You could create a list of differences between the countries we’ve visited as long and varied as a trump Twitter rant, but there Japan, South Korea, Italy, Vietnam, and Thailand all have one thing in common: each inspires a sense of control over the land. Whether through commercialization, tourism, engineering, and/or transportation, they have tamed the beast on which they live, and achieved a sort of master/pet relationship with much of their land. Scotland’s nature, with its sheep-run hillsides, sprawling munroes (mountains), fantasy-novel greenery, jagged cliffs, ubiquitous waterfalls, and unpredictable weather pattern, seems like an equal match to its people. In turn, the people have adopted the perspective required to live in an unpredictable place – equal parts feisty, warm and tough as hell, topped off with a hearty sense of humor.
In order to “get thee to the highlands,” we rented a sexy beige Skoda – 4 doors, air conditioning, and bluetooth! From our motorcycle adventures in Thailand, Michael’s an old hat at driving on the other side of the road, so NO! We will not purchase extra insurance!
Off we drove on our first leg of the trip – the road to Inverness. Our first stop was Sterling Castle, less grand than Edinburgh but very important for its location – nestled on the path north between steep cliffs. Built in the 15th century, the castle has withstood many sieges in its history, and even served as a prison for war criminals from the American Revolutionary War. We happened to hit during a free tour, so had the pleasure of hearing stories about this famous castle from an old Scotsman who looked JUST like a happier Argus Filch from the Harry Potter films. We also got to sit in the old throne, which felt completely natural because we should rule Scotland.
Our next stop was Pitlochry, home of Edradour, the smallest copper-still whiskey distillery in Scotland. We took a tour, tasted some of their delicious single malts, and learned about the end to end process of producing some of the best whiskey on earth. Because they are small and want to remain so, they use a lot of old methods to create their scotch – from hand shoveling the barley during the roasting process to using short copper stills to distill it. We learned that in the early 1920s, Scotland made the cost of a whiskey production license so expensive that many folks began to produce illegally. The tax men would look for the smoke of the distilling whiskey, and then raid the farm – focusing on the destruction of the still, while the perpetrators grabbed their shit and RUN. Eventually, Scotland reduced the cost of a license, and increased the cost of the fine, leading to a boom in legal and delicious whiskey production.
On the road to Inverness, we drove through the Cairngorms – a national park where you can begin to see the insanity of highland landscapes. It seemed all of a sudden we were surrounded by huge mountains covered in lush green pine trees. We saw ancient Caledonian trees – fluffy skinny pines native to Scotland. This part of the country actually reminded me a lot of the Adirondacks – fresh, chill air, low mountains, and plenty of pine in the wind.
We checked into our B&B in Inverness, run by an elderly Scottish couple who could not have been more welcoming or adorable, and hit the town. We stumbled upon a bar that was BUMPING with a band covering American classics. It was packed with 40 somethings dancing like they were possessed to brown eyed girl and you shook me all night long, as well as a mix of dirty and very old locals who looked on wide eyed and laughing. When we walked in, the bar practically shut down to look at the two giants. One very drunk local spent the next 20 minutes or so shouting in our ears / spitting on our faces a slew of jumbled life advice. It was the strangest thing.
After taking in a real Gaelic music band – fiddles and all (see instagram) – we headed to bed to prepare for the big trip to Skye the next day!
The next day, we stopped at Loch Ness, which reminded me even more of the Adirondacks, where we killed the Loch Ness monster. You’re welcome, Scotland
We headed north to Ullapool, a small scenic fishing town where we began to discover how delicious Scottish seafood could be. Along the driving routes of Scotland, they’ve clearly marked places to pull over and go for a hike, so we made two stops – one to lovely wooded area with a stream, and the other to Corrieshalloc Gorge and Nature Reserve – home to a beautiful waterfall and gorge.
We continued along A832, where the landscape surrounding the road seemed to completely change every five minutes, becoming increasingly dramatic and astounding. From friendly, Adirondack-like tree-covered hills, to big beautiful lakes, to dramatic views of the ocean, to wide Glen’s filled with grey and white marbled rocky ledges, to huge open spaces apparently run by sheep, to steep climbs up gigantic mountains. Michael and I found ourselves pulling over every five minutes to take pictures – which, honestly, cannot do the experience justice. What was really astounding was how quickly and dramatically the nature changed – there was a constant feeling of discovery, of surprise around every turn.
The roads were winding, and often turned into single lanes with designated areas to pull over to allow oncoming cars to pass by – a feature that required patience, politeness, and attentiveness. Not sure this would work with Texan drivers.
To set the mood, I had downloaded an Scottish audiobook about an Edinburgh detective (the Inspector Rebus series by Ian Rankin). It may sound silly, but listening to a Scottish mystery novel in the mysterious Scottish highlands enriched the whole experience.
When we finally made it to the Isle of Skye – the largest of the Hebrides islands on the northwest coast of Scotland, we fought our way through the traffic jams caused by wandering sheep to our AirBnB in Portree… and quickly passed out.