Highlands Magic

By Rick Steves
The center of Oban is not a square or market, but its harbor. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)
Though the Clava Cairns appear to be just some giant piles of rocks, they are actually Neolithic burial chambers dating from 4,000 years ago. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)

Years ago, I met a dear man on a deserted roadside in the Scottish Highlands. I was scrambling to make a public television show, and as if placed there by heaven’s Central Casting, this tender giant of a man was bagpiping to the birds, the passing clouds, and the occasional motorist. He had picked a spot that seemed intentionally miles from nowhere. We stopped, and he graciously demonstrated his pipes, giving us a tour of that fascinating symbol of Scottish culture. I’ve never forgotten that wonderful chance meeting.

The Scottish Highlands are filled with magic and mystery. In the northernmost reaches of Scotland, the Highlands feature a wild, severely undulating terrain that’s punctuated by lochs (lakes) and fringed by sea lochs (inlets) and islands. Whenever I want a taste of traditional Scotland, this is where I come.

The area north of Glasgow offers a fun and easy dip into the Highlands. A smart place to spend the night is in Oban. This low-key resort town has a famous whisky distillery and a winding promenade lined with gravel beaches, ice-cream stands, and good eateries. Wind, boats, gulls, and the promise of a wide-open Atlantic beyond give Oban a rugged charm.

About an hour’s drive north of Oban is Glencoe valley. Along with its wild, powerful, and stark scenery, Glencoe has some bloody clan history. In 1692, British Redcoats came to the valley and were sheltered and fed for 12 days by the MacDonalds. One morning, the soldiers were ordered to rise up early and kill their sleeping hosts, violating the rules of Highland hospitality and earning the valley the name “The Weeping Glen.” It’s fitting that such an epic, dramatic incident should be set in this equally epic, dramatic valley, where the cliffsides seem to weep with running streams when it rains. While driving through here, I make it a point to get out of the car and feel the wonder of this distant corner of Scotland.

When traveling in Scotland, I like to balance the big cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow with the sleepy, more traditional, and — as is so often the case — more enchanting rural and village scene. About two hours north of Edinburgh, tiny Kenmore fits the bill perfectly. Little more than the fancy domain of its castle, a church set in a bouquet of tombstones, and a line of humble houses, Kenmore offers a fine dose of small-town Scottish flavor.

Loch Tay, near Kenmore, is a fascinating place. All across Scotland, archaeologists know that little round islands on the lochs are evidence of crannogs — circular lakefront houses built by big shots about 2,500 years ago. In the age before roads, people traveled by boat, so building houses on waterways made sense. There are 18 such crannogs on Loch Tay, and one is now the Crannog Centre, a museum dedicated to demonstrating the skills every crannog homeowner needed, such as making fire by rubbing sticks.

The Highlands’ past is written all over its landscape. Perhaps no other place is as evocative as the memorial battlefield of Culloden, near the workaday city of Inverness. In 1746, Jacobite troops (most of them Highlanders) gave it their all to put the Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie on the English throne…and failed. While only about 50 English soldiers died, the Highlanders lost about 1,500 men. Bonnie Prince Charlie declared, “Every man for himself!” as he galloped away. The Highlanders scattered. Touring Culloden is a powerful experience, made even more so by watching the 360-degree video that re-creates the slaughter.

Near Culloden is another fascinating sight — the Clava Cairns. I always knew about England’s famous stone circles, but I hadn’t realized that Scotland had fancy-pants, overachieving knuckle draggers, too. At Clava Cairns, set in a peaceful grove of trees, are the remains of three stone burial mounds, each cleverly constructed 4,000 years ago with a passageway that the sun illuminates, as if by magic, with each winter solstice. Wandering through these cairns, knowing they’re as old as the pyramids, is thought-provoking.

Music provides the perfect backdrop at the end of a Highlands day. Each evening, in almost every town, the happy sound of traditional folk music spills out of local pubs. And each evening, visitors have the chance to join in the fun.

Celtic music stirs me. Part of its attraction is how it’s invigorated by the driving and organic beat of the bodhrán — that ubiquitous handheld, animal-skinned drum thumped with such vibrancy with a single stick. I see the tumult of the past and the love of heritage in the eyes of the musicians. There really is a spark that mixes well with beer, smiles, and pub ambience. A night sipping a local brew, surrounded by this unique conviviality, is a highlight of any Highlands visit.