There is indeed poetry in the geography of the Highlands of Scotland. The country's laureate poet, Robert Burns, etched the literary vision hundreds of years ago:
"My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
"My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
"Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe,
"My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go."
Lured by that romantic vision, we left New York to follow the seductive sound of the Scottish sirens to the Isle of Skye.
We began our journey with a nonstop flight to Glasgow. Located on the River Clyde, the city was once known for building great ships -- including the Queen Mary and the Royal Yacht Britannia. Today, it is visited more for its shopping.
With another couple who had a similar desire to experience the Highlands, my wife and I spent a short period of adjustment in Glasgow, getting acclimated to the time -- it was mid-June and daylight peeked in early and lasted until after 9 p.m. -- and trying to attune to Scottish accents (we never did), while adjusting to looking first to the right when stepping off the street curb.
Then we rented a car and set off north for the Highlands, stopped on the way at Balloch at the northern end of Loch Lomond, boated the lake and walked a bit on its bonnie banks before settling in at a bed-and-breakfast for the night -- our home of choice wherever we were in the countryside.
While it is wise to make these reservations in advance, we winged it, taking advantage of good fortune and, at times, the helpful information centers that are available in most every town in the country. They not only provide information and souvenirs, but for a small fee (about $6) they will book your accommodations in the area.
The licensed B&Bs start at about $50 per person per day; reasonable hotels are available for about double that. (Figure higher than that during the peak summer tourist season.)
On the road again, bright and early, growing accustomed to driving on the left -- though occasionally killing some weeds on the unfamiliar side -- we headed for Skye, known as the "misty island," just off the coast of the Western Highlands. The roads, though still good, narrowed a bit and became far more curvy as they snaked through the braes (hills) and the bens (mountains).
You can tell you're getting closer to the Highlands when the deer-crossing warnings become alerts for wandering sheep, as the sheep -- their wool often marked with a colorful splotch for identification -- seem to outnumber the people and the cars.
You can spot some of the hirsute Highland cattle, too, with their distinctive long bangs over their eyes, a natural protection developed over centuries to cope with the windswept, rain-soaked habitat.
Road signs were another indication of the Highlands, as they doubled identification of towns and villages with the equivalent name in Gaelic.
There are spectacular vistas at every turn. And there are many turns. Fortunately, there also are numerous lay-bys (a British term for roadside parking) and pull-overs for the requisite photos of one of nature's spectacular shows, with every twist in the road a new act.
The glens and the lochs. Green meadows overlooked by the Cuillin Hills. Clouds dropping down over the mountaintops to greet viewers. Flowers, yellow and purple amidst the brown bristles.
It is an area deservedly known for its hiking and fishing, but we were more than content just to breathe in the stunning scenes before us.
It is indeed a poet's canvas.
We settled in at the Corran Guest House, a charming bed-and-breakfast with a gracious hostess in the village of Kyleakin (Caol Acain in Gaelic), just on the other side of the Skye Bridge that links the mainland Highlands to the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgithenach). The bridge opened in 1995 to replace the ferry.
With much (too much?) on our itinerate palette, we savored just two days on Skye, visiting, in particular, Dunvegan Castle, a rare aristocratic home still lived in, currently by the 29th head of the MacLeod clan.
We lucked into a weather aberration; it was sunny and warm most of the time. The Scots considered it a heat wave. It got up to near 70 degrees, with little rain.
But don't count on sunshine. Rain is generally a given in Scotland, especially in the Western Highlands and the islands, the wettest of all. It rains so much that it is no wonder that Scottish men are called Mac, a national joke.
On to Inverness, in central Scotland, with a stop at Drumnadrochit, halfway up Loch Ness. Can't go to Scotland without paying respects to "Nessie," the legendary sea monster that has made this town a tourist mecca.
Of course, no visit to the birthplace of golf would be complete without time for 18 holes, accomplished, at least by one of our traveling companions, at a picturesque course on the Moray Firth near Inverness. Golf-course choices are numerous, except in the northern Highlands and some islands. With some 540 golf courses and about 5 million residents, Scotland may have the highest ratio of courses to people in the world.
Then, back down and east to Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh. Park the car here. Walk the streets -- certainly the Princes Street shops -- or hop on a tour bus or public bus and get to Edinburgh Castle, the symbol of this historic city.
"Such dusky grandeur clothed the height,
Where the huge castle holds its state,
And all the steep slope down,
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky,
Piled deep and massy, close and high,
Mine own romantic town!"
Sir Walter Scott knew what he was writing about. No wonder they created a monument for him in the city. (A monument to a writer!) And you can climb its 278 steps for yet another wondrous view of the city from on high.
All Edinburgh museums are free, as is a bus that will take you to five of them. A statue of a trio of cows stands outside the Art Museum. Called "Three Grazers," it mimics the sculpture of "Three Graces" inside.
Nearby, the Royal Yacht Britannia takes on visitors at its berth at the port of Leith on the Firth of Forth.
In Edinburgh, as all through Scotland, from the ubiquitous pubs to waterside restaurants, the dining was prime (a pleasant surprise to those who have traveled elsewhere in Great Britain).
A "standard" Scottish breakfast included eggs, bacon, sausage, tomatoes (and sometimes mushrooms), along with toast and coffee. For later meals, there was Angus beef and seafood. And "chips" with everything, sometimes even with meals served with other potatoes or rice. And, of course, haggis, the national dish.
Drink is a national resource. Regions compete in producing their famed single malt whisky, which line the pub shelves overlooking a variety of beers.
Time to return to reality. We drove back across the narrowest part of the nation, some 60 miles from Edinburgh to Glasgow -- with a last stop on the way to see Stirling Castle, its approach flanked by statues of two of the nation's historic heroes, Robert the Bruce and William ("Braveheart") Wallace.
In all, less than 700 miles in 12 days. Still, just a tasting.
If you go:
- Scotland: http://www.visitscotland.com/ or http://www.scotlandtourism.com. VisitBritain can provide information by phone: 800-462-2748.
- Accommodations: http://www.b-and-b-scotland.co.uk/stars.htm, http://www.aboutscotland.com/b-and-b.html or http://www.travelscotland.co.uk/.
- Skye Music Festival: July 25-Aug. 5, http://www.skyefestival.com.