What I Learned From Backpacking Through Scotland

I stressed out for more than a month about planning and getting into the UK to travel to Scotland and wondering about how it would be to travel in a foreign country as a woman. When the day arrived to get onto the plane, I ended up walking into my adventure of backpacking for ten days through Scotland in a “it’ll be what it’ll be” mood. I had traveled abroad before with my family, but for those I could just follow where ever and never have to truly be in charge. I feel like I learned a lot and became more confident in my traveling ability as to fully enjoy the rest of the semester studying abroad in England.

Tours are fun but not all the time:

A friend and I went on a three-day tour through Haggis Adventures, which took us through the Highlands of Scotland after four days wandering by ourselves through Edinburgh and Glasgow. During our days traveling alone, we were able to wander as we pleased, spend less time in museums and randomly stroll through cemeteries.  It was nice to be at our own pace, but transportation and worrying about how to get to places became tiring at times. At one point not wishing to figure out the bus we walked for thirty minutes to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh then hiked up a mountain for another hour before walking back. After four days by ourselves, I was ready for a tour and have others take care of us. The tour was very interactive with an energetic tour guide who gave a lot of fun facts. I have to say though, even though I didn’t regret the tour, there were times that I wish we could have stopped the bus and seen other things, or stopped in places longer, or even shorter. I could only handle three days with the same people on the tour and not being able to pick my own speed. I was glad for the tour to start and after a bit to stop and go back to wandering on our own.

Haggis Tours stopped off at Castle Kyle in the Highlands for pictures and to stretch legs; photo courtesy of Madelaine Formica

Don’t be afraid of public transport:

Walking out onto the tarmac at Orkney airport to the Loganair flight to Edinburgh; Photo courtesy of Madelaine Formica

Taking trains, busses, and even a plane, I started to feel comfortable with the public transportation. I learned to never be afraid to ask for help. If I didn’t know where to go or if I was on the right stop or platform, I always made sure to ask for help and always felt more relaxed after doing so. I also learned if flying domestically in the UK, there is no need to go to the airport more than an hour before the flight for check-in a lot of times aren’t even open. Traveling to the Orkney Islands taught me how it’s worth it to trek to the harder places to get to because they can be the most memorable.

Hostels, Airbnb and hotels:

The cozy Castle Rock Hostel tucked below Edinburgh Castle; Photo courtesy of Madelaine Formica

Hostels are the cheapest and easiest places to stay in and shouldn’t be feared. Hostels can be a bit intimidating as they are like dorm living as you sleep in bunk beds, sharing a room with anywhere from 6-12 people, sometimes even more. My friend and I made sure to always book in all women dorms when in hostels. Women dorms are more expensive than coeds, but we decided that they were worth the expense. Hostelworld was a great tool to find Hostels in the area that we wished. They force you to put some money down when you first pay, so if you cancel you do lose that deposit, whereas Booking doesn’t have a deposit fee and is just as easy to use. Hostels were a lot safer and more of a relaxing atmosphere than I was expecting and usually had cheap breakfasts. We usually took advantage of those cheap breakfasts and have an early lunch/dinner at around two-three p.m. In Glasgow it ended up being the same price for the both of us to book a private room in the hostel. We learned after we booked in Edinburgh that the Fringe Festival was going on at the same time, this does inflate prices of hostels causing us to stay in an Airbnb for one night there and one night in York. Airbnb’s can feel like you’re imposing on people’s homes, but honestly, they want you there. They usually have fees for canceling and can be a little overwhelming as you try and figure out if the house you booked is anywhere near where you want to visit in the city. We found everyone we stayed with  inviting and friendly, though. We only ever stayed at a hotel once in Orkney. It was nice (but expensive) and the only reason we did this was because we didn’t want anything to happen, or the hostel or Airbnb to cancel and us to be in a small town in the middle of an island without any place to stay. Really it was probably an irrational fear, but it was nice to be in a real bed with our own shower for those two nights and to have a large free breakfast included.

Don’t be afraid to try new food:

A full Scottish breakfast with blood pudding at Kirkwall; Photo courtesy of Madelaine Formica

I always make sure to try to make a point to try new food-- it’s the best way to try a new culture. I ended up trying haggis, blood pudding and even a Scottish cheese board. Haggis was very savory, and I had it on a pork sandwich where it was almost like a mustard. I found it very good and worth the try. Blood pudding was irony, so I didn’t eat too much of it, but I ate it with eggs and toast and found it very good in texture and nice in small doses. The cheeses in scotland are very strong, like blue cheese and brie, which aren’t my kind of thing, but It was still nice to try and made me feel fancy as I ate a cheese board in the Isle of Skye. The best meal I had was in a fish and chip shop in Orkney where I had chips (fries) and a fried sausage, because I’m not the biggest fan of fish (sorry it’s a texture thing. I’ll have haggis, but not fish). The sausage tasted like a corn dog and the chips were nice and crispy and after days of having cheap sandwiches, a cheese board and an apple for breakfast most days, greasy food was like mana. It was easy in the UK to find cheap food and most days I only spent around 5-10 pounds on food.

Oink, the restaurant in edinburgh that sells haggis on a pork sandwich with BBQ sauce; Photo courtesy of Madelaine Formica.

Always have a traveling buddy:

It’s nice to have a traveling buddy to share the experience with you. It’s also good to have someone who can complement your traveling experience. I suck at navigation with a map, so to have someone who could was handy, but I’m pretty good at eyeballing and figuring out where I am, which was helpful when google maps led us astray (which it does sometimes). It’s good to have a schedule and to have both people understand that sometimes if one of you is feeling drained after six days of constant traveling that if there’s a day that you need to mostly just sit in the hostel and rest then it’s fine. I learned to listen to my body and to keep up with my traveling buddy as to not overdo anything. It’s nice to see everything but traveling takes coordination and understanding for everyone who is in your party of adventurers.

Junior, Madelaine Formica standing at the bay on the Isle of Skye, enjoying the few minutes when the sun would come out; Photo courtesy of Madelaine Formica

Packing is a pain:

Don’t overpack. I ended up packing shorts that I never used, but the plastic bag I thought I would never need ended up as my dirty laundry bag inside my backpack. I brought old socks that I could throw away as to clear space in the backpack and made sure to leave space when I was packing to keep room for food that I would stockpile from hostels. T-shirts and a windbreaker became my go to outfit because it didn’t take up too much room, and allowed me to pack more. My knock off Herschel bag- Kaukko backpack- that I bought on Amazon fit everything I needed, but it was nice to ditch it in the hostel and just walk around with a purse.

The most likely haunted necropolitan cemetery in Glasgow; Photo courtesy of Madelaine Formica

Over all it was an amazing experience and I was glad for the ability to make ten million mistakes with planning and knowing after the fact booking.com doesn’t make you put down a deposit, buses aren’t that hard and you don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours early. I took away though confidence in my ability to not die on my own and to keep my attitude of what happens, happens.