retread#35: northern scotland

IMG_7962Our 35th anniversary itinerary last summer included two ports of call in Scotland. Kudos to the Hubs for thinking that through. Scotland has been high on my bucket list for a long time — most especially the Highlands — so I was super excited about Inverness. No offense to lovely and historic Edinburgh or incredible Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo  or any of the amazing adventures this trip … but if I had to choose a single day to replicate, this would be it.

I’m quite sure our Scottish guide had some misgivings and if so, no doubt about me. I wouldn’t blame him! I contacted Danny in December, a full 8 months before we would travel. Over-eager, just? I prefer to think of myself as ultra-organized. ;=) Ours was a tenuous connection, to say the least. My cousin Sally’s husband Steve’s best mate Rod’s daughter Marcie’s pal, Danny, worked in tourism. Or something, it wasn’t quite clear. Rod, a native and resident Scot, assured by email that Danny was our guy. But, I wondered, would he go for it?

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Especially for Inverness, it seemed important to identify a local.* I was concerned the cruise crowd would overwhelm resources of this relatively remote region. A coach bus tour with fifty of our newest friends simply would not suffice! My request was also a bit unusual. I wanted to hire one guide for two ports of calls which were a long distance apart. Danny gently probed my plan and advised on the expense of a rental car over three days. In the end, he seemed satisfied and willing to work with us.

I pressed in, pestering Danny intermittently for months until we’d sorted out the details. In February, we spoke for the better part of an hour. No question, then. I knew he’d deliver. (And I knew I had to up my Scots vocabulary game, but that’s another story.) By April, we’d settled itinerary and rate. In June, I reserved a rental car for our adventures.

Danny planned to drive up and stay over in Inverness the night prior. He’d drive back to Edinburgh that evening as we’d sailed through the night. We’d continue touring a second day. It was a lot of driving and generally a lot to ask of the man. And it was niggling at me. Did he feel unduly pressured into this gig as a favor to Marcie and Rod for Steve? He was working around his real job to accommodate us. I felt badly and offered him several opportunities to bail, crossing my fingers he wouldn’t and wondering what I’d do if he did. Fortunately, he didn’t. Danny led us to the most stunning vistas and highest high-points of our entire trip. We are forever in his debt.

I knew it was going to be a great day when we disembarked in Inverness to find a tall, dark Scots with bluejean kilt, plaid vest, kilt hose and brogues waiting by the curb. Authentic works so well. We hit the road, quickly putting Inverness crowds behind us.

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We stopped early at a small store selling staples with attached café. It seemed in middle of nowhere. We were all grateful it was open on a Sunday. The proprietress was lovely, so warm and welcoming. Hello, Scotland! Fortified by hot coffee and freshly baked scones plus a box of Tunnock’s teacakes we were off and rolling.

I wish I could trace the route with roads and towns and stop-offs for the entirety of that wonderful day. I know you’d book the flight and rent the car to follow us! But there are only so many roads in the Highlands so I’m sure you can figure it out. ;=) We really had no idea what we were in for, only vaguely formed impressions from our North American bubble. A stunning viewpoint nearby the café gave a hint to what was ahead. We hardly hoped it could get better. It did.

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We didn’t see a single tour bus as we drove on into the countryside. Other than in a few small towns, we hardly saw another vehicle. Whenever we did, either driver would take the next available pull-off to allow passage. Roads were just that narrow. The terrain generally allowed long views to game the transfer. It was, of course, all very congenial. Well, mostly. Our Scots vocabulary lessons were in full swing!

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Above all, Danny was a master storyteller. Every mile was enhanced by his knowledge and our travels unfolded as an intense mini-course in Scottish history. He threaded hundreds of years of clans, queens and kings into our dialogue over a few hundred miles. We hung on every word. “Where’d we leave off?” he’d ask, when we climbed back in for the next leg of our journey. Invariably, one of us knew exactly where and he’d launch the next chapter. We were delighted.

We quickly came to appreciate that the highlands are the Highlands not because they are particularly high but because there are so many of them. Indeed, these graceful mountains reminded me of our beloved Adirondacks — except the Highlands do seem to extend to forever. At the end of the day, back near Inverness, we stopped at the fabulous Clog and Craft Shop; again I thought of the Adks and a leather-crafts store in Childwold — speaking of the middle of nowhere, eh? Oh, if only we could have extended the day!

One road we drove was nothing but a steep incline of harrowing hairpin turns. At the top, Bealach na Ba (above) viewpoint afforded sweeping elemental views. Earth. Sea. Sky. This was a sweet addition to our planned itinerary. Danny spontaneously re-routed when a brief window of favorable conditions opened up and the clouds scattered. Then we were the luckiest of ducks. We could see clear to the Isle of Skye!

We did encounter tour groups before the day was out but we never felt overrun. We had lunch at Eilean Donan Castle (above), recognizable from many films, including one James Bond and the Outlander series. Stunning.

We wandered the Culloden Battlefield (below), tragically historic site of the Jacobite Rising of 1745. It was a dream come true to walk the moor in full bloom with heather.  I imagined it ablaze with Clan tartans and had to pinch myself. Am I really here?

After a long, peaceful day on our own, I could understand why Danny was unenthused about submitting ourselves to Loch Ness madness. Yet I was determined! Our grands are enthralled with dinosaurs. I admit fueling their fire with the Water Horse movie as we readied for our trip. In penance I paid dearly for two silly looking Nessies made of loch pebbles for the grandboys, advised by Danny as to perhaps the only local product in the entire gift shop. It was worth it.

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Just imagine their surprise by this evidence of our close encounter! I assure you, this is nothing compared to the surprise we all had in learning most locals believe Loch Ness lore. First sightings go back hundreds of years along with a plethora of theories.** Danny asserted if they drained the loch they’d surely find something. I  wholeheartedly agree. Yes, indeed. By the time we left Inverness, I was hooked. The Highlands are magical!

~ René Morley

*This was before the Hubs discovered Tours by Locals, which worked quite well for us otherwise. I’m so glad we didn’t know that, yet!

**Loch Ness lore: Check this out. This. And this. Happy sleuthing!

2 thoughts on “retread#35: northern scotland”

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