(The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye — image from Pinterest, Anne McKinell Photography.)
“Wherever I wander, wherever I rove / The hills of the Highlands forever I love.” –Robert Burns
(Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness)
To the north of Edinburgh, beyond the Firth of Forth, lies the Scottish Highlands — mountains, valleys, glens, lochs, rugged coastlines, and islands: the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and farther north, Shetland. (In all, Scotland has close to 800 islands)
The Highlands is a land filled with castles, history, legend, and lore: Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, the northern city of Inverness, the Isle of Skye, Iona. A two-week driving tour through Scotland was an eye-opening experience to the breathtaking beauty of the Highlands.
(The charming village of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.)
The Isle of Mull, part of the Inner Hebrides, is famous for being the location of the Monastery of Iona. A short ferry ride from Mull takes you to the small windswept island of Iona.
“In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions and founded a monastery. It developed as an influential center for the spread of Christianity among the Picts and Scots.” (wikipedia)
A seat of learning, the monastery is associated with the illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells. “It is generally accepted that the book was begun in the monastery of Iona at some point after c. 740.” (www.historyireland.com)
We chose to stay in the town of Oban because it’s one of the main places to catch the ferry to Mull. We were pleasantly surprised by its charm and lively harbor. It proved to be an unexpected find.
The port town has a waterside promenade lit by tiny lights, perfect for strolling after dining at one of the town’s wonderful restaurants.
Leaving Oban and driving north to Skye, you’ll be tempted to stop and admire the glens, castles, rivers, and lochs along the way. A few hours exploring the much-photographed Eilean Donan Castle was well worth the detour.
The Isle of Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides and has some of the most beautiful and dramatic sites of the Highlands: the Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing,
Neiss Lighthouse, and the Fairy Glen.
Stopping in the tiny hamlet of Dunvegan on our way to the lighthouse, we came across the Giant Angus MacAskill Museum and caught a glimpse of “Old Scotland.”
Crossing the Highlands and driving north takes you to Inverness, “the largest city and the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands.” The River Ness runs through the middle of the town and is crossed by several bridges, one of which takes you from one side of the river to the other, crossing through a pretty wooded island on the way.
Day trips from Inverness include driving along Loch Ness and touring the battlefield of Culloden, site of the final Jacobite rebellion.
Continuing a few hours north takes you to the northernmost town on the British mainland — Thurso, located on the North Sea.
It’s the perfect place for stopping over before taking the morning ferry to Orkney. A beach walk after dinner offers beautiful views of Thurso Bay.
From its harbor at nearby Scrabster, you can take the ferry to the town of Stromness in Orkney. The 90-minute journey takes you past some stunning scenery.
(The Old Man of Hoy seen from the ferry to Orkney)
On the ferry to Stromness, I was struck by the quotes by Orkney poet George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), which prepare the traveler for the beauty of Orkney — a beauty both subtle and rugged.
“There was a fitful gleam of cold sunlight as we climbed aboard the Hamnavoe.”
“On the salt and tar steps, herring boats, puffing red sails, the tillers of cold horizons, leaned down the gull-gaunt tide.”
“The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness, and the deep marvelous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.”
Though Orkney has the jagged coastlines and rocky landscape of much of the Highlands,
it has a different feel to it. In part, due to the remnants of the deep layers of history found throughout Orkney — in Neolithic archaeological sites, such as Skara Brae; in the stone rings of Brodgar and Stenness; in prehistoric mounds, and the remains of Viking settlements.
More recent history is found in other ruins throughout the islands,
and in WWII sites — reminders of the importance of this remote location during the war: Scapa Flow (home of the British Fleet during both world wars), the Italian Chapel (built by Italian POWs),
(the Italian Chapel)
and the Churchill barriers (rocky man-made causeways), among others. There’s a museum in Stromness that is a trove of WWII and local history.
Stromness, the main seaport, embodies the essence of Orkney. Its buildings are solid and strong, built to stand against fierce North Sea storms. Its streets are rocky and steep and overlook the expanse of the sea. “Fitful gleam[s] of cold sunlight” cast the town in “marvelous rhythms of … darkness and light.”
An evening stroll along the harbor anchors you in its maritime presence — with bracing winds, the smell of “salt and tar,” and the sound of gulls.
With touches of charm and homey warmth found in its narrow streets.
As we left the Highlands and drove back south, we spotted a rainbow over a pot-of-gold mustard field — it seemed the perfect image for the close of our Highland tour.