I am not a fan of formal tours. Traveling as often as I do, I like to steer my own ship, drive my own course, row my own boat – so to speak. Particularly from a scheduling perspective. But Scotland is an expansive country and there is so much to see. And, quite frankly, I had no interest in dealing with the stresses of navigating and driving (on the ‘wrong’ side of the road) in a foreign country. Fortunately my colleague, Kari D, agreed. Hopping on the ‘touristy’ band-wagon, we signed up for a 3 day tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. A great way to finish off a week of meetings in Edinburgh (see Notes on Edinburgh blog post).
Our tour group was small; fourteen of us in total. We were a ‘mixed bag’ consisting of folks from the US, India, Turkey, Russia, Switzerland, China and New Zealand. Our tour guide was a lively character by the name of Bobby T*. Bobby was born and raised in the slums of Glasgow, is a former truck driver and – hands down – one of the best storytellers I have ever met. Bobby’s clipped Glaswegian accent (a bit rougher than what he referred to as the “posh” Edinburgh-ian one) only enriched his storytelling capabilities. His rhythmic voice, and the constant stream of bagpipe music that played over the bus’ speakers, pulled us all into some sort of Scottish-Celt, tour-entrapped hypnotic state of complacency.
“Och! It’s no’ a van, it’s a BUS!… it’s me BABY!” – Bobby (after we referred to the bus as a van. We didn’t make that mistake again!)
The morning of our first day found us at Trossachs National Park where we stumbled along the rugged paths on the shores of Loch Lomond. Next we traveled through Glen Coe and, beyond that, took in the barren beauty of Ronnach Moor.
We rode a gondola up Aonach Mor to enjoy a spectacular view of the Scottish landscape and a sub-standard lunch (*sigh*). Trust me, go for the views and not for the food (the coffee is also not so “grrrrreat!”). Eilean Donan Castle was a real highlight of the day. The rain had stopped by the time we got there and the loch(s) (three lochs meet at this point) glistened under the light of the setting sun. A rainbow appeared, arching over and framing the scene. It was truly magical.
Soon after, we stopped for the night at the wee town of Kyleakin on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. At Saucy Mary’s Pub we enjoyed a couple of pints of “Best” beer (if you prefer pale, cold beer to dark, tepid ale like I do – this your brand of beer!) and fresh battered halibut and chips (fantastic!). And what Scotland night would be complete without a dram or two of whiskey? Talisker is distilled on the Isle of Skye and Kari D and I both felt that this was an appropriate choice. Our room at the Glennoch B&B was slightly ‘sketchy’ (but cheap). Kari D peered out our window and said, “We may not have a view of the strait of Kyle Akin, but we got chickens!” (It’s quite common to find small livestock running amok in backyards in the UK).
Our sleepy, Sabbath Sunday on the Isle of Skye was amazing and the weather cooperated beautifully! The ‘Isle’ is nestled between the Outer Hebrides and Scotland-main. Heather and peat moss dot its massive cleaves of mountains and colorfully blanket its hills. In Skye, according to Bobby, “The sheep ha’ the right of way!”. There are few (if any) fences. As Kari D noted, “Geez, there are more sheep than people on this island!” Yes, indeed. The hills were peppered with hundreds of fleecy bits.
“Leave things as ya’ fin’ ‘em. Respect t’ land and ya’ will be respected.” – Bobby (on the Scots’ relationship with nature)
From our vantage point at the port of Uig, we could see the islands of Lewis, Harris and North Uist (my ancestral clan’s (MacDonald) homeland) in the misty distance. Inland just a wee bit from the port of Uig is a magical little place called Fairy Glen. Everything there seemed to be in miniature – from the tiny loch nestled in the centre of this storybook place to the unusually small, crooked trees that sprouted from the sides of miniature hills. Lovely!
We drove past the Quiraing mountains to Kilt Rock and then into the soporific little town of Portree. Only one open store on Sunday in the whole town is a testament to the dominance of orthodox Catholicism in the region. It was a shame, really. The town was full of quaint little shops and we had to settle for window shopping. Despite this and then missing out on a distillery tour (note: several distilleries shut down on weekends during winter season), our day on the Isle of Skye was a real highlight. Well worth seeing.
After spending the night at Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness (sorry, no sightings of Nessie to report), we headed onto Inverness, then through Cairngorms National Park (the largest in Scotland) and on to Pitlochry. The Victorian charm of Pitlochry afforded us the opportunity to shop for gifts for our peeps back home and for me to stock up on “MacDonald” related paraphernalia. The site of Culloden brought with it rain and more of Bobby’s stories of the historic battle that ended with the final defeat of the Jacobite cause (more than 1000 lives were lost). Our tour ended with a drive past the William Wallace Memorial and a stop at Stirling Castle. All the while, Bobby provided the narrative – painstakingly re-telling stories and correcting the Hollywood versions of historical characters like Wallace and Rob Roy MacGregor.
Scotland was a treat. I’m sure that my fascination with the country has much to do with my ancestry and my need to connect to previous generations (my genealogical files on the MacDonald side are expanding). Going to Scotland was like going home, in a way. But I have to say, the Highlands and the Isle of Skye are better experienced through the stories of a native Scot. And what better way to do it that than with a tour! Thanks Bobby!