Scotland light and dark
I’ve recently left Scotland after two glorious months of travelling and experiencing that beautiful country. It’s a country that seems to call to many, I guess mostly those with Scottish roots. Ireland seems to do the same, although not to me, despite my obvious Irish heritage. (The Fitzmaurices are from Co. Kerry and I have a family tree traced back a millennia and a half.)
I certainly didn’t see anywhere near all of Scotland, but I did see a few of its most amazing parts, most particularly the Highlands, which even Scots will agree is the ‘real’ Scotland. There is the most incredible, rich, and often tragic history to this small corner of the world, one that’s fascinated me for years. Driving through the spectacular Glencoe (literally Glen Valley), you can’t help but feel centuries of history seeping into your heart and soul and you start to imagine powerful stories of this harsh life and the courageous folk who made this there home across so many seasons of hardship. Although there can be little that would have been romantic about living here, it sparks romantic notions in one’s imagination just the same, of strong men and even stronger women.
Spectacular in any weather, you really haven’t seen it properly until you’ve seen it in the mist and rain. I’ve been to a few very grand places in the world, including rafting the Grand Canyon – which was extraordinary – but there’s only one other place I’ve been that has the sense of power and mystery that Glencoe has, and that’s New Zealand’s Milford Sound, in the depths of Middle Earth.
In Milford you can often imagine Gandalf hurtling out of a forest on Shadowfax, or an ork jumping out from behind a rock. In Glencoe you can almost hear a band of Scottish horsemen facing off the English or each other.
I have an endless fascination for the art and science of dry stone-walling, not to mention the varieties of moss and lichen that grow on them.
And then there are the usual obstacles of rural Gaelic life.
To the north-east is the exquisite Isle of Skye, with its spectacular north-east mountains, and the Cuilins to the west. When you realise life in the Highlands and Islands occurs in a context of the wild and unforgiving North Sea as well, you have even more an appreciation for those eking out a living here in centuries past. These were seafarers, and fishing is still an important industry here. The quality and diversity of fish meals served through the area is the best anywhere in the world.
Applecross Peninsula was once only accessed via sea until the Bealich na ba – literally ‘the way of the cattle’ – was widened and sealed in the 70s for vehicles to make the extremely steep crossing from Lochcarron to the south. A sea road from the north was added later. The centre of Applecross life is arguably the Applecross Inn at the beginning of “The Street” which itself is frequently and mistakenly referred to as Applecross or the Applecross village. The inn has the best in accommodation, food and service; be sure to reserve rooms well ahead but turn up any time for food and drink.
You’re never far from a castle in Scotland, but by far my favourite is Stirling, with one of the richest of histories and beautifully restored. Not far is Linlithgow Palace, sadly just a shell albeit a magnificent one – the home of Mary, Queen of Scots. And in the town of Linlithgow one of my favourite pubs, The Four Marys. Do try haggis; it’s delicious and traditionally served with mashed potato and mashed turnip, and best with gravy. I’d eat it every day if I could. You’ll find it served in most Scottish pubs with a traditional fare. Best washed down with a wee dram and/or a beer.
Edinburgh is a magnificent city with so much to see and do. You can wander the old city easily and spend several days exploring its many nooks and crannies, it’s Closes and alleyways. The castle is fascinating and there is a lot to it. I spent one lovely afternoon wandering the nearby Greyfriars cemetery looking for names from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. We found a McGonagall, Tom Riddell (aka Voldemort), and a Moody. Rowling is known to have written most of the books – or at least the earlier ones – at The Elephant Room cafe a few doors up. There is nothing about the cafe that is Potteresque, just a sign at the front in recognition of their famous patron.
If you’re a fan of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, you’ll want to visit Rosslyn Chapel just out of Edinburgh to the south-west. Even without the fictionalised myth and legend of the book, the chapel has a lengthy and engaging history, and the tour guides give the best presentation of any tour guide I’ve so far found anywhere. No awful jokes or cliches and the guides are Scottish, which cannot always be said for some places, eg. Edinburgh Castle. I listened wrapt for 30 minutes to a spiel that I could have happily sat for for another hour or more.
Somehow the beauty of Scotland is greater in the mist and the rain; don’t go here expecting sunshine and blue skies, but when you do get them, well, that’s gorgeous too.
I think I’ve got a lot of my Scotland pull out of my system now, but time will tell…