William Wallace, and his image of bravery, leadership, sacrifice, patriotism made me want to visit the land that bore such a person. So ever since Braveheart, Scotland was on my list of places to visit. At the tail end of a work trip in April 2013, I decided to take the train up to Edinburgh and drive around Scotland as part of a bus tour, 5 days in the land of mountains, lakes and castles.
I arrived in the early evening and put my bags away at Castle Rock Hostel. Its a nice place, right below the Edinburgh Castle and close to a lot of restaurants and pubs. I walked around the area and found a nice restaurant to have dinner, and spent the rest of the evening curled up on a really comfortable chair in the lounge reading a book.
The next morning, I found a free walking tour that would cover old Edinburgh. I had gone on a Sandeman’s walking tour in Southern Europe and found the quality to be quite good. The Edinburgh guide didn’t disappoint either, the tour was quite informative and entertaining and I was introduced to Bobby, whose loyalty towards his master earned him a hero’s status in the town and later on a statue . The rest of the day was spent walking around other parts of Old Town and visiting the shop at Camera Obscura – a delightful place that specializes in items that can trick the eyes.
The next day morning, I joined my tour bus as it started from Edinburgh. The first day was spent on the banks of Loch Lomond, which is quite a brilliant way to start your visit, watching ducks in the foreground and rolling hills in the background.
Our next order of business was some history, really old history. We visited the Stone circles in Kilmartin Glen. These are rumored to be close to 5000 years old. The place also has a couple of burial cairns that are about a 1000 years younger than the circles they are surrounded by. The main thing that I noticed in this place was the absolute silence. The morning fog added to the dampening of the sound. The evening stop was Oban, a quaint port town on the western coast of Scotland. The view from my room looked out over the water at an island and the sunset was extremely relaxing. After a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant, I took a stroll around town and settled down for the night.
The next day was a busy one, with lots to see. It included a number of broken castles, the William Wallace monument, a drive past Ben Nevis (Britain’s tallest peak) and a visit to Glen Coe, the site for filming of Harry Potter. This was topped off with a drive along the coast to the Isle of Skye and The White Heather hotel. The evening promised beautiful views out across of a small patch of water called the Atlantic Ocean.
A perfect blue sunset and dinner at local Scottish pub wrapped up a power packed day. We had two days on the Winged Isle to explore this fabled island. Our first day started with an amazing breakfast prepared to order by the lovely hosts. We set out to explore some of the natural beauty the Isle had to offer starting with a road trip up to Quiraing and the Kilt Rock. You are transported back to a land that has seen no crowds or extreme modernization. The silence of the whole place, brought a sense of peace and quiet. It also gave you a sense of awe, of how people survived out here for thousands of years and what kind of inner strength they would need to flourish in this barren landscape.
Day 2 included a visit to Dunvegan Castle, the home of the Macleod clan’s Chiefs for 800 years. This castle was featured in the movie Highlander and sits on the banks of a lake. The gardens are pretty well maintained and a pleasure to roam around. The next stop was a nice little roadside shop that sold old curios, almost like a yard sale of the island, near which there was also an artist’s studio where I saw some of the most amazing paintings.
Lunch was at Portree, the largest town on the island at nice restaurant off the main square. This was followed by a leisurely walk around town where you get to see these amazing multi-colored sets of houses, not to mention shops of the most expensive wool that I have ever seen.
The island is also home to the Talisker distillery. Single malt fans will be happy to know there is also a tour, with tasting available. During fairer weather than we saw, you can take a boat tour out to the outer isles and see a lot of sea and winged life.
We however, experienced most of the Isle of Skye, like it is most of the year – rainy, dark and cold. A drive back across the bridge took us along some beautiful coastline and view of amazing houses and colonies built at water’s edge, isolated from the rest of the world, except by boat.
The evening drive on the way to our stop for the night included a visit to the Eilean Donan Castle. Touted as the most beautiful castle in Scotland, its location certainly does merit that kind of a mention. It sits on a small rocky outcropping, connected via bridge to the rest of the world. It sits on the banks of 3 connected lakes and enjoys a commanding view out over the water. It is also one of the locations used in Scotland for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, among other Bollywood films.
Our evening stop was at the town of Drumnodrochit, a nice town near Loch Ness. There is one specialty of this town though; Fiddler’s which is a local pub/restaurant that has one of the most extensive collections of Scotch in the world. They have a whole page of their menu dedicated to listing this. The decor is brilliant with old and new bottles of Scotch lining most walls. A must visit for Single malt fans who want to taste some rare finds and meet locals who can regale you with tales of Nessie!
The next morning we drove to Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness and explored a little more of Scotland’s often violent history. No visit is of course complete without an attempt to spot Nessie (Loch Ness monster). A boat cruise along the lake is a nice way to spend an hour that takes you across the waters and shows you the sights. Back on the banks, not having seen Nessie, we started making our way back to Edinburgh.
We had two more important stops along the way. The first was the site of one of the biggest battles in Scottish history, The Battle of Culloden. It marked the end of a brutal religious civil war in the mid 1700s. Its a very peaceful place, where we also reenacted the various battle charges used during the time by the Scots. The place has headstones marking the sites of several mass graves where the vanquished Jacobites were buried.
In today’s world, this might be referred to as religious persecution. I was frozen by the seemingly peaceful look of a place where thousands perished in the span of an hour or two. It is however, an important stop to make since you can’t really understand a people/culture, until you learn about the nice and brutal parts of their history.
To settle us down after what can only be described as a deeply moving visit, we decided to stop at a distillery on our drive back. Dalwhinnie is a 120 year old distillery that is also one of the highest (altitude wise) in Scotland. We were in time to get a tour of the place. The making is not nearly as nice as the end product, half the place has a terrible smell due to the fermentation process required to make whisky. To top it off though was a tasting of 3 of their Single malts, paired with the perfect chocolate cubes that go with them. It was one of the those amazing combinations that just make sense. I am not a fan of whisky in general but really enjoyed the tasting session.
After this we made our way back to Edinburgh and exchanged our goodbyes. This was the end of a pretty decent trip around the Scottish highlands.