If we’re being totally honest here, the only reason I went to Scotland was to escape the dreaded Schengen zone restrictions. Lucky for me, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited in my whole life. The end of October was perhaps a peculiar time to visit – yes, the days were very short and it was quite cold – but the autumn colors were incredible and there were hardly any tourists, so I actually think I was lucky.
But it also sucked, at least in the beginning. I was in a complete traveling rut when I arrived in Edinburgh. First of all, I had a UTI and a sinus infection, so I had to pay £100 in cash just to see the doctor to get an antibiotic prescription. I was really miserable. The hostel I stayed in was awful, all the plans I’d made were going wrong, everything was expensive, and I simultaneously felt really lonely and really tired of being around people. I walked around by myself for hours, not knowing what to do next.
Edinburgh was gorgeous, though. The old, dark buildings and windy hilltops were a breath of fresh air after being in sunny Spain for so long. I’d read so many books and watched so many films set in the UK that I felt like I was finally visiting the story world that had existed in my imagination for so long. I loved the bleak landscape, the quiet cemeteries, the spooky trees, and the food. Oh god, the food. It was so good. Shepherd’s pie, mashed potatoes, beef stew, scones with jam – I really couldn’t get enough of it. I also grew quite fond of whisky in Scotland after I went into a pub at 3pm and happened upon a free tasting, where I got to try whisky followed by a shot of pickle juice (surprisingly delicious!). And since I was there right around Halloween, I went on a few ghost-themed walking tours around the city. I found the ghost stories painfully cheesy, but the actual history lessons were amazing, and I loved imagining how daily life in this city had been hundreds of years ago.
Even though I was at an emotional low point, I did really like Edinburgh, although it felt quite touristy with all the people on the street wearing kilts and playing bagpipes. My favorite places were Greyfriars kirkyard, Mary King’s Close, Arthur’s Seat, and Calton Hill. Surprisingly, I didn’t think the castle was that great, and it definitely was not worth the £18 entrance fee. I guess British castles start to look the same after a while. On my last day in Edinburgh, I hiked all the way to the top of Arthur’s Seat by myself, which was a lot more arduous than I thought it would be. I happened to get there just in time for sunset on a clear day, so it was extra magical.
Unfortunately I couldn’t afford to stay in hostels and go sightseeing in the UK for very long – I was surviving on £2 to-go sandwiches from Sainsbury’s for a while. After what felt like ages, I finally managed to arrange a work exchange at a bed and breakfast in the highlands. Like, way far out in the highlands. As in, eight hours from Glasgow via train and bus. The drive up there was beautiful – the west coast of Scotland is so desolate and wild and rugged and lonely. But it was also incredibly boring to live there.
I worked at a B&B in the tiny village of Kilchoan for two and a half weeks, and I must say I really did not enjoy this time in my life. Sure, I barely spent any money while I was there, but I was so, so bored. There’s really nothing to do in a village of 150 people on an isolated peninsula, and it didn’t help that there were zero guests staying at the B&B. I mean, I shouldn’t have been surprised – who the hell wants to go to the middle of nowhere, Scotland, in November? I’m sure some people do, but none of them came to our B&B.
My life in Kilchoan consisted of washing about ten thousand dishes every day with Jenny, my fellow American volunteer, and building fires to heat the house. We sometimes got assigned random tasks like painting the side of a house, herding cows, and cleaning duck shit off the floor. But it was about 90% washing dishes. I thought I would die of boredom. Our host wasn’t the friendliest person in the world, and although she sometimes cooked for us and took us out to the pub, it seemed like she didn’t really want us to be there. So that sucked.
As much as I felt like I was wasting away my life, I remained constantly in awe of the natural beauty around me. Kilchoan is in a really gorgeous part of the world, and I feel very lucky that I was able to explore such a beautiful, isolated place. Jenny and I spent a whole day hiking up Ben Hiant, from which we had the most perfect view of the Ardnamurchan peninsula (the most westerly point on the UK mainland). We literally almost fell down the mountain on the way down, and then we accidentally trespassed into a castle. But it was a gorgeous, picturesque hike – the sun was out and the grass was green, even in November. That was the best day in Kilchoan by far.
One of the only things that happened during my time in Kilchoan was when Jenny and I introduced the highlanders to American Thanksgiving. It was surprisingly a huge success, considering neither of us could really cook anything at all. But somehow, we managed to impress everyone with the dinner we put together, and we had a fun evening with the B&B owners and their friends. Then we ran out of firewood and started to fear the possibility of hypothermia because the house got so cold.
During our last few days at the B&B, we received our very first guests – a group of Italian hunters. They were nice, but their hunting dogs managed to totally massacre our pet ducks. We woke up one morning to blood and feathers and duck parts strewn across the carpet. As the B&B owner told us, “sometimes, you have pets, and they die”. Can’t argue with that. I never thought I’d have to clean duck guts out of the carpet, but there you go.
I was so glad to get out of Kilchoan. After being stuck on that B&B, I decided to take a break from work exchanges for a while. Those types of things are incredibly hit or miss, and you really just have to end up in the right place at the right time with the right people for it to be a wonderful experience. But, even if it’s not wonderful, you’ll probably still come away with some interesting stories to tell. I choose to appreciate the good and learn from the not so good!