Scotland Homecoming Part 3: My Heart is in the Highlands
By Monique Burns
I journeyed to Scotland during the great Homecoming 2014 to learn about my maternal great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Mason, and the places and people that produced him. Frank Mason, who became the stuff of legend through my mother’s storytelling, arrived in this country in the late-1800s, settled in a small Tidewater Virginia town, set up a farm and several small businesses, and built a large, white, columned house that looked like a Scottish version of “Tara.”
On my 10-day visit to Scotland, I spent two days exploring Glasgow, “The Mercantile City,” with its ornate red and blond sandstone buildings. In Edinburgh, the capital, for two days, I visited Edinburgh Castle, and the Burns Monument, paying homage to Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, and, quite possibly, a distant relative.
Before me lay the Highlands, that vast expanse of moorlands and mountains where my great-grandfather’s sisters had once posed for a photograph in long dresses and high-button shoes. Aside from that tenuous family connection, I was drawn to the Highlands because it seemed to be the great beating heart of Scotland, the very essence of the country and of what it means to be Scottish.
For centuries, the Scots lived independently on those beautiful, often barren, moors, constantly warring with their English oppressors. Protecting their homeland against incredible odds, the Highlanders showed bravery, a fierce love of family and clan, and an indefatigable desire to live as free men and women under their own Highland code and customs. When it came to courage and honor, the Highlanders had those qualities in spades.
This was the land of William Wallace, Scotland’s great national hero, who united the clans, then swept down from the lofty Highlands to challenge the English might. It was also the land of Rob Roy Macgregor, hero of the 1715 Jacobite Rising that sought to restore the Stuarts to the English throne, and subject of Liam Neeson’s 1995 Hollywood blockbuster, “Rob Roy.”
The Highlands are also one of the last great remaining wild places in Europe and, indeed, the world. Whether it’s my inner Scot that is drawn to such places, who can say? But even before seeing the Highlands, I knew I would love them—the moorlands dappled with yellow gorse and purple heather, and frequented by herds of wild Scottish red deer; the meadows where sheep grazed alongside shaggy Highland cows that looked, at once, like prehistoric beasts and giant stuffed animals; the lofty mountain peaks circled by
golden eagles; the pristine lochs and rivers teeming with trout and salmon.
I signed on for the five-day “Highland Explorer” tour with Rabbie’s Trail Burners, a popular outfit offering 1 to 17-day excursions through Scotland. Since it was March, and well before the summer tourist season, there were only six passengers in our compact 16-passenger, Mercedes-Benz minivan—a retired California schoolteacher, an expatriate American, his Malaysian wife and their 10-year-old son, two Aussies in their 20s—plus our driver, Ross, a Highland-born wilderness buff in his early 40s, and his young co-pilot, Emily, a strawberry-blond sporting a jaunty tam-o’-shanter.
Heading north from Edinburgh, we arrived about two hours later in Dunkeld, a bucolic village of small whitewashed shops and houses. In 13th-century Dunkeld Cathedral, along the rushing River Tay, I was delighted to find, on a plaque listing noble families, the coat of arms of Clan Sinclair, with two sailing ships, on a blue and white background, and two blue-tongued red lions rampant on a yellow and black field. The Masons, my great-grandfather’s family, are a sept of Clan Sinclair, a Scottish-Norman family, originally known as the St. Clairs.
One branch of Clan Sinclair settled in the Midlothians, outside Edinburgh at Roslin, whose Rosslyn Chapel, adorned with what many think are Masonic symbols, figured largely in Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. Another branch went to Caithness, at the Highlands’ northeasternmost reaches, where they intermarried with the Vikings and built, on a lonely spit above Sinclair’s Bay, stony Girnigoe Castle, recently opened to the public. Pledged to protect and defend Clan Sinclair, the Masons wore sprigs of whin, or yellow gorse, into battle. They still wear the Sinclair tartan, in pale blue, red and other colorful plaids. But the Sinclair motto, which the Masons follow, has but one version: “Commit Thy Work to God.”
A half-hour walk—a regular feature of Rabbie’s tours—along Dunkeld’s Braan Path took us along a riverside path to a thundering Black Linn Falls. North of town, we passed fly-fishermen casting for salmon in the River Tummel before reaching Pitlochry, gateway to the Highlands. Stroll the shop-lined main street, stopping to lunch at any of several pubs, or buy sandwiches and salads at The Scottish Deli or Mackenzies Bakery. You might even encounter, as I did, a couple of Scots in full Highland dress, heading to a wedding in their family kilts, with thick sprigs of purple thistle tucked in their buttonholes.
Soak up the local color in Pitlochry, then pop into Blair Athol Distillery, with its copper stills and steel tanks, to learn how Scotland’s famous malt whisky is made. In the shop, you can buy Bell’s, Blair Athol and other whiskeys. Among the commemorative flasks is a white bell-shaped flask with a likeness of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on their wedding day.
Traveling west, then north, through the Grampian Mountains, we soon were climbing high into the Cairngorm Mountains through Cairngorms National Park, the U.K.’s largest national park, and a wilderness of moorlands and mountains, lochs and rivers that’s home to Scottish red deer, wildcats and golden eagles. In Kingussie, we stopped at the gray-stone ruins of Ruthven Barracks, built to control the Highlanders after the 1715 Jacobite Rising.
Farther north was Aviemore ski resort, where, in summer, a funicular up 3,599-foot-high Cairngorm Mountain offers fabulous views. Pressing northwest, we reached Inverness, at the meeting of the River Ness, Beauly Firth, and the Moray Firth, where bottlenose dolphins, orcas and minke whales often leap into view. We might have visited St. Andrews Cathedral or red-sandstone Inverness Castle, but everyone was eager to see Loch Ness, home of the infamous Loch Ness Monster. We never did see “Nessie,” but we met Steve Feltham, who has tracked the monster since 1991 and sells handmade figurines outside his Dores Beach trailer.
Just east lay Culloden, where in 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders were soundly defeated. That put an end to the Jacobite cause and ushered in a series of repressive measures. Most brutal were the Highland Clearances, from the mid-1760s until about 1820, when farmers’ stone croft cottages were burned and their property seized by English and Scottish lords. Many Highlanders fled to America and Australia—one reason there are now more Scottish descendants abroad than in Scotland. Fortunately, my great-grandfather arrived in Virginia several decades after the Clearances, when middle-class Scots headed to America to cash in on the thriving economy and post-Civil War land boom. To this day, the Highlands remain in relatively few hands, and vast stretches of moorland—peppered with the stone walls of ruined croft cottages—are peopled only by sheep and cattle.
We headed west, into the Northwest Highlands, to the little fishing village of Ullapool. A deceptively quiet backwater, facing wide, windswept Loch Broom, Ullapool is actually the port from which big red black-and-white Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, with red funnels emblazoned with yellow Scottish lions, depart west, across The Minch, to the Isle of Lewis. A few of us checked into the Royal Hotel, with 52 spacious rooms, a popular pub bristling with deer antlers, and a big sunny dining room serving that most Scottish of breakfasts, oatmeal with fresh cream and a jigger of whisky
For two days, we explored the far reaches of the Northwest Highlands, etched with windswept peninsulas bathed by sea lochs, and dappled with grassy dunes and stony hillocks overlooking stunning white and red-sandstone beaches. From Achiltibuie’s shores, the ferry Hectoria departs for the popular Summer Isles, topped with age-old Viking burial mounds. Rounding the craggy coast, we continued north to the Assynt Peninsula, and Lochinver, home to a lively fish market, and to Highland Stoneware, selling hand-painted pottery. A walk through hundred-acre Culag Wood, home to eider ducks, pine martens and otters, takes you to a small pebble beach, where mussels gently ride the ripples aboard thick-fingered seaweed.
Just north, at Achmelvich Beach, we climbed grassy bluffs for a view of the pristine white sands, and the bay’s shallows, glistening turquoise under a dazzling sun. At windswept Clachtoll Beach, I romped on the high dunes with a playful black-and-white Border Collie. Narrow, single-track roads led north to the peninsula’s tip, where roiling waves buffet the Old Man of Stoer, a 200-foot-high red-sandstone sea stack. From there, it was a short drive west for coffee at the Kylesku Hotel, where Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu dramatically converge.
South, atop a grassy spit thrusting into Loch Assynt, are the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, built by Clan Macleod in 1590 and later captured by Clan Mackenzie. One of Macleod’s daughters, Eimhir, jumped into the lake to her death, but was transformed into the Mermaid of Assynt and can sometimes be seen weeping on the offshore rocks. As it turned out, one of us, a retired California schoolteacher, was related to the Mackenzies. “Oh, what fun!” she crowed delightedly, as we snapped her photo while several red stags looked on.
That evening, I was eager to toast our schoolteacher’s good fortune in discovering her roots at Ardvreck Castle. At the Arch Inn, a whitewashed house with black trim, we indulged in roast pork and beef Wellington topped off with that most sinful Scottish dessert—sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and salted caramel ice cream. In the morning, we’d wend our way southwest to the enchanted Isle of Skye where towering rock formations and tropical palm trees coexist, and where, it’s said, fairies consort in impossibly green glens.
Continue to the final chapter of Scotland Homecoming.
IF YOU GO
The five-day “Highland Explorer” tour is offered offered March through November by Rabbie’s Trail Burners Ltd. The adult cost is £259 (about $429). Lodging and meals cost extra. Address: 6 Waterloo Pl., Edinburgh, EH1 3EG Scotland; 44 (0) 131-226-3133.
Consider the Royal Hotel on Loch Broom, with 52 spacious rooms, a friendly pub and a restaurant. Address: Garve Rd., Ullapool, IV26 2SY Scotland; 44 (0) 185-461-2181. www.royalhotel-ullapool.com