We had originally planned to rent a car in Edinburgh, drive to Inverness and use that as a base for a self-guided tour of the Scottish Highlands. As I was getting coffee one morning in Edinburgh, I stopped in to the Highland Experience Tour office, which adjoined the coffee shop. It turned out the cost of a three-day tour would be about the same as would the hotel and car rental we had planned. When you factor in our own unfamiliarity with this part of the world and the need for me to drive -- on the other side of the road, shifting a manual transmission with my left hand -- I suggested we take the tour.
And so, we awoke early on Saturday (sabbatical early, anyway) and met the tour bus just outside our building. Steve, the tour guide, looked slightly horrified when he saw us roll up with four gargantuan suitcases. Fortunately, we had spoken to the tour company beforehand and knew they would store three of our bags, so he was only going to be putting on and off the bus/coach one of them. The bus has 29 seats and, after a stop in Glasgow, all of them were filled. A couple hours later, two were empty, as one couple opted out of the trip.
The first day was long -- with too much time spent on the bus -- as we made our way from Edinburgh to Skye. It was also interesting, as Steve provided a running commentary on matters of Scottish history and culture. I think it was a particularly long day for the kids, who were less interested in the verbal history. We boarded at 815 and, apart from three short photo-stops, two coffee/bathroom breaks and an hour lunch break, we were on the bus until 445, when we arrived at Eilean Donan Castle. Lauren spent most of the day looking out the bus window, slightly unhappy. Owen made it through the day courtesy of his iPad.
They missed a lot. This part of the world is gorgeous. Lush, green vegetation as far as the eye can see. Long valleys (glens) wedged in between several-thousand foot high mountains (bens). It is not quite like anyplace I have ever seen. And, of course, the history is fascinating. Controlled in parts by the Romans, Celts, Vikings and Normans, the Scots finally unified and took control of the Highlands in the early 13th Century. They spent the next five-hundred years of so fighting over this land with the English. Although there are no longer military battles over this terrain, some things don't change much, as the Scottish people are currently weighing a political separation and withdrawal from the United Kingdom.
For those of you familiar with or interested in the geography, I'll retrace our steps. From Glasgow, we headed north, driving on the western shores of Loch Lemond (one of more than 31,000 lakes in the country), breaking in the small resort town of Luss. Keri, Lauren, Owen and I briefly walked down to the water's edge and into a swarm of midges, small insects who are most famous (at least in my mind) for their unwarranted and series changing assault of Joba Chamberlain in game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians. I blame those pests for the Red Sox's second, post-1918 world series title. Damn them to hell.
Steve shared with us the story of the origins of the Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lemond, which you probably know as the "You Take the High Road, and I'll Take the Low Road" song. It involved two Highlander Brothers, the Second Jacobite Rebellion, some truly horrible English war crimes and a tragic end. The drive along the rest of Loch Lemond was narrow and windy. It made me further appreciate my decision not to drive this myself. We drove through Tyndrum and stopped for lunch at a place called The Green Welly. I have no idea what a welly is but, judging from the picture on the sign out front, it is a rain boot. I can see why that would be important up here.
After lunch, we continued north, up through Glencoe, where Steve explained that the valleys we were driving through used to be filled with trees that were part of the Caledonian Forest. The land was stripped of its trees over the years, by the Romans, the Vikings and the local population for shipbuilding and other construction needs. Most the the trees, Steve said, were taken down to to assist in the effort for the Great War. In the mid-20th Century, large plots of Norwegian Pine trees were planted, and still abound. In recent years, there has been an effort to plant the more hearty (but slow growing) native trees.
Steve further retold the story of the the Massacre of Glencoe, where, in 1691, the English military slaughtered most members of the Glencoe Macdonalds. The most disturbing part of the story -- from the Highlander perspective -- was the abuse of the Highland Code of Hospitality as part of this. In short, the Code requires one to show hospitality to anyone who requests it, even one's worst enemy. Codes like this are often found in parts of the world where nature is everyone's worst enemy. Captain Campbell, himself a member of the Campbell clan, requested and was given hospitality from the Macdonalds for him and his troops. When, days later, he received orders to kill all those over the age of 18, he did just that, killing 198 people. So egregious was the breach of the Code that, for many around here, the wounds are still pretty fresh.
We had another brief stop at the Three Sisters of Glencoe, as Steve explained that the western part of Scotland here was once part of North America. If you draw a line through Loch Ness and run it extend it in both directions, it is easy to see the two parts of Scotland that were once thousands of miles apart.
We finished our afternoon by visiting Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland's most recognizable landmarks. This small and beautiful castle was destroyed by English warships in the Jacobite rebellion of 1719. It was rebuilt in the early 20th Century and is now a major tourist attraction. The castle does not take long to get through and it pales in comparison to the others we have seen in Scotland for its historical significance. For pure external aesthetics, though, it is hard to beat.
Worn out, our day ended with a drop off at a bed and breakfast in Kyleakin. The place was good and our host extremely nice. The only problem was the mismatch between a second-floor buildout on a home with a slanted roof and a 6'2" guest. I felt like a freakish giant every step I took, desperately trying to avoid hitting my head on a door frame or knock something off a wall. I was Harry Houdini in the shower, trying to work the magic of getting clean in a vertical box in which I could not turn around. I'm not sure it worked but, from what I hear, I would have fit pretty well in the Highlands three-hundred years ago with that kind of body odor.
Lauren and Owen want me to report that the bed and breakfast produced the highlight of the trip for them -- a television in the room. Of course, the presence of a tv led to the inevitable fight about what would be watched. Owen nixed Harry Potter and Lauren some show on the Atlantic Ocean. After much whining, the kids settled on Wimbledon and Keri and I were able to go to sleep, not knowing the next morning would meet us with some pretty ugly weather. Welcome to the Highlands.