I’m putting off working on the mountain of papers I have due within the next two weeks, and so I present you with a highly belated entry on what was probably my favorite part of my semester in Ireland: my trip to Scotland with the mountaineering club.
27 October: Scotland
There were all sorts of meditations on Belfast I wanted to record, but now is not the time. We’re on our way back from the mountaineering club’s trip to Scotland. It was a blast, and I’m immensely glad I went.
There isn’t much to write about where Thursday is concerned. We took the bus from Galway to Dublin and Dublin to Belfast, then a ferry from Belfast to Stenraer. Then it was back on the bus to Glasgow, where we stopped for shopping before heading on to Fort William. It was dark when we got on the bus in the morning and well dark by the time we got off it in the evening. So when we finally made it to the hostel, all anyone wanted was food, tea, and sleep.
We stayed at hostel Chase the Wild Goose, which was great craic. We filled the whole thing, so there was no need to bother with locks and such. It was run by a twenty-something guy named Dan, who hung out with and played guitar for us in the evenings and even came out to a pub with us on Saturday night. He also kept us well-supplied with tea and coffee and wasn’t too fussed about us making noise late at night.
The hiking was, of course, great. On Friday we scaled Ben Nevis, which at 1340 meters is the highest point in the UK. It wasn’t a particularly pretty mountain, but it offered some decent views of the highlands. Unlike those of Ireland, Scotland’s major hiking mountains appear to have trails, a fact that I thoroughly appreciated. This, and the fact that I decided to pay for hiking poles, made the walk a lot easier than Mweelrea. It was a long walk, but most of it wasn’t particularly steep. We were told that the medium and short walks would be covering the same distance, but at different speeds, so I chose to walk with the slow group—why hold up the faster walkers when I already know I’m slow?
The difference in conditions between the base and the summit was remarkable. It was raining at the base, but it was too warm for me to keep my hood on without overheating, so my hair was soaked through. Then we got above that level of clouds and it was clear for a good long while, giving us a chance to see the surrounding countryside. But as we climbed up higher, we reached a layer of fog—nowhere near as thick as it had been on Mweelrea, but enough that the lovely view was gone. And as we neared the summit, the terrain became snowier and snowier—there were probably eight inches of it up at the top of the mountain. It was snowing, too, if lightly, and the wind picked up as we went. This was fine as long as we kept moving, but once we got to the top, we got pretty chilled.
Coming down was hard, though. The snow and then the rocks were slippery, and my knees were killing me. I couldn’t keep up with the group either; I tried for a while, but it soon became clear that there was no point in fooling myself. At some level, I knew that there must be people behind me, that they wouldn’t have just left me behind without a leader on sweep. But I was so far behind the main group that I had a hard time imagining that anyone could be moving more slowly. For 2/3 of my descent, I was completely by myself—and for a lot of that, I couldn’t see anyone from our group either before or behind me. It was miserable, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t bitter and frustrated.
Our second day’s hiking was an easy walk along a hill overlooking Loch Ness. There were some decently steep hills, but they weren’t very long, and it was a well-established trail. What you would expect of hiking in the US, really. The walk was short, though, only about an hour—I think we spent more time looking for the trail than hiking it. We didn’t get very close to Loch Ness, either, which was a little disappointing. We did take the bus over to the parking lot above the castle for a closer view, but it wasn’t the same thing.
Our last day of hiking was Glencoe, and let me tell you, it was spectacular. Ben Nevis was great just to be able to say that we did it, but I would happily hike Glencoe again. It helped that the weather was wonderful, cold but clear and sunny.
We didn’t take the most logical way up, which meant that we spent a fair amount of time picking our way up and along a field of loose rock (my least favorite of all the hiking surfaces I’ve encountered so far). But eventually we passed that point and were rewarded with some truly spectacular views. Up at the higher altitudes, there was snow on the ground—but because there was enough sun to melt it, you got these really cool ridges where half of the mountain had snow and the other half didn’t.
There came a point near the top where we were told we could see the rest of our route: up a steep and snowy slope and along the top of a ridge before starting back down. Looking up at that one face, all I could think was, “you’ve GOT to be kidding.” Not only was it snowy, it was so steep that it was almost like climbing a ladder—a sharp, irregular, slippery one. But getting to the top was immensely satisfying, and the view from the top was stunning.
And in the midst of all this natural glory, we got a bit of history. We hiked through the valley where the Campbell clan massacred the McDonalds, a surprisingly flat expanse that tapers to a deep crack running up the mountainside. It was a peaceful sort of place, and you’d never guess at its bloody history.
All in all, I’d say we did a pretty impressive amount of hiking: about 9.5 miles on Friday, which took us up (and, of course, back down)1340 meters. Sunday only took us up about 900 meters, but it took us much longer, so I’d say we walked a good deal further. Not bad for a weekend’s work.
But the hiking was only half of what the trip was about; I’ll remember the time we spent just hanging out just as strongly. On Friday night, we went to a hotel bar and then a pub with a fair number of the group. Katie was short on cash and had to pay with a credit card, so I got her a drink at the first place, and she bought me one at the second. Didn’t give me much a choice about it, really—she asked if I wanted a beer, and I said I wouldn’t know what to get. She just looked at me ad said, “come on,” so I followed her to the bar, and she bought me a pint of Foster’s, which was okay. I met some new friends that night—Andrew and Connlet, whose full name I cannot remember or spell properly for the life of me, even though it’s been repeated to me on several occasions. In my defense, he speaks quietly, so spelling it out for me while we’re walking on gravel didn’t help me much. I joined them in playing darts that night at Connlet’s insistence; he asked if I wanted to play, and when I passed half-heartedly, he just handed me the darts.
Katie and I had a great time at the pub in town on Saturday as well. Space was pretty tight, and so we ended up crammed into sharing a little table with two guys who weren’t from the group. They were in Fort William on some sort of conservation project, and I think they were Welsh. We ended up talking to them about all sorts of things, from Guinness and microbrews (Katie and I both tried and liked An Teallach, a local brew) to Irish prejudices to the amounts and kinds of tree cover in Ireland and Scotland. Their names were James and Pete, and they were great fun to talk to. Ames even gave us his business car, in case either of us had a LinkedIn account.
As much as I liked the hiking, the socializing might have been the best part of the weekend. We had a really interesting roup of people—international students and staff from France, Germany, Finland, Poland, Romania, Nepal, and the US; older Irish men and women who just take part in the club for the craic of it; a Scottish guy who was doing the same thing. I think I’ve had more experience with the Irish language and musical culture, as well as linguistic conversations, with this club than anywhere else. Several of the guys are studying, researching, or working with Old or Modern Irish, so I could discuss linguistics with them and ask questions like “why is Dublin called Baile Átha Cliath if the name comes from Dubh Linn?” I walked into the kitchen to do my dishes at one point and Liam and Aengus were talking to/shouting at each other in Irish—just functional stuff, nothing longer than “would you pass me that towel?” but still cool.
There’s also a fair amount of knowledge of traditional music and dance. There was an older man and woman who were fantastic at what I’ve since learned is called sean-nós, or ‘old-style’ dancing, and a couple of the others seemed to have at least a basic knowledge. They tried to organize a couple of set dances as well, telling us that we went in and then out and then cross left and then right and so forth. There wasn’t enough space and half the group seemed to have issues with rhythm and direction, so it was a royal mess, but it was great fun nonetheless.
We had plenty of music as well, as we had fiddler, a tin whistle player, and a flutist for trad music. Plus there were a good four or five guitar players, if you count our host. So there was a lot of singing—traditional and modern, accompanied and a cappella. Though I guess I was the only one singing a cappella. I think I’m going to have to learn to play the guitar; it would be nice to be able to provide my own accompaniment, and a lot of my favorite songs really rely on the instrumental contributions.
All of this made for a grand fancy dress party at the end. The beer, cider, and whiskey were all flowing pretty freely, and they handed snuff around as well, though the Americans categorically refused that one. People went all out with the costumes too—black cats and witches, of course (lazy Americans that we are), but also babies, cowboys, a Trekkie, a leprechaun, batgirl, 70’s guys, an astronaut, a tooth fairy, Pinocchio, a corpse bride. I hadn’t planned or brought a costume, but I wore all black, tied a scarf around my waist for a tail, put my hair up as ears, and used eyeliner to draw on whiskers and a nose. Michelle gave me cat eyes as well—she was a great hand with the makeup.
Not long into all this revelry, we played something called the box game. The idea is to pick a box up off the ground with your teeth, without touching the ground with your hands or knees. Those who manage it pass on to the next round, for which you tear off a layer of the box so that it’s about half as tall. I made it to the second-to-last round, for which the box walls were about three quarters of an inch tall. Three people managed the next level, where it was just a flat piece of cardboard, but not me; I was able to get that low, but I couldn’t figure out how to pick the thing up. My muscles were not happy about the unexpected deep lunges; I’m sorer from that than from all the hill walking!
This trip turned out to be one of my favorite weekends of the entire semester, and I’m so glad I went. I made friends with whom I continued to hang out for the rest of the semester; I’m going to miss the mountaineering club and the people in it a lot.