A wee dram of the Scottish Highlands

The line between a tourist and a traveller is a slim one. We were travellers who landed in London en route to Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands.  The London boxes - the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, The Tower of London, the Thames River Cruise, Madame Tussaud's, 221 Bakers Street and the museums, had all been ticked on an earlier visit.  London was dull, dreary, tired and full of cigarette smoke. The human at the Immigration Desk showed not a whiff of manners and could not care less. It was your fault that he was unhappy; why were you there at all! Gatwick was disorganized and close to dirty. The cab drivers could well have been robots. It boded ill. What if Scotland was the same? We had travelled a long way, assigning time and money that had a million other demands on them, hoping to enjoy a bit of the Scottish Highlands, starting with Edinburgh, moving on to Inverness and driving up further north.

We started anyway, from King's Cross Station (yes, the same station from where Harry Potter leaves for Hogwarts), on the route of The Flying Scotsman, to Edinburgh. A bit of interesting trivia here: Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and the second most visited city in the UK after London. In fact, the entire city of Edinburgh is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Edinburgh has the highest percentage of professionals in the UK; almost 43% of its population possess a degree level or professional qualification. A bastion of Banking, Finance, Education and Research for centuries, even today, the University draws the best in all disciplines. The Edinburgh Festival, the largest of its kind in the world and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August draw thousands from around the world and generate almost a hundred million Pounds for the 'toonies' as the inhabitants of Edinburgh are known. The first hour of the journey, passing through the ubiquitous industrial environs surrounding railway stations, was unexceptional. But the latter half compensated adequately with sweeping views of the Durham Castle, the Tweed River, the Royal Bridge and finally the famed English Coast. We stepped off the train at Waverly Station, Edinburgh, into what felt like a Medieval Town, steeped in history and heritage. From the ancient architecture of most buildings, small charming shops selling Scottish woolens and cobbled streets with quaint names like the Royal Mile, Pleasance, Candlemaker Row, Fair-a-far, to the Castles perched on the surrounding Hills around and the omnipresent bagpiper in kilts, it felt like one giant step back in time, but thankfully with WIFI and Uber!

Edinburgh has enough for a good three days. The Edinburgh Castle itself merits a day, not just because of the Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, but also for the enactments of the Castle History by costumed actors and the Castle of Light show in the evening. Then, those with a strong heart and guts of steel have the Ghost Tours, the night tours of the Haunted vaults of the Edinburgh castle and more. Fans of the Royal family can enjoy the Royal yacht Britannica, now retired and moored at Edinburgh and stop by at Holyrood Palace, where the Royal family resides, when in Scotland. For the scholarly, there is the Museum of Scotland and the National Art galleries. For the tourist, there are the vistas from Arthur's Seat, the Scott monument; a tribute to the writer Walter Scott and the Royal Botanic Garden with its giant lily pads and 10 glass houses.  However, the show-stopper is clearly the Camera Obscura, located in a small non- descript part of the castle. Camera Obscura, the 184 year old invention of Maria Short, for which she was called a witch, shows you, in real time, the entire vista around Edinburgh Palace on a big circular table, complete with people walking past and cars moving around. Clever optical illusions enable you to even pick them up in your palm or swat them like flies. And all this without using even electricity, forget technology! With an entertaining narrative by talented staff, five enthralling floors and two hours of illusions, mind play and physics, the Camera Obscura is a winner.

Driving Into The Sunset On An Endless Road

A few days in Edinburgh, with its ancient edifices, castles and vaults can leave you feeling a bit closed in, pun intended. So, we picked up a car and hit the road to Inverness which is the capital of and the gateway to the Scottish Highlands - a drive of four hours. "Inbhir Nis", as it was known, actually means "Mouth of River Ness". It is quiet and beautiful with the River Ness flowing right through the city. Honestly, the will to leave the window of our room overlooking the river, was non-existent. It was only the prospect of driving Up North, that made us step out. En route we stopped by at Scotland's most well-known icon, Loch Ness, the most voluminous lake in England. With a depth of 755 feet, it has more water than all the lakes of England and Wales put together. Legend rules supreme here. Starting with Nessie, the elusive monster of Loch Ness, and the Witches Rock, it is legend and myth, packaged and presented to seem absolutely plausible. We took the forty-five-minute Loch Ness cruise, which proved to be the best way to enjoy this stunning lake and the scenery around it.

Quiet Flows the Inverness

On the road again, we had a choice to either drive up North to Ben Nevis, the tallest peak on that side of the world or head towards the Isle of Skye, one of the northern most points of Scotland, the coin dropped on the Isle of Skye and a good choice it was. Sheer green expanses stretching on either side, punctuated by startling blue lochs every now and then, while the road rose and dipped at will and cut through Scottish towns with names that are the ultimate tongue twisters. Also, no matter where you drive in the Highlands, there is always a distillery at hand, making a distillery tour de rigeur. We chose to visit one on an island named Rasay, in the middle of a lake, the approach to which is by a ferry. It was certainly an experience to drive the car into the ferry, scamper up to the top deck and enjoy half an hour of utter peace with shaggy Highland Cows grazing on the greenest pastures in the middle of a blue lake against the silent and mysterious hills.  A very informative distillery tour revealed why and how the best of spirits came from the region. But that is a story for another day.

Utter Peace

Scotland has cities other than Edinburgh and Inverness, like Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, that offer activity and adventure to the tourist. For the traveller, the roads less taken throw up pleasant revelations, Breathtaking treks, literally and figuratively and distilleries producing the finest dram. Whether it’s a journey on the iconic Jacobite that Harry Potter took to Hogwarts or an overnight sojourn by the epic Caledonian Sleeper, sampling the authentic Scottish cuisine (not for the faint hearted) and reliving the tumultuous history between Scotland and Britain, there is no dearth of things to do. Or you could just pick up a car, load your favourite music and drive on and away to the corner of the world. Undoubtedly, there is a beauty, solitude and peace in the Scottish Highlands and although relatively heavier on the pockets, it is maximum bang for the buck. But, in all cases, just pray for fine weather!


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