Capture the spirit of the Western Highlands and explore Scotland’s most atmospheric lochs and castles. Scotland’s misty castles, sparkling lochs, wee coastal villages, and heather-clad mountains.
This was the intro-description of the tour we booked for today while we are in Scotland, and I’m happy to report that it was everything that I hoped it would be. We arrived at the tour meeting point at 7:30am this morning and we’re off less than an hour later in a small coach with 12 other people. Mum and I sat right behind the driver which was appropriate after it seemed like we were the only ones in the group answering his questions.
Where we explored today:
Our tour guide/driver drove us through Old Town and New Town in Edinburgh before we got onto the highway to take us out of the city. While likely self-explanatory, it was still interesting to hear about the origins of Old Town and how the medieval castle of Edinburgh served as a safe house for villagers to fallback to in times of attack. New Town didn’t start to be built until wealthy nobles began wanting to separate themselves from the common folk and show-off their riches by building extravagant homes across the river.
This was something I noticed earlier in our trip but Greenbelts were explained as land outside of cities that are illegal to build on, so they provide greenery and wildlife outside of the residential, commercial and industrial areas until you enter the next town or city. While there is pressure put on the government to expand city limits, so far they are holding firm on this, which is ideal to ensure the environment still has a place to be.
We drove through the lowlands, gently-rolling flatlands, which are extremely fertile countryside that enable farmers to grow 60% of what is needed in the country. Barley is obviously the most popular crop, because whiskey. We were also told to keep an eye out for birds of prey in the farmlands. Even outside of the farmlands where trees in the forests are cleared out, you’ll see random trees left up in the middle of a clearing and this is done to leave a perch for birds of prey to have a home. Speaking of trees, 85-90% of Scotland’s forests are commercial and handled under the Forestry Commission, which came in to effect after World War I. The original Caledonian trees were chopped for fuel, homes, navies, etc before it was thought that thee consumption should be tracked. Native Caledonian trees take up to 80 years to mature so non-native trees were replanted, taking only 20-25 years to mature.
Stories of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce came up as we neared the monument and Stirling Castle. We pulled off the road so that we could take a moment to view the landscape and take photos. This was when I met my very first group of Highland Cattle.
As we headed back on the road towards the Highlands the driver put on authentic Scottish music and it really set the mood and atmosphere as we peered out on the scenery and passed through, it was almost magical.
Our first proper stop on the tour was at Loch Lamond, the largest loch for surface area in Scotland at 20 miles long and 4 miles wide. It sits on a non-active faultline which provided the 30 or so islands that reside on the loch, of these 30 only 6 are inhabited. The area that we passed through included the conservation village of Luss, where idyllic cottages lined the shorelines. We grabbed a bite to eat at the local cafe before getting back on the coach where we were told that when coaches leave the door opened, ducks climb aboard and clean up any messes made by passengers before jumping off again.
We were given a bit of a language lesson to explain some of the naming conventions that we were seeing: “Ben” = Mountain, “Munro” = Mountains over 3,000 feet hig (there are 282 in Scotland and the people that climb these are called “baggers”), “Inver” = ‘at the mouth of the river’, “Glen”. = Valley, “Loch” = Lake, “Brae” = Hills (which I knew because it came up once when I was looking up the meaning of the name Bree), and “Kil” = has to do w/ someone from the church.
On our way to Invararey we learned more about Clan Campbell, including the Jacobite Rebellion and Civil War. Charles thought of himself as an absolute monarch but lost, giving way to the Republic Leader, Oliver Cromwell. The people decided they missed having a monarch of sorts so the first constitutional monarch was introduced, which is similar to wah at is seen today in England. We stopped at Rest and Be Thankful, a solider road named for climbing up it unscathed by Highlanders.
We visited Invararey Castle, which was beautiful but felt more like a French chateau than a castle. I also recognized this as a venue for an episode of Downton Abbey. The flag was flying outside, which meant that the current Duke of Argyll was home although we didn’t see him as we trapped through his palace. One of my favorite things about this castle were the “secret” rooms built into the rounded corners of the building. One of these would’ve made the PERFECT library and sitting room for me, just saying. Here, I treated myself to a platter of Scottish cheeses and a glass of wine before continuing on our journey.
Loch Awe, the largest in Scotland, was the next stop so we had an opportunity to photograph Kilchurn Castle. Here we saw campers and learned of Scotland’s Free to Roam law whereby it’s perfectly legal for people to walk, climb, camp, etc in the wilderness and countryside provided they aren’t ruining it.
Back on the highway we noted that the closer you got to the northern Highlands, where more people speak Gaelic, the signs contain both Gaelic and English instructions. For example, ‘An Gearasdan’ is ‘Fort William’ in English. Pressing on, we passed through the burial place of Rob Roy MacGregor.
Callander provided more history than I was expecting, being that it was here that tourism was jumpstarted by both Queen Victoria and Walter Scott.By the Queen making it a point to visit and stay in certain places it got the noble’s curiousity going which led them to do the same. The novelist Walter Scott, who wrote historical fiction, featured real people based in areas of Callander, also bringing in visitors. The travel agency, Thomas Cook, was named after a local who first provided this service.
In Doune we learned the origin of the saying “armed to the teeth” for Doune was known for manufacturing dueling pistols which led it to become a Wild West town. Local law enforcement got tired of dealing with the deaths so they outlawed the ability to bring weapons into the city which meant the the River Teith was the boundary line for disarming.
Doune Castle was high on my list of things to see on this trip, namely because it was a major filming location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was an added bonus that it was also used in Outlander and Game of Thrones. We also saw the Woodside Hotel where the cast of Monty Python stayed during filming. We were told that the manager there used to terrorize Michael Palin and Terry Jones and it was home who inspired John Cleese to emulate a character in Fawlty Towers.