Kansai Scene Magazine


Scotland in ten days

Whisky. Nessie. Bagpipes. Haggis. Sean Connery. Deepfried Mars bars. What images, smells and sounds spring to mind when one thinks of that great northern country?

Scotland has it all: wind-swept lonely moors carrying the echo of long-forgotten battles, deep, dark lochs (lakes), mysterious lores and legends, crumbling castles haunted by melancholic phantoms, a myriad of islands savaged by storms, a multitude of shipwrecks … few places blend history, legends and dreams so completely.

Scotland could be an archipelago as she consists of some 800 islands, but the term peninsula could also be used as it applies on a cultural level, the Scots having from time immemorial sought to preserve their cultural identity in the absence of political autonomy. Emerging from a deep and rich well of Celtic culture, the Picts painted their bodies blue and fought off various invaders over the centuries: Vikings, Romans and English to name but a few. Legend has it that the humble thistle — Scotland’s emblem — made it possible for the Scots to repel a Viking raid: one of the invaders cried out in pain after stepping on a thistle, which alerted the Scots …

Nowadays, the intellectual and economic strengths of metropolises such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have no reason to envy other European cities. Scotland’s flourishing political autonomy has been recovered thanks to the rebirth of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, opening up the old Caledonian country to Europe and beyond.

On the first day of our 10-day island-hopping tour in August, starting from Edinburgh, we traveled through the unspoiled, outstanding beauty of the Trossachs, once home to clashing Highland and Lowland clans. Then through Glencoe, one of the most striking glens (valleys) in Scotland, popular for walking and hiking with tracks going to the tops of the mountains and hidden waterfalls of crystal-clear, icy-cold water. Several films have been shot here, such as the third Harry Potter. However, it is not just its natural beauty which has earned Glencoe its reputation, it is also the site of the infamous massacre of the MacDonalds by the Campbells in 1692.

We then continued north to lonely Eilean Donan castle (where part of the Bond film The World is Not Enough was filmed). The castle has a strategic advantage as it looks across to Skye. According to Scottish historians the castle was built to protect the area from Vikings.

On day two we crossed the bridge to Skye and then took a short ferry across to the Isle of Harris, a misnomer as Harris and Lewis are separated not by water but by a range of mountains. We watched tweed making as it has been done for centuries: a cottage industry at its best, with withered old ladies bent over their looms. It is still an im- portant part of the economy despite being at the mercy of the whims of fashion.

On day four, we visited the stunning 4,000 year-old Callanish Standing Stones. Like the ancient Moais of Easter Island or Stonehenge in England, they retain an aura of mystery. However, as they are Celtic in origin they have more in common with the menhirs and dolmen of Brittany: laid out in the shape of a Celtic Cross with one large stone at the centre.

The next day we took a ferry back to the mainland, arriving at the busy little port of Ullapool on Loch Broom. At one point herring were so plentiful in the loch they were used as manure in the surrounding fields. Mackerel and shellfish also brought boats from as far away as Spain and Eastern Europe, including the impres- sive Klondykers – huge Russian factory ships which would fish the surrounding waters for up to six months at a time.

On day six we wound our way along the remote and rugged landscape of the north west coast: deserted beaches, towering mountains, sparkling lochs and wide open skies were laid out before us. In the evening we took a ferry to the Orkney Islands where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea converge, creating one of the roughest stretches of water in Europe, the Pentland Firth (estuary).

A couple of the Orkneys’ highlights are Skara Brae, older than the Pyramids of Giza, which show excavations of two stone- age villages, one built on top of the other. The Stones of Stenness date back to the same period as Skara Brae. There is a tomb near the site and during the winter solstice the sun hits the top of a marker stone and illuminates the back of the tomb creating a unique atmosphere.

The next day we returned to the mainland, stopping briefly at John O’Groats, 1,400kms from Land’s End in Cornwall. The name comes from a Dutchman, Jan de Groot, who was the first to run a ferry over to Orkney in 1486. The fee for the crossing was one groat (an old coin).

On our final day we went monster hunting. Loch Ness is one of four lochs which were connected in the 1800s to form the Caledonian Canal. Waves appear unexpectedly and dark shadows haunt the surface. Legend has it that a monster (affectionately known as Nessie) lives in its depths. Sightings of Nessie are still being reported, tantalising visitors and locals alike.

Back in Edinburgh, we were ready to hit the festivals and the Tattoo. The entertain- ment takes to the streets and people flock from all over the world to see the best (and the worst) dance, theatre, opera, art performances, stand-ups and more. Various well-known actors and comedians began their careers here, such as Billy Connolly and Frank Skinner.

Set against the beautiful backdrop of Edinburgh castle, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is another event not to be missed. There are no tattoos in sight — the word comes from the closing-time cry in the pubs during the 17th and 18th centuries: ‘Doe den tap toe’: ‘turn off the taps!’ It is a truly international marching bands show, with over 40 countries represented.

Text & photos: Sophie Handy

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Ways & means

Your first port of call should be the Scottish tourist board

When to go
Apr to Sep. Aug is warmest but busiest. Midges (tiny blood-sucking flies) proliferate from mid-June to mid-August and are at their worst during twilight hours. Cover yourself and use an insect repellent.

Aug 1st : National Bank Holiday in Scotland and most places are shut.

Book well ahead if going in August (school holidays) – camping grounds, B&Bs and luxury hotels are at a premium as Edinburgh becomes very crowded.
See visitscotland.com/accommodation

Getting there
Trains from London to Edinburgh (from King’s Cross station on the Flying Scotsman) are inexpensive if booked well advance.
See www.nationalrail.co.uk

Budget airlines offer flights for as little as ¥5,000 one way if you book in advance and travel mid-week. Over 100 flights a day operate between London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Check out trailfinders.com

Getting around
See www.travelinescotland.com for all public transportation.Hop-on hop-off minibus services can be good value: a three-month ticket costs around ¥15,000. See haggisadventures.com or macbackpackers.com
Tour companies are perfect if you have limited time
See www.heartofscotlandtours.co.uk or for a more active holiday, www.scotmountain.co.uk.

Festival tickets
For the Edinburgh International Festival: eif.co.uk (a Japanese version is available at www.eif.co.uk/sp_Japanese.php)

For the Fringe: www.edfringe.co.uk

Both run from Aug 10th—Sep 2nd 2007. Tickets are already on sale and can be bought online (see websites above). For the Royal Military Tattoo: www.edintattoo.co.uk (Aug 3rd—25th, 2007)

British pounds can be used all over the UK, but Scotland also has its own banknotes (same currency) which may be difficult to use south of the border.