Thursday, March 5, 2009

Highland Fling

Scott Thomas, innkeeper of Brewster House Bed and Breakfast in Freeport, Maine shares his experience on touring the Scottish Highlands.

Highland Fling

Driving north on the M6 from England's Lake District, we entered Scotland, and drove to Glasgow, then drove east, toward Stirling, where we saw Doane Castle, made famous in the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Unfortunately, due to GPS issues, we were disappointed that we did not find our way to Stirling Castle, but we simply did not have enough time.

We continued north from Stirling and, before long, began to see the highlands in the distance. The rugged beauty of the highlands is difficult to explain to one who has never encountered it. Let's simply say that is it both majestic and awe-inspiring.

We left the motorway behind and followed the A roads (for those not familiar with the UK road system, A roads are two lane roads, usually 60 mph when not in a town and either 40 or 30 mph in or near towns), winding along the banks of rivers and lochs, and through the hills. We passed along the side of Loch Lomond, then up into the highlands. The terrain was mountainous, and snow covered peaks were everywhere (at least they were in March). We stopped for pictures from time to time, and also shot some photos through the windows, hoping they would be presentable.

Before long we had come to Loch Ness, and drove along its entire length, as well. It was just getting to be dusk when we came to Urqhart Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness. We were able to take a couple of photos, but by the time we arrived the castle access was closed.

We proceeded into Inverness to our B&B, Ardconnel House, where we checked into our lovely room on the second floor (by the way, since in the UK they don't count the ground floor, that is the third floor in US English).

After a good night's rest, we enjoyed a full Scottish breakfast and, after chatting with the innkeepers, a sampling of haggis and black pudding. They were interesting and definitely different than anything we've had before. I doubt we'll be serving them at Brewster House, however.

To maximize our time we decided to take a tour called "Over the Sea to Skye" from Puffin Express Tours. We walked down the multitude of stairs from our bed and breakfast to the street below, around the corner to the tourist office where the Puffin Express van was waiting. We loaded up and were soon on our way across the highlands.

The tour drove us through the Highlands, sometimes among Scots pines and other times across the barren moors. After about an hour we stopped at Achnasheen, which is, for the Highlands, a busy crossroads. By other standards, it is actually a very small village. We enjoyed a very strong, hot cup of coffee and some very picturesque views of the snow covered mountains. Then we continued across the moors to the mountains near Strome Ferry. In the past, the only way across the salt water loch was the ferry, operated by a family. Apparently, when they decided it was time to finish work for the day, the ferry was closed, and any waiting cars and trucks would have to find a place to spend the night, as the next ferry would be in the morning. There is now a new bridge to Skye.

At Strome, we stopped for photos of Loch Carron, a large, salt water Loch, from high in the mountains above. The sun glistened off the snow and made for a beautiful panorama. We descended to the little town below and crossed the Skye Bridge to the Isle of Skye.

Most of the time on Skye we were either on narrow 2-lane roads or "single track" roads as we zig-zagged through the moors, often sharing the road with the local sheep. Our next stop was at the Clan Donald Centre. This is the home of the MacDonald clan museum and 13th Century family castle, Armadale. We walked through the grounds, admiring the castle ruins, and gardens. Then we toured the museum, learning much about Scottish history and the "risings" of the early 1700's. After a quick bite for lunch in the Clan Donald Centre, we returned to our tour van and continued to the Gaelic University and then turned on to another single track road and climbed up into the hills.

We wound around among the sheep and Highland cattle, and even saw a small herd of Scottish red deer grazing nearby. We turned one corner and were confronted by an entire herd of Highland cows and their new born calves grazing in and around the road. We stopped for photos, being cautioned, by our guide, to watch where we stepped. We were able to take a number of photos of Highland cows and their calves "up close and personal." The only near-incident came when one of us got between a mother and her calf, and Mama started to look a bit agressive. However, the calf found its way home and all was soon well.

Back in our van we returned to the "slighly" larger roads and stopped at Castle Eilean Donan. This castle was destroyed years ago, and was rebuilt with faithful attention to detail, so that it appears to be of medieval construction. We stretched our legs a bit, and took pictures of the castle. Then it was time to bid good-bye to the Isle of Skye and we again crossed the Highlands, but by a different route. We stopped at one of the Thomas Telford bridges built in the early 1800's. Our driver dropped us off, allowing us to hike across the very picturesque bridge, take pictures and hike the few yards back to town.

Driving back to Inverness we drove many miles along the shores of Loch Ness, however, never catching a glimpse of "Nessie" (unless you count the plastic ones at the shops, designed to lure tourists).

Our guide returned us to the centre of town and provided a restaurant recommendation, which we took. We enjoyed some of the most flavorful, tender lamb chops we've ever eaten.

Next morning, after another full Scottish breakfast, we enjoyed a crisp, but sunny, morning walk to the centre of town, where we took photos of the River Ness, Inverness Castle, and some of the other lovely old buildings in town. Then we packed our bags and bid farewell to our hosts, and we were back on the highways again.