Saturday, January 5, 2013

Lochs and Highlands

Loch Lomond, looking north from waterside at the village of Luss.

The last time I was in Scotland, as Bill was driving us up and over from Glasgow to Buckie, I saw the highlands stretching up to the left, red-heathered grey slopes surrounding deep valleys leading to unknown mountains, and swore I'd go there the next time. So even though the weather wasn't the best, and the lack of daylight meant that the last four hours of the trip would be in darkness, I signed up for a coach tour out of Glasgow to Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, Inverness, and Pitlochry. The guide and driver was a bekilted man in his 50s named John, who had a wealth of information and really awful taste in music (in my opinion). The other 15 passengers were all in their 20s and most of them appeared to pay little attention to his lectures, either chatting in Spanish to each other or dozing off in the seats. I was the first one to arrive, so I snagged the front seat behind the driver and was able to ask questions easily. We learned things geological, historical, and political about Scotland as we drove out of Glasgow and headed north. Glasgow itself, said John, is built on drumlins, hills formed by the movement of glaciers; by contrast, the towns of Stirling and Edinburgh were built and centered on volcanic plugs and on the debris around them. It's all glacial aftermath in this area, and like the west coast of Norway this side of Scotland is creased with lakes (lochs) and fjords (firths) gouged out of the ground by ancient ice. Loch Lomond, now the largest body of fresh water in Great Britain, used to be open to the sea, and some of the "lakes" like Loch Linhee are really just arms of inlets stretching up towards the north and east. The Vikings used to bring their longboats in to sail on Loch Lomond.

Because of the low clouds, we couldn't see very far into the Trossachs, the southern end of the highland mountains. I still wanted to get out of the coach and go up into the valleys, though from what I could see of the ground the hiking would be difficult, since it's all boggy marshy moorland, the kind where you squelch through matted undergrowth, tripping over tussocks of sharp-edged grasses. At least that was what the ground was like nearer to the roadway; maybe it dries out as you go further in and higher up. The roofs on the few houses we saw are tiled in slate, and there's an old slate quarry that runs right under Loch Lomond.

We learned that the word glen refers to a narrow steep-sided valley and the word strath means a wide low valley. We learned that the Scots (or Caledonian) pine and the juniper and the yew are indigenous to the area but lots of Douglas Fir was brought in over the last decades to reforest, though it's a slow process. I saw a few red deer just past Bridge of Orchy, but no other animals, and no birds but seagulls. We learned that a small gold mine will be starting near Tindrum, and Auch Farm is where J. M. Barrie first came up with the "Peter Pan" stories.

The Glencoe Gorge is where the famous Bridge of Death scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed ("Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see!") but I couldn't tell exactly where. Apparently quite a bit of the movie was filmed in Scotland, and the crew of the Flying Circus was frequently in the area as well, since the uninhabited moorland gave them lots of scope for filming without having to block people from the film sets, plus it was cheap. Doune Castle, which we didn't see, played the part of Castle Anthrax, Camelot, and pretty much any other castle cameo throughout the film.

Once we got out of the lower highlands, we continued up the A82 along the shores of Loch Linnhe, the inland sea lake, and Loch Lochy, which to me appeared to mean "Lake Lakey" and be a bit redundant to say the least. The guide said it was probably an English mistranslation of a Gaelic word, and I find now that it's really Loch Lochaidh, but since I can't find a translation for "lochaidh" that's not clearing things up too much. Past Loch Lochy was a deer farm where the animals are raised for meat, though we didn't see any of the deer either pre- or post-processing. The lakes are connected by canals and locks, but I'm not sure how much transport, if any, happens on that route these days.

We stopped at Fort Augustus, at the southern tip of Loch Ness, and saw the former Benedictine Abbey, which started out as a military fortress in 1715 as a defense against the Jacobite rebels, and has ended up as a guest house for tourists. There's a lot of tourism in the area, even in the winter, though more of it's up in the ski areas rather than on the lakes at this time of year (except for silly outlanders like me who take coach tours in the fog and rain). There were several other tour buses making the same stops; I was reminded why I don't usually do these tours when I wanted to spend more time in the smaller interesting places, or pull over by the side of the road for a closer look at the mountains, or wander down through alleys looking at slate walls and old churches. As it was I, like the rest of the group, piled out for five or fifteen minutes, glanced around, took some photos, and clambered back in for the next stretch of road travel.

Loch Ness is 900 feet deep, and since 700AD those depths have been said to harbor a monster that once ate fishermen and their boats. These days, it's a gentler kinder monster, often portrayed in purple or green plush, with big googly eyes. There's another, deeper lake called Loch Morar which also has a monster, but since it's hard to get to, Morag languishes alone, with no tour coaches or trinkets dedicated to her.

We had a choice of getting off at Urquhart Castle and taking the ferry up to the visitor's center, or getting off at the visitor's center and taking the ferry down to the castle and back, or just getting off at the visitor's center and hanging out for an hour. I decided to do the ferry ride, and get out in the fresh air. The winter wind was so cold as we skimmed across the peat-dark waters. I stood outside for the trip down to the castle but went inside for the trip back to thaw out my fingers.

Sunset came an hour later as we reached Inverness, where we made an unscheduled stop just to see the town briefly where the canal coming out of Loch Ness goes into Beauly Firth and on to the North Sea. If we had kept going a bit farther north to Cromarty, we could have hiked to MacFarquhar's Bed, a natural rock arch supposed to have been a smuggler's hideout. The guide told us about that, with a nod to me, and about the pod of bottlenose dolphins that live in the waters around Cromarty. Another item for the future Scotland travel list. I'm thinking that a train trip would be nice, with a bicycle, so that I could get on and off and explore where I wanted, from London to Exeter to see Mandy, and Camilla and the girls, then Gloucester to visit David and Caroline, then up the west coast to Glasgow to visit Bill and Sheila again, perhaps at the time of the World Pipe Bands Competition (August 17-18, 2013), and finally north through the Cairngorms to Inverness. Too many places to go, too little time (and money). But it sounds like fun.

Once out of Inverness, the sun faded entirely, and so only the ghosts of the Cairngorms were visible for a while, but that's another place I'd like to go; more high mountains and deep valleys and wild Scottish moorland. Since we couldn't see anything, and had two hours to drive to Pitlochry for the dinner stop, the guide put on some music. And it was horrible. Instead of traditional Scottish music, it was a bastardized series of cheesy 1970s and 1980s American love songs, made cheesier by their interpretations on this mix CD. Adding a pennywhistle and some vaguely Gaelic drum figures to "Wonderful Tonight" and "Wind Beneath My Wings" does not a Celtic music soundtrack make. I tried my best to ignore the music, and stared out at the glimmers of snow-filled ravines, and dreamed of adventure.

Once at Pitlochry, deserted in the darkness and shut down for the season, except for the few places open for drinks and food, the tour bus unanimously voted to only take a bathroom break and to head back early to Glasgow. In the summer, with the long light evenings, Pitlochry (a very pretty but tourist-driven town, from what I could see) is apparently quite the happening place, but at 6pm on a dark cold Wednesday evening there was no one out on the streets but the people from the tours buses looking for a place to pee.

But for all the grumbling I've done here about the tour, I did enjoy the day, and am glad I didn't put it off. I said that I'd visit the highlands on my next trip to Scotland, and so I did. Now I'll plan the next trip during a time of the year when I can see and do more. Possibly next August ...


  1. We did one of those bus tours when we were in Scotland, and instead of the ferry on Loch Ness we opted to hang out at the visitor's center. What that meant in reality was we had tea, and then found a path down to the water, where we went walking. The beach is all pebbles, one of which may have come home in my pocket.

  2. When he awoke it was dawn. Or something like dawn. The light was watery, dim, and incomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.

    "This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?" he said.

    "My kingdoms?" exclaimed the gentleman in surprise. "Oh, no! This is Scotland!"

  3. As a matter of fact, the guide driving the coach had thistle-down hair.