-looking swift, these birds love to fly over high-insect zones such as farmland and waterways. They are exceedingly agile on the wing and are amazing to watch in action. It is also rare to see them on the ground and uncommon to see them perching as most of their life is spent on the wing.

Swallow

 

Common Linnet

This is a bird I never knew existed until I was going through my photos after my most recent trip home and wondered what it was. I’m certainly not aware that I have ever seen one before. This colourful male was spotted near the coast on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands.

Common Linnet (male)

 

Mallard Duck

Anyone who has ever fed bread to a duck in a city park in Europe and North America has likely been feeding these guys. They are everywhere, and have been introduced to many other countries outwith their original range.

Mallard Ducks

 

Mute Swan

Another common occupant of urban waterways as well as coastal estuaries. I grew up knowing nothing but white swans, and remember a news story from my childhood about a black swan that appeared in the river in the town of Ayr south of where I lived. There is something very majestic about these creatures, although they can be very vicious if you get too close, especially when they have youngsters.

Mute swans on the farmland

 

Common Redshank

A lover of dampness, these birds are best spotted around marshes, meadows and lakes. Despite its name, its not as common as it used to be.

Common Redshank

 

Northern Lapwing

It is usually their cry that draws your attention to these birds. Although they are wading birds, they are best spotted on farmland and cultivated pastures. Unfortunately, population numbers are showing a decline and they are classified as a threatened species.

Northern Lapwing

 

Great Grey Shrike

I photographed this bird but didn’t know what it was at the time. Their preferred habitat is grassland with shrubbery, and it is uncommon to spot them. This particular bird was spotted near the coast next to some open farmland in summer time which is unseasonal as they usually migrate to breed elsewhere.

Great Grey Shrike

 

Pheasant

Native to Asia, the pheasant was introduced historically as a game bird. Many a painting adorning Scottish castles and mansions will depict dead pheasants hanging in a kitchen or off the arm of a shooter. Even today, these birds are still popular to shoot during the right season. To shoot them with a camera, they tend to be found in the countryside where they like to dash out in front of cars on rural back roads, and are occasionally spotted when out hiking in the glens.

Pheasant (male)

Pheasant (female)

 

Red Grouse

Another bird that is still shot in Scotland during the beating season. They are very difficult to spot, hiding in amongst the heather of the open moorland in the highlands and some of the islands. It is easier to spot them on a bottle of whisky where their image has had a worldwide audience thanks to the Famous Grouse brand. I came very close to standing on this little grouse chick that was easy to overlook and refused to move when I got close. I’ve never seen an adult in the wild.

Red Grouse (chick)

 

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

With their distinctive call, they can be the rowdy accompaniment to any beach walk and are one of many bird species that wander around the tidal zone looking for a meal.

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

 

Ringed Plover

These pretty little birds are another common sighting at the beach, feeding in the tidal zone, and often seen in small groups.

Ringed plover

 

Common Sandpiper

These migratory birds are only seen in the summer months but are beach goers that forage in the tidal zone, and are more solitary in their habits than the ringed plover who they share a habitat with.

Common sandpiper

 

Curlew

The largest wading bird in Europe, the curlew is sadly a threatened species. Usually seen on their own, they can be spotted either on the shoreline or inland.

Curlew

 

Temmincks Stint

One of many similar looking shore birds seen around the tidal zone.

Temmincks Stint

 

Common Eider

These large ducks are sea-dwellers, living along coastlines of Europe and North America. They are an easy spot in Scotland due to the distinctive colouration of the male and their size.

Eider (male)

Eider duck (female)

 

Red-breasted Merganser

This migratory diving duck breeds in Scotland, and this particular female was spotted in Loch Lomond cruising near the shore.