Just kidding. A' Ghàidhealtachd is how you refer to the Highlands in Scottish Gaelic, and I kept drawing a blank on a proper title for this post.
Allison and I only made two trips out of Edinburgh during our visit, but I fully expect to return for a more dedicated visit because we both found the Highlands experience to be extremely moreish; a word which, while apparently confusing to my web browser, is just UK slang for "causing a desire for more."
Our first trip saw us driving up to Cairngorm National Forest for a couple of days. One of the nicest things we have noticed so far about European cities is the lack of urban sprawl. And true to form, almost immediately upon driving out of the Edinburgh city limits, we found ourselves surrounded by rolling green hills dotted with sheep, snow-capped mountains on the horizon, and just generally all of the requisite signs foreshadowing a great weekend trip.
This auspicious start, while experienced in realtime for Allison, was on a bit of a tape-delay for me, as I had all brain cells dedicated to keeping the car on the "left-hand" (or, "incorrect", as my brain was fond of impulsively and urgently thinking) side of the road. But, after an hour or so of very, very alert driving, I was able to relax and we decided to take a quick lunch detour off to the town of Dunkeld.
This was our first proper UK village, and it was really every bit as quaint as we hoped. It was also the home of a surprisingly grand cathedral from the Middle Ages, which according to the locals, was badly damaged by the damned English during some battle back around 1600. While in town, we picked up a couple of Royal Stewart plaid scarves made from Scottish cashmere, and tucked into some steak pies, made of course with Scottish beef. The Scots are very proud of their wares, and I often fancied I could hear Mike Myers greeting me when I came in the door, "Remember, if it's not Scottish, IT'S CRAP!"
Next, we began the ascent into the Cairngorms. The view became more and more white from snow, and more and more clear from the lack of trees. Eventually we topped out and could see in any direction for miles, rolling white hills covered in shrubs and heather. Then, imagine, a large structure slowly rolls into view: a whiskey distillery, called Dalwhinnie. It is the highest one in Scotland. Yeah, we are stopping. Allison doesn't care for Scotch, so we decided to "split" a tasting. We proposed a fair and equitable arrangement wherein I drank all of the Scotch, and she ate the chocolates that accompanied it.
About an hour later we were at our destination, Aviemore. It is a town that seems entirely built around the outdoor lifestyle and activities that the Cairngorm lands inspire. Here, we experienced a couple of firsts for our trip: snow, and haggis. I was quite surprised to find that I actually enjoyed haggis and, as I looked up after my first few tentative bites to mention this fact to Allison, I was even more surprised to see her looking sheepish (ha) and her entire portion already consumed.
Following breakfast, we drove out to see more of the park. It consists of several thousand (million?) lakes, each of which was incredibly still and allowed the neighboring mountains and evergreens to reflect as if off a somewhat poorly-crafted mirror.
One of the highlights of this drive was seeing the remains of a castle on an island in the middle of a lake. This sounds pretty normal, for Scotland, but this particular castle is alleged to house stores of dynamite in its basement from the previous owner's failed attempt to blow up Parliament. "V for very-unlikely-to-be-true," but still kind of fun to imagine.
After finishing the Cairngorms with a drive up Mt. Cairngorm, we swung by Inverness for a quick lunch. We didn't spend much time in town, because our main goal for the day was to make it all the way down the western shore of Loch Ness. The road is winding, beautiful, and runs you right by Urquhart Castle. According to the signs, this castle was a much sought after defensive point, changing hands between the English and Scottish armies roughly 2 or 3 times a week. It seemed like one army would leave, another would go in, and the departing one would turn around and immediately start firing on the walls until the new one left, etc. Consequently, it is now in ruins. But really grand and impressive ruins, surrounded by that bright green grass that the UK is famous for, and which seems almost fake due to its continued vibrancy in winter. Needless to say, on this grass were roving packs of pheasants, which, being proper tourists, we were STILL taking pictures of as if they weren't just the Canadian geese of Great Britain.
Also, we saw the Loch Ness monster.
The drive home from all this was not very notable, unless you consider a constant near-death experience as "notable." The main roads in Scotland, and I am being unforgivably generous with that description, are of the sort where you can just fit two smallish cars onto it side-by-side, provided they have their side mirrors tucked in. So it was with a great many moments of entire-body tensing that we swerved along our dark and icy path, an activity apparently more enjoyable than I noticed because every other person in Scotland came out to join in the fun by driving in the oncoming direction with their brights on.
For our second journey, we took a day trip up the eastern coast to St. Andrews. After, sadly, missing a chance to learn clay shooting at a nearby range, we settled on a round of golf at St. Andrews Links, which is no less than the home of the game and the most storied courses in the world. No. Big. Deal. I will spare you the gory details of what we shot that day; suffice to say, we each managed a "birdie," which is apparently a thing in golf. No, we don't play much.
Anyway, we got out of there just in time to catch some of St. Andrews' downtown before the rain started. Lunch was fish + chips, accompanied by some of my favorite beer ever, from St. Andrews Brewing Co. We walked off some of this fried food by strolling down to the old castle and cathedral ruins. On the rocky beach behind the castle you can see the tunnel as it was dug several hundred years ago by some ardent Anglicans, or possibly Catholics, to surprise assassinate the Catholic, or possibly Anglican, bishop.
The cathedral is equally impressive, historically and architecturally speaking, which is all a building can really impress with anyway, and is surrounded by a massive graveyard containing many generations of many families of local Scotts. While wondering about, we even met a living local Scott, whose great-great-grandparents were buried nearby. He was a fantastic bit of old-world friendliness, and had such stories to tell that we only just had enough time, with darkness and rain setting in, to walk briskly through the cathedral ruins and back to the shelter of our car.
Now, at long last, we come to the part of my story where I really want to wax poetic... with a figurative crowbar. But I am better than that. I am at least better than the Scottish department of transportation, whose idea it was to build a single 2-lane bridge to get from Edinburgh to everywhere else and back, decades ago, then wait until it is holy-$%@# about to crumble before beginning to build a second bridge, causing massive traffic delays that are only made worse when this bridge is outright CLOSED, an hour before we arrived on the way back, causing us to sit in traffic forever without any idea of what was happening or why we hadn't moved more than 5 feet the whole time, before we got fed-up and followed everyone else by pulling an awkward U-turn and driving 100 miles out of the way to finally arrive back in Edinburgh, pissed-off, tired, and starving. (See, Alli?, I limited my rant to a single sentence, as requested!) So, no, I will take the high road, and simply be grateful that said high road isn't maintained by the Scottish department of transportation. Because St. Andrews and the surrounding area was absolutely charming, and we would love to go visit again in the future.
By boat, that is.