The tour bus pulls away from Glasgow International Airport and crosses the River Clyde, the skyline of Scotland's largest city muted by fog. As we turn north and motor alongside Loch Lomond, the trappings of modern life slowly melt away. Our destination is the western highlands of Argyll and the western islands of Mull and Iona. In reality, we are time travelers, peeling away the years with each passing mile.
Large fingers of water, lochs (or lakes), burrow into the craggy hillsides here. Ian MacDonald, our Blue Badge guide, tells us Scotland is essentially the same land mass as neighboring Northern Ireland, only more mountainous, more bleak. The topography appears to change around each corner, as smooth, bald hillsides give way to rough-hewn slopes of evergreens.
Scotland, and especially the western highlands and lowlands, is a land of raw, heart-stopping beauty and breathtaking heartache. It's robust history is steeped in Christianity and war, natural bounty and man-made lore. This is hardscrabble earth, with the promise of a rugged life. Yet its residents boast soft eyes, friendly if straightforward dispositions (if you like Mel Gibson, don't ask what they thought of his epic, "Braveheart"), and a hard-won humor delivered with a resonant accent.
Salt air drifts into Inveraray at the northern tip of Loch Fyne, reminiscent of the Maine coast. Overlooking the 18th-century town is Inveraray Castle, a big, boxy block of gray-green windstone, the third of the Campbell castles and home to the 12th Duke of Argyll, chief of the Clan Campbell. The building was started in 1744, completed in 1788. Conical turrets were added after a 1877 fire to give the castle "a more grandiose appearance," says MacDonald. Still the residence of the duke and duchess, many rooms at the castle are open to the public.
Castle guide Niall Iain sports an unmistakable gleam in his eye and a contagious sense of humor as he offers up endless tales of the Clan Campbell. An older gentleman with a shock of white hair, Iain readily spies the tartan of our guide, Ian MacDonald, and comments: "You're a brave man to wear that here." I learn that the Campbells and MacDonalds were once sworn enemies with a long history of bloodshed between them. "They were two very strong clans, power-seekers," says Iain, acknowledging it was inevitable that the clans would clash, while adding with his trademark twinkle, "It's no longer that way, of course."
Still, the castle reveals the brutality once employed to rule these lands. One room is reportedly haunted by the ghost of a young Irish harpist slaughtered during a raid by the MacDonalds and a marauding Irish clan (according to legend, says Iain, the boy's harp has been heard before a death in the family, and the duchess's dogs won't enter the room). Amid the trappings of civilization and wealth - exquisite Paris-embroidered tapestries, hand-painted ceilings and Waterford crystal chandeliers - are huge displays of muskets, shields, swords and spears.
"We didn't go in much for armor," says Iain, noting such protective covering was typically too heavy for the area's predominantly peaty soils. "We opted for speed."
After an overnight on the shores of Loch Awe, at The Taychreggan (like many of the accommodations found in this corner of Scotland, the hotel is a former cattle drover's inn), we depart for the coast and Oban. Along the way, we visit Inverawe Smokehouse, an old business that has neatly sidestepped modern times.
The smoked salmon, trout and eel found here are among the most delicious anywhere. Yet these fish aren't cooked, which is the main reason this delicacy is hard to come by in the United States. The Campbell family which founded and still owns the smokehouse erred on the side of tradition, opting for a "cold smoke" process that permeates the fish with an oaken characteristic that many in our group, myself included, find irresistible. Visitors will appreciate Inverawe's commitment to tradition.
Further down the road to Oban, we stop by St. Conan's Kirk in the village of Lockawe. The church, built on a steep hillside, is an eclectic collection of architecture that appears much older than it actually is. Walter Douglas Campbell, a man unencumbered by convention or wealth, built the original church for his mother in the 1880s.
By 1907, Campbell began work on a much more impressive building, and it consumed him until his death in 1914. According to a local historian, J.C. Martin, Campbell was his own architect, "more anxious to achieve beauty than consistency. Rumor even has it he deliberately tried to include examples of every type of ecclesiastical architecture found in Scotland." And then some. MacDonald points to the intricate gutter work on the church's southeast tower, with its spouts shaped like a growling dog chasing after two rabbits.
"Who ever said the Scots don't have a sense of humor?" asks MacDonald.
An abundance of small churches dot these rural roads, the result of a division in the Church of Scotland in the mid-19th century. The Free Church was established when parishioners demanded the right to choose their own ministers, rather than having one appointed, says MacDonald. Soon, the Free Church had virtually duplicated the parish system.
Years later the two factions reunited, and that merger created a surplus of churches. Many were sold as private homes or small hotels, often at very reasonable prices, says MacDonald.
"But you get the spirits for free," quips our driver, John Lumsden, with a wink.
North of Oban, and through much of western Scotland, our bus rolls along narrow roads - barely the width of our vehicle - that feature "turn-outs" marked by red-and-white striped poles. You've got to keep an eye up the road for oncoming traffic. If you don't, and find yourself bumper-to-bumper facing another driver, you may have to back up to the closest turn-out. We pass the striking Castle Stalker (a classic fortified tower house, now the private home of a former British officer) and into the quaint village of Port Appin, on the shores of Loch Linnhe. The bounty of the sea - salmon, scallops, prawns, langoustine, mussels and oysters - is served in huge portions at the Pierhouse Restaurant by the loch's edge.
Asked if I'm enjoying my meal, I tell my waitress, "I can't believe how fresh this seafood is." She smiles, points to the deep blue waters, and says, "Well, everything on your plate was out there just this morning."
Daily life in the bustling seaside town of Oban is conducted in the shadow of one of the more intriguing landmarks in Scotland - McCaig's Tower. The tower, also known as McCaig's Folly, was the dream of a well-to-do Victorian banker and philanthropist, John Stuart McCaig.
Determined to create a family memorial while also keeping local stone masons employed, McCaig set out to build a grand Coliseum-style structure in the late 1800s. Ultimately, he hoped the structure would house a museum and art gallery. McCaig's heirs had other ideas - when the banker died in 1902, the funds for the tower withered. "His heirs decided they'd rather have the money than the memorial," says MacDonald.
So the tower sits unfinished high above town, a curious monument to the McCaig family but one that offers unequaled views of the setting sun to the west.
Aboard the ferry from Oban to Mull, I spy the dramatic outline of Duart Castle (movie buffs might recognize the castle from the movie, "Entrapment," with Sean Connery). This solitary sentry - the stronghold of the Clan Maclean - sits atop a commanding position on Dubh Ard (or "Black Point"), a rocky peninsula that juts into the Sound of Mull. If McCaig's Tower is an example of one man's folly, than Duart Castle surely stands as a testament to the willpower of Sir Fitzroy Maclean.
In 1911, Maclean, then 76, purchased the ruins of the castle that was first built by the Macdougals in the 14th century, and began the immense undertaking of renovating the structure. On his 100th birthday, Maclean received congratulations from the Duke of Argyll, who suggested the date would be an appropriate time to end the long-standing feud between the Macleans and the Campbells. "Certainly," Maclean reportedly replied, "for my lifetime."
Today, the castle retains its character as a battlement, from the thick stone walls to the preserved dungeons to the corkscrew spiral staircases, which gave the advantage to the right-handed swordsmen situated above their attackers. Duart also serves as a museum of the clan's history, as well as the castle's colorful past. A favorite tale recounts the attempts of Lachlan Maclean of Duart to rid himself of his second wife, Catherine, the sister of the Duke of Argyll and a Campbell, in the early 1500s. Unable to produce an heir, Catherine was deposited by Maclean on a rock in the Sound of Mull (Lady Rock can still be seen from the castle at low tide). However, passing fishermen rescued her before the tides could sweep her away. Maclean, on reporting the sad news of Catherine's drowning to the Duke of Argyll, was shocked to find she survived, and was promptly set upon and done in by the Campbells.
The current resident of Duart, Sir Lachlan Maclean, the 28th chief of the Clan Maclean, jokes that his wife is quick to remind him of his namesake's fate whenever he misbehaves.
Close by Duart is another example of well-preserved Scottish history, Torosay Castle and Gardens. Once the property of the Macleans, Torosay came under Campbell rule in 1669. Eventually, the original house fell into disrepair, and was sold in the early 1820s. In the 1850s, John Campbell demolished the original home and commissioned leading Victorian architect David Bryce to design the grand Gothic-style castle that stands on the property today. The castle houses many great works of art and period furniture, but many of the most stunning features are found outside.
The Statue Walk and the three Italianate terraced gardens date to the early 1900s, after the property was bequeathed to Walter Murray Guthrie. Today, the castle remains home to Guthrie's descendants, though visitors are welcome to tour the gardens, with its 19 Venetian statues and hundreds of plant species, as well as the house. If you're especially lucky, Lady Jaquetta Digby James will be on hand to liven your tour with her wonderfully entertaining tales of her family.
For all the grandeur that Duart and Torosay represent, it's impossible to ignore the ruins that sprinkle the green rolling hills of Mull, from once-massive castles to countless one-room farmhouses. These smaller ruins, according to author P.A. Macnab, are "memorials to a hundred years of greed, arrogance and inhumanity on the part of a new race of landowners and a distant, indifferent government."
The "Clearances" began in the middle 18th century, says MacDonald, following the Battle of Culloden and the eradication of the clan system. Clan chiefs once needed enormous armies, manned by tenant farmers and cattle herders. However, with peace and prosperity at hand, new landowners saw more profits in raising sheep, and tenants were evicted wholesale, the thatched roofs of their homes burned to ensure that they wouldn't return. An exodus ensued, with many former tenants leaving these lands for fishing or industrial opportunities to the south and along the coast.
Mull has yet to recover its lost population. "There are more deer than people," says MacDonald. The stone ruins, however, remain, a bleak reminder of this rueful chapter.
Nowhere is this country's sense of sadness and resiliency more evident than the tiny island of Iona. "Life goes at a slower pace in Mull," says Maureen Dehany of the Craignure Tourist Office. "When you get to Iona, it slows down even more." Though only a short ferry ride from Fionnphort, the three-mile island of Iona features a distinctly different land mass - ancient rocks known as Lewisian Gneiss, estimated to be 1,500 million years old, among the oldest rock formations in the world.
It is also generally considered the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, due to the arrival of Saint Columba and a dozen disciples from Ireland in 563 AD. The island soon became a center of the arts, with monks and craftsmen producing elaborate carvings, manuscripts, gravestones, and crosses (the famed Book of Kells, completed in 800 AD, is considered by many to be Celtic art at its finest).
Indeed, the island's profile is dominated by the ornate Iona Abbey, which was built in the early 13th century and has undergone restoration efforts for the better part of the 21st century. The ruins of the Nunnery greet tourists as they make their way from the harbor to the abbey, and the cemetery surrounding Saint Oran's Chapel house the remains of many great Scottish kings and chiefs.
The faith of these island residents was severely tested a little more than a year ago, when four young men, all under the age of 23, drowned in the cold waters separating Iona and Mull - the Sound of Iona. Considering the gene pool that the four young men represented, on an island of roughly 100 inhabitants, the tragedy is almost incomprehensible, says MacDonald. Later that afternoon, our group is captivated by the amusing stories and easy laughter of David Kilpatrick as he takes us aboard his boat to the islands off Iona. It is only after we return to Fionnphort that I learn that Kilpatrick's only son was one of the four lost that fateful December day.
Few natural wonders can match the windswept setting of Staffa, situated just north of Iona. The island's name, literally translated "Staff Island" or "Pillar Island," is derived from the spectacular basalt columns that comprise its vertical walls. These extraordinary formations were caused by the cooling and contracting of lava, resulting in hexagonal or honeycomb columns (imagine looking down on a giant box of pencils). Most rise straight up from the surrounding seas, while others sweep in a mighty arch, indicting that the cooling surfaces weren't parallel to one another.
Uninhabited since 1800, Staffa has played its siren's song for artists since it's first recording in 1772. It is best know for the melodious Fingal's Cave, the inspiration for Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture." If the seas are calm, boats can land at the island and visitors can explore. The staircase that leads to the rough, grassy tabletop of Staffa may seem intimidating, but the views make the climb worthwhile.
It seems only appropriate that, as we near the end of this journey through time, we arrive at Dunadd, an Iron Age fortress, in western Argyll. This rocky mound rises strikingly out of Crinan Moss, or Moine Mhor (the Great Moss). Here, near the mouth of the River Add, the first Scots from Ireland established their stronghold in the 6th century, making it the capital of ancient Dalriada. Visitors can see the remnants of the great stone ramparts, and some mysterious carvings, including the outline of a boar, an inscription of Celtic script, and a footprint. Tradition maintains that it is the print of Fergus, the first king of Dalriada.
Just north of this spot is Kilmartin House, a center of archaeology and historical study that details 5,000 years of human history in this valley. Perhaps the most fascinating landmark among the 150 prehistoric sites found in Kilmartin Glen is the Linear Cemetery. Made up of giant burial cairns, some of which date back more than 5,000 years (before the pyramids were built), the Linear Cemetery recalls the mysteries of Great Britain's better known artifact, Stonehenge.
On this ancient site, the birthplace of Scotland, I come to the sobering realization that not everyone records history by decades, or even generations. For some, the passing of time is counted in centuries.
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