In many ways, 2015 was a product of 2014. This may sound obvious, as it should, but in terms of my relationship with travel 2014 really was something of a watershed moment. Before Paul, Nathanael and I embarked on the West Highland Way I didn’t see Scotland as a destination in its own right, as a diverse and dramatic landscape worthy of my attention, but rather as familiar surroundings — a literal comfort zone — that would have to be cast aside if the adventure proper were ever truly to begin. Scotland wasn’t on my doorstep; it was my doorstep.
Walking ninety-six miles from one side of a country to the other can change a person’s perspective on a place, however, and ever since I stumbled into Fort William at the end of a six-day hike I have hardly been able to stop exploring. As such, I have this year complemented my international excursions with an ever widening array of internal expeditions. Travel has become more than just an activity, but a mindset, so that just because I’m not jetting off to some distant reach doesn’t mean I’m not in the midst of a journey, reading about someone else’s, or engaging with other travellers online.
Here are ten travel-related highlights from the last twelve months.
2015 got off to something of a slippery start — literally — when Paul lost his footing on an icy hill and landed us both in Dunvegan Medical Practice, his life now indebted to me. He was proscribed bed-rest and duly retired to the hotel, leaving me with no option but to explore the island on my own. I set out for Portree, the main town on Skye, where I picked up the Scorrybreac circuit and strolled around the nearby bay. Having arrived at night, during a blizzard, we had been unable to appreciate the scale and splendour of Skye, but on this day, the snow having since settled long enough for the sun to come out, its majesty was plain to see. I struck a heroic pose overlooking the Sound of Raasay and then returned to the room to make sure Paul hadn’t died in my absence.
Theeb, Glasgow Film Festival
If travel is my first love then film is far and away my favourite mistress. Planes may be able to transport you to different airports, but movies can teleport you to distant lands, times and even head-spaces. This year Theeb took me to the Hejaz desert, circa 1916, and introduced me to a young Bedouin boy one adventure away from adulthood. It’s a fantastically old-fashioned adventure film, as I said in my review, but it’s also a spectacular showcase of present day Jordan, where the film was shot. Not only was my star rating featured on the promotional material, but I was invited to write the programme note for Glasgow Film Theatre.
Balbirnie House, Markinch
This is a travel blog, make no mistake, but while I appreciate that it should therefore focus on my life in travel and not kowtow to my life in general there are occasions where it is impossible to separate one from the other. In March I took the train to Markinch to attend a good friend’s wedding at Balbirnie House, a spectacularly Scottish affair (I’m still not sure I could spell the groom’s first name without help) that naturally included kilts, ceilidh dancing and many, many drams of whisky. However, by far my favourite part of the reception — indeed, my favourite part of any night out in Scotland — came at the very end of the evening, when everyone joined hands for a joyful rendition of Runrig’s ‘Loch Lomond’.
I first travelled to the South of France in 2011, on an ill-fated visit to the Cannes Film Festival. Four years later, when the opportunity arose to return to the Riviera with a group of friends, I decided to travel beyond the Croisette (and the ice cream parlours of nearby Nice) and finally venture across the border to Monaco. We were too early for the Grand Prix, which at that time remained a few weeks away, but found that there was still plenty to do regardless. The highlight for me was the Oceonographic Museum, not least because it boasted a petting pool where visitors could touch a real-life shark. In fact, in my excitement I nearly tripped over a step and fell in. I’ll be diving with sharks in no time.
Broughty Ferry, Dundee
Proof that you don’t need to travel far to see something new; a short stroll to Broughty Castle in May lead to one of my most amazing discoveries of 2015. Dolphins! In Dundee! Having travelled down from the Moray Firth to feed, a small splinter pod of bottlenose dolphins spent much of the summer splashing about between Broughty Beach and Tentsmuir Sands. I would see them sporadically over the coming months, and even encounter them further up the coast while walking from Arbroath to Montrose along the Angus Coastal Path, but nothing would quite top that first glimpse of dorsal fins as they hunted in the River Tay.
Don’t let my run-in with dolphins fool you: when it comes to wildlife I usually have the worst luck imaginable. As such, I knew that if I ever wanted to see a puffin I would have to go somewhere so tightly packed with them that it would be impossible to not see at least one. It was this foolproof plan — the promise of an unmissable population — that lead me to May, a tiny island in the Firth of Forth, one of the few isles to sit off Scotland’s east coast. I have never seen more seabirds in my life, or, as you might expect given my track record with animals, taken quite as many pictures for posterity.
Ben Vrackie, near Pitlochry
Despite having dubbed ourselves mountain men, I couldn’t be sure that either Paul, Nathanael or I had ever actually climbed a mountain. Apparently I had once been up Australia’s Mount Kosciusko with my parents as a kid, but I retained no memory of the alleged achievement. Instead, I arranged a day out with my folks that I might remember, to Ben Vrackie, an 841-metre-high summit in Perthshire. It was a struggle for all of us, but well worth the toil to look out over Loch a’ Choire and the Cairngorms from the top.
Ever since we departed Fort William at the trail-end of the West Highland Way I had been itching to revisit the Highlands. Nearly eighteen months later, I returned to Fort William with Paul and Nathanael to pick up where we left off, this time taking the Great Glen Way to Inverness. It was an amazing few days, autumnal and august, but it’s perhaps inevitable that the dominant feature of the trail should similarly dominate this feature. Whether it contains an undead dinosaur or not, there is no denying that Loch Ness is one of the most magical places on the planet.
Whether it’s acheived by scaling Monaco’s Oceonographic or slogging it out on the hills surrounding Loch Ness, I’m always on the lookout for the best views around. One of the finest to be had in 2015 came at the top of Old Town Hall in Prague, overlooking the Germanic Old Town Square and the German Christmas market that dominates it during the festive season. It was cold and overcrowded at the top, but that didn’t stop me from paying the entrance fee twice so that I could experience the panorama it afforded both in daylight and at night, at the beginning and end of my trip respectively.
The Book of Mormon, London
The Book of Mormon wasn’t my only show this year (for balance, it shares that particular honour with S Club 7, who I saw perform at Glasgow’s Hydro in May) but was undoubtedly, inevitably, intrinsically the best. Perhaps I was predisposed to love it (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut has long been one of my favourite movies of all time), but for my money it’s simply the latest work of unbridled genius from Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Either way, I noted a strange parallel with January’s trip to Skye: my new companion was also taken out of commission on the second day (by a hangover this time, rather than a hill) leaving me to explore London alone the following day.
An incredible year then, but one I have every faith 2016 can top.