Scottish Trip

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

For any known publishers

The following information is for any publisher who might read this website or for anybody who knows a publisher or agent of that industry. I need a publisher as this amazing story needs to be told.

Book Synopsis
Seeing The World My Way by Tony Giles. This is a travel biography about a totally blind and partially deaf young man’s global adventures, describing his observations and experiences of countries explored by using different senses.

The book describes journeys through the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam, on a search for wild adventures and natural wonders. Some of this is found as the narrative unfolds and the author undertakes crazy sports combined with heavy consumptions of alcohol.

The account aims to capture both a unique sense of travel and exploration while also providing an historical flavour and geographical setting to each country.

Finally, it is the interaction with the people, both natives and fellow travellers, intertwined with the many activities that is the core of the narrative.

The work is approximately 250 pages long on A4 paper (double-spaced). There are 11 chapters with a prologue and epilogue.

There are also four appendices and a bibliography.

I, Tony Giles, the author of this work, would appreciate any feedback and comments you wish to make. I am totally blind and this is my first written work, therefore your critique would be welcome.

Travelling; how and why.

So now you have read a little about my travelling. The questions everyone want’s to know is why would a blind person want to go travelling? How is it done, especially alone?

The answer to why is simple, why not!

I go travelling for more or less the same reason other young hearty souls go travelling. Its for the sense of adventure, escapism from the social stuffiness of conventional life, the trappings of responsibility, a challenge and for learning.

Travelling allows me to experience the world in a multitude of ways. It enables me to obtain a great global education that books only hint at. Eating foreign foods, hearing new music, feeling the contours and gradients of countries, places, mountains, valleys rivers etc, etc cannot really be achieved at home or the study environment – you have to travel to experience life.

Whether it be bungee jumping with the natives of New Zealand or walking through an African village with the smell of dung in the air, flies all about and extreme heat to struggle with – is just part of what makes travelling for me, a blind person, fantastic. I use the remaining senses I have to gain a greater experience and understanding of the world. I am very fortunate.

How do I do it?

I went to a boarding school for the visually impaired and blind when aged ten. There I learnt braille in order to study and mobility in order to be mobile. I was taught how to use a white long cane to detect objects in my path. I use the cane to get up and down stairs and find pavement curbs. I use my cane to find good places to cross roads and my hearing to know when a road is clear. I learnt to train all my senses together which has enabled me to live a full and functional life. I had a good brain to begin with and have always been alert. the extra training enhanced these skills and coupled with an outstanding memory, this has given me the ability to travel. I first put these skills to use to travel up and down Britain on the trains. I would get to a train station by walking, having learnt the route, or by bus. If by bus I would ask the driver or passengers for the stop I want and get them to tell me when I was there. I would then enter the station and ask staff to assist me onto the train. if noone was around, I would listen for the anouncement of the train and when it stopped walk towards the sound with my cane out in frunt of me and sweep it along the train until I find a door. these days with more automatic trains it is easier. There is usually some people around to help and when travelling, the public come to be very helpful.

I am lucky to live in the UK, especially whilst being disabled. There is the support for a variety of needs, including getting equipment such as canes and liquid level indicaters. There are guide dogs, computer equipment with speach and good support for this, cooking gagits, games and a variety of other tools and apparators to enable a blind person to live independently.

I had a fantastic education and coupled with being able to listen to talking books from a young age helped in my development towards independence. Without the education which at times was one to one, I would not be able to travel. I use my brain instead of my sight. I have to work out how to solve problems, get from place to place without the aid of a map, compass guide books etc. I rely on the kindness and generosity of the local public and fellow travellers more than most. However, I have the attitude and atribute to want to travel, be personable, approachable and understand now at least, that we all need help. I give other people a different insight to the world as I experience it and vice versa.

When I was at school, we had tactile globes and braille maps to play with, these fascinated me for hours. they gave me and my imagination hours of fun and exploration. I discovered an interest for geography and history early on. My father had travelled and had been around at the end of World War II. he filled me with travel and history, especially about the sea and the navy. Being blind you need an imagination because you have no object to focus on, this is a blessing in many ways because it gives your brain less bariers, especially when you are young. Everything is possible then, it is an attitude I have maintained throughout much of my life.

The braille maps are made from different textures, with the landmass raised, the rivers indented lines and the oceans and sea smoover material. Large raised dots mark the major towns and cities with braille abrieviations next to the dot in question. an accompanying guide book explains the abrieviations. I have maps of all the continents except Africa. My Mum has made this one with a special glue that marks the borders of each country in a tactile line.

Before I travel anywhere I have to do extensive research, this differs depending on the country-continent I am visiting. I was given money for a computer and scanner with speach reading softwear. This has enabled me to study at a high level and do research to travel.

The computer is a normal desktop with the F and J keys marked with small lips, most key boards have this. The softwear reads everything on the screne, i type a letter, it talks. I move one of the arrow keys, it says the letter, word or sentence depending on the key stroke. It is a standard desktop computer but with specialist speach softwear, which is rather expensive. My current speach softwear is called Jaws. It can read emails and even works with the internet to varying degrees. The scanner which is the essential tool for research is fantastic. It is a normal desktop scanner with a long flat lid. It has a speach softwear called Kirtzwell. I have the scanner attached to the same computer with the scanning softwear on the hard drive. I just change programmes when I wish to use it. I scan in a book, having had someone mark up the pages or chapters with paper clips, then once the book is on the computer I get the speach softwear to read it to me.

The only help I need is the relevant information marked up as mentioned. Without the scanner I could have not have been as successful at university and doing a master degree in a history based subject with the volume of reading required would have been near impossible. The acodemic material is just not available in braille or talking book. I did American Studies as an undergraduate degree and US Foreign Policy as a Masters.

My local education authority payed for my equipment and I am both very lucky and most grateful. Without this equipment my life would not nearly be so independent. incidentally, I can read almost all printed material on the scanner including the majority of my mail.

At present I use the Lonely Planet guides or Rough guide books for most of my research on travelling. I also consult my maps and my family help with references for country locations and other useful information. My Mum does a lot of my research with me and without her help and support none of my trips could have been undertaken. It is combinations that allow me as a blind person with a hearing difficulty to travel successfully. The equipment I have enables me to research, to know what equipment I need , currencies to take, possible innoculations and a host of other information necessary for me to explore and move about a country with relative ease. My family, especially my Mum, give me the support I require to travel, noing that they are there if a problem with a credit card occurs, or I get ill and need to return home. I have a base to return too when the shit hits the fan! Having the knowledge puts a whole different spin on the nature of my journeying. the family support in many ways gives me more confidence in myself. I have the education as I have already said, which without I could not contemplate travelling. finally, there is both the desire to travel and the ability to engage with the public in a variety of ways, which has added and enriched my adventures immensely. Without the public and fellow travellers I could not journey so successfully.

Introduction to Travelling

Travelling is a great life, it is my passion. I’ve been doing it all my life. I had specialist schooling from the age of five or six until I went to university around the age of twenty. This was my early travel life. First back and forwards to school in a taxi every day then to boarding school in Coventry about 100 miles from my home. This was at around the age of ten. I then came home every six weeks or so. At first I rode home in a taxi mini bus with several other students, but eventually I took the train home.

By the age of fourteen, I was travelling the railway network of Great Britain independently and having great fun.

My parents had travelled, my Mum and Dad met because of the railway, they both worked on it. My dad in signals and my mum elsewhere. Mum travelled around Europe in the late 1960s whereas my Dad had gone to sea at the end of world war two, joining the merchant navy and serving for over five years. He went around the world, to Canada, Australia and India. He later told me stories of these adventure that gave me a further interest in travel.

I wanted my independence at a young age, I had an older brother and sister who are not disabled and I wanted to be like them. It was only later that I realised I was different and unique.

My trips abroad began with a family holiday to Rhodes the Greek Island off Turkey when I was fourteen in the summer of 1992. I was recovering from a strong case of Chicken Pox and the Olympic Games were taking place in Barcelona, Spain. I saw the final of the 100 metres, it was all in Greek and Linford Christie won the gold. That holiday was memorable for arriving at 4 am, sleeping in a field near the airport, searching for accommodation, which we found in a small B and B and lying on the beach each day in the blazing heat. I ate only spaghetti at the time not trusting foreign food. It was a start and I longed for more.

My next trip was a school vacation to Boston in the United States for a week in April 1995. It turned out to be fun. I discovered much, mainly lots about the American revolution, 1776-1783, Bunker Hill which was a battle that preceeded the real war and that I had a love for history and in particular American. I think it had much to do with the fact that it was recent in comparative terms plus the fact that at the time I was reading about the 1692 Witch Craft trials that had occurred in that city. I learnt much, that American pavements are expansive, cadillacs are large, so are the steaks which are delicious. I found a fire hydrant one day as I was walking along a pavement suddenly, I felt a nasty pain in my crutch as I walk smack bang into a fire hydrant. It was right in the middle of the bloody pavement!! I only discovered this by accident!

That trip lasted a week but wetted my appetite for more adventures in America. I got the chance when aged twenty in the August of 1998 just before I began university. A friend who is also disabled and I went backpacking around Washington DC and New York City for two weeks of fun and excitement.

This was my first backpacking trip abroad. I had done several trips in the UK by then, going to Norwich, Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, Milton Keynes and several other cities and towns. I had begun going to rock concerts and staying in hostels, the trip to the States was an extension of this. Incidentally, I discovered that the Youth hostel just outside Milton Keynes is excellent and not too expensive.

My backpacking trip around Washington and New York was fun. We visited the usual attractions in both cities like the White House, Lincoln and Washington memorials, Mount Vernon, General George Washington’s stately home – that was especially interesting. We also investigated the islands of New York. The Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building were of particular interest and so was Central park which was quiet and spacious – it was humongous.

These trips were taken before I began drinking so I was able to get a feel for places and sights. Not having any vision gave me a different insight to cities, countries and travel. I was able to detect the size of a place such as Central park its open spaces, wide paths and tranquil atmosphere. I could detect the energy of a building, city, area. The change in atmosphere is one of the major differences I note when travelling, it is like the difference between being in a trapped city with tall tower blocks and being in the countryside or at the coast. I use my entire body and all my senses to visualise a place. I have enhanced these skills the more and further I have travelled. It became essential if I was to travel alone.

My mobility skills of long cane training had to be perfect to enable me to undertake independent travelling. Without it I would be stuck, I would not be able to cross a road, find a bus or train station, use public transport, use stairs, in fact have no independence at all. Without these skills travelling would not be a possibility.

I am able to travel independently despite being totally blind and 80% deaf because I use all my body senses, the tremendous receptiveness and kindness of the public world wide and my cane skills. I have two important attributes, I have total confidence in my ability to get from one place to the next and I desire to travel.

My brother and sister have said that they could not have done what I do and they both have good sight. They don’t want to travel, I do that is the basic difference.

I have now been backpacking for over seven years, and I am soon off again. I aim to go to Spain and Morocco for xmas, first flying to southern Spain then taking the boat to Morocco coming back via Portugal. This is only a short trip of about three weeks to a month. The planned trip after that is a year long assault of Asia in spring 2009. I aim to begin in west India and keep going east exploring as many countries as possible. My trips have varied in length, after two weeks backpacking in the US and another two weeks on a drinking holiday in Germany, I settled down to studying and drinking properly. This allowed me to study and travel in America for five months. I then went backpacking around the southern hemisphere in 2001-2 exploring Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam. In 2004 after completing my master degree I yet again set off on around the world trip. this time travelling through South and North America, Cuba and finishing with four months in southern Africa.

After that I came home to the UK and got my first flat in Birmingham in the West Midlands. Once my new home was established and I new my way around the scattered town I undertook a six week trip around some of Europe, visiting France and Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and alike. The following two years were spent in America again. 2006 encountered a six week trip around mostly New England. My latest trip just completed April-July 2007 took in mainly the mid west and upper most northern region. In 10 weeks I covered over forty States, revisiting some and exploring the last seventeen that I had not previously discovered. I have now been to all fifty of the United States.