Highlander for a Weekend

Erica Salowe University of Aberdeen, Scotland


March 10, 2017

One of the most memorable experiences of my time here so far has been the Arcadia Highlands Activity Weekend, which took place at the Firbush Centre in Killin, a village in the Scottish Highlands. To get there, I had to travel two hours by train to Stirling, the charming little town I became acquainted with during my homestay with Kim and her huskies. The ride was short compared to the three-hour journeys I normally took to get to Edinburgh, but honestly, I never felt the weight of time on trains when I was so entranced by the view of rolling green hills and cerulean waters of the North Sea.

From Stirling, I and twenty-five other Arcadia students took an hour and a half coach ride to Killin. It was completely dark by the time we got there, so I had no idea what our surroundings looked like outside of the cozy cabin we stayed in. Worn out by our travels, light conversation was made as we quietly ate our dinner of potato leek soup, lunch meat, and chips in a homey dining hall. Once everything was cleared away, some students went to the common area to play card games and drink tea. Since I was struggling to get over a cold, I chose to bundle up in my room and hit the hay early.

After breakfast the next morning, all the Arcadia students gathered in the common area to choose our first activity. Bob, a sprightly older man who was a bit too chipper for it being eight in the morning, outlined our choices: canoeing, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, orienteering, or walking around the local area. Most of the students chose kayaking, but I decided canoeing was a more leisurely choice that would give me a chance to appreciate the highland sights.

I had only been canoeing once before, last summer, in the Princeton lake with my mom and her boyfriend. Still, I was able to get the hang of changing and maintaining the direction of the boat pretty quickly, especially with my friend Rachel at the helm helping out. Lead by our instructor, we made our way down the length of Loch Tay. The sun managed to break through the clouds about halfway through our voyage, and brilliantly lit up the mountains lining the loch; the snowcapped tops glimmered stark white, and the ground underlying it morphed from dull brown to a rich coffee color. The water surrounding us turned from dull cobalt into a deep sapphire blue, unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was a moment I wished I could have photographed, but for once I was without my phone; at the same time, though, I knew the image would stick in my head forever.

We were about to row our way around one of the small islands in the loch when bad weather hit. Splashes of frigid rain hit our faces and the wind pushed us backward, making it very difficult to move onward. Our instructor told us to turn around, and after a few minutes of rowing, the wind dissipated and we were back in tamer conditions. I found it fascinating that the wind only affected certain parts of the loch. When I looked behind me, I could actually see the difference between the tranquil waters on our side of the loch, versus the tempestuous conditions just a few hundred feet away that made the waves froth up in choppy, white surges.

Once we finished a kittenish relay race, our group made its way back to shore to meet with the rest of the students and eat lunch. My legs felt completely rubbery when I stepped back on land, but I couldn’t stop smiling. Munching on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I listened carefully for my afternoon activity options; all were the same as in the morning, but this time the students voted unanimously to hike Sròn a Chlachain, the “nose of the village.” Remembering the chilly hike on Lochnagar, after lunch I made a beeline to borrow the facility’s waterproof and windproof gear. Sure, the bright red jacket and pants made me look like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale, but if it protected me from the unpredictable highland elements, it was worth it.

Our ascent was steep and muddy, but I could tell immediately this mountain was much less intense than Lochnagar. Our instructor told us it would take about an hour and a half to reach the summit, which was easy sailing in the world of Scottish mountain hiking. However, I still found myself sweating and panting as I scrambled to find decent footholds in the mud that accumulated from recently melted snow.  I stopped a few times along the way to snag pictures of Loch Tay, which grew more and more magnificent the higher I climbed up. Strangely enough, there were also dozens of sheep very high up the mountain, and even when we reached close to the top, I could see little pellets of “gifts” left behind which marked their presence. I idly wondered how herders kept track of these animals if they were allowed to roam so freely.

At the peak of our journey, the wind very noticeably picked up speed; I was grateful for my windproof outwear. An enormous pile of stones marked the summit, and a few of us got pictures waving the Scottish flag over a nearly aerial view of Loch Tay. At that point I was a bit tired, but what really took the energy out of me was the descent. Very carefully, we had to navigate back down the mountain and watch for slick spots in the mud indicating someone there had slipped. Because my hiking boots were slightly too big, my ankles rolled around a lot, and I could feel the soreness of overexertion in my heels and knees by the time I reached the bottom of the mountain.  Despite the discomfort, though, I absolutely loved the hiking experience; it was an amazing way to gain appreciation of the land through direct contact, as opposed to seeing it from afar on a tour bus.

Although we were exhausted from a day full of activity, the staff at the Firbush Outdoor Centre were determined to give us a thoroughly Scottish experience by throwing us a Ceilidh and a Burns Supper. For readers who don’t know, a Ceilidh is a traditional Scottish gathering filled with song, food, and lively dance. Burns Suppers are formal dinners that honor the Scottish poet and songwriter Robert Burns.

The Firbush staff dressed to the nines in decadent kilts and formalwear for this occasion. Once we were all seated, two men entered the room, taking slow, methodical steps to the ceremonial bray of bagpipes. One man placed a plate of haggis on a table front and center for everyone to see, as if it were something to worship. Once the bagpipes ceased, an older staff member dressed in green and blue tartan delivered a classic Burns speech over the haggis. His brogue was so strong that I unfortunately did not understand most of what he said, but his grand gestures toward the dish and his lyrical phrasing indicated it was a poem which honored both Burns and the cooked sheep innards. Once his speech concluded, we all dug in. I tried a small portion of the haggis, which unexpectedly tasted like a spicy vegetable.

The Ceilidh followed after our dinner ended. An instructor patiently taught us the steps to each dance, and when he thought we’d grasped it, we performed to an array of lively Celtic music. I was sweating after only a few dance routines, but I was having the time of my life. One dance in particular involved rapidly switching and swinging partners around in a do si do, and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I was tossed from elbow to elbow and my feet nearly left the ground. We had a few breaks in between dances, but we were still up until one in the morning listening to Duncan, a local Killin musician, play the bagpipes. All in all, the entire day was absolutely magical, and exactly the sort of experience I pictured having in Scotland. It certainly will be a weekend I’ll never forget, and luckily, I have the pictures to cherish forever! One thing is for sure: I’ve certainly garnered an appreciation for Scottish nature and tradition. Alba gu bràth!


Scotland Semester Travel