Of Pipes And Prawns: Why Planning A Trip Never Leads To A Good Story

There’s nothing more associated with Scottish culture than the sound of a bagpipe. Magnify that sound by a factor of three hundred and surely one must be at the most Scottish place in existence. Right now that is the town of Oban on the 25th of August, at 10.30 in the morning. Here the finest (or just the most numerous) bagpipers Scotland has to offer have gathered to form a long parade to march up to the site of Oban’s Highland Games, creating a loud and colourful river of sound and Tartan plaid.

Bagpipe parade in Oban
One advantage of having a bagpipe parade: No one needs to be told they’re coming up the street.

I got here taking two buses, after finishing my hike along the West Highland Way in Fort William and promptly finding out that the entire town was booked full. This could have been avoided by planning ahead, but that’s just not the way I like to travel. Instead, I like to let Circumstance lead me to wherever she rears her capricious head, which meant letting the bus driver drop me off somewhere halfway between Fort William and Oban in a place called Benderloch. Here I found out that the driver wasn’t lying and that there was, in fact, a nice campsite nearby with a killer view of the bay. On a side-note: carrying around a tent usually helps when you’re not planning on planning ahead.

After a well-deserved day of resting my feet and eating something other than freeze-dried hiking meals I made it to Oban to witness its display of strong men throwing heavy objects, women dancing, athletes running, smoked haddock and of course a few samples of the local brewing culture, all to the constant background drone of bagpipes.

After a sunny day of sampling local culture, I got a taste of true life on the road when my laptop died on me. This left me digitally stranded while trying to figure out how to get to the island of Islay, my destination for the next few days. Luckily my analogue information-gathering skills were still present somewhere in the back of my head and I soon found myself on a two-hour bus ride headed for the ferry terminal to Islay.

Piper at the Oban Games
Bagpipes, object throwing and a green field bathing in sunlight. What more does one need?

It was already dark when I stepped off the bus in the quiet fishing village of Tarbert, nestled in an inlet of Loch Fyne. At a loss of where to go next, I did what every self-respecting traveller would do in a situation like this and entered the first pub I saw. Once again Circumstance rewarded my lack of planning by having the locals point me towards two promising wild camping spots: I could either spend the night on the local football field or pitch my tent among the castle ruins overlooking the village. For any of you still doubting Scotland’s ‘Right of Way’ legislation: yes, you can camp almost anywhere!

Besides sharing information the other pub patrons also seemed happy to share a pint and a game of pool, so naturally, I obliged. I also learned that most of the other patrons weren’t technically locals, but Tasmanians visiting family as well as a few out-of-town retirees. At some point during the night, a band of men enter the pub; unmistakenly identifiable as locals with their knee-high fisherman’s boots, woollen sweaters and fishermen’s tattoos on their arms.

Because pubs will be pubs and alcohol being the social lubricant that it is, I eventually wound up in a conversation with the group. It turned out they were big fans of Dutch football and therefore a big fan of myself being from the Low Country. After being treated to a pint or two and even a clandestine offering in the form of a nugget of hashish, they were soon inquiring what the hell I was doing in a place like this and (eyeing my backpack in the corner) where I was planning on sleeping. Surely I wasn’t planning on finding a campsite in the hills out in the dark?

Despite my assurances that camping really isn’t all that bad, they told me that there was no point “trampsin’ aboot th’ hills at nicht” and promptly invited me on board their fishing trawler to spend the night in an unused bunk, an offer I accepted. Mostly because I never spent the night on a fishing boat before, but I got the feeling they wouldn’t have taken ‘no’ for an answer anyway…

At around an hour past midnight I stepped aboard the grimy vessel. I never needed to ask what it was they were fishing, as a strong scent of prawn dominated the air both above and below deck. After squeezing my bulky backpack through the tiniest of access hatches I managed to install myself on an empty bunk bed and was promptly handed a can of Guinness. It appeared we weren’t going to be sleeping any time soon, so I made myself comfortable and allowed them to entertain me with lewd jokes and bawdy tales of fishing the Firth of Clyde. We spent the rest of the dwindling night doing drinking contests, watching 70’s Glaswegian comedy shows on a battered Ipad and pissing off the starboard bow before calling it a night and crashing to sleep on our bunks.

I awoke to the screeching sound of a cellphone’s alarm going off. Confused, I sat up with a shock and promptly bashed my head against the low ceiling. It felt like I only slept for about an hour or two, which a quick look at my watch confirmed. Before I could close my eyes again, the somewhat startled and nervous face of one of the fishermen appeared beside me. “Argh, sorry lad. Ye have tae be going!” What? “Skipper’s coming, he cannae know ye’re here!”

Tarbert harbour
I made a promise never to reveal which boat I spent the night on, so here’s a pretty picture of the early-morning harbour instead!

While they had assured me they would stay in harbour for maintenance today, it appeared they’d forgotten about the captain’s visit to his vessel at seven in the morning. A captain who would surely bring down Neptune’s wrath upon them if he was to find out about the impromptu Dutch stowaway aboard his boat. With the crew’s jobs at stake, I had no choice but to quickly climb back up to the pier, lugging my backpack along. Still groggy from lack of sleep and an abundance of alcohol, I bade the guys farewell, got an apologetic but firm handshake and went on my way.

This left me on a fishing pier at six-thirty in the morning, wondering at the marvels of following Circumstance to wherever she points you, and the stories you end up with when travelling like this. My head was heavy, however, so I never reached any deep philosophical understanding of the universe and its workings. I just needed a place to sleep. With dawn in full swing wild camping was no longer an option, so I walked out of town towards a place advertising their tiny cabins. A solid roof and a real bed suddenly seemed like a good investment to make at this point.

It was not meant to be, however, as the place appeared to be booked full. Not knowing what to do now, I got the feeling it would just be best to get on the ferry to Islay and get this thing over with. My time here was done, the story had been lived out, Tarbert was done with me and I was done with Tarbert. I took up position on the verge of the road, stuck out my thumb and got a ride from the first car heading towards the Kennacraig pier. Was Circumstance once again trying to tell me something?


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