Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Loch Ness Tour

So after years of imagining what it would be like to touch the murky waters of the great, long-necked Nessie, I finally made it to Loch Ness. This came close to the end of my UK tour in which I had already enjoyed the things I was most excited about and considered the rest of the trip more an indulgence of my husband Richie’s search for his Scottish roots. However, as we made our way across the dock into the boat, I reminded myself this had been a life-long dream. Perhaps I would have been more excited had I expected to see something, be it a mystical monster or an overgrown eel. But not only had I resigned myself to seeing nothing because sightings are so rare, I was now questioning whether or not there really is something to see.

Be that as it may, I stood on the deck and concentrated on the waters – not muddy and brown, like I had imagined after hearing of their murkiness for years, but a dark, lovely teal – soaking in every sight, smell, and sound to imprint them on my mind. As the boat began moving across the water, I suddenly thought how much like Galilee the lake looked, with similar surrounding hills. This realization further dampened my attempt at a mystical state of mind. It made Loch Ness just another lake, even less so when I considered that the presence of Christ on Galilee was a historical certainty – and Nessie just a possibility.

The boat took us only a very short distance before we started hearing something about castle ruins that we would be visiting. Oh - I looked to the right - there was a castle here? Of course. Surely I’d seen the pictures before. They had to present some other attraction, some…actual reason for being here. They made a big deal out of this castle called Urquhart, something about Jacobites and Robert the Bruce we had been hearing about all through Scotland. I began to feel extremely ignorant. Was I about to visit a historically significant sight of which I knew nothing? Had I really come all this way only to look for Nessie? Worse yet, did the tour guides know that many of us had come for just that? How they probably had a laugh every day, after presenting “mysterious” sonar readings on pictures they had taken with their cell phones – just as our guide had. I was glad I hadn’t been impressed. Again, the feeling that the Loch Ness phenomenon is based more on hype than anything substantial began nagging at me.

It suddenly seemed very important that I become acquainted with the Jacobites and Robert the Bruce (even though I’d looked him up twice this week and still wasn’t entirely sure). I couldn’t have come all this way for nothing.

But until we docked, I studied the waters closely, determined not to miss anything if, after thirty-five years of a few mostly explainable events, I was suddenly rewarded with something extraordinary. The waters were constantly waving, creating small, foamy white caps on the surface. Once in awhile a long, uniform wave would create a dark line, but nothing I could possibly have mistaken for a creature. No head, no neck, no silhouette, nothing. Urquhart Castle, which now seemed a large, gloomy symbol of my present academic deficiency, was drawing ominously near. Through the loud speaker, a voice had been presenting all kinds of information on the castle’s history, but I couldn’t hear well over the engine and the wind, and I don’t listen very well when there is no speaker in sight (OK - except to George Noory).

At last we docked and made our way up the many steps to the castle, parting with my mom who opted out of the castle tour to have coffee at the visitor’s center. The first part of the castle I chose to enter contained a prison. I ascended the stairs to a niche and peered through the bars of a cell where I was startled by a dummy prisoner. This reminded me of a Ghost Hunters episode in which Grant was stunned by the appearance of a ghostly face when he peered into a similar area. I reflected fondly on this very exciting episode a moment then retreated to the visitor’s center. I had finally resigned myself to the fact that the next half hour would not be adequate time for an education that would foster appreciation of this castle. I bought some souvenirs for friends before rejoining our tour group.

We were bused to Loch Ness museum, where we were herded from room to room to watch a video on the history of Nessie. The video began with the story of St. Columbia who ordered the beast to stop killing people and the beast complied. None of the proceeding stories offered the same delicious mixture of religious and crypto content to hold as much of my interest Moreover, too many pictures or sightings had proved to be hoaxes, seagulls, logs, deer, seals, or ducks. I found the theory of the sturgeon interesting, but very little was said on that.

In one room, we could not tell from which wall the video would be shown. When a picture finally appeared on one end of the room, we hustled to the other end. Then suddenly the video began behind us, and we hurried to the opposite end again. I think we all felt a little like herded cattle, and were exhausted.

I enjoyed the last couple video presentations because we were able to sit down, and my back hurt. When the final video was finished, we waited in momentary, awkward silence and then exited. By now we had only five minutes to inspect the gift shop before we needed to be on the bus. (“4:25!” our guide emphasized repeatedly.) But I couldn’t find the checkout counter. It seemed there were many pseudo-checkout counters – elevated floors with a counter that, once approached, would have no clerk and no register. After wandering stupidly around for several minutes, I finally asked somebody and was directed to a rather hidden stairway leading to a floor I would have never noticed. I felt like I had advanced to the new level of a video game.

Almost to the counter, I suddenly realized I had been shopping for everybody but me, and I still had no souvenir for myself. Spotting some pewter key chains, I snatched one that bore Nessie on one side and Urquhart castle on the other – a fitting memento for my experience. I was a little resentful that I didn’t have more time to carefully consider my purchase, but it was almost “4:25!”.

Our guide was late. We stood confused, in the heat on the parking lot for several minutes until the bus finally pulled up, full of new tourists. Our guide hadn’t told us he would be picking up a new group, and this revelation made curious his permission for us to leave on the bus any items which we hadn’t wished to carry. Slightly stressed, I made my way to my old seat to find two new occupants in it. Fortunately, the small shopping bag I had stuffed into the pocket of the preceding seat was still there.

“This is mine,” I said, as I snatched the bag up. My words were meant to be merely an explanation, but the occupant’s wide, apologetic eyes told me I had likely sounded three years old. I made my way with Richie and Mom to the very back of the bus, during which time a lady from the new group snapped at Richie to hurry up because she was hot. I was sorry I hadn’t heard the exchange, because I would have gladly helped her into the lake to cool off.

Once crammed in the back seats, peering at the heads of the new group I now resented, we were on our way. The guide, who had specifically been using mine, Richie’s, and my mom Barbara’s name since the beginning of the tour, was talking again. Of course, I wasn’t listening too closely, but suddenly I heard him say: “On the way to Urquhart Castle, Barbara from Indiana asked me, ‘Will there be anybody playing bagpipes at the castle?’ I told her no, because…”

I didn’t hear the rest of what he said because I was now staring agape at my mom. Had she truly asked such an asinine question?

She was just finishing applying her lipstick, and hastily whispered, “I didn’t ask that.”

“Did you ask him anything at all?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

We both sat back a moment to consider the guide’s ridiculous fabrication, and suddenly we were laughing. It was exactly the kind of laughter that would possess me as a child in church, complete with silent convulsing, tears and the hopeless inability to stop. Richie was annoyed, as he couldn’t concentrate on what the guide was saying with us falling apart right next to him. The idea of my mom – or anyone – asking such an air-headed question was too much. We attempted to stop laughing several times, but would lose it again, and continued this way until it was time to exit the bus. We never knew why the guide had chosen to make my mom look like an idiot, but it was the best entertainment of the day. If it wasn’t enough that we had harbored secret hopes of seeing Nessie, now we had a false reputation as stupid Americans who expected to hear live bagpipes being played at castle ruins.

Only my husband Richie, who is a far better listener than I, learned some things of educational value on our Loch Ness tour. He toured the entire castle and took pictures, reading all the plaques, and he listened intently to the guide – at least up until my mom and I disrupted things. In my defense, I have come away with a 700+ page biography on Mary, Queen of Scots. It might not help me with the Jacobites at Urquhart Castle, but at least I’ll be better able to appreciate Edinburgh Castle more the next time around. And the only way I would visit Loch Ness for the lake again is if I could descend it in a submarine and explore the life that does inhabit it. For now, I’ll just settle for the web cam view.

1 comment:

Laura said...

My visit to Loch Ness back in 1982 was far shorter. First, it was March, so the castle, etc. were not open. Second, it was pouring rain. So the very nice bus driver (public transportation NOT tourist), kindly stopped on the road while the two visitors (we didn't know each other) got out and held something over each others camera while we took a quick picture of the castle and loch in the rain before going on into Inverness. When I returned home, alas, there was no Nessie in my shot...she had the obvious good sense to stay in out of the rain on that cold, blustery day.