There are many adjectives that you can use to describe such a place of beauty: mystical, serene, and breath-taking are just a few that come to mind.
To be able to explore a country so full of lush greens and high-towering peaks is to truly experience the essence of what it means to be an explorer. As you ascend these mountain ranges familiar and unfamiliar feelings take hold of you and as you stand on top of the mountains, all you can help say is “this is freedom.”
It was nine in the morning and I eagerly awaited for the bus to come. I’ve heard of their splendor and saw their beauty in films such as Harry Potter and Braveheart, but with the incredible abilities that directors have with video editing software, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Was it possible for it to be the same?
There are these mystical places we hear of when were growing up such as New Zealand, Switzerland, and the Scottish Highlands, but it’s hard to prepare yourself for what they are actually like. So as I waited with thirty-odd fellow adventurers all eager to be on our way, I didn’t know how to feel. Should I be excited to finally say i’ve seen this mythical place? Or should I be nervous in case it’s not all that I thought it would be? It’s something I often feel when i’m about to go someplace new – except this was a bit different. It meant more to me that this place was real than some obscure beach because if this wasn’t as grand as I had hoped, how could anything else be?
The MacBackpackers bus arrived slightly passed nine and I was greeted by two excited looking Scottish men wearing their family tartans, Richard and Graeme. They had rolled up in their Mercedes buses, hopped out with grins on their face, and began to talk to the group they would be taking into these lands.
I took my small carry on with those loose nylon straps that you can tighten with a firm pull and my classy looking grey laptop case my sister had bought me, a true writers tool, and headed onto the bus to claim my window seat to catch these hopeful splendors.
I was ready to see what the Highlands were really about.
Graeme switched gears on the bus as we cruised north. Speaking into the microphone, he began the three day hiatus by telling us that he was raised in the Highlands and how important they are to him, so it was his honest pleasure to be taking us there himself. Filled with a charismatic energy, he followed with wonderful story telling taught to him through the oral tradition that has been passed down by generations of kin. Certain personalities you only find once in a blue moon and Graeme was one to have it.
One of the first stops on this tour was the small town of Pitlochry. For those who travel to Scotland and manage to break away from Edinburgh and Glasgow, you’ll notice that it’s scattered with small towns and it’s hard to look anywhere without sheep being in sight. Each town has it’s own unique part in the history of Scotland; from a cave that William Wallace was said to have hide out in to a deathly battle that occurred in the countries long and continuing fight for freedom. Today they serve as spots to window shop and pass by friendly locals in the streets, grab a warm cup of tea, a hearty lunch, and for 30 pence – a place to use the rest room.
The Mercedes buses cruised down the road once more as we hit the first region of the Highlands. My thoughts began to race as I stared into these hills for the first time, like nothing I had ever seen before. Coming from Michigan, a state with few things taller than a building, it was a whole new world to me. I was seeing a new part of the world for the first time and when that happens it’s a surreal experience. I’m not sure a thousand of my words could ever do it justice, all I can say is that it more than met my expectations. I knew for the rest of the trip I wouldn’t have to worry about something not being what I’ve expected. It was time to relax and let the splendor of the highlands take me away. Bliss.
After a few hours of driving intermixed with lovely story telling by our expert coach driver, we paused a moment for lunch at The Highland Folk Museum. Now, if you’re a fan of the British-American show Outlander then you should recognize this sight above. A ten minute walk through the woods (the sign said five, so don’t be deceived!) came upon a little area called Newtonmore, which served as a filming location for the show.
These huts are replicas of what Highland folk used to live in throughout the years as they battled the harsh elements of winter, rain, and whatever else the unstable Highland weather threw at them. I have a lot of respect for the people who managed to pull this type of lifestyle off. A quick walk into one of the huts filled with a thick smoke from an internal bonfire will make you realize why people’s life expectancies were in the low 40’s alone, not to mention everything else.
A little further north we came upon sacred ground that was created by Pagan’s centuries ago. This visit was by special request and isn’t a typical part of the tour to my knowledge, though it was well worth a visit. The above chamber was used for burials, bodies were put in the center circle and covered with more stone. The ground is home to three or four of these open tombs as well as slabs of rock that Pagan’s used as “ticks” on a dial with the tomb as it’s centerpiece for crop rotations. For the Outlander fans out there, one of these slabs of rock (not pictured) is used in the opening “time travel” scene and I hear it’s quite famous.
We continued to hit a marathon of sites, next up: The Battle of Culloden. A small museum that taught the history of how Highland clans stopped fighting and came together to fight an equal enemy: the British government. Sadly, many clan members lost their lives and had to flee after only killing fifty British soldiers, a mere fraction of what they had in tow. The burials were laid out by clans in mass graves and the ground is raised where they were buried, with a few mixed clan graves. It’s unknown where the British are buried. It’s a neat experience being able to walk out onto the battlefield, but one that is hard to grasp. It’s hard to imagine the blood shed that took place there. Inside there is a must watch video where you’re surrounded on all four sides, quite literally in the middle, of the on-going battle.
Due to bad note-taking (i.e. none at all), I cannot remember the name of this castle, but it made a lovely photo. If anyone knows the name of it, please post in the comments so I can add it in, I would really appreciate it.
On the second day, we explored more of the natural splendors of the highlands, in particular the Isle of Skye. Filling our time with hikes, swimming (we hopped in Loch Ness the first day as well), and gazing out into the vast hills and glens of the Highlands:
In one particular glen is what the locals call the Fairy Pools. These pools are the result of a waterfall that flows down the side of a hill and forms many areas that you use to go for a quick dip in the chilly Scottish waters. Above is my friend Michael and I hopping into the frigid water. Even if it’s a chilly day, as it was on this particular Saturday, it’s worth bringing along the old trunks (I opted for boxer briefs) or suit to hop in. The cold shock has to be good for something!
Perhaps the best view I was able to catch was the photos directly above and below. The trail led up the side of a hill to a spot known as “God’s finger.” The pictures struggle to do this place justice.
The view behind the Skye Backpackers hostel we stayed at for two nights on the Isle of Skye. The water would sweep in, covering the green plant life and rocks with ripples and a few hours later it would slowly sweep itself back out. Each morning i’d be able to walk outside to be greeted by this lovely view of the low-tide. It also made for peaceful late night meanderings.
We rose early to make sure we had a jump start on the day, again at nine in the morning. The first stop for our last day was a local castle that shadows the countryside. Adjacent to the castle is a ramp that serves as a launch off for local fishermen. The picture above is the cages that they use to catch little shrimp like creatures (my lack of note taking skills made me forget exactly what). Below is the castle.
A postcard worthy view, with a few of the “Five Sisters of Kintail” off to the right.
We stopped for lunch with our bagged sandwiches and chips (quite middle school-esque) at one of the locations that was responsible for so many joys in my childhood. For those people who are fans of Harry Potter, this is the famous lake that is in the front of Hogwarts and the spot for the water event during the Triwizard Tournament.
On the opposite side of the gorgeous lake is a gorgeous man (only kidding!), sits the legendary bridge that the Hogwarts train would run across. It’s safe to say that this was a big check off my bucket list.
Ah, the Highland coo. This, my friends, is the image i’ll leave you with. This three day trip has been one of the most incredible experiences that i’ve had in my short life, in many parts because of the simple beauty that the area holds. From the sheep who were scattered on every hill and patch of land in sight, to the Highland coo, random and sporadic water falls, and the hills that tower over the green landscape – but it’s not just the landscape and the animals that made this trip.
Another large part of this experience for me was the wonderful people over at MacBackpackers who could make this happen. Richard and Graeme were lovely guides who kept a fun atmosphere through the whole trip, never losing that Scottish grin off their face. I’d like to give a big thanks to those two for adding an extra element of beauty and joy to a place already so full of wonderment.
As I finish writing this, a week or so after it has happened, I remember a promise I made to myself upon leaving. It was a simple promise, but it had purpose to it. At some point in my life, I have to travel back to the Highlands and fully immerse myself in them – the grungy, tent-carrying backpacker way. While the Highlands faded from view as the Mercedes rolled away, my time there has merely been put on pause, ready for the torch to be picked up again.