The Scottish Highlands

The highlands of western Scotland highlight a region of Britain that is full of picturesque landscapes, historic landmarks, and down to earth folks with an accent thicker than molasses. I got the chance to visit a month ago on a three week trip around Europe, including a three day shuttle out of Edinburgh with Highland Explorer Tours. I joined a shuttle full of people in the Old Town district on a rainy morning, was greeted by our guide, a kilted Scotsman by the name Steven, and we started west out of the city.

Day 1: Out of Edinburgh

Steven narrated Scotland’s history and lore as the shuttle went along the Scottish countryside, crossing the River Teith just upstream from Doune Castle. Soon, we made it to the mountains and the forested edge of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs. After going for a while there, the rain stopped and we passed the Loch Tulla Overlook. I got out and looked down at the loch from the ridgeside, appreciating the clearing weather and brisk springtime air.

When we reached the high plateau, Steven explained how the peated topsoil in this region and the west isles was used in their whiskey production. It was a smoky flavor that I spent years enjoying – mostly from the Laphroaig Distillery in the south. We reached the far end for a mountainous descent to the shoreline town of Glencoe, stopping first at Loch Atriochtan and the Three Sisters of Bidean nam Bian.

After getting lunch at the busy tourist town of Fort William, we continued north for 90 minutes along more lochs and winding mountain roads. The famous Eilean Donan Castle stood at the water’s edge, backlit by afternoon sunlight. This classic Scottish landmark has had four different versions and restorations dating as far back as the 13th century, the most recent one finished in 1932. It is one of the most photographed landmarks in the country. If you look up pictures of it, you might find more than a few of a Scotsman and bride on the bridge.

We crossed into the Isle of Skye in the late afternoon, stopping for the night in the seaside town of Portree. The tour company had arranged for us to stay at different BnBs in the town, and I checked into a modest stay on the north end. “Holy shit, a room with a view!” I thought as I looked out from my room over the harbour. Little boats floated about in front of a colorful row of houses on the far side. The Isle of Raasay and bigger mountains stood farther off, silhouetted along the edge of the inlet. The day ended in nightfall and clear skies over quiet water.

Day 2: Isle of Skye

We met in the town centre and drove north. Steven immediately parked in a lot next to the road to view the Storr, a rocky formation of spires near the coast. The needle shaped Old Man of Storr looked like it could impale the foot of a giant. My only complaint about this tour so far was that they didn’t drop me off at the trailhead for a closer look. But fair play on that if it meant we would stop at Kilt Rock twenty miles up the road.

We went around the north side of the isle and down the western shore, passing tiny Scottish villages and farmlands. At Idrigil, the shuttle turned east on a back road, crossing back over the island. Soon we reached the Quiraing, a landslip formation along the broken ridge system of the Trotternish.

When we got back to Portree at midday, I went to a seafood restaurant and ordered the same thing I wanted ever since I got here – fish and chips. The menu said that standard whiskey was 4£ and that the high-end whiskey was 5. I asked the waitress to bring me a glass. Whatever it was, it was good enough for its own place at mid-shelf. I told her I wanted another. She brought me a glass of Laphroaig. Yeah, 4 pounds. The whiskey here was cheaper than the beer.

Speaking of whiskey, Steven asked us if we wanted to stop at Talisker for a tasting. We didn’t have to think about that for long. We passed more landmarks in the south, including the Sigachan River, which legend says if you put your face in the water for ten seconds that the faeries will grant you eternal beauty. I have not followed up with the others to confirm the accuracy of this tale.

Portree is a cute town, but in the evenings its restaurants are packed with tourists. I didn’t want to wait in line for an hour, so I got deli bread and a can of beer from the town grocery instead. I was just winding down in my room when a rain shower passed over the harbour. When I looked outside, this happened. You couldn’t make this shit up:

It made me think about how Scotland’s country has a warmth to it. It’s rugged and earthy, but not in any grand or epic sort of way that I’ve seen in bigger places. It feels close and almost homelike. A broken archipelago of steep hills and lush, grassy highland ranges that reminded me a lot of Iceland – yet with a closeness that Iceland doesn’t really share. Scotland is like the warmer brother to Iceland. And Iceland is like the darker sister island.

Day 3: Loch Ness

We left Skye and went east back into the mountains. Clouds gathered around mid-morning, bringing the kind of weather that is typical in the UK. We stopped at Urquhart Castle and the shore of Loch Ness. Sheets of rain blew off the loch as I waited in line at the boat dock, one layer too light. Soon the boat arrived and I managed to dry off and warm up with a Scottish Hot Chocolate. As the ferry went north, I watched the water closely, but my admittedly untrained eye was not able to spot Ol’ Nessie (probably for the best).

Rain continued as we went past Inverness, turning southeast on the highway to Edinburgh. Most of the ride back was uneventful, but it was interesting to pass the Cairngorns National Park, where snow-dusted high mountains appeared between the rainclouds. Soon, I would reach the city and this chapter of my story would quickly end. Another in Dublin was about to begin.

I will leave you with this song from Tide Lines, who I never would have discovered if Steven wasn’t playing them on the tour. They’re like Scotland’s answer to our bluegrass and alt-country.

About Dan Hagen

I’m a guy from Chicago who travels as often as possible. It is my lifelong goal to see the world by train, foot, bicycle, and raft. I like open country roads, urban nightlife, good cuisine, local beer, alpine mountains, wild rivers, and lots of other badass shit. And I will write about it as often as I can.