Touring tourism in Scotland
Ah, the English countryside! I know of no American equivalent in lushness, in greenness, in pastoral glory.
The color of the landscape dazzles—a rich, deep, startling green that beckons the sightseer with promises of health, wealth, and fertility. There seems to be an orderly perfection to it all: It’s as if these rolling hills have been sculpted, these hedge rows planted, these dark forest islands in seas of bright farm planted with the sole purpose of pleasing the human eye. The grass is so alive and vibrant and verdant that each blade appears to have been babied by an old English gardener in his tweed flat cap, who, in the early hours of the morning, brings out a beaker of lake water, a handful of manure, and a few soft words of encouragement. I grasped a thatch of grass when ascending a steep, shaggy hill, and was astonished to feel that it was as dense and strong and heavy as a mane of hair.
I often dream of Alaska and Africa, and in those dreams my “illustrator within,” for whatever reason, sees fit to make the mammals bigger, the mountains larger, and the jungle darker than they are in real life. These places are ferociously, scarily, but cartoonishly wild—wilder than any region of the earth could ever truly be.
But, in terms of lushness, fertility, greenery—whatever you want to call it—having seen a British countryside, I realize there’s no room for imaginary expansion: It is as if a landscape artist’s most ecstatic vision of green glory has been transferred to the real, present, three-dimensional earth. Our dreams can do no better.
From Stonehenge, I took the train to Penzance—a touristy sea town on the Cornish coast in southwestern England, admiring, through the train window, the dusk-kissed grounds of Cornwall, darkened with evening shadows that angled from the heights of pine and hardwood forests onto rolling hillocks. Gleaming castles and towering cathedrals would slide into view every half hour or so—just a few of many wonders I felt I was inadequately exploring.
I walked along a coastal walkway, dug a flat spot into the sloping sand beach, and laid out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag just before nightfall. I had much ground to cover—the whole of Britain!—so, the next day, I took the train up to northern England’s “Lake District,” which is a protected area, somewhat like an American national park, though in such a “district” farming and habitation are permitted.
The train took me to another touristy town—Windemere—and after a rather miserable day walking in rain and fog, I took the train up to Scotland, to the Isle of Skye on the western coast. As I soared past the tree-barren but moss-covered mountains in the train, I felt I was doing each a dishonor by not properly hiking, photographing, and describing it.
I ended up in a small coastal town called Kyleakin before taking a series of ferries and buses throughout the Hebrides Islands. I was again stunned by the verdure, the shaggy greenery, the irresistible composition of mountains rising up out of quiet ocean coves. But the land was by no means a hidden wonder of the world. The Hebrides, like the rest of Scotland and the British Isles, seemed to be a giant playground for tourists. (Tourism is Britain’s fifth largest industry, creating $184 billion in wealth, and employing 2.6 million people.) Wherever I went there were not only tourists, but a vast tourism infrastructure: buses, trains, ferries, information booths, walking tours, bus tours, boat tours, bike rentals, hiking paths, trail guides, B & B’s, hostels, hotels, pubs, public toilets, public showers, tartan shops, outdoor gear stores, not to mention all the other restaurants, cafés, and shops that exist solely for the traveler. The infrastructure of the town is as shaped for the tourist as the sewers are for the townsmen’s bowels.
These gorgeous, quaint, exquisitely composed towns—the buildings bright with fresh, colorful coatings of paint and shop signs dangling over sidewalks like hanging plants—were definitely picturesque, yet there was something almost too perfect and picturesque about them. Where was the slime, the grime, the poverty? Where were the rusting capsized ships, the sewage treatment plants, the industrial squalor? It was as if Britain has, somewhere far away, some giant rug under which it swept all its eyesores.
It seems like places like Kyleakin wouldn’t exist, or at least exist as they are, if it weren’t for the swarms of tourists that keep the paint fresh, the pubs full, and the jobs plenty. What was Kyleakin? Was it a real town? Or was it more like a cluster of buildings in Disneyworld, a sort of fake-town that exists because of and for tourists? If that’s so, then what exactly are we tourists coming to see? We come to see the charm, the pretty buildings, the authentic Scottish village, but what we’re really seeing is a town whose architecture, population, and character is profoundly affected by tourism. The pubs are full of tourists who came to see real locals, but the locals are there to make a living off the tourists. The mental contortions I had to endure to try to understand this odd dynamic sprained my brain. I realized, finally, what I was touring—I was touring tourism.
But does tourism make a place any less real? Isn’t tourism just one of several industries a town or city or country has? The oil and whiskey industries don’t make a town “fake,” so why should the tourism industry?
I suppose there are many reasons to travel: to learn about the history of a place, to see picturesque scenery, to shop, to become lost in another culture. There are still many ways to enjoy a British journey, but I’d argue that it’s near impossible to enjoy the best of travel when there is no curiosity between the traveler and local. When tourism is everywhere, the locals are no longer curious about the traveler, and the traveler is no longer curious about the local. The local has constantly been exposed to people of other cultures and is thus “globalized” into something more boringly global than uniquely local, and the traveler is more or less a nuisance the locals must tolerate: someone who the locals need (and resent because they need).
Basically, the magic just feels a bit sucked out of the place when tourism’s everywhere. And even an interesting history begins to feel old and dead. It made me wonder if I’d rather be exploring a place that is truly living and breathing, where history does not have to be viewed through the window pane of a sightseeing bus, a ferry, or a museum display, but where history is happening now: a Chinese textile factory, a Middle Eastern War, a decimated Brazilian jungle. One feels like a pitiful traveler who’s taken the wrong fork in the road when your arrival is expected and your dollars eagerly slipped into the till.
[A crazy idea: Tours of the tourism industry. I will take a van-load of tourists through the city of Edinburgh, London, or wherever and lead tours of the tourism industry, trailing other tourism vans and discussing what they’re discussing. A special tour in a second van will be given of our tour of the tourism industry.]
Curiosity is the key ingredient for a worthwhile encounter between local and traveler. I felt it all the time on my Keystone XL walk: I was walking where no one else walked. The cows, the dogs, and the people were curious about this strange walker, and I was curious about them. The traveler traveling the UK is so common there is no curiosity. The only way, perhaps, to win one’s curiosity might be with the grandiose: a route no one’s ever taken before, bouncing across the country on a pogo stick, walking across the world. The grandiose is a ticket for that precious cultural moment. Pay with grandness and you shall buy curiosity. A bed, food, and conversation will follow.
I landed on the Isle of Harris from a ferry from Skye in a town called Talbert, asked the lady at the tourism office where I might find a bed, and she pointed me down a six-mile “old postman’s route”—a mountain pass route that skirts along the edge of a tranquil ocean cove. The postmen, before there was a road, used to hike this route three times a week to a small village called Rhenigidale, where there was nothing but six homes and a scattering of sheep.
I was alone within the hills on this lonely and wonderfully idyllic path, and I finally felt I’d escaped the reach of the tourism infrastructure. The hostel was a small, white, stucco-walled hut with a coal-fired stove. I spent the evening talking with two Americans, an Englishman, and a Scotsman. In the morning, the owner of the hostel advised that I take the school bus out of town, since there was no other source of public transportation. This struck me as charmingly novel—proof that there are in fact places in Britain that are off the beaten path, where you can hope for some sort of authentic cultural experience. But the kids, I could tell immediately, had no interest or curiosity in me. It was normal for tourists from the hostel to take the school bus, and I was basically invisible. Two teenagers were busy thumbing iPhones. I started a conversation with an 8-year-old girl and she told me she’d watched the Pixar movie Brave the night before. I was in a tiny village on a remote, far-flung island, but everything around me reminded me that I was still very much in the 21st Century. On the next bus—a normal bus—two Scotsmen sat behind me, and I overheard one say. “The world… It’s getting smaller every day.”
I took a train to the Scottish town of Aviemore—another tourist hub—and began a five-day hike across the Highlands. I was following the “East Highland Way,” which is a trail, but nothing like the Appalachian Trail, where there’s essentially one path that leads you from Georgia to Maine. In Britain, the trails are more like a network of trails, logging roads, scenic highways, cow pasture, and farmland. In ways, they’re superior in that they expose the walker to different walkways and, since they often head straight over farmland, a more diverse landscape. The East Highland Way, though, was a bit of a bore, leading me through forests that were hardly forests, as they were more or less ecologically-barren tree factories in which rows of homogenous trees were grown purely for the sake of harvest and consumption. I had a series of topographic maps, so I decided to cut off the trail and take a wilder route, literally over and atop the highlands.
The highland terrain reminded me of the Brooks Range in the Alaskan Arctic. The highlands were spongy, mossy, grassy, and wet, but far more pleasant on the foot, as there were far fewer ankle-twisting tussocks that are ubiquitous in Alaska. I couldn’t believe how wet everything was. It rained on me every day, if just for a bit, and there were little freshets and creeks and rivers literally every fifteen yards apart—I carried no water with me the whole trip; rather, I simply dunked my head int the ground at the slightest hint of thirst.
The Scottish Highlands, like the Brooks Range, seem like a perfect landscape for a foraging grizzly bear or a pack of wolves, but the biological diversity is actually pretty underwhelming: cows, sheep, deer, some bobcats, some foxes, rabbits. And while, from a passing train, the highlands appear wild, when you’re among them, they don’t feel wild at all. There are trails and logging roads in even some of the most remote parts, and more than a few hikers. I randomly chose a route through the mountains to the town of Fort William, and I’d end up passing several hundred hikers taking a similar route.
But I ought not judge a place—especially a small, resource-scarce island like Britain—for not being sufficiently wild. Human habitation over a small land mass, over tens of thousands of years, will no doubt affect the landscape in dramatic ways, and my American “is it wild or is it civilized?” lens through which I see the world may not be the best way to view every place I come across. Plus, the history of Britain is essentially a royal bloodbath, a convoluted string of wars between kings and clan leaders that any casual reader will want to hang himself with—so perhaps the shepherds and their sheep deserve a break from any fanged animals. Yet, I did miss the wild; I felt I was missing something on my hike: the threat of a charging moose, the glare of a grizzly bear, or even the thrill of illegally trespassing over someone’s property. Rather, there was no immediate threat except for that of getting rained on to death, and certainly no angry property owners.
In Scotland, they have what’s called a “right to roam” in which hikers have the legal right to cross and camp (or “wild camp” as they call it) on public and private property. There’s essentially no such thing as “trespassing” on someone’s land, and the “No Trespassing” signs that are littered across the American South are nowhere to be found in Scotland, and are rarely seen in the rest of the British Isles.
The highlands—without the wolves or blue-faced clansman—is essentially a somewhat more demanding stroll through a picturesque garden. But the picturesque, without the jagged edges of the wild, is a dull form of beauty.
This place was just so perfect. The quaint villages. The stable economy. The picturesque mountains. The universal healthcare. The universal education. Now that I found myself in a utopia of sorts, I felt the need for my dear old American dystopia: the shameless consumption, the fracked landscape, the government that, at the time, had mindlessly shut itself down: the America that had long been missing the right half of its brain. At least there’s work to be done there, I thought. I’d rather be among the reformers than the reformed. I don’t know if I’d be able to take this perfection for too long.