For most people, the movies “Brave” and “Braveheart” are their only sources of knowledge about Scotland. From these films, images of lakes surrounded by green rolling hills and mountains become popularized as what Scotland looks like. While this is certainly not the whole truth, as Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, look nothing like this, not to mention the fact that “Brave” is an animated movie and “Braveheart” was mostly filmed in Ireland, there is a place from where all of this folklore derived. This place is the Scottish Highlands, where I spent three days last week.
Since arriving in Edinburgh, I’ve heard many things about the Highlands, particularly that the Isle of Skye, an island in the northwest Highlands, is the place to go. For a while, though, I got so caught up in traveling around Europe that I didn’t think I would have time to go at all. I ultimately decided that leaving Scotland without visiting the Highlands would be like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, so, when my boyfriend visited for Thanksgiving break, I took the opportunity to do a three-day tour. It was a vastly different experience than visiting the touristy big cities of Europe, and possibly the best trip I’ve taken all semester.
Our tour bus picked us up from Edinburgh on Tuesday morning, where Matt and I were two-fifths of the tour group, which made it even nicer because we could spend as long as we wanted to in all of the places we stopped. Our first destination was in Luss, a quiet little town along the banks of Loch Lomond. This would be the first of many lochs (pronounced with a guttural h sound at the end) we would visit along the way, but it’s famous for the folk song “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond,” which is sung at most Scottish occasions. Our guide told us the rather dark history of the song, involving a man being condemned to death and never being able to see his love on the banks of Loch Lomond again, which apparently most Scots don’t even know
There’s not much in Luss but beautiful views, but we did talk to a shopkeeper who told us all about red deer, a Highland species of which he had a head mounted on the wall. He told us all about their mating patterns and said that we should keep an eye out for them in the Highlands, and, while I found it interesting, I sort of assumed we would never actually see any of the said animal. Thus, when our guide pulled off the road just a few minutes after leaving Luss to show us some red deer that were grazing in front of a nearby hotel, I could not have been more surprised. There was a whole family of them, and one even came right to the door of the bus and stood there watching to see if we had any food. It was amazing–I’ve rarely seen wild animals so close that have no fear of humans.
Our next stop, the Rannoch Moor, looked like something you would expect from a Sherlock Holmes novel. The misty gray skies combined with the dark peaty soil and myriads of puddles to be a unique and beautiful landscape, but definitely not somewhere I’d want to get stuck after dark. A walk through the Glencoe Valley was next, which was fascinating as much for its history of the MacDonald clan’s massacre there in the 17th century as for its breathtaking mountains that looked beautiful even in cloudy weather. According to our guide though, it’s not really Scotland without dark, wet weather, so it probably looked even more like it would have when the MacDonald clan made it their home.
The rest of the day was mostly just driving up to the town of Portree on the Isle of Skye. The views of the lochs and glens through the bus windows were gorgeous, though, and our Scottish guide made it interesting by regaling us with historical and mythological tales, as well as by playing local music. We stopped at a few other viewpoints, too, as well as a wee village (yes, I used the word wee) for lunch. We crossed the Skye Bridge onto the island at about 5 pm, so it was already dark by then, as the sun sets at about 3:45. To give you an idea of how small Skye is, the bridge was only built a few decades ago when the people on the island campaigned for it because ferries only ran during daylight hours, in which case emergency services could not be accessed until the next day.
Portree is the smallest town I think I’ve ever visited. Upon arriving, our guide drove us around the city center in about three seconds, as it consisted of one square with one restaurant open for dinner. Our bed & breakfast had six rooms and was owned by a local couple who asked if we could have breakfast earlier than we had planned because the woman had a hospital appointment the next morning. We walked to the one open restaurant for dinner, which was actually quite tasty and much better than I had expected for such a small place, before turning in for the night.
The next day consisted of much less driving and much more exploring the island. The weather didn’t change much, but everything we saw was still absolutely beautiful. It was made even nicer by the fact that we seemed to be the only tourists on the island–we only saw other people while in Portree, and it’s safe to say we saw more sheep than people the whole time we were in the Highlands.
Our first stop was the Fairy Glen, so called because people believed (or believe, depending on whom you ask) that Scottish fairies lived there. Of course, these are nothing like Tinkerbell, but they’re the bad kind that can curse people and take them away from the human world. This was Matt’s favorite part of the trip, and possibly mine as well, because it really looks like something out of a fantasy movie–in fact, “Stardust” was filmed there. It’s basically a large green patch of hilly land with little walking trails and even a small stone structure up on a hill that is supposedly a fairy castle. Looking out from this provides great views of the valley and of all the sheep walking around in it and makes it obvious that there really is no one else around.
The two other major nature stops of the day included a walk down to the beautiful Lealt Falls and a walk out to the ruins of Duntulum Castle, situated on the edge of an extremely windy peninsula. The Kilt Rock waterfall, so called because the natural markings on the cliffs look like tartan, was also on the itinerary, as well as the Black Houses where ancient Highlanders used to live, so called because burning peat for fires gave the inside walls a black coating, and a wee graveyard.
Sustenance was provided during our lunch stop at a nice restaurant back in Portree–the biggest town on the island–and at the Talisker whisky distillery. We toured the factory there for free, as it was being remodeled and parts of it were unavailable to visit. Still, it was still neat to see where “Scotland’s only single-malt whisky made on the Isle of Skye,” which I think is rather a lot of descriptors in order to be unique, is made. Unfortunately, after three months in Scotland, I’m still not a whisky fan, which was not helped by the fact that they made us try it “neat” first, but we got a free taste nonetheless. We had a rather early end to our day again, as after the sun sets there’s not much to see, but we enjoyed our last night in Portree with dinner at the same pub we had visited the night before.
Our last day in the Highlands was actually Thanksgiving, and, although we didn’t celebrate with a traditional meal, I was quite thankful to be able to see such beautiful sights. Before leaving Skye that morning, we stopped to look at the Cuillin mountains, which are apparently the Mecca for mountain climbing in the UK and which are so beautiful they have folklore about giants and warrior princesses fighting over them. After leaving the island, we toured the Eilean Donan castle, which is still used as a vacation house for one of Scotland’s wealthy families and which is absolutely stunning both inside and out. Funnily enough, the stories of the divide between the servants and the family sounded exactly like “Downton Abbey,” and our castle tour guide even said there’s a similar relationship between the tour guides and the family. I can’t imagine living like that, although I wouldn’t mind having a stone castle on a loch to visit every once in a while.
After more driving through pretty scenery and listening to tales of Jacobites, we arrived in Fort Augustus, on the shores of Loch Ness, for lunch. Unfortunately, we came at the low point of tourist season so we weren’t able to cruise the loch, but it was still quite pretty. It doesn’t look too much different from any other loch in the Highlands, but it is the loch with the most volume and is extremely deep and dark, hence the monster mythology. I don’t think we saw Nessie, but we did meet a swan that came ashore to greet us when I went to touch the freezing water, and I’m somewhat convinced that’s just Nessie’s on-land manifestation.
After a stop to see a somewhat random World War II memorial to the commando units that trained in the Highlands, as well as to view the Grampian mountains it overlooks, our final daylight stop was in the woodlands for a wee hike along the waterfalls. To finish the trip, we visited the Victorian resort town of Pitlochry, where we had pastries in a cute coffee shop in this little Christmas-decorated village before making our way all the way back to Edinburgh.
I was actually quite sad to come back to the big city after spending such a relaxing three days in the Highlands with no one else around. During parts of the trip, I almost felt like I was in another world, since I’ve never been to a place with such untouched, beautiful natural landscape. And, although we didn’t see half-clothed Mel Gibsons with blue face paint or princesses with flaming red hair, we had the amazing experience of witnessing the awe-inspiring, rugged beauty of the place where characters such as these would have lived centuries ago. After this real Highland experience, when I have to leave for home in three weeks, I can do so while feeling that I’ve truly explored Scotland.