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Tour of Scotland
Part 2
Highlands & Islands

Highlands & Islands map

While in this vicinity it may well be worth back tracking to visit the birthplace of Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen, and the childhood home of the Queen Mother; Glamis Castle, near Forfar. The poet Thomas Gray described Glamis as "like I nothing I ever saw" In the castle's Duncan's Hall, MacBeth, the Thane of Glamis, made famous by Shakespeare, had supposedly entertained his eponymous victim. In King Malcolm's Room the bloodstain on the floor was almost certainly that of King Malcolm II. Again as Gray remarks "..rising proudly out of what seems a great and thick wood with a cluster of hanging towers at the top", Glamis has more than enough turrets for any fairy tale princess.

Continuing with our Royal theme and travelling north through the area affectionately referred to as Royal Deeside we come to Balmoral Castle. The estate of Balmoral is halfway between Ballater and Braemar (scene of the world famous Braemar Gathering or Highland Games) in the very heart of the country. Much taken with "this dear paradise" Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort purchased Balmoral in 1853, allegedly for £31,500; it remains the personal property and summer holiday retreat of the Monarch to this day.

Crathie Church, some half a mile away from the castle and regular place of worship for the Royal party, is the resting place of one John Brown, Queen Victoria's ghillie and sometimes literary assistant. Brown was recently portrayed in a highly acclaimed film by another of Caledonia's famous sons, Billy Connolly.

Before we rejoin our coastal trail we'll pass through the Cairngorm mountain region home to Scotland's burgeoning skiing fraternity. The appeal of skiing as a sport took off probably after the formation of the Scottish skiing club in 1929. It was not however until 1956 that the first ski-lift was installed a little way off at Glencoe. Since then well equipped resorts have been established in this mountain area offering the visitor all of the facilities of an Alpine resort. This winter tourist trade is of inestimable value to the local economies.

The most well known of these resorts is Aviemore just off the A9, with a railway link to Inverness. It offers conference, leisure, visitor sports, health and of course ski facilities. From Aviemore a road leads up to the kernel of the Cairngorms, providing access to the Glenmore Forest Park and the ski slopes themselves.

Back now on our coastal route we trundle through the fishing communities of Aberdeenshire, Banff and Buchan whose largest town Peterhead was at one time Britain's largest whaling port. In 1900 Peterhead had Britain's largest herring fleet. White fish followed the herring boom in the 20th century and, althought it still has the country's largest white fish industry, when eventually even cod became scarce, North Sea oil and gas ensured that the economy remained healthy. Peterhead is also home to Britain's most northerly maximum security prison.

Eventually we arrive at the "capital of the Highlands", Inverness.

Situated by the banks of eerie and very deep Loch Ness, Inverness and its surrounding area is steeped in the history of many events in the country's past culminating, in the battle of Culloden, the last battle to be fought on British soil in 1746.

Loch Ness is famous or infamous for the supposed monster and "Nessie" is a major tourist attraction with alleged sightings nearly every other day. In the late Victorian pre-tourism days, when up to six steamers a day plied the loch on cruises up the Caledonian Canal, no sightings were reported. Scotland has fewer canals than England, about 140 miles worth in total, the Caledonian Canal, bisecting the country from ( approximately) Inverness to Fort William, being the longest and providing a navigable channel for small ships between West and East, avoiding the hazzards of the northern passage round the top of the country . With ever increasing traffic congestion on Scotland's roads there have been moves afoot to re-open some of the canals, particularly in Lowland Scotland.

Moving out of Inverness we head ever north on roads that may once have been laid by William Caulfield, no relation to J D Salinger's Holden, who while deputy governor of Inverness in 1747 built some 800 miles of roads in Scotland. While not building roads Caulfield was a bon viveur who entertained lavishly at his house near Inverness at Cradlefield. The cradle, from whence the house derived its name, was a gadget that he had rigged up to hoist guests, who had over-indulged, to their rooms. Some form of early day manual "lift" or elevator one might almost argue.

Another interesting character who lived by the banks of the loch at Boleskin in the late 19th century was Aleister Crowley, poet raconteur, brilliant conversationaist and master black magician. Crowley, son of a minister, was afforded both the unflattering titles of the "most evil man in the world" and "great beast" during his tenure at Boleskin. A major film is soon to be made of his life starring that fine British actor Alan Rickman in the lead role. Crowley died in London, destitute and deranged, a hopeless drug addict who augmented his daily cocktails with methylated spirits but other people who took possession of Boleskin House, including ex-Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, spoke of all pervading evil there . The original Boleskin House was subsequently destroyed by fire and rebuilt.

 Dunrobin Castle Dunrobin Castle
(Photo: James Loomis)

On, through and over the Black Isle and following the A9 past the oil platform yard and fabricators of Nigg and Invergordon we journey on into Sutherland and its capital, Dornoch whose Royal Golf Club is undoubtedly one of the finest in Scotland. Leaving behind the splendour of Dunrobin Castle at Golspie and the opulence of health resort Skibo Castle we arrive at Wick in the county of Caithness.

 to John O'Groats (Photo: James Loomis)

Wick was once the herring capital of Europe but has suffered severely due to the decline of the fisheries although Caithness Glass is now a significant local employer. Just a little further up the coastline are the stacks of Duncansby. Its rock stacks of wave torn sandstone are alive with seabirds of every conceivable variety. There is also a lighthouse and the remains of an ancient watchtower. In good weather a small boat trip can be taken from John o' Groats to get a closer look at the stacks although the view from the cliff side is equally imposing - a must see for any visitor to area.

Carrying on along the top of the mainland we come to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland and a sheer headland of red sandstone upon which a lighthouse of over 300 feet stares out over the Pentland Firth toward Orkney. The parish within which Dunnet Head falls incidentally has a functioning church dating back to before Reformation times.

The Orkney Isles to the North consist of 67 islands of which approximately one third are inhabited. The highest concentration of pre-historic monuments anywhere in Northern Europe are on Orkney. Oil was discovered and a terminal constructed on Flotta in Scapa Flow in the 1970's. Substantial uranium deposits were also found on Orkney later that decade but no further attempt has been made to mine following a succession of appeals to central Government by native Orcadians.

Further on still lies Shetland, the most northerly part of the British Isles, with its oil fields and refinery at Sullom Voe. Shetland is equidistant to Aberdeen and Bergen in Norway. Traditionally a crofting community, Shetland's economy is now governed significantly by tourism. The main roads far exceed what normal traffic requires and even secondary roads are well engineered and surfaced. Car Ferries link nearly all of the islands to the mainland. Extremes of climate are governed by the gulf stream and although Lerwick, the capital, is on the same latitudinal level as Greenland, Siberia and northern Canada, the temperature falls on most days of the year between 7-13 C ( 45-55f).

On our way to the other end of the northern point of the mainland we pass the nuclear power station at Dounreay and the tiny hamlet of Bettyhill whose English name may have come from a woman who lived locally. What is certain is that it would not have been named after evicting Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland (of Highland Clearances fame or notoriety), who is commemorated somewhat differently in these parts .

The Highland Region has not stood still through many changes and, making the best of its sparse and dispersed population, it has become a strong centre of a tele-cottage and home based computer industry where a surprising amount of important work for well-known companies in London and elsewhere is conducted on computers in remote Highland cottages.

 Cape Wrath Cape Wrath
(Photo: James Loomis)

At the most westerly point lies Durness and the austere lighthouse at Cape Wrath. In order to reach the Cape, one must cross by small single man operated ferry to where a single decker bus of dubious vintage negotiates some seven miles of fearsome roads.

The intrepid traveller however will appreciate the effort taken.

Heading south now and past the bustling west coast fishing ports of Kinlochbervie and Lochinver and the township of Scourie which is the northern most point where the Atlantic palm grows ; it seeds having been carried along on the gulf stream from the Gulf of Mexico.

The most striking example of this phenomenon can be seen at Inverewe Gardens near Poolewe in Wester Ross. Some 2500 species of flower and plant flourish in what has been described as one of the most exotic woodland and garden preserves in Europe. A little further around the coastline is Gruinard Bay and more specifically Gruinard Island, where the Ministry of Defence conducted experiments in biological warfare in 1942. Having tested deadly anthrax spores there the island could not be set foot upon for nearly fifty years but which has now been declared clear.

We travel now further into scenic Wester Ross and its Torridon Mountain range said to be the oldest rock formations in Britain at some 800m years old. To the west are the Western Isles, Skye and the Outer Hebrides. All of these areas are firm favourites with every tourist fortunate enough to have paid a visit.

Skye boasts the Cullin Hills and Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Clan Macleod while Lewis, Harris, North and South Uist and Benbecula all have claims of their own to attract the tourist, not least of these being the standing stones of Callanish, near Stornoway on Lewis and the causeway system that links Benbecula to the Uists.

Picking up the A82 at Invergarry we leave the rugged beauty of Wester Ross and travel south through Fort William past Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain, and stop momentarily at Glencoe to savour the haunting atmosphere that invariably permeates that area.

Glencoe Glencoe
(Photo: Dan Baldwin)

The story of the Glencoe massacre, the so-called "curse of Scotland", has been well documented. The only area of uncertainty remaining however is the actual origin of the phrase "The Curse of Scotland." While the more flippant among us would attribute this to the national football team's inability to progress to the latter stages of any World Cup Finals, other, more serious individuals have taken it to mean the playing card, the nine of diamonds. Explanations differ however as to the origin and one such explanation has included the card being used to cryptically authorise the massacre as it bears a striking resemblance to the coat of Arms of John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair, who may have been responsible. Others suggest that the Duke of Cumberland had scribbled the order on such a card to give "no quarter" at Culloden. Others still, opine that it is no more than an unfortunate misreading of the "Corse of Scotland" ie the "Cross" or saltire of St Andrew. The debate will no doubt continue among historians for some time to come.

We continue on the A82 as far as Tarbert, Argyll (that wonderful region and its many beautiful Inner Hebridean Islands unfortunately not coming within the scope of this page) and on yet further into Dunbartonshire where we find ourselves once again in Lowland Scotland. Interestingly, although the region is known as Dunbartonshire, the town itself is spelt Dumbarton. The growth of shipbuilding and heavy engineering shaped the growth of this town although both industries have been in decline for some time now. Whisky distilling and light engineering have largely taken the place of the old heavy industries although some shipbuilding still remains.

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