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Travel Logs December 2014

The Tenacious Traveler

Proud, Rugged, Beautiful Scotland

By Victor Block

Although Scotland is about the size of South Carolina, its Highlands comprise one of the last great wilderness areas of Europe.

In places, the scenery is as violent in appearance as the bloody battles that were fought there for centuries. At the same time, it can be as gentle as a morning mist rising above the rolling hills.

Craggy rock-strewn mountains reach toward the sky. Towering cliffs plunge to the crashing sea below. Fields called moors, which are blanketed by coarse grass, moss and low-lying bushes, stretch as far as the eye can see. The still waters of forest-clad lochs (lakes) reflect images of ancient castles and fortresses, which stand like silent sentries on their shores.

Mention Scotland, and these are scenes that people are likely to picture in their mind. This is the Highlands, the remote upper half of the country. Although Scotland is about the size of South Carolina, its Highlands comprise one of the last great wilderness areas of Europe.

The region is sparsely populated. Sheep and long-haired cattle occupy much of the fertile land. Tiny towns dot the landscape. Well-maintained highways meander around lochs and skirt high mountains.

This setting has not always been so tranquil. The history of Scotland is replete with battles against a parade of invaders.

The first record of Scottish history dates back to the Romans, whose army arrived in 82 A.D. They were followed by other intruders from regions that today are Germany, Britain and Ireland.

This history of defending their homeland and their honor against a parade of intruders gave the Scottish Highlanders an intense pride that continues to be displayed in a variety of ways.

The system of clans (families) was born in the 6th century. As various areas of Scotland came under the control of chieftains, people of the regions adopted the name of their leader. Among dozens of clan names in Scotland are MacKenzie, MacLaren and Swinton.

The original clan system came to an end in the mid-19th century, but pride in the names has lingered. Today, it is expressed primarily during spirited competition at the Highland Games that take place in Scotland throughout the year.

Some aspects of these games, like bagpipes and kilts, have become well known around the world. In addition to sporting events, the Highland Games also include music, dancing, entertainment and exhibits about various aspects of Scottish culture.

One of the best-known features of Scottish traditions is the kilt, a knee-length wool garment that resembles a skirt which men and boys in the Highlands adopted as a style of dress in the 16th century. Kilts are woven in a decorative pattern called tartan, which consists of criss-crossed horizontal patterns and wide vertical stripes in various colors.

Highland clan members as long ago as the 13th century were identified by the brightly colored plaid material that served as their clothing. At that time, it consisted of yards of tartan, which the wearer spread out on the ground, folded into pleats and wrapped around his body. From this evolved the kilt, the skirt-like attire that is familiar today. It still is the mode of dress preferred by many Scotsmen for ceremonies and formal occasions.

The complete outfit includes elaborate decorations. For example, a "spum," which usually is made of leather or animal fur and resembles a woman's purse, is worn around the waist. A small dagger called a "skean" is tucked into the top of the high stockings. According to legend, in the past –  when warring clan chiefs met to work out their differences –  they often hid a small knife in their stockings in case they could not reach agreement and the gathering ended in a fight.

Since the clans played such an important part in the history of Scotland, it's not surprising that their stories often are closely associated with the turreted castles which dot the landscape. Some of these massive fortresses still serve as stately homes, while others lie in ruins that provide only hints of their glorious past.

Eilean Donan is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. The rebuilt 13th-century fortress is perched on a rocky overlook reached by a causeway, at a place where three lochs meet. Surrounded by water and mountains, the castle has a proud past that is brought to life in its furnishings and artifacts.

It served as home base for the MacKenzie and MacRae clans. The walls of the banquet hall still are adorned by numerous coats of arms, and a lively painting shows members of the MacRae family, dressed in plaid kilts, dancing on the roof of Eilean Donand the night before they were to fight a major battle.

Cawdor Castle, built in the late 14th century, is what many people picture in their mind when they think of a fortress. According to legend, its soaring central tower, walled garden and drawbridge entrance provided the setting for William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

A particularly bloody history unfolded at Urquhart Castle, another 14th-century structure that was one of the largest fortresses in Scotland. Its extensive ruins occupy a rugged ledge that juts into the deep waters of Loch Ness.

This castle played important roles during the struggle of the Scottish people for independence from England in the 14th century. Today, it would be interesting for no other reason than its location overlooking the best-known loch in Scotland.

Sightings of a monster in 23-mile long Loch Ness were first reported as far back as 565 A.D. when Saint Columba, an Irish missionary to Scotland, wrote about seeing a "water beast."

More recent reports, and some fuzzy photographs that most people believe are fake, have made the loch one of the most visited sites in Scotland. Visitors come with the hope of spotting the lake monster, which has been given the name Nessie. The Loch Ness Exhibition Centre has an audiovisual presentation about the legend of Nessie, along with craft demonstrations and a gift shop. In front of the building is a large statue of Nessie standing in a miniature lake, and that reproduction is the closest thing to the real monster that visitors are likely to see.

This touch of commercialism isn't what most travelers to the Highlands of Scotland will remember following their visit. More memories, and photographs, probably will portray the rolling moors and distant mountains, fields enclosed by stone fences, and people who cling proudly to their rich, if sometimes violent, history.

 

Victor Block recommends that if you can’t visit a destination you’d like to, read about it. He’s happy to be your eyes and ears.

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