Story and Photos by Monique Burns.
Road tripping through the Scottish Highlands. Framed by lofty mountains and etched by trickling burns and rushing rivers, the Scottish Highlands cover roughly 10,500 square miles, about the size of Massachusetts. Herds of wild Scottish red deer, domesticated sheep and somewhat tame Highland cattle, great lumbering beasts with long pointy horns and shaggy red and blond coats, people its vast undulating moors.
Driving along narrow one-track roads, you turn a corner and suddenly encounter a dazzling white-sand beach with impossibly turquoise waters. Turn another corner and a trail beckons through ancient woods with thundering waterfalls. Turn yet another and you’re in a tiny loch-side town whose single inn has a flickering peat stove, local ales and ciders on tap, and a clever cook who can rustle you up a bowl of fish chowder or a hunk of lamb braised so long it slides off the bone. Such encounters light your way through miles of incomparable wilderness, past stands of birch, and sparse groves of Caledonian pines, once covering these purple-heathered moors like a bristly green halo, their umbrella-like foliage vaguely reminiscent of Japanese landscape paintings.
Come to the Highlands not only for its stark beauty, but for its history, so unabashedly heroic it borders on the mythical. Six hours north of Edinburgh, the capital, the Highlands are truly the great beating heart of Scotland. It was here that William Wallace, Scotland’s national hero, and his fellow Highlanders, raised their families on small farms called crofts, forever fending off the English. From here, Wallace and the Highland Clans, swathed in homemade tartan dyed with native herbs, swept south, defeating the larger, better equipped English force in 1297 at the Battle of Stirling Bridge near Edinburgh. To taste that heroic Highland fervor, watch the 1995 Mel Gibson movie, “Braveheart.”
The Highlands also were the scene of the Jacobite Risings, between 1688 and 1746, when heroes like Rob Roy Macgregor—played by Liam Neeson in the 1995 Hollywood blockbuster, Rob Roy—fought to secure the English throne for Bonnie Prince Charlie. And, from the 1760s to roughly 1820, these lands witnessed the Highland Clearances when English lords seized the Highlanders’ farms. Today, most of the Highlands remain in the hands of a relative few, and there are more Scots in foreign climes than in Scotland.
But the Scots survived and so did their vast heartland.
One young Scotswoman I met, alluding to her country’s on-and-off again independence movement, spread her arms wide, gestured toward the Highlands’ seemingly infinite panorama of moors, mountains and lochs, and declared with a bravado worthy of Wallace: “Who else do we need, when we have all this?
I could have tackled the narrow Highland roads on my own, but common sense—and the thought of falling off a mountainside into a nearby loch—got the better of me. So, I signed on for the five-day “Highlands Explorer” tour run by Rabbie’s, an Edinburgh-based company that offers a choice of overnights in hostels, simple guesthouses or luxury hotels, depending on your budget.
In early spring, there were only six other travelers in our white 16-passenger Mercedes-Benz van—a retired California schoolteacher, two young Aussie women, and an American expatriate, his Malaysian wife and their 10-year-old son. Our driver, Ross, a landscape photographer in his early 40s, had an encyclopedic knowledge of Highland flora and fauna. His 20-ish co-pilot, Emily, a fetching strawberry-blond sporting a natty tam-o’-shanter, shared his fierce love of the Highlands.
North of Edinburgh, we crossed the Firth of Forth over that great red erector set of a bridge, the 19th-century Forth Rail Bridge. Our first stop was tiny Dunkeld whose big landmark, 13th-century gray-stone Dunkeld Cathedral, rises beside the River Tay. Following in the footsteps of 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth and German composer Felix Mendelssohn, we strolled along riverside Braan Path to raging Black Linn Falls.
By midday, we were in Pitlochry, “Gateway to the Highlands,” ringed by mountains and graced with fine pubs, shops and small hotels. At Blair Athol Distillery, I learned how Scotland’s famous single-malt whisky is distilled. Then I browsed through the shop, selling, among other things, a commemorative Bell’s whisky flask emblazoned with likenesses of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on their wedding day.
After lunching on salmon sandwiches and salads from The Scottish Deli, our schoolteacher and I encountered two strapping Scots headed to a wedding in full Highland dress. Posing for a photograph wearing colorful family kilts and thick sprigs of purple thistle in their buttonholes, they raised their chins, stuck out their broad chests and struck poses so full of manly Scottish pride that it made me smile.
Leaving behind the small towns of the Grampian Mountains, our van climbed into the rugged Highlands. Before us stretched Cairngorms National Park, the U.K.’s largest, home to wild red Scottish deer, endangered wildcats and broad-winged golden eagles. Not far away rose the stony ruins of Ruthven Barracks, which the English built after the 1715 Jacobite Rising to police the Highlanders. True to form, they burned it right to the ground.
Beyond the historic Culloden battlefield, where the English finally defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746, we crossed Glen Mor, the Great Glen, into the glorious North West Highlands. Inverness—known for its red-sandstone castle—lay at the meeting of the River Ness, Beauly Firth, and the Moray Firth, where, in warm weather, bottlenose dolphins, orcas and minke whales leap among the whitecaps.
At Loch Ness, home of the infamous Loch Ness Monster, we arrived just as a brilliant sun broke through lowering clouds. Scotland’s second-deepest loch, Loch Ness is its largest by volume. Incredibly, its 22-mile-long basin could hold the water in all the lakes of England and Wales combined. After a lifetime of hearing about the Loch Ness Monster, it was thrilling just to stand beside the lake’s deep, inky waters.
By twilight, we had pulled into tiny, windswept Ullapool, extending along the shores of Loch Broom from which the big red, black and white Caledonian MacBrayne ferries depart to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Our little Malaysian-American family settled in at the Old Surgery Guesthouse while the rest of us checked into the Royal Hotel with 54 simple rooms, a good restaurant, and a lively bar adorned with deer antlers.
After breakfast, we drove single-track roads north through the North West Highlands to the Assynt Peninsula. There we hiked to Lochinver’s pebbly White Shore beach through hundred-acre Culag Wood, home to otters, eider ducks and pine martens. Achmelvich Beach dazzled with pristine white sands and a striking turquoise-colored bay. At wild, windswept Clachtoll Beach, I frolicked on the high dunes with a black-and-white Border Collie.
Ardvreck Castle’s gray-stone ruins lay just south atop a spit jutting into Loch Assynt. After the Mackenzies seized this Macleod stronghold in 1672, legend has it that one of Macleod’s daughters jumped into the loch to her death and was resurrected as a mermaid. Since our California schoolteacher had Mackenzie roots, we took turns photographing her before the ruined castle as red deer watched from the moors. Later, at the waterfront Arch Inn, she and I celebrated with beef Wellington and sticky pudding with toffee sauce and salted caramel ice cream.
The next morning, we motored along 200-foot-deep Corrieshalloch Gorge, passed the striking red-sandstone beaches of Torridon, then looped around the Applecross Peninsula. At the big white-washed Applecross Inn, facing an endless red-sandstone beach, we feasted on prawns, crab, lobster, scallops and smoked salmon.
Continuing east along 2,054-foot-high Bealach na Bà, one of Scotland’s loftiest roads, then south, we finally crossed the bridge to the Isle of Skye, a Highland microcosm of moors and mountains. In Portree, Skye’s largest town, I checked into the four-star Cuillin Hills Hotel, with 29 rooms on a 15-acre knoll overlooking the harbor as well as the distant Red and Black Cuillin Hills. At the harborside Lower Deck, I dined happily on the thick creamy seafood chowder known as cullen skink, mussels in garlicky white-wine broth and a bottle of golden-brown Skye Ale
On Skye’s west coast the next day, we discovered Dunvegan Castle, a Macleod stronghold for 800 years. In summer, the Macleods run boat trips across Loch Dunvegan to islands where Atlantic gray seals bask. The castle itself houses treasured heirlooms. Among them: the Fairy Flag, a tattered yellow silk banner with small red “elf dots” believed to protect the Macleods in battle. The Dunvegan Cup presented to Macleod chief Sir Rory Mor for helping the O’Neils of Ulster fight Queen Elizabeth I in 1596. And the Amen Glass given to Donald Macleod for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to Skye after the 1746 Jacobite Rising.
At Skye’s westernmost reaches, we climbed Neist Point, jutting like a gigantic ship’s prow into wave-tossed Moonen Bay. Frequented by whales, dolphins and porpoises, it’s where the 1996 film, “Breaking the Waves,” was filmed. On Skye’s east coast, we saw stone-pleated Kilt Rock, rising 180 feet above the roiling Sound of Raasay. Inland, in the rocky Quirang, we watched sheep graze in bucolic Fairy Glen, covered with dwarf crowberry and bearberry bushes and shaded by Caledonian pines.
I saw most of Skye’s highlights in only two days. Next time, I’d pony-trek through those wild, rocky lands, taste whisky at Talisker, Skye’s sole distillery, and browse the island’s pottery shops. Now, I was headed south, back to Edinburgh. But not before shooting a parting glance at those famed Highland peaks, The Five Sisters of Kintail, and 13th-century Eilean Donan Castle, at the confluence of three mighty sea lochs—Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long.
IF YOU GO
Log on to www.visitscotland.com.