travel & foreign lands

Scotland: more than Groundskeeper Willie’s homeland

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I recently took a press trip to Scotland, where I spent four nights in four different hotels. All four were delightful (Edinburgh’s The Balmoral, The Fairmont St Andrews, a Taymouth Estate cottage, and Edinburgh’s The George Hotel) and I recommend each of them highly with one caveat: stay more than one night. Or at least, if you stay a single evening, stay later than 9am the next day. In the attempt to see as much of England’s Canada (only sassy) as possible, my group was forced to ignore this simple guideline, with the result I discovered the one thing I do worse than packing is re-packing and in the process acquired a strange sympathy for the higher-end rock bands of the world (we’re talking at least Kings of Leon level).

Anyone who’s been on a press trip knows it’s essentially summer camp with alcohol: every day offers a full schedule of activities and you even have minders to make sure you don’t wander off (this is often a necessary task, particularly once the aforementioned alcohol makes an appearance). Typically you stay in one place your entire visit, with the result that when you arrive you unpack, then you happily go where people tell you to for a few days, then on the last night return to your room very late (like summer camp, you want to stay up and say goodbye to the other campers, plus now you can drink openly), pass out, wake up, realize you need to catch an airport shuttle in 10 minutes, stuff everything in your bag, and just barely make the flight back to a world where you are again responsible for amusing yourself.

Scotland was different because every day there was an early departure, meaning each day everything was crammed in the bag. This was fine (if wrinkly) on the first two days, but as the ratio of clean to dirty clothes shifted it became increasingly disgusting, creating the strange juxtaposition of me being at four- and five-star hotels — check out the links to the property websites and fill with envy — while hoping I was remembering to take clothes from the washed compartment of the suitcase, so that the concierge didn’t come up to me and say, “I just wanted to bring to your attention that you smell like a heavily used jockstrap left in a locker for an entire July weekend. You were aware of this already? Very good, sir.”

And I realized, “This must be what Angus Young goes through.” Because the AC/DC guitarist stays at very nice hotels for very brief amounts of time while touring and I have to believe there are nights he’s going to get the schoolboy outfit laundered and he’s about to call housekeeping but flips on the TV and Keeping Up With the Kardashians is on — disturbingly, everywhere I travel the Kardashians seem to be on; happily, they become more tolerable dubbed in German — and he thinks, “You know, the Kardashians have been leaving me behind recently” so he sits down and next thing he knows they’re loading up the bus and he thinks, “Eh, I’ll do laundry next tour stop” but at the next stop they’re showing 16 and Pregnant and he muses, “Well, I do enjoy the miracle of barely legal birth” so he sits down and before you know it there’s a filthy little Australian desperately trying to convince Ritz-Carlton security he’s not a homeless person by humming the opening riff to “Thunderstruck.”

But enough about the struggle to remain hygienic on the road. The trip was to celebrate the Year of Active Scotland, with the result the activities included landyachting with Blown Away Experiences, off-roading with Highland Safari, and riding zip lines/discovering heights are freaky even with a safety harness at Go Ape, but for me the two most memorable activities were golfing at Musselburgh and canoeing at Kenmore. I think this is because golf and canoeing have been two activities that, while never staples in my life, make regular appearances and inevitably conclude with me being embarrassed and/or wet.

I’ll start with Musselburgh. Scotland is the birthplace of golf — while others came up with the concept of whacking balls with sticks, the Scots said, “Let’s hit it in a hole”, because they are a frugal people and the thought of wasting all those freaking balls made them apoplectic — and Musselburgh is the world’s oldest golf course (a claim is also made by St Andrews). It has hosted multiple British Opens, though none since the turn of last century. It is surrounded by a very much in-use horse racing track and, sadly, while horse racing and golf do not occur simultaneously to provide golfers with the chance to drill jockeys, on the fourth hole you play over part of the track. To increase the sense of history, we used hickory sticks as golfers might have done a hundred years ago (there were only five clubs at that point, which definitely minimizes agonizing over which iron to use).

And within a single shot, I was reminded of something: golf is as addictive as meth, only more expensive and damaging to your mental health. Because golfing in Scotland is a completely different experience than golfing in the states. Here are three characteristics most courses I have played in the United States have shared:

1. They are dry.

2. They are relatively wind-free.

3. You don’t randomly have people walking their dogs across them.

Not the case in Scotland. With rain both so frequent and unpredictable, if you needed perfect dryness you’d never pick up a club. (The upside to that rainfall? You haven’t seen a true green until you’ve played on their grass.) And the wind is continuous (if also unpredictable), with the result my high-arcing drives inevitably went from “impressive” to “uh-oh.” And finally, due to right of way laws, people and their pets can walk the course, so that in addition to trying to adjust to playing with hickory instead of titanium and facing monsoons, before each swing I had to remind myself, “Let’s make sure we don’t kill any locals.”

And yet, as I adjusted my already shaky game to the new environment, I fell into my usual pattern: I play poorly, I play worse, I get frustrated, I play much worse, I get so frustrated I stop trying, I relax, I hit a good shot, I get excited and reengage, I revert to step one. Indeed, in this case my best shot was my first one, as without any warmup I was asked to start the group and, with my first swing, managed to reach the green (a modest accomplishment, but one I have often failed to match). I urge anyone who has any real interest in golf to play in Scotland at least once, if only so when you go back to your regular course you’ll have an excuse next time you shank one. (“That would have been perfect at St Andrews.”)

I have a similarly complicated relationship with canoeing. My grandparents used to live near a stream, then I was required to do it for the Boy Scouts, and once the entire office did it during my days as an editor at Maxim. (And yes, Boy Scouting did prepare me for that position, notably when I earned my Hoochie Mama merit badge.) Whatever the location, it generally ended the same way: with me comically falling in the water. Still, I enjoyed it, particularly the Maxim trip, when we all cleverly decided to drink as we canoed, with the result that our journey occasionally had to stop for members who were having a little trouble, in the sense they’d lost consciousness and tumbled into the water. I also went into the drink; humiliatingly, I did so while sober.

Hence I was apprehensive when our group went canoeing in the incredibly picturesque community of Kenmore on a trek organized by Wilderness Scotland. The rainy weather had resulted in a unexpectedly swift ride (something akin to whitewater canoeing), with the result that soon after starting our planned route had to be altered, in the sense we were supposed to go six miles but after six-tenths of a mile most of our canoes had flipped, leaving much of our group cold, wet, and, in one case, being violently smashed against the rocks. Miraculously, my canoe was not one of the capsized ones, as aided by a German writer with rafting experience we managed to make it to the shore. Upon landing we turned to see that members of the group were stranded on both sides of the river, in at least one case watching as their canoe hurtled on down the river without them.

We briefly considered continuing on, but our leader Biscuit — yes, we were led by a man called Biscuit; I should note he was the only Scot I encountered named after a carbohydrate — decided we should just call the trip a success, in the sense that all of us were alive. And so we wandered ashore to wait for the van and immediately stumbled upon one of the castles used to film the Judi Dench/Billy Connolly film Mrs. Brown and eventually the soaked group members were able to fortify themselves by putting on dry clothes and consuming whisky. (While still unsoaked myself, I also consumed whisky, because I am a team player.)

And enough rambling about childhood canoeing traumas and my struggles to remain clean on the road. Here are a few valuable lessons I acquired about Scotland:

1. One of the things most impressive about Scotland is the sheer number of castles — it’s a place where if you fall into a river, odds are good you’ll wash ashore by at least a country estate. Indeed, much of the country reminded me a bit of Munich, because they both boast so much architecture that seems like something out of Disney’s Enchanted Kingdom and their local residents have an insatiable need for sausage.

2. Apparently you’re not supposed to drink whisky neat, but instead add a “drop” of water to open the flavor. (Note: “Drop” is a vague enough term to suit your individual needs.) That said, if you reach the point you can barely taste it at all, you’ve drowned it, boyo, and you might as well switch to appletinis.

3. Yes, it is supposed to be spelled “whisky”; the “e” doesn’t enter the equation until you’ve traveled far enough west to reach Ireland.

4. I briefly visited Scotland once before over a decade ago. Having now been back, I can confirm what I said after that first stay: there are few, if any, things on this planet more inspiring than a drive along the Scottish coast.

5. The same gentleman who lectured me about the water drop in whisky also informed me that Scots will bust out the kilts and go commando for friends’ bachelor parties. So if it’s the middle of the night on the Las Vegas strip and you see a group of kilted Scotsmen approaching, do not give any kilts a playful flip unless that’s really something you want to see.

6. Have you ever been in Scotland and wound up at 3am watching Team America with a German writer who explains at great length why people’s eyes actually need more UV rays, so if you find yourself looking at the sun, you don’t need to turn away immediately? Because I have and wanted to see if this is just the sort of thing you can expect if you visit.

7. Related to this, did you know Germans use the sound “quack” both for ducks and frogs? That’s insane.

8. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I wish I could drink carbonated bubble gum,” I cannot recommend the soda Irn-Bru highly enough.

For more information on travel to Scotland (and many pretty pictures), visit www.conventionscotland.com.

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