Travel: Schiehallion

Full set of photos

I am never one to pass up an opportunity to travel, least of all to Scotland, which is one of my favourites places in the world. So when the inaugural My Peak Challenge event was announced, celebrating Peakers from around the world, to be held in Glasgow, I was quick to grab a ticket. One of my Peak challenges for the year was to climb a Munro, a Scottish classification of a mountain over 3000 feet, so this was the perfect opportunity to tackle that challenge. Before the trip, I researched various Munros, trying to decide which would be a good one to try. I rather delusionally entertained the notion of climbing Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK, before common sense returned to me, deciding on a more manageable peak for my first. I’d read that Schiehallion was a good, entry-level Munro and settled on trying my hand at ascending its 3,553 feet. When I’d been doing my Munro research, I’d wondered why the name sounded so familiar. I later learned that the area around Schiehallion was a significant filming site for Outlander, so I was rather tickled to learn of that inadvertent connection.

getting ready to drive on the other side of the road!
getting ready to drive on the other side of the road!

The other Peak challenge that I would be tackling on this trip (and in fact on the same day as my Munro hike) was driving on the other side of the road, as Schiehallion isn’t really accessible by public transit. I had driven on a previous trip to Scotland for about 20 minutes while in the Highlands, with its tiny, shoulder-less roads and obscenely fast speed limits, and found I was not terribly good at it. However, I was determined to face my fear and face this challenge head on. My lovely travelling companion Erin and I picked up a rental car in Perth, about an hour’s drive from Schiehallion. This was a deliberate choice, as I didn’t want to be driving out of a big city like Edinburgh. I actually found that I relaxed into driving–perhaps starting on slightly larger, city roads and easing into the smaller country ones was the better method for acclimating to other-side-of-the-road driving. We dropped off our bags at our charming, lochside AirBnB and made a quick pitstop for gas before heading out to the mountain. The hike was estimated to take about 4-6  hours, and I wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the light.

our hiking companions
our hiking companions

In true Scottish form, it was pissing rain when we arrived, and I momentarily wavered on whether to wait until the next day to do the hike (as weather reports claimed it would be sunny-ish). In the end, I figured we were already there, and that it would be almost fitting to do the hike on a dreich Scottish day. So I popped on my rain pants, and off we went. It started out fairly leisurely, passing through heather and the occasional sheep. It wasn’t long before we hit the beginning of a steady, uphill climb, along a well-worn trail of rock and gravel.

so wet!
so wet!

As I knew Erin was largely appeasing me and my hiking aspirations, I tried to entertain us with various car games, to keep our minds off the increasing rain and wind. The trail was remarkably unmarked, with nary a signpost to be seen, so we had no real idea of how far it was to the top. Every so often, peak-like shapes would loom ahead of us in the clouds, and we deludedly believed we were almost there. Seeing as it was getting later in the day, there was essentially no one else on the trail. When we finally did see a couple coming back down the mountain, we asked whether the peak in sight was the end, to which they, rather bemusedly, replied that we were about halfway to the top. Upon hearing this, Erin decided that she’d had enough of the rain/wind/cold and that she’d head back down.

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As this was one of my challenges for the year, I was determined to get at least within striking distance of the top, so I soldiered onwards. The wind and pelting rain had really picked up, and it was a bit of a slog for a while. I was definitely appreciating my MPC training, and all the endless squats and lunges that had been done, for while I was panting a bit, my body was ultimately doing just fine. In a bizarre way, I found myself relishing the inclement conditions–a kind of me against nature scenario–where I appreciated the challenge that it was giving me. I tried to pick up the pace as best I could, as I was increasingly worried about losing the light (and knew that Erin was waiting for me at the bottom). Eventually the trail essentially disappeared, and I found myself picking my way through large rocks and boulders. This kind of hiking I quite enjoy. I actually find wide, even hiking paths to be somewhat boring, as it ends up being just a steady trudge uphill; whereas, rock-strewn trails require you to think a bit, consider where to place your feet and how to get from A to B.

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Miraculously, the rain slackened, and the clouds actually parted, treating me to some gorgeous, sunlit views of the surrounding valley. I passed a group of 6 or so heading down the mountain and asked again how far it was to the top (they gestured to the farther peak off in the mist). They would be the last people I saw on the mountain. It was so amazingly silent, just the crunch of my boots every so often or the wind whistling by. There was something invigorating about knowing you were the only person on the mountain, to be truly on your own in the elements. Of course, my mind also went to the place that considered serial killers lurking behind boulders (no one would hear you scream!), at which point my more rational mind reasoned that this seemed a rather inconvenient spot to murder someone, being a fair hike up a mountain. What should be more of a concern was the very real possibility of twisting an ankle whilst hop-scotching across boulders or falling off a cliff. I was amazed that there were really no indications of where I should be going. There were small little piles of rock every so often that I believed were a kind of trail marker, but I couldn’t always find them or the trail they were marking. Eventually, there were a couple peaks in sight, and I was now half-jogging my way up. I’d given myself until 4:30 pm before turning back, as I wanted to leave myself enough time/light.

top of Schiehallion!
top of Schiehallion!

After about 45 minutes of scrambling through the rocky scree, I finally reached what I assumed was the top. I thought this was a fair assumption, as there was literally no more mountain to climb. There was also a tiny little pile of rocks marking my success. Upon seeing that I’d made it, I actually fist pumped and burst out laughing–whooping with happiness. To reward my travels, the sun shone out gloriously, and I was treated to truly breathtaking views of Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel. It was also incredibly windy, which only served to invigorate me further. As a kid, I remember that I loved standing outside at recess on super windy days, just to feel the force of it blowing around me. In many ways, it was the same feeling here–the sheer joy of being swept up in swirling winds. I was cognizant of the fact that I was rather precariously perched on top of a mountain, so I was careful not to get too swept up in it all. Amazingly, within minutes, clouds rolled in, and I was enveloped in a sea of grey. Considering I’d need to now pick my way back down through the rocks, I figured I’d wait a few minutes to see if they’d clear a bit, so I’d have better visibility. Mercifully, the clouds obliged, and the wind blew them through, leaving me with clear blue skies again.

truly magnificent view from the top
truly magnificent view from the top

I ultimately didn’t loiter that long at the top, as I knew I had to get back down to Erin before I lost the light. Thankfully, I now had a top-down view and so was able to better see some semblance of a trail. Buoyed by my success, I happily made my way down, a journey that was marred only by the mounting pain in my knees. As I was alone and could therefore look as ridiculous as I liked, I tried various foot/leg configurations to reduce the pain (e.g., pigeon-toed or sideways, feet parallel, among others). To expedite the journey, and as yet another method of attempted pain reduction, I eventually started jogging down the mountain. I figured if my knees were going to hurt, at least this way, they’d hurt for a shorter amount of time.

looking back up the trail
looking back up the trail

I eventually reached a less steep portion of the trail, which gave some relief to my knees. I took the opportunity to shed my jacket and hoodie (as I’d worked up a sweat from all my downhill jogging). I’d just started to play some music when I ran into Erin coming up the trail. I’d felt a bit guilty about leaving her behind and was worried that she’d be bored waiting for me for several hours. But she said she’d actually taken a very long time to go back down the mountain, as the rain had let up, pausing for quite some time to commune with the sheep. She similarly noted how amazingly quiet it all was–so silent as to hear sheep coughing and even chewing. It was only about 20 minutes to the car, and so we made our way leisurely down the trail, with the sun just setting behind the mountain as we returned.

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We drove back through the winding, Highland roads, the countryside coloured a burnt orange in the fading sunlight. While I was certainly tired from my 4-hour adventure, I was happy overall with my success–I had bagged my first Munro (Erin later got me a keychain to that effect). I would agree that Schiehallion was a good entry-level Munro. If I hadn’t been somewhat rushing to get to the top to make sure I’d have enough light, it would’ve likely been a fairly relaxed hike.  I also found, to my surprise, that upon getting back to our AirBnB, I was already eager to find another one to climb. And I will, some day.

Travel: Glasgow & the Ayrshire Coast

Full set of photos

It’s crazy for me to think that this trip is the third time that I’ve been to Scotland (and that I’ve visited as recently as 13 months ago). I do appreciate that the phonetics conference that takes me here is in an area of Scotland I’ve not yet spent much time in. While I normally try to post on my daily travel adventures, many of my days here were taken up by phonetic-y activities, so I’ll spare you all the nitty gritty details.

the "Armadillo" (Scottish Exhibition Centre) and site of ICPhS 2015
the “Armadillo” (Scottish Exhibition Centre) and site of ICPhS 2015

My lovely collaborator and roommate Susanne Brouwer had suggested going on one of the conference-suggested day tours, and I was happy for the chance to get out of the city for a day. Organized by Rabbie’s, it was a small, 16-person tour (including several friends from the conference) that took us to Culzean Castle and along the Ayrshire Coast. Our tour guide was a pleasant Scotsman who regaled us of the historical significance of many of the sites and the people associated with them, most notably Robert Burns, along with other random anecdotes. We stopped first at one of Europe’s largest wind farms not far outside Glasgow, which had a little interactive visitor centre to educate us about wind energy. From there, we drove for about an hour to peek at a ruined abbey before heading over to the main tour event, Culzean Castle.

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We spent nearly 3 hours exploring the extensive castle grounds, walking along sun-dappled dirt paths through quiet forests. The Walled Gardens on the grounds were lovely, a riot of floral colour and picturesque landscaping. The interiors of the castle were actually a little underwhelming, but it was more than made up for by the stunning views of its exteriors we got from the beach below it. Mercifully, the weather cooperated, and it was pleasantly warm and, crucially, non-rainy. We wandered the beach along the eerily calm waters of the Firth of Clyde (it was so still and quiet!) before rejoining our tour.

a view of Culzean Castle
a view of Culzean Castle

From there, we took a scenic, coastal drive to the nearby ruins of the Dunare Castle. The sun was fully shining, which made for a lovely half hour as we scampered about the ruins and took in the view. Susanne even laid out on the grass for a little sunbathing before we continued on our way. Our last stop was the town of Alloway, the birthplace of famed Scottish poet Robert Burns. He holds special significance for me as my alma meter (and Vancouver generally) always celebrated his birthday (celebrations were called “Gung Haggis Fat Choy”, in light of the fact that it was at the same time as Chinese New Year). We opted to not visit the Robbie Burns museum and simply explore the town a bit, visiting the old church and bridge (Brig o’Doon) featured in his famous poem Tam o’Shanter. We had a relaxing end to our day trip, munching on snacks on a bench overlooking the bridge and musing on our past and future travels.

kilt-clad folk on Brig o'Doon  in Alloway
kilt-clad folk on Brig o’Doon in Alloway
I honestly didn’t spend enough time roaming the streets of Glasgow itself to really get a good sense of the city. It was definitely not as picturesque, in the traditional sense, as Edinburgh. It had a much grittier feel to it–much more modern and fast-paced, with all that goes along with that. I suppose our ‘wee’ slice of Scottish culture was had, ironically enough, at the conference party, housed at Merchant Square in the city centre. The conference had organized a Cèilidh, a traditional Gaelic gathering, with folk music and social dancing (sort of like American square/line dancing, where an announcer can call out moves and teach a given dance relatively easily). I’m always game for dancing, but it was particularly entertaining to witness hundreds of other phoneticians dancing about happily. Dancing, especially social dancing like this, is a great way of equalizing everyone–doesn’t really matter your status in the field when you’re twirling around merrily. Whether you’re a big shot or newbie, it’s really hard to not have a smile on your face when your clapping, dancing and bouncing around with other people.
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On our last day in Scotland, it was perhaps a fitting send off  that a multitude of pipe bands had descended upon the city (the world championships I think were that weekend) and were rehearsing on the streets. In front of our hotel, there were 3 separate bands alone, piping and drumming away. Pipe bands have a special place in my heart, in large part because SFU has their own world-renowned pipe band that plays at convocation ceremonies. I loved listening to them play on the quad, so it’s always a treat to hear bands play.

Glaswegian gastronomical highlights

Most of our time in Glasgow was spent south of the river at what has been aptly dubbed the Armadillo. Thankfully, just a 10 min walk from the conference center is a bustling thoroughfare with some renowned eateries. Susanne had gotten recommendations from a local on the plane ride over, and I’d done my usual pre-trip scouting, and we’d actually found places that overlapped. These are just a few of the favourites.

Finnieston was our first stop, renowned for its seafood. It was a bit of a Northwestern reunion, with former grad students and post docs of my advisor (as well as me) went out for a meal. I thoroughly enjoyed my cod prepared with a rosemary-roasted garlic butter. The rest of the party all ordered caley, a type of white fish none of us had ever heard of. It was a generously portioned meal, as it came with a choice of 2 sides (I couldn’t resist the herb mashed potatoes along with some bread/dips which I shared). Overall, the food and drink were excellent, as was the company, and it was a great way to start the conference.
Crabshakk was a spur of the moment find, also on Argyle Street. Though we didn’t have any of the crab options (I did think of my dear husband who would have definitely partaken in dissecting a whole crab), we did sample their seafood. I couldn’t resist a ‘wee supper’ of fish and chips (which involved half as much fish, though still a hearty portion). It was an excellent choice, full of crispy, buttery, delicious flavour. I also tried their crab bisque, but I definitely had a harder time with it. I was expecting something creamy, with a lovely, subtle crab flavour. This did not have cream and seemed essentially like crab broth, distiller crab essence, as it were. It was extremely potent, and I had a difficult time consuming it. For the more rugged, seasoned crab-consuming palate perhaps, but not my cup of soup. Otherwise, a cute, lively spot!
Crab Shakk in Glasgow
Crab Shakk in Glasgow
I am not a tea drinker. I don’t think before visiting the Willow Tea Rooms for high tea that I’d ever actually drank an entire cup of tea. But I was actually excited at the prospect of giving high tea a try, mostly for the tradition of it. This particular spot was famed for being designed by renowned architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1903. Our 3-tiered stand of goodies soon arrived, filled with a variety of tea sandwiches, scones, shortbread and a dessert of our choosing (we had both chosen lemon meringue pie). I eagerly dug in, and it was also delightful. The scone was especially scrumptious, lathered in butter and strawberry jam. I could see why the Brits enjoyed it so much. I poured myself some apple tea, and after much finneagling with sugar and cream, found a combination that I actually liked. Even had a second cup!
fresh, creamery butter!
fresh, creamery butter!

In Scotland

On our travels, we always have focused on just taking photos–peering and squinting and desperately trying to capture beautiful, singular moments in time. This last trip, however, saw us branching out of our comfort zone and trying our hand at video. David had a lot of fun playing with the focus and composition, and I had an equally fun time editing things together.  Here is what will hopefully be the first of many video travel logs.