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Scottish Highlands offer mystery, history, fun

The center of Oban is not a square

The center of Oban is not a square or market, it's a harbor. Credit: Rick Steves Europe / Dominic Bonuccelli

Years ago, I met a dear man on a deserted roadside in the Scottish Highlands. I was scrambling to make a public television show, and as if placed there by heaven's central casting, this tender giant of a man was bagpiping to the birds, the passing clouds and the occasional motorist. He had picked a spot that seemed intentionally miles from nowhere. We stopped, and he graciously demonstrated his pipes, giving us a tour of that fascinating symbol of Scottish culture. I've never forgotten that wonderful chance meeting.

The Scottish Highlands are filled with magic and mystery. In the northernmost reaches of Scotland, the Highlands feature a wild, severely undulating terrain that's punctuated by lochs (lakes) and fringed by sea lochs (inlets) and islands. Whenever I want a taste of traditional Scotland, this is where I go.


The area north of Glasgow offers a fun and easy dip into the Highlands. A smart place to spend the night is in Oban. This low-key resort town has a famous whiskey distillery and a winding promenade lined with gravel beaches, ice cream stands and good eateries. Wind, boats, gulls and the promise of a wide-open Atlantic beyond give Oban a rugged charm.

When traveling in Scotland, I like to balance the big cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow with the sleepy, more traditional and -- as is so often the case -- more enchanting rural and village scene. About two hours north of Edinburgh, tiny Kenmore fits the bill perfectly. Little more than the fancy domain of its castle, a church set in a bouquet of tombstones and a line of humble houses, Kenmore offers a fine dose of small-town Scottish flavor.

Loch Tay, near Kenmore, is a fascinating place. All across Scotland, archaeologists know that little round islands on the lochs are evidence of crannogs -- circular lakefront houses built by big shots about 2,500 years ago. In the age before roads, people traveled by boat, so building houses on waterways made sense. There are 18 such crannogs on Loch Tay, and one is now the Crannog Centre, a museum dedicated to demonstrating the skills every crannog homeowner needed, such as making fire by rubbing sticks.

The Highlands' past is written all over its landscape. Perhaps no other place is as evocative as the memorial battlefield of Culloden, near the workaday city of Inverness. In 1746, Jacobite troops (most of them Highlanders) gave it their all to put the Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie on the English throne ... and failed. While only about 50 English soldiers died, the Highlanders lost about 1,500 men. Bonnie Prince Charlie reportedly declared, "Every man for himself!" as he galloped away. The Highlanders scattered. Touring Culloden is a powerful experience, made even more so by watching the 360-degree video that re-creates the slaughter.


Near Culloden is another fascinating sight -- the Clava Cairns. I always knew about England's famous stone circles, but I hadn't realized that Scotland had prehistoric overachievers, too. At Clava Cairns, set in a peaceful grove of trees, are the remains of three stone burial mounds, each cleverly constructed 4,000 years ago with a passageway the sun illuminates, as if by magic, with each winter solstice. Wandering through these cairns, knowing they're as old as the pyramids, is thought-provoking.

Music provides the perfect backdrop at the end of a Highlands day. Each evening, in almost every town, the happy sound of traditional folk music spills out of local pubs -- and each evening, visitors have the chance to join in the fun.

Celtic music stirs me. Part of its attraction is how it's invigorated by the driving and organic beat of the bodhran -- that ubiquitous handheld, animal-skinned drum thumped with such vibrancy with a single stick. I see the tumult of the past and the love of heritage in the eyes of the musicians. There really is a spark that mixes well with beer, smiles and pub ambience. A night sipping a local brew, surrounded by this unique conviviality, is a highlight of any Highlands visit.

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