If you've ever made your way north from the midlands of the British Isles, then you probably know that the further you go, it will get colder and more rugged, windier and wetter, quite as you imagine the Land of the Gaels should be. Next stop, the Arctic. And the Gaels, or as we now prefer to call them, the Scots have a robustness all of their own, as befits men who wear nought beneath their kilts when the breeze is a killer, and Wee Jock is probably an apt description. The term Scot is always preceded by words like 'Dour', 'Hardy' or 'Fierce', and that is not just the women either! Life is harsh and only a people as tough as the Scots could have tamed such a gasping environment and talk about it in that mouth-full-of-marbles manner that the rest of us find hard to understand. But when you are a citizen of a place of such beauty and grandeur, why would you want to make it easy for visitors to come and share your Glen or Loch. No, history has got it wrong; Emperor Hadrian was commissioned by the Scots to build his Wall to keep the hoards out! But alas – or should that be alassie – when you have Rob Roy and Robbie Burns, Braveheart, Lochinvar, Nessie and haggis, John O'Groats and wee drams all over, then the Road to the Isles cannot be kept secret for long.
Now strictly speaking, Berwick upon Tweed is no longer strictly Scotland as the border is a little over two miles away, but as the 'border-town' has changed hands over a dozen times between the English and the Scots, it is a good place to begin a sojourn to Scotland. On reflection, it is a bit like one of those Western movie sets – great to look at as you cross the River Tweed, with its tier of three bridges and an imposing city wall, but much that is behind them looking both tired and ordinary. Its impressive main street which slopes towards the sea, is full of lots of shops selling cheapish wares. There are interesting older areas by the harbour and the fortifications are grand but we soon set off on the high road for Scotland. We stopped briefly at the border sign and looked across the great hay cart-wheels in the freshly mown fields which ran down to cliffs and the North Sea before skirting the industrial parts of Eyemouth. We drove in flooding sunlight through very attractive scenery to quaint Dunbar and then to the beautifully located ruins of Tantallon Castle with its fortified huge stone wall like a skirt across an arrow-head piece of land. Beyond there were only cliffs aid a roiling sea. In the sinking sunlight, the ruin which had withstood the might of Cromwell’s cannon for a hundred days during the Civil War, assumed a honey-glow which accentuated the greenness of the surrounding grass stretching to the cliffs. I climbed stairs and walked along the battlements looking out across the fields where Cromwell’s soldiers and cannon once stood. With the sea at their backs, the defenders must have been daunted by their prospects of surviving the siege but due to their bravery, they were spared. What is left of the castle, has remained a much visited ruin ever since.
By contrast with its more southerly cousin, North Berwick is a pleasantly located and pretty little town, living under the lee of the Law, a 700 foot volcanic mountain right in the town’s backyard. On top of the Law is a Napoleonic era signal station built to warn of the French invasion that never came. We found a High Street hotel with a fourth floor room, dodgy plumbing, lumpy mattress and kapok pillows, but by the time that we had dined and lugged our suitcases up four flights of stairs, I am sure that even a bed of nails would have been comfortable. I took the opportunity to read the hotel blurb which is usually buried away in a vinyl folder stuck in a desk drawer, and found it brief but enjoyable. Young Robert Louis Stevenson had come to North Berwick numerous times, and the islands in the bay were seen in part as an island setting for Treasure Island while part of Kidnapped was set in North Berwick. It was also the jumping-off port for pilgrims heading to St Andrews, across the mighty Firth of Forth, and for its 13th Century “witch trials’ which are mentioned by Robbie Burns in his epic poem, Tam O’Shanter.
The next morning, under racing clouds, we set out to explore North Berwick and its picturesque little harbour with it stone quay and rock mole, curled like an outstretched arm, protecting an armada of fishing boats and yachts. Already some of the fishing boats were coming back to port through the tiny key-hole entry between the rocks of the shore and the mole. On the decks of the trawlers stood big, ruddy faced fishermen in polo-neck jumpers, glossy aprons and big rubber boots while breakfast-bound seagulls wheeled overhead, diving down like Stukas to gather in the guts and discarded parts of the freshly filleted fish. The sounds of the diesel engines reverberated around the rock walls as did the shouts of the fishermen in a tongue broad and swallowed, as if hewn from English. A mist touched the Firth and gradually the sun sliced through it as though it was a while loaf. We were in for a fine day and wandered past centuries old cottages and an archaeological site where witchery had taken place. Beyond was a broad bay, with a long sandy beach and further still, the greenness of a golf course. Then we wandered back towards our hotel, past houses of stout Scots stone and an ancient graveyard scattered around a ruined church, and sat down to a hearty breakfast of porridge.
We wheeled around Edinburgh, which we had visited before, and crossed the mighty Forth Bridge, me risking a traffic accident to look constantly at the railway bridge, a magnificent feat of engineering. Beautiful it was not, more like a giant Meccano structure, but it looked strong and sturdy enough to withstand the harsh and dastardly elements of yet another hundred Scottish winters. Across the bridge, we took a scenic route through the Ochil hills to Perth, driving by lovely water-courses and through leafy dells, passing quaint houses and locked-away pubs. We emerge at the city limits to look down on peaceful Perth, nuzzled up to the River Tay, the spire of St Matthew’s church guiding the eye. We drove down the hill and through the greenness of the South Inch Park and parked beside the Tay to explore Perth on foot. Perth has a solid feel to it for the streets are wide and the buildings even grand, solid rather than showy. Now I grew up in Perth, Western Australia and there we say the name of the city to rhyme with “earth”. In Perth, Scotland, the name comes in a harsher tone with emphasis on the ‘p’ and ‘t’ so that it sounds like “pear – t”. It took me a while to convince some people that we were linked by our cities and I could see them thinking “What’s he on about?” Then suddenly it was “Hoots mon, you mean the city in Australia”! We drove around and looked at more of Perth and I loved the history that simply oozed from the soil in these parts. But, while I liked Pear-t, I found that I much preferred Perth!
The drive to Pitlochry, the “capital of the Highlands”, is quite beautiful with mountain vistas and rushing rivers and the town itself is most picturesque, if rather touristy. We loved walking beside the blue-stone cottages and shops, again with baskets of petunias and geraniums in abundance. There were plenty of little eateries down the main street and we chose one at the top end from where we could watch the passers by. Later we walked back to the tourist centre via the famous fish-ladder where in season you can watch the salmon leap upstream to spawn. It was a no-holiday, mid-week day and already the footpaths were choked with people and the roads clogged with cars, so we could imagine what it would be like in season, and we shivered.
We drove on to the Pass at Killiecrankie which had seen much slaughter in the first Jacobite uprising of 1689 in support of King James II of Britain, and there, the Highlanders defeated the Government forces. We walked along the trails down to the River Garry trying to imagine the carnage which had taken place in what was now such a beautiful and tranquil spot with only the distant shouts of the picnickers and the noise of the rushing of the river to keep us company. The narrowness of the gorge made it a fearsome place for battle and we shuddered when looking at the areas where men had leapt to their death – or in one case, had miraculously survived – while pursued by the fearsome Scots. We drove on through the Pass to the beautifully set castle at Blair Athol, all in whitewash and green-walled by surrounding mountains, then turned and drove back through Killiecrankie and went towards Lochs Tummel and Tay.
You are frequently open-mouthed and your head swivels constantly in the Scottish highlands, quite like one of those open mouthed clowns that you see at fun fairs, and drop table-tennis balls into their mouths. The views are simply breath-taking whether above the lochs or besides them, and on the tiny roads you frequently have to stop to allow others to pass. We drove down Glen Lyon with its dark foreboding forest on one side and a babbling burn on the other, fully expecting to see a Troll step out, or a stag followed by some-one in a deer-stalker hat and a 12-bore. Villages, as though in pouches and clefts in the landscape, bobbed quickly into view and were then gone again, great fortified houses beside the lochs and on the hills, fields as though cut by a broad-sword from the forest – it all looked so much like a “man’s country”, wild, rugged and craggy. Even the Highland cattle looked shaggy and unkempt with hair like bovine Beatles. Near the gently undulating Trossachs, the land became more cultivated and as we passed through Drymen, we saw in the distance, the hollow of Loch Lomond. We searched for accommodation in Balloch but finding none, drove on to Luss and found the Colquhoun Arms Hotel. It was an easy drive back to Balloch where we had spied a pub overlooking the end of Loch Lomond and we sat outside, a little chilled, true, but drew in great lung-fulls of the clean Scottish air as the darkness came. In the sweetness of the evening light, the nearby banks of Loch Lomond looked very bonnie indeed.
I was up early the next morning to wander alone in Luss, a most picturesque stone-cottaged village on the shores of Loch Lomond. I wandered down to the little Kirk overlooking the loch, and looked at some of the tombstones. The Kirk had been built by Sir James Colquhoun in honour of his father who drowned in the loch, and no doubt our hotel had also been “part of the family”. Luss is a bit like Stow on the Wold or Shaftsbury in Dorset in that they are so ‘picture perfect’ that they are always getting themselves in television scenes under an assumed persona. So Luss’ neat little cottages with painted gardens and milk bottles all in a row on the stoop, was also Glendarroch in a Scottish drama series. I wandered down to the shale shores of the loch and onto its much photographed stone pier, half expecting a lake steamer with a stove-pipe stack and a great threshing propeller, to be making for the shore. The shores on the other side of the Loch looked dark, mystical and exciting while the nearby islands looked ripe for exploration. But our time was short and the sky was dull with the threat of rain upon us. I walked back to the hotel and called my sleepy wife to come a-looking for such was the beauty of the place that it deserved a second look, and I saw more the next time I walked my path. The clouds hung lower in the sky while the sun slept in that morning. How beautiful this place must look under a rampant sun, but like a graciously aged movie actress, Luss retains its star attraction in any weather.
We drove on with our wipers in perfect tango accompaniment, but even through the rain squalls, it was hard not to be impressed by the rise of the mountains – the munros as the Scots call them – once we were past Tyndrum. There were few trees, or indeed large shrubs, but miles of grassland and heather and here and there, flowers of a brilliant pink, rising tall out of the grasses. Close to Glencoe, the rain eased to mist and there, beside a bend in the road, stood a fully kilted, lone piper, playing The Road to the Isles. It was as if scripted, albeit that he was busking, but we gladly put some coins into his cap as the eerie sound of his bagpipes drifted all around us with the comfort of wood smoke at a camping spot. To us it was ‘so Scottish’ a scene, that after the obligatory photograph, we sat on a nearby stone wall listening to the sound drifting off towards the distant munros. We squinted through the gloom to the dark mountains at Glencoe where over three hundred years ago, to their eternal enmity, the Campbell’s had done in the McDonalds in their beds, and reflected on the surrounding bleakness. In the coldness of that February night, many fleeing McDonalds had died of exposure. The piper had fittingly changed his tune to a mournful lament, and it fitted like a jigsaw piece into our thoughts.
We passed quickly through Fort William, keeping a weather eye on nearby Ben Nevis with its snowy peak well hidden, and made our way to Neptune’s Staircase, a great feat of engineering to allow boats to rise over sixty feet through a series of eight locks from sea level on Loch Linnhe, into the Caledonian canal and into Loch Ness. It effectively cuts Scotland almost in half and meant that boats did not have to sail all the way to the top of Scotland when traversing between the East coast and the West. The locks were beautifully set into green-grassed areas with even a few little shops at its edge, so that one could advantageously pass away the time, while waiting for the boat to be raised or lowered.
From there it was only a fifteen minute drive to the monument to King James II’s grandson, the Bonnie Prince Charlie, at Glenfinnan where in 1745 he came ashore and raised his standard and the Jacobite rebellion to see him take the throne of England and Scotland, was begun again. We stopped long enough to look at the ubiquitous gift-shop that is always found at places such as this, looked at the dark column monument, and then headed on to Glenfinnan village itself with its famous railway station and nearby curving viaduct, popularised by the Harry Potter films. It was indeed a remarkable sight, looking at the bridge and on to Loch Shiel and when later I drove down to a nearby pub and ordered a pint, I made sure it was a “Young Pretender”!
From Glenfinnan we headed in a north-westerly direction, past Spean Bridge with its mighty statue to the Commandos in World War Two, and then turned away from the tongue-challenging Loch Lochy and headed for the tongue-pleasing Kyle of Lochalsh. We travelled through dull countryside in the direction of the fabled isle of Skye and at Shiel Bridge, headed across a rickety little bridge and proceeded to climb and climb on a tiny twisting road through Bealach Pass, and over a massive mountain to Glenelg. We stopped a few times to take in scenery as breath-taking as any in Switzerland or Austria, a finger of the sea, Loch Duich, way below us with the waters around the romantic Eilean Donan castle, sparkling like a diamond. From there it was a hair-raising descent to the tiny omelette (it was far too small to be a hamlet) of Glenelg, and looked across the Strait of Sleat to the famous Cuillin mountains on Skye. It was no surprise to be told that the road was usually closed in winter.
Our room at the cosy little Glenelg Inn was its best, and we threw open the windows to the view while drinking our tea and eating oat-cakes. I walked down a brambled lane to the magnificent ruins of Bernera barracks which had been completed in 1725 in a bid to suppress the local Jacobites and control the southern ferry crossing to Skye by stationing a powerful garrison in the area. The barracks were finally abandoned in the 1880’s after serving as a poorhouse, but the shell is a testament to the builders of the day. I also walked to a nearby graveyard with its beautiful views across to Skye and tried, unsuccessfully, to read a fading inscription on a grave marked with a Celtic cross. Later we sat and watched the fishing boats from Skye, setting out to sea, moving forward inch by inch against a running tide.
I was awake early the next morning and drove to the site of 1500 year old stone brochs, ancient fortified, round stone dwellings. It was the morning of a summer’s day and steam rose from the grass-covered sod-roof of a nearby farmhouse and the dew was heavy on the ground. The area around the broch was without a sound. No birds sang, no wind whistled, no sheep brayed from a distant field, and inside the dark chamber, the air was dank. I felt my shoulder muscles tighten as though any moment I might meet a wild-haired, sheepskin covered guardian and quite unreasonably I balled my fists to get in at least one punch if I was surprised! The only surprise was the solidness of the construction and the great work of the ancient stonemasons. I stood in a spot in the centre of a drum-like room where fires might have blazed fifteen centuries ago. In winter, with the snow piled high, it would have been a desolate place. Little wonder that the Scots were such a hardy race because they come from tough stock.
We left the Glenelg Inn after a good breakfast of rolled oats and bran, eggs and bacon and toast as big as a sporran, and made our way to the ferry to Skye. We waited for some time and saw the ferry moored on the Skye side of the Strait, great swirls of water eddying in the channel, while over on Skye, the white cottages looked like seagull-droppings against the green hills. After half an hour and no sign of movement from the ferry, we made our way back over Bealach Pass and drove on to Eilean Donan castle with its “movie setting”. It has featured in quite a few films, including a James Bond flick and The Highlander. For a few pounds, we explored the castle and saw its wonderfully restored Banqueting Hall, the billeting room, the galleries and the magnificent kitchens where the MacRae family cooks prepared a famous feast when the castle was refurbished and re-opened in 1932. Some castles are cold and bleak but this one was somehow cosy and welcoming and as with most castles, the setting is quite stunning.
We drove on through Kyle and over the bridge that now links Skye to the rest of Scotland. How much easier would it have been for Flora MacDonald if the bridge had been there in 1745! None of that straining at the oars with Bonnie Prince Charlie seated anxiously in the stern, constantly looking over his shoulder for his pursuers, all while swigging at a bottle of Drambui! Then again, we would have been without the daunting lyrics and haunting music of the Skye Boat song! The vistas on Skye are broad and distant for there is very little in the way of tall vegetation. Even in summer, Skye looks as though it is generally very, very cold. We stopped for a coffee in Broadford with its sweeping views across the bay and then followed the scenic coastal road to Portree, a road which makes passing easy because you can see the traffic for miles ahead! Portree had some significance for me because when my parents migrated to Perth (rhymes with earth) in Western Australia, our first place of dwelling for some months was Portree Guest House. It was only much later that I discovered the association with Scotland. I looked out over the Sound of Raasay and tried to envisage the farewell looks of the Scots who had come to Australia and in their ‘home thoughts from abroad’ as Browning so aptly puts it, comforted themselves in naming their new abode after the much loved place they had left behind.
We pressed on northward, past the strangely weather-sculpted Old Man of Storr, a mighty needle of rock, and through bleak pastures full of black-faced sheep and whitewashed cottages that at a distance looked like sheep that had strayed from the flock. At Kilt Rock we braved a howling wind to look at cliffs where a wisp of water fell hundreds of feet into the cold Atlantic and commented to a kilted Scotsman walking a sheepdog on how windy it was. “Och laddie” he spat like a relative of Billy Connolly, “Yew shoulda be ‘ere when it’s really blowin”! We turned inland and drove over a wonderfully scenic mountain pass to the little town of Uig on Loch Snizort, just in time to see the arrival of the ferry from Malaig, which promptly gave birth to buses and cars which zipped up the road ahead of us in a sort of Uig peak-hour rush. We sought sanctuary in a pub for more fish and chips and sat in a bay window and drank in the scenery, and half a pint of Old Pretender!
We drove back towards the Great Glen on the same road that had taken us in, and got our first look at the fabled Loch Ness at Invermoriston. I think that everyone who drives beside the Loch is a little like me, sceptical of the ‘Monster’ talk but nevertheless, hoping to see Nessie! We drove along the A82 in smattering rain, stopping briefly at the much photographed ruins of Urquhart Castle, rather put off by the hordes descending from the large number of tourist buses. There were callow youths pretending to be monsters or fierce Scots, and giggling girls full of pitches and wails in response to their marauding. We quickly took in the views, and pressed on through Drumnadrochit, with its “monster” attractions, and drove on to Inverness. Periodically we stopped to stare closely at the Loch, my heart leaping on the wash from a wavelet which heralded Nessie, my brain instantly telling me not to be a “silly fool”. By the time we reached Inverness the rain had turned to sleet and we looked out on a drab and grey Beauly Firth. Further driving was pointless and we went straight to Bunchrew House, an old fortified, baronial manor house, right on the shore of the Firth, with turrets and towers shaped like the inverted cone hats you see drawn on Middle Ages maidens. Our room had the plush-ness of what one would expect in such a fine 17th Century manor and we settled in easily, taking tea in the wood-panelled drawing room. Later we had a sherry by a roaring fire before a silver service dinner in the Baronial dining room, with its tartan carpet and its heavy drapes. The old waiter, in a suitably old dinner suit with tails and white bow-tie, smiled approvingly when I ordered the venison and my wife the roast beef, all washed down with a Mouton Cadet. Later we took cheese and coffee by the fire, and of course a glass of port. Despite the laws forbidding smoking, I was sure that I smelled the aroma of cigars from not so long ago.
In a keen wind, we set off to explore Inverness the next day. People were everywhere rugged up against the cold and we felt under-dressed so sought shelter in the malls and arcades which are in abundance and no doubt well patronized by the ‘indoors crowd’ for much of the year, even on “summer’s days” like this one. Wrapping my face more stoutly with my scarf, I ventured out and walked beside the River Ness and climbed to the ramparts of the mock Tudor castle in the middle of Inverness. There I looked down on a pretty setting of the river, slate-grey buildings and houses, and many Kirk spires. It would have been nice to explore more of Inverness but my face stung from the wind and the occasional rain and I made haste to return to our meeting spot. And there, right over the road from our meeting spot, stood the Royal Railway Hotel and we dashed in for warmth, and coffee.
The Royal Railway Hotel belongs to another era but thankfully it has been preserved and refurbished so that in the 21st Century, people like me can see and appreciate how grand it was when it opened in 1854. A year later the first steam train reached Inverness and in a mere minute, the up-market travellers of the day, were ushered into the splendid luxury of a Great Railway Hotel. All over Great Britain and Canada such magnificent hotels were the Taj Mahal’s of their day, and we are blessed that so many of them still remain today. We swept into the foyer and looked at its wonderful wrought iron, sweeping staircase, and could almost hear the skirts swishing as elegant ladies sashayed down the stairs on the arms of debonair men in tuxedos. We found a parlour and ordered coffee and looked at the paintings around the walls, the ornate lighting, the chandeliers, and the pressed metal ceilings. There was an old ornate cloakroom and the wash-rooms were all marble, mirrors and mosaic stone inlay. I was sure that if I had stood at the massive white urinals for long enough, Ronald Coleman or Walter Scott himself, would have soon walked in.
We returned to our car and drove to the battlefield at Culloden having made up our mind to see the Scottish sojourn of Bonnie Prince Charlie from its beginning to its end and the bits inbetween. Many battlefields have been softened by time. Culloden is not one of them. It is an austere and desolate place, swampy and depressing. It was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie, against the sage advice of his Advisers, brought what was left of the bedraggled Clans together, greatly weakened by desertions and the exhaustion of many men who almost from the gates of London, had accompanied him on the long journey back to Scotland. In sleet and driving rain, they faced the professional troops of the Duke of Cumberland, “Butcher Cumberland” as he became known to the Scots after Culloden, although to the English he was “Our Dear Bill”. Despite the bravery of the Clans, the outcome of the battle was never in any real doubt. The fearsome Highland Charge was long outdated, and battle axes, broadswords and a few guns offered little hope of victory against disciplined musket fire and artillery, ball and canister. In a sense it was even surprising that the Highland charge made it all the way to the Government lines, such was the bravery of the Scots. It was cold and wet when I walked the battlefield and pools of water lay all around – probably as they did on 16 April, 1746. Flags have now been placed where the lines of men would have faced each other and at points they are so close that they must have been able to see the expressions on each other’s faces. The slaughter of the Scots was horrific and the trampling and butchery of the wounded afterwards, has never been forgotten by the Scots. The Jacobites lost 1500, the Government, 50. Ironically too, more Scots fought with Cumberland than against him, yet Culloden remains forever a tragic Scottish defeat. Now, only great granite stones lay where the Clansmen fell. Chiselled into the stone are the Clan names, Chisholm and Cameron, MacDonald and MacGregor, Murray and MacNeil. They lay there in the landscape under stones whistling in the wind and beating off the rain.
From Culloden we drove to Inverness’ airport, and an hour later we landed at Luton and then took 2 hours on our bus to get to Heathrow down the M25. How we hankered for the small and deserted roads in Scotland, the mountains and the greenery. Our journey was almost over and all we had to do was repack for the journey home to Dubai and Bahrain. And get ready to rave to our friends about the beauty of Scotland.
Written by Winfred Peppinck, Tales of the Traveling Editor at WanderingEducators.com
Photos courtesy of Jessie Voigts
Feature photo courtesy of flickr creative commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stargazer2020/6263417710/