The simple underlined advantage of being in the United Kingdom for any travel buff is the flexibility to visit 4 countries on a single visa. How cool is that?
To avoid fretting over the long Visa procedures for Europe during the busy time of my masters program, I decided to explore the Scottish highlands over three days. Now being a mountain-lover, I really wanted to see the far north and not restrict myself to the capital city and nearby towns. Unfortunately the only option to get there was to drive down and bwam, all of a sudden I regretted not knowing how to drive! So I finally prepared to be a "tourist" for once and convinced myself to book a "3-day highland tour". Little did I know, this would turn out to be one of the best experience of my life!
At 9 am on a slightly overcast Friday morning, a journey of fun, frolics and tales of historical Scotland began from Edinburgh! The tour-guide Andrew arrived in his mini van to drive 20 of us through the highlands and Isle of Skye over the next three days. A most friendly man, it was him that got all of us interacting and by the end of the day, I had made friends with an amazing group of 6 girls from Hong-Kong and we were a team for the rest of the tour! What an amazing time we had, wandering off into all those mountains near which Andrew would park. Here is a series of pictures I created from my visit to Scotland.
Starting-off on the Bonny-Bonny banks of Loch Lomond, we stopped to admire this freshwater lake which is home to 40 islands and a great place for water-sport junkies. Following this, Andrew showed us to a great spot for lunch in the picturesque village of Luss. Since this place was just off the road leading into the highlands, I decided to take a little walk to catch a relaxed first glimpse of the Scottish highlands while the others headed into a traditional pub for lunch. For me, it was an afternoon stroll along a footpath, munching on Scottish shortbread and patiently waiting for the sun which kept disappearing every now and then!
After an hour, our van started its ascent into the highlands. I stuck fast to my window seat, not once taking my eyes off the massive greenery that loomed on my side of the road. Now and then, rain would pour through thick dark clouds and soon afterwards, the grey ones would be gone and white, fluffy cotton-like clouds would float in a clear blue heaven. The sun would shine down briefly and the pattern would repeat. It was a surreal experience, how the landscape assumed contrasting colours under changing weather conditions. To add to the pleasure of such splendor was the sight of the Rannoch moors, our first stop in the highlands. Here we fed biscuits to the antlers and deer that roamed freely. How I wished to call those mountains my home forever, how I wished to have a privilege like theirs!
From the moors, we headed into the Glencoe valley to admire the three sisters. Mostly throughout the stretch, it kept raining. But the downpour only deepened the shades of green, adding an unseen lustre to the valleys. Following a stopover at the Glencoe view point, we proceeded to the site where the massacre of Glencoe had taken place. Charming as the site may have seemed, the ghosts of its gruesome past still seemed to lurk around. It was an eerie feeling, to be in a place where a highlander-clan called the MacDonalds were mercilessly killed for not having pledged their allegiance to a Scottish ruler. Even though the fact totally thwarted the beauty of this site, on learning that the same valleys were used to film my all-time favourite Potter's journey to Hogwarts, I couldn't help harbouring a bit of secret admiration for the Glencoe valley. What's the point of not appreciating the place anyway? After all if nature could soften the cruel hearts of mankind, the world would have been a better place, long long ago!
The gloomy weather which added to the sinking feeling that came with listening to the tales about the place finally gave way to some brief spells of sunshine that grew sharper, as we entered the Great Glen. Not Japan and Indonesia, but it is this place that apparently has one of the largest record of earthquakes in the world, even though their magnitudes may be insignificant.
It was a beautiful view of the region from the Glen Garry viewpoint.
After this stop over, for the rest of the day the rains persisted through the highlands and more so, after entering Skye. But having sat through a 298 mile drive from Edinburgh, nobody had the energy to really do anything fancy after making it to Portree, where all of us simply hit our accommodations straight away. After buying some grocery from the supermarket and cooking a quick meal for myself in my hostel, I settled down on my bunk bed for some bed-time reading.
Next morning when I woke up to sunny blue skies around 6 am, I lost no time in jumping out of bed and walking to the harbour. It was just a stone's throw away from my hostel. Our group was halting in Portree, the largest village on Skye. (There are no 'cities' on Skye, don't ask me why!) Since we were due to leave only at 9:30 am, I decided to take a walk from the harbour into the village. Here's what I saw!
After treating myself to this view and a sumptuous breakfast of white-chocolate & lemon muffins 'n' crackers, I headed to the square where our group had been requested to assemble. With not a rain cloud in sight, we set off on a merry note, only to arrive in the town of Uig to be met by another downpour. We had a 45 minute stop-over to explore the surrounding hills. Andrew even showed us a quick shortcut to a peak which offered amazing views. But not many willingly ventured up the muddy, slippery path. I was worried I would be the only one, when one of the girls from Hong-Kong asked me if I was planning to go up. I nodded vigorously and she told me how relieved she was, because none of her friends wanted to get too dirty as we had a long day ahead. Together we walked all the way up, giggling as we slipped, tripped and heard mountain sheep bleat. I had a most memorable time with Rachel and before we knew it, we could see Andrew trudging up the path, looking for us. Time had slipped by and the others were left waiting for us. Nevertheless, Andrew had our backs and we passed some dirty looks with a sheepish smile :P From then on, Rachel and I could be found together in places that others would not want to see. What a pity! :)
ii. Request your tour company to book you into a hostel. They are THE BEST if you are on a budget. You can even save on meals, which cost as much as 10 GBP per meal. Hostels have kitchens. Buy some grocery and make yourself a meal in the mountains. Trust me you will relish it even if you are a poor cook, like me :P Here are links to the hostels where I stayed over the two nights in Skye.
Night 1: 25 GBP
Night 2: 23 GBP
Yes, it is an expensive bet. But it is a trip of a lifetime. So go carefree and have your mind blown, because money can buy happiness at times :P
The rain clouds cleared away after our visit to Uig and we were blessed to see the Quiraing pass being lit gloriously by the sun, as the skies cleared. It is said to be the most beautiful place on Skye and undoubtedly so, isn't it? :) High rock-cut cliffs, naturally formed by landslips sit like the most perfect sculptures of nature. If I could, I would have sat there marveling at the green vastness forever. There was also a 'Fairy Pool' here. Don't ask me why, but the many lean threads of waterfall that emerge magically out of nowhere are called 'FAIRY POOLS'. I'm speculating it has something to do with their mystical appearance. What do you think?!
Andrew must be a pro to have driven us so effortlessly through those winding passes. He even chatted away casually, telling us tales about the old man and old woman of Storr, the two Giants who were turned into rock-formations for having seen something which was forbidden.
The afternoon ended with a final stop at the Kilt-rock waterfall, which merges directly with the sea, from a height of 90 metres. The site has also been found to be rich with dinosaur imprints along the columnar formations around here. Such were the miracles of this untouched land of beauty!
After lunch, our tour group was all set to see the best of the Cuillin mountains. All the mountains on Skye are called the Cuillins. They are either the Red Cuillins or the Black Cuillins and about 296 mountains are greater than 3000 ft in height. A person could probably spend his entire life climbing them all! Oh, and we even spotted a highland cow, grazing the pastures like a boss! :')
Finally, our day ended with a visit to the Dunvegan castle. Although it wasn't my favourite place on Skye, the castle grounds offered a nice distant view of the hills and mountains, even a glimpse of which, kept me content. After we returned to Portree, I cooked dinner with my new-found bunch of friends. We feasted on some Pizza and muffins and decided to go watch a sunset. Alluring as it was, even at 10 pm, we felt the need to get the most out of this visit to which words can do no justice at all. There was no doubt in our minds as to why Skye was voted among the top 4 islands of the world by The National Geographic. As expected, Portree mesmerized us once again. Twilight was one memorable affair, except we had it with the midges! They were mosquitoe-like creatures, 'a nightmare of every highlander', Andrew had warned us earlier. Cheers to the fact that we were just living highland life the right way!
I lazed around in bed until late and checked out like all the others at 9 am, to say goodbye to the last of Skye. We started off with seeing some fairy pools and another pass of the Cuillin mountains. It was a beautiful farewell, one that I much despair :')
The heart ache that came with bidding a good-bye to Skye was soon replaced by the excitement of visiting the most photographed castle in the world, The Eilean Donan. I love photography as much as I love travel. For a fact, I know the two would never mean as much to me independently. So for the next hour or so, I was just behind my camera. The soothing Scottish music only boosted my awe as I went around the majestic beauty that adorned the Scottish countryside like a gem! It became evident why it was chosen as a backdrop for many movies :')
Following this, it was a bumpy ride through the valley of the 'Five Sisters of Kintail'. The Scotts somehow seemed to be very picky about where they fought their battles. It is where the Battle of Glenshiel was fought, when Scotland joined forces with Spain against Britain. The British not only won but also killed 400 Spaniards. It is the reason why I didn't really feel like photographing the place.
To be truthful, the continuous ride over the past two days had got me exhausted. But the thought of finally making it to the place where the legendary monster Nesse is said to reside, kept me going. We were finally headed towards Lochness. Since it was a long drive from Eilean Donan, Andrew kept us entertained with the various rumours about the monster, that have been doing rounds for aeons now. A particular one was truly amusing.
A Scottish highlander once set out to break record of the fastest sailing boat on the lake. Unfortunately a little while into the ride, he died due to a ripple that caused a massive wave to wreck his boat. It is believed that the sound of his motor boat must have disturbed Nesse and so, the monster created the ripple to put an end to the disturbance. Wow :P Isn't that some accusation? Somehow Nesse doesn't seem like a bad monster to me. I think of him as someone like 'Casper-the friendly ghost'. Oh, how I love the tales locals have to tell about a place.
Once in Lochness, there isn't much to do, especially if you are not one for expensive cruises sailing at a snail's pace on a never-ending lake. Soon I also got tired of looking for Nesse. Can't really imagine the plight of those who went sailing on a cruise ship, looking for him! While I waited for the others to return, I pampered my sweet-tooth with not just one, but two scoops of fresh Ness ice-cream and relaxed on the shore with my book. It has been my favourite reading place by far! Have you a favourite place for something specific?! I would love to hear :)
On the way back, we even stopped to admire Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain. This was followed by a quick lunch in Fort William.
For most part of the journey back to Edinburgh I remember dozing soundly, content with my three day adventure in Scotland. That very evening, I had a night-long bus to catch to London from Edinburgh. While all the monkeying around I know would only last as long as my heart is still young, all these memories I will reminisce for much longer! That's why I don't mind these long journeys at all :) Just wish me happy travel, will you or have you made up your mind to pack your bags to Scotland too?!
i. I booked with Timberbush tours for 150 GBP (the cheapest). But if you find them fully booked, there are several others. Here are a few links.
iii. If you are planning a self-drive, why not? Follow the itinerary in order and go, have the drive of your life. PS: with care :)
Ah, and how can I forget? This was our happy bunch with Andrew in between, just before we all sadly waved good bye to each other in Edinburgh :'(
The last pit-stop was the highland town of Pitlochry, which gave me goals about how I want my future house to look. As if living amid the mountains weren't enough, these Scottish folk here have made an ultimate heaven for themselves in their place of residence. It has saved me the trouble of getting creative after seeing this! Don't all you girls want this forever-date place in your front porch now?