A happy, slightly soggy, highland fling

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Hello again and apologies for the delay in getting this posted. Sometimes the interesting ones are the hardest to write...

By mid January I'd been more than 3 months in Scotland and beyond Edinburgh's surrounds I still hadn't seen much of the country. Still, you have to work hard sometimes I suppose... On a previous visit I'd made it as far as St Andrews to the city's north east and the 'low highlands' to the northwest, but to better understand the country of my forefathers I'd now have to travel further afield, and boy did we pick an interesting weekend for it!

For starters I had finally succumbed to the fluey cold thing that just about every Scot I'd met had had since the start of winter. I'd soldiered on for months amongst the sniffles and coughs of work colleagues, seemingly immune to a host of ravaging bugs. But a drenching on the way to work one day in the recovery-aftermath of the new year and my immune system just gave up. I had to 'work from home' for a couple of days in the lead up to the adventure.

The other cause for consternation was the weekend looked chilly and wet, and our plan of attack would take us through the soggiest part of the country - up the west coast and then crossing the highlands to the east. Pulsing blue blobs indicating very heavy rain systems obscured the route on BBC weather forecasts and it didn't look like they would dissipate for days. However my wonderful guide assured me everything would be ok, so after buying have a chemist's worth of cold medicine, off we went.

First stop that Saturday morn was Doune Castle, built by one of the royal Stewart clan in the 14th century, and strategically located right between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the northern road heading up 'the spine of Britain'. It's a wonderfully preserved castle compared to some I have seen, although it acting as a royal residence for some 200 years probably helped in that regard. However it is probably best known these days as being the castle where Monty Python shot their classic 'Holy Grail' movie, with about 80% of the film being made here.

The National Trust cashes in on this a little, so with a giggle and a pair of coconuts we clip-clopped through the deserted ruins before the tour buses came. Despite a number of the echoing chambers being re-furbished in the last 100 years the wind howls through much of the place, and many higher areas are really damp which gives some indication of how uncomfortable these residences would have been back in the day. Imagine how the other half lived eh?

With a final giddy-up we handed our coconuts back and not long after I met a couple of much loved institutions on this section of the winding highland road. The first was Hamish the 'heilan' coo' - a monster of a pedigree Highland Cow who at 14 years of age is quite an old timer for his species. Bred for the extreme conditions of the north, these guys have no layer of body fat to keep them warm but do have an extremely shaggy coat - including a floppy fringe to keep the driving wind and rain out of their eyes. We conversed a little (the vid won't upload unfortunately) before leaving the soggy beast to a horde of pensioners wanting to lavish their attentions upon him. Then it was on to the Green Welly rest stop - indicative of the footwear that would be required further on!

The Glencoe area is a spectacular place that really isn't done justice in conditions like these. However it is the real Scotland and with cascading waters teeming off a seemingly endless stretch of hills, it was hard to tear the eyes off the landscape as we slid through this very historic and beautiful place.

An infamous event known as the Glencoe Massacre occurred here in 1692, where upwards of 40 Macdonald clansmen were slain by their arch enemies, the Campbell clan, after they had given the Campbell lads shelter from elements such as these - as age-old Scottish custom dictates. From all accounts it was a very dark point in the country's history and fortunately the Scots are much more hospitable these days, although the old enmity between these two families lives on.

Winding our way north and out the other side of Glencoe found us at Eilean Donan, a picturesque and stately castle which is handily located on a rocky promontory jutting from the west coast. By this time we were running out of light and still had to find the village we were aiming for further north that night, so we didn't end up going inside, but as the pics show the scenery and environment came together to give a distinctly Scottish view of this famous landmark - as it has been seen for generations no doubt.

With that in mind I continued to wonder how the kilt evolved into the national dress. Brrr!

The wee fishing village of Plockton was our last port of call that day, full of quaint stone houses and, of all things, very tropical-looking palm trees. Apparently the gulf stream has some impact in this part of the world, bringing a warmer environment in the summer that sustains these plants despite the odds. With all the water around and backed by a range of snow-capped mountains, it's a secluded and pleasant place to be even in the winter, which is probably why it is quite popular with many other Scots I have met.

A brighter and fresher start greeted us Sunday morning, along with a herd of highland cow and a couple of black-faced sheep near the very coolly named village of Drumbuie. A skip across the Skye bridge took me to the edge of this famous Isle before we headed back past the Five Sisters (mountain peaks) in order to get to the road heading east. Keen eyes spotted a herd of deer through the scotch mist at one point, which gave me a chance to top up the cold by chasing them around the damp paddock. Very nice to see this variety of local in their natural habitat, even if they were a little wary of strangers...

Another highlight of the trip were some rays of sunshine over the roons of Urquhart Castle, that sits on the banks of the legendary Loch Ness. This was once a key strategic point with sizable fortifications (check the artist's conception above) laid out over the hilly loch-shore terrain, until it was finally de-commissioned by being blown up during the roundhead uprising in the late 17th century. Now the remaining ruins are generally skeletal, but the setting is very pleasant for a wander and the accompanying visitor's centre and trebuchet models are first class indeed. It's also a main stop for the boat tours that ply the 40km long lake's waters in search of the fabled Nessie.

With more keen eyes a little further along the Loch's shore, Karen spotted a potential contender through the sunshine and we couldn't resist a pose. I did actually catch a fleeting glimpse of the real Nessie, but wasn't quick enough to point her out, or to get a photo, but for some reason all the locals I mentioned this to after the event didn't quite believe me. I wonder why..?

Our final stop that weekend was in Aviemore, in the Cairngorm Mountains which are just south of Inverness. This is _the_ place to ski in Scotland however the seasons haven't lived up to expectations recently - yet another example of the ravages of global warming. With such short days at this time of year we couldn't linger too long as there was still a couple of hours worth of driving back down the treacherous A9 in order to get home. With the failing light we'd have to leave the giant Yew tree, the world's largest hedge row, cairn-climbing and the bizarrely named 'Pineapple' country house to another time.

Although Scotland looks quite small on the map it does take a while to get around and there really is a lot to see. It was fantastic to get our there and see much of this for the first time, and I'll look forward to doing something similar in warmer months and longer days. I think the springtime would be particularly spectacular, especially around Glencoe. And that shouldn't be too far away as the days seem to be getting longer already...

Nessie Spotting

I may not have been quick enough to snap her in her traditional home, Loch Ness, but the lucky people of Switzerland seem to have a relative in one of their alpine lakes and some quick-fingered punter did manage to get a photo of the elusive beast.

Thanks to Swiss Railways for this unique angle on the Nessie legend.
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