Continue your tour of Scotland with a look beyond the cities. You’ll visit the Scottish Highlands, which is the least densely populated part of Europe, and explore the great history of this wild land. Your investigation takes you to the tragic and beautiful valley of Glencoe; the Spey Valley, a mecca for Scotch whiskey lovers; and the beautiful Scottish islands.
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Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn
King Edward I of England, in the late 1200s, conquered Wales and then set out to conquer Scotland, too. He found it a tougher nut to crack, and at one point, according to legend, swore an oath that he would never sleep two nights in the same place until he had succeeded. If true, he must have been on the move until his dying day, because he never managed it. Great English armies crossed the border but met fierce resistance. Two battlefields—Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn—commemorate English defeats and Scottish victories.
Stirling Bridge is the place where, in 1297, William Wallace defeated a much larger English army under the Earl of Surrey. The medieval bridge over the River Forth has gone now, but there’s a fine 15th-century stone bridge in its place, surrounded by meadows on which historical markers recall the event.
Wallace, a nobleman in the service of Robert the Bruce, became one of the heroes of Scottish nationalism through this feat, even though Edward defeated him the following year at the Battle of Falkirk. A few miles from the battlefield, on a dramatic hilltop named Abbey Craig, stands the Wallace Monument, a great craggy tower in his honor.
Stirling Castle, on a great rocky outcrop, dominates the area. As with Edinburgh Castle, Stirling has an ideal defensive location, being unapproachable from most directions because of the near-vertical cliffs.
This castle commands the best route-way from southern to northern Scotland, the “Stirling Gap,” so it’s not surprising that armies should often have met there. Only two or three miles from Stirling Bridge is Bannockburn, where, in 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated another English army. The best-remembered event of the two-day battle is the dramatic meeting of Bruce and the English leader Henry de Bohun, both on horseback. An impressive equestrian statue of King Robert stands on the high ground of the field.
Nearby, in the town of Dunfermline, once the royal capital, Bruce was buried after his death in 1329. His tomb stands inside the abbey church and is visited by thousands of people each year.
Just down the hill from the Abbey stands the little cottage in which Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835. It’s a modest little house, and would probably have been swept away long ago had not Carnegie’s wife bought it for him as a gift in 1895.
Glencoe, and the Towns Beyond
As you drive north from the lowland towns of Dunfermline and Stirling, into the mountains, you begin to realize that roads are few and far between. One of the most scenically spectacular major roads is the A82, which leads you north across the bleak ground of Rannoch Moor and, eventually, to Glencoe. “Glen” is the word for valley, but few valleys can compete with this one for grandeur.
This being Scotland, however, there’s a tragic as well as a beautiful side to Glencoe. It’s the scene of a famous massacre in the year 1692, in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. King James II of England, who was also King James VII of Scotland, had fled to France after alienating nearly all the important people of his kingdom.
After Glencoe, keep driving north and you’ll reach the town of Fort William, named after King William III. Here you’re standing in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain.
The road west from Fort William to the town of Mallaig is called “The Road to the Isles,” because from Mallaig there’s a ferry across to the Isle of Skye. A few miles along this road you’ll come to Glenfinnan, at the head of Loch Shiel. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the whole of Scotland.
Also at Glenfinnan is a superb 21-arched viaduct, which carries the railway line to Mallaig. Built in the 1890s, it became famous in 2002 when the “Hogwarts Express” was filmed crossing it in the first Harry Potter film.
Neptune’s Staircase and Loch Ness
Drive back to Fort William to see another marvel, Neptune’s Staircase. It is a series of canal locks built in the early 1800s. They are part of the Caledonian Canal, a broad canal designed to carry seagoing ships across Scotland without exposing them to the stormy dangers of Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth.
The most famous of the lochs along the canal is Loch Ness. It’s 800 feet deep in places and 23 miles long. Does a monster live in its depths? Saint Columba certainly thought so, back in the year AD 565, when he was trying to convert the Scots to Christianity. In fact, he saw it terrorizing the local population, ordered it in the name of God to stop, and had the satisfaction of seeing it retreat into the depths of the lake.
Overlooking the Loch on a short peninsula stand the romantic ruins of Urquhart Castle. It was fought over in the era of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn, again in the early 1500s, and for the last time in the age of the Glorious Revolution.
If you manage to escape the Loch Ness Monster, and keep going northeast, you’ll reach the town of Inverness. Head east from there to the Spey Valley, home of the world’s best single malt Scotch whiskey. The Spey is the river from whose water Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and others are made.
The Many Islands of Scotland
A large part of Scotland’s land area is made up of islands, most of which are accessible by ferry and a few by air. They can be pretty bleak and barren in winter, and not always hospitable even in the summer. But they have a craggy charm along with some terrific historical lures. North of the mainland are the Orkney Islands comprising some of the richest archaeological sites in the whole of Britain.
The Orkneys became famous as the headquarters, in World War I, of the British Grand Fleet. Only once, and only briefly, did the British and German fleets actually come to blows. This was the Battle of Jutland, that took place on May 31, 1916, when they met in the North Sea.
Instead, when the fighting stopped, in November 1918, the German fleet was ordered to Scapa Flow. Rather than turn it over to the British, Scheer’s successor gave the command that all the ships should be scuttled: deliberately sunk. The mass scuttling took place on June 21, 1919, with over 50 of the German ships lost, out of 74.
A few were later raised but seawater had ruined them and they were fit only for scrap. Others remain in the waters of Scapa Flow, attractive sites for scuba divers to explore. A British ship, the Royal Oak, also lies in these waters.
The Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland is the haunt of hikers and climbers. A broken and narrow ridge, the Cuillin Ridge, is among its most daunting challenges, and one of the few places in Britain that looks as jagged as the Alps or Rockies.
Also radiantly beautiful—and highly photogenic—is Eilean Donan Castle, on the western coast not far from Skye. You’ve seen it on a hundred calendars and as the background for many a Scottish movie. Built by Clan Mackenzie in the 1200s, it was all but destroyed in 1719 after the clan took the wrong side in a Jacobite uprising.
If you drive south out of Scotland at the end of your visit, think about going to the village of Lockerbie, just before you reach the English border. It’s an old town whose medieval prosperity was based on the wool trade. An endearing statue in the main street depicts a line of lambs trotting along beside the shops. But Lockerbie became famous in a horrible and unexpected way in December 1988, four days before Christmas, when a Pan Am jumbo jet blew up in the sky overhead, and the debris rained down on the town.