Hail to the Highlands!

The scenic and diverse landscapes of Scotland vow visitors with a natural splendour that has given birth to much lore, many legends and a blood-stained history

The Scots don't say the word "loch" the way we do. It's the first and most obvious difference I spot soon after boarding the coach on a journey to the Highlands, and it became the first Scottish Gaelic way of pronunciation I have unconsciously adopted ever since. It's pronounced with a fricative sound, with the back of the tongue against the soft palate like the way the German pronounce "Bach".

You can't help it. Like my tour guide told me, the three Gaelic words you'll learn by heart while visiting the Scottish Highlands are "loch", "glen" and "ben" _ meaning lake, valley and mountain, respectively. Together, they make up the landscape of the Scottish Highlands: thousands of lochs and lochans (over 31,000 in the entire country), a lot of unique, sublime glens created by glacial erosion during the last Ice Age and well, the highest mountain in the British Isles _ Ben Nevis.

The term Highlands refers to the area north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault which traverses Scotland from Arran to Stonehaven. Formed around 390 million years ago, this fault line clearly separates the distinctive topographical features of the Highlands from those of southern Scotland. A trip from Glasgow to the Highlands reveals a drastic change in landscape from lowlands and hills to mountainous moorland.

The difference is much more than geographic. Looking into the name, the Scottish Gaelic word for Highlands is A' Ghaidhealtachd, which can be translated as "Land of the Gaels". This refers to the fact that most of the Highlands, including the Western Isles, are populated by Gaelic-speaking people while in southern Scotland the language that was once called Lowlands Gaelic was supplanted by English from the late Middle Ages.

The history of the Highlands is a history of fighting between clans and rebellions against the English government, which reached their climax during the Jacobite Risings, a series of armed attempts between 1688 and 1746 to return the British throne to Scotland's House of Stuart. When the last rebellion was suppressed, several draconian laws were enacted by the British government which forbade the wearing of kilts and tartan garments and other aspects of local culture including the use of Scots Gaelic and the playing of bagpipes.

Following that ban, the indigenous ways of the Highlands sank into oblivion and could have remained there if it had not been for one man whose love for Highland culture _ and endeavours to revive popular interest in this place he loved _ was bottomless: Sir Walter Scott, the novelist and poet.

Scott's romanticism and mediaevalism were rooted in the historical, cultural and geological context of the Highlands. He was the first English-language author to achieve international success and his romanticised vision of the Highlands penetrated Europe, reviving interest in that region. Travellers began visiting the place to see with their own eyes the ethereal beauty of Loch Katrine and other natural landscapes that formed the backdrop to masterpieces written by Scott such as Rob Roy and The Lady Of The Lake.

The feat that Scott accomplished single-handedly back then, using culture to promote tourism, was later repeated with great success by South Korea's tourism and cultural authorities. And Scott did it almost 200 years before Harry Potter films made the whole world rechristen the Jacobite steam locomotive, that runs from Fort William to Mallaig, "the Hogwarts Express". And long before many would start hitting the A82, the road from Glasgow to Inverness, to get a glimpse of the mist-covered moorland birthplace of James Bond _ Skyfall.

And thus tourism began to flourish, and it has now become a major source of income for the people of the Highlands. The mountains attract adventurous hikers while the Cairngorms and the Nevis Range, Glenshee and the Lecht offer a wide range of experiences for skiers of all levels. The moors and the unique, sublime glens are ideal for leisure walkers. The West Highlands Way will delight trekkers and bikers who will pass sites of historic or cultural significance such as the "bonnie banks" of Loch Lomond and the Great Moor of Rannoch. The lochs are wonderful for cruises, and the shallower ones make lovely natural skating rinks during the winter months.

As ancient as their birthplace, Highland cattle are a tough breed and are often simply called ‘‘highlands’’. Bred to withstand the harshest and roughest conditions of the Scottish Highlands, the cattle have developed a shaggy, double-layered coat which allows them to endure the cold without putting on masses of body fat. This explains why the breed is gaining popularity in North America where the health-conscious favour their lean, low-cholesterol meat.

The Highland Boundary Fault that geographically divides the Highlands and the Lowlands can be seen at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The view that lies beyond the fault line reveals the bens and glens of the scenic Highlands. In the old days before Sir Walter Scott popularised Highland tourism, the area was considered a vast, savage wilderness inhabited by Gaelic-speaking clans, whose culture and way of life were completely different from those inhabiting in the southern Scottish Lowlands.

By surface area, Loch Lomond is the largest lake in Great Britain, and boasts several islands and 19 species of freshwater fish. The lake has a significant place in popular culture as it is mentioned in the traditional Scottish tune The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond. The song is believed to be about two Highlanders being captured by the authorities during the Jacobite Risings in 1745. One of them was sentenced to death and one was released; and the dying man was singing the tune to his surviving friend. The ‘‘low road’’ referred to in the line ‘‘You take the high road and I’ll take the low road’’, means the underground passage on which soul of a dead Scot who dies in foreign land travels back to home. And yes, England was, and is, considered a foreign land.

Scenic splendour. Checked! Historical significance. Checked! Accessibility. Checked! Hollywood locations. Checked! Glen Coe has all a tourist site needs to be among the top national destinations. It is the location of one of the most infamous and bloodiest chapters in Scottish history — The Massacre of Glen Coe — when 38 members of the MacDonald clan were murdered in 1692 by government soldiers led by Captain Robert Campbell. The most memorable view of Glen Coe is the steep-sided ridges that extend north into the glen called the Three Sisters of Glen Coe. A number of mountaineers challenging the place end up keeping the rescue team busy all year round. Glen Coe also appears in several movies, from films about the Highlands likeRob Roy , and sometimes somewhere else, like Contagion . But most memorable of all, it’s the outdoor ground of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade in Harry Potter and the finale backdrop of the latest James Bond film, Skyfall .

The Caledonian Canal lock system at Fort Augustus was part of the Highlands administrative body’s ‘‘megaproject’’ in the early 19th century to build a canal to serve as a shortcut between the Scottish east coast at Inverness and the west coast at Corpach so that mariners could sail through the inland waterway, avoiding the dangerous seas around the north coast. Ironically, the canal took 44 years to complete and by the time it was finished in 1847, steamships could travel around Scotland with more ease than the sailing ships used during the time the canal was designed. The good news is that the canal proved to be an immense tourist success.

ts name means ‘‘Mouth of the River Ness’’, and Inverness’s big role as the Highlands administrative centre is justifiable considering its strategic location. The town has attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists and immigrating residents thanks to the high quality of life it offers and it’s a great base for exploring the Highlands. It has become a destination for a number of retirees who seek a tranquil place to spend their post-career life, without sacrificing comfort. It’s not a cheap place to live, and many Scots consider it fake and pretentious. However, if you’re looking for a good town where you can stroll the high street in tranquillity, Inverness can be counted on.

Located on a rocky promontory that extends into Loch Ness, Urquhart overlooks the great lake, and the great history of the Highlands since the Middle Ages (or even before, albeit without recorded evidence). It was a military stronghold during the various wars in Scotland. Unlike several ruined castles which were usually destroyed by the victorious party, Urquhart was blown up in 1692 by the defending soldiers — a garrison loyal to the protestant monarchy of William & Mary — to prevent it from being used as a military stronghold by their attackers, the Jacobite forces.

Loch Ness is the largest lake by volume, although this means very little when it comes to why it is probably the best known place in Scotland. Ironically, what makes Loch Ness the most famous destination is actually the thing the existence of which can’t be proved — the Loch Ness Monster, or ‘‘Nessie’’. You could say this is pretty sad for the loch because the view of the natural woodlands along the bank would make a Loch Ness cruise a great chill-out experience, especially during a sunny summer day. Water activities range from fishing for salmon, trout, seatrout and pike, to waterskiing, sailing and canoeing.

MORE INFO

- With the total area of the Scottish Highlands spanning over 25,000km2, travellers have an option of travelling from the bottom up, starting from Glasgow or Edinburgh, or from the top down, starting from Inverness, although many local tour operators offer trips starting from London as well. 

- There’s three or four flights from London to Inverness operating daily, which takes approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. You can also fly directly to Inverness from other European or British airports.

- If you want to have an extra day in the Highlands, you can opt for the Caledonian Sleeper - the overnight train service from London Euston station to Scottish stations. It takes a little over 8 hours on the sleeper from London to Glasgow, and about 12 hours to Inverness. Due to the bumpy ride and the fact that seats cannot recline much, First Class, or Standard Sleeper with berths, are recommended if you need a good rest.

Tips:

Local, small-group tours to the Highlands can be an unexpectedly delightful experience. Your Scottish tour guide will passionately give you not just historical and geographical facts, but also the legends, the folklore and the stories that have made the place a real-life enchanted land. They will tell you history, and stories, while playing the good old Scottish ballads and folk songs as well as cracking you up with some deadpan, albeit endearing, sarcasm on their own nation. Check out www.visitscotland.com for tour operators. Booking and payment are done online, so you just pop up at the time of appointment with your receipt!

About the author

columnist
Writer: Samila Wenin
Position: Freelance contributor