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The Highlands - Part One [Jul. 19th, 2012|04:41 am]
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The trouble with dreams, someone once told me, is that even when they do come true, they never do in the way that you dreamt them. My ten days in the Highlands were, then, doubly precious to me. Not only were they the culmination of an old dream, but the reality was precisely as I always dreamt it to be. Walter Scott sang of mountains, glens, forests, lakes, mist and rain, and above all, a deep and quiet solitude. The Highlands were every inch, ever blade of grass or droplet of shimmering water, all of that, and in addition, there were the steel-grey and silver-white clouds that floated on top of the mountains, cast great, shifting shadows on cliff-sides, and at times, almost enveloped you in a cool, moist embrace.

Not, of coure, that the solitude had always been natural to the Highlands. "Oh I sing of a people... who were driven from their homes to let the sheep and stag remain," sings Alistair McDonald, referring to the notorious, English government-induced Highland clearances in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden that destroyed the Highland way of life, killed thousands, deported more, and shattered communities - and are directly responsible for the vast swathes of emptiness in the Scottish highlands. But more on that anon.

I will pass lightly over my day and a half at Edinburgh, which was nice enough, but something of a sideshow - and move directly to the time when, in the train to Inverness, I saw for the first time the flat plains that characterise much of England begin to give way to small mounds - then to small hills, and finally, to mountains in the grey distance, as the ground began to undulate, and the first small, silver lakes came into view - and I realised, with a quickening beat of the heart, that I was entering the Highlands. "How long, how long, since my wanderings began/ I have heard the deep voice of the Lagan and Bann..." And then I saw, from the windows of my train that looked to the West, the Sun going down beyond the mountains, swathed in a dim veil of translucent clouds, with curtains of shifting, silver light piercing through to shimmer gently upon the still, grey waters of a lake. The soul-intoxicating evening light, the clouds so near that you felt as though you could touch them, and the backdrop of mountain, forest and water - these things were to epitomise the next ten days.

I arrived at Inverness a little past the stroke of ten, and realised immediately that I was in a very beautiful town. The River Ness runs through Inverness, its career punctuated by canopied, see-sawing bridges; and if you walk long enough down its banks, you leave the houses behind, and find yourself in a leafy wood, illumined dimly by a series of well-placed lamps. In the late evening, with the sky darkling around me, I walked as far as I dared. The river gushed and murmured beside me, the stiff, cool breeze drew an answer from the leaves, and the fluorescent light of the street-lamps mingled with the steel-grey twilit sky to create quite a surreal effect. Inverness, by night, was almost like a picture-book. And then morning brought a different kind of beauty altogether. I woke up with no plans but to let my feet carry me where they would; I left the town behind soon enough, and then found myself in a quiet wood, with the spaced - yet close - arrangement of trees reminding me immediately of the woods of Lorien. 

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After wandering - and dreaming - for a while in Lorien, I exited the wood, and found myself walking by the shores of the Caledonian Canal, a 19th century feat of engineering that links the river Ness to the famous Loch Ness (yes, that one), and now the beginning of the Great Glen Way - a 120-kilometre walk from Inverness down South, along the shores of the Loch Ness. It was a three-mile walk by the banks of the canal. Boats passed by repeatedly, in either direction, and I had my first taste of what would later come to be of immense use - the famous Highland warmth and hospitality - almost every single boatman smiled and waved as they went by. By this time, a rough plan was forming in my head - I would do the first leg of the Great Glen Way walk, to Urquhart Castle located right on the edge Loch Ness. No matter if it was a fourteen-mile walk through very hilly country - I had, after all, come to walk in the Highlands, and by golly, I would! I stopped for refreshments at the tiny port of Dochgarroch, took directions to Urquhart Castle, blanched only slightly when I was told that it was twelve miles away (I had been walking all morning already), and set out. I soon had cause to regret my foolhardiness. To even get onto the Great Glen Way, you had to climb a steep, winding road for two miles. I was out of breath in ten minutes, and gasping and puffing like a winded steer within the half-hour. Thankfully, the climb ended just when I was telling myself that I could do no more climbing (funny how it often works out that way), and I was high above, in the heart of the mountains, walking along the Great Glen Way. The view was spectacular. Mountains were all around me, to every side, and wherever there was a gap, I could see the green valley far, far below. A light rain sprang up. I must have walked for almost three hours more, without noticing where the time fled - the scenery was simply too austerely beautiful, too sternly spectacular to waste time thinking about whether I was going to make my destination at all. At last, the path began a sharp, downward plunge, and suddenly, in the middle of the descent, I had my first view of Loch Ness.

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At the end of the descent, I found myself in the middle of the extremely busy A87 highway, and also realised that my feet were aching terribly. What was worse - there was no pavement, and the speed of the cars made walking on the road an impossibility - so I cleared the stile and began walking amidst the wet, soggy and distinctly unpleasant undergrowth. Soon, it dawned on me that, as Tennyson would say, someone had blundered, and that it was most probably I. To cut a long story short, I came across a flower-nursery, went in to ask directions, was told that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere high up in the mountains, and had entered the A87 a good two miles I was supposed to. But now, the Highland generosity manifested itself for the first time - the saleswoman, a nice, kindly old lady, insisted on giving me a lift in her car to Urquhart castle, even though it was a good six miles away, and opposite of the direction she was going. Fortunately, I needed a lift only one-third of the way - where the Great Glen Way rejoined the A87 from the mountains, there was a smooth, wide pavement to walk on - and I was able to complete the rest of the journey on foot. I passed through the tiny village of Drumnadrochit, bought fish and chips at a fast food joint run by two Indians (!!), saw a group of young men playing the traditional Highland game of shinty (it's a lot like hockey, but you can use both ends of the stick), and after following a path through ferns and fields, fearing I was lost again, finally came upon the Loch Ness in all its glory, the silver lake surrounded by rising mountains, and at the cusp of the waters, the reward for a long day's walking, the ruins of Urquhart Castle (which, of course, was closed by this time in the evening). 

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The next day - a two hour bus journey to Glencoe. Now I'd first heard about Glencoe in the context of the infamous massacre of the MacDonald clan in 1692, while reading A.W. Aytoun's Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers. I read a fair bit more about the massacre in the broader context of the political struggle taking place in England at the time, and also heard the haunting Highland song, titled simply, Glencoe. I've always been fascinated by the history of the MacDonalds, the Lords of the Isles (one of Walter Scott's long poems is called Lord of the Isles), and so there was already enough reason to go there - before reading, on Wikipedia, that Glencoe was amongst the most beautiful parts of the Highlands - and that really sealed the deal.

Nor did it disappoint. First visions of misty mountains: 

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(To be contd.)
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