"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley..."
- Robert Burns
How appropriate that here, in the land of his birth, the truth of Burns' words should be brought home to me in such a personal way.
Here's how I'd planned the next two days should unfold (and when I say "planned", what I mean is "sorta figured", since I hadn't actually made any firm plans at all. This was, err... a slight error in judgement):
Thursday Morning: Wake up at my B&B in Fort William, have the full Scottish breakfast, and then proceed from Fort William to Mallaig on one of the most scenic rail routes in the world, including crossing over the famous Glenfinnan viaduct (it's the one the Hogwarts Express goes over in one of the Harry Potter movies!). Arrive in Mallaig and get the ferry to the Isle of Skye, thence proceeding by bus to the island "capital" of Portree where I'd check into another charming B&B. Poke around Portree for the rest of the day, have a nice supper and pint in a pub, and retire.
Friday: Try a spot of sea-kayaking (I had some info on an outfit that does half-day lessons and rentals, and what better way to see and island covered in inlets than from a kayak?). After that, more pootling about the island, another supper and pint, and the next morning hop back to Mallaig and get the Hogwarts Express to Glasgow. Perfect.
Reality turned out to be quite a different thing. The Isle of Skye is one of Scotland's top tourist destinations, so it turns out that expecting to glide in to town in the middle of July and book accommodations, tours and activities with only a day or two's notice is, to be charitable, ambitious. (To be uncharitable, and closer to the truth: barking mad.)
The first part of the plan to fall through was the kayaking. "Ok, " I thought, "there are lots of other things to do," though I really had not much idea what those things might be. Next I spent several hours on the phone and internet trying to secure a bed for Thursday and Friday. My standards for accommodations quickly sunk from quaint B&B to hostel, but I did manage to get a bed, so I figured I was sorted.
Then I turned my attentions to the train schedule. Snort! It turns out that getting to Portree from Fort William on the train, ferry and bus is only a bit less complicated and time-consuming than getting to the International Space Station. The simplest method was actually to get a bus straight from Fort William over the Skye Bridge, and in to Portree. However, that would leave out the whole Hogwarts Express business, cost me and extra £26.50 each way, and waste a couple of days of travel on my rail pass. To top it off, the bus back from Portree to Fort William did not run on Saturday or Sunday, meaning I'd either have to wait in Portree until Monday, or come back via the Space Station.
- No sea kayaking, and no real idea of what else to do, especially lacking a car
- No quaint B&B
- No way to get there and back that was reasonably efficient in both time and cost
Things had, as they say, gone completely pear-shaped. So at around 10pm last night I flipped open the guide book and the map and started scanning for alternate destinations. And that's how I've come to find myself on the train from Fort William to Oban, with a 45 minute stopover in Crianlarich (which, in order to pronounce properly, requires one to pretend there's something small and furry stuck in one's throat, like a bit of pocket lint, or possibly a hamster).*
After a few minutes on the phone this morning I've got a bed at Jeremy Inglis' hostel ("This loosely run place feels more like a commune than a youth hostel... breakfast comes with Jeremy's homemade jam." Rick Steves). I've got a reservation for the 5:30pm tour at the West Highland Malt Scotch Whisky Distillery ("This is the handiest whisky tour you'll see, just a block off the harbour and better than anything in Edinburgh." RS again). And I've got all the information I need to get a full-day tour of the neighbouring Hebrides islands of Mull and Iona tomorrow. To top it all off, I got an email this morning inviting me for drinks with Rob Hamilton's cousin when I get to Glasgow on Saturday.
So I'm positively glowing with the satisfaction of having overcome my previous errors in judgement and planning, and feel like I've really landed on my feet. Also, happily, this means I'll really have to come back to Scotland some time to see Skye. Somewhere in Portree there's a kayak with my name on it.
*It now being a few hours later, I can report that Crianlarich Station is mildly Godforsaken, though it does have a tea shop and a loo that has the singular distinction of containing the only bathroom door lock I have ever encountered that actually drew blood while being opened.