Crobs Abroad: The Seven Wonders of Scotland

There are numerous ‘seven wonders of the world’ lists kicking about online, from the ‘seven wonders of nature’; to the ‘seven wonders of the industrial world’; of the ancient world; of the solar system; of the underwater world; to the ‘seven wonders of the modern world’, which we have pretty much agreed upon as being, Machu Picchu; Petra; Chichen Itza; Pyramid of Giza; Great Wall of China; Christ the Redeemer, and the Taj Mahal.  I’ve visited the South American pair so far, but still have another five to go before I can tick off bucket list item #57.

Albeit quite novel, these lists are pretty interesting, so I was therefore disappointed when finding out that nobody has ever come up with a set ‘Seven Wonders of Scotland’. The Scotsman newspaper did once run a public vote to find out what Scots thought some of the most wonderful things that their homeland had to offer were, with the impressive Forth Rail Bridge taking first place accolades, but I still feel that a definitive list needs to be compiled.

Now, caveat time. I am neither a historian nor a geographer, and I struggle to follow Lego instructions never mind architectural blueprints, so for the purposes of this list I have excluded all wonders of nature and engineering. Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and I could never separate what if feels like to drive through Glencoe; climb Ben Nevis; traverse Skye’s Cullin Ridge, or witness the wildlife of the Outer Hebrides. If you are looking for this then Visit Scotland have put together a list of the best walking trips throughout Alba. And with this in mind, here are Crobs Abroad’s alternative Seven Wonders of Scotland.

Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Having rambled around a large part of the globe, the most common response by far from the locals of foreign lands when finding out where I’m from is to simply exclaim, ‘whisky’. No other word can define Scotland in a nutshell other than the name of the country itself, regardless of where you seem to go. I’ve had Cambodian taxi drivers, Peruvian mayors, and Kiwi hoteliers all express their love for the amber bead, and each also was under the impression that we have been raised on the stuff from birth as if it’s a replacement for breast milk.

Now, as most whisky connoisseurs will tell you, to be a single malt scotch the whisky must have been distilled at a single distillery in Scotland using barley and then matured in oak casks for at least three years and one day. What many people get confused over, however, is how to spell the word. Is it ‘whisky’ or is it ‘whiskey’? Quite simple, really. In almost all cases, if the whisky is made in countries with no ‘e’ in their names, such as Canada, Japan, or Scotland, then it’s spelt as so. If it comes from countries with an ‘e’ in their names, such as Ireland or the good ole’ U.S of A, then it’s spelt ‘whiskey’.

Golf

The first written record of golf is when James II banned the game in 1457 because it was becoming an unwelcome distraction to learning archery. Even the King couldn’t resist the allure of the stick and ball game, however, and lifted the ban in 1502 when taking up the sport himself. The Old Course at St. Andrews in the Eastern Kingdom of Fife has been labelled ‘The Home of Golf’, and has its place on The Open Championship rota every five years, the oldest and most prestigious golf tournament in the world.

My favourite story about the sportsmanship and camaraderie in golf comes from what was labelled the ‘Duel in the Sun’ at the 1977 Open Championship at the Turnberry course, also in Scotland and now owned by President Donald Trump. Two of the all-time greats of the game, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, found themselves streaks ahead of the rest of the field and in a tense battle all weekend, with Watson eventually pipping Nicklaus to the Claret Jug on the final hole by one stroke.  That night, the pair were reportedly sitting in the clubhouse knocking back drinks and talking about the epic display they had put on for the crowd. ‘You got lucky,’ joked Nicklaus. ‘I had you all day,’ laughed Watson. A few hours later, a security guard, noticing some unusual activities on one of the greens, ran out onto the pitch black course to apprehend what he thought were a couple of hooligans. Instead, he found Nicklaus and Watson drunkenly staggering about, Watson with the trophy in hand and Nicklaus holding their sole club. They had decided to settle their argument like men, with a three-holes, one-club, midnight shootout. I have no way of verifying this story, but I so hope that it is true.

The Original 007

‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’. A famous catchphrase that Sean Connery almost never got to say. The anecdote goes that, when initially casting the titular character for this now world-famous spy and lady killer, creator Ian Fleming and the picture house production team didn’t want an already famous face to portray Bond. They, therefore, held an open call to which Sean Connery attended and absolutely bombed. In a stroke of luck, however, when discussing who they wanted at the end of the casting, Fleming happened to look out of the window of their offices and see Connery walking across the car park. ‘He walks like a panther,’ said Fleming, commenting on Connery’s  stride. ‘Bring him back in for another audition’. The rest, as they say, is history. He nailed his second attempt and was given his license to kill.

The Kilt

“Is it true that you don’t wear anything underneath your kilt?” is one of the most frequently asked questions that a Scotsman gets from foreigners who are intrigued about our strange culture. Worn nowadays as a replacement for a tuxedo or a dinner suit at a black-tie event, no Scottish man is likely to ever look better than when donning the tartan skirt of his clan. I personally own one for formal use and have a second, more cheaply-made kilt, for partying and travelling. The looks that I receive when marching down the street in a foreign country with my pleats billowing in the breeze never get old, although most of them are unfortunately from people simply not familiar with what a kilt is as opposed to groups of girls getting hot under the collar. It is true, though, ladies. I don’t wear any underwear beneath my kilt.

Television

On 25th March 1925, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of televised silhouette images in motion. Cue the birth of the television. Within a year of this, he was demonstrating the transmission of the image of a face in motion and its popularity grew to a level that households around the world are now more likely to have televisions in them than hot running water. American’s spend on average five hours per day watching mind-numbing programming on the box, with hundreds of terrestrial and digital channels to choose from. Baird didn’t have this luxury, however. Rumour has it that he was pissed off after inventing it because there was nothing good on to watch.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

For the entire month of August each year, the streets, pubs, clubs, and theatres of Edinburgh turn into a city-wide party when the world’s largest arts festival comes into town. The Fringe started in 1947 and there is no threshold as to whom can get involved and participate. All you have to do is rent out a performance space, come up with a ludicrous act, and the flyer like mental for people to pop their head around the door and watch your act. Categories of shows span across theatre; poetry; dance; circus; music, you name it.

What it’s most famous for, however, is the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, which has launched the careers of dozens of household comedy names. Previous recipients of the prestigious main prize include Stephen Fry; Hugh Lawrie; Al Murray; Steve Coogan; Dylan Moran; and Rich Hall but to name a few. There’s also acknowledgement for the funniest joke of The Fringe. Last year’s winner: “My dad has suggested that I register for a donor card. He’s a man after my own heart.”

Haggis

As much as we like to mess with far-too-enthusiastic Americans by telling them that a haggis is a three-legged creature that runs around the Scottish hills and Highlands, it’s actually just a savoury pudding made from the pluck of a sheep. That is, it’s the heart, liver, and lungs of the sheep minced with some spices and stuffed into the lining of its stomach. Sounds delicious, I know. When served with a side portion of neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), however, it is absolutely delicious, and nothing takes me back to my childhood faster. It is the tradition for a haggis to be bagpiped in and addressed during a Burns Supper; evening events which take place on the 25th January each year to celebrate the birthday of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns.

So, in conclusion, what I’m really saying is that, if under some bizarre circumstances you happen to turn on your TV and see a kilt-donned Sean Connery driving a golf cart through the streets of Edinburgh on his way home from finishing an improv sketch show at the Fringe Festival, whilst washing down a mouthful of haggis with a bottle of Glenmorangie, then that’s pretty fucking Scottish.

What would you add to the list? Please comment and share your thoughts below.


Riding the Battambang Bamboo Train through the Cambodian Countryside

I first heard about the bamboo train from my friend Mario whilst lazing around on the beaches of Cambodia’s southern islands. He’d been the north-western town of Battambang the previous week and could hardly contain his excitement when retelling the story of his trip along the tracks of one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys to the crowded beach bar that evening. From 3.7km east of Battambang’s old Parisian-style bridge, the bamboo trains race for twenty minutes along 7km of warped, misaligned tracks and over vertiginous bridges left behind by the French, rolling green pastures stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions. Known in the local Cambodian language of Khmer as a norry, each little bamboo train consists of a 3m-long wooden frame covered in slats of tightly-strung bamboo canes. This is then simply balanced atop two barbell-shaped railroad trucks, a chugging gasoline engine is attached to the rear, and the train is ready to roll.

When the clock struck midnight the music came to a crescendo; the beer stopped pouring; and the bar was closed, plunging the place into darkness. We were living in a wifi-less island paradise and with zero artificial light around, and no pollution in the air, the sky was able to conjure up its magic for all to see. Racing to the beach, everyone stripped down to their white bits and splashed into the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The sea glowed from the bioluminescence of the plankton living in its depth, and with each movement shimmers of glittering gold momentarily glistened under the light of a thousand stars that shone like diamonds on the big black canvas behind them. A more beautiful representation of nature you would struggle to find. As I floated about in the wonderment, however, a nagging began in the back of my brain. Mario had planted an idea, and when something new excites me I do everything in my power to make these ideas blossom into realities. I was going to have to change my travel plans once returning to the mainland. I was going to have to get on a bus to Battambang.

I was welcomed into my hostel with a free cold beer and I got chatting to the owners whilst perusing the lunch menu. Here Be Dragons was run by a lovely, nerdy, English couple in their early thirties and it was immediately apparent that the décor and vibes of the boutique backpackers were a direct extension of their own passions and interests. A graffiti mural of the Tardis from Dr Who covered one of the walls and gaming memorabilia was dotted around the bar between bottles of export spirits. The Beatles hummed softly in the background. Ordering a pork schnitzel and fries from the specials board, I asked the lady the inevitable question. I was too curious not to. ‘Why is the place called Here Be Dragons?’ She laughed, turned over the menu to the back page, and pointed at the old medieval calligraphy printed on it. ‘So many people were asking that we thought a full, proper, explanation was necessary’:

“It is a well-known (though false) fact, that there are places on ancient maps of the world marked with the legend ‘here be dragons’. All that the mapmakers knew of these mysterious, dangerous realms were the tales sailors and explorers brought back with them – fantastical tales of magical beasts and sea-serpents, of men with horns and lambs that grew on plants, of giant eagles that could swoop and seize and carry off an elephant. Here Be Dragons is a land of myth and make-believe, apart from reality, where anything could happen…”

Being low season, and the fact that Battambang is not a place that many travellers find themselves visiting, the hostel was fairly quiet. I therefore headed out on a solo mission guided by a local tuk-tuk driver called DJ who raced around town beforehand to show me the sights. At one point he even stopped in the middle of a roundabout so that I could get a good photo of the Battambang Buddha Statue before getting me safely to the start of the bamboo train. Dozens of the wooden slats lay strewn about and the place looked more like a mechanics’ forecourt than a station, but as soon as they spotted a Westerner the locals who were milling around jumped into gear; something the trains most definitely didn’t have. I paid my $10 fee and hopped aboard the front norry, balancing myself on a couple of cushions whilst my driver with a long emo-like haircut pulled at the starter chord. The engine looked like it had just been lifted from a lawnmower but it was still enough to get the wheels rolling along at 20km/h. With the wind gusting through my hair, I sat cross-legged and took in the beautiful landscape; a wide smile glued to my face.

The bamboo frames were originally built to transport crops between farms and are strong enough to hold up to three tonnes of rice. With the introduction of paved roads, however, the train track was disbanded in favour of trucks, before being re-opened solely as a tourist operation. Each norry would now be said to have a maximum capacity of between ten and fifteen people depending on sizes, which is more than can be cramped into a modern day elevator. I also used the word ‘track’ there in its singular. Interestingly, there is just one parallel track slicing its way through the countryside, and this is where the simplicity of the bamboo norries shines through; providing the perfect solution to the halting problem on any single-track line of what to do when two trains going in opposing directions meet. What happens? One norry is simply picked-up and taken to the side of the tracks so that the other has free passage. When the coast is clear, it is then replaced and you are on your way again. Sometimes there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

Having let past a couple of German girls on their return journey, the rule being that the norry with the fewest passengers is the one that has to cede the track, we were soon back up to full speed and click-clacking our way along at breakneck speed. The brakes sounded like they were about to fail, the engine sounded like it was sure to blow, and the wheels sounded like they were hanging on by their last few screws. It was more like the world’s least health and safety conscious rollercoaster than a train, but for the entire journey, I felt like the norry had warped me back into a childhood state of fun. As Emit Brown said to Marty McFly: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”


See A Dead Body (Bucket List #15)

“So there’s a great essay written by Sigmund Freud called ‘On Transience’, and in it, he cites a conversation that he had with the poet Rilke as they were walking along this beautiful garden. At one point, Rilke looked like he was about to tear up and Freud said, ‘What’s wrong? It’s a beautiful day. There are beautiful plants around us. This is magnificent.” To which Rilke says, “Well, I can’t get over the fact that one day all of this is going to die. All these trees, all these plants, all this life is going to decay. Everything dissolves into meaninglessness when you think about the fact that impermanence is a really real thing. Perhaps the greatest existential bummer of all is entropy.” I was really struck by this because perhaps that’s why when we’re in love we’re also kind of sad. There’s sadness to the ecstasy. Beautiful things sometimes can make us a little sad. And it’s because what they hint at is the exception, a vision of something more, a vision of a hidden door, a rabbit hole to fall through, but a temporary one. And I think, ultimately, that is kind of the tragedy. That is why love simultaneously fills us with melancholy.” – Jason Silva.

When people look through my bucket list, there are two items which tend to be commented on far more than any others: ‘#52 Fall in Love’ and ‘#15 See a Dead Body’. I think that this is because, as humans, we feel a much greater connection to ideas and events that tug at our heart-strings than we do to adrenaline based activities such as skydiving, relaxing activities such as bathing in the blue lagoon, or adventure activities such as spending the night on a desert island. These other activities are nice added extras, but love and death affect us all. Not in equal measures, but they do affect us all.

My second published book, We Ordered a Panda, is my comprehensive answer to the former. My way of feeling better about things is to write them down. Yes, I wish to entertain and inspire, but my writing also doubles as a form of therapy. As an atheist, I am constantly melancholic about love and death. I know that there is no afterlife. I know that I am no phoenix and that when I do eventually die there will be no rebirth from the ashes. By seeing a dead body, I felt that it would provide such a horrific and stark image of the fragility and shortness of life, that I would then be able to further comprehend and understand how I wish to better spend mine.

I have now been unfortunate enough to see multiple dead bodies, and can indeed say that this has been the case. I’m not going to go into the specifics of such incidents. Trust me, as much as you think you want to know, you don’t want to know. And even if you did want to know, I don’t want to share them with you anyway so you won’t know.

What I will say, however, is that crossing this item off my bucket list has strangely led me to be a much happier person. Knowing that I only have a limited time on this Earth, and staring death in the face, has triggered something in me to live much more in the moment; to stop worrying as much; to do even more crazy things, and to eliminate any regret from my actions. Instead of fearing death, I am embracing life.

When I was walking home drunk from the pub one night with my good friend Possum, she got out her phone and started to play Yellow by Coldplay. “This is the song that I want to be played at my funeral,” she said, almost stumbling off the pavement into oncoming traffic, “and everyone in attendance will have to turn up in yellow clothes. I want it to be a celebration of my life and not a mourning.”

How beautiful. How melancholic.