Scottish skies

Scottish skies

Scotland

Scottish skies

Land of breathtaking castles, picturesque valleys, and the single malt, Scotland has a lot on offer for an adventurous traveller. Bharathi Prabhu takes in the beauty and the legends of the historic nation.

To distil a 1,000-word piece about Scotland from a 10-day trip is akin to distilling Scotch from scratch. The ingredients and the process have to be right, the waiting period is long and the final product may not be to everybody’s taste. I hope you, dear reader, won’t screw up your face and exclaim “Ugh” at this piece like I did at the Talisker distillery on tasting its famous single malt. But in my defence it did taste like the compounder’s medicine of my childhood. Thankfully, Scotland trip is bitter only in this miniscule part, and the rest is heady and invigorating. The bitter part? Weather: it is numbingly cold and dreary and one yearns for hot Indian food all the time.

For the rest, there is the interesting history and fantastic landscape. The Scots take great care to preserve and market both. There are stories of royalty and religion showcased in magnificent castles and churches. Even local heroes and legends are celebrated and remembered in small towns through monuments and exhibitions. Tourist information centres abound. Scotland’s excellent roads make it possible to drive to most places, and better still, pause and take in pristine lakes, mountains and the rugged countryside.

Royal Scots

To catch a glimpse of how Scottish kings and queens of yore lived and even killed, one needs to visit its famous castles. Stirling Castle, located 40 km from Glasgow, is a towering structure set atop a steep hill. It had been under siege several times during wars between Scots and the English. In recent times, it served as a military barrack. Much of what stands today is the result of work in the 14th and 15th centuries. King James V, the most famous occupant of the castle, took keen interest in making the castle a grand structure. He was quite a personality, disguising himself as a commoner to mingle with his subjects and patronising poets and writers. The castle is famous for Stirling heads — oak medallions that were once exquisitely carved and adorned on the ceilings of the palace.

Culzean Castle, on the picturesque Ayrshire coast, is another popular castle, perhaps also because of the legends of ghosts attached with it. While I didn’t meet any spooky figures, it is easy to imagine the coal boys who were sent up to clean the chimneys and some of whom slipped and died, coming back to haunt this sprawling place. I was greeted by a woman dressed in period clothes. “I would have been the Nanny to the children of the Earl,” she declared, curtseying on a carpet reportedly woven in India.

Scotland also has stories of outlaws, suffragettes and commoners. Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734), the Robin Hood of Scotland, has his own statue in the little town of Calander, where an audio visual about his life and times is screened. Incidentally, the ‘Roy’ in his name comes from the Gaelic word ruadh, meaning red — the colour of his hair. Scotland is home to the largest number of red heads!

Signboards in Gaelic are common, especially as one travels to the highland. The extremely interesting People’s Palace in Glasgow has photographs, exhibits and paintings depicting lives of Glaswegians from 18th to 20th century. It has photos of the weapons suffragettes carried in self-defence in their fight for the right to vote (1914). The poverty and hardships depicted here are in sharp contrast to the lavish lifestyle of the rich of the same period depicted in other museums such as the Kelvingrove Museum. The replication of tea houses with exquisite china, superb furniture and beautiful paintings is a visual treat.

Natural landscape

The legend of Loch (lake in Scottish) Ness monster has attracted visitors since long and I didn’t want to give it a miss. Imagine my surprise when after familiarising myself with all the facts about this huge freshwater lake and speculations regarding its alleged resident “Nessie” from naturalist Adrian Shine’s documentary, I spotted the man himself at the cafeteria! The tall bearded scientist doesn’t believe in the existence of the monster, but has used the interest generated by Nessie to conduct much scientific research. A cruise on the lake (whose volume is reportedly sufficient to submerge all human beings on earth three times over), leaves me in awe with its charm and mysteriousness.

My next halt is at Glencoe, which is the most famous and scenic of all valleys in Scotland. Mountaineering, hiking, biking and observing wildlife, the possibilities are numerous here. Glencoe has mountains that are almost denuded, towering mysteriously all around. I took the easy trail first, and was bowled over by snowcapped mountains in the distance. Tempted by the grandeur, I tried the tougher mountain walk at Ben Nevis the next day. Huffing and puffing, I returned half way and decided that the sight of “the three sisters” and “the old man” (famous peaks) from the car was sufficient.

When I visited in the month of April, it wasn’t yet spring in Scotland. As if to make up for the mostly grey skies and denuded tall trees, the land was green everywhere. A riot of beautiful flowering plants could be seen in most places; homes, town centres, highways even. The sight of grazing cattle, horses and sheep is common. Dustbins are everywhere and barring cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, there is hardly any litter. Scotland is 10 times the size of Bengaluru, and has only half of its population. Is this the reason for the countryside being so clean and beautiful, and the drivers being so courteous? I wondered. The Pakistani waiter at the Indian restaurant agreed, and added his two cents, “Idhar sab kuch hein, madam, mohabbat nahin” (Madam you have everything here, but no love). Perhaps he had not found it yet?

Factfile

* B&Bs operating everywhere offer good facilities.
* Entry to many museums is free.
* Guided tours of castles are available.
* While Edinburgh and Glasgow are worth a visit, the real charm of Scotland is in the Highlands, which are a walker’s paradise. Trails with different difficulty levels beckon.
* Towns like Inverness can serve as a base to explore further.
 

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