A couple of weeks ago, my Traveling Partner and I joined a tour of the Scottish Highlands via Zoom. If you are interested, click here for the YouTube copy of the program. The tour guide based out of Edinburgh, George McFall, led us on an entertaining photo tour of the Highlands. His gift of gab and sense of humor took me back to our two adventures in the Highlands. That’s where we are going today, join me for the reminisce.
Our first look at the Highlands was in 2014. My Traveling Partner and I spent five days each in York, England and Edinburgh before traveling down to Oxford for a Road Scholar Conference on World War I. During our stay in Edinburgh, we took a day tour to the Highlands. We met the 16-passenger van at 7:45 AM after a nice breakfast. There were twelve of us on the tour plus the driver/tour guide. He was quite an entertaining fellow, regaling us in the history and pointing out the beautiful scenery of the Highlands. We had a lot of seat time, we made the 350-mile round-trip in twelve hours with stops in between.
Our first stop was at one of the 130 whisky distilleries in Scotland. They had a nice cafe where we had coffee and pursed the gift shop. It was too early for a tour or tasting, that would be on another tour. Across the narrow road was one of the many rivers that carry the snow and rain to the lochs and sea.
At another stop we learned the Highlands consist of many lochs (lakes), munros (mountains between 3000 and 4000 feet), bens (mountains over 4000 feet, example Ben Nevis), and glens (a narrow valley between the hills and mountains). Below is an example of the typical geography of the Highlands. It’s no wonder sheep and cattle were prevalent ways farmers made a living in this hostile landscape.
The craggy hills with sparse vegetation are covered with snow in the winter. The spring brings the melt and the small streams fill with runoff that ends up in the many lochs and the North Sea. Spring also brings out those annoying midges requiring exposed skin to be covered to avoid the biting species.
We made a brief stop at the popular Commando Memorial dedicated to the British Commando Forces that trained near this site for their service during World War II. From this site, visitors can also see the highest mountain in Scotland, Ben Nevis.
Our longest stop of the tour was at Fort Augustus at the head of Loch Ness. This loch extends from Fort Augustus to Inverness, a distance of over twenty-three miles. Loch Ness is second largest and second deepest body of water in the British Isles. It’s famous for the alleged sightings of the Loch Ness monster. We didn’t see the monster on our visit, maybe it’s hiding behind the sign! During our stop, we had the option to take an one-hour boat tour of the loch. We opted out and instead took a leisurely walk around the village of Fort Augustus. We scored some lunch at a small cafe along the locks that transport vessels from one body of water to another. After checking out a few of the gift shops, we boarded the van for the ride back to Edinburgh.
On the ride back, we vowed to return to the Highlands when we could spend more time enjoying the scenery and exploring the countryside. Our opportunity came in May of 2016. We flew to Edinburgh for an initial three day stay to adjust to the time change. After enjoying the city for a few days, we took the train to Darlington in Northeast England. There we met our Friendship Force hosts with whom we spent a fabulous week touring historical sites and enjoying the natural beauty of the North York Moors National Park. At the end fo the stay, we boarded the train for Edinburgh where we made our way to the airport to rent a car for a twelve day tour around the Highlands.
After a hair-raising few minutes making our way out of Edinburgh in a vehicle with right hand drive, our three-hour drive to Inverness went without mishap. I can’t say it was relaxing as it took some getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road and entering the many roundabouts on the left. My Traveling Partner’s job was to keep saying “left, left, left” as we approached the roundabout. We spent six wonderful days at the Balblair Cottages in the countryside about ten miles from Inverness. Our hosts told us the three cottages on their farm were remodeled pig barns! They were small but very comfortable and nicely furnished.
Near our accommodations was the village of Nairn. We found a bakery, butcher shop, and grocery where we could purchase supplies for making meals. We also discovered a couple of nice restaurants in this quaint, seaside town. Also nearby was the Battle of Culloden Memorial. The visitor center wasn’t open the day we stopped by, we heard it’s worth the visit. The Battle of Culloden took place in 1746 and is where the Jacobite Army (aka Highland Army) was defeated by British Government forces. This forced Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain. On some fronts (usually in bars after an evening of heavy drinking), the brutality endured by the Scots during and after is still being felt and debated.
One of our day excursions took us to the Cairngorms National Park, south and east of Inverness. The weather in the mountains was rainy and chilly with some intermittent snow showers. The ski slopes were still open in the park. After a drive through the park we stopped in the tourist town of Aviemore for lunch and a little shopping. At the tourist office, we learned about the nearby Highland Folk Museum where spent the rest of the afternoon.
On our daily travels through the countryside, we made another stop at Fort Augustus and Loch Ness. Still no monster sighting!
This church in Inverness is along the River Ness. What we found interesting was the cemetery behind the church. The headstones were filled with history back to the 1600 and 1700’s. In addition to the date of birth and death, many times the occupation of the deceased was included. Jobs like butcher, cobbler, wheel wright, shopkeeper, and etc. We found the WWI memorial to be especially interesting, look at how many names were etched in the stone from what was then a small village.
Our next six days was spent in the Western Highlands in the village of Lochcarron. We stayed in the guest house in the middle of the photo below. It was relatively new and very comfortable. The view out of the window overlooked Loch Carron, a sea loch, that rose and fell with the tides.
While we drove somewhere in the area every day, we also stopped a lot for walking and hiking. For example, we saw this old house/barn combo in a glen with a walking trail from the road. As we made our way, we realized the ground was soft and peaty with water squishing as we walked along. There were even a few places where we had to cross a small stream by walking on a narrow board. We were rewarded with this view and the fresh, clean spring air.
One day we drove the road on the Applecross peninsula called the Bealach na Ba. The road was narrow and winding but the scenery was so beautiful and refreshing. There weren’t many tourists which made our travels even more fun and relaxing.
There are lochs, mountains, small quaint villages, and old churches every few miles. There is even an occasional castle. While we saw a lot during our six days in the area, we didn’t even scratch the surface. Some days we just bummed around the village of Lochcarron, stopping for coffee and chatting with the locals. Our walks always brought us in contact with curious villagers, they knew we were staying at the AirBnB above the village. They figured us for either for Canadian or Americans.
We had a nice visit to the Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye. Again, since I was driving I didn’t take part in the tasting but did buy a small bottle of one of their single malt whisky. Quite tasty, I like it smooth with an ice cube or two.
A trip to the Highlands wouldn’t be the same without the sightings of a shaggy Heilan coo (Gaelic for Highland Cow) or thousands of sheep! On our drives on remote one-lane roads, we often had to stop on the road to wait for the sheep clear a path so we could continue. We didn’t mind, it was a beautiful sight.
I should mention here that the people we met during our travels around the Highlands were so friendly and helpful. To us, the Highlands has it all, great people and a wonderful environment. If we could live somewhere other than the US, it would be the Highlands. For the time being, take the virtual tour and when the dark days of the virus are in the past, take a trip to the Highlands. You won’t regret the decision.
Until next week, happy virtual travels!