Shouldering the backpack I carried across Scotland for the past six weeks, I stood in the long line at Portland airport customs.
“Business or pleasure?” The customs agent asked with a clichéd tone.
“Business,” I replied, explaining my job as a travel writer for PlanetWare.com. I kept my answer simple, though, I might have lied to a federal customs officer. But I was weary of raising red flags by rambling about the merits of solo travel writing.
It was all pleasure six weeks earlier landing in Edinburgh. The first 10 days of my trip were spent photographing the top free things to do and top things to do in the city. I wasted little time checking things off my list.
The surge of international travel kept me on the steady rhythm needed to photograph 25+ attractions during my stay. Stirling pounds in my pocket and overheard Scottish accents spurred this constant excitement. But a deep-seated feeling of history laid the overall tone.
I spent most of my time in Edinburgh within a small circle surrounding the Royal Mile. This famous thoroughfare spans one Scots mile between The Palace of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle. It’s the Main Street of the city’s Old Town with a modern habitation spanning over 500 years.
Today, the Royal Mile is a World Heritage Site. And the number of people touring this part of the city left me constantly wondering what side of the sidewalk I was supposed to be on.
I spent seven nights in a shared hostel room in Edinburgh. My dreams each night were full of color. This might have been due to melatonin, earplugs, and my sleep mask. However, I now contribute the heavy dreaming to the nonstop flow of new inputs encountered each day.
National Museum of Scotland
After a week of hostel living in Edinburgh, I was ready for a room to call my own. And I found that with a short train ride to Falkirk, for a few nights at least.
Later in my trip, I saw a Scottish comedian say that Falkirk was where the birds flew upside down because there wasn’t anything worth shitting on. I couldn’t disagree more, as I’d say there were plenty of photogenic targets.
The two most outstanding were the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel. These symbols of family enjoyment were the highlight of my reporting on Falkirk, outside of the Sticky Toffee Pudding in the hotel’s dining room.
I returned to the dormitory lifestyle in Stirling, in a hostel with an 1820s facade. The hostel was a short walk from Stirling Old Town Jail and Stirling Castle – two of the top attractions of Stirling. This proximity made my three days in Stirling run at the usual speed. Photograph, walk, repeat.
Stirling, once the capital of Scotland, is the gateway between the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. And just beyond two weeks into my trip, I was in my groove of exploring the history propping up the city.
Stirling Castle sticks out in memory, high atop a volcanic crag above the town. I was still at a point where the pure existence of a castle had an astounding effect.
I had the urgent sense to watch the movie Braveheart after visiting Stirling, spurred by my trip to the National Wallace Monument rising from Abbey Crag. This towering remembrance overlooks the site of the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace defeated English forces.
National Wallace Monument
My time was short but sweet in Perth, following a train ride from Stirling. It was my first and only Airbnb for the trip, and after failing to figure out how to turn the hot water on for the first 24 hours, I dug into my personal and private apartment for the next three nights.
During the day, dodging the rain, I walked to all corners of the city, discovering the best things to do in Perth. But come evening, I happily utilized the apartment’s kitchen for cooking nothing fancy. Outside, the city’s center buzzed without me.
The strangeness of my surroundings settled in about this time, three weeks into my trip, and the tedium of traveling crept into my constant movement. And maybe for the first time since departing, I felt the first pangs of boredom and loneliness.
Dundee & The Kingdom of Firth
After four nights of colorful dreaming in Perth, I confidently caught the train to Dundee to explore the Kingdom of Firth. That was the plan, at least. Shortly after arriving at my single-room suite at a backpacker’s hostel, I felt a bit under the weather.
This began my week-long quarantine in a different hotel down the street. The isolation stacked atop the isolation of solo travel. The pleasure seemed to be all but worn away. I was close to calling off the rest of my trip.
My fever broke within a few days, and I quickly tested negative. I wish only the spirit of travel and adventure kept me from booking an early flight home, but it also came down to financials, with more to gain from sticking around.
After three days of feeling better and testing negative, I checked out of my hotel in Dundee and boarded a train to Glasgow. Here, I fulfilled my pre-travel fantasy of listening to music on a long train ride across Scotland, watching as the foreign country zipped on by. It was a nice reset for what proved to be a busy five days and four nights in Glasgow.
Proper Scottish weather descended upon the city by the time I arrived. This didn’t stop me from touring many of the top things to do in Glasgow. This and spending plenty of time on Sauchiehall Street, sometimes stashed in a coffee shop, escaping the rain.
I averaged just over 25,000 steps a day in Glasgow, adding my personal blend of sock spice to the aroma of the 8-person dormitory where I spent the night. But with so much walking throughout the day, I also added to the cacophony of snoring and sleep sounds rising above the bunk beds.
Isle of Arran
With the help of a train ride and ferry, I skipped from the city streets of Glasgow to the Isle of Arran for a slower pace of travel. Buckets of icy-cold rain welcomed me to the island. This rain cleared near the end of my walk to the Belvedere Hotel, revealing an impressive rainbow as the storm clouds receded.
Sunshine poked through the clouds for two brief windows of my four days on the Isle of Arran. In moments between precipitation, I walked and discovered as many top things to do in Arran as I could. This included Brodick Castle, though somehow, just over a month into my trip, the sheen of ancient castles had lost a bit of its shimmer.
I rested and caught up on writing assignments during the rainy moments. I also indulged in the home-cooked full Scottish breakfast offered by The Belvedere every morning. This hearty helping included bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried eggs, haggis, tater scones, fried mushrooms, and fried tomatoes, with a fresh fruit cup appetizer and a side of toast.
This full Scottish breakfast in the Belvedere dining room, overlooking the Arran coastline oscillating between rain and rainbows, may represent a core memory of my trip. Only time will tell.
Ayr & Dumfries
I caught a return ferry to the mainland and headed to Ayr. I was set to explore Ayr and Dumfries during my last week in Scotland. During the day, I ventured along the coastline, through greenhouses, and ultimately, to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.
Robert Burns was a common throughline between Ayr and Dumfries. After visiting his birthplace, I toured where he died in Dumfries, spanning his short life of 37 years. And being surrounded by the National Poet of Scotland’s legacy inspired my personal ambitions, like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June.
Business or Pleasure?
Six weeks after stepping off the plane in Edinburgh, I was overdue for a beard trim, and the 20-hour journey back to the United States was as painless as it sounds. I passed through customs and took a chatty Uber ride back home. After unlocking my door and walking into my apartment, it felt like stepping off a treadmill that had been steadily churning for the past six weeks.
I shucked my luggage aside and scattered the contents of my pockets with abandonment. Business or pleasure? It oscillated between each moment, similar to the rain and rainbows on the Arran coast.
But now, a few weeks off the travel treadmill, I might have a different answer if the border control agent asked me again.