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West Highland Heaven.

Scotland, UK

I suppose everyone has an image of Scotland.  My first was from the earliest Lassie movie, before the famous Shetland sheepdog found herself moved westwards by six thousand or so miles and forwards in time by thirty years.  Lassie’s Scotland was full of old men with tam o’shanters and mutton-chop whiskers, spirited girls in white stockings and boys with kilts and shepherds’ crooks 

But the screenwriters who knocked up that version of the country got one thing right – the sense of identity.  It’s still there today.  Someone born in London or York might call themselves ‘English’ or ‘British’.  But if you come from Edinburgh or Inverness, you’re Scots.   (At a push, you might call yourself ‘Scottish’. But never ‘Scotch’.)

Scottish Castle That sense of Scots-ness hits you as soon as you enter the country.  If you’re coming from the States your entry point will probably be at Glasgow airport. Glasgow is a modern European city.  You might have some trouble understanding the locals - even other Scots find the Glaswegian dialect tough.  But don’t worry – they’ll understand you.

From Glasgow you’ll probably head north to Fort William – the best base for exploring the west highlands.  It’s a pretty windswept place, though it has its good points.  It sits on the banks of Loch Linnhe (pron. ‘linnie’), which opens, forty miles south of Fort William, into the Irish Sea.  The seafood in the town is excellent, and it’s also a good base for exploring the local mountains.  Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain, is not far away.  Unless you’re experienced it’s not a good idea to hike in the mountains by yourself.  But there are all kinds of guided expeditions, mountain-biking and cross-country skiing trips designed for beginners.  A good place to check for this information is NeviSport, at the northern end of the High Street.  It sells outdoor clothing and equipment, and also books and maps of the area.  There’s a wonderfully snug café upstairs.  Noticeboards advertise all the activities that are going on in the region.

Scottish Highlands You won’t want to hang around the town for long with all that wonderful countryside to explore!  It’s worth noting that to get around you really need a car: if you’ve arrived in Fort William by train, you should be able to hire a car at the station.

 

Here are some must-sees:

  • Glen Nevis and Nevis Range.  This wonderful glen is just a few minutes’ drive from Fort William.  You can drive all the way to the head of the valley, admiring the view of Ben Nevis on your left.  Watch out for Aberdeen Angus cattle straying on to the road, though!  As part of the same trip you could visit the Nevis Range Ski centre – enthusiasts can hire ski gear and have a go at the Aonach Mor slopes.  Around the ski centre are some of the best mountain bike trails in Scotland, too.  You can hire bikes from Off Beat Bikes in Fort William.  They’ll also let you have maps of the area.
  • If you prefer armchair exercise, consider dropping in at a distillery visitors’ centre, where you can see highland single malt whisky being made.  Scottish single malts are the most famous in the world.  Fort William’s local distillery is open to the public.  Its single malt, MacDonald’s, is very good - although not world-famous. If you want to show off to whisky connoisseurs back home you should drive eastwards for an hour to visit the Dalwhinnie distillery in the heart of the central highlands.
  • Glen Coe.  This was the scene of the notorious Glen Coe massacre.  In 1692 members of the Campbell clan fell upon their enemies the MacDonalds here, murdering 38 of them.  A small museum retells the horrific tale.  Equally horrific – if you’re a mountaineer – is the formidable Aonach Eagach Ridge that looms over the glen, providing an enormous challenge to seasoned climbers.

Castle on an Island There’s a lot to do in the highlands, and a lot to see. One of the great pleasures is simply driving around the long, empty country roads and stopping to take photos or admire the view. If you like photography, Scotland is one of the best countries on earth to visit.

- But you probably won’t run into Lassie these days.

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