Scottish Highlands | Day 1
I'm not usually one to chase after a large, group-style guided tour. I usually prefer to take things at my own pace, allow experiences to unfold in an organic way, and have a general rough framework for a trip but allow the rest to fall into place naturally. However, I will be the first to admit that there are some situations and places that call for a guided tour of some sort. Knowing that my family and I wanted to get up to the highlands and Loch Ness and such, I began searching for a tour we could take from Edinburgh. After some internet research I came across Highland Experience Tours. This company had tons of options to choose from, but I was particularly drawn to one of their 2-day tours that would take us on...the......Hogwarts Express. Yep. The Hogwarts Express.
Okay the tour actually included a ride on a Jacobite steam train from the 18th century, but this also happens to be the train that is used in the Harry Potter films during the students' journey to Hogwarts.
Harry Potter aside, this tour looked like it promised to show us everything we wanted to see. We'd start from Edinburgh and make our way Northwest through Cairngorm National Park, Inverness and Loch Ness, the severe yet breathtaking landscape of Ranoch Moor and everything in-between. This ended up being the absolute perfect way to spend two of our days in Scotland. Our tour guide was a wealth of knowledge and Scottish history, and he would narrate our drives through misty mountains and sweeping vistas with stories of warfare, gore, and folktales. I would definitely call this a highlight of our entire trip.
We began at the Forth Rail Bridge, which dates all the way back to 1890. This bridge was constructed at a great cost - 7 years, 10 times as much metal as the Eiffel Tower, and a jaw-dropping 98 lives. One man fell beyond retrieval, and the only solution for his comrades was to lower him poisoned food in order to grant him death as humanely as possible. (His body is still somewhere in the depths of the bridge...!)
Our first stop was Dunkeld, a small town north of Perth. We walked to the Dunkeld Cathedral and learned about the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689, when the outnumbered Cameronian Regiment fended off the Jacobites by securing themselves within the cathedral. The Jacobites sought shelter in the abandoned thatch-roof homes of the village. In the middle of the night, the covenanters went around to their former homes and quietly locked the doors. They proceeded to set fire to the village and miraculously won the battle against forces that had been so superior to their own.
Next was a quick stop at the ancient burial ground of Clava Cairns. Very few of these centuries-old structures have remained in-tact in Scotland due to the Victorians taking a great interest in these sites and claiming their contents for themselves, however this particular one is well-preserved. Dating back 4,000 years, Clava Cairns is an example of a circular burial chamber exhibiting prehistoric rock art. We then hopped over to the battlefield at Culloden, the site of another battle between Jacobite and government forces.
Our last stop of the day was probably the biggest. Loch Ness. No, we did not see Nessie :-(After a short catamaran trip on the loch we arrived at Castle Urquhart, originally a medieval fortress but used between the 13th and 16th centuries as an important stronghold in the Scottish Wars of Independence, then as a royal castle, suffered quite a bit of destruction in the 17th century to prevent use by the Jacobites, and is now one of the most-visited castles in Scotland.
We then made our way to Ft William for the night, passing Scotland's tallest mountain, Ben Nevis, along the way.
Few! We covered a lot of ground and this is only the half of it! I know I mentioned the Hogwarts Express, but I just don't think I can fit everything into one post. That's up next, I promise!