I am a young, totally blind and partially deaf traveller. I have spent many years exploring the world alone with only the generosity of the public and my cane for guidance. This is my story of a few delightful days backpacking in Scotland.
I set off from my home in Erdington, Birmingham on the morning of Saturday 1st September and headed north. I walk everywhere and only take public transport when the distance is too far. The fact that I do not know where I am going or where I am headed does not worry me – it never has. The specialist training I received at educational institutes gave me all the skills I needed to travel independently.
Once on board the train, after arranging assistance at the various stops along my route, I settled back and enjoyed the journey – feeling the jolts and bumps of the locomotive as it rushed along the track at high speed.
My first destination was Sterling, central Scotland. My reason for visiting was simple; I wanted to see what was there! After changing trains in Manchester, Lancaster and Edinburgh, I walked to my accommodation. When I am travelling abroad, I tend to do some research on that country, but with Scotland, I knew there would be plenty of history and entertainment, so I just asked what attractions were available once there. I also book my accommodation before travelling, depending on the season and the popularity of the destination. Sterling is an historical University city and although it was the end of the tourist season, it was still bound to be busy. As I was arriving at night, I did not want to take a chance of there being no available lodgings, so I booked in advance.
I stay in hostels wherever possible and Scotland was no exception. I love hostelling, the shared accommodation is cheap and it is a great way to meet people from all backgrounds and nationalities. Finding a hostel when you cannot see can be tricky, but I just ask for directions, or get a taxi if it seems far or a difficult location.
I was fortunate in Sterling as the hostel was close and the railway staff offered to walk me there. This is the kind of generosity I received throughout my Scottish adventure.
The hostel was a simple affair, a small building with four flights of stairs. There was a small reception, lounge and kitchen with the dorm rooms next door. The place had more doors than Fort Knox! I was checked in by a Polish girl and shown to my bunk bed. Then I obtained directions to the town centre and headed off to find some entertainment and get a drink.
Sterling’s town centre, which is situated on one of its many hills, was full of bars, clubs and take-away food outlets and created a vibrant atmosphere. The air was cool and the night buzzed with young, excited people enjoying their Saturday evening. I entered the first pub I found, located the bar and ordered a large lemonade before finding a table and checking out the environment. It was a fun pub, large and full of young people, so the music was loud and the place was lively. After one drink there, I moved on to a bar called O’Neil’s that was recommended to me by a local. On the street, I got directions to the bar and a Scottish girl kindly showed me the way. Inside, I found the bar and pushed my way through the crowd and asked a guy next to me to get the bar staff’s attention. Someone touched my hand and I ordered my usual. I fell into conversation with a couple of Scottish guys and was soon well away. One guy described the layout of the bar, told me the route to the toilets and described the girls who were plentiful. I later chatted with two girls, one Scottish the other German. We had drinks together and swapped stories until closing time, which was around 1.30 am, and then they walked me back to my hostel.
The next morning, Sunday, I explored Sterling’s many historical sights. A tour-bus visits the various attractions from which you can alight and re-board at your leisure. The ticket cost £7.50 and is valid for two days. It is an open topped double-decker bus with historical commentary. The commentary, while informative, was not always easy to understand or hear due to the noise from the bus’s engine. I was told I could get the tour-bus outside my hostel, but after waiting for half an hour, I returned to the hostel and asked a member of staff to walk me to the train station where I found a bus waiting.
I travelled round for forty minutes listening to the history of Sterling, which goes back several hundred years before Christ. The main attractions are the William Wallace Monument, the Old Town Jail, the Church of the Holy Rude, Sterling Castle and the Bannockburn Herotige Centre. I was heading for the castle, Sterling’s main attraction.
It was set on a large, steep hill and stood splendid for all to see, or in my case, find. The bus dropped me off within a minute’s walk and I just followed the upward gradient until I hit the castle entrance. Several people saw me and guided me through to the entrance kiosk. My bus ticket gave me a discount and I bought an audio guide. Together they cost just under £10. After getting the audio guide and instructions on how to use the headphones, I set off around the twelfth century fortress. Getting in and wandering around was relatively easy, even without sight. Again, I used the upward gradient of the hill and the echo of buildings to judge when I got close to the castle walls. I asked other tourists when I was unsure which exhibit I was at, or for the directions I wanted. Each area had a number and was described on the audio guide, which you followed by listening to the commands. The audio guide was excellent and well worth the extra £3 cost.
I began with the entrance, I listened to the guide and felt the thick, stone walls, their rough texture and thickness was fascinating. I followed the uneven, narrow, cobbled path up into the main part of the castle. There was an outer and inner courtyard; the main buildings surrounded the latter. This consisted of the Great Hall, where the Royal family would enter for parties and banquets, the Chapple Royal where baptisms’ took place, The King’s Old Buildings, now a museum to the Southern Highland military regiment, and the Royal palace where the Stewart Royal family of the day resided, and Mary Queen of Scots lived there on occasions. The palace was the largest of the four buildings and the last to be built, with individual rooms for both the king and queen. There were waiting rooms for courtiers and guests. Walking around it as I did, I could feel the vastness of the buildings, both the Great Hall and the church were enormous. However, almost all the rooms were now empty. The audio guide talked a lot about the visual attractions of the buildings, describing the renaissance style of certain windows and in the case of the palace, many carved statues in the walls. It was spectacular. However, much of it was lost on me due to its visual impression. I was able to appreciate the size of everything, the age and roughness of the materials, not to mention the unevenness under foot.
After my audio tour, I wandered around some of the open grounds, using my cane to follow the walls. This led me to an open area with grass and several steps up onto the ramparts. The area was very open and gave me a sense of the height of the castle and the openness below onto the city. On my way back, I encountered a couple of cannons, no doubt used to protect the castle from invasion, the same reason for it being built up high. I returned my audio headset and went off in search of a pub that had been recommended to me and was near the castle. The cool, damp weather was by now even getting to my tough skin.
After a bite to eat in the pub, I wandered down the steep hill to the fourteenth century Old Town Jail. I took a guided tour for £5.30. One of the managers, a delightful local lady, offered to help me round as a group of us followed the guide. We were informed of prison life in the early-middle nineteenth century. I felt a dog collar made from iron, a branding iron, which was a long metal bar with a sharp point, which when hot would leave a mark on the person’s skin, and I felt a very thick hanging rope. The place felt cold and the cells were rough. Prison life was harsh and only changed towards the latter part of the nineteenth century. The jail was used by the Scottish military in the early twentieth century before it was eventually closed. The prison had been transformed into a museum in the last ten years and had cost over £2 million to restore.
After my tour of the jail, I intended to catch the tour-bus back to the town. However, at the place I waited, it decided not to stop! I headed downhill as the wind began to pick up and the light began to fade. I just followed the downwards gradient believing this would eventually bring me back into the centre, which it did. I asked people directions to a pub where I had dinner and then more directions to the hostel, where I spent a relaxing evening chatting with other guests, who were mostly German and Polish. The next day I took the train to Glasgow and then up the west coast to Fort William to experience more Scottish culture.
The journey from Sterling to Fort William was fascinating, especially from Glasgow onwards. It was a single line track and the small train rattled along at a terrific rate. We went through tunnels, over viaducts and up several inclines. I was able to feel it all, the rattle of the wheels on the track, the ascent and descent of the train, the rush and rattle over the various parts of the route and the echo of the tunnels. The weather was sunny and warm and this added to the enjoyment of the five-hour journey. I arrived in Fort William in the early evening and got a taxi to the hostel, as I was unsure of how to cross the main highway between my destination and the train station. After a three-minute taxi ride, I was deposited at a country house on a steep hill – I had arrived.
I was in the countryside and the house/hostel was quiet and almost empty. I found the receptionist, this time a delightful girl from the Czech Republic, and settled in. I was shown to a crowded upstairs dorm and given directions to the town below. I just followed the hill’s slope and as soon as I heard traffic on the main road, I turned left and followed this until I found a crossing. With help, I reached the pedestrianised high street. This was almost completely dead, and a total contrast to the liveliness of Sterling. The few pubs were almost empty even though the weather was gorgeous.
I wandered around in the hot sun before having a couple of drinks in a local bar that belonged to the army volunteers of the First World War. I wandered on to find my dinner, and in an upstairs pub, I tried Haggis and the local Haddock. I then went back to find the hill and my hostel. I got lost and met an English couple who were on their honeymoon; they gave me a lift, which was fantastic. I spent the evening in the cosy, homely hostel, drinking free tea and relaxed by the log fire in the lounge, and talked to anyone who was around. The hostel had an international flavour with South Africans, Germans, a Canadian and some Scots, who appeared later. It had a gentle atmosphere with the crackle of the fire and the smell of wine – a truly relaxed environment to spend an evening.
The next morning I asked what Fort William had to offer and was told its main attractions were Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, Glen Nevis, an area with several beautiful walks, a river, a waterfall and the canal. However, all these and the many other mountain trails were a good walk away. I set off in the vague direction of Ben Nevis, unsure of what I would find. However, the weather changed and when the heavy drizzle moved in, I turned around and headed to the train station and went to the fishing village of Mallaig, only a hour and a half away. Again, I was treated to a bumpy, rattling, single line railway track with hills and bridges.
We wandered along the scenic coast before pulling into Mallaig, which was at the end of the line. I had the scenery described to me and it was fantastic. I love the sea and everything to do with that environment. I took a quick walk around the tiny village, first exploring the fishing port, which was the main attraction. There was little in the way of interest, so I quickly gave up exploring and went in search of food and a drink. I had several hours to spare there if I desired, but as the rain became heavier, I decided to return to Mallaig and wait for the evening sleeper train back to England.
That Tuesday evening, after four delightful days in Scotland’s central region and highlands, with its friendly people who approached me and talked to me without any embarrassment, I headed back to Birmingham. The sleeper train took me as far as Crewe where, with assistance, I caught the 5.40 am train back to Birmingham. I was home and in bed by 7.30 am, the end of another magnificent solo journey through history, nature, culture and hospitality and all seen through the eyes of a blind traveller. I put my small backpack away, ready for the next time it would be needed.
10th September 2007