Last Spring I arrived at Heathrow with my fiancé early in the morning, bleary from a restless semi-sleep that is all too familiar to international airline passengers. Airline travel has its plusses, but at 6-5″ (2m) I have obvious issues with confinement. We were on the long haul from Los Angeles, arriving in the UK for some exploration and history in the north country. Needless to say, I was looking forward to getting back to nature in the green, raw, open space of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye.
London is a great city full of adventures all its own, but this was not our intention: we were heading to the moors and lochs of Scotland. The following morning we were seated in a comfortable train, soaking up the increasingly beautiful landscapes outside of the city. The weather could not have been more perfect, with clear, blue skies that accentuated the bright, almost surreal green of the pastures rolling by. Herds of sheep, cows and goats whisked by in a blur, the occasional factory dominant in this picturesque farmland. The train passed by Edinburgh, which was not on our itinerary, but absolutely worthy of a visit all its own. The castle was quite a sight, and acted as a landmark to let us know that we were closing in on Glasgow, our first destination.
Glasgow is a smallish city of about 660,000 residents filled with pubs, Indian restaurants and lively, humorously caustic locals. We unloaded our bags in a beautiful little hotel on Sauchihall Street (pronounced: SOCKEY-hall) and struck out for a quick pub meal across the street at The Snaffle Bit. Glasgow is an interesting city, and we spent two days exploring the museums, beautiful sandstone architecture and the Charles Rennie Macintosh School of the Arts. We even tried our hand (or feet) at a Ceilidh (pronounced: KAY-lee), the Scottish folk dance that is clearly the basis of American square dancing. Luckily, it takes little skill to join in to the basic dances and with the libations flowing liberally you cease to care what your particular skill-set is. Glasgow was great fun, but we were eager to move into the Highlands, away from the energy of commotion of cities and into the rugged green hills of Glen Lyon.
The drive up to Glen Lyon was unforgettable. We traversed many hills and valleys, passing through idyllic little villages on the way. Many times we would pass through a glen and comp up on a loch, or Scottish lake, and marvel at the picture-prefect beauty of the landscape. The signs began to be bilingual: English and Gaelic. Many of the English words we use are rooted in Gaelic and were somewhat recognizable, even to someone that has never seen anything written in this ancient tongue. Once again, the weather was astounding for the UK—everyone we spoke with mentioned how perfect the weather was, and what an unusual good turn we were experiencing.
Along the way, we stopped off to see Eilean Donan Castle. Built on an islet on Loch Duich near Dornie on the west coast of Scotland and surrounded by water, it is thoroughly stunning. It was easy to imagine what the castle must have looked like fourteen hundred years prior, with soaring stone turrets and the hand-hewn exterior evoking the raw lands of Scotland. The castle’s history is also amazing, having been established in the sixth century, rebuilt and destroyed numerous times over the years and most recently restored in the 1930’s by the MacRaes of Canada. If one has to build a fortified home to ward off warring clans, Government armies and various other enemies, this is the spot to do so.
After touring the castle, we continued our journey into the Highlands winding past small villages and finding ourselves deeper in the hills and valleys of Glen Lyon. We were fortunate in that a friend offered up their Summer house for us to stay in while we explored the Highlands. The small house was located on a farm in a beautiful valley, complete with small herds of sheep and cows to add to the already pastoral scenery. The landscape in this part of Scotland is truly amazing: craggy rock formations and spongy, moss-covered hills teem with water. Dense, tighly-would heather was to be found everywhere, rabbits blazing past us on high alert as we startled them from there burrows. Hill-hiking is a national pastime in Scotland, and there are laws in the UK allowing anyone to pass on any land at any time. This was a welcome change from the gated communities and warning signs so common to American properties. Climbing up over the ridge-line directly behind our house, we found a series of water falls and small eddies, as well as beautiful clear water cascading down into the valley below. The most amazing thing: there was no one there! It was like being transported to another time and place, with seemingly miles and miles of open terrain available for you to simply exist. Quiet, peaceful and picturesque.
After a few days in Glen Lyon, we took our leave of the beautiful little country cabin and traveled West to the Isle of Skye. One of the largest and perhaps best known of the Inner Hebrides islands, Skye is particularly famous for its mountains, the Cullins. The hills of southern Skye are loosely divided into two crisscrossing ranges: the Red Cullins to the East, and the Black Cullins to the West. Skye has quite an expanding population since the early 1990s, with over 9000 people living on the island, and a bustling tourist industry as well. After checking in at the Slighachan Inn (pronounced: SLIG-in), I convinced my travel companions to join me in a long hike out one of the unmarked glens, ending at the North Sea. Along the way, we saw the ruins of crofters cottages, all exhibiting the rectangular shape common to these simple homes designed to combat the often harsh weather of Skye. Why were these cottages abandoned? Had the younger generations simply left for the cities? Had the crofters died of disease? Financial distress? My mind was filled with questions about the people that had lived here, imagining the difficulties of maintaining an existence as a farmer clear in my mind. We continued on, following a small stream that lead to the North Sea. The beach was alluring: rocky, but clear of the debris, hot dog stands and bodies so common to beaches in more populated areas of the world.
It was fascinating to see such a large amount of beautiful, open land and coastline free of houses or developments of any kind. Climbing up a ridge-line overlooking the North Sea I felt as though there was no one else in the world but me. The sea was a beautiful blue-green, with Cormorants circling overhead crying to one another as the waves quietly broke over the empty coastline. Small sheep trails carved up the topmost layer of the hillside and creating an intricate maze of paths and small ruts, adding to the rugged beauty of Skye. I found it very hard to leave, and could not seem to take enough pictures as I attempted to preserve the memory.
As a finale to our trip, we stopped off in the island-capital town of Portree. Seeking out tasty sausage rolls and gift shops, we discovered that Portree has a number of interesting monuments to honor those that have died in the many wars that Skye locals have represented. Almost on cue and much to our surprise, the Skye Pipe Band Festival kicked off while we were exploring. Pipe bands from all over the region come to play, compete and have a great time strutting down the streets in slow motion, the bright colors of each clan’s regalia a clear reminder that we were surely in Scotland. The sound emanating from the bagpipe is almost painfully loud, but the cries of a piper reach down to gut-level, and produce a very emotional response. Add to this an entire marching brigade of pipers, and you better have some tissues handy. The highlight was the young children tasked with carrying the clan-insignia at the very front of the pipe band: generally looking terrified and/or beet red with embarrassment, they were entertaining for locals and tourists alike.
There is so much more to Scotland, and I truly only experienced a taste of what this wonderful country has to offer. With modern cities, museums, quaint villages, mountainous regions, lakes, hills and the sea it is clear why Scotland is such a draw for anyone with a sense of adventure, history and humor. The raw, open landscape echoes the personalities of the people that have inhabited these hills for generations, and for me offered exposure to the spacious lands I was hoping to discover.
Written by Jesse Siglow
For more on Scotland at ITKT