Walking in the Highlands
by Chris McSpurren
Scottish folk might tell you that 'Slainte!' is Gaelic for 'Cheers' or 'Good
Health,' but in my recent travels through the highlands of Scotland, I determined
that its true meaning is 'Hey buddy….got any sheep?' This photo was
taken just prior to what the Aberfoyle police later referred to as 'the
Tracking Down Sheep
Finding the sheep isn't an easy task, especially after you've had more
than a few wee drams of the 'water of life.' To get to them, you must
first navigate roundabouts and rural roads, and they're the spawn of Satan.
If you manage to survive the circle of death with eight converging
lanes, you get to travel winding rural roads that haven't been widened
since the horse and buggy days. Imagine driving down a winding road full
of blind turns that's barely the width of your rented car. A few inches
from your right side is a 300-year old stone wall jutting out, and a couple
of inches from the left side there's a loch or a steep drop into a beautiful
green valley. Sure the scenery is nice, but you don't dare look at it
because you're looking out for the guy coming at you from around the next
blind turn at 60 mph.
Once you do get to walk around in the hills of Scotland, you can finally
appreciate nature's beauty to its fullest without worrying about getting
killed. Even this early in the year (we were there from Feb.28-Mar.14th),
the fields were green and the flowers were coming up, so it seems Scotland
gets the jump on us for spring by at least a few weeks. It's only fair,
though, since I got the jump on their sheep. I guess we'll call it even.
and Witch Skeletons
Our first week in Scotland was spent at the Forest Hills Resort in Kinlochard
near Aberfoyle, just west of Stirling. It's an area of Scotland known
as the Trossachs (a.k.a. 'the crossing place,', a.k.a. the gateway to
the highlands, a.k.a. an ever-expanding tourist region that started off
as a small glen). Just across the road from us was Loch Ard and like many
of the lochs in Scotland, its bottom is littered with curling stones (the
stones left overnight on the frozen lake would sometimes go through after
a warm night) and the occasional witch skeleton. Back in the good old
days, if someone called you a witch, they'd tie you up and throw you in
a loch (there's only one lake in Scotland, named after the traitorous
bastard Monteith. The rest are 'lochs'). If you sank, you were presumed
'innocent.' If you managed to float a bit, they'd assume you were a witch,
scoop you out of the water, and burn you at the stake. Then they'd make
Eager to learn more about my rich Scottish heritage (my Dad's dad was born
in Scotland), we journeyed to the Aberfoyle Wool Centre where I learned
about….well, wool. If that wasn't exciting enough for me, they also
had sheepdog herding demonstrations, but those were closed until April.
Fortune smiled upon me, however. They DID have Scotch tasting. While my
mom checked out the scarves and kilts, my Dad and I sampled
some of the local distilleries' sweet nectar. Then we hopped back into the
car onto those winding roads again until we got to Callander, home of the
Rob Roy Visitors Center, where we learned that one of Scotland's greatest
heroes was a notorious cattle thief. It made me proud, indeed.
are six sheep hiding in this picture. Can you find them?
The next day we took a short drive to visit Stirling Castle and the The
National Wallace Monument. Like many of the castles in Scotland, both
structures were built upon great bloody rocks formed by volcanoes and
carved into sheer cliffs during the Ice Age. They offered us magnificent
views of the surrounding countryside. It was also a great way to learn
about the history of Scottish kings, queens, and heroes like William Wallace
(Braveheart). Just below us, we could see where Wallace and his band of
highlanders defeated the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297, despite wearing
skirts and being horribly outnumbered. Walking through the courtyards,
battlements, and narrow stone passages while listening to the audio tour
talking about all the backstabbing going on over the centuries was a real
as seen from Edinburgh Castle
A couple days later we took a train into Edinburgh and walked up a cobblestone
road to the Royal Mile - a road stretching from Edinburgh Castle at the
top, down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom. The Royal Mile
is lined with plenty of pubs, whisky shops, souvenir shops, and 'ghost
walk' tours. We went on one called 'Mary King's Close' (closes and wynds
are basically old narrow streets). It was kind of like a cheesy haunted
house ride at the Ex that takes place in a 17th century street in Scotland.
The street and adjoining houses have been more or less preserved as it's
been built over top of by the present day street level buildings, so it's
interesting from a historical point of view, if you can manage to ignore
the 'ghost walk' aspect of the tour.
Edinburgh Castle, like Stirling Castle, is situated atop
a large sheer cliff overlooking the rest of the city. From its ramparts
you can see the Scott Monument (a tribute to the poet Sir Walter Scott)
and more than a few Greek influences in the architecture of some of the
older buildings. The castle is home to the Scottish Crown Jewels, a giant
medieval siege gun called Mons Meg, and was home to Mary Queen of Scots.
She also lived down at the other end of the Royal Mile at the Palace of
Holyroodhouse, but I wouldn't advise going there unless looking at ornate
furniture turns your crank. The Abbey at Holyrood was nice to look at,
however, despite the collapsed roof.
At the end of our first week in Scotland we drove to St. Andrews and stayed
in the Scores Hotel overlooking the sea and the Old Course. We had a walk
through the nearby sandy dunes and around the Old Course, crossing the famed
Swilcan Bridge, which old golf farts crossed on their way up the 18th fairway.
They usually stopped there for a photo op. Did I say farts? I meant carts.
Just down the street from us was St. Andrews Castle, built
on a cliff overlooking the sea. It was in ruins from years of siege, mines,
countermines, and naval bombardment and passed hands back and forth between
the English and Scots a few times.
The next day we headed up the coast, stopping at Dunnottar
Castle. It is situated atop an enormous flat-topped rock with sheer cliffs
on three sides and juts out into the North Sea, attached to the mainland
by a narrow strip of land.
The castle was besieged by William Wallace when it was held
by the English and later withstood a siege for eight months and saved
the 'Honours of Scotland' (sword, scepter, and crown). We had quite a
hike up and down cliff-sides to get to the castle, but the view was well
worth the effort.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved traipsing all over
this area back in their day and it's easy to see why. The hills, mountains,
and lakes are breathtaking and full of red deer, pheasants, grouse, and
of course…sheep. We took several walks through the highlands over
the course of the week and thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. On one
of our walks, a sheepdog ran up to me and flopped right down on his back
in front of me waiting for a bellyrub. I gave him a quick one and then
ran off into the heather, looking for the sheep I assumed must be nearby.
Alas, there were none.
For our second week in Scotland, we stayed at the Hilton Craigendarroch,
just outside a small town called Ballater. Because of its proximity to
Balmoral Castle (where the Royal Family goes to get away from it all),
many of the shops in Ballater and the nearby towns had a royal crest on
the doorway signifying that they baked bread by appointment to her royal
majesty or made whisky by appointment to her royal majesty, etc. The Royal
Lochnagar Distillery tour, for example, invited Prince Albert over for
a wee dram back in 1848 and he gave it the royal stamp of approval. If
he visited your bakery and savoured your sticky buns….BAM! Royal
seal of approval - it was that easy.
After a week in Ballater, we drove back to Edinburgh and
flew home. I made sure to bring back a bottle of 18 year-old Glenmorangie
(Single Highland Malt Scotch Whiskey) and a quaich (a traditional friendship
cup for whiskey drinking) with me. It was a fantastic two-week vacation
that I'll never forget and I hope to return there some day. Hoot man!