When I told my friend Bernadette we were going to Scotland, I stated matter-of-factly that we were going to go hiking in the Highlands. She replied that she was excited for me, since she lived in Glasgow for years and had never made it that far north.
We didn't make it that far north either.
What I didn't realize at the time was that Glasgow is considered in the Lowlands, and we'd have to go quite a bit North to cross the divide. And with a side trip to Inverness postponed until our next visit, the best we could do was get a tiny taste via day trips from Ben's place. We went on three day trips and they were glorious.
Our first day out was a cool and cloudy Sunday, when we took the train northwest to Balloch, on the southern tip of Loch Lomond. Loch Lomond is a long, narrow lake, but since it started raining almost immediately after alighting from the train, we didn't explore too far upland. We got our bearings at the tourist bureau and then walked along a short path along the lake to the main lakeside shopping mall / dining area.
Along the way, we met an old gentleman walking his two elderly dogs. We took shelter under a tree and took turns petting the dogs and chatting about Canada, Scotland, and two Spanish tourists he helped get set up fishing from this spot the day before. Since neither he nor we had much planned on this rainy day, we fell into a game of conversational chicken, casually switching topics and waiting to see who would wish the other Good Day and continue the walk. We called it a draw after 30 minutes or so.
That was pretty much the highlight of our first trip to Loch Lomond. We trudged through the streets of Balloch before stopping at a restaurant for lunch. And then, since the rain had stopped, tried a short hike to Balloch Castle. The park around the castle was lovely and green but as soon as we stepped on the lush lawn, the skies opened for real and we got proper soaked. And the castle was closed for renovations. So we put our rain gear to the test and headed back to the train station.
Back to Balloch #
A few days later, in full sun, we went back to Balloch for another look at this popular lake. This time, we took a bus north from Balloch to Balmaha, to the southern tip of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. We filled our packs with lunch supplies in the village then headed to the Park Office, which is also the trail head of an awesome hike up Conic Hill.
There are rules governing naming things in Scotland, especially in naming a hill and a mountain, or in Scottish, a 'Ben'. And Conic Hill isn't technically tall enough to be called a Ben. But that's just needless nit-picking. Conic Hill is a beast. Cindy, Ben (our son Ben not a mountain) and I, along with 500 or so other tourists, hiked through the forest, up and up, until we cleared the trees and were treated to gorgeous views of the village, farms and fields and Loch Lomond beyond. Then we hiked up some more, along a progressively narrower and rockier trail, to even more stunning views. And then we hiked even further and higher, being passed only by young, fit Italian mothers with baby carriers on their fronts and lunch and supplies on their backs. And then we remembered that our packs were full of lunch too, so we stepped off the path and ate.
Cindy's "AllTrails" app, which I thought only had Canadian trails but really does have all trails, suggested that we follow a different route down from the top of Conic not-a-Ben, to make a circular loop. So we followed the faint outline of a less-travelled path that took us along several grassy plateaus and false headlands. It was truly less-travelled; there was only one other couple on the path with us. Just the five of us, vast swathes of grass and mountains and mountains of sheep poop. We couldn't believe that sheep grazed this high up, until we watched a man on a quad bike and two dogs herd hundreds of sheep down the slope just north of us, down, down, down to the farm below us. Our 'circle' path took us near the farm and after climbing over a fence and passing through a gate, we were at the very edge of Loch Lomond. What a glorious hike; one of my all-time favourites.
We weren't finished with Loch Lomond either. Walking back towards Balmaha village, we found the ferry dock and boarded a boat across the Loch to the village of Luss. It was cold and very windy on the ferry and it felt refreshing after the hot and sunny hike. And they played a recording along the way, pointing out landmarks and describing the history of the area.
Fun fact: the largest mountain in the area is Ben Lomond, which is directly across the Loch from Luss. And the lake is named after the mountain. So Loch Lomond is the lake at the base of Ben Lomond, if you catch my drift. And Ben Lomond is on the southern edge of the Highlands, so we made it to the Highlands, if only briefly.
Luss is a hoot. It's a preserved Victorian village that used to be the homes of textile workers, but is now a collection of AirBnb's, restaurants and souvenir shops, along with a lovely beach. We walked through all of it and loved it all. The highlight, bar none, was stopping at the Coach House coffee shop and being served by two elderly ladies who kept up a hilarious running commentary while serving up excellent baking and truly horrible coffee. We ate our treats with gusto and found a discrete way to discard our drinks. Five stars regardless.
Left Turn to Largs #
Our final day trip from Glasgow was back on the westbound train, but instead of angling north to Balloch, we angled south to Largs, on the Firth of Clyde. It's a cute little seaside village with a nice promenade complete with pubs, chippys, ice cream and some small carnival rides for the kids.
We stopped at a candy shop for bags of hard candy -- I love that they call them "boiled sweets" -- and the traditional Scottish ‘fudge and flour’ concoction, tablet. Then we went to a traditional pub for lunch, where Cindy fell afoul of the British habit of 100% literal menu items.
In Britain, you get what it says on the menu. Exactly what is says on the menu. If you order a bacon sandwich, you get two slices of bread with bacon in between. That's it.
When Cindy saw a 'Chicken Mayo' sandwich, we all assumed it would be a local take on a Chicken Salad sandwich. You know, some cubed chicken, celery, seasonings, apple chunks perhaps, all bound together with a bit of mayonnaise. Oh no. A Chicken Mayo sandwich is chicken chunks mixed with lots and lots of mayonnaise, served between bread that has been generously coated with more mayonnaise. By rights, it should be called a Mayo Chicken sandwich.
It all worked out in the end, however. Since Cindy had room after nibbling at the edges of her sandwich, we stopped for some excellent mini-doughnuts on the promenade. They're middling-sized; smaller than a regular doughnut and larger than the mini-doughnuts at home. One "mini" doughnut will do for most. Two for Cindy, since a seagull swooped down and stole her first doughnut out of her hand, mere steps from the vendor! Everyone eats well in Largs, even the birds.
Our final stop in Largs was well off the tourist path. We walked inland, through the village and started up the large hill which hems the village between the mountains and the sea. We walked to the Scotland National Sports Training Centre, where Ben has been spending one weekend per month since he moved here in January.
Ben volunteers as the physio for the men's national lacrosse team and they hold a monthly training and evaluation camp at the centre in Largs. Lacrosse is just getting off the ground in Scotland, so these camps are helping the coaches pick the national team, and Ben does what he can to help the players stay on the field.
The grounds were gorgeous and accommodate several sports; there are tennis courts, grass and artificial turf pitches, a few golf holes, a large indoor gym and sports field, and a hotel and kitchen for the athletes and staff. It's a remarkable facility, with the hotel set in a peaceful forest with wonderful views of the sea whenever the athletes aren't racing about and sweating. It would make an excellent spa for those of us who aren't as athletic.
As we walked from the training centre to the train, there was one more treat in store. We walked past Barrfields Park, home of the mighty Largs Thistle FC, who are far, far down at the sixth level of the Scottish football pyramid. I don't care; the club has been around since 1889 and they've played at Barrfields Park since 1930. The stadium allegedly holds 4500 people but I daresay you could get a ticket easily if you're in town on game day. On this sunny summer day, the stadium looked wonderful, but when the rain and wind comes off the sea I can imagine it being challenging whether you are playing or watching from the corrugated tin stands.
I'd go to the games. For sure I would. I'd get a tweed overcoat and a flat capped hat and sit under the stands and sing the boys to victory. Because, if you haven't noticed, I love Scotland. Edinburgh is awesome, Glasgow is excellent, but so long as the trains run to places like Largs and Balmaha, I'll be dreaming of being at the end of the line, walking between the pub on the corner, the football ground, the newsagent and my little cottage, with a roaring fire to drive out the damp and a pot of tea on the hob.
But for now, we have to head back south. We had appointments in England ahead. Time to bid farewell to Ben and Laura and look forward to seeing Robyn again.