Edinburgh to the Highlands: Long Way to the Top

There is a scene in That 70s Show, where the gang listens to a playback of their ‘clever’ conversations in the basement and realises the truth: they sound completely inane. Life with my sister feels just like that. One episode of our constant sitcom unfolded on the overnight train from London to Edinburgh. We sat on our beds in the tiny cabin, with a sealed window at its side. Alysa started inspecting our four-walled room.

“Is there ventilation?”, she – a frequent flyer – questioned earnestly. “Can we breathe in here?”

“You will not suffocate, Ma’am,” the train attendant replied with care, perhaps suspicious of candid cameras, before he volunteered a tour of the ventilation vents.

With the certainty that I would be mocking her for months to come, we made it to Scotland without further hopeless inquisition. My patience was rewarded the moment we set foot on Princes Street.

I fell in love with Edinburgh. It was like stepping into two places at once: A museum of artefacts unchanged by time, and a glimpse of a future apprised by rich history.

Verdant gardens bisected enduring landmarks. Serenity hung over the air, something so dearly missed in a bustling city like London (or at Download Festival, for that matter). Stillness permeated across Old and New Towns alike, broken only by the occasional verve of bagpipers.

We strolled through the charming old streets of the well-preserved UNESCO heritage site. Pride among the Scots for their past was prevalent, on bar signs detailing witch trials alongside claims of the best aged whiskey.

And there was no lack of the good stuff. The sharp-tasting Scot import reigned supreme across both Old and New Towns. In short: If there is a bar in Scotland, there is whiskey.

Whiskey in a bar-o. / Photo: Alysa

“A wee taster” turned out to be three pint glasses set across our rustic table at The Royal McGregor. What a treat for the cooling weather hovering below 20°C (or 68°F). Like true Highlanders, we topped it off with a hearty plate of haggis, which left me with an insatiable appetite for sheep’s insides. Much more palatable than it sounds or looks, I promise.

The Scottish vortex of charm went beyond its cuisine and resumed in its people, as rumoured. Along the Royal Mile, a circle of folks formed around the self-proclaimed SuperScott, who repeatedly called for the crowd to close in. When the gap finally vanished, he proceeded to juggle knives and fire as well as he did laughs.

Tough act to balance.

At sunset, we left the streets and returned to our penthouse apartment at Code Hostel. The room was top-notch, Mock the Week was on at some point, and it helped that rock bar Black Rose Tavern was a short stroll away (a post for another day). We decided to turn in early with great expectations for the days to come, as well as the song stuck in my head:

Here we are… out of the city and onto the famed Scottish Highlands at first light. Mark, our cheery and kilted guide, led our four-day Highland Experience tour. It was a long rainy drive on, which we did not mind at all. The scenery of blue lochs and green glens was just spectacular. More excitement fleeted by at Doune Castle, perhaps better known as Castle Leoch or Winterfell.

The sky had cleared by the time we reached the Trossachs. We befriended some Highland Cows, long-fringed creatures wandering with bovine contentment in the vast fields.

There will be mud.

Out of the blue, Alysa made the disturbing connection between cattle and beef.

“Do we eat them?” she asked, horrified.

“No,” Mark reassured.

“Do we shave them for their fur then?”

“No… They are pets.”

Relief granted, the quizzing ended and the jaunt continued. Displaying an illimitable knowledge, Mark narrated endless stories on historic clans, legendary battles and impressively, the detailed deaths of King James I to VI.

Before long, we were heading past the gorgeous Glen Coe and to the Inverlochy Castle at Fort William. Fortifications of once-impressive heights were left in rather enchanting ruins.

Perfect setting for a folk album cover.

“Anyone here a Harry Potter fan?”, Mark said.

To his disappointment, just one hand went up. Still, the group followed him across the wooden bridge and lined the walls for a glimpse of the Jacobite Steam Train. Nearing four, the renowned stand-in of Hogwarts Express chugged down the railroad, captivating the single Potterhead and muggles alike.

Reflective moments followed at the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, before it was time to leave for the shores of Loch Ness. Notably, we chanced upon the Boleskine House, where Aleister Crowley and Jimmy Page once resided. While in the mood for the great Nessie hunt, we had no luck by the cold misty lake near our lodging. Maybe, next time?

What we did find was swarms of midges.

Day 2 started with an early ferry to the much-anticipated Orkney Isles. It was after noon when we arrived. Mark continued the winding drive along the Churchill Barriers, where impressive shipwrecks – war remnants – jutted out of the sea.

On foot, we walked into the narrow spaces of the ornate Italian Chapel. Prisoners-of-war had built it with what little scraps they could gather amidst warfare, in search of momentary peace and solace. This was a truly moving symbol of faith amid adversity, a display of palpable strength behind the human spirit.

The miracle of Camp 60 on Lamb Holm.

Evening greeted when we pulled into the town of Kirkwall at last. After visiting the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, the quiet capital of Orkney held one last surprise at the end of our hotel’s street. Is that… a guitar solo? We walked closer. Sure enough, we found a metal bar Torvhaug, nestled in the corner of the small town of population 9,000.

The next morning, the weather was kind and dry. We made our way to the stunning Broch of Gurness against the wind’s attack. Our tour group mostly alternated between taking photos of the beautiful landscape and shelter among the sturdy rocks.

Broch of Gurness
“I was blown away. Literally, by the wind.”

A less windy Skara Brae was our next stop. The prehistoric village is, get ready for it… 5,000 years old! We had little time to comb the well-preserved area, but the excavated artefacts and conjectures about the early dwellers were just as impressive. The extraordinary monument also happened to be where the best Cullen Skink was served.

Thanks to the rare low tide, we managed to cross the causeway at the Brough of Birsay. Towards the lighthouse we hiked, all for this striking view:

Over the seas and far away.

In its proximity was the equally striking Maeshowe. Sheep dung was everywhere, but that was not it. We ducked down and jostled into the cramped grass mound, which was revealed to be a Neolithic tomb. Vikings had adorned the walls with an intaglio of runes, from brags (“I carved these runes up high”) to obscenities. One prominent carving featured an intricate dragon, a symbol plastered all about Orkney.

As a not-so-secret fan of Outlander, I got over-excited when we alighted next at the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The stone alignments remained a fascinating enigma in close view. It was slightly disappointing to learn that the prospects of time travel were either not here, or not open to me. But I soldiered on, satisfied.

Magneto enters the circle pit.

In our tight itinerary, there would be no place quite as evocative as our final destination – the battlefield of Culloden Moor. The land once awash in red now held solemn graves of clan casualties during the Jacobite risings.

Mark told of the bloody battle in vivid detail, which we relived on film at the visitor centre. Four walls reconstructed the sounds and sights of the brutal carnage, making the walk through the serene fields all the more emotive and meaningful.

Field of the English. They were buried here.

Then, it was time to go. Four days had come to an end before we realised. Tales of territorial faeries, Gaelic tunes and the patriotic anthem Flower of Scotland accompanied us on the long way back down. With tired contentment, we returned to the pretty city of Edinburgh, bidding goodbye to our brilliant guide Mark.

Before returning to the hostel, I decided on a quick detour to the bookstore. I exited with a Scottish history book in my hand, to which Alysa concludingly derided (not for the last time), “Nerd.”

More Edinburgh adventures ahead.

6 thoughts on “Edinburgh to the Highlands: Long Way to the Top”

  1. What beautiful pictures!
    And I totally get what you mean about our “brilliant” conversations actually being totally inane. That may be my whole life, but I’ll be happy if I keep believing.

    Liked by 1 person

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