Magazine article Sunset

A Leisurely Four-Day Trip in the Scottish Highlands

Magazine article Sunset

A Leisurely Four-Day Trip in the Scottish Highlands

Article excerpt

Reason for visiting the Highlands of Scotland aren't the same as for most of the rest of Europe. You don't come for Highland food, night life, monuments, weather, or shopping (the need for kilts and tartan neckties is finite.)

What the Highlands can offer is relaxation. The narrow roads discourage overdoing, and no particular scenic wonder demands it, so there's no reason to cram too much into your trip. The 300-mile loop drive through the Western Higlands mapped on page 89 took four leisurely days, including a couple of half-days for walks. It could easily have stretched to a week.

From a car, the ancient mountains at these bleak siberian latitudes begin to look repetitious--dun-colored in the gloom, gray-green in the sun. They're like a tweed jacket that appears to be only one color, but at close range shows flecks of yellow, red, orange, and violet. "The truth is," writes W.H. Murray in The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland, "no bit of Highland country will ever be known until a man walks on it and walks far."

Weather also slows you down. Even in the driest period, mid-May to late June, expect rain. When it hits, you can put on a slicker and walk out to the coast (where it rains less) and watch Atlantic combers crash across the reefs. Then back to tea, sweets, and an easy chair to read a hair-raising history of the gory ancestors of today's pink-cheeked, hospitable Scots.

Perhaps the most important walker's caution is to prepare for sudden shifts of weather. Mists and rain blow in quickly off the Atlantic. Even in good weather, pack rain gear and extra food.

Tennis shoes don't work well on boggy ground or gravelly slopes, and hiking boots take up too much room in a suitcase. We compromised by bringing sport shoes with tightly woven uppers and rubber-cleated soles, then found inexpensive rain wear there.

Scotland doesn't have the efficient footpath system of England. Hikers travel on little-used single-track roads or across private land.

Two Highland plusses are the low elevations (not much above 3,500 feet) and daylight that lasts, in midsummer, until 10 p.m. The local scourge is the tiny midge. You can purchase repellent, but even so wear a long-sleeved shirt. After mid-August and into winter, check whether hunting is permitted where you plan to walk. The best maps for hikers, Ordnance Survey maps, are available in bookstores and even area groceries; they are similar to U.S. Geological Survey topo sheets.

If you'd like to join a ranger-led hike, several leave from these National Trust for Scotland sites: Balmacara near Plockton; Inverewe Garden; Kintail and Morvich, 16 miles east of Kyle of Lochalsh; and Torridon, 9 miles southwest of Kinlochewe. Write to the trust, 5 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DU; or call 031-226-5922.

In spite of some very long names, Highland towns are little more than settlements, and the parkland headquarters is just a single building with a few parked cars. Many of the hotels are seasonal, in starkly sited white or stone buildings; reserve at least a day or two in advance during the summer. Bed-and-breakfasts are more numerous, cost about $15 per night per couple, and serve a serious, meaty morning repast at 8. You'll probably be hungry, since the last dinners in the region usually appear around 7:30. Cheese, fruit, and biscuits from the grocery store will do for lunch.

Here are some highlights of an itinerary starting in Inverness, the area's largest town. You should reserve a car ahead. …

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