Walking in the Highlands

by Chris McSpurren

'the incident'
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 incident.'

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.

Stream in Queen Elizabeth Forest
Park, near Aberfoyle.

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.

Curling Stones 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 popcorn.

 
There are six sheep hiding in this picture. Can you find them?

The National Wallace Monument,
220 ft, built in 1869.

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.

Stirling

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 treat.

 
Edinburgh, as seen from Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh

Cannon, 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.

A Wynd is an old street or alley. Honest.

St.Andrews


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.

 
Dunnottar Castle

Loch Muick

Ballater

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.

Friendly Sheepdog.
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.

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!

 
Celtic Cross, Tullich
   
   
 
 
Copyright 2005, Chris McSpurren