Scotland 2024: the cruelty of airline toilets, dead bodies (?), etc.

by Mick Rhodes |

“Please mind the gap when alighting from this train.”

This was by far the most oft-heard phrase throughout our recent 10 day Scotland Wander. I appreciated the encouragement. After all, “alighting” sounds so much more optimistic, poetic even, than the uninspired alternative, “disembarking.” It was a good way to start the day, this alighting.

My wife Lisa and I rambled from Edinburgh to Inverness, Thurso to Stromness, all over the Orkney Islands, Dingwall back to Edinburgh primarily by train, but also by boat, bus, tram, and cab, alighting from all.

There were ups and downs, mostly comedic, beginning soon after the fasten seat belt light went off (de-lighted?) during our 10-hour flight to Dublin. I’d just finished my business in the tiny mid-cabin bathroom, leaned over to flush, and saw my right AirPod tumbling in slow motion toward the stainless steel toilet. It took a bounce off the side and came to rest at the bottom of the bowl. A grotesque second passed — just enough time for me to feel the sting of my expensive mishap — then the little technological wonder was sucked into the Aer Lingus Airbus A330-300’s tank of despair with an unceremonious “thwack.” Bye-bye AirPod.

Thankfully, this was not an indicator as to how the rest of the journey would unfold. There were of course setbacks, as per always, but nothing significant enough to, well, derail us.

Unlike the “green dream” of Ireland, Scotland in April is primarily brown and gray, with a smattering of green in there too. We rolled through wild countryside, both bleak and stunning. We’d arrived during lambing season, so the hills were dotted with sweet little lambs playing and running after their mothers. Curiously, though every Scottish tourist ad touted them as the country’s de facto mascot, I did not see one highland cow.

The ride through the Highlands was particularly breathtaking, with snow-capped mountains, rivers and streams, stands of Scots Pine, spruce, fir, larch, and the ever present common gorse, its vibrant yellow flowers punctuating the landscape. Big and small farms, old houses, regular old cows, and the occasional deer or rabbit were also part of the show.

Three days in Edinburgh were not enough. What a town! The architecture, art, history, and food were all inspiring. Our first hotel, the Apex Waterloo Place, was modern and beautiful, staffed by a seemingly endless contingent of very young, very bright people from around the world.

Next, we boarded a northbound ScotRail train, traversing the Grampian Mountains to Inverness, a pre-sixth century city of 46,000 located on the Moray Firth, a narrow inlet of the North Sea. We had coffee alongside the River Ness, which bisects Inverness, and later an afternoon pint at a beautifully shambolic pub overlooking the river, where we listened in on conversations in various languages. A somewhat bewildering night of trying to find dinner followed (everything was closed!), but we eventually landed on the last place still serving food that wasn’t McDonald’s, Black Isle Brewing Co.

Early the next morning ScotRail took us to Thurso, pop. 7,390, the northernmost town in the United Kingdom. It felt like it. Founded in the 13th century, it was very chilly and windy. But still we persisted, walking its entirety, including the beach, which looks out over the Pentland Firth. Everything closed at 6 again, but thankfully our digs, the late-1800s Pentland Hotel, had a restaurant, so dinner was sussed.

Early the next morning we took to the North Sea in style, a first class lounge on a NorthLink ferry to the Orkney Islands. It was a nice bit of comfortable excess for the two hour voyage to the 16th century port town of Stromness, pop. 2,000.

We thought Inverness and Thurso were sleepy! Stromness’s one street includes some shops, a museum, and couple restaurants. It’s picturesque to be sure, if a wee bit creepy. There’s literally no noise to be heard — no music, no kids, not even any conversations — and the few folks we saw on the street didn’t seem eager to say hi or even nod. The lone exception was a very happy guy standing outside the one pub in town (which had opened for the season the day prior), who bellowed, “And where are you two from then?” as we strolled past. After we responded he belted out a cappella version of “Hotel California,” with some artistic liberties taken with the lyric, setting it in Australia, which, he explained, was was as close as he’d come to California. I’m not sure how that geographical math worked, but nonetheless our inebriated friend was by far the most demonstrative Stromnessian we encountered over our two days there.

Perhaps the best takeaway was the coastline’s massive bounty of sea glass, which Lisa collects at every beach we visit. Our day trip to the 5,000 year old (!) neolithic village of Skara Brae was another highlight.

After another luxury liner NorthLink ferry back to Thurso, it was on to Dingwall, a pint-sized “royal burg” of 5,491. Cute, we thought, as we wandered the main street. Nice people. Had a pint at the pub and talked to some locals, who were all welcoming.

Now, I am not one to savage a business trying to make a go of it, but in the case of Dingwall’s National Hotel, I will make an exception. By now we’d grown used to the limitations of aged buildings in Scotland; people were smaller in the 1700s, amenities were few, and there’s only so much that can be done with the bones of ancient structures without spending millions. So when we finally checked in and traversed one flight, headed toward our room, I wasn’t surprised the place was a little musty, a little threadbare. No worries. But, after keying into our room I was immediately hit with a sickly sweet putrid wave. What was it? It was aggressive to be sure. I’d have to peg it as mostly extreme body odor, with a dollop of teenage boy feet, and maybe some leftover Indian food that had sat in the sun for a few days. Was it death? I couldn’t be sure.

Lisa, sadly — but luckily in this instance — was born with anosmia: she has no sense of smell. So she had to take my word for it that this room smelled very wrong.

We opened the windows (it was in the upper 30s, so it was a bracing solution), and I hoofed it to a shop to procure a flowery smelling candle. We then lit that sucker and took off on another walkabout, leaving it burning. I’d normally not take that chance, but in this instance, with the possible smell of death at stake, it seemed our only option.

The room was sort of livable when we returned a couple hours later. Relieved and exhausted, we opted to cut our losses and get some sleep in front of our 7 a.m. train to Edinburgh. But soon the hotel was full up with the sounds of young people doing young people things: shouting, stomping down the hallway, and slamming doors. Lisa said she thought we might be staying in a youth hostel. Perhaps we were. At this point, awoken from what we had hoped would be a good night’s sleep, we chose to cover our heads with pillows and ride it out.

Then, about 9:30 p.m., just as us old folks were conking out, it began.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, BAM! Thump, thump, thump, thump …

It seemed the hotel bar downstairs had morphed into a nightclub, and the DJ had just begun his set.

I could see Lisa’s eyes widening, her ire rising. She doesn’t anger easily or often, so I knew this was serious. I shifted gears from jet-lagged geezer to the voice of calm. Lisa headed downstairs. I felt sorry for whomever she would confront. She returned steaming after being dismissed by the “staff” of two 20-something bartenders. I did what I could to diffuse the volatile vibes, playing the unlikely role of peacemaker, and eventually we both wrapped our heads in flat hotel pillows and rode it out best we could.

Morning arrived, gloriously quiet. We’d slept a few hours, apparently. After a quick shower, we alighted the hell out of the National Hotel quicker than you can say “s&%thole.”

After a nice sausage roll and coffee in Inverness, we had a beautiful ride into Edinburgh, with more of those cute little baby lambs frolicking. We were exhausted, but the cuteness helped to reset our addled brains.

Our final night in Scotland was spent at the Moxy hotel, which was first rate and way too cool for us. We spent the day taking in beautiful, bustling Edinburgh once again, and stumbled into Monteiths, a fantastic basement restaurant just off The Royal Mile, for a great little dinner. Squeezing all we could from our final evening, we saw one last sunset and reluctantly headed back to the hotel.

The 11 hour flight home was uneventful. LAX was a mess on a Sunday evening, as per usual. My youngest daughter Lucy was gracious enough to pick us up, and off we went — not quite alighting — toward home, Scotland Wander complete.


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