Scotland’s Islands and Highlands
In Scotland, legends of Bonnie Prince Charlie swirl with pipers and kilts around crumbling castles. We remember Highland massacres in Glencoe, and try tossing a caber (log) at a Scottish clan gathering in Culloden. We play hide-and-seek with the Loch Ness Monster, tour a whisky distillery in Oban, and take a ferry to sacred Iona.
The 200-year-old Oban Whisky Distillery produces more than 25,000 liters a week, and exports much of that to the US. The distillery offers serious and fragrant one-hour tours explaining the process from start to finish, with two smooth samples of their signature product. This is one of the best whisky tours you'll encounter. Connoisseurs can ask about their "exclusive tour," which adds a visit to the warehouse and four premium tastings in the manager's office.
Iona and Mull Bus Tour
Here's the game plan: Take a ferry from Oban to Mull (45 minutes), ride a West Coast Motors tour bus across Mull (1.25 hours), then board a quick ferry from Mull to Iona. The total round-trip travel time is 5.5 hours — all of it incredibly scenic — plus about two hours of free time on Iona.
This (mostly rebuilt) church marks the site of Christianity's arrival in Scotland. You'll see Celtic crosses, the original shrine of St. Columba, a big church slathered with medieval carvings, a tranquil cloister, and an excellent museum with surviving fragments of this site's fascinating layers of history.
This gathering of thatched-roof, early 18th-century croft houses are jammed with local history, creating a huggable museum filled with humble exhibits gleaned from the town's old closets and attics. When one house was being rethatched, its owner found a cache of 200-year-old swords and pistols hidden there from the government Redcoats after the disastrous battle of Culloden. You'll also see antique toys, boxes from old food products, sports paraphernalia, a cabinet of curiosities, and plenty of information on the MacDonald clan.
Our dear friend Arthur Smith died in 2005, but you can hear the interview he did with Rick shortly before his passing.
This exhibit is the better option of the two options. It's headed by a naturalist who has spent many years researching lake ecology and scientific phenomena. With video presentations and special effects, this exhibit explains the geological and historical environment that bred the monster story, as well as the various searches that have been conducted. Refreshingly, it retains an air of healthy skepticism instead of breathless monster-chasing. The other exhibit is basically a tacky high-school-quality photo report and a 30-minute We Believe in the Loch Ness Monster movie.
The castle itself, while dramatically situated and fun to climb through, is a relatively empty shell. Well-placed, descriptive signs help you piece together this once-mighty fortress, and the visitors center has a tiny exhibit with interesting castle artifacts and a good short film taking you on a sweep through a thousand years of tumultuous history — from St. Columba's visit to the castle's final destruction in 1692.
Culloden's visitors center is a state-of-the-art facility; your tour takes you through two sections: the exhibit, with an impressive 360-degree movie of the battle, and the actual battlefield, brought alive by an excellent audioguide.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, glad to be your travel partner again as we enjoy 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 please.
Vendor: Cup of cockles! These are cooked without salt; you might want to put a bit of salt, vinegar, 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. He 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 make a point to 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 bit this way.
Margaret: That is correct.
Rick: OK, let's give that a whirl.
Margaret: Wow, you took your porridge this morning.
Rick: See, I am throwing it too far, and I forgot my bias.
Margaret: You forgot your bias, yes. Take the ball.
Rick: Do it again?
Margaret: Yes and remember your bias this time.
Margaret: Not too heavy. That's not a bad try.
Rick: Not bad. Thank you very much for the lesson.
Margaret: It was a pleasure.
Rick: It was a pleasure. Nice to meet you.
To celebrate our first game of lawn bowling, how about a little Scotch? Oban's 200-year-old whisky distillery produces nearly 15,000 bottles a week.
Guide: Don't breathe in too deeply, because sometimes it can take your breath away.
They offer fragrant tours.
Guide: So we'll have a look in this one now. Now, this one's finished fermenting. Now Oban is quite unique; the wash still is much bigger than the spirit still. Now each distillery will have its own shape of still; that's tradition, and the shape of the still will influence the character of the whisky. So this is Oban's single malt whisky, and it's 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 pretty rare. So, this is my home away from home. I've set up a wee little pantry, got my sink here, 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 coffee and biscuits, and you help yourself, and you are more than welcome to use it. This is the lounge and this where we like to sit in an evening, have a talk to our guests.
Rick: So you actually get the guests gathering in here?
Rena: Oh, we do, 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, and I ask them where they've been, and where they've come from, and I like to know where they are.
Rick: Rena, we need one 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 as well ― there's salmon and steaks, and really nice steaks they are in there.
Rick: Now I know it's a touristy thing, but I really when I am in Scotland, I like to have some haggis, will they serve the haggis do you think?
Rena: I think so. I'm not sure about haggis because I'm not a haggis eater at all.
Rick: I think they serve it to all the tourists, but you probably haven't had it for a while.
Rena: No, they can dance it, they can shoot it if they like.
The Studio [no longer in business] 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 for me.
Waitress: Would you like some horseradish sauce with that?
Rick: Oh yes please.
Because it let's us order the locally caught grilled salmon and the highland Angus beef.
Each morning, travelers 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, it's uh, it's a big island; it is bigger than most people realize at first. It is the biggest of the Hebrides, so 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 here came to settle and 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 this was long enough for a community to gather any riches about them. And 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, five square miles, 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 battle in Ireland. He won, but sickened by the bloodshed, he left his homeland vowing never to return. According to legend, the first piece of land he saw outside of Ireland 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 eighth 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.
By about the year 800 Vikings were raiding. After one massacre — 68 monks were killed right here on the beach — the survivors packed up their treasures, including the Book of Kells, 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 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, here in Britain you drive on the left-hand side of the road — originally that was so you could drive defensively...with your sword hand on the inside to defend yourself against oncoming traffic. 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: Boy that's great. Can you give me a quick tour of your gear and everything?
Piper: Yeah sure. You've got your bag, hand sewn; hide bag.
Piper: Yeah. Then you've got your two bass, your tenor drone, the blow pipe.
Rick: To fill the bag.
Piper: To fill the bag, and you've got your standard keyboard, this is where your music comes from.
Rick: So if you can play the recorder, you can actually, you have to fill the bag but you can play this. Can I give it a whirl?
Rick: So you are going to power the organ, and then I will try to cover all these holes….
Piper: Very good!
Rick: My first lesson. Thanks!
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.
Arthur: This house was built in 1695.
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 fond of using muskets. And we tended to carry broadswords and targes. It took a Redcoat about a minute to reload a musket. So we would stand 30 yards away from them, two lines. They would fire, we would fire; the Redcoats would then reload. And it took about a minute, yeah get the hammer in, get the ball in, and while they were doing that, we charged. Our targes were used for knocking out the bayonets, and then you slashed. So it was knock and slash, knock and slash. And 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 and we had to either hand in our weapons or hide them. And these swords here were hidden in the thatch, and the heather thatch was a great hiding place.
Rick: So this sword was hiding in a thatch for 200 and some odd years?
Arthur: Yes. Two hundred years isn't a lot in the glen you know, passes quite quickly.
Rick: This is amazing.
Making friends with a local, like Arthur, fills the Highland scenery with meaning.
Arthur: Do you see this island here, Rick?
Arthur: That's the Island of Discussion. In the old days, if there was any arguments or quarrels, the parties were taken out and left here with cheese and whisky and oat cakes, and they were left here until they sorted out their argument and came to a conclusion. And the result of that is that in 1,500 years of history, we have only had one murder in this place.
Arthur: Very, very.
Rick: So Island Of Discussion.
Arthur: Island of Discussion. It works.
Rick: So Arthur, this is the site of the Massacre of Under Trust?
Arthur: It is, 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 1st of January 1692. The chief here was late in taking it, four days late, and they decided that was enough to make an example of him. So there was a party of Redcoats came from Fort William, were billeted two or three in each house, right throughout the glen, and on the night of the 13th of February, they turned on their hosts. They were bayoneted or shot in their beds, and their houses set on fire. And as the survivors fled, there was other parties of Redcoats coming down through this pass, and this pass, and this pass here. Fortunately they hadn't guarded this pass, and my six-times-removed great-grandmother, she fled up through 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.
Arthur: The chief realized they could no longer protect them, their people and the children.
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 shipping shortcut through — rather than around — Scotland.
These locks were an engineering marvel in their day.
The most famous part of the Caledonian Canal? 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.
Museum video: …poised for a huge shadow against the surface brightness.
It is a thrilling thought, and there have been several seemingly reliable "sightings" by police officers, monks, and now sonar images.
Museum video: …It's still for you to judge whether the waters are a veil, which one day may be lifted, or a mirror to our own imagination.
Long and skinny, Loch Ness is the third deepest lake in Europe. It's deepest near the 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's winning more and more autonomy the modern, peaceful, and democratic way. But centuries ago, it was a bloody and terrible 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, beat 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 an 18th-century form of ethnic cleansing by shipping out the rebellious Highlanders to the Carolinas, and to the Caribbean plantations. But that didn't work, so they thought that the only way they could stop the Jacobittes from rising again in the Highlands 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 ever stood close to a set of bagpipes being played, you maybe understand why. But it was a disaster for traditional Highland and Scottish culture.
Wandering the battlefield, you feel 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, we 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 really a lot of hill walkers and climbers, and in the summertime I get a lot of older people who like to come around, but don't want to drive around 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 sunny afternoon, and I hope you all enjoy yourself. But more importantly, that you learn something of our Highland culture, which we naturally are 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 shotput went international only about 100 years ago, it's 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. Whatever it takes to connect with the culture, good travel means give it a go.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at 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!
Rick: I see the men running after their balls when they throw, when they play a game you know?
Margaret: Yeah some of them do.
Rick: Why do they do that?
Rick: Just running down the thing, they're so cute! Do you ever run after your balls when you're doing that?
Margaret: No I don't.
Piper: And you've got, this is the dirk. You've got a small knife and fork.
Rick: For some classy eating!
Piper: For classy eating when you're in battle, yeah.
Ross: It's very comfortable. You feel really good at a dance when your kilt's swinging.
Rick: See you later, Rena.
Rena: Bye. Don't forget now, neeps and tatties: turnip and potatoes. Bye, then!