To appreciate Scotland’s beauty and history, one needs to venture into the barren, wind and rain-swept Scottish Highlands, famous in legend, literature, and myth.
Our ScotRail journey north from Edinburgh wound north, climbing continuously through the barren mountains and steep valleys of the Scottish Highlands, making brief stops in little villages, Gleneagles, Perth, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, Dalwhinnie, Kinguisse, Carrbridge, and Aviemore to our destination, Inverness.
The Scottish highlands, the northernmost and highest area in the British Isles, are a stark landscape of granite peaked mountains with sparse patches of trees and dark, gnarly moors. The mountains appear to have been violently thrust from the earth eons ago by volcanos, creating jagged cliffs, barren peaks and a seemingly lifeless landscape.
The highland landscape is so steep and narrow in places that railroad tracks, a two lane road, and rushing river are all squeezed within a hundred meters of each other between steep hillsides. This makes for a dramatic viewing, gazing out a train window at the fast flowing river a few meters beneath, then peering up at barren granite peaks a thousand meters above.
Our weather in mid June was typical for the Scottish highlands, rainy with patches of clearing, and blustery winds that rustled pine trees. Dark, ominous clouds rolled over mountain tops and mists of fog hung in the valleys.
Living in the barren highlands is not for the timid. Villages were few, small, and miles apart. Occasional stone farm houses and barns nestled in valleys, but appear almost deserted. One wonders who tends the sheep grazing within stone fences that meander up and down hillsides and along river banks? The stone fences, splotched with lichens and moss, appear to have been constructed by highland farmers who diligently placed flat or rectangular stones so they would remain undisturbed for a thousand years. And they probably will.
Cairngorms National Park
The most scenic stretch heading north passes through the Cairngorms National Park, the largest park in Britain, with more the 4200 square kilometers. The park is an arctic wilderness of dark moors, marshes, rocky peaks, and steep cliffs carved by glaciers during a previous Ice Age. A few campsites were seen along the way, but probably only for the most rugged, well equipped, and determined adventurers who would venture into Cairngorms.
The area has a mystical quality, recalling legends of Picts fighting Scots on the moors, Norseman wandering over the highlands, and hounds baying on a dark night with moonlight peaking through menacing clouds.
“The 39 Steps”
The Scottish Highlands have been the scene of many movies, including the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock classic, “The 39 Steps,” adapted from the John Buchan novel. The adventure tale featured thrilling chase scenes as the dashing Richard Hannay — suspected to being a murderer — and a beautiful young blonde woman locked together in handcuffs (too long to explain here), try to escape from police chasing them across the remote highlands.
One night Hannay and his companion are given refuge by a Scottish farming couple in a cramped farmhouse lit only by dim lanterns. Over a sparse dinner of mutton, Hannay weaves a story of being lost, but the farmer is suspicious. When police arrive in the middle of the night, the farmer tells them about their mysterious visitors. Hannay and his willowy companion barely escape by crawling out a tiny window and the chase continues over the moors.
A delightful, campy movie, and now a comic play which we saw two years ago at a London’s Picadilly theater.
We reached Inverness on a rainy afternoon, and took a short walk from the train station to a lovely B & B in a quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood with a view of a park and schoolyard. The host and hostess were a retired couple, polite and reserved, like one might imagine from an old Alec Guinness movie.
One quarter of the people who live in the Highlands call Inverness home. In Gaelic, the name Inbir Nis means, ‘at the mouth of the River Ness’ which runs through city and is crossed by three bridges including one at High Street.
Smaller that Edinburgh, Inverness is an easy city to explore, casual and unpretentious. The main part of town was a ten minute walk from our B & B and the River Ness can be reached in another ten minutes. In that time, you pass through the old and new town, theaters, museums, pubs, restaurants, and the tourist office that helped us book a Loch Ness tour and make train reservations for the rest of the week. We were more interested in being outside and getting a feel of the town than visiting museums or galleries.
One historic site we did see was Inverness Castle situated on the highest point in the city where fortresses and castles have been since the 11th century. The current red sandstone castle was built in 1836 and is headquarters of the city sheriff’s department, but not open to visitors. The site is near the castle where Macbeth of Scotland killed his father.
An illustration of Inverness castle is on the reverse of the 50 pound Scottish notes.
River Ness Walk
Our most memorable Inverness experience was taking a brisk morning walk on a shaded path along the River Ness that flows from Loch Ness through Inverness to the Firth of Moray into the North Sea. The river is short, just 7 miles long, and shallow. Only a meter or so deep, the river rushes over smooth stones and rocks, making riffles that sound like gentle slaps as it flows toward the Firth of Moray.
A short distance from the High Street bridge, we entered the Cathedral of St. Andrew Episcopal Church, the largest in Inverness. The organist was rehearsing for Sunday service and we sat in the pew a few minutes to enjoy the spiritual calm of the 19th century sanctuary.
Back on the river path, we passed mothers pushing prams, older couples out for their morning stroll, and men casting into quiet pools under trees. A mile from downtown Inverness, we crossed a pedestrian bridge to two small islands in the middle of the river. Island paths led to benches, marshes, and flower gardens where we stopped to enjoy the setting. It was still and peaceful, the only sounds coming from the river flowing past and song birds in the trees. After a few minutes, we linked to the opposite bank by crossing another narrow bridge.
Returning along the river front, we passed stately two and three-story stone homes, B & B’s, small hotels, and restaurants, a mere five or ten minute walk from city center. We’ll investigate them more closely next time we’re in Inverness.
No visit to Inverness would be complete without a Loch Ness cruise. The journey begins with a ten minute bus ride to a lock on the Caledonian Canal. The canal was a major British public works project in the late 19th century to put Scots back to work who had been forced off their lands during the repressive Highlands Clearance, an act of British Parliament intended to stifle Gaelic traditions including their language, culture, and the ability to wear tartans and to play bagpipes.
The 62 mile long Caledonian Canal has 29 locks which raise and lower boats navigating through four narrow lochs which are part of the Great Glen, a geological fault line in the Highlands. Coming out of the lock, the boat cruises on the River Ness a few miles before entering Loch Ness, the largest and deepest of four lochs which are part of the Great Glen.
Loch Ness is 23 miles long, two miles in wide in spots, and plunges to 750 feet at its deepest. The loch’s water temperature is a relatively constant 5 degrees C and the color is a dark, opaque navy because of the highland’s high peat content. Loch Ness holds more fresh water than all the lakes in England or Wales combined.
It was serene and intriguing, cruising along the legendary loch as our boat carved ever-widening waves that rippled towards the shoreline. A few seagulls floated on the dark water and rose to fly down the loch as our boat neared. Overhead, hawks soared and landed in tall trees in dense woods on the hillsides. A few small homes were nestled in small coves with fishing boats anchored offshore.
Our destination was the medieval Urquhart Castle on a bluff overlooking the loch. When our boat docked, we walked across a grassy field and over a stone bridge into an arched gate.
All that remains of the 13th century castle are fragments of stone walls and courtyard, a tower, and ruins of an armory and kitchen. On the bluff facing the loch, a stone wall has small open turrets where archers or cannons could defend against approaching invaders sailing down the loch.
The most frequent sightings of “Nessie” have been from the vantage point of Urquhart Castle. Alas, there were no sightings the day we visited. Maybe next time.
The best view of Loch Ness is from Grant tower reached by climbing a compact circular stone staircase to a cramped platform with impressive views of the loch and surrounding hillsides. Urquhart Castle is owned by the Scottish National Trust and is the third most visited site in Scotland with more than a quarter million visitors annually. A modern interpretive center on an inland hillside has displays, artifacts, and a movie of the history of the castle.
When we departed Inverness to continue our Scottish adventure on the Isle of Skye off the western coast, we are enthralled by how much we had been captivated by the stark beauty of the highlands. The few days spent in Edinburgh and Inverness had resonated deeply within us and we were eager to experience more rugged and remote areas. We never knew much about Scottish history, the clan culture, or ancient legends, but we understood why Scots we know have such an intimate connection to their heritage. We were developing a similar affection for the romance of Gaelic culture.
Although we had seen few people in pastures or farms on our train journey, we fantasized that they would have been like one imagines from movies or books. If encountered, they would be laconic and reserved, but might be encouraged to share a highland legend or two over sips of smokey Scottish whiskey late at night in a pub.
By coincidence, I’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries on my iPad the last few nights. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is a few chapters away. When I read about the large baying at night on the dark Scottish moors, it will be a more memorable than past readings.
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Next destination: Isle of Skye
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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