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Nomad Life

The Outer Hebrides

Chapter 18
Aug 25th, 2022
Location: Scotland, United Kingdom
Travel Dates: Apr 10th 2022-May 7th, 2022
Days Nomadic: 427 · Miles Traveled: 29116
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e began our adventure in Scotland by hopping between islands in the western isles. Some of the passages took only twenty minutes and were operated by a small boat with space for half a dozen cars, while others lasted several hours and felt like cruise ships featuring restaurants and casinos.

To be completely honest, I have no idea how Shelby planned our itinerary through this part of the trip and kept it straight in her head. We spent several full days driving, during which we crossed between islands on ferries multiple times per day. Shelby often plans complex trip itineraries beyond what I’d ever attempt on my own, but this was the first time I’ve ever become so confused, that I gave up trying to keep track of where we were going and how we were going to get there.

One of our favorite stops was at a castle on the Isle of Mull. The property sat high up on a hill overlooking the ocean, with rolling pastures full of sheep below. Shelby especially enjoyed their self-service Scotch tasting library, which was included in our accommodation. Her favorite Scotch happened to be from Tobermory, Mull’s “capital”.

We crossed back to mainland Scotland and ventured down a “sea lach” to a remote, high-end restaurant called Inver. Their modernised croft-style building looked over the water, with the remains of a crumbling castle on the other side of the inlet. The view was especially nice in the evening when the water was still. To Skutull’s dismay, they didn’t have a dog menu, but the waitstaff did stop by frequently to pet his belly and refill his water bowl.

The tasting menu at Inver featured a large array of Scottish-inspired dishes, from chicken hearts to beeswax ice cream. Shelby still makes fun of me for this, but my favorite dish was a turnip broth they served in a ceramic mug. I asked our waitress how it was made and she told me they boil a large amount of turnips for ~30 minutes, then add pork fat infused with chili peppers. This coming winter I plan to attempt a recreation!

A few days after our delicious meal, and nearly a dozen ferry crossings later, we found ourselves on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Shelby loves standing stones. We had visited several of them during our time in the UK already, but what brought us to the far reaches of the kingdom was a special stone circle called Calanish that is not henged like Stonehenge, but is almost as large and actually quite a bit older.

We arrived at the stone circle as the sun rose over rolling pastures and were pleasantly surprised to discover both that we were the only people there and that the stones weren’t roped off. We sat alone amongst the stone circle for almost an hour as the sun painted the clouds pink and baby blue. It’s still unclear why people built stones circles like this, but I enjoyed meditating near the center of the circle as Skutull napped in the grass beside me. This experience was one of my most cherished of our entire nomadic journey.

The ferry we took from the Isle of Harris back to the Isle of Skye was our final ocean passage until our Atlantic crossing a month later. We spent several days in Skye exploring the countryside. Our hotel served breakfast from until 10am, so on one of the good weather days we woke up early to do a hike called “The Quiraing” before breakfast. We were once again the only people there. Waking up early seems to be a good strategy to avoid crowds in Europe, as this hike was one of the most popular travel influencer meccas on Instagram at the time and would typically be swarming with hikers and selfie-takers.

When we arrived at the trailhead just after sunrise, we were socked in by fog, but we only had to wait a few minutes before the clouds began to dissipate, revealing incredible views of the sunrise. Craggy points and green cliffs undulated toward the sea. The scenery reminded me of Utah, but if it were covered in grass and mud instead of dust. I’d rate The Quiraing in my top 10 all-time best days of hiking.

We also hiked a trail to the “Fairy Pools” on Skye, which runs along a series of cascading waterfalls. This hike was incredibly busy near the bottom. Everyone was there with their cameras and drones, fighting for an angle to get a picture for their Instragram without other people in it. We were one of the only groups out of hundreds that climbed past the one-mile marker. I was relieved to escape the massive crowd and found a rock on the bank of the river to sit and meditate on. After about ten minutes, I opened my eyes and was surprised to see Skutull sitting next to me looking out into the distance. Shelby said he’d been meditating with me the whole time, which is rare for him—he’s usually busy doing a task or asleep.

One of the more unique activities we did throughout our entire nomadic journey was learning to forage for food on Skye. Our guide handed us all kinds of plants and seaweed to taste, most of which were both surprisingly flavorful and different from each other. My favorite food was a tiny seaweed that grew on the rocks near the edge of the shoreline, which had a strong umami flavor. Shelby’s favorite was a the small, yellow primrose flower.

Skutull watched us eat several plants during the first half hour of foraging and started to get jealous that we weren’t sharing with him. Whenever our guide reached his hand out with something for us to take, Skutull thought the guide was giving us treats and excluding him. So when we wandered down a creek bed and found both waterhemlock and deadly nightshade flowers, two of the most poisonous plants in the northern hemisphere, Skutull decided he’d take matters into his own hands and start foraging plants off the ground. We had to yell at him as he nibbled on grass next to deadly nightshade in full bloom!

Our guide demonstrated a few ancient survival techniques. He showed us how hazel is great for making spears because the shoots are very straight and the wood can be molded when steamed gently.

Near the end of our adventure, we sat in a field of garlic and started a fire with flint. Our guide pulled out a piece of dried birch bark and filled it with dried heather kindling. He struck the flint so a spark landed in the heather, then blew hard until the oils in the bark caught fire and exploded into a burst of flames.

I wanted to have a go at it, so I did my best to mimic our guide’s technique. I expected the hard part to be striking the flint so a spark landed on the kindling, but that was actually quite easy. I quickly got some of the plant matter to smoke and began blowing rapidly into the rolled up birch bark. Shelby made fun of how close to my face I was holding the bark and how intense I looked.

After about a minute I started to hyperventilate and took a break.

“Try longer, steady blows,” our guide instructed me.

I struck the flint again and got the kindling smoking, then followed his instructions, inhaling as deeply as I could, then blowing out in a steady stream until all the air from my lungs was gone.

“Zack, you’re holding it so close to your face,” Shelby repeated, laughing.

She was right, I could feel myself going crosseyed staring at the smoking bark, but I didn’t care. I was a man! I was going to start a fire!

At the end of a particularly deep exhale, I saw small orange sparks jumping amongst the kindling and heard crackling sounds coming from the bark. I was almost there. With one last push, I inhaled and blew hard on the kindling. Orange sparks of flaming birch oil burst from bark and shot up my nose and onto my face. I dropped the kindling to the ground.

Shelby and our guide were rolling on the ground laughing at me. “I told you you were holding it too close!” Shelby exclaimed.

Unfortunately, the sparks burned the rim of my right nostril, which caused a scab to form. It looked like a booger was hanging out of my nose for the next week.

One of Shelby and I’s favorite styles of travel is to do multi-day hikes. We’ve been all over the world on through-hikes, from Peru to Patagonia to New Zealand to the Alps. Skutull is also a lover of hiking, so whenever we go on these trips without him, we feel bad and miss him. One of our main inspirations for traveling to Europe with Skutull was to hike The West Highland Way (The Way) with him, which is a 108-mile trek in Scotland that traverses from Glasgow to Fort William through the Highlands. With some brilliant travel planning wizardry by Shelby, we were able to book last-minute accommodation along the entire hiking route.

We were worried about Skutull’s physical fitness going into the hike because his foot had only fully healed from surgery a couple weeks earlier. On all the other multi-day hikes Shelby and I had done, we’d walked from hut to hut without using other modes of transportation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible for our trek of The Way for a couple of reasons. First, not all accommodation along The Way is dog-friendly, and since we booked last-minute, we had pretty limited choice, so some of the places we stayed at were off the direct walking route. We were also worried Skutull might injure his foot or tire at some point along the hike, so we wanted to have a car nearby as an escape plan.

Our solution was to use taxis or buses to take our car with us throughout the hike. In the end, this system wasn’t too disruptive to our adventure, though it was inconvenient. The most challenging part was dealing with the fact that taxis also didn’t allow dogs. In the mornings, one of us had to drive the other and Skutull to the start of that day’s hike, then drive to meet the taxi at the end of the hike where we’d park the car, then take the taxi back to the start of the hike.

The West Highland Way was created in 1994 and does not follow an old road or pilgrimage route like many thru-hikes in Europe. It was essentially created for tourism and was piecemealed together through a series of strategies, including using existing asphalt roads, repurposing old train tracks, and signing agreements with farmers to let the trail pass through their land.

Most of the other thru-hikes we’ve done have been remote and in nature. The West Highland Way was unique in that for majority of the trek we were hiking between small towns. In some ways, this aspect of the hike was charming. On several days, the start and end of the trail went through residential neighborhoods and old downtown streets.

The scenery was beautiful. We enjoyed the rugged mountains of the Highlands throughout the second half of the trek, but we also liked the first few days between Glasgow and the technical start of the Highlands near Conical Hill. We walked along creeks and through green pastures that reminded me of the Shire.

The only disappointment we suffered along The Way was that on the second day we encountered a portion of the trail that went through a farmer’s land who didn’t allow dogs. We were both warned by locals and saw signs in Scotland saying that farmers have the right to shoot dogs on their property. The sign at this particular farm said that owners “could be fined up to £40,000 (~$53,000 at the time of writing) and be sent to jail for up to 12 months” if their dogs attacked livestock.

I’m no mathamatician (actually I am!), but given that the sheep farmer in Ireland told us lambs sell for ~$100 each when they’re 9-10 months old, I’m thinking it’d have to be quite the bloodbath for a dog to do $53,000 worth of damage even in the off chance that it slipped out of its lead and attacked livestock with the intent to kill. That fine is the cost of 530 sheep. Based purely on my own uneducated observation, I’d bet that the vast majority of farmers in the UK have less than 530 sheep in their flock. And even after paying that absurd fine, you still face up to a year in prison!

Skutull and I decided to avoid the crotchety farmer and walked down a busy road on an alternate route most of the day while Shelby went through the farm and up Conical Hill, which was supposed to be one of the scenic highlights of the walk. I guess I’ll never know! I didn’t let it get to me and I’m definitely not bitter…

The scenery along The Way was often stunning. Like Ireland, most of the trees in Scotland were felled long ago and only a small portion of what was once forested remains, but there was one special day on the hike where the trail went through an old forrest full of Scots pines and hazel. Then the trail wound up into the mountains, where we had sweeping views of the rocky highlands rolling into the distance.

Our experience hiking The Way with Skutull was special. He had a blast, especially on the portion of the trail that followed the shoreline of Loch Lomond for nearly 25 miles, affording him ample swimming opportunities. He’d often stop off along elevated points just off the side of the path and look out into the distance, perched like he was taking in the view or looking for the way ahead. I think he got used to hiking every day and was disappointed at the end of The Way when we got back in the car and returned to a more normal schedule.

There were a few things I didn’t love about The West Highland Way compared to other multi-day hikes we’ve done. First, most of the trail followed the A82 highway. There were only a few sections of the hike where we could not hear noise pollution from the cars, and many portions ran alongside the road, which made it difficult for me to feel like I was connecting with nature in the way I typically do on these types of adventures.

I was also surprised at how much active logging there was in Scotland. Our foraging guide in Skye told us that most of the natural forests were cleared centuries ago. The pine trees that do remain are not native—they are nordic pines planted explicitly for lumber. Most days of the trek we spent at least some, if not most, of our day walking through felled forests filled with countless gray stumps laid out in perfect grids. One day we even hiked through a forest where large machines were actively cutting trees down.

I recently read an interesting book titled, Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez. It’s a classic commentary on the history of our relationship with wolves published in 1978. I’m going to resist the temptation to dive into too deep of a diatribe, but the extreme rules surrounding dogs and livestock in Scotland reminded me of Lopez’s description on the origins of our confusing relationship with wolves.

If we look back in time, most cultures respected wolves. We even domesticated some of them and bred them into our dog companions, which are commonly referred to as “man’s best friend” in the West. There were of course instances where wolves killed humans throughout history, but they were not common. For many centuries, wolves and humans lived separately, competing for prey animals. When humans began domesticating sheep, cows, and other animals, wolves would occassionally kill livestock, but simple methods to deter wolves were devised, such as guardian dogs and donkeys, and a balance was struck between humans and wolves whereby they lived mostly harmoniously together. In times of hunger, wolves might take some livestock, but more often they pursued their own prey.

During the Dark Ages, European sentiment toward wolves began to shift. Bodies of people who’d died from the plague were often piled outside cities where wolves would occasionally be seen at night eating corpses. During these difficult times, the Roman Catholic Church decided to make wolves the common enemy of the people (nothing rallies humans like a common enemy!). The Church stoked fear in people that wolves would come and wipe out their livestock, leaving those who survived the plague to starve. Where wolves were once viewed as symbols of intelligence, hunting, and loyalty in Pagan and American indigenous cultures, the Catholic Church turned them into symbols of the Devil that represented the beastial nature of both humankind and Paganism, which monotheistic religion promised to eradicate. Wolves were bringers of the plague. They were cowards who stole food from man that was rightfully given to him by God.

This kicked off a war on wolves that’s lasted more than a thousand years. Wolf killing campaigns became normal and were often organized at local churches. Wolf populations in Europe were nearly wiped out, especially after the invention of the gun. Then when Europeans began to colonize the Americas, they brought their war on wolves with them. Millions of wolves were killed in the United States alone as settlers tamed the western frontier into ranch land for livestock throughout the 19th century.

The saddest part is that while wolves have been accused of being cowards and freeloaders since the Dark Ages by western cultures, when those very same people brought their war on wolves into the Americas, their method for killing wolves was typically a combination of laying out poisoned meat and strangling wolf pups during den raids. Their indiscriminate and mass-scale use of strychnine and cyanide poison killed millions of other animals throughout the frontier in the 1800s, including humans.

I’ll hop off my soapbox now, but I did find it interesting to see traces of the conflict between wolves and western humans in Scotland. Even in an age where I assume any dog owner would be happy to reimburse a farmer $100 in the off chance that their dog both got free and killed a lamb, there is still such a fear of wolves and the loss of livestock embedded in western culture from the Dark Ages that laws in most countries allow farmers to indiscriminately kill any non-human animal on their land if they percieve it as a risk to their livestock.

The end of the West Highland Way in Fort William marked the beginning of the end of our nomadic adventure. We loaded up our rental car the next morning and began our route to London via stops in the Lake District of northwest England and a small town in Wales called Llandovery.

Both stays were in idyllic countryside settings. In Wales, we walked to the local pub one night for dinner and a herd of sheep on the side of the road took a liking to us. Usually, sheep run away when they see Skutull. He is a border collie, afterall, and while he doesn’t lunge or try to chase them, he does give them an intense stare.

The only thing we could figure was that I looked like their owner, because when I approached the fence to take a picture, the entire herd ran toward us making all types of “Bah!” noises. We found the situation quite amusing and funny, but we were late for our dinner reservation, so we couldn’t dilly dally too long. As we walked down the road, the sheep followed us, and every time we looked back, dozens of hopeful eyes were glued on us.

We spent two nights in London so that we could say goodbye to Shelby’s uncle and take care of some last minute logistical hurdles before boading our cruise back to New York City. It was sunny and warm the final morning we spent in London, so we picked up takeout breakfast and enjoyed a picnic in Hyde Park.

Packing our things to go home was a bit surreal. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed our nomadic travels and would do it all over again if I went back in time, but I also felt relief. It was time to come home.

Open Picture Book
Edited By: Shelby Thoutt
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