Thursday, January 10, 2013
The Scottish Highlands are a place of legends. The Loch Ness monster, William Wallace, and Bonnie Prince Charlie are just a few. Add to that the tradition of storytelling and the abundance of whisky distilleries, and the myths grow more miraculous. But legends alone are an insufficient way to experience the staggering beauty of the landscapes and lochs, the craggy cliffs and snow-capped mountains that wash the hills with waterfalls. No, this is a place that must be seen, felt, and tasted to be true.
My day on the Isle of Skye was sandwiched between two others replete with Highland highlights. Traveling north from Edinburgh, the first stop on my Haggis Adventures tour was the Wallace Monument, a tall tower on a hill across a valley from Stirling Castle.
As the name implies, the monument was dedicated to William Wallace, the 13th century Scottish hero of Braveheart fame. It was also the largest monument in the world that was not dedicated to either Buddha or Jesus. Let it never be said that the Scots don’t appreciate their freedom fighters.
From the Wallace Monument, we drove north to Glencoe, the valley most recently known for its appearance in the James Bond film Skyfall. But Glencoe was famous for a long time before that, and for good reason. The smooth mountain peaks, white waterfalls, and misty aura made it one of the most beautiful places we saw on our tour of the Scottish Highlands.
Glencoe was followed by our arrival in Fort Agustus, a town on one end of the famous Loch Ness. We stayed there for two nights, using it as our Highland home base as the region unfolded before us.
One of the most memorable moments of the trip was when Chris, our driver, made us close our eyes as we rounded a bend in the road. When he let us open them again, we were met with the sight of Eilean Donan Castle, a stunning stone structure sitting stately on an island in a loch. It was breathtaking.
Another emotional experience on the tour was visiting the battlefield of Culloden, where the Scottish Highlanders made their last stand against the English army in 1746. The bleak windswept field and its memorials to the clans that lost men there was an intensely sorrowful place.
The tour hit a happier note as we drove the length of Loch Ness, skimming our eyes across the water in search of Nessie. We managed to spot a few impostors, but the real Loch Ness monster evaded us.
Passing through Inverness, a city once voted the ugliest in the United Kingdom but which now has its share of charm, we visited a Bronze Age burial ground called Clava Cairns. The stone monuments were a testament to the depth of Scotland’s history, and their unexplained layout left us with a lingering sense of mystery.
From Clava Cairns we made our way to the Tomatin whisky distillery to experience Highland single malt at the source. We took a tour, where we learned all about the production of Scotch whisky, then did a tasting in the shop. I’m no whisky expert, but it went down just fine.
On the way back to Edinburgh, we took a bit of a detour due to a road closure. It was far from inconvenient, though, as the drive took us through beautiful forests and heathered plains that glowed golden in the afternoon sun.
Farther along we passed the Carr Bridge, an old stone construction that made a perfect circle over the river below.
And there was another bridge, too. The famous Forth Bridge welcomed us back to Edinburgh, orange in the darkness of night.
It was a nice way to end my Scottish Highlands tour, not least because the next morning I would be crossing that very bridge to travel up to St Andrews…