It was 6am. I woke up to a sky that was still dark and a hotel bed that begged me to stay in it (how do they manage to make those things feel so luxurious?) A hot ‘rainfall’ shower only made things worse, and the steady chatter of the morning news playing on TV as I dressed merely deepened my desire to stack my sleep bank with another few hours.
Sometimes, however, there are things worth waking up early for, and I happened to have one such appointment: a guided, small group tour through the Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Skye, run by the fabulous Rabbies team. Lead by a kilt-clad Scotsman and joined by a pack of international travelers, my wintery wakeup call turned out to be more than worth it. Here’s a rundown of why you should add a similar adventure to the top of your ‘To (Shut Up and) Do list.’
On the day of my tour, the weather was… menacing at best. It was mostly grey, dark, and very windy and wet. Mountain tops were obstructed by fog and paths covered with puddles and mud. The sun appeared in stretches of 20 minutes or so, soon to return to its spot behind thick clouds and dull skies. My shoes and socks were dirty within an hour, my poncho brutally battered, my hair frizzy and matted and wild and my forehead itching with dryness.
Yet despite all of this, the natural scenery I was treated to throughout the course of the day took my breath away, on multiple occasions. In fact, almost constantly.
From the expansive, mysterious and famous Loch Ness – which I was shocked to learn was over 750 feet deep! – to ancient sites on which dinosaurs once roamed; awe-inspiring cliffs to gentle streams, fields scattered with sheep to roadsides accompanied by ginger Highland cows, every winding road traveled and bridge crossed led to something majestic and affecting. I adored the fresh, clean air, the reds and greens and oranges and yellows of the different trees and plants we passed, and above all felt included in the landscape – as if the mist and mud were things I was wearing (or perhaps they were wearing me.)
All that mist also formed the perfect backdrop for folktales and historical stories galore. It started, of course, with tales of the Loch Ness Monster – Nessie – from her first sighting way back in the 6th century to Charlie Sheen’s semi-recent quest to lure the beast out of the lake with a chunk of lamb attached to a giant hook (true story, google it.) Then came centuries-old accounts of demonic fairies who settled on mounds, cautionary tales of selkie folk and the unfortunate tendency of men to enslave them in their female form (are. we. surprised?), stories of the winter witch who is said to have created the Isle of Skye, and of another sorceress who turned one farmer’s five daughters into the majestic mountains now known as The Five Sisters.
On the more… shall I say… factual side of things, the region I visited is impossibly rich in fascinating history. Our visit to Eilean Donan castle allowed me to feel immersed in a slice of Jacobite history, as well as to learn more about the movement’s prolific figure: Bonny Prince Charlie. We also stopped at the stunning Kilt Rock, which, as it turned out, was not only a beautiful cliff face – waterfall included, but also a discovery site for dinosaur footprints. There’s also a Singing Fence at Kilt Rock; on windy days, the piping that forms the lookout point’s barrier creates the sound of a haunting song – forming yet another eerie and beautiful element that elevates the experience of every anecdote and tale to a visceral level. And, as a side note, I must say that the natural organ-esque sounds of the fence paired with blue seas and savage rock faces made me feel very At One With my red haired ancestors (;)).
The Scots/ scottish…ness.
Pardon the ‘ness’ pun, but it does help to demonstrate the point that the Scottish people I met throughout the day did not shy away from the way the world saw them or present harsh exteriors to us visitors, making for a comfortable atmosphere of rich culture and down to earth banter. This was displayed no better than with our Rabbies guide/driver/bus DJ. He could lay the jokes on thick one minute – humoring clichés and anticipating foreign impressions of his home, before providing touching sincerity the next – discussing the importance of preserving the Gaelic language and sharing a song that, no matter where he is in the world, always reminds him of home (It’s Caledonia, by Dougie MacLean). The sentiment that I felt with every waiter, shopkeeper and passerby alike was that this was a people who feel pride for their country (and specifically their local region,) but who also don’t take themselves too seriously.
Not everybody can jump from blasting a minibus with classic Scottish tunes to the theme song from Outlander in quick succession, while still making the overall package feel authentic. Rabbies, however, knows just how to.
With organised tours, it can be easy to feel like you’re a straight-up tourist, tolerated rather than welcomed, there to be educated as an outsider rather than included as a valued visitor. But I didn’t feel even a smidge of attitude on this one. As the sky grew dark and the bus made its way back over the bridge towards Inverness, rain pelting every window and classical music playing in the cabin, we all dozed off, like schoolchildren after a field trip to the zoo. A sure sign of a good day.
As our guide told us at the start of the day, there’s more to Scotland than ‘monsters, whisky and men in skirts.’ And, let me tell ya, if only for a day – if only for a glimpse, it’s certainly worth discovering some of it.
Brb, off to go watch Outlaw King featuring my favourite of all the Chrises – Chris Pine (duh.)
Book your Rabbies tour here, and let us know: what are your favorite natural wonders of the world? And, crucially, who’s your favorite famous Chris?! Hit up the comment section below!