Highlands, Skye and Culloden

We awoke to blue skies and sunshine. The perfect combination for a day of exploring the beautiful Scottish Highlands. I’ve been captivated by them in movies like The Queen, Skyfall, Rob Roy and TV series including Outlander and The Crown. And, on a day like this, the truth is that they appear more beautiful than I imagined. Pulling back the curtains in our hotel room revealed a magnificent vista of sheep grazing in green fields down in the glen with a backdrop of steep, barren slopes rising up into the clouds.

The road took a gently winding path between the hills, occasionally passing through a small rustic village. We passed lakes and streams. Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles, was on our left, the upper slopes obscured by clouds. Some of the hills were so high and desolate, that I found myself wondering how the highlanders of the past would have handled such difficult terrain. They must have been hardy, resilient souls to live in this wild country.

At Glenfinnan, we caught a glimpse of the viaduct which has featured in several Harry Potter movies. The construction of this viaduct was one of the great engineering feats of the Industrial Revolution, which was my favourite topic to teach my Year 9 history classes, so I was delighted to see it and would have loved a closer look. Across the road is the magnificent Glenfinnan Monument to the brave Highlanders who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the failed Jacobite Rising against the British. The Jacobites’ quest was to oust the reigning Hanoverians and restore the Stuarts to the throne of Britain. Sadly, the Jacobites suffered a disastrous defeat at Culloden, when their numbers were decimated in battle and survivors were hunted down and executed. The power of the clans was lost and the rights to wear their kilts and speak in the Gallic tongue were removed from them. The highlander atop the monument stares out over the mountains, with the waters of Loch Shiel stretching out behind him. This is a place of great beauty where a terrible slaughter is remembered.

The road continued through to Malaig, where we disembarked from the bus for the 30-minute ferry ride across the sea to the Isle of Skye. It wasn’t too windy, so I took the opportunity to enjoy the views from the open top deck. It was quite crowded up there. The sea was quite calm and it was a very smooth crossing. In the distance we could see some of the other islands of the Inner Hebrides. When I was a little kid in primary school, we often had to sing the Skye Boat Song. I never realised at the time that Skye was actually a place. I always sang “over the sea to sky” and wondered what the words meant. It took a while for the penny to drop. Text continues below the next group of photos.

We drove along the east coast of Skye for about half an hour, passing through a number of small villages. The island was as beautiful as the mainland. It’s another place we would love to return to one day so we could spend more time there. We stopped for lunch. I tried the local haddock and chips with a Skye craft brew. Ten out of ten for both. The mainland was very close at our lunch spot, so we crossed back via a bridge. Apparently it was once a toll bridge, but the locals were not happy about spending money to cross over regularly and succeeded in having the tolls removed.

We stopped briefly to take photos of the iconic Eilean Donan Castle, which features regularly in media where images of Scotland are displayed. For example, you might see it in a magazine ad or on the cover of a travel guide, or in a movie set in Scotland. Our next stop was at Loch Ness. The tourist numbers here were higher than we’ve seen elsewhere in the Highlands, and many of them were in the gift store handing over their hard earned cash for Nessie souvenirs. I find it quite remarkable that something that probably doesn’t even exist can generate so much revenue for this place. Nevertheless, if the Loch Ness Monster is indeed fake news, the lake itself is quite stunning and always worth a look. Please read on below these photos.

At Culloden Moor, Marg and I walked out across a desolate, vacant field. Gorse bushes, long grasses and small shrubs, marshy bogs and uneven terrain cover the area of the former battlefield, causing one to wonder how the Jacobite highlanders could have ever charged into battle without losing their footing or sinking calf-deep into the slimy peat. Culloden was the last battle ever fought between two opposing sides on British soil. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite supporters belonged to some of Scotland’s most powerful clans. They were fine warriors when all things were equal, but they were armed with claymores and the British had guns and artillery. It was a tragic mismatch and the courageous, but ill-equipped, highlanders were slaughtered in large numbers. Many years after the battle, stones were placed at the foot of each of the mass graves, identifying the clansmen who fell in the service of the Jacobites. Marg and I recalled some of the facts we’d learned about the causes and outcomes of Culloden from the Outlander series as we wandered along the path from the memorial cairn. The battle scenes were brutal, reflecting an event which changed the course of Scotland’s history forever.

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