Retired couple trades tours for foot power when visiting Scotland

Going the distance

Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2002

Sally and her husband Dave, both retirees living in Cooper Landing, spent six weeks in Scotland this summer, traveling like college students on a low budget -- and hiking about 100 miles through the Scottish wilderness.

They had no tour guide, no rental car and few reservations -- and packed just one 20-pound bag apiece.

"We spent six weeks in one small country," Sally said. "That was pretty neat, to see it in depth."

The couple is no stranger to travel. When Sally retired from her job as a registered nurse and Dave quit the paint and wallpaper business, they began traveling through the United States.

In 1995, they made their first trip to Alaska and spent the summer here. They came back in 1997 as camp hosts at Johnson Lake in Kasilof and were offered a winter post at the boat launch cabin there.

"We said we'd be crazy as loons not to do it," Sally said. "So we sold our house, moved into the RV, then stayed in the cabin and went back to Johnson Lake in (the summer of) 1998."

But the couple wasn't finished moving around yet. After 1998, they again set out in their motor home, traveling through Mexico, Canada and the United States. It wasn't until January, when they ended up in San Diego and realized they were done with the desert, that Dave suggested they move to Alaska.

"I said, 'When do we leave?'" Sally recalled. They sold the motor home, rented a small trailer and moved to Cooper Landing.

"RV travel is nice, but really solitary. You're so self-contained, you don't need anyone else," Sally said. "You don't intermingle with the locals. Life is one long RV park and rest area."

That, she said, is a large part of why the couple decided to take a different tack on the Scotland trip -- they wanted to slow down, enjoy the journey and get a taste of the place they were visiting.

The decided to forgo the tours, reservations and rental cars and just "fly by the seat of their pants," backpacking through the country, Sally said.

"You see kids here do it in the summer, hitching," she said. "It freed us up so we were able to move around, not have to deal with all this luggage."

At first, she found the idea a little frightening.

"I tend to micromanage. When we've traveled in the past, I want to plan every second," she said. "Now I'm old enough to know that that will only result in me being frustrated and behind schedule."

But, she added, the idea of not knowing where they would stay at night was daunting.

Luckily, Dave balanced Sally's concern.

"It didn't bother me," he said. "There are so many B&Bs (bed and breakfasts) over there. We didn't have to be concerned."

Still, comfortably winging a six-week trip in another country does require some preplanning.

They started with research.

"We got every kind of book, article and Internet thing on traveling with a backpack," Sally said. Then, she added, they got a map and started deciding what they wanted to see.


Sally and Dave Davis relive memories of their trip to Scotland.

Photo by Jenni Dillon

"Going into this, I knew nothing about Scotland," Sally said. "I knew it was an island and there were bagpipes."

Dave, an avid genealogy buff, knew a little more. He has spent the past seven years researching his family history and discovered that some of his ancestors originated in Scotland.

Dave knew a few cities he wanted to see -- places his ancestors lived -- and Sally leafed through guide books, highlighting anything that looked interesting.

"Then we sat down with a map and started making decisions about where we were going to go or not go, what was feasible and what wasn't," Sally said. "Even with 42 days, we couldn't do everything."

Sally printed out a two-page calendar from the computer, and wrote any firm plans -- the few events that required advance tickets and reservations -- in ink. The rest was penciled in.

"That gave us a skeleton to hang our trip on," she said. But, she added, it also allowed flexibility.

"The real beauty was being able to decide on Monday morning if we'd had enough of a place or wanted to stay two or three more days," she said.

Finally, it was time to go.

The couple loaded their backpacks with two changes of clothes each, plus the clothes on their back. They each took one pair of hiking boots and one pair of sandals, and selected the most important two guidebooks to carry along. A couple other personal necessities, photocopies of passports, identification and credit cars, and about $400 in emergency cash, and they were set.

First, they hit Edinburgh for "The Festival," a huge annual collection of classical and "fringe" performing arts held along the Royal Mile -- the milelong stretch from the original medieval castle to the abbey-turned-palace where Queen Elizabeth stays on visits -- in the ancient town. Each year, about 500,000 people travel to Edinburgh to witness the original classical festival, full of chamber music, orchestras and Shakespeare performances, as well as the now larger fringe festival of street performers.

The event also includes the Military Tattoo -- one of the few activities the Davis' needed advanced tickets for. The Military Tattoo is a performance of military bands from Scotland -- drums and bagpipes -- and other British Commonwealth countries, such as New Zealand and Australia. The bands take turns marching out of Edinburgh castle, crossing the drawbridge and performing on the castle lawn.

While the performance was a sight in and of itself, it also held a special surprise for the couple.

"We were sitting in the bleachers listening to bands from Ethiopia or wherever, then out came the U.S. Marine Corps band," Dave said. "They invite a noncommonwealth band every year, and because of Sept. 11, this year it was the U.S."

The Marines played a jazz rendition of "New York, New York," then the whole company, from all over the world, gathered together to play "The Star Spangled Banner," followed by "God Save the Queen."

"For us, that was the most exciting thing there," Dave said. "It was very emotional. We didn't know it was going to be emotional."

While in Edinburgh, the couple also visited St. Andrews -- the birthplace of golf -- for a sort of pilgrimage for Dave.

"He's pretty into golf," she said, as they flipped through one picture after another of the famous golf course.

Then, it was time for another sort of pilgrimage, as the couple headed to Glasgow, the home of some of Dave's relatives.

They toured what Sally called the "industrial, work-a-day" city, then had yet another surprise. A woman Dave had met while doing genealogy research on the Internet showed up in Glasgow with her husband and offered to take the Davises to Paisley, an old mill where Dave's grandfather likely worked.

"We think this young man would have worked there," Sally said. "The kids probably would have played there, in the common area. It's kind of weird knowing they were standing there all those years ago."


The Edinburgh Castle glimmers with light in preparation for the Military Tattoo. During the annual event, military bands from all over the world march out of the castle gate and across the bridge to perform in the castle yard.

Photo courtesy of Sally and Dave Davis

While in Glasgow, the couple also learned that Dave's family may not have originated in Scotland.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1830s and '40s drove many Irish families to Scotland for work, Dave said. At the same time, the Scottish economy hit a downturn as well, and many Irish and Scottish in Glasgow moved to the United States.

"Now we think my great grandparents came from Ireland, not Scotland," Dave said.

After Glasgow, it was time to walk.

Sally explained that throughout the British Isles, and even in some other parts of Europe, long wilderness trails are popular. Tourists come and backpack through the area, viewing the countryside and staying at hostels or B&Bs along the way.

"They're popular because they're populated," Sally said. "There are B&Bs, plenty of places to stay. You don't have to have a tent and all." And, she added, unlike hiking in Alas-ka, walkers don't have to turn around and backtrack their steps.

So, Sally and Dave set out along the West Highland Way, walking from Glasgow to Fort William -- about 100 miles in nine days.

"You can get a guide, but they go 14 to 20 miles a day," Sally said. "I knew we'd do 14 miles a few times, but 20 was out of the question.

"In hindsight, we could have done it faster, but why? We had all the time in the world."

As they walked, the couple got a feel for the history of the land and for the Scottish people -- and their rivalry with the often visiting English.

For example, they explained, there are no trees in Scotland. They've been gone for centuries, and the sheep that roam the countryside eat any seedlings that may sprout. Thus, wood is a luxury and stone a necessity.

Stone walls line the hills, and stone cottages dot the countryside.

"After the British took over, the king gave Scottish land to English lords, who decided to raise sheep rather than farm," Sally said, offering an abridged history lesson. "They went in and forced off people who had lived in the same house for centuries. Along the hike, we'd see these old crofters' houses."

Some of the stone houses -- absent a roof -- were simply abandoned, and the family had dismantled the roof, taking the rafters with them, as there would be no wood for new ones at the next home, Dave explained. Some of the houses were charred though, a testament to more bitter days gone by.

"When the English wanted to get rid of a family, they'd just burn the rafters," Dave said.

But while the Davises came to understand the history, some of what they saw -- or rather, didn't see -- still surprised them.

In 100 miles of wilderness, the couple saw only domesticated sheep, a few highland cattle (hair hanging in their eyes), one squirrel and one red deer, Sally said with a hint of shock.

"It was really an eye-opener," she said.

Dave added that through the whole hike they also only saw one fisher -- and though he paid $1,500 for the privilege of fishing, he wasn't catching anything.

"The guy asked what I pay to fish. I said, 'I'm 62, they give me a fishing license.' He couldn't believe it," Dave said. "You learn to appreciate the balance of nature. It's very delicate. You've got to manage it.

"Scotland is a perfect example of what could happen to us here if we don't take care of what we've got."

After days of walking, and learning, the Davises made it to Fort Williams, where they rested for a day, then caught a bus, then ferry to the outer islands of Harris and Lewis.

"The attraction there was to see this whole different culture," Sally said, explaining that the deeply religious islands are a world of their own.

"They're a whole different kind of people," she said. For one thing, they hold onto the Celtic heritage even more so than other Scots, fluently speaking both English and Gaelic. Plus, they take Sundays very seriously.

"You can't get a meal, bus or ferry on Sundays," Sally said. "They padlock the children's playgrounds."

Luckily, Sally added, she knew all this ahead of time and planned to miss a Sunday on the islands.

After the islands, the Davises headed to the capital of the highlands to see Culloden -- the Scottish equivalent of Gettysburg.

"It was the last time the Scots tried to pull away from the British, and they got slaughtered," Sally said. "It was really sad, lots of history."

But then, it was time for the final Scotland adventure -- a boat trip through the lake and canal system and a less-than-planned encounter on Loch Ness.

The Davises returned to Fort William, where they rented a 32-foot boat for a week of touring the canal system, with very little idea what they were in for. People waited in line to pull their boats through the water ladder, from one lake to the next, Sally said.

It was interesting, Sally said, but "once you've done it, you've done it."


Sally and Dave Davis pause for a picture at the end of the West Highland Way. The couple hiked more than 100 miles in nine days, traveling from Glasgow to Fort William, Scotland.

Photo courtesy of Sally and Dave Davis

"My vision was that we could walk into all these villages, but they were not as accessible as we thought," she said. "Loch Ness is neat, but there's not a lot to do."

"Well," Dave teased, "you could always get stranded on the lake and have the Coast Guard rescue you."

Which is exactly what the Davises ended up doing -- inadvertently, of course.

Dave explained that the cable drive on the rented boat broke, leaving the couple out in the middle of the lake.

"The problem with Loch Ness is that it's a lot like Skilak Lake," Sally said. "It's deep, cold and changes weather fast."

"If you're stranded, you can't just wait until tomorrow," Dave said. "Besides, our anchor didn't even reach bottom; all we were doing was hitting Nessy on the head."

So Dave took a dinghy, rowed to shore and called for help.

"It was ghastly when it happened, but we get a lot of laughs out of it now," Sally said good naturedly.

And, of course, it was yet another part of the Scotland experience that the couple could live firsthand and share with friends and family at home.

And that, after all, was the whole point.

"You get into the culture in a way you don't with one of those organized trips," Sally said.

For example, they learned that some cliches have a ring of truth.

"I thought it was hype, but when these people dress up, they wear the kilt and all," Sally said. "You'll see men on the way to the office in a coat, tie and kilt."

They also learned that rivalry between the English and Scots still exists today.

"To confuse English and Scottish is a real faux pas," she said. "The English (we met) were very reserved, stereotypical. The Scots were very warm, down home people. They'd fit right in in Alaska."

And, she added, "I didn't know that Glasgow has much the same problems between Protestants and Catholics that Northern Ireland does," she added.

"There are thousands of Irish-Catholics who came during the potato famine, and the Scots are Pres-byterian," Dave said. "They really go at it. There's a real undercurrent."

The schools, he explained, are state-funded and religiously based. Catholic children go to Cath-olic schools, while Protes-tant children attend Protes-tant schools.

"We met one girl who grew up in a mixed-religion family," Dave recounted. "She had played with all her cousins on her mother's side as a child, then went to Catholic school (because her father was Catholic) and had to hate the others. She was 6 years old and had no idea why she hated the kids she was playing with the year before."

Then, Sally added, there's the tax for the BBC.

"I thought it was like PBS, but it isn't. It's state TV. If you buy or own a TV, then you pay $150 to $160 a year in taxes," she said. "And they know, because the telephone trucks drive by with a sensor and can detect whose TV is on in what room.

"And they don't know this is odd. Of course, I had to check myself, because its their country -- its just different."

"It makes you appreciate your own constitution," Dave said.

But though they saw a few things that made them glad to be Americans, the Davises said they loved Scotland.

"The best thing was the walk. There was a certain sense of accomplishment knowing we'd walked that far and didn't die in the process," Sally said. "Maybe some people have walked that far, but I hadn't."

Dave agreed.

"I'd go again tomorrow."

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