A Travellerspoint blog

Undiscovered Scotland

A few days ago I was reading a blog by a woman from Andorra about whether or not Scotsmen wear anything under their kilts. It dawned on me that despite being one of the finest nations on our wee round planet (no bias whatsoever), there are alot of urban myths about Scotland. So I've decided to take it upon myself to try and explain one or two of my frozen little countrys cultural curiosities.

Firstly, what the hell is haggis? I've sat in a restaurant before and listened to the manager tell her geriatric English guests that the haggis was freshly caught that morning and watched as an inquisitive and somewhat impressed look, creeps across thier wrinkley faces. The manager said no more after that and a few days later the old dears would've gone back south over the border convinced they'd eaten wild haggis. Many Scots will tell you that a haggis is a wee four legged beastie that roams over the hills. Some will even go as far to say that it has short legs on one side and long legs on the other so as to run across the side of a hill with ease. Indeed, go into any tourist nick-nack shop in Scotland and you'll probably find a furry little 4-legged haggis that pipes out Scotland the Brave when squeezed. Thus confusing the tourist further.

In all honesty however, a haggis is no more an animal than a sausage is. A haggis is a dish that probably came about when the lady of the house was toiling away in the kitchen (thats not a sexist comment by the way as we're going back a good few years here), wondering what she could make using the left overs from last nights mutton roast. She's only got a few oats, spices and onions left, as well as the bits of the sheep that even the dog wouldn't eat. "Och bugger it," she thinks "I'll just chop up what's left o' the sheep (namely the heart, the liver and the lungs) and nobody'll be any the wiser." But wait, it dawns on her that she needn't let the stomach go to waste either. So she chops up all the ingredients, stuffs them into the stomach, formerly belonging to the sheep, and boils it for an hour or so before feeding it to the kids. The national dish of Scotland is born. Of course there are more historically accurate accounts of how the dish came to be but essentially, the haggis came about by the people using what resources were at hand. It's status as the national dish, however, belie its humble begginings. As the ingredients suggest, it probably wouldn't have been the first dish you would think about making after you've slaughtered a sheep. In fact, as a result of the unusual nature of the contents of a haggis, Scots in the US have been known to partake in a spot of haggis smuggling as it is illegal to sell animal lungs for human consumption in America. However, as a dish, it has risen through the ranks to be the choice food for traditional Scottish celebrations such as Burns night or a ceilidh.

Secondly, isn't Scotland just a part of northern England? For some, this might seem like a stupid question to answer but I'm sure if you ask any Scot who has travelled abroad whether they have at some point had to say that they were from England, then the answer would almost unanimously be yes. For a nation that almost single handedly invented the idea of the couch potato and thus western culture (we invented the telephone and TV!), there is a surprising amount of ignorance in foreign lands as to its status as a country in its own right. Scotland as a united country has existed for over 1000 years and for the most part has been an independent nation. A couple of cheeky invasions by the English, the thrashings from the Vikings and of course the current political agreement with the English in forming the United Kingdom being the only exceptions.

However, even as part of the UK, Scotland is still a seperate nation with an independent church, education system, legal system, dire football team and now its own parliament. The building of the Scottish parliament, in my opinion, put to rest the idea that the Scots are a nation of penny pinchers (it's a common idea that copper wire was invented by two Scotsmen fighting over a penny!). The building was supposed to cost a mere £40 million but the politicians obviously thought, "bugger it, lets throw the budget out the window" and subsequentley spent another £360 million of taxpayers cash. However, now that the politicians have a shiny new building to call the home of Scottish politics, it's up to them to show what they can do. The creation of the Parliament is seen by some as the natural next step towards a fully independent country. Although to others this idea seems ludicrous. During a train trip between Nanning and Beijing in China, I had a conversation with a Chinese guy who was looking to practice his English. When the subject turned to politics he explained to me the situatuion in Tawain and Hong Kong and I tried my best to tell him about British politics. When I mentioned to him that the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament were nationalists who wanted to be seperate from England, he looked at me as though I was talking to him in Swahili. Complete confusion. Not because he didn't understand my English but because to him Britain is a single country and anybody inside it who wants to seperate must be extremely silly fanatics. However, the future of Scotland is in the hands of the Scottish people again and depending on what they do with it, I might never again have to say in foreign lands that I'm from England.

My final point of call takes me back to where I started, what do Scotsmen wear underneath their kilts? Ask any Scot and they'll tell you that a true Scotsman doesn't wear anything under his kilt. However, it seems that the Scots are simply a nation of voyeurs as historically the kilt was always worn with something underneath. Traditionally kilts were worn with long, tucked in shirts and were, I love this quote, "the means whereby modesty prevailed." The notion of hanging freely apparantley trickled into the mainstream from a small section of the Scottish military. These chaps, it seems, were keen on the loose feel approach and subsequently didn't wear anything to hide their crown jewels. Although it's bizarre that a place as cold as Scotland could have developed a fashion for wearing less clothes, especially in relation to a part of the male body that would need more cover in the chilly months.

I personally think that it's scottish women that invented the myth about no underwear. As any man who has worn the attire before will know, women change when you've got a kilt on. They seem to hunt in packs when it comes to men in kilts and they don't stop until some bit of white flesh has been exposed. Maybe that's why as part of a kilt outfit, you have the sgian dubh (Scottish dagger) tucked into a sock, in order to fend off the women at one o'clock in the morning outside the pub?? Just a thought. However, getting back to the facts, the Scots learned very early in history that wearing no underwear has disadvantages. When the Romans tried to invade the Celtic lands to the north of Hadrians wall they were often met by naked Picts and Celts brandishing spears and the like. I'd imagine that a few Roman swords in the backside would have been a steep learning curve for the Scots. Subsequently by the time the Scots were helping the French to kill the English in the 1500's they had not only the long shirt to cover their modesty but often the material was tied up between the legs to form what would have looked like massive underpants. Despite probably looking like a scene from a Monty Python sketch it would have been very effective during battle and might have helped win as the English would no doubt have been too busy pissing themselves laughing.

So there we have it, some urban myths about Scotland finally put to rest. Now, what's that one about the Virgin Mary at Rosslyn chapel all about...

What lies beneath...?IMG_2130.JPG

Posted by scotsman 10:43 Archived in Scotland Comments (18)

The Language Barrier

As a traveller in a foreign land, it is almost obligatory to try and learn some of the local language. Even if it is only "please" and "thank you," at least you can thank the taxi driver when he charges you the tourist price (normally around double the fare in some countries) and say please when you're ordering that kebab that will have you popping "Gastro-Stop" pills for the next week.

As English speakers however, we're very lucky. For historical, cultural and economic reasons you will find that no matter where you roam on our big green and blue planet, you will find someone who can mutter a few words of English. Although only the fourth most spoken language in the world, English is probably the most widespread.

However, it's easy to assume that you can go anywhere and not have to worry about being understood, simply because you can speak English. In his book Mother Tongue Bill Bryson says something along the lines of half the world speaks English and the other half tries to. It's this latter half that normally make life quite interesting.

For example, my girlfriend and I were partially abducted by a Moroccan family for a week who were desperate to show us Arabic hospitality. The only English speaker in the family was the eldest son who we had become friends with whilst staying in Fes. However, broken English is very easy to misunderstand. One day we were strolling through a green patch of countryside with our kind hosts when Yousef turned to me, gestured proudly to the field of sheep next to us and said "Here we quaff the cheep!" Now, at the time, I assumed he meant shear the sheep due to the interesting body actions which accompanied the afore-mentioned proud statement, but the other day I was standing at work when I suddenly stopped and thought "What the hell do they do to their sheep in Morocco? What exactly is quaffing? Maybe I should phone the Moroccan RSPCA..."

During a trip in Asia I had a number of interesting moments where locals got a little confused with the intricacies of the English language. On one occasion in Saigon I enquired about the cost of a local companies tour to the Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi and had the following conversation,

Scottish Backpacker: "How much is the tunnels tour?"
Helpful Vietnamese Lady: "Three & a half dollars"
Scottish Backpacker: "Three dollars fifty? Good price!"
Helpful Vietnamese Lady: "No No! Three & a HALF dollars!"

Then a couple of months later I found myself wandering around Tiananmen Square in Beijing trying to avoid the touts selling the obligaory Chairman Mao nick-nacks when a zealous salesman came at me with his pitch,

Chinese Salesman: "Hallo hallo, you wan' Mao book, only one dollar!"
Scottish Backpacker:"No, thanks."
Chinese Salesman: "Ok Ok, two dollar?"
Scottish Backpacker:"No thanks (continuing to walk away)"
Chinese Salesman: "Threeeeee dollarrr.......???"

It has to be said that the communist countries of Vietnam and China have the most determined salespeople in the world. And a mutual lack of understanding in the language department won't deter them from a sale. The Chinese, god bless their wee socks, are much like the English when it comes to speaking to foreigners. If someone doesn't understand them when they talk in Mandarin, they simply talk louder and slower. But of course it doesn't matter how slowly they say "Maa shii tsu chir soo der," you still have a face that personifies confusion. On the subject of China, is it possible that millions of people don't see the irony in paying for a Big Mac and Coke using a note bearing the head of Chairman Mao?

Anyhow, even in countries where English is a main language, things can still be a little misunderstood. On a bus in Singapore, I was sat behind a young guy who had a four skin on his head... Of course I'm talking about his baseball cap, proudly made by the "four skin" company. Also in Singapore, the Chinese influence must surely make the English speakers chuckle when they are dining at places such as the "YuKee food house" or the "Foo Ken Thong cafe." Both genuine businesses I assure you. Even in countries which are predominately English speaking, there are still difficulties in being understood. A fine example being in my current place of employment in the Scottish highlands. Earlier in the year I was working with a guy from Brisbane who struggled with one of the local accents so badly that I had to translate for him. One story that was told to him was about a drunken assault that had taken place, but of course he had no idea that a "clout in the puss" meant to be hit in the face. It was just another example of the global English language that makes life a little more colourful.

Posted by scotsman 10:29 Comments (2)

My Backpacking Essentials

Such is the life of the eternal vagabond and travel bug sufferer, that when you're not travelling, you're thinking about and planning your next trip. It's in this latter state that I've conjured up a few of my backpacking essentials.

A Reliable Backpack

A rather obvious place to start but I'm a firm beleiver that when the rucksack was invented, mankind (and womankind) took a huge step forward. However, it disappoints me to see cheap and useless versions, of such a valuable commodity, being produced. It's easy for first time backpackers to fall into the trap of buying a cheap backpack and keeping a few extra pennies for the beer fund. I myself fell foul to this temptation. On my first ever venture into foreign lands I hauled around what looked like a small wardrobe with wafer thin shoulder straps attached. I also made the mistake of cramming it with almost 25kg worth of crap. This in turn lead to me walk as though I was continuously heading into gale force winds as I stooped forward to cope with the weight. Needless to say it was somewhat of a hinderance and an obvious source of amusement to the locals, especially in Morocco where the local nomadic people would know doubt have tried to sell me a donkey for my baggage, had they been able to speak english.

In preperation for my second trip I doubled my rucksack budget and still ended with a backpack that struggled to keep pace with the hectic travelling life. Every single plastic buckle for adjusting the shoulder straps broke. I would get off a bus, throw my bag over my shoulder and feel it snap before hurtling towards the ground and an imminent collision with a local childs head. So in the interests of friendly relations with the locals and keeping myself out of a wheelchair, I think a small lightweight, backpack is a must.

A Good Guidebook

A guidebook is one item that can have a massive impact on what kind of trip you have, where you go and what you see. There are people who purposefully travel without a guidebook for various reasons and there are even people who travel with a guidebook so as to not go where everyone else is (Lonely Planet apparantley aren't too bothered about the fact that their books are used to see where not to go, but then I suppose I wouldn't be all that fussed either if the travellers in question are still buying it!). I always like to have a guidebook with me, even though I might only refer to it now and again, it's still good to have. And my personal choice would normally be a Lonely Planet. Even though the old LP gets a bit of a rough time from the more judgemental sections of the travel community (there are people who look down upon "Lonely Planet clutching" travellers) I still think it's gold on paper!

However, despite my love of Melbournes finest product (although the Acland street cake shops are a contender and I did grow up watching Neighbours...) you still can't rely solely on a guidebook. Not only because it would take the adventure out of travelling but also because, dare I say it, the books aren't always right. I've found myself in a building site at the top of a Vietnamese mountain and a few thousand dong out of pocket because of guidebook recommendations and lost in a Moroccan city because of a bad map from a guidebook. Who knows, maybe even the language translations are a bit off the beaten track (please refer to Monty Pythons "Hungarian to English dictionary" sketch). Anyhow, back to my point, I would say a guidebook should be an essential part of anyones travel checklist as 99% of the time it's right and it gives an initial insight into the culture your trying to explore in the first place.

The Right Attitude

In my opinion the most important thing to take with you on a trip is the right attitude towards it. Leave any prejudices you have at home and go out with an open mind toward the weird and wacky people and places of the world. Even if sometimes you feel like screaming at the tuk tuk driver following you down the street saying, "hello, where you go? hello, where you go?" Just try to be patient and remember that these are the people and the culture that you are there to experience.

Talking of annoyances, probably the biggest nuisance to travellers, particularly on the tourist trail in Asia, are the locals offering services i.e. transport, accommodation and tours. More than once I would have quite happily jammed a stick into a Vietnamese cyclo drivers wheel or stood on the toes of the touts pushing hotel cards at my eyeball, but as a student of my own philosophies, and out of fear of them having tough friends, I always refrained. However, if you are patient and understanding as to why it's so important to the tout or driver to get your money then you will automatically be more laid back toward the situation. You'll often find that when the money matters are out of the way, the touts etc will geniunely try and become friends with you. My girlfriend and I were partially abducted by a touts family in Morocco. They were so keen to show us good hospitality that they took us to their relatives home in an obscure Moroccan town and forgot to tell us that we were staying the night! And even when we returned to Fes, we had to tear ourselves away from them otherwise my vegetarian girlfriend might still be there to this day, suffering the quizical looks for refusing the chicken cous cous.

At the end of the day however, as long as you're open minded towards new experiences and new people, you're already prepared for any trip...

Posted by scotsman 12:40 Comments (6)

Going Home...

One thing all trips have in common, no matter how big or small, is that at some point, you have to go home.

For some, going home is fantastic. Everyone speaks your language, you know where to go if you need to buy a small everyday item (how difficult would it be for Beijing shop owners to stock deodorant?), the food won’t necessarily put you in hospital and you can safely wander anywhere without the fear of coming into contact with deadly local wildlife (or deadly locals for that matter).

For others, going home is a traumatic rollercoaster of emotions. There are highs of seeing friendly faces again, but lows of feeling disconnected. When returning home people often feel they have grown as a person whilst travelling and that their life has moved forward. As a result it feels as though the friends and family you have returned to see don’t really understand you as fully anymore. They didn’t share that amazing mountaintop view or the curry with meat of questionable origin or the encounters with local characters that shaped you into the person you are upon going home.

I, unfortunately, fall into the latter category. After sixteen months on the road I was looking forward to seeing the friendly faces but after two days I was desperate to leave. When you live a life whereby everyday is new and challenging it becomes very difficult to look at the mundane routines of daily life with any enthusiasm. Where is the fun in going to buy something for breakfast when you know; firstly how to ask for it, secondly what it is you’re buying and thirdly that it won’t necessarily put you in hospital? It’s no fun at all! Travelling, I’ve realised since coming home, challenges you every day and forces you to continuously learn new things. It becomes a way of living your life and not just a trip that you’re making. One of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked since being home is did I enjoy my trip? How do I answer that? How do you sum up a chunk of your life in a small, polite response? It’s impossible. As a result, the conversation quickly turns to what happened at work on Thursday or the questionable sausage roll that was bought for lunch yesterday etc. All no doubt very interesting in their own right but quite difficult to take in when your thoughts are somewhere on the other side of the planet.

On the other hand, an interesting aspect of going home is that, for a short while at least, you are able to see your own country from a tourists perspective. If you’ve been on the road for a significant amount of time then everything seems new and novel when you go home. For example, after becoming accustomed to the erratic, crazy and chaotic streets and drivers of Southeast Asia and China, it was amazing to see a road sign in the UK that politely asked, “please be a courteous driver.” How very British! Although even if there weren’t a sign asking drivers to be nice it wouldn’t matter. Cars often stop voluntarily in order to let pedestrians cross the road, I was amazed! You mean I don’t actually have to walk into a throng of oncoming traffic and risk my life in order to cross the road? A novel experience.

In addition, is there a nation better placed in the world to describe their weather as “blustery?” On my trip I think I may have seen the entire weather spectrum, from central Australia in summer to Siberia in winter and everything in between. Yet nowhere has a weather forecast where for 365 days of the year the word “blustery” (i.e. a combination of whipping winds and drizzly rain) is likely to feature. In my mind, Britain has communist weather i.e. it’s grey and oppressive. But it seems to add to the national character. Because of the grey downbeat nature the population have grown to greatly appreciate small pleasures. Bill Bryson in his book “Notes From a Small Island” quite accurately describes how the British seem to feel guilty in enjoying the pleasures of life and as a result derive immense satisfaction from small luxuries, such as a cup of tea and if you’re a devil then maybe even a biscuit!

Unfortunately though, the tourist phase of going home only lasts for a week or two. After that you have to start dealing with the travel bug. Common signs of having contracted the bug are: prolonged time being spent in the travel section of book shops, the desire to buy a new, smaller backpack, spending time on the internet looking for cheap flights or trains to various locations etc… The only known cure for the travel bug is to hit the road again. However, at some point you have to once more face up to going home. It’s a vicious circle…

Posted by scotsman 12:01 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged backpacking Comments (10)

My Eight Legged Chums

Australia is a part of the world where insects are not to be taken lightly. This is a land where a tiny spider can put you in intensive care for a week, trying to breath through your ears, and a land where most insects will have a nibble at any bodily part, exposed or otherwise. It's not only the appetite that some Australian creepy-crawlies possess that scares me, but their sheer size too. Ask any Aussie to show you what they would class as a small spider and they will shape their hand as though they're about to bowl a cricket ball!

Coming from a country where it's a hardy "wee beastie" that survives the icey winters, I was genuinely anxious about going to Australia and finding myself face to face, so to speak, with any number of killer creepy-crawlies. So much so in fact, that during my time on the girt by sea I checked under every toilet seat, that I had the pleasure of perching upon, just incase a little redback spider was waiting for me to bare my white bum. This is actually a life-long fear after watching an episode of The Really Wild Show. They happened to have a feature about the Australian "Dunnie Spider," which just happens to be the redback, and although there has only ever been one incident of a biting to the bum, it's still a very distinct possibility. I saw this when I was 11 or 12 years old and it still haunts me at 22.

Anyhow, despite the profusion of Australian spiders that can have you coffin-bound, the one that troubled me most, and had me lying awake at night, is the huntsman spider. Even though it is, allegedly, harmless, the sheer size and reputation of it had me concerned to say the least. Some can have a leg span of up to and over 15cm's and huntsmans also have tendancies to happily make their way into homes where they are not welcome and even more worryingly into peoples cars. Now, anyone reading this in a part of the world where the spiders are as large and hairy as coconuts may scoff. But to the average northern European, a spider with a 15cm legspan crawling across your car dashboard whilst your whizzing down the motorway is cause enough to induce heart palpitations.

My first encounter with a huntsman spider was whilst I was working at a pear orchard in the Adelaide Hills. It was only a baby huntsman, sunning itself upon fine a beurre bosc (brown pear), with its legs tucked in, making it look smaller than it actually was. Although after a quick wiggle of the pear, its long hairy legs came into full view as it plummeted down from the fruit onto the long grass. About a week after this initial encounter I had another moment in the pear trees with a hairy huntsman. This time though my eight legged chum was not so little. In fact he was twice the size of the little bugger the week before but he still managed to conceal himself well enough underneath a pear so that when I plucked the fruit from the tree and saw the hairy legs I almost squealed like a pre-pubescent schoolgirl. Instead, in one fluid motion, I hurled the fruit across several rows of trees and began a small, personal highland fling in the trees as I was sure the spider had landed on me. Of course it turned out that I was spider free and instead there was a huntsman sitting on the top of a pear tree a few rows down thinking "what the..."

A few more visits followed in the ensuing weeks that I spent in the Adelaide Hills, each of which adding to the possibility of flowing white hair by the age of 30. As a result of these experiences I decided to do a little research on the critters in question and found my way to the Australian Museum website http://www.amonline.net.au/factsheets/huntsman_spiders.htm
Not only does this page contain enough photographic evidence to put forward a case for maybe rounding up every single hunstman in Australia and dumping them in a place where they can do no harm (I suggest Siberia). But it also has a few interesting facts. For example, if anyone ever tells you that a huntsman is harmless then simply remind them that "Huntsman spider bites usually result only in transient local pain and swelling. However, some Badge Huntsman spider bites have caused prolonged pain, inflammation, headache, vomiting and irregular pulse rate." Irregular pulse rate? Siberia is sounding awfully appealling just now.

The site has other facts too that could suggest that huntsman spiders are friendly, almost cuddley creatures. But personally, I wouldn't mind seeing my eight legged chums living happily in a dark forest in frozen Siberia. Well out of the way of soft little backpackers like myself.

Posted by scotsman 17:14 Archived in Australia Comments (4)

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