SCOTLAND was something of a mystery to me. I’d been to Edinburgh a couple of times but never ventured beyond the capital. This all changed when I embarked on a five-day Skye and Highlands Fling with Macbackpackers.
The first thing I notice about the Scottish Highlands as our bus meanders through Perthshire, north of Edinburgh, passing by glorious glens and glistening lochs, is the vast open spaces that seem desolate and almost devoid of civilisation.
Less than 30 per cent of Scotland’s population live in the highlands, our guide Duncan informs us. However, it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the Highlanders dominated the north — trading, farming and defending. Where did they go? What caused the exodus?
Answers to these questions form the building blocks of the stories that make this tour so engaging. Each stop we make provides Duncan with an opportunity to impart a short lesson in history, culture, archaeology, religious education, family genealogy or geography — all delivered with trademark Scottish wit and humour.
Day 1: Edinburgh to Inverness
Less than an hour into our journey, we’re treated to our first castle sighting: Loch Leven Castle, located in the middle of a loch and only accessible by boat.
Mary Queen of Scots was held captive there but she escaped after wooing the castle guard and stealing his keys. Like most of the stories, it ends in tragedy — Mary was convicted of treason and beheaded. Her son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England in 1603 and surrendered Scotland’s sovereignty. There is more than a hint of disapproval in Duncan’s tone when he asks rhetorically, “Does marriage last forever?” referring to the possibility of Scottish independence after the upcoming referendum.
Our lunch stop, Dunkeld, has a population of just over 1000. This place, like most Scottish townships, certainly punches above its weight in the attractions stakes.
The River Tay, which snakes through Dunkeld, is a haven for salmon fishing. So much so that over-fishing has led to a crackdown with unlicensed fisherman facing a whopping four-figure fine if caught retrieving salmon from the Tay. Even CCTV cameras have been installed along the river.
At Dunkeld, don’t miss Scotland’s best deli, The Scottish Deli, located on High Street. I can vouch for the smoked salmon and horse-raddish baguette. Delicious!
There are 102 whisky distilleries in Scotland and Tomatin is considered one of the best. A guided tour (£3) covers everything from distilling to bottling — and a dram of 12-year-old single malt awaits at the end. The scale of production here is mind-boggling. At its peak in the 1970s, Tomatin produced 12 million litres of Scotch a year. While today’s numbers are slightly less, they still churn through 120 tons of barley a week at a cost of £150,000. There are 14 warehouses on site, housing 160,000 barrels of whisky. A thick, sweet odour fills the air.
“That smell, that’s the whisky evaporating through the casks. We call that the ‘Angels share’,” says our guide. I purchase a bottle of The Antiquary, a blend of single malt and grain whisky, but it doesn’t survive beyond Day 3.
Before our final stop, there is one final treat. It’s a big one. Loch Ness. We hear about the legend, about the monster and the loch, but it is the story of the man who quit his job, left his partner and who now devotes his life to Nessie spotting that makes my ears prick up.
Steve Feltham lives in a caravan beside Loch Ness where he spends his time trying to spot Nessie. I am expecting to meet a guy who hasn’t all his marbles intact. Surprisingly, he isn’t a nutter at all. In fact, entrepreneur would be a more fitting label. Living rent free on the local publican’s land, Steve’s income is derived from selling tiny Nessie models made from synthetic materials. A baby Nessie on a rock picked up from his front yard goes for £5. And he can’t make them fast enough. When I meet him he’s fiddling with a wooden ship.
“Did you make that?”
“How much will that go for?”
“And how long will it take you?”
“About a day.”
That’s more than most people make in a day. When you look over the expansive loch, you can see why he does it. His office draws thousands of tourists each year.
“I used to be in the business of fitting security systems,” he says.
“Then one day I thought, ‘I’m sick of this. Life’s too short’ so I packed up and came here.”
Nessie is a tad shy when we visit, but meeting Steve is enough. Tired, we chug into Inverness, the highland capital, for a well-earned rest and finally draw the curtain on Day 1 — but not before checking out a ‘Trad Session’ at the Hootananny, a trendy bar in the heart of Inverness.
Day 2: Inverness to Skye
Culloden Battlefield, 10 miles from Inverness, is the site of the last full-scale battle in Britain. On April 16, 1746, 6000 Jacobites, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie — a Stuart and rightful heir to the British throne — lost in a bloody battle against 9000 Englishmen led by the Duke of Cumberland.
The aftermath was devastating for the Highlanders. Jacobites who survived the battle were hunted down and brutally murdered. If that wasn’t enough, the British Government introduced rigid laws that destroyed Highland culture, including disbanding the clan system and outlawing tartan and the distilling of whisky. Even playing the bagpipes was banned.
“A form of ethnic cleansing and an erosion of culture went on,” said Duncan. It was the severest of blows for the Highlanders and went a long way to explaining the rift that to an extent exists today between Scotland and England.
Next stop is Beinn Eighe, Britain’s oldest and largest nature reserve. The view from the mountain side, overlooking Loch Maree, is breathtaking. Anyone who has been to Plitvice National Park in Croatia with its cascading waterfalls and turquoise lakes knows it’s one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders. Just when I thought I would never see anything to rival that, I am spoilt to behold Loch Maree, with her stunning diversity of colour and light that gives Plitvice a run for its money.
Before reaching Kyleakin Backpackers at Skye, there is one last treat: the most photographed castle in the world, Eilean Donan Castle.
First inhabited in the sixth century, it has been rebuilt four times, with the latest rebuild by Colonel John MacRae in 1911. Members of the MacRae clan still have private living quarters in the castle, which is used for private gatherings. As a tourist attraction, the castle is one of the Highland’s most impressive sites.
Day 3 — Isle of Skye
Isle of Skye has to be one of the most interesting, romantic, quirky and beautiful places on Earth. It’s easy to see why Macbackpackers devotes a whole day of sightseeing to “the misty isle”.
It’s a land where ‘hairy coos’ recline in peat bogs, where black-faced sheep amble aimlessly across the road and where fairies frolic in atmospheric glens. And, on the day of our tour, where British Navy fighter jets test fly deafeningly close to unsuspecting tour groups!
Its population, just under 10,000, makes it a slow-paced and cruisy place to explore in the low season. But beware: it’s known to swell to 50,000 in summer with tourists flocking en masse.
The place has a strong oral history. Mythology about fairies and witches and demons abound, which complement the stunning landscape and geography. It’s little wonder Isle of Skye has been the location for numerous major films, including Harry Potter, Highlander and Prometheus. With 150 miles of breathtaking coastline, be sure to have several gigabytes free on your camera’s memory card.
The Cuillin Mountains are regarded as one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in Scotland. It has been protected under European law since 1991 and is considered the perfect place for Golden Eagle spotting — although we (perhaps fortunately) don’t spot any.
Portree, Skye’s capital with a population of less than 3000, is a charming community. Nearly 40 per cent of the people speak Scottish Gaelic, a dialect that has seen a revival in recent years — most notably in the signage that dots the Highlands. Portree also boasts arguably the cheapest bakery in the world, MacKenzie’s Bakery. Two bread rolls, a salad box and a beef and onion pie sets me back just £2.94. I quickly get out of there before they realise a mistake was made.
Seven miles north of Portree is Old Man Storr, a great spot for a mildly challenging hike — again with some spectacular scenery once you reach the 700m summit. The site is named after “Storr”, a Norse giant who is said to have roamed these parts in times gone by.
A short drive around the coast is Kilt Rock, the perfect place to be educated on the Scottish kilt. At the viewing area, there is a sign with a dinosaur on it. Archeologists have discovered here Scotland’s most impressive collection of dinosaur remains. Of course they did. Nothing surprises us about this place any more.
We venture west to Uig, a Viking harbour town. The town’s website says this place is ideal for your next ‘walking holiday’, and with such stunning scenery, I can see why. A short drive from Uig is Balnaknock, boasting the mysterious ‘Fairy Glen’. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s so hilly and green and has windy little tracks that lead up to one big natural fort that overlooks glens and streams and the bay. It’s stunning.
Duncan relays the fascinating tale of Clan MacLeod, who is said to have ‘fairy blood’ due to the union of a clan chief and a fairy centuries ago. It is true that many MacLeods who perished in the Battle of Britain were found carrying the Fairy Flag in his wallet, which was said to bring them good luck.
More castle spotting in the arvo, this time Dunvegan Castle, Scotland’s oldest inhabited castle and home to clan MacLeod for over 800 years. The Giant MacAskill Museum is a short drive from here and boasts some interesting, and odd, memorabilia from Giant MacAskill’s time as one of the world’s tallest people. This provides Duncan with the perfect segue to Danny MacAskill, also from Dunvegan. Danny, 26, quickly rose to international stardom after putting a five-minute video titled ‘April 2009’ on YouTube. The film features Danny using Edinburgh landmarks as an obstacle course for his freakish skills on a BMX. This film has now been viewed more than 31 million times and he now rides for a living, performing stunts the world over. His film ‘Way Back Home’ (less popular with only 22 million views) follows Danny from Edinburgh, through the Highlands, and to Dunvegan as he does what only he can — you have to see it to believe it.
Danny MacAskill ‘Way Back Home’:
Amid the Scottish anthems on high rotation during our day, Duncan surprises us with an uncharacteristically modern tune. It’s ‘Drop the pressure’ by Mylo. “Myles MacInnes, more popularly known as ‘Mylo’ was born here” comes the explanation, as we pass through Broadford. He gave up studying philosophy to make music on his computer in his bedroom and now he’s an international megastar. From such humble beginnings.
So many stories, so many sights. My head is spinning. Time to return to the hostel and put the feet up. Time for cards and Scotch. I crack open the bottle I bought from Tomatin. I decide to share it with Rob, and the other staff at Skye Backpackers to say thanks for being such awesome hosts. Rob is a Queenslander who has been living and working in Skye, on and off, for the best part of a year.
“It feels like home now,” he says, taking a wee dram. Not a bad place to call home.
Lee Crossley’s Scotland adventure continues in Travel next week with days 4-5 as he visits the adventure hub of Fort William, eats seafood in Oban and tears up the dance floor at a traditional Ceilidh.
Lee travelled with MacBackpackers on their 5 Day Skye and Highland Fling tour which runs all year round. For more information check them out at macbackpackers.com.
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