At home In The Scottish Highlands

There is something about the Highlands that is strangely and poignantly familiar

5/11/2018 8:00:32 PM
written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

As a very young child growing up in the stunning pine and mist-laden mountains of Shillong in Northeast India, I often used to wonder why it was always referred to as “Scotland of the East”. By the time I had reached my late teens, fed on a nostalgia-rich diet of Highland romance and valour by Gaelic-speaking Scottish and Irish teachers, I felt I knew all the fearful crags on Ben Nevis and tragic secrets of the misty glens. They were as familiar to me as my Edwardian-era boarding school’s nooks and crannies and the tree-strewn, joyful expanse of my parents’ backyard.

But it was decades before I got the chance to visit Scotland and when I did, last September, I felt I had in some strange way come “home”, that it was a visual manifestation of the enduring quality of the geography of the soul. 

The uncanny resemblance of the majestic highland landscape to my childhood environs some 5,000 miles away was as real to me as all the borrowed memories of soaring Celtic courage, heart-breaking romance and searing tragedies by way of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and homesick nuns from Aberdeen.

Can borrowed memories be inherited? I came close to believing it when we drove to wild Drumossie Moor, site of the Battle of Culloden and, overcome by the powerful and emotive battlefield, my daughter broke into tears and, kneeling, laid a small bouquet at the foot of the memorial. Later, she told us that she had felt an eerie heaviness in the air and caught a faint whiff of blood. Could it have been the after-affects of too many episodes of  “Outlander”?  Who knows?

ButCulloden is a historical event that is impossible not to react to, no matter what your sense of history. Drumossie Moor, just east of Inverness, was the setting for the last battle on mainland British soil back on 16 April 1746, a seminal day for both the Highlands and the future of the whole of Britain.

On that fateful day, the final Jacobite Rising came to a brutal head in one of the most harrowing battles in British history. Jacobite supporters, seeking to restore the Stuart monarchy to the British thrones, gathered to fight the Duke of Cumberland’s government troops. It was the last pitched battle on British soil and, in less than an hour, around 1,500 men were brutally slain – more than 1,000 of them Jacobites. 

The sight of fresh flowers at the foot of stones marking the sites where the Highlanders had fallen, betrayed by their own clansmen, was deeply sobering. For the two hours we spent on that windswept valley, dotted with only a small, reverent group of American visitors – possibly descendants of clans fallen on the field – we felt the full weight of its blood-soaked past. 

Scotland is steeped in tragic history, and its dramatic landscape typifies this: dark tales of epic clan battles and murderous plots, mythical legends of lake monsters, fairies, and goblins, Scotland has them all.

From Highland glens bearing only ghosts of old settlements, from a Skye peninsula converted to an ingenious Viking ‘shipyard’, to a Hebridean clifftop used as the site of a spectacular lighthouse, Scotland’s history is written into the land in vivid detail. 

But it’s not all blood and gore. With so much dramatic scenery and miles of open land with sparsely populated villages, the Highlands are a paradise for hikers and nature lovers. The area of Lochaber around Fort William is considered the outdoor adventure capital of Britain. And, like Shillong and its surrounds, it also boasts ancient forests and Neolithic settlements, providing intrepid travelers with fantastic travel photography opportunities and a hearty dose of Scottish charm and food.

For those not in the know, the Scottish Highlands are a mountainous region encompassing northwest Scotland. Loch Ness is at the centre, overlooked by the ruins of medieval Urquhart Castle and known for mythical monster “Nessie”. Northeast, near the city of Inverness, dolphins swim in the Moray Firth. Southwest, in the Western Highlands, trails wind up Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, and red deer roam Glencoe valley with its spectacular waterfalls.

If you have only a handful of days to spend, take the luxurious Caledonian Sleeper to Scotland. It’s an integral part of the experience. Initially, to save time, we had planned to fly from London to Edinburgh because our daughter had only five days before her post-graduate classes began, but being an inveterate train lover, my wishes prevailed and we booked the overnight first-class sleeper on the grand 140-year-old train. My husband still thinks it was one of the best decisions I’ve made! Since tickets on the London-Inverness route were all sold out, we took the London-Edinburgh route and spent a memorable two-days in the historic and beautiful city. The highlight for my husband was a visit to the St Andrews Golf course.

But it was the drive from Inverness to the Highlands, including the isle of Skye, that made our trip to Scotland truly a holiday to cherish. The scenic drive is one 500-mile loop, which starts and ends in Inverness and can be completed in either direction. Like the golden eagles that sometimes soar overhead, the road from the coastal village of Durness winds its way south with great swoops and dives. The 68-mile route to the fishing town of Ullapool is a relatively recent addition to a landscape forged in the Ice Age, when melting glaciers gouged its long, deep valleys and seawater-filled lochs and fjords. With every rollercoaster-like dip in the road, one gets another cinematic view – from the jagged peak of Suilven, rising almost vertically from moorland and bogs, to a red telephone box on the roadside, surrounded by nothing but miles of heather and the occasional sheep.

In the Highlands, you never know what hidden treasures you’ll uncover while venturing off into the countryside. We were lucky to have days of sunshine with only a few showers. But we soon realised that even the rain couldn’t dampen the beauty of secluded coves we found hiding between dramatic cliffs; the abandoned remains of castles and villages; the blanket of purple heather which envelopes the Highlands and is at its best in early autumn.

A must for first-time visitors to the Highlands is Loch Ness where we did the customary boat trip in search of “Nessie”. Even without Nessie, the hour-long trip is exhilarating.

Further up the road, make sure to pop into the 300 year old Drovers Inn for traditional Scottish food or a dram of whisky. Or better still, make a tour of Skye’s Tallisker Distillery as we did and enjoy their outstanding peaty single malts. Speaking of food, don’t miss the seafood in Portree, a pretty little township in Skye on a picture perfect bay so blue it seems like somewhere on the Mediterranean. The mussels and pink Scottish salmon at the Sea Breezes restaurant is the freshest and most delectable I have ever tasted. 

A popular activity in the Scottish Highlands is munro-bagging – summiting mountains over 3,000 feet. We didn’t get to do this but it’s on our bucket list. Lochaber is home to Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain at 4,416 feet.

On the way to Skye we passed Glencoe widely considered one of the most beautiful areas of Britain. Awed as I was by the spectacular valley of the glen I could not help remembering its haunted past as the site of a 17th-century massacre which saw 38 members of the MacDonald Clan hunted to death in the snow, betrayed by another Highland clan who had enjoyed their hospitality. Another 40 women and children died of exposure when their homes were burned to the ground. Driving around the towering peaks of the “Three Sisters” under a chiaroscuro of light and shade, I could feel the weight of sadness on this place.

But that’s only a tiny part of the lure of Scotland for a nature and history buff like me. Because more than anything, the Scottish Highlands is a land for romantics. Look at the map, it is curiously empty, displaying only a series of unpronounceable names and tiny country roads. North of Inverness there are no major cities, motorways or vast shopping centres. Removed from the tourist hordes of Edinburgh and the golf courses of St Andrew’s, this is a Scotland yet to be discovered. An unforgettable land shaped by warring clans, vast landscapes, ancient ruins and heaps of rural, rugged charm.   

 

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