“Naw, that bus isn’t runnin’ tomorrow. The only one running on Sunday is to the north shore. Lemme check that one, now.”
“Thanks,” I say as she taps away at the thirty-year-old keyboard on the thirty-year-old computer that seems to be standard-issue for bus stations and courthouses worldwide. We’re in the surprisingly clean and bright Inverness bus depot on a Saturday afternoon in late October. We’ve just arrived on the Megabus from Edinburgh (with its creepy, smiling yellow mascot man unnerving drivers behind us on the road the whole way) and we’re making plans to visit nearby Loch Ness the following day.
For once, we’ve decided to travel like the eighteen-year-olds on their gap years: semi-spontaneous, with a we’ll-book-tickets-when-we-get-there attitude, and a flexible, can-do spirit. And now, we’re paying for it.
“Yeah, the other bus runs out to the loch at eight in the mornin’, but the midday return is full. Ah’ll haveta book ye back on the seven o’clock evening return from Drumnadrochit.”
We’re not sure what to do. We had been hoping to do some hiking on the trails on the south bank of Loch Ness in the morning before sitting down for a lochside picnic lunch and heading back to town for the afternoon. Now, to get to see Loch Ness at all, we’ll have to go to the less-walker-friendly north bank — and keep ourselves entertained for nearly twelve hours, the last three of which will be in the dark in the surprisingly high latitudes of Northern Scotland.
We decide to go for it, only a little bit worried about how we’ll kill twelve hours in the rural Highlands.
The sound of a heavy rain beats on the window of the hostel room as we scramble to turn off our phone alarms so as not to wake the eighteen-year-old gap year travelers in the mixed dorm with us. Looking out into the gray morning through the thick veil of mist and sheets of rain, we look at each other and silently hope that it clears before we step off the bus at Loch Ness.
The bus passes through the sleepy — and soggy — village of Drumnadrochit en route to Urquhart Castle. According to a brochure map, part of the Great Glen Way walking route passes near the castle and follows the north shore of the loch all the way to Fort Augustus (actually, all the way to the Atlantic). It isn’t as popular or as close to the lake as the shoreline trails of the south bank, but we’ve decided to give it a shot — our only other option being to stay in uneventful Inverness all day.
Stepping off the bus and into the driving rain, we are almost immediately soaked to the skin. We have no real interest in paying the steep admission fee to the ruined hulk of the castle — we’ve seen enough castle ruins in Ireland, thank you very much — but we get our photos of the castle and the black loch from the road, dodging the muddy water thrown by cars speeding past on the busy A82 highway.
The trail entrance is near the village, so we backtrack along the road and finally turn off onto a marked trail. The rain has already shifted in intensity several times since we’ve alighted from the bus; spanning the full Forrest Gump rain list from “little bitty sting-ing rain” to rain that seems to come “straight up from underneath!” We hope that this variation means that the clouds will eventually blow away, but we don’t hold our breath — nervous locals had asked us over and over again the night before, “Are ye sure ye want to go out walking all day tomorrow?”
Crossing fence stiles and passing fields of soaked sheep chewing and watching us curiously, we head uphill. Loch Ness has long since vanished from view, but we aren’t worried. Surely, when we hit the summit of this ridge, we’ll enjoy a fantastic vista of the castle and the surrounding lake, especially when this rain clears up. The trail reaches and follows an old logging road through a thick evergreen forest. This is why we came here, I think. The needles of the trees even catch some of the raindrops for us, and we are feeling good.
At the top of the hill, the logging road suddenly ends at another paved highway following the ridgeline. Trail markers indicate that the walking way follows the road. We aren’t especially opposed to road walking — it’s a necessary evil on any long-distance route — but hope to get back into the trees soon. The rain and fog have reduced greatly reduced visibility, and the cars whizzing by — sending up a thick, wet wake behind them from the waterlogged asphalt — don’t seem to be adjusting their speed to the adverse conditions.
And where has that view of the loch gone? Loch Ness is blocked entirely from the road by a stand of trees to our left; the rest of the ridgeline to our right is capped with spongy hilltop bog, from which little rivers have formed and are flowing across the road and filling the roadside ditch.
Miles and hours pass, and there are no signs of mercy from either the weather or the trail. Our hands are pruny under our gloves, and we can only imagine what our feet must look like in our squelching shoes. With the rain again reaching the heaviest part of its back-and-forth cycle, we reach an impassable flash flood covering the road. Cars are still crashing through it at full speed, but we decide not to wade through the ankle-deep river flowing over the road, not for our own comfort, but for fear that it might completely wash out the road after we’ve passed, leaving us stranded and lost.
With no other choice, we about-face and hoof it back over the inexplicably busy rural road, no longer bothering to avoid the splashing of oncoming cars. Sliding back down through the logging road — which has itself become more and more river-like since we first crossed it — we reach the village of Drumnadrochit. I check my watch: 2 p.m. Five hours ’til bus time.
Walking through the tiny village, we look for something — anything — with an OPEN sign. They really take Sunday seriously here, and the few shops and cafes that line the high street are closed. Besides the Nessie Museum — which we’d really rather not drop another tenner to see, even to get out of the rain — the only open business is a small diner at the edge of town. We quicken our steps to get inside, with visions of hot coffee dancing in our heads.
Dripping on the threadbare rug, we order — and savor — cups of watery, bitter coffee; dry hamburgers on stale buns; and bland, cooked-from-frozen chips. We’re hoping to spend the rest of the afternoon in the otherwise empty diner, as the rain continues to flood the streets, but we notice the teenager working the counter flipping the OPEN sign in the window as we finish our second round of coffees.
He’s eager to help us get the hell out of his restaurant when we ask if there is anything, anything else open in the village on a Sunday afternoon. “Oh aye! The pub at the hotel should be open, ye’d find the lads there watchin’ the match, I’d say!”
Pub? Did he say “pub?”
Not caring that we have to venture back out into the rain and walk another mile down a country lane outside the village — not exactly the most convenient location for a hotel — we will our tired legs to carry us through the 3 p.m. gray twilight towards the prospect of a beer.
Sure enough, we see a house with a hand-painted sign pointing around to the back door (the “hotel”) with a few cars parked on the front lawn (the “parking lot”). Inside, we stumble into the American vision of an idyllic British-Isles country pub: A peat fire burns in the corner; the floors and tables are of old, battered, unfinished wood, shiny from decades of boots and beer spills; a half-dozen locals (the “lads” mentioned at the diner) looked up from their pints and immediately laid into us with “come on in an’ get yerself dry, now!” and “Aye! Ah’ll bet this lot’re not from round here, now!”
“Shet up, Barney!” one of them yells as his golden labrador jumps up from the foot of his master’s barstool to bark at the waterlogged intruders.
“What’ll ye have, then?” asks the barman as we look at the row of beer handles on the rail. This pub brews and serves their own traditional real ales, kept at cellar temperature and summoned up to the taproom with a long-handled pump. Stammering with my good fortune — and shivering as my body is slowly drawn back from the brink of hypothermia — I finally spit out an order for a pint of their stout. We take our drinks over to the table nearest the fire and begin to thaw ourselves out, body and spirit.
More locals, including another dog, stream in to watch the soccer match on the small television in the corner. All in turn give us a welcoming wave before they join their friends at the bar. While we’re enjoying our second pint, a trio of Australians, also soaked, comes in. We recognize them from our hostel in Inverness; they must have been stuck out here for the evening bus, too.
We join them and laugh about our soggy adventures. When their fingers are warm enough for fine manipulation — and they’ve had enough beer to restore their Aussie spirits — we get a pack of cards from the barman and teach each other a few bar games from our homelands.
Finally, it’s time to catch the bus back to Inverness, but we don’t want to leave the warm snug of this basement pub. The five of us, two Americans and three Australians in Scotland, clap the hands and backs of the gathering crowd of villagers with promises to return, and walk back through the rain to the bus stop.
That night, back at the hostel, I assess the damage: Our Rick Steves’ Great Britain book is wet through its 300-page bulk, my shoes look like they might be dry by the time the Voyager returns as a confused and angry artificial intelligence, and my feet look like the face of Freddy Krueger. As my head hits the pillow, in the few seconds that pass before sleep overtakes my exhausted frame, I have no regrets; I’d it all over again…just not tomorrow.