“My niece from America came to visit and told me she had three things she had to see: Loch Ness, the Isle of Skye and Edinburgh Castle.” I was sitting in a tiny kitchen/tables/common area of the Loch Ossian Hostel in a remote Highlands vale overlooking the loch of that same name, with my two new friends, Davy and Katherine, both from different towns in Scotland and previously unknown to each other as well. She had just described, with some mild irritation her initial conversation that began her niece’s Scottish summer vacation. “These are fine places,” she added, “but there is so much more, it’s a shame.” Davy then began another tale of his adventures in obscure places in Scotland, speaking in a melodious Scottish brogue where each sentence had 5 to 10 unneeded words added but you didn’t mind.
The setting is worth describing. There were maybe twenty of us sitting around long benched tables. Almost all had hiked in, one woman road a mountain bike twenty miles, since those were the only ways there. I had alighted from a train, at Courror Station, about a mile+ away that is so remote no public access by car is possible. The station is the highest in Great Britain and is on the Highland line which is worth a post in of itself, for the future.
There is something uniquely exciting about getting off a train at a place like this. Until recently this stop was by request only. As it was, only a few of us got off, with backpacks securely strapped on. The other disembarking party were some branch of the Scouts and looked at me skeptically, asking if I had a map, compass and firemaking gear. I didn’t. They were concerned. They were not going to the hostel I guess. But it was a bit unsettling still.
There are virtually no trees, the howling wind carries occasional downpours that last only a few seconds, like having a rotating water sprinkler passing by, heather-clad mountains are flecked with bits of snow here and there - and the station cafe was closed for the winter.
Or was it? Online I had been informed that it had closed for the season the week before. (October would really have made much more sense.) But there was a light on. I crossed over the tracks and went up to the door which was unlocked and walked into perhaps the most inviting scene I have ever witnessed. It was just an ordinary coffee bar serving sandwiches and treats but there were comfy chairs, books lining a shelf, and a big fire going. I asked about the hostel and they said the lady that opens it for the week (this being a Weds in the winter season, it isn’t open all week) comes in on a later train so it wouldn’t be unlocked yet. I was welcome to enjoy their fire. I ordered some hearty soup, then a bacon sandwich with a cider, then a creamy tart of some kind with hot chocolate, and did just that.
About half an hour before the hostel keeper’s train was due to arrive I bundled up and headed down the path towards Loch Ossian. I walk pretty slowly and decided I could use a head start. It was as bracing as it looked like it would be from the comfort of the cafe window. If you’ve read Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson you get the idea.
After a hike with the winds sometimes at my back and sometimes holding me back, successfully, I arrived at the foot of Loch Ossian.
The hostel hostess arrived with me and we went in and took off our wet gear and I claimed a lower bunk in the dark wood paneled men’s dorm room. She lit a coal fire in the box and over the next few hours the commons room filled up with the odds and ends of the hosteling world.
We had a couple with his parents from India, a tall Dutch man (there are no short Dutch) a few from Germany and a lot of other Scots. I was the sole representative from the States. After everyone had arrived and all the wet gear had been hung on a rack which was pulled up to the rough-hewn rafters with a block and tackle so it could dry out of the way in the heated air, everyone started to fix their dinners and sat down for conversation. I was sitting at a table with Davy and Katherine and he proceeds to pull out from his rucksack a full bottle of what he promised was excellent Highland scotch. It would be mostly gone before bedtime. Everyone got a few wee drams. (It didn’t sound archaic or awkward when he used that term.) He taught me how to drink scotch, I hadn’t known there was much to it.
Eventually Katherine asked where I had been on this trip. She was somewhat taken aback at the idea of a train, bus and ferry trip in the Hebrides and Highlands in November, and by an American. Especially that I had no plans to go to Skye. That’s when she mentioned her niece.
I don’t recall she ever used the words bucket list to describe her niece’s Scottish tour ambitions. But that clearly was what was in her niece’s head. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to see these places. What bothered Katherine was that these were all she wanted to see. She would for instance miss out on an evening like the one we were now sharing. The problem with a list isn’t that the list is bad, it’s that it is necessarily finite and arbitrarily limited. Her bucket list had constrained her niece’s ambitions, not opened them up.
The next morning I woke up to see the sunrise.
In early November at a latitude about the same as northern Labrador, Hudson’s Bay and southern Alaska, the sun comes up at a very civilized 7 to 730 am. Not so hard. I was awarded a view that might also have been great on Skye and Loch Ness and even at Edinburgh Castle that morning. But this one was for just me and a few of my new friends.
©️ 2019 D Abbott