Mom spent a decent chunk of the next day shut up in a tiny room in West Highland College doing more research. I spent most of the day shopping, of all things. We both started out the morning with a shot of anxiety from navigating our way into the town centre and finding parking. All of which went very well. We just worry a lot. After paying the meter, we hiked from the Middle Street to the High Street where all the shops and cafes were.
Neither of us had much in the way of breakfast before we left Onich so our first stop of the day was somewhere that would give us a nice cup of tea and something tasty to eat. But for all the coffee shops that lived on the High Street, not a one of them was open before ten. All except the Hot Roast Company. What would we have done with out the Hot Roast Company? They were open early, by some standards, and they had free wifi. Needless to say, we went there almost every day we were in Fort William.
When we’d had our fill of the internet and finished our breakfast, I accompanied mom back towards the Morrison’s to help her track down the college that was located somewhere just beyond. When we’d found it, the woman at reception pointed us through a side door that took us back to a hallway where the archives office was located. There were two older women already seated at the table, which took up most of the room, and one man behind a short desk shoved into the corner. There was almost too much furniture in the room to have it all fit comfortably.
Mom and I shuffled in and took a seat while the man brought out a form for us to fill out, detailing who had visited the office and what their purpose was. I stayed just as long as it took for the man to get a roll of microfilm set up for mom. Then I left her to her work and went off to wander amongst the shops we had seen that morning on the High Street.
The sun was still hidden behind some early morning clouds, making the air brisk. More people had arrived on the cobblestone street and many more of the shops had opened their doors. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, so I went into the first shop that peaked my interest. It was a jewelry shop with cases lining the walls and several tables set up in the main room. I ended up leaving with a bar of soap shaped like a Highland cow.
Most of the shops were catered specifically toward your everyday tourists, but I’ve always been very selective and utilitarian about the souvenirs I bring home. But I always enjoy looking. After browsing through the jewelry shop, I wandered down the street a bit further to the next shop that caught my eye. They were all more or less the same, really. There were spinners of magnets and key chains, many with thistles, Highland cows, or kilted bagpipers printed on them. There were tartan garments in all shapes and forms: kilts, skirts, ties, scarves, hats. One place sold whisky tea, which I was tempted to buy.
One store had more household items; bookends, mirrors, pictures and other tchotchke-covered table after table. There were lots of beautiful things but it was all too big to fit in a suitcase. I did, however, buy a couple bottles of wine here. It wasn’t until after we had returned home the night before, after our trip to Morrison’s that we realized we didn’t have a nice wine to sip on while sitting on the deck enjoying the view. So I picked out a strawberry wine and a nettle wine, mostly because I’d heard of nettle wine before but had no idea what it tasted like. Both of them turned out to be rather enjoyable.
I spotted a pair of Highland cow ear studs in another shop and thought they would be perfect for mom. Just after the store clerk had opened up the case and handed me the earrings, mom called to tell me she was wrapping up her work. She also mentioned that the man at the archive office recommended stopping by the bookstore on the High Street to talk to the owner about the town’s history. We had planned to stop by the bookstore as soon as we’d seen it that morning, so we decided to meet there and go look together.
I paid for the earrings and went back out onto the street. The sky had been overcast all day but the weather had turned from chilly to rather mild. I turned right and walked past a section of shops to the next street. The bookstore was just up the hill on the right so I found a patch of wall to lean against and waited for mom. I passed the minutes people watching. The sense I got from the people I saw walking up and down the High Street was that most of them weren’t tourists. Some of them were just local folks on their way to some engagement or picking up a trinket of some kind. On the High Street of Fort William was also the place I first noticed the familiarity so many people in Scotland seemed to have with each other. It was probably due in part to the small size of Fort William, but it made me happy, even envious to a degree, to see it.
A tent had been set up a block down from me just in front of a plaza area. It was ‘Yes’ rally. People with ‘Yes’ t-shirts and Scottish flags were striking up conversations with people passing by. They were giving out badges and stickers to those who would take them. After a time, I heard a laugh that sound very much like, and turned out to be, my mother. Of course she would’ve stopped at a ‘Yes’ rally tent. But I couldn’t blame her.
Eventually her conversation ended and she walked the last hundred feet or so to where I stood. We stood and talked for a minute. I asked her if her research efforts had been fruitful and she told me they had been but in a rather backwards manor. Apparently everything she thought she knew was wrong. Still a step in the right direction, even if that direction was backwards. Now at least she knew not to bother with those leads. We turned and walked up the hill to the bookshop.
The front door opened almost immediately to a flight of stairs partially covered in books. This, I would discover, was a theme with most bookstores we visited in Edinburgh, at least the ones that weren’t part of a chain. At the landing we found more stacks and a shelf of books before entering the main body of the store. There was an unoccupied desk set in front of a row of bookshelves in the middle of the main room and another doorway leading to a back room complete lined with shelves.
A man and a woman were standing in the narrow walkway between the two rooms. The man was helping the woman search for a title and when he saw us he said he would be with us in just a minute. I went over to browse in the second Scottish section of my trip. Working in a bookstore, I was well acquainted with many of the books in every other section. But we don’t have a Scottish section at home so that was where I had the best chance of finding something new and interesting.
The shop’s owner finished helping the woman and came to help mom. While they talked I went to the second room to see what might be hiding amongst the cramped shelves and crooked stacks of books.
Nothing jumped out at me, and the Fort William bookshop became one of the few I left with empty hands. Mom didn’t come away with much to show either. We still had over an hour left on our parking time so we returned to the High Street to find a place to eat. A few places had menus posted outside and some even had a few things we could eat. But nothing was calling to us just yet. The last place we looked at was the Ben Nevis Restaurant and Bar. Here we found something to fit our dietary needs and something that sounded appealing to eat.
We squeezed through the narrow doorway and up the stairs to the restaurant. It was empty except for a table of four seated in the corner. There was one guy working the floor that came over and told us to sit where we’d like. We picked a spot by the window. He came over a second later with menus, two glasses and a pitcher of water. Both of us had really mostly picked what we wanted to eat from the menu outside. Now it was down to final deliberations. Of course just after we ordered, I found out they didn’t have all the ingredients for what I wanted. I was only a little disappointed. The turnover I got instead had sounded good, too.
Throughout the meal we maintained a conversation with our waiter, who was very friendly. The whole thing started because we had mentioned we were vegetarian (or vegan in mom’s case). He told us how his sister was also vegetarian and from there we went all the way to talking about America’s treatment of wait staff and how our health care system is simply terrible. These sorts of interactions are my favorite ones to have when I travel. To me, getting to know the people is the best way to get to know the country.
We finished our chat and said our goodbyes and not five minutes out the door I was kicking myself for not getting our waiter’s name. For this very purpose! I always try and shine light on the places we visited and people we met when I travel. It’s small acts of kindness from strangers that make a trip memorable. I did get his name, however, just a little while later. We were on our way back to the restaurant the day before we left Fort William with that as our mission when we saw him walking down the street.
We called out to stop him before he disappeared down a side street. He turned back with a smile. I went up and explained to him why we were accosting him in the street. He didn’t seem to be bothered at all. If anything, he struck up another short conversation and recommended some places for us to visit when we went to Glasgow later in the month. His name is Darren and he let us take a picture of him. What a sweetheart. He also smelled really nice. Bonus!
Anyway, let’s get back on track. We left the restaurant and drove back home with my many bags of shopping. Okay it was like, three, but that’s a lot for me. It was still early when we got home; there was enough light left to finish out the day on the deck with a proper cuppa. We had been smart and stopped by the Tesco express to get tea, which we had also forgotten to get yesterday at Morrison’s. The temperature had dropped a bit so I bundled up in a jacket before stepping outside with my tea and a sleeve of biscuits.
The thing I loved, and miss most, about Onich was the silence. Every other cottage besides the one next door (of course) seemed unoccupied and the people in the manor house were gone most of the day and were quiet when they were home. You couldn’t hear the cars on the road, no one was mowing the lawn or doing yard work or playing music. The loudest thing, besides our own voices, was no greater than the distant caw of a bird flying overhead.
The other thing I loved and miss even more than the silence was how blissful I felt, sitting there on that deck with not a single thing to worry about except my tea getting cold. No one needed me to make a sign or edit a website. There were no dishes to be done or carpets to vacuum. The mood of the day hadn’t been spoiled by some retail customer shenanigans. It was fantastic, and the tiniest bit alarming. The last time I felt this tranquil was two years ago on the other side of the world.
When our cups were empty and we’d had our fill of biscuits we went back in to make a real meal of rice and stir fry vegetables accompanied by a glass of our newly purchased wine. The day came to an end with both of us on the couch with a glass of wine in our hands, happy to watch whatever we could find on the telly.