May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome,
dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.
~Edward Abbey, 1927 – 1989
Proclaiming which are the ten best views in Scotland would seem to require either an audacious or imperious nature. It just so happens that two of the vistas that most enchanted me were ones enjoyed by wily Highlands cattle rustler and folk hero Rob Roy and Queen Victoria, whose passion for Scotland is said to have spawned the tourism industry here in the 19th century. Scotland is a country blessed with some of the best scenery on earth—majestic mountains, enchanting lochs, mysterious castles—and every bend in its roads has its own spell-binding lore.
Last year I spent more than a month in Scotland, and was fortunate to learn about the drama and intrigue that played out amidst all the gorgeous scenery from two master story-tellers well-versed in the country’s history.
One of my teachers was Gilbert Summers, a Scottish writer who waxes poetic about all things Scottish on www.Scotlandinaweek.com. I enjoyed many of Scotland’s spectacular panoramas with Gilbert and his wife, guide Johanna Campbell.
One of those was along the shores of Loch Voil in Rob Roy territory.
“I like to imagine an old Highlander, well wrapped in his plaid to protect him from the chill of an autumn morning, looking out at the weather and wondering if enough had been laid in to see them through the winter ahead,” Gilbert said.
“I see him with his red hair greying,” he continued. “He’s still fit, but slowing down a bit now. No more long cattle droves for him. Things have got a bit more peaceable in the glen now – just as well, because this Highlander – who is, of course, Rob Roy Macgregor – has had a lifetime of cattle droving, protection rackets, Jacobite intrigues, hair-breadth escapes from government forces and Hanoverian sympathisers.”
“Somehow, he has been tolerated, re-habilitated perhaps, by the authorities, who have now left him in peace for his last years here in Balquhidder Glen,” Gilbert said. “The fact that a curious character, part journalist, part-government spy called Daniel Defoe (of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ fame) had already written a book about Rob Roy had literally made the wily clansman a ‘legend in his own lifetime’.”
“And this is a view he would have been perfectly familiar with,” he mused. “Today, his grave site is just a few hundred yards away, still marked, still visited, still a legend…….”
Another legendary figure–or two–inspired a vantage point in Perthshire.
“Scotland has several ‘Queen’s Views’ – enough, in fact, so that there is doubt sometimes exactly which queen enjoyed the view in the first place!” Gilbert exclaimed. “Queen Victoria certainly passed this way more than once, in her journeys through her beloved Highlands, as her diaries record – so that it is usually assumed that it is ‘her’ view.”
“Sometimes though the westward panorama pictured here is linked with a much earlier queen – Isabel, the wife of King Robert I, who led Scotland to independence in 1314,” Gilbert said. “Loch Tummel, running away to the west, is just one of many lochs that fill the galaciated u-profile glens of Perthshire – Loch Earn, Loch Tay, Loch Lyon and more – in parallel. And that makes for great touring country for visitors.”
“Loch Achray in the Trossachs is a distillation of everything that the first tourists were looking for in the dawning of the Romantic era at the end of the 18th century,” Gilbert said. “Then the thought that people would actually come and look at wild scenery was actually very novel. But the Romantic Movement – in philosophy, art, literature and so forth – created a taste for the sublime, or at least, for a landscape untamed by man. Some called this the Cult of the Picturesque. And it was found right here – nothing too serious of course, nothing too rugged – the coach-and-six would get you back to the Lowlands in time for tea!”
“But the special interplay of wooded hill and loch has now beguiled visitors for more than two centuries,” he continued. “This is still one of the most popular journeys in Scotland – and here it is on a still calm day in autumn – with the fall colors at their best.”
Then and today, for those who prefer their sightseeing to be mobile rather than still, the Waverley is the way to go. The PS Waverley is the last sea-going paddle-steamer left and re-creates just a little of the excitement of those far off days when the city folk took their ease amongst the peerless scenery of Scotland’s western seaboard.
“In Victorian times, Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, was a place of industry, commerce, entrepreneurial spirit—and it still is,” Gilbert observed. “And these characteristics meant one thing in the old days: a large work-force. It wasn’t a well-off or well-rewarded work force. But the ordinary folk in factory, foundry and mill began to get some vacation time as conditions improved.”
“And where did they go?” he asked rhetorically. “Their short summer holiday was usually afloat, perhaps just a day on the estuary and sea-lochs of the River Clyde. A network of ships connected the little resorts together. The Glaswegians referred to it as going ‘Doon the Watter’—or, down the water.”
“They came to marvel at the interplay of loch and hill, the way the woods reached the tide-line and, no doubt, the way that air did not smell of smoke or grime, but of salt-spray and heather,” he said.
If soaking up the scenery from the water evokes one set of your senses, traversing Scotland’s glens inspires others.
“Glen Lyon is sometimes called ‘the longest and loveliest glen in Scotland’,” Gilbert told me. “From the independent visitor’s point of view it has another advantage – you can drive up the glen, then take a sneaky little road high up in the glen that rises over a shoulder of the Ben Lawers range and allows a circular tour. So, this isn’t a cul-de-sac, a there-and-back-again excursion. No, it’s a little insight into life in a Highland glen.”
“And Glen Lyon well shows that other characteristic of Highland Scotland: the hill masses and deep passes create their own weather effects and ‘micro-climates’” he continued. “Sometimes, you’ll see an unexpected illumination of a hill-slope at the end of the season when the greens have been replaced by tweedy shades of brown. Be warned, photographers, everywhere – you have to tumble out of your vehicle and grab these radiant moments right-away! In seconds, they’ll be gone……”
On another leg of my journey I travelled with guide Rob Mungavin, who gave me color commentary on equally extraordinary views.
“Stirling is a town steeped in history – the magnificent castle built by James IV where the tragic Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood, the battlefield where Robert the Bruce won independence for Scotland from England in 1314 and the Wallace Monument commemorating the valiant but unsuccessful effort of Braveheart, William Wallace, to gain independence, that ended for him nine short years earlier,” Rob declared.
“The whole history can be absorbed from a wonderful spot on the Castle Esplanade alongside the Bruce Statue that points towards Bannockburn some three miles away,” he said. “To your left is the Stirling Bridge where Wallace had his greatest victory over the English, the snaking River Forth plotting its course through centuries of Scottish History and the monument itself, located on Abbey Craig from where legend tells us Wallace commanded his troops at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1296. On a very clear day, you can even see the 50 miles all the way back to Edinburgh Castle.”
“There is much debate about what sights you cannot miss on a visit to Scotland but Glen Coe is surely one of them,” Rob said. “A location that combines sheer scenic majesty, typical of the country, with one of the darkest chapters in Scottish History – the Massacre of Glencoe February 13 1692.”
“There are many wonderful vantage points but I would choose the parking lot opposite the Three Sisters Mountains,” he suggested. “One of the amazing things about the Glencoe area is that it is equally magnificent in bad weather! Why? Because the multitude of stunning waterfalls are at their best and the weather makes it easier to imagine the conditions on the day of that massacre – dull and grey, or ‘dreich’, as all true Scots say. The stars of the show have to be the volcanic mountains whose heads look down with foreboding on the narrow valley below. Stupendous!”
“Eilean Donan is virtually a one-off among Scottish historic buildings,” Rob stated. “Why? Well, it is because it is intact! Visitors always say “Why are all your castles in ruins?”… Well, the answer is that the Scots have fought so many wars and conflict brings destruction.”
“Eilean Donan is an exception because although there has been a castle at its location since the twelfth century, the current building was only completed by the owners, the Fitzroy-Macraes, at the start of the twentieth century,” he continued. “It is officially the most photographed castle in Scotland and has appeared in many films including Bond movies and the ‘Highlander’ series. For the best view of this castle, drive past in the direction of Kyle of Lochalsh, turn right and right again and head up to the top of the hill, where you get a superb view looking down on the castle.”
“It took a couple of visits for me to appreciate the Isle of Skye at its very best,” Rob said. “That is because on the third occasion the sun split the skies, the heavens were azure blue and no matter where you were on the island, the magnificent jagged ridge of the Cuillin Mountains were in view.”
“Looking like a set of very badly maintained teeth, the Cuillins contain nine peaks that are classified as Munros – Scottish terminology for a mountain over 3,000 feet,” he explained. “They are a wonderful sight from anywhere on Skye and approaching southwards from Portree there are many good spots on the main road. For a really special perspective though, why not head west to the little village of Elgol, book a short cruise on the Bella Jane and sail until you are positioned off the coast looking right up at the Cuillin peaks. It takes your breath away.”
The lay of Scotland’s land requires its own terminology and through my meanderings, I came across lochs, braes, kyles, glens, monroes…and straths.
“As you drive from Loch Lomond towards Argyll you turn around a corner driving up from Arrochar and there it is stretched out in front of you – The Rest and Be Thankful valley,” Rob said. “Actually it is a ‘strath’ – a particular kind of valley that is flat and wide across the bottom with sharply rising mountains on either side. Scenically stunning, this sight is not really typically Scottish, lovely though it is, and that is why it is worth a special visit. It would be more fitting in Austria or Switzerland with perhaps a little ski station perched on one side, or with edelweiss growing in the valley. If you are travelling north towards Inveraray, it is best to take the time to stop at the head of the Rest and Be Thankful and look back along its whole length, camera in hand!
I had the pleasure of enjoying the vantage point from this 860-foot summit twice in my galavanting around the Scottish Highlands. As someone who is often more of a Human Doing than a Human Being, my heart was touched as much by the spot’s name and gentle reminder. Whether experiencing the heights or the valleys, I need to pause along life’s journey, savor the view and reflect on how blessed I am.
For tons more photos of spectacular Scotland, visit http://viewfromthepier.