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by Howard Fast

Slow down, relax; for a change, turn to the high country where traveling, old-fashioned as it may seem, means beauty, clear air, peace of mind

THE Highlands of Scotland are neither far nor mysterious, but simply a place that few people go to. Our own English friends head south for their holidays; as they put it, "It's dark up there, cold and somber." But it isn't dark or somber at all. Few of them, in fact, have been to the Scotland north and west of Edinburgh – that astonishing, breathtaking and most civilized wilderness called the Highlands.

The four of us, my wife, myself, my son Johnny, aged fifteen, and my daughter Rachel, aged nineteen, turned up at King's Cross Station in London, mid-July, with four bags and a banjo, and soon had the modest distinction of being almost the only Americans on the train. The Flying Scotsman was cleaner than any train in America, clean and light and wonderfully British – or Scottish, if you will. And in the compartment next to ours, an elderly Scot, clad in a kilt, but very dignified and intellectual in appearance, played lightly upon a chanter. (For the uninitiated, this is a pipe similar to the mouthpiece of the bagpipes, but used as a separate practice instrument. )
I suppose everyone has an attitude toward bagpipes. My son's was compounded of love and awe. The banjo was his (he plays half-a-dozen instruments), but when first he saw a set of pipes at close range in London, his heart had gone to them immediately and completely. That had happened in a part of the Old City, when, wandering aimlessly but delightedly from street to street, we came upon an old music shop, instruments and sheet music, that had never missed a legitimate business day, bombing or not. While the owner's wife found the music my son wanted, the old Scot who kept the place eyed me thoughtfully and professionally. His examination went on minute after minute, with neither embarrassment nor apology – until he was satisfied. He had decided I was at least sixty percent Scot, which I was not, and he was ready to speak his piece.
"Come here, lad, and I will be showing you something," he whispered conspiratorially. I followed to the back of the shop, and from under the counter he dragged the most beautiful set of bagpipes I had ever seen. Like all so-called taciturn Scots, the moment of pleasure made him voluble beyond belief, and he held forth proudly on the hand-workmanship that had gone into the making of the pipes. I remained unimpressed, but my son had followed us. He succumbed, he pleaded for the pipes, in vain; not only was the price high, but I could see a committee of enraged neighbors breaking down our doors as my son paraded back and forth, filling the air with that peculiar Scottish sound they call skirling.
The chanter in the next compartment was a nice compromise, and we were lulled by the thin, delightful piping from beyond the wall.
A Scot joined us in our compartment, a dour, pipe-smoking attenuated gentleman who, once he was asked a question by one of our kids, turned out to be both charming and articulate – a sort of standing description of the Scots we were to meet; never was there one who did not possess a lust for good talk and a ready store of charm and good nature. Why they work so hard to develop an appearance that belies all this, I have no idea.
There is no better way to travel in Great Britain than by railroad. Compared to our own trains, they are clean, very fast and very efficient – and they come and go on time. The crack trains – such as the one we were on – make better time than any in the States, and the slower local trains amble everywhere through the enchanting countryside of the British Isles. The cars are bright and informal, without our evil-smelling air conditioning. We traveled north through a great part of England, yet we left London at ten in the morning and were in Edinburgh at four that afternoon.
You come on Scotland properly by train, for as you approach the border, the neat and precise English countryside disappears. The houses are suddenly the weathered grey stone that is the prime building material in Scotland, and the landscape the lonely downs that roll to the cold blue North Sea. One is brought up short by the realization of space and loneliness. On the right of the train, the jagged, picturesque beach was endless; on the left, across the moody splendor of the downs, we could see in the distance the blue shadow of the Cheviot Hills. It was our first hint of the illusion of vastness that Scotland creates.
Toward early evening we came into Edinburgh, the air cool and bracing and clean, and the whole city bathed in the afternoon sunshine. We stayed at the North British Hotel, one of the chain of excellent British Transport Hotels that stretch across the British Isles from Cornwall to the Highlands, uniformly clean, inexpensive, and dedicated to good food and wines. The wide casement windows of our rooms opened onto a view of lovely Princes Street, and in the distance, hanging in the air with total unreality, the wondrous and beautiful castle of Edinburgh. This is a story of the Highlands, but the way is through Edinburgh, and surely, so far as I am a judge, there is no more enchanting city on all the earth, the most wondrous city I have ever seen. I remember best standing high on one of its improbable hills, looking down at the city and the Firth of Forth, all of it as golden as molten metal and as unlikely as the storybook castle of Edinburgh in the distance, hanging in the air like dark lace.
A Scotsman asked me once, in the unselfconscious music of their ordinary speech, "Do you no think ours is the bonniest land on earth?" "The greatest," I replied, with our own colloquialism. He said, "Ay, for a small place, it is great."
BUT Edinburgh was a lowland place. As the journey was laid out, we had to travel north to the Highlands, to Inverness on Moray Firth, and then over Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal into the Northern Highlands. I never actually discovered whether, by Highlands, the Scots meant mountainous land, or northern land that was high on the curve of the earth – or perhaps a combination of both; for there are mountains in the Lowlands as well as in the Highlands. Yet the Highlands are a place unto themselves.
For almost six hours, the train crawled northward to Inverness – and then at last we were at the end of our train journey.
Our Inverness bartender poured a golden liquor called Glenmorangie – a very fine Scotch whisky, with a taste of honey and heather and peat. He was an oldish man, who saw history and geography in liquor. When we asked about Dornoch, he said that across the Firth, in Tain, Glenmorangie was distilled. He compared that favorably with Glenburie-Glenlivet, which he said was distilled in Forres, and Talisker from the wet and lonely Isle of Skye, which lay off the west coast, but seems a continent away in the tight vastness of Scotland. We had to taste the Glen Mhor, which is the native drink of Inverness and made there. There is a careful folklore here as demanding and fretful as any Continental wine legendry; while Scotch whisky is simply Scotch whisky to us, there is one taste and subtle flavor to the Invergordon Dalmore and another entirely to the Knockando Cardow and still another to the Pitlochry Blair Athol and yet another to the Camelon Rosebank. I am no great drinker; I could taste the honey softness, but not the differences. Yet there was a man at the bar named Gleason who swore he could name the place and distilling of a whisky, and before my eyes he placed the Glenfiddich of Dufftown and the Linkwood of Elgin.
For our trip into the Highlands proper, we were supplied with an Austin that came not much higher than my waist. My son is six foot one and broadly built, and I am not small. Then there were my wife and daughter. We had four suitcases and my son's banjo. I pleaded with the car-rental people for a larger car, but they assured me that even if they had one, which they did not, it would be to no purpose: they insisted that a proper negotiation of Highland roads required a very small car. We discovered they were right.
Beyond the hazards implicit in an automobile the size of a kiddie car, I was expected to drive on the left-hand side of the road and deal with a foot clutch and four speeds forward. Keeping to the left lane was managed with the wild cries of my family to assist me; I negotiated the clutch only because I had learned to drive almost thirty years ago. In time, then, we became used to the Austin, almost fond of it.
As for the Highland roads, many the hold-and-pass type, we never quite became used to them. They are unique, as singularly Scottish as Scotch whisky, and they beggar description. One learns from them both pride and humility. The road surface is good, hard and smooth – and precisely wide enough for one small British-type car. Neither care nor squeezing is called for, for there is no way to pass another car on such a road. Instead, every quarter mile or so, the road widens into double width for about twenty feet. The technique is to spot the approaching car in the distance and then pull into a passing circle in time, or hope that the other car will, or meet him bumper to bumper, while one of you backs to a passing space.
Such is the manner in which the Highlands have dealt with twentieth-century traffic, and incredibly enough it works. I saw no wrecks, no arguments, no fights. The Scots are a surprisingly amiable people – only rather independent. A lady in a store in Edinburgh, who saw my brow rise as she handed me Bank of Scotland money, put it concisely: "And why not? We are not a conquered people. We made an agreement with the English, but they never conquered us." Precisely; in every sense it is a culture of agreement, as I realized whenever I jammed on my brakes and brought the little Austin to a shuddering stop facing some unperturbed Scottish driver. This may have happened fifty times, but I never saw a bit of anger in the Scot facing me.
The drive from Inverness to Dornoch, by the route we took, was a hundred and seventy-nine miles. As the crow flies, it was no more than forty miles. Then we were indeed in the Northern Highlands. I had been, until now, in thirty-six countries; Scotland was the thirty-seventh; but not until Scotland and the Highlands did I have the feeling that I had left the known earth behind me.
The beauty of the Highlands, the unreality and astonishing illusion of immensity were something of a puzzle. My wife and I had read a hundred books about the Highlands and had pored over hundreds of pictures. But neither books nor pictures had conveyed the truth fully. Again and again, as we topped a high rise and saw the mountains spread out around us in every direction, reaching to every horizon, we were reminded of our own Far West – the same sense of bigness that one feels in our West, of limitlessness, of a continental mass of vast dimension. The evidence of one's eyes clashes with the plain facts of geography, but since this cannot be explained, it cannot be a proper fact of description.
The mountains are green and treeless, and they rise abruptly from the breathtaking firths – the great bays – and on the plateaus of the mountains themselves lie the freshwater lochs, jewel-like and icy-cold lakes without number, the larger ones on the maps and a thousand smaller ones unnamed, unmapped. The purple heather is draped across the bare mountains like massive shawls, blankets thrown at random, great splashes of burning purple, and the purple is matched in the far horizon, blending into a cold lavender – colors unlike any I had seen before. And an atmosphere equally unlike anything I had seen before.
Perhaps polar explorers will comprehend what I mean by an atmosphere. The very light is different. Some days later, my wife and I drove north from Dornoch, which is already far to the north. We drove through a green valley, where the sheep grazed on the bare mountains on either side, and the whole valley was filled with a pale white light, the sun itself was different. It was not cold, but the sense of the icy edge of the known world was in the air. It was past nine o'clock and the sun had not set. All that was familiar and earthlike disappeared, and we spoke in whispers....
Yet the Highlands are not cold. We saw live oak as we drove from Inverness to Dornoch; you will not find much live oak north of the Carolinas in our country. The direct heat of the sun was warm and bracing, but whenever a cloud covered the sun there was an icy chill in the air. We passed through a score of little Highland villages, Beauly and Conon Bridge and Dingwall and Drummond and Kincardine and others, picturesque little towns where the houses are grey stone and the streets so clean a sparrow would starve on them; the children well-clad, scrubbed and eminently decent; the shepherds in tweeds that money could not buy in New York; and everywhere the black-and-white collies that work so hard and so intelligently that one has second thoughts about the relations between man and animal.
When we asked about a Highland collie puppy, a shepherd advised us that they make poor pets. "They are work beasts," he said, "and when you take away their work, they are no fit for a life of idleness. They become neurotic and troublesome." The shepherd is aware of neurotic patterns. His ranch can be ten thousand acres, and himself a college man. In fact, it is quite likely. We saw nothing of the poor, ignorant sod-bound shepherd of the books.
So for the best part of a day, we drove slowly toward Dornoch, stopping again and again, climbing ranges in the little Austin, entering boundless wildernesses, counting twenty or thirty lochs, skirting the mighty firths, emerging at intervals into the pleasant, picture-card Highland villages. We were in the rangeland, among sheep and the small Black Angus cattle that allow the English and the Scots to consume more protein per head than any nation in Europe. The distances are great, the houses few, yet the land is not so empty or vast by a long shot as it was to be in the north and the west.
Dornoch is a grey town with an old, old castle. Not far away is Skibo Castle which Andrew Carnegie bought and refurbished, and down on the firth side of Dornoch is the great, beautiful stretch of Dornoch sands, where the wild Vikings beached their longboats and raided. Dornoch is a somber and entrancing village, with origins lost in the backwash of Pictic-Gaelic-Viking prehistory. It is of the old Royal Cities, as the Scots call them, and once the kings came there. Golfers come today – none of your tamed suburban sort, but the golfer who would pit his skill and perseverance against eighteen holes of grim wilderness that wanders over moors, with the sea on one side and the Highlands on the other. There, too on Friday nights, the pipers play, and they say that when the wind is right, the skirling of the pipes can be heard miles at sea.
We put up at the Dornoch Hotel, which had the consistently good food and meticulous service we always encountered with British Transport hotels. Most of these appear to have been built half a century before, but they have been diligently tended and repaired. The enormous Victorian bathrooms, with their yards of chrome-plated plumbing and their seven-foot tubs are as sparkling and as properly clean and efficient as when they were installed, and the rooms are large and comfortable.
The hotel at Dornoch faces the golf course, and one night after dinner my son and I set out to cross the links to the sea and the haunted Dornoch sands. It was nine o'clock in the evening when we set off and almost ten when we had crossed the stretch of moors – shaven here and there into incongruous putting greens – and had climbed down the ocean face to the sands. Here, two hours before midnight, the whole world shone in a white, unearthly light, bright enough for my son to take a series of perfectly successful photographs. I had not actually realized before that night how far north we were, nor had I ever before experienced the summer nightlight of the northern regions. It is a strange, thrilling and unreal experience – a quality of light that exists nowhere else, and it is subduing as well as startling. In all truth, in the Northern Highlands, there is no real night in the summertime, and though the sun sets, the strange white afterlight lingers all night long.
Off the pale brown beach, the North Sea curled and tossed, its color indefinable in the nightlight. Neither of us had ever seen anything quite like the Dornoch sands. The tide was out, and we were able to walk far out on the great majestic beach that stretched to the left and to the right as far as the eye could see. Americans are not used to the sight of virgin beach, wild untouched, unspoiled – but the cold waters that wash Scotland strike thousands of miles of such beach, a thousand miles of coastline on the Isle of Skye alone, and uncounted miles in the rest of the land.
Americans who have traveled in their own country and in Canada are used to vast reaches of wilderness; what is so different in Scotland is the fact of very ancient villages and castles all through this Highland region. Just as one small part of Edinburgh's lovely castle is Romanesque, so are the Highland villages very old, very European. Here and there, all over the land, rise ruined castles and broken towers built by the Vikings – and before the Vikings by those who defended the coast against them, and before then by nameless Highland chiefs.
From Dornoch, we traveled north, and then back to Dornoch to set out across the spine of Scotland and the Highlands to the Western Islands and a place called the Kyle of Lochalsh, which stands facing the Isle of Skye. But there was nothing else we saw in the Highlands quite like Dornoch and the haunted Dornoch sands.
The Highlanders move in their overwhelming landscape quite calmly and securely, as if it were no strange thing at all to inhabit the loveliest region on earth. They enjoy what they have quietly and with great pleasure. Driving across the Highlands one day in the indefatigable Austin, we looked for a place to pause for lunch. We were on the high ridge road – a single lane – with the improbable name of Cnoc Muigh-bhlaraidh Aultnamain, unpronounceable to anyone but a graduate student of the Gaelic, but famous for the view. The road winds up onto a plateau almost three thousand feet high, and in every direction as far as the eye can see the mountains roll endlessly. It was a sunny, clean day, the air like wine, the sky a burnished blue, a day to turn an appetite into ravenous hunger; and it was past noon, time for what the Scots call "loonch" – a word of appreciation, you may believe.
Generally and with increasing purpose, the family voiced its desire to halt and eat, but on a single-lane Highland road, a cliff face on one side, a cliff edge on the other, stopping a car for a picnic is less easily said than done. Every quarter mile or so there was a passing circle and in every passing circle a Scot and his wife, or a Scot alone, or a Scot with wife and children partook of food. They are contemplative and serious people, and a meal is not to be hurried. In a few places small tables were set up. As we rolled slowly past, we saw piles of cold chicken, huge meat pies, bottles of wine and whisky, joints of meat frosted cakes, fruit, melon – everything conceivable to dispel the notion that this was a nation plain and ascetic. Quite the contrary; when an hour had passed with no parking spot, we concluded that "loonch" was a national industry. Finally, the car half hanging over a cliff, we climbed down to some rocks and ate with sheep for company.
There is really only one road that crosses the middle Highlands, although it branches out for numberless excursions; and a single day of easy driving will take you from the cold and austere east coast to the warmer wonders of the Western Isles, washed by the Gulf Stream. Yet the variety of scenery in those few miles is such as to make the trip ten times its length in retrospect. From wild mountain valleys to lowland villages, hedged and proper, and then back to bare, lonely peaks, cattle ranches five miles long, freshwater lochs, crumbling castles, roaring salmon streams, wind-twisted pine stands, majestic sea lochs and sea firths, bridges, ferries, tiny Highland villages, crofters' places or home factories, where the man and woman of the house still spin and weave the soft Highland woolens.
Should you look for the same route, the road is marked A832 and then A890 on any road map of the Highlands. Loch Luichart, Loch Achanah, Loch Sgamhain – lakes like jewels strung on a long thread of road, and down through Glen Carron to the great sea loch of Carron. We took a ferry across Loch Carron and then came into Kyle of Lochalsh through a silver mist of rain. We could not complain. It was the first real rain we had had in the Highlands.
A "kyle" is a water pass into a loch, that is a sea loch – the word derives from Scottish Gaelic, from "caol," which means "narrow." You don't find it on the east coast; strangely enough, the Vikings raided the west coast of Scotland more than they did the east. Here, at the mouth of Loch Alsh, dividing the great Inner Sound from the stormy Sound of Sleat, the old Viking King Haakon IV took the pass and held it, making the Isle of Skye his stronghold. It's a breathtaking place, the white-capped water pass between Skye and the mainland cradled in such sprawling grandeur of cloud-capped mountains as even our own West cannot equal – peaks in every direction, beauty and splendor beyond description.
After almost a lifetime of hearing about France and Spain and Italy and Greece, here in Scotland we had the feeling of explorers stumbling onto a hidden wonderland.
Kyle of Lochalsh is the name of the tiny and old village that hugs the mainland side of the water pass. Across the channel, there is Kyleakin, or the "pass of Haakon," as it was once, with a ferry connecting the two. A few score yards from Kyleakin stand the ruins of Haukon's castle. He took Skye in the old days with his savage Vikings, and he held it for years, exacting tribute from whoever would sail through the Kyle Rhea, into Loch Alsh and the Inner Sound – until the clansmen grew tired of his greed and brutality and gathered together and drove him and his Vikings out of Skye forever.
We waited in Kyle of Lochalsh for the rain to stop, wandering with raincoat and umbrella through the town and the country around it, but when it seemed that the rain would go on forever, we piled into the Austin and crossed over the ferry to Skye, and perhaps that's the best way to visit Skye, with its thousand miles of splendid coastline and its thousand soaring peaks, its stone towers and countless valleys without road or footpath. Our memories of Skye are curtained by that silver mist of rain and its mountain peaks were lost in the clouds while we were there.
When at last we left Kyle of Lochalsh, we parted from our tiny Austin, which would be driven back to Inverness by others. We were up early and out of our hotel soon after dawn – to see a burning red sun rising in a steel-blue sky. We had decided to take one of MacBrayne's steamers down through the sea loch and into the Sound of Sleat to Mallaig, where herring is kippered for the world to eat. The steamer Arkaic, a lovely ship, long and graceful, was already waiting at the pier in Lochalsh, and we went on board to join a crowd of Scots – of all ages – on holiday. Mostly, they were hikers who had gone on foot into the Highlands, and the deck was piled with their gear knapsacks and climbing equipment. The ship put to sea, and soon they were trading folk songs with our own kids. The captain, like every Scot we met, surrendered his hard shell to a single question – and while we sailed through the lochs with their looming mountain walls, he told us of the wild seas that winter brought to this west coast.
By midday, we were at Mallaig, and even from far off, we could hear the shrill screaming of the gulls and see them, like a vast amoebic umbrella or a snowfall of oversized flakes. We went to the herring factory to watch the fish beheaded, cleaned, racked and then smoked over slow-burning fires of native peat, and all the time we were there, inside the factory and outside of it our ears were assailed by the wild screaming of the gulls.
Leaving Mallaig, we changed our mode of transportation again and took the famous scenic route of the West Highland railroad. For only a few shillings, we purchased seats in the observation car. It is a ride worth going a long way to take – but the citation of grandeur and beauty becomes repetitive. We were coming down out of the Highlands now, and we left the train at Fort William, called by some the gate to the Highlands. Majestic Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in Scotland, towers over Fort William, and a few miles away, at Corpach, is one of those unlikely wonders of the nineteenth century, the Caledonian Canal with its Neptune's Staircase, literally a waterway over a mountain. But it was already anticlimax. We were out of the Highlands.
The following night we were in Glasgow, and that same night we left Scotland.
We left Glasgow by ship, down through the Firth of Clyde and across the Irish Sea to Ireland. It was best that way – to steal away across the water in the darkness – for when you give your heart to a land in middle age, it can come to very little. Especially when you have given it to the most beautiful of all places on earth.