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Scotland Caledonia - the old, the rugged, the brave, the beautiful


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This is the trip report that I submitted to SlowTravel. Stu and I made our very first trip to Scotland this September, 2014. We spent a few days in Edinburgh, then rented a car and went up to the North Western Highlands, where we stayed a week, followed by a final day and night in Glasgow before returning home.

Scotland was originally named Caledonia by the ancient Romans. It means “possessing hard feet, standfastness, endurance.” The poets and the bards and the soul of the country still hold Caledonia close in their hearts. After visiting this fair country in September 2014, we can see why.

We started our journey in Edinburgh. We had a lovely self-catering apartment in the heart of the Grassmarket area, which is considered “Old Town” and at the foot of the Edinburgh Castle. Once a part of town that was utilized for storing the castle’s livestock, and also for public hangings, the Grassmarket is now a lively and revitalized area filled with shops, restaurants, and bars. Our apartment was inside a Close (a courtyard), and was incredibly quiet and comfortable, so we were happy campers for our stay.
Edinburgh is very old (as in 8500 BC per earliest found records), and it looks medieval still. There is a sense of sparseness and practicality that we sensed in the local architecture and general “flavor” of the city. There is nothing polished, posh, or manicured. The skyline of the Old Town beckons back to much earlier centuries.
Someone told us soon after we arrived that in Edinburgh you’re either going up a hill, down a hill, or across a bridge. Truth. And even though it is very hilly, it is very walkable and inviting. Nooks, crannies, alleyways, and closes to explore.
The town is surrounded by seven hills (very large hills) which provide amazing viewpoints and vistas if you’re willing to climb them. We climbed Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, about an 800 foot ascent on grassy/gravelly paths, to be rewarded with amazing panoramic overviews of greater Edinburgh. You can see Edinburgh Castle just off center.
On another day, we entered the Edinburgh Castle gates and admired some of the ancient architecture, but opted out of the pricey tour and large crowds. The Royal Mile, the main road out of the Castle, connects it with the Holyrood Palace (a mile down the road, ergo the name of the street), where Britain’s Royal family relaxes when they visit the town. The Mile is quite touristy, but also fun.
The city is divided by a beautiful park, green space amongst the aging weathered architecture. Across from Old Town is New Town, which is really quite old (dating back to the 1700s) but just not as old as Old Town. It is probably the “higher end” of the city’s marketplace, also quite touristy, with its long pedestrian Rose Street numbered with bars, restaurants, shops, and betting parlors, too.

We spent an afternoon in the National Museum of Scotland (which is in Old Town), which was quite well done and informative, everything you’d want to know about the history of the country.

This is a photo of the Scott Monument - tribute to writer Sir Walter Scott
By the time we recovered from our jet lag, it was time for the next part of our journey - northward. We had no problem picking up our car rental at the Waverly Station, in between Old Town and New Town, and with our trusty GPS, we were on our way to the next stop – the NorthWest Highlands. We would have liked to stay in a vacation rental there, but most contracts were from Saturday to Saturday, and we were looking at a Wednesday to Wednesday situation. So we arrived in the town of Plockton (recommended by a Scottish friend), just off the Isle of Skye, with our reserved room at the Plockton Inn. Plockton is a very picturesque town on the shores of Loch Carron, and was our home base for our daily jaunts. Our accommodations were clean and comfortable, and included a daily breakfast. We usually did two hikes daily, separated by a restful lunch. We’d start our days, after breakfast, at about 9:30, and return by about 4pm or therabouts. The photo is Plockton's harbor.
We started with two hikes around Plockton. First was to Duncraig Castle, about a two mile hike around a lake, with beautiful scenes of our town from the other side of said lake, and woodland hills to traverse. The castle can be seen across the lake from the town of Plockton, and is being rehabbed into a B&B, which, when finished, should be a truly magnificent place to stay. Second hike was at the far end of town, a jaunt out towards Loch Carron, with lovely views of the Isle of Skye. The trail was well marked and maintained.
Onward next day to the Isle of Skye. There are no superlatives I can find that would not sound trite to describe the natural beauty and exhilaration of the scenery here. The hillsides and mountains are primarily treeless, covered with grasses, heaths, and heathers, rocks and boulders. The interplay of the inlets, coves, tides, and pools create National Geographic photo-ops wherever you turn. Pure, inviting, and unspoilt. Our fist walk was at an out-of-the-way place called the Fairy Glens, not far from the town of Uig, way up near the northern tip of the island. This is a magical place – grassy walks on cone-shaped hills – really an anomaly of nature but totally natural. You can sense the enchantment of this place as soon as you arrive. There are innumerable paths and hills to climb, with beautiful vistas, many sheep, even a few small stone circles. A very fun place to explore and linger.
Our next stop was to see the Old Man of Storr. This is a craggy mountain that got its name because of the large highly identifiable pinnacle of rock along the top. This was a long ascent, and one that we knew from the start that we would not finish. But we did get close enough to see the beauty of the craggy landscape, the Old Man, and some amazing vistas, too.
In order to get into or out of our home town of Plockton, one must pass through the town of Duirnish, which happens to be home to a small herd of Highland cattle. Our first encounter with them was quite the startle. There they all were, these gorgeous, shaggy, large-horned, big-as-buffalo cattle, lounging and standing in the middle of the street and strewn all over the road and field. They are quite gentle, and have absolutely no fear of vehicles. Like, you’re not really there. They move if and when they are ready to move, and there is really nothing you can do about it. Except admire and gawk at their magnificence.
One day we took a walk that was across a loch from the Eileen Donean castle, which is a big tourist attraction. We actually could see the castle from a unique angle, had a nice climb, and discovered an old broch, which is a very old round stone structural remain from the Iron Age. The locals would hide here with their livestock when the Vikings came a-plundering. This was a most enjoyable hike, and the only time we encountered the much talked about and feared “midges.” Midges are little flies who love to dine on humans. We were warned about them, and came armed with protective spray. I even downloaded a midge alert app on my phone. But these guys never bit us, just a little annoying, like gnats. I think we came just after midge season ended. Supposed to be the worst in the summer.
Another enjoyable hike took us along the Drumbuie coastline. A well-marked trail that explores the beautiful rocks and waters, and we even encountered a few more Highland cattle cuties. Our timing for wild blackberry picking was spot-on, and we enjoyed nature’s free bounty while we walked.
Another place we wanted to explore, on the Isle of Skye, was the Fairy Pools. An enchanting, magical place, at the base of the large and imposing Cuillin Hills, which are really mountains. In my younger days, I would have wanted to hike those mountains, but now I am happy to admire them. We walked through grassy lands up to the waterfalls and their pools, which have a lovely turquoise glow to them. It was overcast and a little cool, but there were some brave souls swimming in some of the pools. We made our wishes and tossed our pence in.
One of the nicest hikes we took was not in the Isle of Skye area but at Fort William. We had read a bad forecast for our last day in Plockton, and decided to end our stay a day early and move a few hours south. The highest peak in the UK, called Ben Neavis, is located in this town. That would not be in our hiking future, but we did take a beautiful hike to the Steall Falls and beyond, just at the base of the Glen Nevis. This was called one of the best walks in Scotland, and we concurred. The falls were beautiful, and the surrounding landscape was magnificent, breathtaking, almost lunar in quality.
We spent the last day/night of our journey in Glasgow, as our open jaw plane ticket departed from there. While Glasgow looks much different from Edinburgh, it’s the architecture here that really captured our attention. Beautiful details everywhere.
Our visit to Scotland coincided with the historic Independence vote across the land. Energies and enthusiasm were high everywhere, bordering on electric. The “YES please” vote we encountered much more often than the “NO thanks” voters. The Scottish people were determining their future, in a democracy that works, and whatever the outcome, everyone knew that things would never be the same again. There exists a fierce love of country across the land, very very palpable.
I am always feeling so very thankful after every trip I take. I’m thankful that my husband and I are healthy enough to take this trip, that our legs and bodies enable us to amble and enjoy the strong and rugged beauty that this country has to offer. I’m especially thankful that we drove, again, in the UK, on the wrong side of the car and wrong side of the street without any accidents or incidents. I’m grateful to the travel gods who smiled upon us, for giving us a vacation in a country known for its high rainfall, and we did not have a drip of rain for our entire visit. Thankful too to all the people on the ST message board and Slow Europe message board, who offered their suggestions and good advice. Grateful for the abundance of great books, guides, and internet resources out there about travel to Scotland. And greatly thankful to the people of Caledonia, who are friendly and kind, generous and brave, smart and beautiful, and blessed with a magnificent land and heritage.
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