West Highland Heaven.
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
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’.)
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.
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.
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.
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.