Scotland's Islands and Highlands
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, glad to be your travel partner again as we explore more of the best of Europe. This time it's a wee bit of wonderful Scotland.
The Highlands, where my kilted dreams of Scotland are set: where legends of Bonnie Prince Charlie swirl around lonely castles. We'll ponder the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland, toss a few cabers and watch traditional dancing at Highland games, discover dark secrets in the Weeping Glen, sample some fine Scotch and endure a little piping.
Crowning Britain in the Northwest of Europe, Scotland welcomes visitors. From the town of Oban, we cruise to the Isles of Mull and Iona, then follow the Caledonian Canal to Glencoe, Loch Ness and onto Culloden.
Oban, the "Gateway to the Isles," is a busy little ferry terminal. A classic Scottish port town... just the place to munch fresh seafood.
Rick: I'll have a cup of cockles.
Vendor: Cup of cockles, these are cooked without salt, so you may want some salt vinegar or some black pepper.
The wind, boats, gulls, layers of islands, and the promise of a wide-open Atlantic beyond give Oban a shiver-and-bustle vitality.
The "Colosseum" overlooking Oban was the inspiration of a local tycoon in 1900 who wanted to employ workers and build himself a fine memorial. A hike to its peaceful garden is rewarded with a grand view.
Oban's commercial district is little more than the street along the harbor. Eager to please its many visitors, you'll find live folk dancing nightly and woolens and tweeds perpetually on sale.
Tomorrow we're sailing to the Isle of Mull and historic Iona. For today, I'll explore my options at the tourist office. There's plenty going on. The what's on board lists piping on the hilltop, folk dancing, and lawn bowling.
Good travelers get out of the museums and castles rut and into daily life. The Oban Lawn Bowling Club has welcomed visitors since 1869. Anyone can watch and — if there's no match — you can rent shoes and balls and actually play. The president of the club, Margaret MacLauchlan, is giving me a lesson in this wonderfully Scottish pastime.
Margaret: The purpose of the game is that you are going to try to get your ball closer to the jack than your opponent.
Rick: It's going to bend a little this way.
Margaret: That is correct.
Rick: Ok, let's give it a whirl.
Margaret: Wow, you took your porridge this morning.
Rick: See, I am throwing it too far, and I forgot my bias.
Margaret: Yes, you forgot your bias. Take the ball, and remember your bias this time. Not a bad try.
Rick: Not bad. Thank your for the lesson.
Margaret: It was a pleasure.
Rick: It was a pleasure meeting you.
To celebrate our first game of lawn bowling, how about a little Scotch? Oban's 200-year old whiskey distillery produces nearly 15,000 bottles a week.
Guide: Don't breathe in too deeply,' cause sometimes it can take your breath away.
They offer fragrant tours.
Guide: Okay, so we'll have a look in this one now. No, this one has finished fermenting. Oban is quite unique; the wash still is bigger than the spirit still. Each still will have its own shape, and that will influence the character of the whiskey. So this is Oban's single malt whiskey and it is 14 years old.
The tour finishes with a smooth sample and a traditional toast.
In my Britain guidebook I recommend sleeping in Bed & Breakfasts to save money and get to know the locals. And these days, many B&Bs are smoke-free.
Non-smokers have an easier time in Britain than on the Continent, where smoke-free accommodations are still rare. So, this is my home away from home. I set up a wee little pantry, here's my sink, the toilet and shower are just across the hall, and I've got my own temporary local mother.
Rena: Well Rick, this is the trolley, where we have tea and biscuits, and you can help yourself, and you are more than welcome to use it. Now this is the lounge and this where we like to sit in the evening and talk to our guests.
Rick: So you actually get them gathering in here?
Rena: Oh, we do get them gathering in here, and we have a good evening. They want to know about Oban, and I help them as much as I can. I ask them where they've been, and where their from, and I like to know where they are.
Rick: Rena, we need one really great place for a Scottish dinner.
Rena: Oh, the Studio, of course. It's very nice indeed there. They have lovely meals in there, and you can choose from the menu. And you can have Scottish food, there is salmon and steaks, and really nice steaks they are in there.
Rick: Now I know that it is a touristy thing, but when I am in Scotland, I'd love to have some haggis, will they serve do you think?
Rena: I don't know, cause I am not a haggis eater.
Rick: They serve it to all the tourists, so you probably haven't had it in a while.
Rena: No, I can dance it, I can shoot it if you like.
The Studio is a favorite for good Scottish cooking. Hmmm, there's just no haggis anywhere on this menu. I guess Scottish cuisine has moved beyond haggis, neeps and tatties. Actually, that's a relief....
Waitress: Angus beef?
Rick: That would be me.
Waitress: Would you like some Horse Radish on that?
Rick: Yes please.
Because it let us order the locally caught grilled salmon and the highland Angus beef.
Each morning, traveler's pile onto the huge Oban-Mull ferry.
Rick: All aboard for Iona, rain or shine!
Regardless of the weather, the tour of Iona and Mull offers the best one-day look at dramatic and historic Hebrides Island scenery.
Part two of our tour: an entertaining bus ride across the isle of Mull.
Driver: The Island of Mull is a big island, it is bigger than most people realize at first. It is the biggest of the Hebrides, 345 square miles.
Independent as I like to travel, there are cases when connecting hard-to-get-to rural destinations with an organized bus tour is time and money well spent
Driver: All the Vikings that came to settle here to farm the land, there was also the Viking raiders and they used to time their raids to occur every five to six years. They seemed to reckon that was enough time for a community to gather any riches about the. Then, the Vikings would return and relieve them of it.
After bussing across Mull, it's a one-mile ferry ride to the sleepy island of Iona.
Iona is tiny — just one village, 5 square miles, and almost no cars. It's famous for its abbey: the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland.
The year was 563. A monk named Columba fought a war in Ireland. He won but was so sickened by the bloodshed that he left Ireland vowing never to return. According to legend, the first bit of land out of sight of his homeland was Iona. He stopped here and built a monastery.
Iona became the center of Celtic Christianity. From here Saint Columba's monks spread the gospel throughout Scotland. This little island was a center of art and learning back when most of Europe was rutting in the Dark Age mud.
The famous Book of Kells — this is a copy-perhaps the finest piece of art from what's commonly called 'Europe's dark ages' was started here on Iona in the 8th century.
The Abbey was the burial place for chiefs and kings. Dozens of ancient Scottish and even Scandinavian kings rest here — including Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Around 800 the Vikings began raiding. After one massacre — 68 monks were killed right here on the beach. Survivors packed up their treasures and returned to Ireland.
After centuries of pillaging, little remains of the original church, but today the Iona Community is bringing new life to the Abbey with a focus on peace, justice, and reconciliation.
A thoughtful calm pervades Iona, Scotland's Holy Isle. It's a great place for a break from a busy itinerary.
After a rest on Iona, we're driving north, farther into the Highlands. The miles are long... but they're scenic, the roads are good, and the traffic's light.
Of course, in Britain you'll be driving on the left-hand side of the road — originally in order for you to drive defensively... with your sword hand on the inside to protect you against oncoming traffic. Eh, you get used to it.
The beauty of the Highlands is powerfully felt in the vast Rannoch Moor — hundreds of desolate square miles much enjoyed by hikers and lovers of nature.
The windy expanse of the Highlands — this is where piping feels right. Roadside pipers entertain travelers for tips on the road into Glencoe.
Rick: That's great. Can you give me a quick tour of your gear?
Piper: Sure. You've got your bag, hand sown, hide bag. Your two bass and tenor drone, the blow pipe to fill the bag, and keyboard, where the music comes from.
Rick: So if you can play the recorder, you can play the bagpipes, you just have to fill the bag. Can I give it a try?
Rick: So you are going to power the organ, and I am going to try and cover all these holes.
Piper: Very good!
Rick: My first lesson.
The valley of Glencoe... often called the "Weeping Glen," has a sad and interesting story.
Glencoe village is just a line of houses. One is the humble Glencoe Folk Museum. A purely homegrown effort, it's filled with artifacts gleaned from the town's old closets and attics. Volunteers like Arthur Smith — who runs a B&B in town — show visitors around.
Arthur: Right Rick, this is a weapons case, do you know how the highlanders were armed in the old days?
Arthur: Well, the Redcoats were very found of using muskets. And we tended to carry broad swords and targes. It took the Redcoat about a minute to load the musket. So we would stand thirty yards away from them, two lines. They'd fire, we'd fire, and then they would reload, get the ball in. And while they were doing that, we would charge. The targes were used to knocking out the bayonets, then we would slash with our broad swords. So it was knock and slash, knock and slash. It was a bit gory, but it worked. Unfortunately, it didn't work the last time, and after the last battle the Disarmament Act came in, so we had to hand in our weapons or hide them. And these swords here were hiding in the thatch, and the heather thatch was a great hiding place.
Rick: So this sword has been hiding in the thatch for 200 some odd years?
Arthur: Two-hundred years isn't a lot in the glen, passes quite quickly.
Making friends with a local, like Arthur, fills the Highland scenery with meaning.
Arthur: Do you see that island out there Rick? That is the island of discussion. In the old days, if there was any arguments or quarrels, the parties were put out there on the island with cheese and whiskey and oat cakes, and they were left there until they could sort their problems out. And as a result of that, in over 1,500 years of history, we have only had one murder in this place.
Rick: Effective. The Island Of Discussion.
Arthur: It works.
Rick: So this is the site of the Massacre of Under Trust?
Arthur: Yes, the Massacre of Glencoe. There was a new king in England, and he put out an edict that all the Highland chiefs had to take an oath of allegiance to him by the First of January 1692. The chief here as late, taking it, four days late, and they decided that was enough to make an example of him. So there was a party of Redcoats that came down from Fort William, and they were billeted two or three in each house, right down the glen, and on the night of the Thirteenth of February, they turned on their hosts. They were shot or bayoneted in their beds, and their houses set on fire. And as the survivors fled, there were Redcoats coming down through this pass, and that pass, and that pass there. Fortunately they hadn't guarded this pass and my six times removed grandmother, she fled up there to the Campbell's in the next glen, and got shelter and help there.
Of the 400 people who lived in the Glen — 280 were killed
The drive from Glencoe to Inverness follows the Caledonian Canal. Made up of three lakes — or lochs, as they're called here — and over 20 miles of canals, it slices Scotland in two.
Built in the early 1800s by the great British engineer, Thomas Telford, the canal provided a time and moneysaving shipping shortcut through — rather than around — Scotland.
These locks were an engineering marvel in their day.
The most famous part of the Caledonian Canal is Loch Ness. The local tourist industry thrives on the legend of the monster.
For a monstrous dose of Nessie commercialism drop into one of two Loch Ness Exhibition Centers — one claiming to be the original... the other the official. Both seem to devote more square footage to their shops than to their exhibits.
It is a thrilling thought, and there have been several seemingly reliable "sightings" by police officers, monks, and now sonar images.
Long and skinny Loch Ness is the third deepest lake in Europe. It's deepest near Urquhart Castle. The castle — while an empty shell — is gloriously situated with a view of virtually the entire lake.
For me, the Loch Ness monster is as Scottish as Bigfoot is American. I feel the real spirit of Scotland most deeply just beyond Loch Ness — at the Battlefield of Culloden.
In our generation Scotland is winning more and more autonomy — the peaceful, modern and democratic way. But centuries ago, it was a terrible and bloody struggle.
The Scots wanted religious freedom and to keep their ancient clan traditions. The last and most romantic leader in this cause was Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
For years, Bonnie Prince Charlie confounded the English. Slipping from valley to valley — hiding behind clever disguises and in sympathetic farmhouses, he kept Scottish dreams alive.
Those dreams ended here at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The Scottish clans gathered every possible warrior. But they were outnumbered and outgunned by the redcoats. The hour-long battle was a catastrophe for the Highlanders.
Rick: So right here at the Battle of Culloden, the English finally, decisively defeated the Scots. What was the result if that?
Ross: It was a disaster for the Highlands and for Scotland. The Government Commander, the Duke of Cumberland wanted to try a eighteenth century form of ethnic cleansing, by shipping out the rebellious Highlanders to the Carolinas and the Caribbean plantations. But that didn't work, so they thought that the only way they could stop the Jacobittes from rising again was to destroy their culture. They did away with the language, they did away with traditional Highland dress, weapons had to be handed in, and the bagpipes were banned as a weapon of war, and if you have every close to a set of bagpipes being played, you will understand why. But it was a disaster for Traditional Highland and Scottish culture.
Wandering the battlefield, you feel that something terrible happened here. Locals still bring flowers and speak of '46 as if it were this century.
A fun way to travel through the Highlands is with the postman.
Rick: Hi! Can I ride with you?
Postman: Yes, no problem.
With the sparse population of the Highlands, in lieu of a bus service, the government allows people to ride with the postman. Locals do this to get somewhere. Travelers do it for the chat and to get off the beaten path.
Rick: Generally, who takes advantage of this hop a ride with the postman system?
Postman: I get a lot of hill walkers and climbers, and in the summer time I get a lot of older people who like to come around, but don't like to drive themselves.
Rick: Is this good hiking country?
Postman: This is good hiking country, yes.
Announcer: It's my privilege to welcome you to Kilmore and Kilbride Highland games on this bright and sunny afternoon, and we hope you are all enjoy yourselves, but more importantly, that you learn something about our Highland culture which we are naturally, very, very proud of.
Stumbling upon a small town festival, it's clear, Scottish spirit not only survived Colloden... it thrives.
While Scotland is still a part of the United Kingdom, local government authority has come home. For the first time since 1707, the Scottish Parliament is now meeting... in Scotland. If Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops were alive today, they'd be here celebrating.
Throughout Scotland, communities gather for traditional games, music, and dancing competitions. Highland dancing predates bagpipes in Scotland. The ancient steps have been handed down from generation to generation.
Scot: Put it against your neck.
Rick: Hands together, right? OK, now what am I supposed to do with this thing?
The 'Heavy Events' are always the hit of the games. Brawny lads compete for prize money by heaving all kinds of heavy things. While the shot put went international only about 100 years ago, its' been big in Scotland for centuries.
Scot: Don't drop it, OK?
Rick: OK, I got it. Are you OK?
Scot: I am fine.
And speaking of "Heavy Events" ... this gadget weighs 56 pounds.
No Highland Games are complete without tossing the caber. The object: flip the tree trunk — all 20 feet tall and 140 pounds of it — end over end keeping it in a straight line. What ever it takes to connect with the culture good travel means give it a go.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at the Highlands of Scotland. Join us again for more travel fun. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
Rick: OK, short sprint, stop, go! All right, give me five!
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.