A Mystical Travel Guide to Scotland
I’ve spent the last five months in Scotland as part of an exchange student program, and it could have well been that my experience of Scotland would’ve been limited to the majestic city of Glasgow since that’s where my host University, *cough* Hogwarts *cough*, was located. Luckily, during the orientation week we had all kinds of activities and lectures between us foreign students, and thank the heavens above, my newly met friend, Anne, and I were seated in a lecture room in the Boyd Orr Building (possibly one of the ugliest buildings in Glasgow) when the lecturer, after having gone through a myriad of slides full of important information we forgot right away, introduced Gary Robert Brown.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “What can a man named Gary Robert Brown do for the exchange students of Scotland?”
Well, dear BTSB readers, the answer is – he can tell a story.
Gary Robert Brown, in addition to being a professional ginger, is the manager of Student Tours Scotland and a stellar story teller. I sat down to interview him so that all you readers might experience Scotland through his stories, and hopefully be inspired enough to visit this magnificently breath-taking country.
For the benefit of everyone I asked Gary to give us a brief introduction of himself and his tour company, and more importantly, how he ended up running a tour company.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do and then just kind of fell into tourism. My degree is in Psychology, and that has nothing to do with tourism, so, Student Tours Scotland had just kind of grown randomly over the years. I mostly take international students and tourists around Scotland during the weekends.”
It might sound like Gary just found himself in the tourism market by accident, but anyone who’s been on his tours could attest to the fact that this man was born to tell stories, and what better way to sell a country’s charms than via stories.
Now, you might find yourself asking, “Well, how’d he learn all these stories anyway, what makes them so special?” Here’s what Gary had to say:
“You see, I was very lucky that I grew up with a very Scottish family, so as a kid you were always surrounded by mythologies and stories and some of the stories I tell on the tours are handed down through family. I don’t know whether it’s nonsense or whether it’s something they’ve been handed down, but what I have noticed is, in recent years since becoming a tour guide, I’ve heard versions of those stories. Not the same stories though –you never hear the same story twice in Scotland, you hear an almost perfect copy but there’s always something that’s quite surprisingly different—and then you read books and you realize there’s a version of them in books as well, because the whole idea of Scottish mythology is that it’s handed down. It was never written down, so your grandparents would tell a story and they would hand it down to their kids and they would hand it down to their kids, always changing. When we were kids we called it Chinese whispers, so you’d tell a story and it’d travel all the way to China and then come back again and it would be completely different from what you told”, Gary tells me.
The stories we hear on Gary’s tours are quite unique because they do have a personal touch, having been passed down in his family, but what I wanted to know was, what made him want to tell these stories to others, specifically to us foreign students?
“If you’d come to Glasgow when I was a teenager there wasn’t as many visitors, foreigners, around. It wasn’t that people didn’t want foreigners around, it was that Glasgow had this reputation of ‘why would you go there’ and we then started to believe that image.
So, when I finished up university with my psychology degree, I ran a student union for a year, and my biggest surprise was suddenly discovering all these international students on campus, and I thought, why are they not in our student union? The student union of the biggest university in Glasgow was mostly made up of male white guys from middle-class families, and of course there were females but even they were from white middle-class families, there wasn’t many working-class families, no posh people, and definitely not many foreigners there. And yet suddenly now I was going to meetings with international heads and the principle on regular basis and I’d meet all these people who were talking about ‘international students’ and I thought –Where are they? Then I discovered them because I was being invited to talks and there’d be a lecture room full of maybe a thousand students and I thought ‘these guys should be coming to our student union, that’s what we’re there for’. My whole big push that year was trying to internationalize the student union, and it failed miserably! Because it’s not a simple thing you can integrate to; it’s the same problem with Finland, the same problem with Germany, the same problem with Brazil and the same problem anywhere in the world; you can’t just take foreigners and locals and tell them they’re best friends – you need to think of ways of doing it. But one thing I noticed was that Universities care about these things.
I was quite lucky to be offered a job with Glasgow Caledonian University doing mostly Visa advice for students and another part of the job was to give the students a social life. It was a complete free range, it was literally ‘do what you want. A social life’. It was whatever you interpret that to mean. During that period of four years working there, I made a lot of friends, mostly foreign and exchange students, we became very close and they suddenly wanted to go see things in Scotland. My reaction was, ‘Why?’
For example, the very first tour I was ever told to do, I was asked to take a group of international students to Edinburgh, but I said to my boss, ‘Why would you want to go to Edinburg, there’s nothing there?’ So, when I was there with the students I gave them all a map and said, ‘See you at 5PM!’ and the I walked around. While I was walking around there was actually a Finnish girl there and she said, ‘oh that’s really nice’ and some of the other students agreed and you look at things and go ‘…yeah…that actually is really nice. I’ve never noticed that before’. And suddenly you realize you’re staring at Edinburgh castle and you don’t appreciate it because you got dragged there so many times as a kid that it means nothing to you. But then you see it through the eyes of a tourist and you realize that, yeah, the castle looks pretty amazing. And it was that over the four years that suddenly sparked an interest in Scotland, and on a free weekend my friends and I would jump in a car and I was essentially rediscovering my own country that I’d forgotten about and I was remembering stories I’d been told.”
Thanks to Gary rediscovering Scotland and subsequently starting a tour business, he knows just the places to visit and what better, he knows the legends behind them. Here’s the top three picks for a mystical trip through Scotland, described by the one and only Gary Robert Brown.
“Port Patrick is a tiny little village at the South-West of Scotland. It sticks out of Scotland almost like a little ear and it faces Ireland and that’s important for the name. It’s called Port Patrick because it was the original port to Ireland. Because of the exposure to the sea and the storms they had to move the port inland, and that means you’ve got this tiny little village that’s never really developed into more than a village, so it’s gorgeous. It takes ages to get there from Glasgow, and when you get there you descend into the village and you’ve got this gorgeous area that looks like an island but is actually the mainland. Even in heavy rain Port Patrick is magical, but on a sunny day it’s one of the most stunning places you’ll ever go to in Scotland. One of the historical facts about Scotland is that the Kingdom that is now Scotland used to be divided into smaller kingdoms, and there were different peoples. In the North-East and South-West of Scotland there were two groups known as the Picts and the Picts were quite a historical group, pre- Christian. The ones in the South-West were almost eradicated by the king who was trying to create Scotland by merging all the kingdoms. He’d heard rumors of this drink called ‘Heather Ale’. It was supposedly made by the fairies and the fairies had only given the recipe to the Picts. The king had gone killing all the Picts all around the country and one by one all the groups were dying. And as he was killing them, he was discovering the Heather Ale and only when he had almost eradicated everyone, did he realize that the drink must be something that’s unique to the Picts. And so, if he kills them all, he’ll never drink it again. So, he manages to find a traitor within the Picts and says, ‘I’ll keep you alive till the very, very end’. And the traitor thinks, ‘Maybe I can persuade the king to keep me alive’.
Eventually there’s only one Pict family, a royal family, alive in the South-West of Scotland and the king decides he’s going to kill them all. He says, ‘I want you to tell me the secret of Heather Ale’. And the King of the Picts says, ‘I can’t tell you that. It’s a secret that only the Picts can know.’ But the king of Scotland insists, ‘I want to know it’. The king of the Picts then says, ‘Well, you’re going to kill me anyway so why don’t you give me the traitor and I’ll tell him, because he might be a traitor but he’s still a Pict. So I can tell him and you can keep him alive, but he’ll never tell you the secret, he’ll just make you the Heather Ale. The king of Scotland agrees, ‘That’s a fair trade off’.
The king of the Picts beckons the traitor to come over and when he comes over the king grabs the traitor and jumps off the edge of a cliff and kills them both –Taking away the secret once and for all. But the Picts were never eradicated, there are still people who claim Pictish ancestry, but the people who knew the secret to Heather Ale were usually the royal Picts and they were all wiped out. And ever since then, people have tried to recreate Heather Ale and you can actually buy drinks called Heather Ale, but they’re never actually quite as good. People say that they’ve never been able to create the original. Heather is a type of plant that grows in Scotland, so you’d assume it’s made of that, but apparently not. So that’s why Port Patrick is one of my favorites, it’s got lots of stories about it. Lots of stories about Satan as well, down there. Because it was quite a religious area. You know, the usual, Satan tried to con people and people used to con Satan. This goes into how the beaches we’re formed and the fairies were involved…it’s just quite interesting mythology down there.”
So, if you want to visit a place with breath-taking views, discover the mystical drink called Heather Ale and try your hand at conning Satan, Port Patrick is the place to be!
Glen Coe and Oban
“Glen Coe and Oban are essentially on the way to each other. Glen Coe is this beautiful mountain range and it’s also a big expanse of a valley. The history is most important there. The history of Glen Coe is quite depressing, because there was a massacre there called the ‘Massacre of Glen Coe’ and it changed Scottish history. The events there really set in stone the idea of the United Kingdom and Scotland’s role in it.
On the way to Glen Coe to Oban, you pass this incredible Loch called Loch Awe. It’s got a really beautiful mythology involving a monster that lives deep within the water. The idea is that there was a tragedy that created the loch and the monster that was born out of the tragedy inhabited the loch and was ready to destroy lots of villages and people who lived there. For decades there are reoccurring themes when the monster comes back for revenge and the people kill the monster but then there’s another tragedy and the monster comes back to life stronger than ever, and this cycle keeps going on and on. And even now in the 21st century there was an accident in Loch Awe where some friends were camping and two of them drowned and their bodies were never recovered. The local authorities, of course, investigated and looked into the case but the local media reported it as ‘The Loch Awe Monster Strikes Again’. So, the mythology and mystery is still very much there. These stories really let you see that the beauty of Scotland is very clearly something that is handed down from family to family. To make sense of how beautiful the country is you come up with all these amazing stories that seem to have been hundreds of years in the making and it just adds to the mystery and magic of Scotland.
Oban town itself is this beautiful town in the West coast and it’s got a beautiful viewpoint above the town that was originally supposed to be a burial ground for a private family. It’s sort of an amphitheater but it was never finished so the guy who was supposed to use it donated it to the town. It’s known as McCaig’s Tower. And nearby at the edge of the town there’s an abandoned castle –Dunollie Castle.”
“In the North-West of Scotland there’s a place called Glenfinnan, but students mostly know it as the Harry Potter bridge, because there’s a very famous viaduct there and it was featured in the Harry Potter films when the train to Hogwarts is shown. But what most people don’t realize is that the views in front of it, over Loch Shiel, are also featured in the films. This part of Scotland is much less about mythology and more about actual history. Most students like to go there because of the magic involved in Harry Potter but in a way it’s a fake mythology that takes people there.
The view over the bridge looking over Loch Shiel is almost like an oil painting that’s just too good to be true. I always tell students that you feel like you could reach out and touch it and it would actually just be a painting, because there’s no way it’s real; that you could push it over and behind there’s just be a city full of horrible smog. But in addition to beautiful views, the history in the area is some of the most inspiring history of Scotland. It’s about a civil war between what was the established British monarchy and a monarchy that had been overthrown, and a young prince who had never actually been prince, was known as the bonnie prince Charlie. He came back to Scotland to rally troops and reinstate the monarchy, but it never happened. It all fell apart on the way to Inverness in the battle of Culloden. But it all started in Glenfinnan. He landed further up the road and travelled all the way down and made this proclamation that he wanted the families, the Clans of Scotland to rally around his cause, not knowing whether they would. He went to the bay of Loch Shiel, where there’s now a monument for him, and planted a flag, raising the standard. And people actually showed up, way more than he expected. And this small army went on to almost the South of England and created this really inspirational tale that has been totally blown out of proportion. Even people who hated the Jacobites, which was the army who was doing all this, still romanticized the story, because everyone loves an underdog. History is written by the victors, but this story was so inspirational that it was taken by the victors and used in a very positive way. Even this day the scene is very inspirational and you can easily see why he chose it. It’s the same reason the people who made Harry Potter chose it, because it’s such a beautiful location.”
Whether you’re a massive history geek or just get kicks out of a mind-blowing scenery, Glenfinnan is the place to go.
All of the three locations Gary described are incredibly picturesque and come with a side of stories and magical tales that you can hear on one of his tours or read for yourself in a history book, but what’s more, they are all places where your imagination can run free. If you don’t take Gary’s word for it (even though you really should), take mine, and trust me when I say that you cannot go wrong with visiting Scotland. The past semester has left me with a longing to go back as soon as I can, because when you truly experience Scotland and all the marvelous sights, the people, the nature, and the legends, you leave a part of you behind –And that part demands to be collected.