The Highlands of Scotland

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Scotland, the 15th of September. The entire expanse of sky is gray, the Cuilin mountains are all but lost in fog, there’s a light rain falling, and a chilly wind is stirring the tattered Scottish flag outside the hostel to wave in proud defiance every few seconds. Typical, you might say — Scottish weather in all its grim glory — except that two out of the last 3 days have been unbelievably sunny.
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Inverness_Highland Tour_Aqueduct 01

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It was particularly lucky that we had fine weather when we went on a drive around the Highlands with Andrew MacDonald of Hame Tours. Before anything else, I’d like to say I would highly, highly recommend going on a tour with Andrew if you’re ever in Scotland. There are many Scottish Highlands tour operators — some based in Inverness and some much further away, in Edinburgh or Glasgow — but what set Hame Tours apart for me was their emphasis on culture and history. From their website alone, you can already learn a lot about Scotland, the Highlands in particular, and I picked up so much more during the tour with Andrew. He even sang for us (and wore a kilt, by the way) and I can’t even begin to describe the goosebumps I got when he sang the Skye Boat Song. He’s very passionate about Scotland and that’s what you want out of a guide — someone who doesn’t just show you the sights but can tell you with conviction what they mean to him and to his countrymen.

We first went to the woodlands of Craig Phadrig, where St. Columba came to meet with King Brude, the Pictish ruler. (The Picts were one of the ancestors of the Scottish people.) There is a trail in Craig Phadrig that has great views of Inverness.
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Inverness_Highland Tour_Craig Phadrig

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Next, we had short stops at viewpoints of the Moray Firth and Loch Ness.
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The Moray Firth
The Moray Firth
Loch Ness
Loch Ness

Inverness_Highland Tour_Loch Ness 02

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I’ve seen a lot of photos of Loch Ness before but you have to be there to really take in the immensity of it. There’s another loch that is deeper than Ness and another one that has a greater surface area, but taken as a whole, Loch Ness is the biggest in terms of the volume of water it holds. No monsters but Andrew said there had been someone recently, a long-term resident who was fond of going out to the loch at night, who one day just suddenly left Scotland without a word. His hair had turned white overnight and he has since always refused to say what he’d seen. His companion that night has also kept mum to this day. Local belief is that they’d seen something and wouldn’t say a word because they feared being ridiculed. My guess is Voldemort, but it could be another monster of sorts, who knows.

We were too cheap to pay admission so we just took a peep at the ruins of Urquhart Castle from the road. There are several stories about Urquhart Castle but the story we were told was that the Grants were so fed up with the MacDonalds raiding their land, stealing their cattle and the silver in their castle that — in a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face — they blew up their own castle. (Presumably they had a better one elsewhere.) I hope they blew up the castle while there were actually MacDonalds inside, otherwise the story wouldn’t make much sense, but hey.
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The ruins of Urquhart Castle
The ruins of Urquhart Castle

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Speaking of MacDonalds, we didn’t have time to go to Glencoe, but we had a good chat about that horrible massacre in the car with Andrew. It’s a good, if grim, story and if you don’t know about it, really, just open Google right now and look it up. Wikipedia will tell you what you need to know, but basically it was awful, unforgivable, how the Campbells murdered the MacDonalds in their sleep. It went against everything that Highland hospitality stood for, and still stands for, and it is still spoken of with disgust today. Incidentally, Andrew was once married to a Campbell and I asked him if he was considered a traitor by his clan — he wasn’t, but he said (jokingly, I hope) that he had to sleep with one eye open.

One of the stops I enjoyed a lot was the Beauly Priory — surprising because I wasn’t really into graveyards until I came to Inverness and had a short stroll around the graveyard beside one of the kirks. The graveyard at the Beauly Priory was much bigger and it was beautifully peaceful. I loved how the sunlight filtered through the leaves of the old trees and cast patterns of light and shadows at the gravestones. One of the stones said, “Until the day break and the shadows flee away” and I loved what that simple phrase stood for: steadfastness, hope, love beyond death.
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Inverness_Highland Tour_Beauly Priory 01

Inverness_Highland Tour_Beauly Priory 02

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Another place that squeezed my heart and constricted my throat: the Clootie Well. Andrew said it wasn’t known to a lot of tourists but I had actually come across some photos of it during my research and I was not interested in it at all. There was nothing appealing, I thought, about pieces of clothing, muddy from countless rains, hanging from trees leading up to a well. But as I stood there myself — reflecting on the story of how people would take pieces of cloth from a loved one’s sickbed, carry it all the way to the woods, tie it to a tree, drop a coin into the well and pray for healing — I began to feel the desperation of the people who had been there before me and brought those pieces of cloth that I’d previously found so ugly. There were children’s shoes there, and I could imagine a tearful mother, tying them to the tree with trembling hands, trying not to hope too much, but still, secretly, in her heart of hearts hoping it would work, hoping that there was something in the story, that faith and a tiny coin plopped into a stone basin would work wonders where science and medicine couldn’t.
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Inverness_Highland Tour_Clootie Well 01

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And then the Clava Cairns (for people whose stint at the Clootie Well didn’t go so well?). The cairns were in a beautiful patch of wood, and though the sunlight made the burial mounds seem less mysterious, the place still conjured images of druids in long white dresses, flowers in their hair, waving their pale arms in the light of the moon, dancing to an enchanted tune. Or maybe I was just thinking of Outlander — it was just such a cairn that had transported Claire centuries back. I tried touching one but it didn’t work — I’m still here, apparently, 21st century and sadly Jamie-less.
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Inverness_Highland Tour_Clava Cairns 02

Inverness_Highland Tour_Clava Cairns 01

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Finally, my favorite stop of all: Culloden battlefield.

I’ve never found centuries-old battles interesting, to be honest. And perhaps it was just the thought of handsome, valiant men in kilts — fighting hopelessly, desperately against a superiorly-armed and -numbered English and Protestant Scot army — that caught my imagination in the first place. But no matter what drew me to it initially, well, I was drawn.
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Inverness_Highland Tour_Culloden 01

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“Our blood is still our fathers,
And ours the valour of their hearts…”

Those lines are etched on a sign at the entrance to Culloden. The battle was over in minutes, I learned. They never had a chance. So much bravery…so much death. In the field itself, among the heather, were stones marking where most of the various clans had fallen. I picked three yellow flowers and laid them in front of a stone marked “Mixed Clans.” I had tears in my eyes — I know it sounds silly, how I was so affected by a battle that had nothing whatsoever to do with me, but in a way I do understand. In my own way, I know what it’s like to be so desperate, to fight with all you have for something that you know in your heart is a lost battle. I think it’s only when you’ve found something that you’re willing to die for that you can say you’ve truly lived.
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Time seems to stand still in the field. There is but a simple memorial cairn to commemorate those whose lives were lost in the battle. Otherwise, there are just the stones and the plants — an untamed profusion of heather and wild flowers that swayed and grew still with each gust of cold wind. It was fitting, I thought, that so much life would sprout and grow in a field that had witnessed so much death. And fitting that there was nothing fancy built on the field. Bravery is a testament to itself.
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Inverness_Highland Tour_Culloden 03

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Scotland has had quite a romance with death but it is also full, no, bursting with life and we’ve been lucky to have had brushes with it — but the sky is clearing right now, so that, I think, I’ll save for another rainy day. Off to the mountains now. Cheers!

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