Scotland / Travel Blog / Wildlife

As far north as our thumbs can take us (Part II)

Roadside Beggars?

Part II of the Hitch-Hiking Adventure! (Part I)


The next day we headed to the road with our ‘North’ sign and smiled at every passing car, our grins becoming more forced the more cars that passed. Some people gestured at us meaninglessly, some gave us a thumbs up back (laughing at the joke with their passengers) and some glared at us like the roadside beggars we were- how dare you ask something from me?

Standing about 50 metres away from Alice, I entertained myself with a narrative of the thoughts of passing by cars- what do they think of us? Why do they drive by? Why do some speed up as they pass, refusing to look at us?

Safety, for one. We are all afraid of strangers, the unknown. I understand drivers being worried about picking up hitchers- even if we don’t pose a physical threat, there could be the worry that strangers could sue if the driver happened to have had an accident.

But also, people like their own space. They like being alone in their cars, listening to their music, with their thoughts, not having to entertain strangers.

However, I think the glares, and acceleration, come from guilt- the guilt you feel if you don’t have change to give a beggar, or don’t want to buy something after the salesperson has invested ten minutes talking to you. I don’t know you, I don’t want to give you something (a lift, in our case), you’re just scrounging… but you are still making me feel bad- angry that you are asking for something I don’t have to give you, and that makes each person driving by feel like their private car space has been invaded by our request, even when they refuse.

Fortunately for us, it wasn’t too long before a kind soul stopped his lorry to offer us a ride.

“I only have one seat, but I’m headed to Thurso,” he told us.

“We’re small!” We chirped back, and piled in.


I’ve only ever been behind lorries (for miles and miles waiting for an opening!) in the highlands, and so driving slowly and enjoy the raised, wide-angle view up the northern coast was very enjoyable. Our driver was polish, and had hitch-hiked a lot in his youth, so he told us stories of hitch-hiking in Poland, and the nefarious adventures he undertook before settling in Scotland with his family.

My friend Alice (different Alice!) wrote her dissertation on hitch-hiking, with some interesting insights into why people pick up hitch-hikers, discussing the Gift Theory that, by picking up hitch-hikers, drivers forge bonds within a community of mutual trust and create a common good, which will then be passed on by the hitch-hikers in the future, creating a reciprocal cycle of solidarity. For communities such as those in rural Scotland, where it was much easier to catch a lift than southern Scotland or near the cities (I dread to think how difficult it would be near London), drivers are more likely to have hitch-hiked in the past, and by feeling safe enough to stop to offer a lift, add to the trust and solidarity of their community.

The first time I tried hitch-hiking I was hiking the Great Glen Way; my companion and I had to get back to Inverness for a late train back to Edinburgh. Almost as soon as we had started the hike it became apparent that my boots were too old, so my blisters blew up to the size of golf balls and my feet swollen and bleeding by the time we got onto the main road. We were meant to get a bus back to Inverness, but we were in the middle of nowhere with no change and no way of getting money to take us back. When we asked at one of the houses about the nearest ATM (not near at all, unsurprisingly), the lady told us that we should explain our situation to the bus driver.IMG_6170

“No-one here would leave ye stranded in the middl’o Scotland,” she told us proudly. We hobbled back to the bus stop.

We thought about it. If she was right, then surely we could hitch-hike back?

So my friend walked down the road a little, and I sat with the bags, happy to not have to stand on my aching feet, and sure enough, the fourth car passing stopped.

The spirit we met then was exactly what Alice was discussing in her dissertation- people who don’t see hitch-hikers as scroungers, but either a part of their community (a friend in need) or visitors who could be extended the hand of hospitality. It made me sure I wanted to be part of the same community again, as both a hitch-hiker and a lift-giver.

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Anyway, back to the trip! We had a short break in Wick before we hit the road again, winding up the roads following Scotland’s jig-saw coastline, with rivers carved into the landscape and jagged cliffs hugged by the ocean, circled by squalling gulls.

Our driver was kind enough to take a wee detour to John O’Groats so he could drop us off at our final destination. We made it! Shops selling over-priced souvenirs, the Sign of the Selfies (yes, we indulged), and Orkney on the horizon.

John O'Groats

We were just about to book ourselves onto the boat trip to Orkney when Alice mentioned to me that she gets seasick- would that be a problem? We cast our eyes out to the weather and the innocent blue sky was reflected in the smooth sea surface… but the boat trip wasn’t for a few hours. Having lived in Scotland for four years, I no longer believe in ‘sunny days’, I told Alice. We shouldn’t risk it.

“Are you sure? The weather looks fine,” she asserted.

I shook my head.

“I don’t trust it.”

Sure enough, less than five minutes later we were hounded inside by a roiling rainstorm that raced across the blue and was gone as soon as it arrived.  A few hours later, about the time our boat would have left, the sea was alight with the white crests diagnostic of a seasick passenger’s nightmares. We had made the right decision.

Despite the fickle weather, we stayed for a few hours walking along the coastline and enjoying the seabirds before Alice successfully chatted up a couple (John and Wendy) on their fiftieth anniversary who could take us back to Thurso.

We found that talking to people in cafes and shops was, by far, the best approach to getting a lift to our next stop. Although brits may be hesitant about stopping for hitch-hikers, they are easy to talk to (especially when on holiday) and much more likely to trust you enough to give you a lift if you take the time to ask them what they’re up to, where they’re going, etc.

Luckily for me, Alice has an iridescent charm which proved extremely useful when fishing for lifts. I also enjoy chatting to strangers and gleaning their stories. I was happy to hear that this couple had never left the UK as Wendy had a fear of flying so we eagerly discussed the best holiday locations, rambling about the magnificence of the UK’s countryside and wildlife.

By the time we got to Thurso we tried thumbing by the roadside to get a lift out of town, but as the sky darkened I began to get anxious and tired, so I asked Alice if we could find a hostel in town rather than get a lift in the dark and have to set up camp after nightfall. Much as we would have preferred to have wild camped for the whole trip, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Plus, the hot shower in the hostel was completely worth it!

But the real blessing came the next morning, when Alice once again unleashed her charm on a pair of German girls having their breakfast in the common room. They had hired a car and were driving around Scotland; our age and keen to chat with fellow travellers, we got on with them from the get-go- and they even let us choose the road tunes!

They were driving down to Aberdeen, and we had several stops along the way… including a stop in Inverness when Alice and I spotted the eight-seater German vehicle that had taken us on the northward leg! Unfortunately we didn’t see our drivers, but we left a note to update them on our trip and wish them the best for the rest of their whisky tour.

As we neared Aberdeen I scouted our next camping destination by finding a large loch on Google Maps and asking our new friends to drop us off there, with our contact details so we could host them for dinner when they visited Edinburgh. It was clearly a busy loch by day- fishing, sailing and birdwatching, but we neither saw nor heard any traffic after we set up camp next to (believe it or not!) a little treehouse!

I had found some otter spraint and in my enthusiasm to track them I landed myself in the boggy banks of the river we were camped next to, and had to leave my boots by the fire and fetch firewood barefoot. A little tip for wild-campers: never leave your walking boots by the fireside! When I returned Alice was sitting making dinner with a wrinkled nose staring at the unburnt pasta trying to figure out where the smell was coming from… The plastic on my boots had melted and boiled to leave scorched holes that, when I wear them now, look like I burned my ankles with acid.


We sat by the fire until the stars came out late that night, as twilight is slow and light in the Highland summer. My appetite for wanderlust had been whetted rather than quenched, and I revelled in the roaming freedom of our trip- not knowing where we would be sleeping each night, where each decision we made had a direct effect on our next steps… so different from the intense year of studying I had just finished, where there were no forks in the road, no diversions… just hard work for a worthwhile goal.

A month later, and a few days from my graduation, I am still in a state of aimless wandering. There are so many things I want to do, but each door closes others, and I’m hopelessly awestruck and indecisive in the face of all my options.

I like mixing my metaphors… and I think when you are travelling, unencumbered by responsibilities and home stresses, you can learn so much about how to make decisions, and what kind of life you want to lead when you are at home. For me, I learned about spontaneity and faith in the face of disaster from my godmother on one ill-fated trip in South Africa where every day we were hit by a different consequence of our lack of planning… A story for another time, but I learned from my godmother’s undefeatable attitude that setbacks can give rise to new opportunities, and leave room for spontaneity and exciting adventures.IMG_6229

It’s important to remember that the luck associated with the phrase ‘right place at the right time’ is a bit of a myth… the right time is hard to predict, but your choices, your friends, your spirit take you to each place you lay eyes on… for that reason, every place was a destination always written into your history, and when you seem to stumble on the good fortune of the ‘right place at the right time’, you have to remember that you were the one who got yourself to the right place, and sometimes it’s worth remembering that by defeating that obstacle- by making the decisions that take you to the right place- whether it is deciding where you want to live, the company you want to work for, the kind of bar you want to socialise in or the next country you want to explore- you forget your own path and can tailor each place to be the ‘right’ place where you will meet those friends, make those memories, and see those sights that will take your breath, steal your heart, perhaps break it too- each decision you make takes you to the right places- luck is only in the timing.

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One thought on “As far north as our thumbs can take us (Part II)

  1. Pingback: As far north as our thumbs can take us (Part I) | Flight of a barn swallow

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