Vacation Adventure: Highlands of Scotland
Dallas: populations 203, one small inn, a handful of houses and some chickens!
Is this a description of Dallas, Texas of yesteryear? Actually, no, it is the Dallas of today, the one tucked away in the Scottish Highlands of Morayshire, the one my husband, Bill, and I discovered quite by chance, on our trip to Scotland in September of 1995. The trip was courtesy of my parents by way of a graduation present for our double graduation from U.T. Arlington.
Coming from a Scottish family, I made many pilgrimages as a little girl to the glens and braes of Bonnie Scotland, but Bill, on the other hand, having grown up in Oklahoma, only knew Scotland as that far off, foggy and mysterious place seen in bad B movies, where Nessie rears her horny head in the mist. So this would be an education for him!
We flew into Glasgow from Southampton's new and very convenient airport on the south coast of England. After a three-minute transfer by minibus to the Budget rental agency, we picked up our brand new Ford Escort. I slipped a bagpipe cassette into the tape player and ....we were off!
We quickly left the concrete expanse of Glasgow behind and, after a mere 45 minutes, were skirting the majestic banks of Loch Lomond. I felt a song coming on, "Oh you take the high road and I'll take the low road ..." The sun was bright, rare in Scotland, and the urge to stop around every bend in the road to take pictures was overwhelming. By 7 p.m., we had reached our destination for the day, a Bed & Breakfast (or B&B) in the town of Ballachulish. Just before that, we passed by Castle Stalker, which sits a little way out in the water off the west coast. This, for the "more informed" among you, is one of the filming locations for Monty Python's Holy Grail. So much culture!
Day two began with sunshine streaming through the curtains of our window. I opened the curtains to a sheer mountainside, dotted like a pin cushion with sheep. Before breakfast we strolled the few steps down to the shore of the loch. We stood perfectly still and listened--not a sound. Bill said he thought it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. After a huge cooked breakfast and a leisurely chat with the owners, we set off with a song in our hearts along the smooth, winding road.
We covered a lot of ground today, stopping just outside Fort William to admire the Commando Memorial, commemorating where the men of the original British Commando Forces trained during World War II. Then, on to Loch Ness and the monster! The roads become tortuously small and winding around the Loch, which stretches about 22 miles from Fort Augustus to Inverness, almost severing Scotland from the rest of Britain. It is said that the monster became trapped in this body of water when the chunk of land that is now the Highlands floated over from America millions of years ago and collided with Britain.
At Drumnadrochit, which is about halfway along the west bank of the loch, you can peruse all the "evidence" gathered on Nessie sightings, and then make up your own mind as to her credibility. Not far from there can be seen the magnificent ruins of Castle Urquhart, formerly one of Scotland's largest medieval strongholds. It is thought construction began in the 13th century and it was then intentionally mostly destroyed in 1692 by William of Orange's troops so that their opponents, the Jacobites, would never take it.
A little further along the road, we came across a lone piper standing in a lay-by, dressed in full regimental uniform, playing his bagpipes. We caught him "warming the cockles of his heart" with a wee nip of whisky, behind his car. Chatting with him we certainly caught a whiff of whisky on his breath! His name was Murdo and I had actually seen him some years earlier standing in the same spot, when making the same trip! He seemed to be a permanent, and very welcome, fixture. The sound of his bagpipes floated up into the atmosphere, softened by the haze hanging over the Loch.
If you're looking for your tartan, you will probably find it in Inverness, a good-sized town. There are many kilt makers and interesting shops besides, selling antiques and jewelry. From here, we headed back west to Ullapool, a charming little fishing village with cheerful little houses strung like beads on a necklace, all along the shore. From there, we headed north, stopping often for photo shoots but started noticing that dark clouds were beginning to gather in around us. The atmosphere became distinctly eerie all in quite a short space of time. The volume of cars thinned and gone were the lumbering Dutch and German camper vans, the owners of which were no doubt long ago sensibly checked into their B&Bs for the night. We were starting to feel quite lonely. Barren rocks, strewn carelessly over the hills around us, rose like specters from the gloom. We passed golden, deserted beaches on one side and Goliath like mountains, soaring skyward from black, glassy, bottomless lochs on the other. On we went round bend after bend the rapidly waning light.
By now, we were getting a little anxious about where to stay. We kept heading north, passing through desperately lonely and bleak little villages, offering no hope of a place to call home for the night. Finally, just as the hairs of desperation were beginning to rise on our necks, we came up on a reasonably sized village called Scourie, where we were able to secure a room in a comfortable B&B that had the tiniest, most compact bathroom I have ever seen. It was just a big relief to find somewhere to stay, no matter what size the bathroom! The eating establishments of Scourie, however, were not numerous. We found the one spot that was serving dinner and valiantly chomped our way through a pile of fish and chips, not forgetting the ubiquitous mound of salad.
The next morning, after partaking of a gargantuan breakfast in the company of a chatty, young German couple, we pressed eastward along the top of Scotland. (Incidentally, the distances on the map look deceptively small, but the roads are so tiny and winding, it takes time to drive the distance.) We stopped briefly at Smoo Cave, a prehistoric cave dwelling, which is unique in the UK as the first chamber was formed by the action of the sea, whereas the inner chambers were freshwater passages, formed from rainwater dissolving the carbonate dolostones. The cave name is thought to originate from the Norse 'smjugg' or 'smuga' meaning a hole or hiding-place. A couple of hours later, we arrived at Dunnet Head (the actual northernmost point of Scotland) from where we had hoped to view the Orkney Islands, that lie a few miles off the north coast of Scotland. The Old Man of Hoy, on the Orkney island of Hoy, is a famous landmark that I'd like to have seen. It is a 449 ft tall stone stack formation that may, unfortunately, one day collapse. Alas, the mist guards the islands jealously and today was no exception. However, an hour later at John O'Groats, the sun burst forth again and stayed with us the rest of the day. You can do the touristy thing here and have your photo taken in front of the "Last House in Scotland."
You will discover that the beauty of a road trip around the Highlands is the ease with which you can change your itinerary at a whim. Although it is pretty, the upper east coast is rather flatter and lacks the drama of the wild, west coast. So at Dingwall, while playing "chicken" with a fork in the road, I impulsively swung the wheel away from the road to Edinburgh, which we had planned to visit, and towards the Kyle of Lochalsh in the west. As Bill nursed the seat belt burn on his neck, I announced with some false bravado, and a little guilt, that we were sure to find a B&B, somewhere!
Around 7 p.m., just as we were picturing ourselves skinning a hare and building a fire in the heather, we spotted a glow of light ahead. To our surprise, we found a Best Western in the tiny village of Achnasheen. Unlike any BW I had ever seen, this was a wood-paneled, creaky old hunting lodge. Inside, we found the Addams Family in residence with Uncle Fester at reception, Morticia in the bar and Lurch, a giant of a man with a German accent, in the restaurant! We appeared to be the only diners that night so we had Lurch's undivided and meticulous attention. It was ever so slightly creepy though being the only diners in this silent room! The only emotion Lurch showed was when I tried to engage him in conversation by asking whether the chocolate pud was any good. With a wicked gleam in his eye, he said "Oh ya, eet is vaaary gut!"
We spent day four touring the Kyle of Lochalsh, a picturesque part of the coastline opposite the Isle of Skye, Eilean Donan castle (or Island Donan, probably named after Irish Saint, Bishop Donan who came to Scotland around 580 AD), and some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery we had seen yet, along the Glen Shiel on the A87. At least four different versions of Eilean Donan castle have been built and re-built since the mid-13th century and the present restored edifice was opened in 1932. This castle is one of the most visited in Scotland, probably helped by its fame as a film location for the movie "Highlander," starring Sean Connery.
Later, we looped back under Loch Ness (this is unavoidable) and headed due northeast this time, up through the ski resort of Aviemore and the Cairngorm mountains. Here we saw many Highland cattle that look like "big-haired" rugs on short legs! This ancient breed of cattle is known to have grazed the rugged Scottish landscape since the sixth century, making them one of the oldest known breeds of cattle.
For the fishing buffs among you, Strathspey, just north of Aviemore, is the place to unpack your fishing rod. It is one of Scotland's best known salmon fishing rivers. Onwards we sped, until...wait a minute...yes...that is Dallas I see on the map! (At this time, we were living near Dallas, Texas, hence our interest!) "We've got to go there," I declared, to my husband's chagrin. As usual, it was getting very late. The roads looked miniscule and there was no way of telling if there were any B&B's in the area (no iPhones back then!). At Elgin, a fair-sized town, we turned down the narrow road to Dallas, Morayshire. Thirty minutes later, we slowed to a halt in front of a tiny, one street village. My earlier description was no exaggeration. The were no B&Bs to be seen so, reluctantly, we drove on to Forres. In the gathering dusk, we were lucky to spot a B&B sign pointing to a distant farmhouse. We crunched into gear and sped off towards this "sight for sore eyes." It was a delightful place, a real working farm and beautifully appointed. We had our choice of comfortable and cheery rooms and paid the least of all our B&Bs, about $15.00 each! The lady of the farm filled us in on Dallas in her very broad Aberdeen brogue, which was unintelligible to Bill. I understood that the only pub in Dallas served great grub (food), so we set off again to sample the giddy pleasures of the town.
As we entered the Dallas pub, all fell silent. The handful of locals stared opening but more with curiosity than animosity. Then one broke into a broad smile and the tense moment passed! An old pastor, who had evidently been sampling the wares of the pub, regaled me with his war stories, while the owners cooked our food. We noticed the Texas memorabilia hanging all around the bar, that visitors had evidently brought from Dallas, U.S.A. Shock, horror! You mean we were not the first! A little known fact about Dallas (from Dalais meaning 'valley of water') is that George Mifflin Dallas, whose family originally came from here, became the 11th Vice President of the USA under President Polk, and Dallas, Texas may have been named after him!
The next morning we enquired of the hosts about buying a glengarry, a traditional Scots cap made of thick-milled, woollen material (see photo). The lady called to her husband in the next room, "The fell-ah wants tae noo wherrre ye can buy a Glen-gaaaaary?" The reply that came back was completely unintelligible and, not wanting to be rude, we just nodded our thanks and left. Unfortunately we never did find a glengarry!
We did visit a whisky distillery though. Glenlivet was not far from Dallas's own distillery called the Dallas Dhu (at that time closed), so we popped in there for a tour and a tasting. The lady taking us around had very ruddy cheeks and chuckled that she got to taste a "bit 'o whisky" at the end of every tour!
Heading back in the direction of Glasgow, we branched south at Kingussie towards Blair Atholl castle. The Duke of Atholl (careful with the pronunciation!), is the hereditary Clan Chief of Clan Murray and also commands the only legal, private army in Europe, the Atholl Highlanders. We watched one of his pipers play in front of a crowd of foreign visitors. It was worth the stop.
We followed the banks of Loch Tay down to Crianlarich and the shores of Loch Lomond again. The weather was so beautiful with the sun dancing on the still, mirror-like water as we wound our way around the silent shores. We wanted to dally forever on those lush banks, taking photos and breathing in the scent of fresh air tinged with earthy vegetation and pine needles. For our last night, we stumbled upon a B&B peeking over an outcrop high up above the Loch, with the most fabulous views. We ate in a pub in Luss, a short walk over a bridge, and discovered, upon chatting with the locals, that the location is used for the Scottish soap The High Road. Bill decided that the time had finally come to try haggis and to his surprise he enjoyed it. Not that he wanted to know the ingredients! (A word to the wise, don't ever try haggis from a tin. I did once, and regretted it--nasty stuff. However, the real thing, made fresh in Scotland with the proper ingredients, is truly delicious. See the recipe at the end).
It was with a heavy heart that we returned to Glasgow on our last day. When the last speck of water disappeared behind us, we sighed heavily. We planned to spend a few hours in Glasgow and we were very glad we did. Glasgow has been much maligned in the past, not least by myself when I used to visit my Granny as a girl. The buildings were black and sooty and everything seemed rather old-fashioned to a young teen. It has, however, improved 100 per cent since the days of the grimy tenement buildings. Cleaning up its act, it has attracted much in the way of culture and entertainment. It even won the award for "City of Culture" in the 90s because of the wealth of museums and art galleries it hosts. Young people jam the streets and there is so much activity, especially at night. The shopping is every bit as good as in London. We thoroughly recommend it to anyone and especially recommend doing one of the double-decker bus tours to get an overall feel of the city. I enjoyed seeing my father's alma mater, Glasgow University.
Our trip was now at an end. This was my best holiday yet in Scotland, as the weather behaved itself so well. I recommend mid-September as a month to travel as kids are back in school and there are less people on the roads, yet the weather can still be good. A word of warning though: do not leave it much later as some of the more remote B&Bs close down near the end of September for the winter. In the height of summer, the roads are choked with trailers and tourists trying out their prowess driving on the wrong side of the road!
What is Haggis?
Take the liver, lungs & heart of a sheep and boil them. Mince the meats and mix with chopped onions, toasted oatmeal, salt, pepper, and spices. Take one properly cleaned sheep's stomach. Stuff the cleaned stomach with the prepared contents. Sew up the stomach (leaving enough room for expansion to avoid a large messy explosion) and simmer for a bout 3 hours. Serve and eat.
Modern Day recipe:
The best meats are selected, (including tripe and offal) and prepared with finest oatmeal and spices and served in a synthetic skin which is representative of the old technique. The quality manufacturers of Haggis in Scotland pride themselves in their guarded secret recipes and prepare the Haggis to exacting standards. Haggis has a higher quality of content than your average "sausage" and is extremely healthy.