One Clan Tours Scotland’s Highlands
The Highlands consist of nearly 12,000 square miles of land in the northern portion of the country. They begin when the busy and broad interstates of the urban regions of Glasgow or Edinburgh (the lowlands) narrow to a tiny two-lane highway. The flat land morphs into rolling tawny bogs, then, all at once, an endless expanse of mountains. Several thin roads snake throughout the sometimes treacherous terrain, connecting each township or historical site. This is not a trip for the timid driver — the first few days I came close to a panic attack as my husband whipped along the curves on the opposite side of the road. You could spend months touring this region, along with its many islands that stretch up as far north as Norway. Note that road travel takes longer than you’d expect (read: “lane sharing with tour buses or sheep”), so plan for about one hour for every 30 miles. Here is what we managed to see in a week.
Home Base and Stop #1: Fort William and Inverlochy Castle
Fort William is a seatown on Loch Linnea and sits at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK. The township is home to Inverlochy Castle, a ruin from the 13th century; a whisky distillery; a sleepy township with several quaint shops (that seem to close by 5 or whenever they feel like it); fabulous seafood; and many vacation rentals. We rented a house that slept 10 for $1,300 for eight days. Preparing meals there was a way to save some cash and enjoy time together.
By far my family’s favorite experience. Ben Nevis rises 4,413 feet into the clouds. Round-trip, the hike takes seven hours (four hours up and three down) over 10.5 fairly strenuous miles. While we felt our hearts would jump out of our chests and run for the hills, several buff Scottsmen actually ran up the face of the mountain as if it is their typical morning workout. While I’d love to say we made it to the top, we didn’t. After about four-fifths of the way up, when our heads were literally in the clouds, and after being pelted with raindrops that felt like frozen needles and nearly blown off the side of the peak, we headed back down. Perhaps the struggle is what makes the experience so memorable — I am a nature girl and this was the most beautiful terrain I’ve seen in my life. About midway, there is a glen (valley) complete with dancing grasslands, a loch, and the most gorgeous blue skies. At the base of the mountain is a wonderful watering hole, Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse, with communal seating, fresh food, and ample black beer to refuel after the grueling hike.
Loch Ness is just another loch, and Scotland is home to 31,460 of them! These lakes, some brackish from the seas they merge with, are quintessential Highlands and an excellent reminder of the purpose of all that rain. The township surrounding Nessie is hokey, complete with a museum dedicated to the legendary sea creature, but the nearby Urquhart Castle stole my heart. Built in the 13th and 16th centuries on Loch Ness, this medieval castle ruin exchanged hands throughout history in various bloody clashes. Just 12.5 miles north of the castle lies the town Inverness, the most northern city in the British Isles. The small city is full of shopping opportunities and restaurants; my family thoroughly enjoyed the thrift stores (called “charity shops”). The city was a great place for a shot of espresso for the drive back home, and the people were warm and welcoming — a nice change from the short, gruff exchanges we’d encountered throughout the Highlands. Just outside of Inverness, The Culloden battle site offers a haunting depiction of Scotland’s resiliency to British oppression and brutality through interactive exhibits.
This was a doozy of a day (about six to seven hours of driving). If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed a night on Skye to take in more of the terrain. We first stopped at the Eilean Donan Castle, the only functional castle we viewed during our stay. Wax statues reconstruct the historical scenes in the kitchen, and you can view the traditional bedrooms and bedpans as an interloper on the set of a royal family holiday.
The next stop was in the fishing village of Portree (Gaelic for King’s Port), the Isle’s largest town, which consists of quaint boutiques, a cathedral, and several restaurants. We picnicked on top of the park for lunch, looking out over steep cliffs to the sea below. On the way home, we stopped again for dinner. I highly recommend The Cuchulain as it was easily our favorite meal of the trip: fresh salmon, hake, langoustines, oysters, and fish and chips as big as your forearm. Overall, the food in Scotland far exceeded my expectations — it is way more than haggis and blood pudding.
Our final destination of the day was The Quiraing, described by most as a site “other-worldly” and hails as “the most spectacular view in Scotland.” Sure enough. I kept feeling like we were on the movie set of The Lord of the Rings and wanted to say, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry the Ring, but I can carry you!” But I’m nerdy like that. The walk is around two miles, but we had to turn back due to high winds. Unlike in the U.S., there are no guardrails or safety nets, just a thin trail that plummets 1,000 feet down the side of Meall na Surichnach. You could stand at a 45 degree angle and be held up by the powerful winds, so my motherly instinct made us turn back. Although the drive to get there is difficult, the view from the top of The Quiraing, free from any trace of human existence as far as the eye can see, was completely worth it. It is now my new meditation visualization, permanently etched in my mind’s eye.
This region is hikers-haven and the film location for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The tiny backpacking town is home to several hostels and The Clachaig Inn, a lovely hotel, restaurant, and pub, The Boots Bar, that distills its own whisky. Nestled in the lush hills, it is a great place to stop for a pint or a wee dram of whisky while asking for directions to the trail heads. I did not see one trail head marking, so you have to be persistent in order to find what you are looking for. We hiked The Study, the only flat trail of the week, that opened up to the most amazing view of the region’s glens. Waterfalls and sheep adorn the craggy landscape, making it quite magical. If I ever make it back, I’d like to spend several days in the area.
Mailag is a charming little town on the western coast. It is the west coast’s main fishing port, was once Europe’s top producer of herring, is the terminus of the West Highland Railway Line, and is the port of the ferries that can take you to several Highland Isles (including the Isle of Skye). There is a lovely bakery and an abundance of fresh sea air to drink in in Mailag while waiting on your ferry or train.
The West Highland Railway Line consists of a steam engine that transports you to Scotland’s most remote mountain regions. Have high tea complete with smoked salmon sandwiches aboard the train while you traverse Glenfinnan Viaduct, the iconic bridge that carries Harry Potter aboard The Hogwarts Express. Acclaimed to be the most scenic rail route in the world, my children can vouch that the experience is unforgettable.