Updated: Mar 25, 2020
You don't forget the first time you leave your country. I remember being suddenly sat in a pub in Edinburgh city center, with a plate full of fried and disgusting Haggis and a pint of Tenants and not knowing how the hell I had been transported to somewhere so entirely opposite of Florida, USA. I knew nothing back then. I didn't know how to use British pounds or that you don't tip bartenders, I didn't know how to drive, I didn't know anything except what I had seen on Outlander. The first time you travel overseas is something you never forget. It was the first time in nine years I ever left my family for a week. I was invigorated as a person. While everyone else had spent their twenties traveling and going to college, I had been a housewife and a mother. This trip to Scotland awakened my soul and changed my life. Scotland does that to you.
It always starts in Edinburgh. At Kick Ass Hostel, with a room facing Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh is ancient yet eccentric. It is a melting pot of tourists from all over the world but with the friendliest locals I have ever met. I've stumbled up and down the Royal Mile at all hours of the night and have always felt safe. There is always something to do in Edinburgh and sometimes it takes a bit for me to want to leave for other adventures. The castle looms over the entire city, much like Arthur's Seat, which offers 360 degree views of the city and a good hike for those wanting to burn off the late night kebabs and Irn-Bru. I'll never forget walking past a bag piper on the way up to the castle, feeling like I was in 1600 rather than 2017. And when I came back with more girlfriends and my mom in 2018, I knew they would fall in love with the city just as much as I had.
Once I finally get the resolution to leave Edinburgh, I tend to go on a loop up to the Highlands. The Highlands of Scotland are like no other. The accents get thicker, the weather more drastic and the scenery more vivaciously stunning. Up through Glencoe you learn about Bidean nam Bian or The Three Sisters- the mountain range that housed the MacDonald clan, who was massacred during a blizzard in 1692 by the Campbells, which started a rivalry that still exists today. There is also a wee white house that is famously photographed by all who pass by it and now it hangs in my bedroom. You can see why below.
The highlands blow mist and fog envelops the mountains and villages constantly. But it only adds to the charm. The coos don't seem to mind it, it just adds to their adorable complacency. Scottish weather is not an inconvenience to me either, it is how it is supposed to be. Seeking refuge in a little village with a charming pub that has tartan chairs and a roaring fire is better than a hot bath in my opinion.
One of my favorite cities in Scotland is Stirling. The entire town appears to be settled along the snaking Firth of Forth river and carved out of stone. It is a tourist hotspot due to the William Wallace memorial and Stirling Castle. If you do not know who William Wallace is (Braveheart doesn't count) please learn before you go to Scotland. Otherwise you won't have an understanding of the memorial at all. Stirling Castle was one of the best preserved Castles I have ever been in but the history is even better. Mary Queen of Scots' presence still lingers there and you can feel it. Away from the castle and down into the village, there are gin makers, scone bakers and just about anything you could want out of a Scottish holiday.
On the way to Isle of Skye, I typically stop in Fort William, which sits at the base of Ben Nevis- the UK's highest mountain. Last time I went to Fort William, I had trained and researched to climb said mountain and the weather was absolutely atrocious. So it is a goal of mine to go back and finally conquer it. The town itself has a pub called the Jacobite Lounge in Ben Nevis Bar which I enjoy and you can also catch the Jacobite Train from there, or the Harry Potter train as was featured in the movie. You do not end up in Hogwarts though, you end up in Mallaig.
Over the sea to Skye, you are in the land of the faeries. And really, really scary roads. I've been on cliff sides with it pissing down rain, again on the WRONG side of the road, with massive gales trying to force me off. Add in distractions by old bothy's and tiny waterfalls that pool into the road and I don't know how I am alive. There are old cemeteries and abbeys, rainbows in the middle of lochs, old clan castles like DunVegan that have mossy gardens and clover covered forests with the freshest air that has ever filled my lungs. Port cities like Portree have pastel colored houses and harbors with tweed shops. The food is all fresh and local, British beef burgers and true seafood if that is your thing. I can always find pink gin in Skye and little cafes dot the side of the road. I have never gone for a dip in the faerie pools like crazy tourists do but I have been absolutely drenched at Old Man of Storr, the most mystical rock formations ever. Vikings inhabited Old Man of Storr centuries ago and the legends that surround it are worth a read. Isle of Skye is only the beginning of Scotland's barren territory. I still need to go back and explore the outer Hebrides and Fair Isle and Oban. I won't stop going back until I feel like I have seen it all.
How can you go to Scotland without trying to catch a glimpse of Nessie? Loch Ness is huge. I thought it was going to be a tiny lake but it actually is 22 miles long. Driving along it is not a complaint though. Some of the villages that run alongside it were so scenic, I couldn't fathom how any one gets to live there. Once you get close to Urquhart Castle, that's when the museums and gift shops start popping up for tourists. I have been to Urquhart Castle twice and it is truly interesting. I do find myself sitting on the rubble every time staring for a glimpse of Nessie. I'll see a floating piece of wood and my heart skips a beat, like an absolute child. The castle itself has graffiti so old and historic that it is preserved behind plexiglass glass. It's reduced mostly to rubble now but you can see the various rooms and store houses that used to supply the community and clans on Loch Ness. One day I will bring the kids and buy them little stuffed Nessies for fun.
Inverness is typically on the trip stop when I stop at Culloden. Inverness always seems to be where I have the most fun during the night time. They have pubs that stay open until four am and got us into trouble when my mom had too much fun and locked us all out of a hostel. Anyways, a sober morning is a sober morning and it's even more sobering at Culloden. Twice I have been and twice I have cried. When you first go into the museum and learn about the killing of the Clan culture by England in the 1700's, the rise of the Jacobites led by Bonnie Prince Charlie to save it and the men who died in a brutally cold and bloody battle in the field under your feet, you can't help but to be overcome with sadness at it all. Clan Fraser's mass grave gets the most love due to Jamie Fraser's fictional near death there, but all the mass graves are tragic, full of dead men who were just trying to save their culture. The small skelling house that was there the day of the battle still stands with it's thatched roof. It is absolutely incredible.
Scotland is so unique. It is remote yet coastal, harsh yet welcoming. It is mystical more than any place in the United Kingdom. When we eventually move over for good (much to James' dismay I want to open a pub with my sister in law) I will go to Scotland always. My father in law goes to Glasgow nearly every weekend, so I suppose I'll be roped into a Rangers football game. But retreating into the highlands is where you find your peace. It is where you go to reconnect with the Earth and be thankful for being alive. The fact that places like that can exist in a world where many cities have smog and crime, is a reminder that the Earth can love you back. If you sit for a bit, shiver your ass off, and drink in the scenery of the Highlands.
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