HOLIDAY IN THE HIGHLANDS
Greg Callaghan enjoys a family pilgrimage around some of Scotland’s prettiest towns and isles
THE ancient Gaelic battle cry of sluagh-ghairm roars out as, swords at the ready, we prepare to protect the castle against the bloodthirsty thugs about to batter down the main gates. The pipes scream out TheChief’sSalute as a row of our finest archers shoot flaming arrows into the hordes below and a musket ball wounds one of our clansmen, who falls to the ground, clutching his chest.
I am standing on the tower battlements of Duart Castle, a massive black stone edifice perched on a crag on western Scotland’s misty Isle of Mull, and I’m imagining what it would have been like to fight off the mad MacDonalds, from this, the ancestral home of the clan MacLean.
Since boyhood, playing with wooden swords cut by my ever-obliging grandfather, castles have cast an almost hypnotic spell on me. It’s a fascination that has, sadly, carried through to various medieval-style accoutrements in my home today.
It’s perfectly quiet at Duart Castle on this September afternoon, except for a few dark clouds rolling in and a chill breeze blowing off the loch. This is bonny, not sunny, Scotland, the country that prompted Billy Connolly to quip, There are two seasons: June and winter.’’ Nonetheless, the view is breathtakingly romantic: a hazy loch, emerald hills upholstered with heather and a few blearyeyed sheep huddled near old stone cottages.
At the foot of the castle, just metres from the lapping waves of the Sound of Mull, stands a sign asking divers to respect the dead. For this is where a Spanish galleon — one of king Phillip’s mighty Armada of 1588 — sank trying to escape the wrath of the clan MacLean. It is not the way of the MacLeans to listen to insolent beggars,’’ chieftain Lachlan MacLean thundered to the Spanish captain in 1588, after he foolishly demanded free food and supplies from the locals. Only the captain’s dog and three sailors escaped drowning after a mysterious explosion ripped the ship apart.
On moonless nights, according to legend, the captain’s lonely dog howls on the pebbly beach for his lost master.
Duart Castle, a 40-minute ferry ride from the picturesque port of Oban on Scotland’s west coast, has a latter-day claim to fame, too, as scenes from the Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones film Entrapment were filmed here in 1998; Polaroids of a boredlooking Zeta-Jones are pinned to the wall of a state room downstairs. The castle, rebuilt by Fitzroy MacLean, 26th chief of the clan, after he bought it in 1911, had lain in ruins for more than 200 years and is now considered one of the finest in the Scottish Highlands, the traditional home of the clans.
The Isle of Mull boasts other treasures: the last resting place of Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW in the early 19th century, and the seafront town of Tobermory, with its brightly painted buildings. The 480km-long coast is lined with high sea cliffs, powder-white beaches and wondrous wildlife, including the white-tailed sea eagle and colonies of otters, seals, dolphins and whales.
Spectacular and starkly beautiful, the Scottish Highlands are a perfect place to reflect on our journey so far, and in more ways than one. My partner’s family emigrated from Scotland in 1965, my stepfather grew up in Aberdeen, and part of my family tree can be traced back to the Lowlands of Scotland in the early 1800s. So our 10-day driving tour, with my partner and I, his sister and her husband, is very much a family pilgrimage.
After crossing the Scottish border on the west coast, we stop at the picturesque seaside town of Largs, where my partner’s father grew up. We spend an entertaining two days with sprightly Aunt Morag in her grand two-storey stone house and visit a clutch of cousins, uncles and aunts.
We hear our first ochayethenoo (roughly translated: well now), sink a Glenfiddich or two at one of the town’s many pubs and chow down on a delicious seafood lunch in the sailing club, which looks across to the landmark pencil monolith. At the turn of the 20th century, Largs was a port of call for the many steamer services on Scotland’s west coast and today, between June and August, it’s a regular calling point for the Waverley, the world’s last sea-going paddle-steamer, as it carries trippers across the Firth of Clyde.
Next is the working town of Paisley, for another brief memory stop at an imposing stone townhouse where my partner and his sister spent their childhood racing pushbikes up and down the wide polished front hallway. The sound of A Hard Day’s Night on the radio yanks them back to the mid-1960s, when they played in the rolling green fields around the corner, now sadly reduced to the size of a public park by a four-lane highway. A woman from a second-storey apartment looks down on us suspiciously as we video the scene, so we decide it’s time to head off to Oban, the ideal springboard for exploring the majestic highland landscape.
We take a road that snakes around Loch Lomond, the largest pool of fresh water in Britain. The scenery is intoxicating in its moodiness: steep olive-green hills, deep glens, the dance of late-afternoon shadows on the shimmering lake. Paradoxically, it was in tranquil, magnificent highland landscapes such as this that the famed Scottish clans — the Campbells, the McDougalls, the MacLeans and the MacDonalds — fought some of their most gruesome battles (the term clan was never used for families in lowland Scotland).
When we arrive in Oban in the early evening, it’s a nativity-scene search for accommodation, but we eventually find two rooms looking out to sea. When we mention to the hotel manager we are setting off for Craignure on Mull the next morning, he informs us there are almost 800 Scottish islands, but only 165 of these are more than 40ha. Mull is the biggest, with a population of about 2700, mostly living in Tobermory. As each year passes, more and more islands are being deserted, he tells us, as young people gravitate towards the mainland cities.
After a restful two-day break in Oban, we set off for Edinburgh via the ancient town of Stirling in Central Scotland, sometimes described as the brooch that clasps together the Highlands and the Lowlands. Its main street is lined with designer boutiques and upmarket eateries but buildings have been standing here since the Stone Age, and some of Stirling’s famous past residents include Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI of Scotland.
Most tourists come here to see the majestic Stirling Castle which, like Edinburgh Castle, sits atop an ancient volcanic crag. Today, however, we only have time to lunch in Stirling’s old town.
What we notice most about driving in Scotland — apart from the Gaelic road signs in the north and west — is a general absence of the jaw-clenching traffic jams that are so common in England. Scotland isn’t a crowded country: its population has hovered close to the five million mark since the early 1950s, whereas that of England has risen by almost 11 million during the same period. The skylines of Edinburgh and Glasgow — barring the odd skyscraper and the arrival of 21st-century landmarks such as Glasgow’s Armadillo auditorium — haven’t changed that much.
Nor has the basic Scottish character of flintiness and humorous self-effacement. And why would it? After all, this is a race that managed to keep the Romans off its soil after they invaded in AD43. So fierce and bloody was the resistance that the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall, a barrier to keep what they called the barbarians hemmed in.
Today, of course, Scotland is also a lot more than just skirling bagpipes, shortbread, whisky and tartan. Edinburgh is the sixth biggest financial centre in Europe and, with good-time Glasgow, is considered one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan of cities. Every year, between late July and early September, the population of Edinburgh nearly doubles, with hundreds of thousands of visitors revelling in music, comedy and film from all corners of the globe. The Edinburgh Festival is not just one but a collection of festivals each August, including the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
When we arrive in the city, we immediately hop on a tourist bus and our cameras don’t stop clicking. With its striking Georgian and Victorian architecture and winding medieval streets, it’s easy to see why Edinburgh has been listed as a World Heritage site.
Edinburgh Castle still dominates the urban skyline, grandly perched atop an ancient dead volcano in the centre of a city once home to Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott, and, more recently, Muriel Spark, J. K. Rowling and Irvine Welsh.
My partner’s sister is especially enthralled because, being a fan of crime novelist Ian Rankin, she is keen to visit some of the haunts of his character Inspector Rebus.
Edinburgh is a great city to walk around at night, with enough stylish bars and pubs, restaurants and live entertainment to rival any continental city. It’s also a fitting place to say goodbye to our short Scottish adventure. At the airport, en route to London, we all vow to return.
A gathering of the clans event, the Gathering 2009, will be held in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh on July 25-26 next year. It will be the largest international gathering of Scottish clans and a key event in a yearlong Homecoming Scotland promotion celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns and aimed at enticing travellers of Scots origin back to their roots. www.homecomingscotland.com www.thegathering2009.com www.visitbritain.com.au
Old Caledonia: Clockwise from above, Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull; Stirling Castle atop its crag; the Edinburgh skyline; pipers have a squeeze; golf course above Largs; Tobermory