Loch Ness and the Afternoon Disco - Part 1

loch-ness1

One of the first things that I wanted to do on my first visit to Scotland was to go see Loch Ness and catch a glimpse of Nessie. That was before I realized a couple of different things:

  • Scotland is really big
  • Inverness and Loch Ness are WAY at the top

How far away? I would say that Inverness is a good 3 hour drive away from Edinburgh. If you don't have a car and want to take a train, you're looking at 5 or 6 hours with all the changes.

Luckily, I was in Dundee, the City of Discovery! Inverness was a mere three hour train ride away, and it was only that long because you have to go through Perth and change there.

Other than seeing Nessie, though, what tempted me was the tales of an "Afternoon Disco" in a pub up there.

This I had to see.

I consulted the train and bus schedules. If I took the 9am train, I could get up to Inverness in time to take the 1pm bus out to Loch Ness, take in the museum, do a bit of Nessie hunting, then then make it back in time for the Afternoon Disco. My plan was set.

The train ride through the Highlands is pretty spectacular. The rails pass through mountain gorges filled with waterfalls (ie: pre-whisky) gurgling over jagged rocks, sheep grazing seemingly against gravity on the side of hills and old timey, one platform train stations that look like something out of a Spaghetti Western.

This was my kind of country.

diner1
diner1

Shortly before 1pm, the train pulled into Inverness station. This is where the last connecting trains on the British mainland all connect to run up to Wick, at the very tippy top of Scotland.

Sadly, this station was even nicer than the Dundonian one. There were a few restaurants, and a full fledged pub that would sell you beer to go. That would have to come later, however, as I had an appointment with Nessie.

I stepped out into Inverness town into a fine mist of rain. I however, was unfazed, as I'd lived in Scotland long enough to know that it would probably rain at some point on this trip. I didn't stop for any sightseeing on the way to the station, because I had a tightly knit timetable to adhere to.

The Afternoon Disco and Nessie awaited. I did tarry long enough to snap a picture of the American diner sign right next to Inverness bus station. Apparently to judge from the American presence of retail establishments in the UK, we're really good at eating and cleaning other people's clothes.

The bus to Loch Ness drops you off at a town called Drumnadrochit, which also happens to be where the Loch Ness Center(re) & Exhibition  is located, which, conincidentally is exactly where I wanted to be. The short, 20 minute bus ride drove along the western edge of the fabled Loch. After leaving the Inverness suburbs, I finally caught a glimpse of my destination through the trees.

First impressions of Loch Ness:

  • Not as big as I thought it was going to be
  • Looks cold
  • No Nessie
ness-sign1
ness-sign1

Undaunted, however, I determined to see my adventure through to the end. I took a quick look around the village. As you can see by the sign on the right, when you get up here into the Highlands and the West Coast of Scotland, you start seeing signs in Gaelic.

Which is pretty helpful if you speak Gaelic and you're tying to find Beauly or Inverness, but what if you only speak Gaelic and you're trying ot find the Loch Ness Center(re) & Exhibition?!! How are these people going to find it?!!

Unless there's some ulterior motive to keep Gaelic speakers from visiting Nessie....maybe Nessie only speaks Gaelic and they've come to warn her....

nessie-dolls
nessie-dolls

The Loch Ness Center(re) & Exhibition is located in the old Drumnadrochit Hotel, which is where one of the first Nessie sightings was reported. The museum if nothing but thorough. The story doesn't just start with Nessie. Oh no. This museum starts about a million years ago, describing how Loch Ness was first formed. Once all the boring rocks are out of the way, we're into the meat of the exhibit - the hunt for Nessie! The museum lays out all the most famous sightings and describes the history of the hunt for Nessie. There was a film about all the different searches that have been conducted for Nessie over the years.

Despite the picture of Nessie on the front of the building, the museum does a pretty good job of walking the line between the pro and anti Nessie sides of the debate.

But the most frightening exhibit in the whole Center(re) is the terrifying "Gift Shop" where they have a number of Nessie babies stuffed and on display! I could hardly contain my disgust. I quickly made a beeline out of the gift shop and headed for the Loch itself. I was determined not just to talk to Nessie, but to warn her about the dangers awaiting her babies.

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ness4

I passed through the town of Drumnadrochit and headed for the Loch,which was somewhere just beyond the green hills. I paused only long enough to snap a picture of this "Nessie Crossing" sign on the road just outside of the village.

I was getting close!

A hiking path appeared after the village and pointed the way to the Loch. I checked the time and figured I'd be able to have a few words with Nessie before I was due at the afternoon disco.

However, I froze in my tracks when I saw the obstacle that was before me and the Loch.

A graveyard.

ness5
ness5

Why were all these graves out here in the middle of nowhere? Nessie's victims perhaps? The secret burial ground of lost Gaelic speakers trying to find their way to the Nessie Center(re)?

Or was it the final resting places of those foolhardy enough to try and warn Nessie about the fate that might be awaiting her children in the Loch Ness Center(re) Exhibition gift shop!

I sat on a nearby rock (don't worry, it wasn't a grave) to ponder my situation. And it was here, too, that my journey met it's metaphorical end. Here, at this windswept graveyard in the middle of the Highlands,  I finally gave up my foolhardy quest to go speak to Nessie.

Not because I was scared, my dear readers, but because I saw a nearby trail sign and realized that the shore of Loch Ness was actually OVER TWO MILES AWAY.

That means that the "Loch Ness Center(re) & Exhibition" is ACTUALLY NOT NEXT TO LOCH NESS.

Not that I minded hiking two miles, but, after all, I did have an afternoon disco to get to.  Slowly I turned away from the trail leading to the Loch and made my way back to the bus stop.

Sadly, in life there are choices we'll always have to make.

I guess I can count myself lucky enough that I was forced to choose between the afternoon disco and Nessie.

At the time, I just hoped that I made the right choice.

Keep reading in Part II!

Killin' Time - Part 1

(Author's note: there's probably going to be a lot of puns on the fact that the name of the town I eventually visited during this drive was "Killin". Be forewarned.) This whole trip was pretty much a spur of the moment idea. I'd heard the area around Loch Tay was pretty beautiful, so I figured I'd check it out. It was about a two or three hour drive out there, so I figured I'd head out to Loch Tay and, if I couldn't find anyplace else, make it back to Fundee in time to get a beer at the casino (which is a bit of a -joke - there's ALWAYS time to get a beer at the casino, since they're open 24 hours).

Whisky galore!!

Whisky galore!!

I hopped into the trusty Fritzmobile and made my way out to the open road. The first dilemma you face when leaving Dundee, other than asking why you were in Dundee in the first place, is whether to take the Perth road or not to get to the A9,which is the main highway that runs through the Highlands and up to Inverness. The Dunkeld way is nicer, but the roads aren't as good as going through Perth.

This time, I decided to pursue the Dunkeld option because I wanted to stop and have a beer at the "Best Beer Garden in Scotland" (as determined by yours truly). I'm not going to elaborate on the garden since that will be given a post all of its own.

Falls of Dochart. 

Falls of Dochart. 

After the Dunkeld stop, the drive was just a few short miles down the A9 to the Aberfeldy turn off. At this point, the A9 is really wide and has two lanes on each side (a "dual carriageway" as they say over there) and was a pleasure to drive. I took the Aberfeldy exit and continued along a winding road next to the silv'ry Tay.

I stopped when I saw the falls in the picture. Little did I know HOW MANY falls I was going to be seeing over the course of the next twenty four hours.

The Birks of Aberfeldy. 

The Birks of Aberfeldy. 

The falls look beautiful, don't they? Makes you want to grab a cold one and sit right in the middle of a refreshing stream of water straight down from the Highlands, doesn't it? Go right ahead and jump in! And then you'll be dead from pneumonia in about 5 minutes. That water is COOOOOLD. That's the problem with Scotland - so many beautiful lochs, streams and waterfalls, but YOU CAN'T GO IN because you'll freeze your nuts off. Alas.  I stopped for a quick bite to eat in Aberfeldy, home of the famous Birks of Aberfeldy, as immortalized by Scotland's second greatest poet, Robert Burns (Here's the greatest, in case you couldn't figure it out).

As you can see, I took a picture of another waterfall. I was still excited by seeing gentle mountain streams. How naive I was.

Now, here I have to make a confession, because I didn't actually get to the famous spot where Robert Burns sat and wrote "The Birks of Aberfeldy." Come on - it was like a mile hike away! Not that I minded walking a mile, but I didn't want to lose any more daylight by killin' time going to see a bunch of trees!

The other ongoing feature of this trip, other than the waterfalls, was castles. Immediately after I left Aberfeldy, I saw a sign for a castle and pulled over for a photo op.

Car and castle. 

Car and castle. 

There was a wedding about to take place at the castle, so it was closed. But, just to make sure, I went up and knocked on the comically large doorknobs.

But that's another thing about Scotland, you'll just be driving around and run into a 500 year old castle.

But the biggest surprise was waiting for me just around the bend.

For you see, I was about to discover something that many had heard about but few had experienced, yes, my friends, I stumbled upon a town so lifeless, so boring, and just downright unexciting that it was given the name, "Dull."

The opportunity was too good to pass up, so I steered off the road and went to experience everything that Dull had to offer.

Which, in fact, wasn't that much. I don't know if I ever even drove through Dull, since there wasn't a sign for the village proper.

Which way to boredom? 

Which way to boredom? 

So, if I drove through Dull, it was a pretty forgettable collection of farmhouses.

In other words, pretty dull.

(The Guardian ran a story about Dull just a few weeks after I was here. I think I might have to sue.)

The trip to Killin will continue with the next post! 

The "Secret" Bunker!

bunker2

Of course, the funniest thing about "The Secret Bunker" is the name. I first noticed the sign along side the road on the way to Edinburgh. Right there in the brown color used for all the tourist attraction signs - THIS WAY TO SCOTLAND'S SECRET BUNKER. So, technically the name isn't even correct. It should be Scotland's FORMERLY Secret Bunker. Because the signs basically tell you EXACTLY how to get to the "Secret" bunker.

The bunker is located near Leuchars RAF Base, which is one of largest bases in Scotland and home to the interceptor team keeping the UK safe. It's also probably where the Russkies were going to come, if they ever sent planes this way, so it was a pretty big deal during the Cold War. But, now that we won said Cold War, the UK government is closing the base and kicking everyone out.

Creepy railway station!

Creepy railway station!

Which is a little bit sad for pool old Leuchars. Not only have they lost their Royal Air Force base, but they also have one of the saddest looking stations in all of the UK (see sad photo to left). It's nothing more than a building in the middle of a field next to a car park.

I mean, come on! This is where the future KING of the whole UK would have gotten off the train to go to St. Andrews (if the King ever took the train). Even Dundee at least has a pub in the train station!

Once you pass through Leuchars, all you got to do to find the "Secret" Bunker is to follow the signs.

This is where it really starts to get creepy. The access to the "Secret" bunker is through an innocuous looking farmhouse standing in the middle of a field. They've even got cows grazing around the grass to give it an air of tranquility. Of course, since the "Secret" Bunker is now a tourist attraction, not only do the signs give away the farmhouse, but also the fact that there are tanks, armored cars, portable radar installations and a Soviet SA-2 Surface to Air Missile.

Although you might not be familiar with the Soviet SA-2 missile, you're probably familiar with its work, including the Gary Powers shootdown, the Cuba Missile Crisis, and Bono.

The first thing that greets you upon entering the farmhouse on top of the Secret Bunker is, as you might have suspected, the gift shop, where you can buy all sorts of Secret Bunker related paraphernalia including a World War II Spitfire Manual, a Wooden Bulldozer Construction Kit, and a Winston Churchill Coloring Book.

"We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them when they try to color outside the lines of my ample girth..."

I, however, didn't stay too longer to linger inside the gift shop as the Secret Bunker was near enough to smell. After lightening me of £9.00 (that's $15.00, American), I made my way downstairs and into the "Secret" Bunker proper....

The first thing that greets you is this crazy hallway right out of Get Smart (TV show, not the stupid movie. And yes, I like Steve Carell. And, yes, I'm old.)

Man, is that a hallway or what? I didn't do any kind of crazy coloration or any kind of special effects on that, either! That's how it looks. Imagine running in from the nuclear holocaust through that hallway.

The first thing that struck me about the bunker was the smell. It smelled like the '60s and a little like your Grandma's house. There was one main hallway with a number of doors leading off to either side. There was an audio tour with one of those headset thingys, but it would have cost another £5. I figured I'd get to it next time. Plus, I didn't want to look like an idiot with a half phone receiver hanging off my face.

One of the first rooms I stopped by was the "Broadcast Room." This where the BBC would have setup and broadcast from following the nuclear holocaust.

The creepiest thing is that they were playing the tape that would have been broadcast from this room had someone dropped "The Big One."

But the real, and unexpected, highlight of my entire "Secret" Bunker experience was all the creepy mannequins setup everywhere. I'm a big fan of mannequins - we had kind of a creepy old-timey western town setup near Austin called Pioneer Town that used a lot of bad mannequins in old-westerny dioramas.

Creepy Mannequin! 

Creepy Mannequin! 

Look at the way that she's reeling that top secret paper out of the tape machine in the Secret Bunker! It's like she's some kind of hand model. And the way that the hat sits on top of her hat just so....man, why can't EVERY museum have fake creepy mannequins up inside?

Most of the rooms were all military stuff - there was the communications room (complete with naughty chain faxes still taped to the wall), the main room a la Dr. Strangelove, and the RAF command center.

There was also a functioning canteen downstairs (as I've noticed with just about every attraction in the UK - these people can't seem to go too far without a cup of tea and something sweet), a chapel they rented out for weddings and even a movie theater.

The theater was probably the creepiest part, because what they were doing was showing old 1950-1980s Public Service videos for what to do in case of a nuclear war. Now, I've seen a lot of American movies of this sort, but these British ones scared the crap out of me. There was one running about how a town would react after a nuclear hit. Except that it was filmed like a documentary. Fires were burning, babies were smoldering, buildings were collapsing...just mayhem. The other film was more in the comical - "here's how to stack furniture to hide from a nuclear blast" vein. The film suggested turning your couch over upside down and stacking suitcases on top to help keep you safe from irradiation.

Bunker Cat!

Bunker Cat!

Filled with just about all I could muster, I headed back for the fresh air of Fife. But it was on my way out that I noticed the one sign that the secret bunker was probably closed for good.

There, right next to the entrance to the "Secret" bunker, was the comforting presence of the entrance door for the "Secret" bunker cat.

Things couldn't really be that bad if they had a cat around, right?

Don't worry bunker cat. If you ever get caught outside the bunker when the bomb's come fallin', I know how to make a shelter out of a couch and suitcases.