My sister Kate and I had a lovely long walk across the Scottish Highlands in June. The landscape is a little hard to describe…imagine if you will the Appalachian Mountains sculpted by major glaciation: 3000 foot mountains or so divided by great broad U shaped valleys, which on the East side are quite fertile and rich looking lands, on the west more stony and boggy. Above the treeline is the moor and heath country, which has a funny offscale feel to it, and must be quite fearsome to be out in in bad winter weather. The whole country almost has been deforested and populated primarily with hardy breeds of sheep, mostly blackface types. And the weather….the weather is Portland winter all summer long, from what the locals told us. It was actually fairly dry when we were there, and we even had some sunny days, but we almost never went about in our shirtsleeves, and always had our raingear handy. I think I applied sunscreen once. The people we met were lovely…we stayed mostly in BandB’s (of which there are hundreds in Scotland) and the food was excellent. I won’t bore you with too many details but try to just show you some of the highlights…. We hiked from the small town of Aberfeldy across the mountains to the West side, and picked up the West Highland Way on the last two days of our hike. Mostly we saw hardly anyone on the trail (which we enjoyed), but had a great mix of archeology, geology, history, scenery and exercise. I think it was one of the most relaxing vacations I have ever had.
Our first day we hiked along the Moness Burn…made famous in Robert Burns’ song The Birks of Aberfeldy. Birks are birches, although the large trees we admired most were the beeches. Half expected a Hobbit to pop out from behind one, but we had been up for 24 hours by then, and were slightly delirious.
Our second day we met some friends of my sister’s, who took us up Glen Lyon, the longest Glen in Scotland (a glen is one of those U shaped valleys mentioned earlier). We got caught up on a lot of gossip about people I didn’t know, and also a bit about the history of Glen Lyon, and Chesthill House, where our friends used to work as the Gilly and Housekeeper (a Gilly as I understand it is a sort of gamekeeper/hunting and fishing guide…only in Scotland hunting is called ‘stalking’). Bert and Margaret were lovely people, and very generous to give us their day to show us around. I got to show Bert some pics of the Chinook Salmon we have caught over the years, and they showed us pictures of their lives and children (all grown now). Bert loves fishing, stalking, and scotch whiskey, he and my bourbon loving fishing and hunting husband would get along famously.
Chesthill house was the house of the infamous Robert Campbell, who led the massacre of the Macdonald Clan in Glen Coe. It is currently privately owned and is a vacation rental and hunting lodge.
Across the road is a perfectly functional and intact Roman Bridge. In a sheep field. In Scotland, nearly all the most amazing things we saw were in sheep fields.
Day one was a hike of about 14 miles, we went a bit farther as we missed a turn and took side trips to see the Crannog and the Druid stone circle, as well as Taymouth Castle.
The woodland wildflowers were in bloom, including the bluebells. This flower is kind of an annoying invasive in my home garden, but lovely in the woods of Scotland.
This stone circle is thousands of years old. It predates even the Roman bridge we saw the day before. It is in the side pasture of a farm in the Tay valley (note farmhouse in rear)….sheep take naps in it. Anyone can walk up to it. No one has vandalized it. Coming from American culture I find all of this amazing. Druid stones often have mysterious indentations in them, my sister was sure used in some kind of blood sacrifice. The circle was surrounded by lovely old oak trees, possibly the descendents of the original Druid grove.
Next stop was Taymouth Castle, where Queen Victoria spent her honeymoon. It was not open, but the grounds were open to anyone who wanted to enjoy them. The locals use it as a sort of park. Again, no fences, little signage, no graffiti or tagging, no broken windows, just a magnificent castle slowly mouldering on the banks of the Tay.
Not far past the castle the river ends in Loch Tay, where we took a small side jaunt to see the Crannog. A crannog is a stone age dwelling built over the Loch. They are not sure why, whether for defense or possibly trade, but there are hundreds of crannog sites in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and none in England. Every small island in the Lochs of Scotland is a crannog site, and one has been extensively excavated in the last couple of decades. Artifacts have been well preserved in the cold Loch waters, and archeologists have recreated one of the structures. People, animals, and foodstuffs all were kept inside, and it was a rather lovely building.
From the crannog we hiked around the moutain behind it and up another valley to the wee town of Fortingall. Here we stayed at my favorite accommodation, the Fortingall Hotel. Beautifully appointed rooms, and each guest is greeted with a wee dram of The Famous Grouse (known locally just as ‘The Grouse’). We had a fantastic dinner here as well, even though we gimped into the dining room like a couple of old ladies. Very, very civilized. Next to the hotel is an old kirk, which has a 2 to 5,000 year old yew tree in the churchyard. Yews have been worshipped in Europe for centuries because they live for hundreds (to thousands) of years, so this kirk sits on a very old holy place, and the valley is full of ancient burial mounds and other sites. The tree is not much to look at, as pilgrims took pieces of it away for souvenirs until there was very little left. The roots however, are truly ancient. Time seems less linear when you are looking at a live thing that is that old.
So, up to day three of our trip, and day one of our hike. More to come…..cheers!