Scotland: 10 Ways to Find the True Spirit of Caledonia

scotlandGavin Bell, The Daily Telegraph, September 4, 2014

Maybe the Romans had a point. One look at the wild terrain and tribes of Scotland was enough for Hadrian’s legions to call in the wall builders. The northern clans are generally more civilised these days, but much of the land that shaped them is as dramatic and diverse as ever.

In the north, there are dark mountains that glower beneath storm clouds and dare you to set foot on them. Minutes later, sunshine is blazing on the flower-filled grasslands and turquoise seas of the western isles. To the east a squall lashes picturesque fishing villages on its way out to sea, and in the south the Tweed flows quietly through pastoral landscapes beloved by poets.

Paradoxically, our volatile weather is a blessing in disguise. It’s fine for red deer, otters and golden eagles, but not for holiday-property developers. As a result, the true spirit of Caledonia can still be found in wild, lonely highlands where a couple of long-distance hikers constitute a crowd, and among tranquil glens that have changed little since English redcoats were scouring them for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A sense of freedom pervades the land, irrespective of political independence, cherished by hill walkers, mountaineers, cyclists, fishermen, weekend sailors and sea kayakers. And after their exertions they can look forward to fine cuisine or hearty fare from hill, moor and sea loch.

Scotland is fiercely proud of a cultural heritage embracing kilts and highland war pipes, but it has more to offer than spectacular golf courses, whisky and the tartan tomfoolery of Brigadoon fantasies. Maybe the Romans should have stuck around. And to prove it, here’s my whimsical guide to where to find the heart of Scotland.

1. Drive the road to the isles

The narrow ribbon of road from Fort William to the old fishing port of Mallaig is a magical roller-coaster ride through a Celtic fairyland of green hills, ancient woods, and absurdly romantic lochs and glens. Remnants of the Great Caledonian Forest adorn islets like floating bonsais on Loch Eilt, and ghosts of the past are raised by a monumental obelisk framed by mountains plunging into a sea loch at Glenfinnan, commemorating the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Fact blurs with fiction in a kaleidoscope of haunting images that featured in two Harry Potter films and Local Hero, before the road winds past the silver sands of Morar and offers the first views of Hebridean islands - Eigg, with its distinctive profile like the fin of a giant shark, Rum with its jumble of mountains, and Skye with the jagged peaks of its Black Cuillins.

Read more: Britain's best scenic drives

Take the A830 from Fort William via Glenfinnan and Lochailort.

2. Cross to the Isle of Skye

Over the sea to Skye, or over the bridge, is a journey into the mists of time – often literally. Its Gaelic name, meaning "Isle of Mist", is well earned. When mists and low clouds swirl around the ramparts of Dunvegan and Armadale castles, it is easy to imagine the ancient seats of the clans MacLeod and Donald resounding to the clash of arms. The big attraction of Skye is some of the finest walking and climbing routes in Scotland, from easy, low-level trails around its fragmented coast to the world-class two-day traverse of the "Skye scrapers" of the Cuillins ridge. This is where to savour the essence of what makes Scotland special, in rain or shine, before retiring to a cosy pub for a well-earned dram.

Take the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale, and return by the bridge from Kyleakin to the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Read more: 36 hours on...Skye

3. Take in the Trossachs

The gentler face of the landscape that attracted Wordsworth, Coleridge and Ruskin after Sir Walter Scott lauded its vistas as “So wondrous wild, the whole might seem/The scenery of a fairy dream”. A classic steamship bearing his name now cruises Loch Katrine, where he was inspired to write The Lady of the Lake and on the western shore of which Rob Roy MacGregor was born. A few miles north, a single-track road skirting the dark waters of Loch Voil leads past Rob Roy’s grave on the Braes of Balquhidder, and ends at the farm where he died. Leave the car and walk or cycle by the lochs to sense them much as they were when MacGregor and his clansmen were eluding redcoat soldiers in the hills.

Take the A81 from Glasgow to Aberfoyle, the A821 to Loch Katrine, the A84 to Kinghouse and the unclassified road to Balquhidder.

4. Soak up the vibrant cities

The heart of modern Scotland beats strongest in cities bursting with creativity in music, drama, dance and innovative cuisine. Glasgow has seen the most dramatic transformation, from post-industrial decline to cultural powerhouse with annual extravaganzas such as Celtic Connections featuring more than 2,000 musicians over two weeks in midwinter ( .

Edinburgh retains its prime position in world arts festivals with the midsummer madness of its official and fringe events, and the pubs of both cities rival each other with lively folk and rock jam sessions. The boisterous fun of ceilidh dancing is a regular feature of nightlife in Inverness, the gateway to the Highlands, while Stirling celebrates Scotland’s turbulent history in its spectacular castle ( ).

Read more: Glasgow city guide

5. Navigate the Great Outdoors

The fairways and fair rivers of Scotland are justly renowned in the golfing and fishing fraternities, but its wilderness areas are a natural playground for a huge range of sports and outdoor activities. A network of long-range footpaths traverses the country’s finest landscapes, from the 47-mile Cowal Way to the 96-mile West Highland Way, and at the last count there were more than 500 miles of traffic-free cycling routes along old railway lines, canal towpaths and forest trails ( ).

For the uninitiated, guides are available for walking holidays through companies such as C-N-Do Scotland ( ), and for the more adventurous, Sport Scotland’s Glenmore Lodge in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park has courses in rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, orienteering, ski touring and biathlon ( ).

6. Visit East Neuk of Fife

The shoals of herring are long gone, but picturesque fishing villages of stone houses with red pantile roofs evoke the days when fleets of wooden ships sailed from the coast of Fife between Crail and Largo Bay. There are fewer boats now, but freshly landed crab and lobster are still on the menu in the pubs and restaurants clustered among the harbours and lanes of Crail, Anstruther and Pittenweem. All of them are linked by a coastal path that is a pleasant ramble between farmland and the sea, and there are boat trips to the Isle of May, a nature reserve popular in spring and summer with minke whales and huge colonies of seabirds. The scents of tar and timber linger along with seafaring memories in the excellent Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther.

Take the Forth Road Bridge from Edinburgh, or the Kincardine Bridge from Glasgow, and aim for the A911 from Upper Largo to Crail.

7. Wander the Tweed Valley

Quietly flows the Tweed through pastoral country that saw centuries of mayhem in perennial border warfare with England. Violent clashes are now confined to sports fields in old market towns that are the heartland of Scottish rugby. Sir Walter Scott waxed lyrical about the river from his grand baronial mansion above it at Abbotsford, and Robert the Bruce left his heart in the Gothic ruins of Melrose Abbey. Way-marked walking and cycling trails follow the course of the river through woodland and meadows as lyrical as Scott’s poetry, past castles and abbeys still bearing the scars of 13th and 14th-century Anglo-Scottish hostilities.

Follow roads east from Galashiels to Coldstream via Melrose, St Boswells and Kelso.

8. Eat, drink and be merry

Even Samuel Johnson was impressed by Scots cuisine in 1773, when he observed: “At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor delicacy is wanting…” It’s even better now, with the demise of the urban myth of deep-fried Mars bars. A new generation of chefs is making the most of the country’s natural larder of game, fish and fowl with creative twists, while cosmopolitan cuisine from Brazil to Vietnam is flourishing in city eateries. For a taste of Scotland in Johnson’s day, the historic Drovers Inn ( ), dating from 1705, at Inverarnan near Loch Lomond serves traditional fare with fine ales, whisky and live music in dining rooms that have changed little in centuries. Dr Johnson would feel at home here – it is claimed Rob Roy MacGregor did too.

9. Go wild in the Outer Hebrides

The far western outpost of Gaeldom in the north Atlantic is an essential, bleak and beautiful piece of Scotland’s cultural jigsaw. The string of windswept and mostly treeless islands, from the golden beaches of Barra north to the desolate peat bogs of Lewis, jealously guard centuries of Celtic culture and traditions. Watch sheepdog trials in country shows, listen to lilting Gaelic at village ceilidhs, stand and wonder at endless vistas of sea and sky, and sense the spirit of Hebridean life. A natural wilderness in which humanity has barely a foothold, but just enough for tight-knit communities to enrich their lives with pipe bands, folk music and cheery pubs. And local drams – their first legal whisky distillery in almost 200 years began production at Uig on Lewis in 2013.

Take the ferry from Oban to Barra and drive or cycle north to Stornoway (with the wind at your back).

Read more: Britain's 20 best beaches

10. Witness the drama of Glen Coe

The so-called "Lost Valley" is arguably the most dramatic, haunting place in Scotland, surrounded by wild mountains and steeped in the melancholy history of clan warfare. It is a broad highland meadow in the heart of Glen Coe, scene of the infamous massacre of MacDonalds by Campbell soldiers in 1692. Most visitors are content to drive through the glen, stopping to marvel at three massive, brooding buttresses on one side and a towering, knife-edge ridge on the other. Those who take a rough footpath up to the lost valley find a historic hiding place of stolen cattle, in a wilderness stalked by the spectres of murdered clansmen. If hairs rise on the backs of necks, it may not be down to the wind.

Take the A82 from Glasgow via Loch Lomond – and stop at the Drovers Inn on the way.

More on Scotland:

15 extraordinary things to do in Scotland
Edinburgh city break guide
The wild, awe-inspiring Shetland Islands
The 10 best Scottish islands

Read more
Extreme Britain

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This article was written by GAVIN BELL from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.