Scotland on the Rocks

By T.R.Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 23, 2000

For the first three days of our sojourn in the Highlands, the flinty gray head of Ben Nevis loomed over us, inviting and frightening at the same time. No one could ignore that mighty mountain, rising abruptly into the clouds from the north bank of a wild river with a lovely name, "Water of Nevis." Still, there was something so cold, so menacing about the rugged bald peak that we deliberately turned our backs on it and focused instead on the softer pleasures of the deep blue lochs and lush green glens down below.

Eventually, though, the time would come when we had to confront "the Ben." It was Ben Nevis, after all, that had drawn our family to the rocky heart of Scotland in the first place. Of the thousands of grassy hills and granite peaks left behind when the glaciers carved out the Scottish Highlands, Ben Nevis happens to be the highest--the highest mountain in Scotland, and the highest point anywhere in the British Isles. For our family of peak-baggers, that made Ben Nevis an irresistible goal.

We live in Britain at the moment, but we come from Colorado. There must be something in the water (or perhaps the Coors) out there that makes us Coloradans want to get to the top of every place we live. Naturally, we have climbed Mount Elbert, the 14,433-foot giant that stands highest of the Colorado Rockies. When we lived in Tokyo, we made the overnight trek up 12,387-foot Mount Fuji, the tallest and most beautiful mountain in Japan. In the rain forests of North Borneo, we struggled through an exotic two-day climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu, a 13,455-foot peak in Southeast Asia.

With all that behind us, Ben Nevis sounded like a lark. It may be the tallest mountain in Britain, but that's something like being the longest hole at a miniature golf course. By official records of Her Majesty's Ordnance Survey, Ben Nevis soars to a towering height of--are you ready?--4,406 feet. I laughed out loud when I read it; heck, our front yard in Colorado is half a mile higher than that.

And so it was with light hearts that we boarded ScotRail's comfortable Caledonian Sleeper train at London's Euston Station for the overnight trip to Scotland. We spent one enjoyable day sightseeing in the medieval precincts of old Edinburgh, then headed for the Highlands.

Before we set out, I had ignorantly believed that "Scotland" and "the Highlands" were essentially the same thing. It's more complicated than that. Even Scottish geographers tend to argue over the exact boundaries, but essentially the Highlands refers to the wide, wind-swept swath of Scotland stretching north from the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. (To the south of the loch is the lowland plain where Glasgow and Edinburgh lie, and south of the two big cities is a rolling region known as "the Borders," stretching to the border with England.)

It is perhaps defensible that I had equated the Highlands and Scotland, because so much of what the world considers "Scottish" came from the high country: tartans, clans and kilts; bagpipes and butterscotch; haggis and shortbread; Rob Roy, Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie. And any Highlander can tell you that the "water of life"--for that's what the Scots call their world-famous malt whisky--has a deeper and more complex quality in the mountains than the downmarket lowland varieties.

The Highlands comprise a sparsely populated but spectacularly scenic landscape of green mountain ridges sliced by long, narrow saltwater inlets that would be called "fjords" in Scandinavia but are known as "lochs" in the Scots' version of Gaelic. There are not many signs of human intrusion in this dramatic country--a few scattered towns, most with 1,000 residents or fewer--but the structures people have built tend to be dramatic. The railroad crossing the hills from Fort William to the western islands is particularly amazing; to carry the tracks over marshy valleys, engineers at the start of the last century constructed a series of beautiful arched bridges that span vast distances between the hills.

For our Highlands stay, we moved into a "self-catering" cottage; that's a British term meaning you provide your own meals. Our home was right beside the lapping gray waters of Loch Linnhe (rhymes with "minnie"), a long fjord on the Atlantic side of the country. The setting was perfect. We could go boating on the loch, biking on the narrow roads around the loch, or rambling up and over the surrounding hills. In the evening, we strolled down the road to the village of Ballachulish, where the local pub featured shelf after shelf of obscure single malts. After the second night, the publican didn't even grimace when I asked for my whisky over ice. (In the Highlands, they say a little water in the glass will bring out the flavor of the malt; ice is an American desecration.)

Through all our travels, though, old Ben Nevis hovered over us. No matter where we went, the long ridge of mountain was up there, glaring down like one of those scary portraits with eyes that follow you around the room. Now and again rain or mist or thick clouds blocked our view of the Ben, and we could briefly forget its ghostly presence above our heads. But then a clearing breeze would come along, and we'd see that chilling gray rock wall in the sky. It seemed to be taunting us: "Come and get me."

Which we fully intended to do, of course. After all, a mere 4,406 feet was no big deal for experienced climbers like us. Or so I kept telling myself. Somehow, though, the huge hunk of rock looked a lot more like a mountain than a molehill. And so each morning of our stay, we would look at the low clouds scudding over Loch Linnhe and say, "This is not a good climbing day." Then we'd find some new forest waterfall or sheep-filled glen and have a leisurely picnic.

The prettiest interlude of our trip was an afternoon stop at Glenfinnan, on the northern shore of Loch Shiel. It is an inspiring spot, where the slender blue loch snakes between two long, imposing mountain ridges. That must be why Prince Charles Edward Stuart--Bonnie Prince Charlie himself--chose this very place, in August 1745, to assemble the clans into a proud army of Highlanders for the last great Catholic revolt against the English monarchy.

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