Geography is destiny.
~Abraham Verghese, 1955 –
The long arm of the past is felt along the shores of the lochs of Scotland, where one can sense the presence of Pictish tribes, Celtic monks, clan chiefs, cattle drovers, Romantic era poets and the Allied forces. The lochs of Scotland were created in the far distant past, carved by glaciers between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago. While each loch has its own character, the deep waters of these marine basins seem to inspire a universal sense of awe and spark the imagination of generations.
Loch is a Scottish Gaelic word for a lake or fjord. It has been estimated that there are at least 31,460 freshwater lochs in Scotland, and more than 7,500 in the Western Isles alone. There are also more than 80 different sea lochs, the long arms of which often stretch far inland.
I had the pleasure of admiring many of these breathtaking bodies of water with my guide Johanna Campbell and her husband, writer Gilbert Summers, who waxes poetic about all things Scottish on www.scotlandinaweek.com.
“Today we sometimes see these long sea-lochs as barriers to travel,” Gilbert said. “Not so in the hey-day of clan society. These straights and sheltered kyles were classic ‘sea-roads’ – used by the oared galleys, the ‘birlinns’ of the clans. Often their voyages were recorded in poem and song in Gaelic – a closed book to most of us.”
“Loch Linnhe is a classic – the south end of the Great Glen of Scotland, a fault line inundated by the sea that points north-east straight towards Scotland Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis,” he continued. “Great views of it setting from the Mull ferry, just minutes out of the ferry-port of Oban.”
“For those on the ‘pilgrimage’ to Iona, Loch Scridain is their companion on the northern or right-hand side,” Gilbert said. “There is no other way of reaching Iona, this ‘Cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland. But what a companion for the journey on the winding western road. Scridain is a sea-loch that starts with the gentle salt-flats, seldom covered by the tide, and the haunt of curlew and other waders. Then the loch deepens – keep a watch for sea eagles.”
“West and west again, till opposite lies the Burg – the westernmost tip of the peninsula on the far side of Loch Scridain – roadless, trackless, remote – a glimpse across the water to a landscape of wild Scotland that few discover,” he continued. “Onwards, west again, till the loch becomes the open sea, punctuated by islands, the most notable of which is Staffa, inspiring the composer Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture ‘Fingal’s Cave’.
“Peerless sea views over Scridain makes the road to Iona a joy, no matter the light or weather,” he said.”
“This is Classic Perthshire touring country – a series of east west running glens,” Gilbert said. “This one is occupied by Loch Tay, overlooked by Ben Lawers, famous for its alpine plants. When the monks came from Iona they must have passed this way on their evangelical missions to the local Picts – so they would have seen the local crannogs – the ancient loch-dwellings typical of the area.”
“This safe deep-water anchorage selected by the British Fisheries Society as the site of a fishing station back in 1788, exploiting the fish resources of the coast and sea-lochs,” Gilbert explained. “The port was called Ullapool and still thrives today, as the ferry gateway to the Outer Hebrides and a tourism destination in its own right.”
“An iconic loch in the Great Glen, the coast to coast through route – and iconic mostly because a story about a mysterious disturbance made the local paper back in 1933,” Gilbert said. “That story grew and grew and went round the world as the famous Loch Ness Monster, surely an inspiration for tourism promoters everywhere. Oh, Loch Ness is Scotland largest loch by water volume. Plenty of room for mysterious mythical beasties.”
“This is Scotland’s longest loch,” Gilbert said. It is shaped a bit like a hammer and most visitors pass by on the main road to Oban, along the ‘hammer-head’ – little realizing how far the loch stretches out to the south-west.”
“Loch Lomond is where the Romantics’ “Cult of the Picturesque” was focused, along with the Trossachs,” Gilbert said. “It was inevitable – Scotland’s largest loch by surface area lies close to its largest population centre of Glasgow and is undeniably beautiful, with its islands and guardian peak of Ben Lomond. But it’s been popular for two centuries now – since tourism began – and is rather in danger of being loved to bits.
I was so enchanted by Scotland’s spectacular landscape, I made two trips this past year spending a total of a month there. On my first trip, I soaked up the ambiance and history of Lomond and several other lochs with guide Rob Mungavin.
“There are many islands in Loch Lomond – including so called ‘honeymoon’ islands that are so small that couples were once sent there to see if they could survive one week in cramped surroundings without quarrelling!” Rob told me. “It is often said that the most attractive part of Loch Lomond is the less visited Eastern Shore where you find the villages of Rowardennan and Balmaha, the viewpoint of Conic Hill and Ben Lomond itself. The West Highland walkway – from North Glasgow to Fort William – also passes along this shore.”
“These territories were once the place of major family rivalries between the Colquhoun and Macfarlane families who routinely used to slay each other and steal cattle!” he said. “The loch is 27 miles long – at its widest it is 5 miles and at its narrowest a matter of a few hundred yards. It is said that the cattle drovers of the seventeenth century used to drive their beasts to the market in Crieff by crossing the loch at its narrowest point near Inverbeg. The wonderful traditional inn, the Drovers Arms near Ardlui used to be a lodging point for these people.”
“Loch Dunvegan is a sea loch in the Northern part of Skye and in its corner we find Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the Clan Macleod,” Rob said. “Theoretically, the Macleods are the owners of the Cuillin Mountains and a few years ago the Clan Chief put the mountains up for sale! Dunvegan Castle had fallen into disrepair and needed millions spent on it – notably a damp problem caused by a leaky roof! There were no takers for the Cuillins as most people were appalled that the Cuillins – a spectacular mountain wilderness loved by climbers and walkers – could become the property of one individual, when they are considered so much part of the public Scottish landscape.”
“The loch is fairly unremarkable but on its shore opposite the Castle you will find one of the finest restaurants in the whole United Kingdom – the Three Chimneys,” he continued. “It boasts three Michelin stars, uses only local produce and is still privately owned. Diners – wealthy ones – are known to travel by helicopter from the mainland to eat in this world renowned restaurant.”
“Loch Fyne is a sea loch of over 60 miles in length and stretches down the west coast of Scotland,” Rob said. “It was famous during WW2 as the location for the Allied Forces practice manoeuvres for the amphibious D Day Landings. These days it is a majestic loch famous for its mussels and oysters and its proximity to the beautiful town of Inveraray. Inveraray stands at the head of Glen Aray and is the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Argyll, head of the Campbells! Inveraray Castle is a castle in the style of a French Chateau and the current occupant is the 13th Duke of Argyll – the husband of the heiress to Cadburys Chocolate fortune.”
“Alongside Loch Fyne’s shores is the world famous Loch Fyne Oyster Bar – the original restaurant! – which is fabulous for all kinds of seafood, especially oysters and mussels,” he continued. “People travel over an hour from Glasgow just to eat here and table reservations are hard to come by. At the bottom of Loch Fyne is the lovely town of Tarbert and from there it is only a hop skip and a jump to Kennacraig, the departure point for the Islay Caledonian Macbrayne Ferry to the Whisky Island of Islay.”
“It is said that when Charles Edward Stuart—known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’–arrived on the shore of Loch Shiel by ship from his exile in France, he waited a considerable time for the appearance of supporters who would form his army against the British Government,” Rob told me. “Eventually, the Clan Cameron chief appeared with supporters numbering around 8,000. This was the catalyst for more Highland clans to join The Young Pretender and he marched against the British!”
“Loch Shiel is a beautiful loch – slender and picturesque and at its head we also find the Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous in the Harry Potter movies as the location where the steam train carrying the children back to Hogwarts School passes over the stunning viaduct,” he said.
Indeed, history and fantasy blur on the shores of Loch Shiel. It’s easy to understand how the magical landscape across Scotland can conjure goosebumps, whether inspired by ghosts of the past, literary specters or the vivid vistas of the very real here and now. Is there a Scottish loch that has carved out a special place in your heart or memory? Do tell!