By Randy Pierce
Braveheart was the last movie I ever watched with sight remaining in my eyes. The landscapes capture my memory still even if the historically divergent Hollywood script was not the source of my early love of the land. The imaginations of my youth fed the adventurous spirit of my later years and I’ve long wanted to hike the highlands, feel the castle stones, hear bagpipes echo off the munros, taste the sea spray of Fingal’s Cave, smell the peat of Loch Ness and so much more from this ancient land. Tracy and I attempted to make as much of those dreams reality in our whirlwind tour of the country.
We landed in Edinburgh airport and walked out into a courtyard of shops with an energy belying the overnight flight without sleep. It was a quick walk to an easy rail which smoothly and efficiently cut through city blocks towards our hotel in Haymarket Square. Tracy noted all the personal gardens and shared garden spaces throughout the city as well as an abundance of green space. Temperatures were cool and comfortable, a tremendous relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of London and our home in New Hampshire. The lyrical language around us was a delight to my ears and it was with considerable discipline I did not continuously try to emulate the accents.
We had two days to appreciate Edinburgh Castle, including a marvelous walking tour. The “crag and tail” of castle rock provides iconic placement atop the city and “Game of Thrones” fans would find little difficulty in the likely origins of the Lannister homeland of Castlerly Rock. The “Fringe Festival” was in full swing with music, theater, and comedy throughout the city in celebration, ensuring Autumn’s work along the Royal Mile was all the more impressive for the crowds gathered. We did not get to hike to Arthur’s Seat to experience some of the oldest signs of humanity in the city but Facebook informed me which of my friends had been there recently!
Off to Sterling Castle, we encountered one of our few disappointments as the all too popular tourist destination had absolutely no parking and we experienced it only from a distance. Deanston Distillery salved our spirits with a tremendous lunch and tasting and we did ultimately replace Sterling with the Eilean Donan Castle later which was one of our more tremendous castle experiences.
First though, we had to travel through the Cairn Gorm. This mountain range is similar to the White Mountains in height and wintry ferocity with a bit more remoteness preserved. Though the weather was overcast, the contrast of these open field mountains to our own wooded summits was noteworthy and common throughout Scotland. Arriving to Inverness atop the Great Glen we crossed the river Ness and found our hotel on the shores of Loch Ness.
Scotland’s mountains were carved impressively by the glaciers during the ice age and the resulting dramatic landscapes are truly remarkable. The Great Glen runs through to the west side with the Caledonian Canal using the route for travel. I was impressed by the deep smell of peat and Tracy’s reports on the darkness of the lake which combined tremendous depth and peat to hold a haunting sense of the unknown. It is small wonder the legend of the Loch Ness Monster lasted so long. The ruins of a castle destroyed in the Jacobite rebellions provided a haunting ruin over the entire scene even as the immensity of the lake stretched well beyond sight.
This stop was our gateway to the Highlands and we set forth the the Isle of Skye through incredible Highland hills. The heather was in full bloom and we constantly used the lay-by traffic stops to capture photos or take a short walk in the beauty and splendor which surrounded us. Sheep grazed everywhere with enormous stretches of road without sign of habitation. We just marveled at the rugged beauty of this land as the mountains plunged deeply and rose sharply with waterfalls and twisting streams in full view due to the open landscape so rare in our New England hills. Rounding one bend and dropping steeply, the ocean of the west side of Scotland emerged pressed tight to the mountains we were within. It was here we found the castle of Eilean Donan, popularized in the United States for its use in the “Highlander” film. With more than 2,000 castles in Scotland, few are so well maintained as this gem and we toured through it with the staff encouraging me to take advantage of the tactile offerings of many artifacts on site.
Our half-way point brought us to the Isle of Skye, an absolutely enormous gift in the Highlands. We spent a few nights here nestled in an inlet of Sleat at Eilean Iarmain. Surrounded by the ocean on three sides with the peaks of the Cuillin Munros visible around us. There was a lighthouse adjacent to mark our way although we spent much of our time travelling the immense island.
First we traveled west to the edge of the Black Cuillins and a hike to the legendary Fairy Pools. The water crossings had some challenge but the climb was worth the spectacular views our camera could not capture on this cloudy and eventually rainy day. The series of waterfalls and cascades were remarkable and Autumn delighted in her most technical of the generally easy hiking work. At the end of our climb we found ourselves within a few miles of Talisker’s remote distillery and availed ourselves of their spirits before travelling to Portree. A tour to the northernmost point on the Isle of Skye included a stop at the infamous Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls. Of course a bagpiper played in the background as we stood at the windy point and marvelled at the scene. Later we found the ruins of a Clan MacDonald Castle which marked the wind-driven point atop the island. It was here Tracy commented on the absolute vastness of the entire island. The sky seemed limitless here, the mountains immense and unending, the ocean again vast beyond measure. With gusting winds making it hard to stand, let alone walk, it was easy to feel humbled by the land upon which we stood for so brief a time.
All too soon our time took us away from Skye. We traveled to Glen Coe and what many feel is one of the most beautiful valleys in all of Scotland. While more renowned to some for the massacre of 1692, it is the beauty of a valley surrounded by mountains from the three sisters on the southern end to the technical ridges of her northern end. We feasted at a hiker’s lodge adjacent to where Hagrid’s hut was located in the filming of Harry Potter. Appropriate since I was in a magical fantasy trip of my own.
Our effective final stop was Oban Bay, a beautiful port south of Skye and suddenly the best weather of our trip. It is worth noting we did not find Scotland precisely rainy as many might suggest. It did rain at times but mostly it was a quick spritz of rain in one place or another while half a mile further was sunny and beautiful. Occasionally it was full sun for a rain shower. In New England we say if you don’t like the weather wait a few minutes and it will change. In Scotland they say all the seasons in a single day and that showed to be true, though we never saw snow while we were there. Oban was a beautiful sheltered Bay and it was our launch point for a three island tour of Mull, Staffa, and Iona.
Mull, like Skye was immense and we took a bus tour across it to see the many glens, munros, and forests which comprise a seemingly separate world. On the far side we could see the pink granite quarry briefly before boarding a smaller vessel to sail us to Staffa. Autumn’s work in these transitions was solid and the crew and passengers always marveled at her work. Her true work came on the tiny island of Staffa where the walk to Fingal’s Cave was the most difficult of our trip. A guide wire lent stability for me to make it safe but her patient warnings kept me striding where many thought it unlikely for a blind person and guide dog team.
Last winter the final section of ledge leading into the cave mouth collapsed and while we were able to view fantastically the incredible basalt column cave of historic fame, the sounds which inspired so many were lost to our ears as the crashing of the waves into the cave did not return the echo of legend to our more distant point. Tracy’s awe was more than uplifting enough to make the trek worthy and as we scaled the perilous stairway to the heights of the island again as a testament to Autumn’s prowess we crossed the island to unrivaled views. The puffins had left just two days prior and Tracy was sad for the miss, but invigorated by the freedom of our stroll across the grassy top of Staffa island. Here is where I will most remember the taste of the ocean and the scent of Scotland as my girl guided me in the sunlight high above the Hebridean entrance to this land.
Staffa is the Norse name for the island, meaning stick or staff. I did not use a blind cane on this trip, as Autumn was my link to a freedom of travel beyond what I find with that stick. Scotland was a symbolic freedom of travel as well. In the film Braveheart, William Wallace’s father says “Your heart is free, have the courage to follow it.” Reflecting on yet another excellent adventure, I am so appreciative to have such wonderful dreams and the courage and patient determination to follow them.