HOL­I­DAY IN THE HIGH­LANDS

Greg Cal­laghan en­joys a fam­ily pil­grim­age around some of Scot­land’s pret­ti­est towns and isles

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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